Beyond Good and Evil
Nietzsche saw the history of philosophy as an expression of the ‘will to Truth’, yet this obsession with truth was simply an arbitrary prejudice. Why are philosophers not as much interested in untruth or uncertainty, he wondered?
As he writes in Beyond Good and Evil, “In spite of all the value which may belong to the true, the positive and the unselfish, it might be possible that a higher and more fundamental value for life should generally be assigned to pretence, to the will to delusion, to selfishness and cupidity.” Perhaps good and evil are more knitted together than we think, although (in the interests of purity) we like to see them as separate.
Good and evil are a creation of humankind: “There is no such thing as moral phenomena, but only a moral interpretation of phenomena.” And if this is so, it frees us to live according to our natural wish to be more, have more, do more, not worrying too much about others. Selfishness, including evasion, distrust and a love of dissembling and irony, Nietzsche says, are signs of health – it is the people who are always after some pure and objective absolute (whether in religion or philosophy) that are the sick ones.
The common reaction to reading Nietzsche is shock, but there are few philosophers who can be more entertaining, or who carry the potential to really change your view of things. The list of people influenced by him is long, and includes Sigmund Freud, Rainer Maria Rilke, Thomas Mann, Heidegger, WB Yeats, Jean Paul Sartre and Foucault. Among contemporary philosophers, Nicholas Nassim Taleb and Slavoj Zizek, although very different in their content, borrow some of their free flowing, idiosyncratic, ultra-personal style from Nietzsche. His startling originality and emotion-charged, non-technical prose could not be more different to today’s dry, over-specialised academic writings.
After a promising early start (he became a philosophy professor at only 24), illness and a truly independent spirit saw Nietzsche fall outside the mainstream, and his dismissal of philosophy as an objective science allowed him to write in a brilliantly personal and often mad style. Though in Beyond Good and Evil some of the people or events he mentions are of his time, generally his insights – including how to view science and religion - seem very fresh.
Why ‘truth’ in the first place?
Philosophers make an assumption that “the certain is worth more than the uncertain, that illusion is less valuable than ‘truth’”, but such valuations, Nietzsche says, may only be superficial, necessary to a sense of self and our need to create a feeling of certainty for our very survival. We want to generate logical fictions in order to understand reality. He further argues that in most people, what they see as their conscious thinking is in fact just instinct. We think much less that we would like to believe.
Philosophers too, though they see themselves as independent minds creating new systems of cold, objective logic, are most of the time just spouting who and what they are; they are not machines generating truth, but defenders of a prejudice. Kant, for instance, fashioned the guise of a scientific philosopher to convey his moralistic ‘categorical imperative’, but Nietzsche sees him as just another in a long line of “old moralists and ethical preachers”. And Spinoza’s wish to make his philosophy seem more scientific led him to clad it in a “hocus-pocus” mathematical format. In sum, philosophers are not lovers of wisdom, but lovers of their wisdom. At the heart of each of their world-views is a moral position, and ‘knowledge’ is the costume it is dressed up in. Yet Nietzsche admits he is not the first to suggest such a thing; Epicurus, the down to earth ex-slave, also pointed out the grandiosity and vanity of philosophers such as Plato who presented apparently ‘self-evident’ truths.
The will to power...and free will
Nietzsche thought that psychologists were wrong in saying that the self-preservation or survival instinct was strongest in living things. Rather, their chief aim is to discharge their strength. This is his famous Will to Power (a concept in part derived from Schopenhauer’s ‘Will’). In short, we want to keep living not for its own sake, but so that we can express our powers.
Given this, it is perhaps surprising what Nietzsche has to say about free will, summed up in the line:
“I shall never tire of emphasising a small, terse fact, namely, that a thought comes when ‘it’ wishes, and not when ‘I’ wish...”
The idea of a self-willing ego is an assumption; it is more accurate to speak of things that ‘one’ does, because we are a complex of sensation, emotion and thinking. The “strangest thing about the will”, Nietzsche says, is that it is a mechanism that both gives orders and accepts them. We identify ourselves with the order-giver (what we call ‘I’), but in reality our body is “a social structure composed of many souls”. We believe that our decisions are the basis of our success, but this is like assuming that the ruler of a land is alone responsible for outcomes, forgetting all the other factors involved. We are neither totally in control of what happens, but neither are we totally irresponsible either. The truth lies in between, and the belief in pure free will, or what Nietzsche calls “intention-morality”, should be put in the same category as astrology or alchemy.
But how do Nietzsche’s thoughts on free will square with the Will to Power, and indeed his concept of the ubermensch (‘superman’), the sovereign actor who is free of all the usual moral conventions and ways of seeing? The answer is that Nietzsche believes people think too much, when they should give free reign to their instinctive Will to create and dominate. The idea of free will is a Christian nicety based on a belief in the sanctity of every soul, when in fact man is better seen as a higher animal that grasps what it wants from life. The nature of the ubermensch is not contemplation or rationalising, but energetic doing and creating.
Science, philosophy and the true philosopher
Nietzsche enjoys pointing out the hubris and insolence of science as claiming to be the only discipline that matters in the modern age, replacing both philosophy and religion. Philosophy is the ‘master-task’, he asserts, supreme among all areas of learning. He despairs over modern philosophy’s giving over of its noble role, specialising itself into a mere ‘theory of knowledge’, for instance; and he is not surprised that the average person sees philosophy as having a rather downbeat face, while the countenance of science is happy and confident, claiming to be the measure of all things. In fact, science explains little; it is merely a way of arranging the world according to human perception.
It would be dangerous, revolutionary, for a modern philosopher to say that he is not a sceptic. He prefers instead to say that he knows nothing, or that nothing can be known. Yet scepticism is a “pleasing, lulling poppy” that comforts the user and makes him feel part of his world. This outlook comes about, Nietzsche says, through the modern person being an amalgam of different races and classes, in which nothing is stable and everything is relative. Everything is thought through, and nothing done through pure Will. ‘Objectivity’ and ‘the scientific spirit’ are just expressions of paralysis of the Will, a disease which spreads wherever civilisation lasts longest. Nietzsche distinguishes between ‘philosophical workers’ and ‘scientific men’, on the one hand, and real philosophers on the other. Among philosophical workers he includes Kant and Hegel, who have sought to identify values and truths and put them in some order. But the real philosopher is a “commander and law-giver”, a creator whose motto is “Thus shall it be!’
The conventional view of the philosopher is that he is wise, prudent and lives apart from normal life. But Nietzsche draws an alternative picture: “...the genuine philosopher... lives ‘unphilosophically’ and ‘unwisely’, above all ‘imprudently’, and feels the obligation and burden of a hundred attempts and temptations of life – he risks himself constantly, he plays this bad game.” Real philosophers should be “the bad conscience” of their time and culture, their job to apply a “vivisector’s knife to the breast of the very virtues of their age”.
In asking the question, “Is greatness possible, nowadays?”, Nietzsche must contend with the nature of modern society, which he says is “a general war against everything rare, strange, and privileged, against the higher man, the higher soul, the higher duty, the higher responsibility, the creative plenipotence and lordliness...”
Above all, the modern person seeks a life free from fear or pain. This is a sad dereliction of their potential. Instead, we should be throwing ourselves into life at whatever risk, and without getting permission.
Slave morality and master morality
“At the risk of displeasing innocent ears, I submit that egoism belongs to the essence of a noble soul, I mean the unalterable belief that to a being such as ‘we’, other beings must naturally be in subjection, and have to sacrifice themselves.”
There is a natural hierarchy to humankind, a kind of natural justice. The ‘noble soul’, Nietzsche says, does not like to look above for anything; it looks forward, or down, because “he knows that he is on a height”.
Nietzsche admits this is the opposite of what many moralities and religions suggest – that we are fulfilled when we make ourselves smaller than others. But this to him seems like fakery. Modern education and culture is about deception, trying to exalt the plebeian and mediocre at the cost of a true aristocracy of spirits.
Nietzsche despised democracy and notions of ‘equality of rights’ and ‘sympathy with all sufferers’, because he believed that this attempt to ‘level the playing field’ robbed people of the conditions which could make them great. Oppression, poverty, violence and severity of every kind carried the opportunity of making the mediocre into something substantial, as it called on their inventive powers, daring and spirit.
He called Christianity a ‘slave morality’ because is emphasised “the sacrifice of all freedom, all pride, all self-confidence of spirit”, and made the believer into a self-deriding shadow of what they could be. He admires the Old Testament as a great work of divine justice, and wonders why it was ever lumped together with the slave morality of the New Testament.
Morality was designed to make human beings seem simple and intelligible; for if there are common rules, then we can all be judged the same way. But if you see beyond the usual categories of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ you can see people in their true light: as having a natural belief in and reverence for themselves. When people have to answer to us, this seems as it should be. And rather than being some flight of vanity, this is simply a sign of the ‘noble soul’.
Nietzsche’s wish to go beyond opposites is little different to the concept of ‘duality’ in Eastern religions, in which light and dark, and good and bad are mental constructions. Ultimately, everything just ‘is’, and requires no labels.
His disavowal of the traditional philosophical project – the search for fundamental truths – had a big influence on existentialism and also the deconstructionist philosophies, which made us see that actively creating an authentic life is more valuable and logical than living according to a set of imaginary moral ‘truths’.
Unfortunately, his aversion to the “blending of races”, and his disavowal of traditional morality and democratic ideals made him very ripe to be taken up by Nazi ideology (although he was not an anti-Semite). Given the many horrible events of the 20th century, his attitude on many things now seems naive, but given that he was so little read in his lifetime, he clearly felt he had nothing to lose by putting his philosophical explosives under the bed of Europe.
The book has two sections of aphorisms, where you will find gems such as, “Insanity in individuals is something rare – but in groups, parties, nations and epochs it is the rule”, and “The thought of suicide gets one through many a bad night”. Nietzsche had little luck with women and therefore disdained them, but his aphorisms contain some interesting observations on relationships, including, “In revenge and in love woman is more barbarous than man.” But just when you have come to the view that he is a little too hard-edged or even nasty, there is this:
“What is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil.”
Love transcends any classifications of morality. It is neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’, but just is – that is its power.
Source: Philosophy Classics: Thinking, Being, Acting, Seeing, Profound Insights and Powerful Thinking from Fifty Key Books by Tom Butler-Bowdon (London & Boston: Nicholas Brealey).
Born in Röcken, Prussia in 1844, both Nietzsche’s father (who died when he was five) and grandfather had been Lutheran ministers. He attended a boarding school in Pforta, then studied classical philology at the University of Bonn. He was considered so brilliant that at only 24 was made a professor at the University of Basle. After a stint as a medical orderly in the Franco-Prussian War, he wrote The Birth of Tragedy.
Dogged by ill-health, he had to resign from his professorship and thereafter lived on a modest pension, living in a series of rented rooms around Europe. In 1889 he suffered a mental breakdown (perhaps brought on by syphilis, others say depression) and was thereafter nursed by his mother, then his sister, until his death in 1900.
Major works include Human All-too-Human, Thus Spake Zarathustra, The Gay Science, The Genealogy of Morals, The Twilight of the Idols, The Antichrist and the autobiographical Ecce Homo.