A murderer’s philosophy: The Loeb and Leopold case.

Only the privileged few, the “supermen” above the law, may commit murder, or at least this was the claim of Loeb and Leopold who committed arguably one of the most controversial crimes of the 20th century. When I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope,” an adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s play about the famous case, I became engrossed in this case because it just so happens that the murderers cited Nietzsche’s philosophy to justify their actions of killing a young boy at random. Their aim was to commit a perfect crime, to show the world that they were above its moral code.

One can easily write an entire book about the events surrounding the murder, the psychological profiles of the killers, and consequences that rippled through the world via the hoarse voices of radio commentators and staccato typeset of newspaper headlines. However, for this entry I will focus on two things specifically: the film “Rope” and the way the characters of Loeb and Leopold in the film commit the infamous Raskolnikov mistake and misinterpret Nietzsche’s idea of going “beyond good and evil.”

As an aside, a curious thing happens right in the beginning of the film: Brandon (Leopold) and Phillip (Loeb) are discussing Nietzsche’s apparently novel idea that laws are made only for the weak and that the strong can supersede the laws and act as they wish, apparently without having to suffer consequences for their actions. Curiously, Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” is also mentioned in the film. The thing that interests me here is that Rodion Raskolnikov, the protagonist in Crime and Punishment, says just this! In fact, this is exactly the reasoning that he uses to murder the old woman in the novel. Except that it was too early for Nietzsche’s superman (Nietzsche had not written about it yet), so Rodion Raskolnikov does not want to be superman – he wants to be Napoleon, the most culturally relevant person in the hopping 1860’s who epitomized the idea of being above the law, being all that and a big of amoral chips, basically. This is curious to me because Nietzsche gets a bad rap for being a nihilist and bringing these types of ideas into the world, whereas the reality is: Nietzsche did not actually advocate such an interpretation of superman and he was just one of a number of great writers who predicted that people in the postmodern era will begin to think in such a way, not the same as saying that they should act in such a way.

So what do the shadows of Leopold and Loeb misinterpret about the idea of superman in “Rope?” The first mistake is a little involved and may take some brain gymnastics to comprehend, even for someone with astute intelligence that Leopold was rumoured to possess; it’s not even necessarily too intellectually advanced, it is that it requires a synthesis of the emotive and the rational to fully grasp it, I believe. That is, Nietzsche’s call to go “beyond good and evil” is absolutely not the same as Leopold’s idea of being “above good and evil.” “Above good and evil” signifies that you understand the laws that humans have created and you have chosen to place yourself above it, to disregard it, and say it does not apply to you. In that, Leopold is no different from anyone who commits any crime. Leopold is also no different from Napoleon or any other would-be emperor who claims to be “special” enough to claim thousands or millions of lives just to have their goals fulfilled. So in being above good and evil, Leopold has nothing to do with Nietzsche, because Nietzsche certainly did not advocate simple anarchy and nihilism. Anarchy and nihilism are incompatible with many parts of Nietzsche’s philosophy. If that was all Nietzsche advocated, he would be no different from the perennial anti-establishment folk who always persist right along the establishment. We would not still be interested in Nietzsche because in preaching anarchy, he would be preaching nothing new and, frankly, it would be a bit boring.

“Beyond good and evil,” on the other hand, has less to do with lawful behaviour and more to do with a radical examination of your own values. Brave souls who are willing to go “beyond good and evil” are willing to examine their assumptions about life, to lift the veil behind whatever authority has handed them their moral code, saying, “here, this is right and wrong, don’t think too much about it and just do as I say.” Nietzsche thinks that such questioning takes courage because it is unusual, unfamiliar to us. In a post-Nietzschean world, I see a number of people who have asked such questions and, as a result, made a change for the better in the world. The feminist movement. The civil rights movement. The gay liberation movement, as it was called in the 1970s. I cannot speak for all women, but I know I enjoy my right to choose my own career and own property.

The other misinterpretation is a little more straightforward, and I am afraid that Leopold in the film (and likely in reality as well) made the same faux pas as the National Socialist Party when it came to Nietzsche’s philosophy: he interpreted it to suit his own desires, which were already forming around a strong obsession with crime, sprinkled on the fertile ground of being bored in a life of perpetual instant gratification (because that can get boring, too). Not only that, but he also failed to see evidence that disconfirmed his interpretation. That’s just another way of saying that he didn’t really look into the philosophy deeply enough past the point where he found something he could use to justify himself. Really, nothing new here, as people who have started wars based on certain principles over the course of history are familiar with justifying violence with a particularly good passage from their pet book on morals (just think of the Crusades). This second misinterpretation is more grave, however, and here it is: Leopold believes that superman is “super” becomes he is better than others, and so he is allowed to overcome and overpower them. Nietzsche’s superman does not overcome others. He has to overcome himself. The beliefs, values, the idea of good and evil that the superman has to go “beyond” are most strongly rooted…in himself because to Nietzsche, your own convictions, habits, and beliefs are often your worst enemy.

This is an easy mistake to make. Nietzsche writes flamboyantly, dramatically, like a poet or an ancient Greek orator, not like a philosopher attempting to hammer that logical syllogism about the cat that is forever on the mat into your consciousness if that’s the last thing he ever does. Nietzsche’s writing is not concerned with being dry and logical. It is concerned with passion for his ideas. As such, when he writes about supermen being superior to others, it is all too easy to take these words literally and look no further. But upon a more careful investigation, it becomes readily apparent that Nietzsche calls for you to first question your own beliefs – that is, the rights and wrongs you take for granted. That does not mean that he wants us to do away with all laws and values (people do like to jump to extremes immediately). But he wants us to bring light to why we believe what we believe so that rather than blindly believing things on authority, we can make a conscious choice about what to believe.

To continue this little thought experiment, let’s take abortion as an example. Have you grown up your whole life believing that abortion is murder? That it is wrong and morally reprehensible? Most people in the current Canadian society say “no,” but some would clearly say “yes.” How do I know this?I see the protestors against abortion in front of the abortion clinic. Their message is very clear. What would Nietzsche say to them? I would like to think, based on the concept of superman, that Nietzsche would urge them to stop focusing on what others are doing “wrong” and bring that focus inward, to ask themselves dangerous questions. These questions are dangerous to authoritarianism and tendencies to follow others blindly, but they are friends of authenticity and self-awareness. Some such questions might be, why do you believe abortion is morally wrong? How did you come to believe this? On whose authority have you accepted this belief? Have you considered the other side of the argument, or considered what it might be like for a woman to consider abortion, her reasons, her circumstances, her rights? Have you thought critically about this right and wrong, or is someone just renting space in your head?

Now back to murder. Some people may gasp at the suggestion that some people are permitted to do murder. Surely, all murder is morally wrong. I would invite the reader to consider a) wars; b) police forces; and c) murder in the cases of self-defense. Clearly, there are some people who, in their line of work, end the lives of others, although we do not call it murder. In fact, Western North American society has an intricate system in place to figure out who should qualify for such a role and who should not. I won’t be arguing that murder is either good or bad, I just want to point out that we may be horrified at Leopold and Loeb’s crime because they elected themselves the deciders of who is allowed to take life. However, when that decision is made through an established societal process, no one recoils with horror. What does this tell us? Good and evil is not absolute, as Nietzsche discussed. Good and evil are concepts we make. Considering Nietzsche’s writings as a whole and not just his isolated comments, I would say that Nietzsche warns us about the likes of Loeb and Leopold. But he warns us about the likes of Loeb and Leopold not just committing one murder, but plunging entire countries, entire world into a cultural system that is devoid of critical thinking about its values, about good and evil. We’ve seen one example of such a plunge in World War II. We continue to see others, as war and genocide do not abate.

What Loeb and Leopold do in “Rope” and, as far as my understanding goes, what they did in real life as well is blame the messenger, the person (Nietzsche), who, in common parlance yells from the backseat “oh s!@#, look out, you are heading straight for that nihilistic ditch and you are taking the critical thinking skills of the entire world with you!!!” as if he was saying, “what a marvelous nihilistic ditch this is, let’s dump our critical thinking, freedom, responsibility, and accountability in it altogether and drive away!” The problem with perpetuating this understanding: we do not hear the warning and we judge Loeb and Leopold, but we do not consider the consequences of our own actions. So of course I do not think that murder is beyond good and evil and should be available as a pastime to bored law school students. Understanding Nietzsche’s “beyond good and evil” is understanding that rules for what is considered “good” and “evil” are socially constructed, and understanding that often pre-given, pre-constructed morality can stifle the individual’s capacity to reflect on the meaning and consequences of their choices and potential harm of specific choices to self or others.

Post by: Dr. Alina Sotskova


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