Why Camels With Hammers?

Evangelos has asked and it’s a good question, so here’s a brief explanation:

It’s a combination of two images in Nietzsche.  The camel comes from “The Three Transformations,” a section of Thus Spoke Zarathustra.  He is there describing transformations that the “spirit” must undergo.  First it must become a camel.  The camel represents austere, ascetic, obedient commitment to moral ideals, especially truthfulness.  The camel’s truthfulness though leads the camel eventually to understand the conditional character of morality, that it has no divine origin and that his camel like subservience is not justified.

The camel stage ends when the spirit must become a lion to do what the camel cannot:  defy the “Dragon of ‘Thou shalt’” with the counter-answer of “I will,” therewith rejecting the authority of all those who claim that all values are unalterably fixed.  The camel’s obediently, reverentially, ascetically moral endeavor of utmost truthfulness itself leads him to discover the responsibility to reject belief in immutable, absolute bases for obedience.  Yet if he is to actually reject this precondition of his quintissential activities, the camel must become a different kind of animal, a lion.  It is the lion that confronts the “Dragon of Thou Shalt.”  The Dragon of Thou Shalt tries to claim that there can be no new values, no moral reimagination but only fixed, preexisting commands.  Only the lion has the defiant courage to say No to the Dragon of Thou Shalt.

But the lion’s self-assertive freedom to say no to the old values is not the end.   The lion must transform into a child with an innocent ability to say “yes.”  Freedom must evolve from the lion’s negativity and rejection, its form as freedom from the sway of another’s law, to an affirmative freedom not characterized in terms of what it opposes.  The lion can only be creative negatively as a creative destroyer of the false and as such is always in a dialectical dependence on that which he is no-saying to.

So the lion must become a child: an affirmativeness that has no conscious need to reject anything.  Nietzsche describes the child as “innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelled wheel, a first movement, a sacred ‘Yes.’”  Not continuing to say “no,” the spirit now forgets he ever had to say no.  This is a new beginning, in some way distinct from a merely altered continuation.  This spirit is not responsive to external determinants, for the law that the camel reverentially obeyed and which the lion summoned its courage reactively to oppose is no longer influential.

As a camel, Nietzsche demand the hardest burden of truth he can, which will lead him to reject moral dogmatism with lion-like defiance, and finally then to advocate the child’s innocent, affirmative approach to life—no longer worried about overturning the previous morality but simply creating without reference to it.

In my dissertation I make the claim that “The Three Transformations” encapsulates Nietzsche’s project and his goals.  I argue that understanding Nietzsche’s prima facie conflicting remarks often depends on whether he is writing from the perspective of the camel, the perspective of the lion, or the perspective of the child, so to speak.  His “camel” remarks are those within the language and assumptions of traditional morality.  His “lion” remarks are those which are critically attempting tear down the lies and errors of traditional morality and Christianity.  The “child” remarks are those where Nietzsche is valuing positively–sketching and celebrating the various possibilities for a genuinely affirmative new ethics based on an embrace of reality rather than an otherworldly morality’s disdain for this world.

The hammer comes from the subtitle to Twilight of the Idols, “How One Philosophizes With A Hammer.”  The hammer to which Nietzsche refers is a tuning fork.  The metaphor he employs is that he is striking idols with this tuning fork in order to test them to see what sounds they make. But I also like the other connotations evoked by the image of a hammer. I see it as a tool for smashing idols and a tool for constructively building something better to replace them.

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.

  • Joe Enabnit

    Loved this. Your interpretation of Nietzsche is very similar to how it was taught to me at my university. I always appreciate reading something on the internet about Nietzsche that is not just a bad interpretation of the Will to Power and the Overman.

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