Sandusky, Penn State and “The Superman”

Over the past week, as the news of the Sandusky sex-scandal at Penn State has gone public, countless reports have been filed in the media, asking all the sorts of questions one would expect to be asked.  How could this happen?  What did Joe Paterno know and when did he know it?  Why did the Penn State administration do nothing about it?  Does our nation love football more than children?  Why is the student body rioting?  These are all valid questions, and to one degree or another, they are all questions that deserve honest, rigorous answers.

But today, I want to take a step back from these sorts of questions; and I want to take a look at Sandusky through the lens of the well known, but scarcely-understood, 19th century philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche.  On a popular level, most people know Nietzsche as the man who coined the atheist-slogan: “God is dead.”  But what they don’t realize is that this pronouncement was not the culmination of Nietzsche’s philosophy, but rather the starting point.  Allow me to explain.

Friedrich Nietzsche, 19th century German philosopher.

In the mid-1800s, an ethical revolution of sorts was taking place under the reign of Queen Victoria in England.  Culturally speaking, there was a transition away from the rationalist philosophy of the Georgian period towards a romanticism that highlighted traditional Christian values.  While the epicenter of this transition was found in London England, the shock waves radiated throughout Europe, transforming the nature of every society they reached.

When the waves rolled over Nietzsche’s homeland of Germany, it was too much for him to bear.[1] Disgusted by the “weakness of Christianity,”[2] Nietzsche set out to articulate a philosophy that would reject traditional values of good and evil in favor of self-constructed values that were centered on the “blessed, wholesome, [and] healthy” virtue of selfishness.[3] For Nietzsche, ethics could not be based on the commandments of YHWH or Jesus the Christ because the Christian God always sought to suppress the natural instincts of the human heart.  So for Nietzsche, the only ethical course of action was the course of action taken by “the superman” – or the ubermensch – who had the courage and the strength of will[4] to take that which he desired.

This, of course, brings us back to the subject of Jerry Sandusky.  Many throughout the media are currently asking questions about how a human being could behave in such a monstrous fashion.  Indeed, in his interview with Sandusky last night, Bob Costas asked multiple questions of this nature.

But the problem with questions such as these is that a man like Sandusky does not conceive of morality in the same way that most people understand it.  A man like Sandusky is a Nietzschian “superman.”  He does not conform to the morality of society, nor does he see the need to do so.  A man like Sandusky builds his own morality on the foundation of selfishness, and then he acts in such a manner as to take that which he desires. And if others don’t understand who he is or why he acts in the way that he does, so be it.

Stop and think about.  Most predators prey upon victims to which they already have access.  But Sandusky went about creating his own access to those that he victimized.  When he retired from Penn State in 1999, he secured “emeritus” status that came with the benefits of full access to the Penn State football and training facilities.  So he secured an enticing lure that would draw young people into grasp.  Then he dedicated his himself to cultivating a pipeline of victims through his volunteer work at the Second Mile Foundation.  These are not the actions of a “typical” predator that is morally weak and preys upon the helpless around him.  These are the deliberate actions of a man that does not conform to society’s standards.  These are the actions of a “superman.”  And the real question that society has to come to terms with is this:  are we comfortable with the outcome of allowing people to create their own moralities through the exercise of power?  And if not – if we don’t want the Jerry Sanduskys of this world to do the things that he is alleged to have done – than how do we go about constructing a public morality in a society that is deeply pluralistic in nature? 

[1] Bear in mind, Germany was the epicenter for the Protestant Reformation that began 300 years earlier in 1517 A.D.  So when the waves of Victorian England’s cultural revolution hit the German border, they encountered nothing but eager ears and attentive spirits.

[2] Nietzsche, Friedrich,  The Portable Nietzsche (New York: Viking Press, 1964) 144-145.

[3] Ibid, 301-302.

[4] Nietzsche called this the “will to power.”

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