"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Chaput and Nietzsche Bars

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver is my favorite U.S. bishop, next to my own of course. On April 21, Chaput delivered himself of a very trenchant speech at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary near Philadelphia, called "Religion and the Common Good," meaning religion and politics. I commend it to you for three reasons.

The sentimental reason is that I once taught a course at "Wynnewood" and was very impressed with many of the people who retain influence or position there. Any notable figure they invite to speak is likely to say something worth listening to. But that was only why I chose to read the speech.

The second reason is the substance of it. Having read it, I must say that its thesis is not only correct and vitally important but delivered in brisk, memorable style. If I were teaching religion at a Catholic high school, I'd make it required reading for my I-Pod-and-hormone-addled students. The smarter ones might even enjoy the podcast.

But the biggest reason is that he understands how it is for us philosophers and gives us hope. He gets it. Here are the first several paragraphs of the speech:

The dad asks, "Son, what are you going to do with that goofy degree?" And the son says, "I'm going to open a philosophy shop and make big money selling ideas." I smile every time I hear it, because nobody yet has figured out how to get rich off the Sartre or Kierkegaard or Friedrich Nietzsche franchise. Or that's what I thought until a couple of weeks ago, when a friend of mine came back from a local bookstore with a bag full of Nietzsche's Will to Power Bars.

You'll remember that Nietzsche first claimed that God was dead. Then he went insane. Then he argued that he was God himself. Now he has his own candy bar. In fact, the wrapper not only claims to be filled with "chocolaty goodness," but also to be "the official nutritional supplement of the superman." Unfortunately, the wrapper also urges us to "think beyond good and evil," so I'm not sure it's telling the truth.

The company that makes these candy bars is the Unemployed Philosophers Guild. It was started by a couple of academics who couldn't get a job. The guild also makes a Franz Kafka finger puppet and a "Here's Looking at Euclid" T-shirt. It also makes the Karl Marx Little Thinker beanie doll, and Impeachmints, the anti-George Bush breath sweetener. In the words of the company founders, "It turned out that making smart, funny things proved to be almost as satisfying as probing eternal questions.... [And] although we still contemplate truth and justice, it is our enduring goal to fulfill the materialistic desires of the funny and sophisticated everywhere."

I don't know if Nietzsche himself would endorse these bars. Given his mental state at the end of his life, I'm not sure he'd care. But he did have a ruthless sense of humor. Nietzsche might enjoy the fact that he's exactly the kind of thinker young college men now quote to impress young college women. He has some of the same rebel appeal that Milton gave to Lucifer and Goethe gave to Mephistopheles. He's bold. He's radical. And the fact that he also went mad adds just the right touch of drama. In other words, he makes a great cultural icon for Americans to eat as a candy bar, because most Americans will never read a word of what he actually said.

I think I've finally understood how to earn some real money. Thanks, Archbishop. But in case I can't wangle a loan from the bank, I'm always available to teach in your seminary!
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