Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers As Metaphor For The Excellent Nietzschean Soul

In reply to my review of Peter Bogdanovich’s film about Tom Petty Running Down a Dream , “Lizzie B” over at the Tom Petty message board points out an oversight in my review. She astutely observes:

Something you didn’t touch on that really stood out to me in the film is Tom Petty’s shrewd sense of what it took to become the long-running established band they are today. It only makes sense that anyone in Tom’s position has to have a special ability for spotting great musicians. But then to acquire them by any means necessary was almost shocking to me. This was especially true in the story of how they got Howie in the band. The way Tom laughed it off was a little eerie.

I loved the way Bogdonvich highlighted the crazed drive Tom had from the very earliest days of his musical career. That angry, perfectionistic drive explains so many of the choices in his life. Tom is portrayed as strong, opinionated, almost manipulative. But he stops short of making him look like a despot. Just short, in my opinion.

I don’t think Bogdonovich could have made him look any more human.

I agree completely. Recently in one of my lectures I was referring to the oppressively controlling streak that great artists have and I cited some aspects of Tom’s attitudes there. Even to this day, as far as I understand, the band has no input in what goes in the setlist. Tom is an extremely controlling guy.

I think there’s a sort of justification to it in that, as long as he doesn’t stifle the rest of the band, what his method does is to establish firmly a clarity of artistic vision. The goal with Tom’s kind of approach is to get the most out of his band for making his music. These world class musicians become themselves the instruments for making [B]his[/B] music. Individually, Benmont is a talented songwriter and a virtuoso on the piano and Mike is as good a jam guitarist as any one could hope for. But none of that gets showcased on TPATH albums because these extremely talented musicians are willing to subordinate their musical goals to Tom’s and to channel them to serve his music. They go off and do other projects to stretch their wings but in Tom’s band, they are restrained.

In concerts, Tom lets the jamming take place and after 26 years in the band, Mike finally got some serious jamming tracks on the Last DJ album, and finally, after decades of loyal support, Benmont finally got to write and sing a song on the new Mudcrutch album. But for the most part, it’s Tom’s band and Mike and Benmont let themselves fall in line because they trust him as a worthy leader.

Interestingly this image of the band with a strong leader who can get the most out of talented band members who flourish through their subordination serves as a powerful illustration of how Nietzsche views the healthy soul to function. For Nietzsche we do not have unified selves but essentially are the sum of a multiplicity of competing drives. He says that the “great man” is “great owing to the free play and scope of his desires and to the yet greater power that knows how to press these magnificent monsters into service.” He writes,

In contrast with the animals, man has cultivated an abundance of contrary drives and impulses within himself, thanks to this synthesis he is master of the earth.—Moralities are the expression of locally limited orders of rank in his multifarious world of drives, so man should not perish through their contradictions. Thus a drive as master, its opposite weakened, refined, as the impulse that provides the stimulus for the activity of the chief drive. The highest man would have the greatest multiplicity of drives, in the relatively greatest strength that can be endured. Indeed, where the plant “man” shows himself strongest one finds instincts that conflict powerfully (e.g., in Shakespeare), but are controlled. (WP 966)

The ideal here is an ever stronger dominating will over the self that makes possible more desires and each more intense as the stronger the dominating will that can harness more variegated and intense passions, the more use can be made of their being present. Another element of this is that the tension between the opposites within great men, the conflict between their great virtues and their “opposites” is actually the generative tension that develops the great man as such. He is a “bow with the great tension.” (WP 967) Nietzsche characterizes moralities as essentially the hierarchy forming disciplines that create internal cohesion by which a dominant drive (transformed into a dominant virtue) controls and channels the other energies within. Moralities are localized in that they represent the particular ordering of powers a specific individual (or group, through an analogous macro-level hierarchy forming process) finds most conducive to its needs.

So, a morality is like Tom’s principles and rules for his band. The songs remain short (like Mike says in the documentary, “don’t bore us, get to the chorus”), the guitar solos make their point quickly and end, etc. Because Tom is a strong leader, his band can flourish and produce their best work without it spinning off into becoming a mess.

This is how Nietzsche sees the value of a morality. He is famously suspicious of morality for its possibility for complete stifling of desires (and at worst, even its desire to extirpate desires completely.) Nietzsche’s ideal is a strong will that through its strength can orchestrate great music out of competing strengths of talent and keeping their competition from creating mere cacophony.

To further elaborate for those for whom the above has been too densely written:
The point is that a stronger dominant will within the self makes it possible that one can have stronger and more intense desires without being ruined by them. So, a weak willed person cannot handle strong desires because they would overwhelm him or her. But if you have a strong will, you can experience intensity of desire because you can control it. You can experience contrary emotions and passions and perspectives without letting them dominate you and make you lose control of yourself.

Nietzsche is arguing that the ability to see things from multiple perspectives that even conflict with each other, to feel things with intense passions and desires that conflict with each other—-you need a strong dominating drive that doesn’t let all this conflict within you derail you or pull you apart at the seams. But if you can feel and think from with such tension and conflict within yourself, without letting it destroy you but by harnessing all that tension and conflict into a more intense and deeper way of seeing the world and feeling it—-then you can both experience life and live it more powerfully.

The idea about moralities being “localized” is that in individuals it can be different dominating drives that give cohesion to someone, based on his or her needs. Tom is a strong willed nature who is dominated by different drives that keep himself and his band together than, say, Nietzsche’s example of Shakespeare. Nietzsche doesn’t recommend an ethics that is universal for everyone. Rather he encourages those strong enough to develop their own rule by which they can master themselves in this way that embraces and maximizes the utility of conflicts within.

And on a “macro-level” moral communities represent the domination of a particular principle or two over the people in that community. This is how moralities dominate communities. All the resources of the community are marshalled in service of these overriding values. So, in an individual soul, the dominant will marshalls all the resources of competing passions, emotions, and perspectives to generate a more profound depth of personality. In a band, this becomes the strong leader allowing increased creativity of his band without that spinning off into incoherent chaos. In a culture, this becomes a dominant virtue being the one that overrides all the others and marshalls all their value in its service.

All of this represents the streak of Nietzsche that sees value in the power of moral discipline to harness conflicting energies to put them to unified purpose. Of course, the danger of these themes is that if they are not counterbalanced with Nietzschean suspicion of values stagnation and the stifling of individual expression—they risk being read as justifications of authoritarianism.

Overall, I think the important way to read these remarks about a soul or a community dominated by a strong will is Nietzsche’s highlighting the valuable role of disciplines in a way that needs always to be balanced by his suspicion of the drive to treat our disciplines as absolute, inflexible, and a justification for completely stifling others.

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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