19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was highly controversial due to his outspoken disdain for Christianity, which he felt glorified the meek over the strong, death (and the lie of an afterlife) over life itself, and self-restraint over natural, ineluctable human impulses. He also believed traditional Christian morality was a type of propaganda meant to imprison the masses inside a false idea of “good”, stifling the vitality and will of individuals to ensure a complacent, easily dominated and controllable herd. He probably would have gotten along with Ayn Rand if he didn’t also disdain women.
But Nietzsche felt he could wake people from their religious trance to the true power of their intellect and will. Among his philosophic legacies is the “transvaluation of values”, which he espoused through his professional life, particularly in his book The Antichrist. The goal of the “transvaluation of values” is to abolish dogma and stagnant thinking in favour of evaluating ideas with fresh, modern thinking. The idea is that people shouldn’t act a certain way simply because they’ve always acted that way. People should question accepted ideologies to ensure they remain relevant. Though Nietzsche has obvious flaws as a man, I find his writing inspiring, extremely intelligent, and I think the “transvaluation of values” is a potent concept that becomes more important as time goes by.
Though the idea of the “transvaluation of values” is attributed to Nietzsche, it has periodically sprung up through history, many times altering the world. After Rome conquered Greece and renamed their gods, Julius Caesar reconsidered the god-concept and decided he was a god. He did this while moving nations with his will, shaping civilization forever. Jesus Christ transvaluated the values of Judaism, triggering the worldwide Christianity (or versions of Christianity) we know today. The Prophet Mohammed later offered a slightly different version.
And we see this in art throughout history. Whether it’s the surrealism of Salvador Dali or the cubism of Pablo Picasso, the mythologized documentaries of Werner Herzog or the depth psychology of Carl Jung, sea change in culture is caused by a breakthrough in thinking, and the breaking down of previous forms. Because Everything is subject to change, the transvaluation of values allows for constant feedback, for adapting to the flow of things physical and psychical.
I previously said that George R. R. Martin’s success with A Game of Thrones is primarily commercial and not an artistic breakthrough. In reevaluating my opinion I asked myself why his work is so commercially successful. I believe it’s because he has transvaluated the form of the traditional epic hero quest. Using the form of the epic fantasy novel, he has posited a new value that might reflect a more current vision of ourselves. Many would say his work offers a more pessimistic vision of society.
[The following contains spoilers for A Game of Thrones. Be warned. Spoilers in red.] The main character of the first book is Ned Stark, father of the Stark family, Lord in the North, and a shining example of integrity. He has so much integrity that the audience forgives him for killing his daughter’s pet dire wolf, an innocent animal, because he acts out of duty. Most popular writers would avoid having their main protagonist and focus of empathy murder an animal – people sometimes are more willing to accept the murder of another human than an innocent animal. But this hero breaks the taboo. So what?
I’ll tell you so what. This action is a signpost, foreshadowing the author’s own willingness to do the unthinkable in an epic fantasy: at the climax of the novel, the innocent Ned Stark is beheaded in front of his daughter. Killing off the main character and primary protagonist in the first book of a lengthy series shows us George R. R. Martin’s opinion of the epic fantasy, in contrast to Tolkien. The epic fantasy is stunted when tethered to one character. The idea of an epic is that it should span a vast world over a vast amount of time. Killing the main character tells us in no uncertain terms that A Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire is much more than the story of one man, more than the story of one family. It is a story of whole world, and each book broadens the readers’ horizons, deepening their connection to the work as a whole.
These days our culture seems to be attracted to pessimistic world views. There are many examples of this kind of transvaluation – consider that every new superhero franchise tries to offer a grittier, darker version of essentially childish fantasies. This could be a simple reflection of the pessimistic worldviews held by society, but it could also be a reflection of people’s resilience. Despite the lunacy of the world, we carry on. Life is compromise and people are willing to take the good with the bad.
A potent method of spreading a meme is to transvaulate an old symbol. It’s best if the symbol is simple and well defined. Satanists turned the crucifix upside down. Nazi’s appropriated the swastika which was originally a Hindu symbol. Nixon used Churchill’s “V” for Victory. And more recently, The Watchmen by Alan Moore takes the ubiquitous yellow happy face and adds a drop of blood to it. What this means is clear in the opening chapter of the book as the “hero” Rorschach stands above a city telling us that one day the people will ask to be saved, and he will tell them “no”.
Whatever our opinion of society’s current state of values, “transvaluation of values” ensures that over time these values will change just like the world around us. And periodic reassessments give us opportunities to create our own set of values that will make us happier and let us grow. Even as Nietzsche said “God is dead,” he delivered the concept of the self-made Superman. Whatever your opinions on Nietzsche, the idea of liberating the latent faculties of every individual is one of the most positive messages in history.