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Nietzsche teaches: Don’t let Trump’s vileness make us vile too

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had a list of maxims, and Neil Steinberg finds some of them especially useful in the age of Trump, including one in particular: "Anyone who fights with monsters, should be careful that he does not become a monster." | Sun-Times files

“Beyond Good and Evil,” a cornerstone of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy, contains one section that is a list of numbered maxims.

They veer from true to false, profound to ridiculous, current to outdated. No. 144, for instance, begins, “When a woman has scholarly inclinations, there is usually something wrong with her sexuality,” which I guess passed for insight in 1886, when the book was published, but has not aged well, beyond offering a glimpse into how certain guys thought then and no doubt still do.


Others are sharp and useful, such as No. 68, worth bearing in mind as Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh does or does not remember what he might or might not have done at a party in high school:

“I did that,” says my memory. “I could not have done that,” says my pride, and remains inexorable. Eventually — the memory yields.”

Does it ever. People whitewash their pasts trying to fit their own pristine estimations of themselves. Which is stupid, given the universality of sin, and the freeing effect of simply admitting the wrongs you’ve done. Honesty can be hard, which is why people lie and distort. But it rewards us in the long run.

No. 146 is my favorite, useful in all sorts of situations — really, it’s like a cordless electric drill — and came whirring to mind earlier this week, as Twitter lit up with anatomical details from the new memoir by Stormy Daniels, the porn star who had sex with Donald Trump, who botched the payoff meant to silence her.

If you’ve been in a cave and missed it, sorry, I’m not going into detail. Google “Trump” and “mushroom,” but not while eating.

Adult film star Stormy Daniels

Adult film star Stormy Daniels’ new book, “Full Disclosure,” includes her graphic description of Trump’s genitalia, including a reference to a character on the Mario Kart video game. | Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Done? Good. Back to Nietzsche. Since quotes get twisted, let’s begin with the original German: “Wer mit Ungeheuern kämpft, mag zusehn dass er nicht dabei zum Ungeheuer wird.”

The non-German speaker trying to make sense of that might recognize the word “kämpft” — struggle, or fight — from Hitler’s memoir, “Mein Kampf.” But the key word is “Ungeheuer,” — pronounced “un-gahoya,” with that kind of strangled Teutonic swallow between the N and the G — or “monster.”

Or in English:

“Anyone who fights with monsters, should be careful that he does not become a monster.”

Amen. At every point in American history, we see this tendency. To fight Hitler, putting his people in concentration camps, we put our own people — of Japanese descent — into concentration camps. We didn’t kill them, hearty pat on the back. But we put them there.

In the early 1950s, when we faced a grim and repressive Soviet Union, we became grim and repressive ourselves, with loyalty oaths and purges.

Ever since Donald Trump thrust himself into our national political life, there has been a tendency of those opposed to him to nevertheless mimic the man. To distract themselves from his key failings by dabbling in his brand of pettiness, venality and obsession with looks. To become the monster we’re fighting, if only a little.

I understand why. You can only focus so long on his contempt for truth, his scorn for minorities, his disrespect for women, his disdain for American traditions, his clonic lying, bullying, love of tyrants — the list goes on, but you get the idea.

The temptation is to take a breather, to delve into side issues, into lighter, more amusing matters: his horrendous hairdo, orange skin, pear shape, loathsome sons Eric and Donald Jr., robotic wife, lurid affairs.

Mario Kart

A new book by adult film star Stormy Daniels, who says she had an affair with Donald Trump, includes a graphic reference to a character in the Mario Kart video game. | Sun-Times files

The above paragraph notwithstanding, I try to avoid all those off-point critiques of the president. Reading  Stormy Daniels microscopic — a tool apparently necessary for the task at hand — assessment of the presidential assets can make you almost feel sorry for the man.

He might deserve impeachment, but he doesn’t deserve that.

Or maybe he does. After I thought of Nietzsche’s wise words, I remembered this bit of advice a sage editor once told me over a few beers: “Be careful where you put it.” How much privacy can a man expect from a porn star?

Still, we need to keep our focus. There are so many important, legitimate reasons to condemn Trump. Why get down into his cesspool and, in splashing him, spatter ourselves in the bargain? It’s such a simple task to be a better person than he is — such a low bar, it would be a shame to stumble over it. Just because the man’s a pig doesn’t mean we should all become pigs while opposing him.