Nietzsche’s Master-Slave Moralities: A Deep Dive

Although Friedrich Nietzsche makes references to it in much of his earlier writings, his first essay of On the Genealogy of Morals most thoroughly outlines the philosopher’s famed concept of the disparity between master-slave moralities that are found within human societies, and how this disparity—and the ensuing conflict from it—greatly influences our perception of moral values in modern times.

Nietzsche begins his prose by denouncing the basic tenants of utilitarianism, the ethical position that the value of an action’s goodness is innately correlated with the utility it holds for maximizing the collective well-being or happiness of a group, as nothing more but the ‘idiosyncrasy of the English psychologists”[1] (undoubtedly, a reference to English utilitarian philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, but also sociologists like Herbert Spencer).

Nietzsche’s attack on utilitarianism is noteworthy for two reasons: 1. It distances him from the other leading secular moral philosophies of his day, ensuring no confusion will arise in the reader’s mind about Nietzsche’s allegiances on account of his own irreligious convictions. 2. It gives him the opportunity to explain the primary objective he is hoping to achieve through his essay. The first reason is self-explanatory, and a minor add-on to the greater context. The second, on the other hand, cuts to the core of the matter in how Nietzsche’s criticism of utilitarianism stems from his desire to seek the origin of human morality (to trace its genealogy), and explain how and why good and bad have come to be assigned the values they currently possess; the modern function of moral values—defining good as that which increases happiness—is of no importance to Nietzsche’s project.

To Nietzsche the claim that utility is the measure of morality would have been something to reject instinctively, since he spent a great deal of time showing how mankind willingly subjects itself to a number of moral virtues that hold no utility to its happiness whatsoever (his extensive critique of religion is a good example of this); hence, he would argue, that to maximize utility could not have been the origin of our morality, but exists solely as an arbitrary ethical maxim of modern times.

Instead, Nietzsche proposes a far simpler origin for moral values, one in which what he calls the aristocratic nobility “seized the right to create values and to coin names for values.”[2] To support his proposition, he makes large use of the etymological roots found across differing languages in relation to the moral conception of good:

I found they all led back to the same conceptual transformation—that everywhere “noble,” “aristocratic” in the social sense, is the basic concept from which “good” in the sense of “with aristocratic soul,” “noble,” ‘with a soul of a higher order,” “with a privileged soul” necessarily developed: a development which always runs parallel with that other in which “common,” “plebeian,” “low’ are finally transformed into the concept “bad.”[3]

Here, Nietzsche is plainly stating that modern thinkers are approaching the issue of moral values backwards, mistakenly attributing the origin of concepts like good to the lower ranks of society, rather than the high-ranking nobility, who alone [according to Nietzsche] held the creative aptitude to assign meaning to such values. The reason why this is little explored is explained by Nietzsche as a result of the ineptness of modern thinkers to contemplate the topic objectively due to their reasoning having been polluted.

With regard to a moral genealogy this seems to me a fundamental insight; that it has been arrived at so late is the fault of the retarding influence exercised by the democratic prejudice in the modern world toward all questions of origin.[4]

In other words, most of us are too blinded in out idealistic devotion to populist sentiments about the virtue of egalitarianism, and other such “democratic prejudices,” to ever consider the possibility that the origin of moral values resides within a much more exclusionary, hierarchal framework—that it is the privileged who rightly define the good, because the downtrodden are too sickly in conscience to possess the capability to do any such thing; hence, all they create will by definition be bad.

This line of reasoning reinforces much of the same preference for the individual few, over the herd-instinct masses, found throughout Nietzsche’s other writings. As Nietzsche probably sees it, his willingness to bluntly state that the lowly, underprivileged members of society are a representation of the decadency—not the preservation—of good moral values, would have been an affirmation that, unlike his contemporaries, he is not afraid to explore the genealogy of human morality from all conceivable angles. To support his case, Nietzsche makes extensive use of his academic training as a philologist, and offers up a plethora worth of linguistic examples to support his aristocratic-origin proposition (sections 5, 10, 11, 15, and a brief note on the importance of linguistics on the subject, by Nietzsche himself, can be found in section 17).

A fair criticism of Nietzsche’s method would be to point out that (with the exception of a handful of examples) the etymological evidence he presents is largely Eurocentric, and therefore might be deemed as insufficient to explain the origin of all moral values. Of course, it is unlikely that Nietzsche would have seen this critique as much of a counter to his ideas, since his goal is to show the true origin of the modern values we currently hold. And given the influence Westernization has had on the rest of the globe (even by Nietzsche’s time) the philosopher would most likely have made the point that the morals of Europe have also largely been imposed as the morals of the world [for better or for worse].

As mentioned, Nietzsche points out that the origin of words like good, light, noble, courageous, all trace to an aristocratic root, whereas words like “bad,” “ugly,” “dark,” “cowardice,” all trace back to the lower plebeian masses. It is clear that Nietzsche sees more worth in aristocratic over plebeian values, however he does also state that this highest caste will also inevitably splinter itself into contending knightly and priestly sects,[5] out of which a conflict between concepts of “pure” and “impure” will emerge, causing a rift in the aristocratic value judgment. Given Nietzsche’s hostility towards all things religious, a decent argument can be made how this description is a subtle critique of this perceived higher aristocracy, whose superiority the philosopher appeared to have been praising hitherto, but is now admitting to a defect in its structure; namely, the emergence of this priestly aristocracy:

There is from the first something unhealthy in such priestly aristocracies and in the habits ruling in them which turn them away from action and alternative between brooding and emotional explosions, habits which seem to have as their almost invariable consequences that intestinal morbidity—must one not assert that it has ultimately proved itself a hundred times more dangerous in its effects that the sickness it was supposed to cure?[6]

It is telling that Nietzsche does not attempt to blame the emergence of the priestly aristocracy on a corruption of the higher caste by the lower masses, leading to the conclusion that this unhealthy sect is a natural product of the nobility itself—leaving room for the assessment that the noble aristocracy is ultimately unstable. As to why Nietzsche chooses not to state this observation openly, one can only speculate that since he sees the influence of the priestly morality as a far more detrimental force on the values of the modern world, he reasoned that its direct refutation held more urgency. Or, perhaps, this subtle hint of a critique against aristocratic morals was an appetizer to an upcoming larger work Nietzsche was planning (i.e. his never written tome The Reevaluation of All Values), which might have included a broader critical assessment of the higher caste, too. Whatever the case, Nietzsche is clear in his assessment that the priestly aristocracy is a natural branch-off from what he calls the knightly-aristocracy:

The knightly-aristocratic value judgments presupposed a powerful physicality, a flourishing, abundant, even overflowing health, together with that which serves to preserve it: war, adventure, hunting dancing, war games, and in general all that involves vigorous, free, joyful activity. The priestly-noble mode of valuation presupposes, as we have seen, other things: it is disadvantageous for it when it comes to war! As is well known, the priests are the most evil enemies—but why? Because they are the most impotent.[7]

At this point Nietzsche’s narrative can become a bit murky, and care must be taken in order to thoroughly follow along, without falling into the trap of generalizing and misreading key parts of the text.

Having proposed that the aristocratic nobility is the only plausible contender to serve the role of being the original arbitrators of goodness, and subsequently all moral values, Nietzsche then goes on to suggest that the perversion of this true origin of moral concepts must have arisen from within the aristocratic caste, too—namely, the impotent priestly aristocracy—because the lower masses are not capable of assigning any sort of unique value judgment on their own, unless they are guided by the corruption or stupidity of greater minds.

Now, is the part where Nietzsche’s essay gets very controversial, by which I mean statements like the following:

The Jews, that priestly people, who in opposing their enemies and conquerors were ultimately satisfied with nothing less than a radical evaluation of their enemies’ values, that is to say, an act of the most spiritual revenge. For this alone was appropriate to a priestly people, the people embodying the most deeply repressed priestly vengefulness.[8]

Famed Nietzschean writer, Walter Kaufmann, is adamant about the fact that Nietzsche’s views here should not be confused with the ramblings of a bigoted anti-Semite, on account that Nietzsche’s reference to the ancient Jewish people places them amongst the superior aristocratic nobility, and not with the inferior herd-like plebian masses. In chapter 10 of his biography of the philosopher (conveniently titled Nietzsche) Kaufmann explains that, to Nietzsche, ancient Jerusalem (and its inhabitants) served as a representation of the priestly-aristocratic values, in contrast to ancient Rome’s (and its inhabitants) knightly-aristocratic values. Thus, Nietzsche’s mistakenly attributed anti-Semitism is actually just his desire to give historical context to his ideas. And, of course, Nietzsche, who sees himself as the foremost opponent of Abrahamic values, decided to go right to the originators of what he deems to be the cause of today’s ignorance and degeneration of moral values.

[Note: Personally, I don’t consider it my job to defend Nietzsche’s views against charges of bigotry, and the fact that the man often seemed to go to great pains to be misunderstood by the layperson is his problem, not mine. Having read his writings, and being aware of his personal bouts with everyone from his sister, to former friend Richard Wagner, to even his own editor, over their adherences to anti-Semitic prejudices, it would be disingenuous of me to act as if I find the charge of this specific bigotry against Nietzsche in the least bit convincing. On the other hand, it is no secret that Nietzsche openly professed a deep prejudice against all things religious, in particular all things Christian. Thus, as he must have seen it, since his aim is to attack the heavily Christian influenced morality of his day, it would be incomprehensible for him to not mention (and denounce) the precursory faith to Christian values.]

To Nietzsche, what sets the (“knightly”) aristocracy apart from the masses is its ability—one might even say compulsion—to exhibit a great sense of physicality to meet its need for self-affirmation, to act in accordance to one’s creative impulses, and to do so unashamedly. The priestly-aristocracy is different, in that it’s impotence on matters of physical assertion causes it by necessity to retreat to the concocted realm of spirituality, in a spiteful attempt to satisfy its creative compulsion. In doing so, the priestly aristocracy inverts the aristocratic values-equation by surreptitiously redefining moral concepts into spiritual terms. Meaning that where it was once understood that it is the strong, the noble, the cunning, and the healthy that stand as embodiments of the morally good, it is now perverted to a monstrosity of contrary assertions:

Wretched alone are the good; the poor, impotent, lowly alone are the good; the suffering, deprived, sick, ugly alone are pious, alone are blessed by God / and you, the powerful and noble, are on the contrary the evil, the cruel, the lustful, the insatiable, the godless to all eternity; and you shall be in all eternity the unblessed, accursed, and damned![9]

This, Nietzsche argues, is the birth of the slave revolt in morality. And he attributes its origin squarely on the emergence of Abrahamic moral virtues, beginning with Judaism, but perfected by Christianity, with its emphasis on the meek and mild, and the wish to place hope in the sheepish entrance of a heavenly kingdom, rather than an affirmation of life incarnate. Leading to Nietzsche’s proclamation, “What is certain, at least, is that sub hoc signo (lat. “Under this sign”) Israel, with its vengefulness and revaluation of all values, has hitherto triumphed again and again over all other ideals, over all nobler ideals.”[10] And this is the moral tradition the modern world has inherited today.

Nietzsche anticipated the protestation that such an assertion would bring out in his contemporaries, and faces the charge of anti-egalitarianism that his views are guaranteed to arouse headfirst. The philosopher attributed this reflexive defensiveness as a symptom of how deep the poison of the slave revolt in morality has permeated into the core of social consciousness; declaring that even his fellow irreligionists (so-called “free spirits”) are also helpless to its affect, mockingly stating, “Apart from the church, we, too, love the poison.”[11]

Nietzsche summarizes the psychological development of this slave mentality as follows:

The slave revolt in morality begins when ressentiment itself becomes creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of natures that are denied the true reaction, that of deeds, and compensate themselves with an imaginary revenge. While every noble morality develops from a triumphant affirmation of itself, slave morality from the outset says No to what is “outside,” what is “different,” what is “not itself”; and this No is its creative deed.[12]

It would be a mistake to translate Nietzsche’s usage of ressentiment to refer to a simple emotion of “resentment” or jealousy exhibited by the impotent priestly aristocracy against their active knightly counterparts. It is better thought of as a mode of reaction against hostile external stimuli. The priestly slave moralists are too impotent to act spontaneously and are therefore entirely dependent on perpetually exerting themselves against what they perceive to be hostile external forces. In contrast to their noble counterparts, whose moral mode of valuation does not seek out an opposition in order to validate its own convictions, slave morality tries to compensate for its inferior position by reassigning its own weaknesses into purported strengths, which is done by decrying the strengths of its superiors as wicked and sinful—everlastingly depending on the acts of the supposed sinner to give itself relevance. All of this causes a shift in the moral pendulum, and a subversion of what was once good (being strong and active), to mean what is now good (being meek and passive). This subversion is at the heart of ressentiment.

Nietzsche acknowledges that this does not mean that the noble mode of valuation is infallible, in any sense, only that when it commits, “blunders and sins against reality, it does so in respect to the sphere with which it is not sufficiently familiar, against a real knowledge of which it has indeed inflexibly guarded itself.”[13] Meaning that the noble mode of valuation makes mistakes, but out of ignorance, not malice.

This sounds like another subtle criticism by Nietzsche against the noble aristocracy, expressing that their disposition can cause them to express a certain degree of naiveté about the common man of the lower orders. Presumably, because when one looks at an opponent from a higher plane, it becomes too easy to forge a falsified image of one’s enemies. However, this does leave the question open as to why the noble aristocracy seems to not be able to properly evaluate the morally corrupt priestly (“slave moralist”) caste, which resides within the same higher ranks of the intellectual hierarchy? The answer Nietzsche gives to this question is that since noble man “live in trust and openness with himself,” he is left defenseless against the underhanded slave moralist, because, “a race of such men of ressentiment is bound to become eventually cleverer than any noble race; it will also honor cleverness to a far greater degree.”[14]

Despite common misconceptions, Nietzsche does not see cleverness as a needed trait of the noble individual, seeing it as less essential to a healthy mind than the possession of sound instinctive cognition. Another point of clarification is also the issue of whether or not ressentiment ever appears in the psych of the noble man. Nietzsche’s position is that if it does, the great physical exertion of the nobility will cause it to be exhausted before it has any chance to corrupt the noble man’s mind. The inactive, and impotent, slave moralist, on the other hand, has no means to relieve this poison from its body, and thereby inevitably becomes consumed by it.

Nietzsche is thoroughly convinced that modern culture is completely infiltrated by its unwavering devotion to slave morality, as demonstrated by the domestication of man:

The meaning of all culture as is the reduction of the beast of prey “man” to a tame and civilized animal, a domestic animal, then one would undoubtedly have to regard all those instincts of reaction and ressentiment through whose aid the noble races and their ideals were finally confounded and overthrown as the actual instruments of culture.[15]

For Nietzsche, the cultural progression of mankind over the centuries has in reality been a regression of man’s true nature. With every step forward representing a step further into the abyss of a decadent moral framework:

We can see nothing today that wants to grow greater, we suspect that things will continue to go down, down, to become thinner, more good-natured, more prudent, more comfortable, more mediocre, more indifferent.[16]

The slave revolt of morality has spread its impotence over the masses, in fact, has given leverage to the lowly plebian ranks, and now we lie content with our mediocrity and herald our indolence as a show of virtue against barbarianism:

To demand of strength that it should not express itself as strength, that it should not be a desire to overcome, a desire to throw down, a desire to become master, a thirst for enemies and resistance and triumph, is just as absurd as to demand of weakness that it should express itself as strength.[17]

Our egalitarian sentiment, according to Nietzsche, is a result of the poison we have all blindly swallowed. Our demand for universal moderation, for the value of humility, our aversion to boastfulness as being too impolite in the presence of weaker, stupider individuals, and our desire to reduce the feeling of inadequacy from an opponent’s failures, are all manifestations from the original slave revolt of morality that is promulgated by those who seek to vindicate the virtue of their inferiority by means of social cohesion—to rationalize away personal failure in favor of mass victimization.

Also, according to Nietzsche, religious and spiritual expressions are the primary venue by which this slave revolt, this ressentiment, was made possible. The moral shift of emphasis on an unearthly paradise, the call to be mild and meek in face of opposition, while simultaneously proclaiming one’s spiritual superiority on account of one’s physical weakness. And, above all else, to claim this faux-superiority by proxy of an otherworldly Being, who will issue a final judgment on the submissive slave’s behalf, is to Nietzsche the perfect expression of what he calls ressentiment; primarily, because this is the very origin of the slave revolt of morality:

In faith in what? In love of what? In hope of what?—These weak people—some day or other they too intend to be the strong, there is no doubt of that, some day their “kingdom” too shall come—they term it “the kingdom of God,” of course, as aforesaid: for one is so very humble in all things![18]

Or, as the philosopher put it in a more historical context:

“Rome against Judea, Judea against Rome”:–there has hitherto been no greater event than this struggle, this question, this deadly contradiction.

Personally, I remain largely unconvinced by Nietzsche’s a priori attempt to glorify ancient Rome as a last remnant of sound moral value,[19] as it ignores the fact that much of Rome’s claim to conquest was shrouded in myth and superstition. Which brings up the subsequent issue of whether Nietzsche’s emphasis on physical assertion as a buffer against spiritual thinking holds much weight under historical scrutiny (though it should be acknowledged that Nietzsche is right about ancient Rome not placing much value on passive-aggressive virtues like humility and modesty).

As I mentioned earlier, Nietzsche’s statement that a corrupt priestly caste will branch off from the aristocratic-value judgment, is a base admission that the noble aristocracy is not all too stable to withstand long-term opposition, in particular because it exhibits no trait in wanting to subvert its moral opposition. Bringing up the question of just how superior their moral-value truly is, if it is incapable of surviving the assault of a weak and impotent foe? But, undoubtedly, these would have been seen by Nietzsche as minor objections to his primary goal of overturning the popular conception that what we in the modern world perceive as morally good, is an absolute reflection of reality, and to contemplate about the possibility that our judgment has been clouded through generations worth of social conditioning. Furthermore, I will give credit to Nietzsche for not laying claim to the final word on the subject, and urging readers to not cease the quest for the origin of moral values here:

Whoever begins at this point, like my readers, to reflect and pursue his train of thought will not soon come to the end of it.[20]

[1] Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals, “First Essay: ‘Good and Evil,’ ‘Good and Bad,’” 1887, section 2.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, section 4.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, section 6.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, section 7.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, section 8.

[11] Ibid, section 9.

[12] Ibid, section 10.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid, section 11.

[16] Ibid, section 12.

[17] Ibid, section 13.

[18] Ibid, section 15.

[19] Ibid, section 16.

[20] Ibid, section 17.

The Politics of Friedrich Nietzsche

Nietzsche writes in the first section of his autobiographical Ecce Homo, “Hear me! For I am such and such a person. Above all, do not mistake me for someone else.” Possibly foreshadowing the innumerable misinterpretations and false generalizations that politically-minded individuals will be determined to make out of the philosopher’s writings in the generations to come.

The most useful interpretation of Nietzsche’s politics is to simply reject the notion that the man had any clear political inclination to begin with, or at least not any that fit clearly within the political models commonly made reference to in his day, or ours. Indeed, over the past few decades, academia has done its best to instil just such a post-political framework into Nietzschean philosophy. Unfortunately, the effort has yet to trickle down to the self-styled public intellectuals, who have cleverly deduced that context-void quotations, from context-heavy philosophers, make for a more digestible expression of their own personal ideologies than actual self-reflection (why bother thinking about defenses for your own position on sociopolitical matters, when someone long dead has already done all the work for you, right?).

Now, since there is little point disputing the fact that Nietzsche directly called himself anti-political (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Wise,” Section 3), the only reasonable question left to consider is what sort of political implications a person might be justified in deriving from the philosopher.

Above all else, if there is one consistent fact that must be understood about Nietzsche’s relations to the politics of his day, it’s that (in stark contrast to many of his claimed admirers today) the man loathed and ridiculed everything associated with his native Germany; from its culture right down to its cuisines:

Against the Germans I here advance on all fronts: you’ll have no occasion for complaints about “ambiguity.” This utterly irresponsible race which has on its conscience all the great disasters of civilizations and at all decisive moments of history had something “else” on its mind / now has “the Reich” on its mind—this recrudescence of petty state politics and cultural atomism (from NIETZSCHE’S LETTER TO OVERBECK, October 18, 1888).

Only the complete worthlessness of our German education—its “idealism”—explains to me to some extent why at precisely this point I was backward to the point of holiness (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Clever, Section 1).

The German climate alone is enough to discourage strong, even inherently heroic intestines (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Clever,” Section 2).

The few cases of high culture I have encountered in Germany have all been of French origin (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Clever,” Section 3).

The Germans are incapable of any notion of greatness (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Clever,” Section 4).

The way I am, so alien in my deepest instincts to everything German that the mere proximity of a German retards my digestion (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Clever,” Section 5).

As far as Germany extends, she corrupts culture (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Clever,” Section 5).

This is just a small sample of the disdain Nietzsche repeatedly expresses for his place of origin in his writings.

It is a clear reflection of the philosopher’s rejection of ideological identification, illustrated by his extensive attacks on what he considered to be the most evident of its mindless incarnations: the growing sentiment of German nationalism in the late 19th century. To Nietzsche this sentiment represented the antithetical of critical thought, and he was not shy about using the grand image of its idolatry (i.e. the German “Reich”) as the irredeemable symbol of all things decadent in modern civilization. Thus, it becomes highly ironic to consider how in popular thought today the man has been cast into the same ranks with nationalists and fascists, and their wannabe modern descendants; not to mention the bemusing fact that many of these nationalists and fascists will ignorantly promote Nietzsche as their intellectual muscle—bearing to all just how sickly and illiterate their cognitive fitness truly is.

Very well, Nietzsche has no place in nationalist politics, or any traditional Left/Right political spectrum. But what about something less categorically restrictive? After all, Nietzsche talks a lot about individualism, and the need for self-creation, doesn’t this give credence perhaps to anarchist thinkers, or (on a more moderate tone) at least libertarians? In short, no. Just as people make the mistake of radicalizing Nietzsche in with fascist-crackpots, the folly of romanticizing the man as some sort of idol of individual strength and responsibility would be equally mistaken.

At its core, Nietzsche’s philosophy is not about individualism, nor does he promote the notion of self-governance; what he really aimed at was to promote the message that one must be strong enough to conceive reality as it is, for “only in that way man can attain greatness” (Ecce Homo, “Why I am A Destiny,” Section 5). Following a political narrative would have been pure poison to Nietzsche’s program, as the parameters of any such narratives are by definition restricted solely to the acceptable party platforms.

As far as individualism goes, the man clearly states in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “For, my brothers, the best should rule, the best also want to rule” (“On Old and New Tablets”). It is true that Nietzsche believed that society placed too many restrictions on the individual, but it is also true he considered human society to be a long trial, with the herd-mentality being an innate manifestation for most people. Nietzsche’s rejection of free will (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Wise,” Section 6; also see Nietzsche on Free Will) leaves no room for personal self-improvement. You are either one who rules or you are with the herd, hence to act in any other way than your innate nature dictates for you to act would be nonsensical to Nietzsche. Most the majority of us, we cannot and we will not, rise above our herd-minded instincts, according to Nietzsche, hence a political model celebrating individualism (or emphasis on individual responsibility) would have have seemed self-defeating to the philosopher.

The point of the matter is that you simply cannot defend your political ideology through anything Nietzsche wrote, without negating one or more important aspects of his broader philosophy. And, on that note, you shouldn’t want to. And shouldn’t need to waste time defending your convictions by desperately attaching them to the musings of any one philosopher or another. As is the repeated theme throughout this article, Nietzsche is not someone to be admired or canonized to an infallible guru status. Like all thinkers, past and present, he is to be examined and scrutinized, allowing little to no romantic idolatry to cloud one’s judgment.

Whatever politics you personally support you are to defend it by the merit of its own tenets, not by the virtues you think some third party would approve of. Especially, not by the virtues of Friedrich Nietzsche, who would no doubt instinctively scoff at and ridicule any such attempt.       

Nietzsche’s “Overman” and “Last Man”

Breeding Nietzsche's Superman. The Most Important Concept in… | by The  Modern Platonist | Interfaith Now | Medium

The concept of the overman[1] (Germ. Übermensch) is one of the most recognizable (not to mention, most misinterpreted) philosophical propositions associated with Friedrich Nietzsche, most prominently explored in what is arguably considered to be the philosopher’s magnum opus, Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

From the prologue onward, Nietzsche’s title character conveys the importance of the overman in the greater scope of human development:

What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the overman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. You have made your way from worm to man, and much in you is still worm. Once you were apes, and even now, too, man is more ape than any ape.[2]

Here Zarathustra is emphasizing how the intellectual evolution of humanity is largely encapsulated by mankind’s repeated (some would even say, obsessive) desire to identify where and how our species truly fits in with the rest of the natural order. In this pursuit, we have almost always began and concluded with the presupposition that, as a living organism, man must—by some measure—stand apart from and ultimately transcend the rest of his material surroundings. Hence, in our reasoning of ourselves as the most exceptional of living creatures, we inadvertently declare our existence (i.e. human existence) as the most serious of considerations rationally conceivable; thereby clumsily demoting the existence of all else as something far less serious, in comparison to our own, and giving credence to the anthropomorphic ideal that all of physical reality exists with human priority in mind. And just as in this view we—i.e. modern man—have “transcended” in our perspective beyond the lowly underpinnings of the natural world all living beings are undoubtedly slaves to, so too Zarathustra claims will the overman “transcend” over the lowly underpinnings that intellectually, spiritually, and morally, enslave us.

Nietzsche reasons that because nothing within the harsh reality of nature itself warrants a belief in the transcended existence of man, the means by which we have come to justify our presumed higher status in the natural order is by appealing beyond the confines of nature, declaring the true spirit and virtue of man in the world to be a matter ordained by something wholly otherworldly. All on the assertion that we are not egotistically designating ourselves a favored status in physical existence, but are just humbly accepting the role that has been cast for us by something greater than physical existence itself. This is where Zarathustra draws a contrast between man and overman, because while the overman also identifies his existence as residing on a higher “spiritual” plane to the rest of the living world (at least in comparison to modern man), he will feel no need to credit his transcendence beyond the realm of the physical world—because “the overman shall be the meaning of the earth!”[3]

According to Zarathustra, the reason we are inclined to look beyond the confines of the earth to give our lives on earth value, is ultimately due to our innate feeling of helplessness over the frailty encompassed in our finite existence. Thus, we seek—and, if need be, concoct—infinite answers on which to escape the dread of mortal life; an exercise that only serves to take man’s mind and hopes away from the earthly domain he resigns in. Zarathustra sees this as a great toxin paralyzing the spirit of human life, and calls on man to emancipate himself from such restraints:

I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes! Poison-mixers are they, whether they know it or not. Despisers of life are they decaying and poisoning themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so let them go.[4]

Zarathustra considers mankind’s continued attempt to give meaning to life by virtue of appealing to a “greater”, “higher”, “transcendent”, otherworldly “beyond” to be a misguided effort that prevents man from ever overcoming the harsh reality of life—and death—because it causes them to repeatedly look for guidance from assumed metaphysical forces, instead of coping with the physical forces causing them grief in the first place. By Zarathustra’s standard, one cannot be truly fulfilled in life as long as the knowable source of life (i.e. earth) is marginalized in favor of a presumed better, unknowable, realm of existence:

To sin against the earth is now the most dreadful thing, and to esteem the entrails of the unknowable higher than the meaning of the earth.[5]

Such a perspective breeds contempt for the earth, and, by extension, the life housed by the earth; fostering a sense of resentment towards one’s own physical existence, and an unyielding desire to be free from it permanently. Zarathustra proposes the dawning of the overman to be the antidote to this depressingly nihilistic view of life.

However, the overman should not be mistaken as a bringer of happiness and contentment. Quite the opposite, as the hour of the overman is described by Zarathustra as the “hour of the great contempt. The hour in which your happiness, too, arouses your disgust, and even your reason and your virtue.”[6]

Zarathustra does not view happiness and contentment as necessarily benign reactions, because they often serve to numb the individual to the depressive forces pulling him or her down in life. To truly overcome the depressive forces suffocating one’s existence—i.e. to be the overman—one cannot steer clear of the chaotic, destructive, and frantic realities of life, because these deemed displeasures of life are as much a part of life as any deemed model of happiness could ever be.

The true means by which man overcomes such chaotic forces is to embrace them wholeheartedly; not seek to escape their destructive reality, but to motivate oneself through them and rise higher in one’s own being:

“Where is the lighting to lick you with its tongue? Where is the frenzy with which you should be inoculated?

“Behold, I teach you the overman: he is this lighting, he is this frenzy.”[7]

It is clear that Nietzsche conceives of the overman as the symbolic representation for humanities potential progression towards a more life affirming existence. However, it is a progression that Nietzsche did not foresee as anywhere near set in stone in our social evolution:

Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman—a rope over an abyss. A dangerous across, a dangerous on-the-way, a dangerous looking back, a dangerous shuddering and stopping.

Despite what has come to be the dominate perspective on this subject in popular culture, Nietzsche did not envision the overman to be any one individual or group [and he certainly did not envision it as any one particular race or nationality]. Rather, the overman to Nietzsche is a frame of mind human existence ought to be striving for if it is to mature past the confines that are suffocating its creative and intuitive spirit.

However, Nietzsche did not believe that modern man was heading towards the path of the overman. Rather, the philosopher foreshadowed that if society continues to advance forward in its current direction, the likely outcome will be a degenerate caricature of what once existed of humanity, having Zarathustra declare to his unreceptive audience: “Let me then address their pride. Let me speak to them of what is most contemptible: but that is the last man.”[8]

Overcoming a Spirit of Hopelessness – Help for Today

The last man is the antithesis to the overman. He is the zenith of mediocrity and degradation of life. He does not aspire, he does not innovate. He cannot create anything or progress anywhere from the spot he happens to be standing on; nor would he ever want to. He is content, and wishes nothing more than to remain in his contentment. The last men do not care about overcoming the harsh realities endemic to life; they simply wish to be sheltered from it; festering away in a mundane existence of riskless bliss:

Becoming sick and harboring suspicion are sinful to them: one proceeds carefully. A fool, whoever still stumbles over stones or human beings! A little poison now and then: that makes for agreeable dreams.[9]

Because they avoid all manner of conflict and discomfort, the last men will be too fragile to confront the hardness of life (ironically causing them to recoil for more of the sort of sheltered existence that has left them so vulnerable to begin with). And by attempting to avoid—or more accurately, deny—the cruelties and chaos that make up life, they are avoiding and denying a vital aspect of life itself.

To the last men the concepts of ambition, success, and power have too many possible dangers associated with them to even be contemplated, because to attempt to succeed and advance creates the potential to fail and disrupt one’s cozy contentment in life. Thus, partaking in work no longer stems from a desire to accomplish a particular task, or even to earn a living, but to preoccupy one’s time with an inoffensive routine:

One still works, for work is a form of entertainment. But one is careful lest the entertainment be too harrowing. One no longer becomes poor or rich: both require too much exertion. Who still want to rule? Who obey? Both require too much exertion.[10]

The world of the last man is bland and colorless; where creative fortitude has been sacrificed in favor of comforting sameness. The problem Nietzsche sees with this mentality is in its capacity to render human ingenuity sterile and restrain the most creative elements in society, because it is a world where “everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse.”[11] Although all will claim and even believe themselves to be happy due to the contentment surrounding them, it is a very artificial happiness made possible solely by the fact that the imaginative spirit of humanity will have been dulled too much for anyone to be capable to protest the mediocrity that is their mundane existence. “‘We have invented happiness,’ say the last men, and they blink.”[12] In other words, when one seizes to care enough about life to find things within it worth combating against, life has become equivalent to death.

Zarathustra’s brief proclamation that, “one must have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star. I say unto you: you still have chaos in yourselves,”[13] conveys that Nietzsche did not believe that contemporary man had reached the level of debasement of the last man, yet. However, he does make it clear that he believed that modernity was gradually setting us on that path.

No doubt he would have considered such modern values as egalitarianism and democratic governance to be antecedents of this trend. And admittedly there is certainly something to be said about the paradox of how it is exactly that with the advancement of security and comfort in the modern world, the continued rates of severe depression has increased exponentially (with no signs of leveling out). These may be issues that modern society ought to take seriously, and seek possible remedies to, but whether the ideal of the overman is the means by which these issues are to be best resolved remains to be seen.

Perhaps it’s manageable to contain the chaotic and destructive realities of life, and embracing their rightful place within the natural order; all while striving for greater security and comfort for as many people as possible. It may be true that by seeking to find a middle ground between Nietzsche’s dichotomy of the overman and the last man, we are sacrificing the creative and spiritual potential of humanity, in favor of finding simple contentment in life (i.e. instead of living truly fulfilling lives, we are just trying to survive through them). By all accounts, the answer to this dilemma depends on what priorities one has for oneself as an individual and society as a whole. And finding a consensus on the path forward human nature ought to be taking is certainly an obstacle too challenging to overcome—possibly even for the overman.


[1] The German word Übermensch is variably translated as both overman and superman, depending on the translation one uses. For this essay I decided to use “overman”, popularized by famed Nietzschean scholar Walter Kaufmann, as I believe it better conveys the philosophical underpinnings that the term is meant to encompass by its originator.

[2] Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “Prologue”, section 3.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, section 5.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence and the Affirmation of life

The eternal recurrence is most heavily referred to by Friedrich Nietzsche in his 1883 Thus Spoke Zarathustra, where it serves primarily as a thought experiment proposed by the title character (Zarathustra) that is meant to designate a supreme achievement of human development; the ascension to a higher type of consciousness in man.

In Zarathustra, Nietzsche conceives of a cyclical universe, where every event is ever recurring, across an infinite stretch of time, forever. Nietzsche’s intent is to focus the mind of his readers on a possible reality in which every action they had committed (all faults, setbacks, mistakes, and wrongdoings) was bound to be repeated by them, an infinite amount of time. Where they would be forced to endure their shame and grief over and over again, unable to change or improve on any past misdeeds, for all eternity. And then to ask the question: “Would you be willing to bear such a reality?” Would a person be able to cope with knowing that s/he will have to helplessly live through all the pains, heartbreaks, bad decisions, and grief that s/he has already struggled through once in life? And would this person, aware of this eternal recurrent, still manage to affirm a will to live?

Nietzsche believed that most people alive would decisively shriek a unanimous “No!” to such a proposition, because it would seem too bleak and fatalistic a fate to have to eternally return to one’s life’s errors, infinitely doomed to recommit one’s sins (for lack of a better term). Nietzsche saw this as a reflection of the destitute modern man has surrendered himself to; the wanting denial of one’s true existence. He contrasted this with what he called amor fati (Lat. love of fate):

My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendaciousness in the face of what is necessary—but love it (Ecce Homo, “Why I am So Clever,” section 10).

To be able to look at the compilation of one’s life, with all one’s mistakes and regrets, and still unashamedly proclaim one’s desire to relive it all as is (with no intent to alter one’s past actions), is according to Nietzsche the ultimate affirmation of life—a full embrace of one’s existence, a testament to the arrival of the overman (Ger. Übermensch).

Although the eternal recurrence was a central theme in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche seemed to have somewhat abandoned the thought experiment in much of his later work (he makes no mention of it in either Beyond Good and Evil or On the Genealogy of Morals). However, this appears to be a hasty conclusion, since Nietzsche does make continuous references to the basic sentiment found in his 1883 philosophical novel, and seems to be expanding on the same core concepts in his later writings.

This eternal return, and its importance in signifying the coming of the overman, is Nietzsche’s attempt to offer a possible redemption narrative for humanity. A means by which man can take the fatalistic nature of life, and surpass its dire implications by ascending beyond them into a realm of complete oneness with all the facts and events that come together to compose one’s life story. Yet, this redemption is not inevitable, for man (or “modern man,” as Nietzsche would say) is in a constant state of rejecting amor fati, and moving away from self-acceptance, in favor of finding acceptance with “higher” ideals, that are imagined to dwell exterior and superior to oneself. This is the fate of what Zarathustra called the “last man”—the alternate fate of mankind—the final descend of mankind to a sheepish, complacent shell of what he once was, living in fear of his own existence.

Friedrich Nietzsche on Peoples & Fatherlands

How Friedrich Nietzsche helps to explain Brexit

A lot of what passes for Nietzsche’s image in popular thought is a caricature of what was constructed by the Nazi propaganda machine in the 1930s (largely with the help of the philosopher’s own nationalistic, anti-Semitic sister, Elisabeth).  Of course, if blame is to be assigned, then it is only fair to point out that much of the misinterpretations surrounding Nietzsche stems from the man’s own insistence on expressing his views in rather quick, often intentionally obscure musings and aphorisms, leaving his ideas wide open to be bastardized by opportunistic ideologues. 

The reality is that even though it takes little effort to sanction an elitist system through Nietzsche’s philosophy, the actually details that accompany the man’s anti-egalitarian values—namely, anti-politics, anti-nationalism [especially anti-German], anti-group/herd mentality—are by definition incompatible with the belligerent, conformist, nationalistic, fascism inherent to the Third Reich’s state ideology.  Nietzsche views on the notion of nationalities and personal identities (and the often times conflicted dynamics between the two), reveal a much more complex and nuanced perspective than the picture that has been (still is) often presented of him as the patron saint of Nazism.

In Part Eight of Beyond Good and Evil (1886), titled “Peoples and Fatherlands”, Nietzsche outlines his analysis of European and Western development, and critiques the modern move towards democratic institutions as a step towards the cultivation of a true tyranny.  Nietzsche comments that the tribal affiliations that once dominated Europe are eroding away in favor of a more borderless sentiment amongst the hitherto disconnected people:

The Europeans are becoming more similar to each other / an essentially supra-national and nomadic type of man is gradually coming up, a type that possesses, physiologically speaking, a maximum art and power of adaptation as its typical distinction.[1]

For Nietzsche, this development is a direct result of the advent of modernity, and modern ideas, which has made a person’s allegiance to a trifling tribe or nation unsatisfactory in light of modern man’s greater awareness of the world.  Thus, a grander identity is needed, and a newer, more encompassing, international personal ideology is required to escape the limitations of the narrow worldview of one’s regional clan.  Moreover, as identities and ideologies extend beyond the old local boundaries, a person’s interests will also evolve from the tribal group to the global.  Politically, one possible result from all of this will be the development of a pluralistic society, out of which democracy will ascend as a means of appeasing the diverging—and converging—interests arising amongst the new, modern populace.  It is within this context, Nietzsche argues, that democracy is born.

Nietzsche understands how this rise of democracy is looked upon as a great progress by contemporary society, but the philosopher himself is wary of the implications that such a system holds for humanity, stating that “this process will probably lead to results which would seem to be least expected by those who naively promote and praise it, the apostle’s of ‘modern ideas.’”[2]  Nietzsche is distrustful of populist inclinations, because it unduly gives credence to the degenerate, weaker persons of society to regress the progress of the more innovative value-creators, who will be forced to reside amongst the lowly plebeian masses.  This sentiment is directly tied in with Nietzsche’s thesis on the dichotomy of master-slave moralities, the relevant part of which can be summarized as follows:

Our egalitarian sentiment, according to Nietzsche, is a result of the poison we have all blindly swallowed.  Our demand for universal moderation, for the value of humility, our aversion to boastfulness as being too impolite in the presence of weaker, stupider individuals, and our desire to reduce the feeling of inadequacy from an opponent’s failures, are all manifestations from the original slave revolt of morality that is promulgated by those who seek to vindicate the virtue of their inferiority by means of social cohesion—to rationalize away personal failure in favor of mass victimization.

The democratization of society is to Nietzsche a move towards the promotion of mediocrity.  It will condition us to be content with the will of others as reasonably equivalent to our own, instead of asserting our own interest in opposition to the whims of the masses.  In short, our strive to achieve a more egalitarian mindset, will leave us too eager to be content with compromises with positions we fundamentally disagree with, rendering us potentially incapable of identifying and combating the ascension of any tyrannical entity that might see fit to stealthily encroach its power over our person:

The very same new conditions that will on the average lead to the leveling and mediocritization of man—to a useful, industrious, handy, multi-purpose herd animal—are likely in the highest degree to give birth to the exceptional human beings of the most dangerous and attractive quality.[3]

Nietzsche proposes that in a society where the primary aim is to create unanimous equality, the ultimate result will be to create an environment of obstinate complacency (the greatest form of oppression that can be leveled against a thinking person).  All this will in turn lead to the sweeping infantilizing of the individual, making her/him dependent on the body of the system as a whole for her/his survival, rather than one’s own strength and merit.  A trend that will lead to a population “who will be poor in will, extremely employable, and as much in need of a master and commander as of their daily bread.”[4] 

However, the degeneration will not be universal amongst all individuals.  Nietzsche explains that “while the democratization of Europe leads to the production of a type that is prepared for slavery in the subtlest sense, in single, exceptional cases the strong human being will have to turn out stronger and richer than perhaps ever before.”[5]  According to Nietzsche, in nature there exist those who can only dominate by virtue of their own values, and those who can only be dominated as a result of their inability to create values (hence, they must leach off of the values of others).  These two groups do this by the presence of their will to power, that is to say, the very nature of their existence.  As long as they exist, they cannot choose to act differently than the manner in which their nature—i.e. their will to power—dictates. 

The problem Nietzsche sees with modernity is that our egalitarian-minded moral system has turned all of this upside-down, allowing for the weaker plebeian caste (who cannot create any values of their own) to dominate the environment on which the stronger noble caste (the natural value-creators) are cultured to stoop to the level of the very masses they should be dominating.  This causes a dilemma for those few contemporary men born possessing the noble character trait, where their instinct (their will to power) tells them to reject the moral values of their surroundings and create their own moral values, but their conscience (indoctrinated by the slave mentality of the lowly masses controlling the moral discourse) tells them that subverting their own will in benefit of the herd is the highest virtue of the good modern man.  Thus, when any individuals do inevitably rise above the masses (because, in Nietzsche’s view, the masses cannot help but unwittingly condition themselves to be dominated by some sort of master), the resulting value-creators who ascend to power will be as much a perversity of the noble character, as the degenerate culture that has produced them; what will ensue is absolute tyranny:

I meant to say:  the democratization of Europe is at the same time an involuntary arrangement for the cultivation of tyrants—taking that word in every sense, including the most spiritual.[6]

Reading these dire statements by Nietzsche through the privileged viewpoint of the 21st century, an observer would be justified to marvel at the prophetic nature of the philosopher’s words in predicting the rise of the totalitarian systems that would follow a few decades after his death.

The rise of fascism in both Italy and Germany appeared to emerge out of relatively democratic phases in both nations’ histories.  Likewise, the 1917 October Revolution in Russia that brought to power the Bolshevik faction in the unstable country was enabled by the indecisiveness of the democratically-minded Provisional Government that arose from the 1917 February Revolution.  In all of these examples the presence of a democratic political institution did not hinder the advent of repressive totalitarian regimes.  Moreover (Nietzsche might argue), the presence of said democracies were instrumental in opening the door to these malignant forces, by having no mechanism by which to eject them from the political process besides the whims of a broken, infantilized population (whom Nietzsche describes as being “prepared for slavery in the subtlest sense”). 

However, if one wants to be critical about the possibly prophetic nature of Nietzsche’s philosophy, it would also be apropos to point out that this sort of historical analysis is more the result of selective reasoning then objective inquiry.  After all, it is equally true that every single one of the European democracies that yielded the totalitarian regimes of the 20th Century, were themselves preceded by non-democratic political entities, whose infrastructure crumbled despite their lack of concern for creating an egalitarian society.  Furthermore, if the oppression of the totalitarian models of the last century are to be blamed on the insufficiency of the democratic institutions that preceded them, than consistency demands for us to also blame the insufficiencies of these democratic institutions on the failures of the aristocratic power structure that preceded them; and so on, and so forth, ad infinitum.

A better way to approach Nietzsche’s position here, is to consider that the philosopher may not be referring to political power at all, but a psychological development:  “I hear with pleasure that our sun is swiftly moving toward the constellation of Hercules—and I hope that man on this earth will in this respect follow the sun’s example?”[7]  Hercules, of course, is the Roman demigod who is described as having returned from the underworld[8], and eventually ascended to the realm of the gods by virtue of his strength and valor—a character whose legend for Nietzsche must have served as a fitting representation of the philosopher’s will to power.  The fact that Nietzsche states the reference as a question indicates that he was doubtful of the development of man to follow the example set forth by the Roman demigod.

I mentioned before that Nietzsche popular image is heavily, and unjustifiably, linked with Nazism.  The falsity of this supposition is verified by Nietzsche’s own rejection of the purity of the German people, a sentiment that is antithetical to Nazi ideology:  “The German soul is above all manifold, of diverse origins, more put together superimposed than actually built.”[9]  To Nietzsche the idea that Germany is to be cleansed of foreign elements is an absurdity in and of itself, since all things German (for him) are a mixture of originally non-German elements [a truth that I personally believe aptly pertains to all nations and ethnicities].  Nietzsche views the German nationalism emerging in his time as a result of an undefined people attempting to become a coherent identity; it is a compensation for a fault, which in its path “is at work trying to Germanize the whole of Europe”[10] [a statement that perhaps once again hints at Nietzsche’s “prophetic” qualities in predicting the coming decades].

The most surprising fact to anyone whose opinions of Nietzsche have been largely shaped by the man’s false impression as a Nazi-precursor is the philosopher’s staunch abhorrence of European anti-Semitism.  Nietzsche seems to understand the potential for his writings to be utilized by opportunistic anti-Semites, causing him to purposefully herald the Jewish people as a superior specimen, in contrast to the anti-Semites who seek to expel them from the continent:

The Jews, however, are beyond any doubt the strongest, toughest, and purest race now living in Europe; they know how to prevail even under the worst conditions (even better than under favorable conditions), by means of virtue that today one would like to mark as vices.[11]

The irony here is that Nietzsche is attributing to the Jewish peoples every positive quality the anti-Semitic nationalists of Europe wish to attribute onto themselves.  Just how much of this is motivated by Nietzsche’s preemptive desire to separate himself from the bigoted views of some of his potential admirers is an open question, but what is certain is the philosopher’s complete denunciation of the conspiratorial propaganda the anti-Semites are eager to spread into public consciousness:

That the Jews, if they wanted it—or if they were forced into it, which seems to be what the anti-Semites want—could even now have preponderance, indeed quite literally mastery over Europe, that is certain; that they are not working and planning for this is equally certain.[12]

In other words, Nietzsche is of the opinion that if the Jewish people were as eager for world domination as the anti-Semites claim, they would already be dominating the world by now.  The fact that they are neither planning nor interested in this is evident by the continued harassment they have to endure by people who claim (and have been claiming for a good few centuries now) to constantly be a knife-edge away from “Jewish-dominance.”  Instead, Nietzsche suggests that the history of the Jewish people in Europe indicates a desire to want to at long last be accepted within the public realm:

Meanwhile they want and wish rather, even with some importunity to be absorbed and assimilated by Europe; they long to be fixed, permitted, respected somewhere at long last.[13]

Even going so far as to insist that to achieve the long overdue inclusion of the Jewish people “it might be useful and fair to expel the anti-Semite screamers from the country.”[14]  I mentioned before the possibility that Nietzsche’s motivation for writing this screed against the anti-Semites of Europe is directly tied in with his desire to counterattack any possible conflation between his views and the views of some of his more questionable admirers (it was a move that, while well-intentioned, proved futile in the long run).

A more intellectual challenge that can be issued on Nietzsche’s passionate defense of the Jewish people, is the seeming contradiction it creates with the man’s staunch attacks against religion, in particular against Abrahamic monotheism, of which Judaism is the founding faith.  A reasonable counter Nietzsche could make is that nowhere in his defense of the Jewish people does he defend any of the religious tenets of Judaism; rather he is aiming to point out the prejudice unduly leveled against the Jews as an ethnic group (which is what their most vitriolic defamers classify them as).  Another point of consideration is that Nietzsche’s defense of the Jewish people, as an ethnic group, is completely compatible with his broader worldview regarding master-slave moralities.  As a quick summary, Nietzsche divides human society into two distinct castes:  the aristocratic nobility (the value-creating masters) and the plebeian masses (the herd-minded slaves).  Amongst the aristocratic nobility, who–according to Nietzsche–are the rightful arbitrators of what is morally good, a further distinction is made between the knightly-aristocracy and the priestly-aristocracy;[15] the latter of which are the ones who have provided the intellectual means for the lowly plebeians to charge a slave-revolt against the purer morality of the more noble caste—a slave-revolt which has permeated and shaped the moral conscience of modern man.  In this scenario described by Nietzsche, the ancient Hebrews would occupy the role of the priestly-aristocracy, which has created the opportunity for the revolting slave-morality of Christianity to perverse the nobleman’s superior morality.

But Germans and anti-Semites aren’t the only groups Nietzsche holds in low regard; his opinion on the English are equally negative, dismissively referring to the nation’s philosophical contributors as the archetypes of modern mediocrity:

There are truths that are recognized best by mediocre minds because they are most congenial to them; there are truths that have charm and seductive powers only for mediocre spirits: we come up against this perhaps disagreeable proposition just now, since the spirit of respectable but mediocre Englishmen.[16]

Nietzsche’s sentiment here could be due to his perception of the historical influence English thinkers have had in fostering the atmosphere for what he considers to be harmful modern ideals.  Nietzsche’s reasoning may partly be justified by the fact that English parliamentary-style government has served as a model for many forms of European democracies; a system which, as discussed earlier, Nietzsche views as contributing to the “mediocritization of man.”  This reading is supported by the philosopher’s persistent equating of the lowly plebeian values with the English nation, in contrasts to the superior (in Nietzsche’s eyes) French culture, “European noblesse—of feeling, of taste, of manners, taking the word, in short, in every higher sense—is the work and invention of France; the European vulgarity, the plebeianism of modern ideas, that of England.”[17]  Here, Nietzsche’s personal biases are leaking through the prose, showing his preference towards the Latin countries he spent a great deal of his creative career residing in, in hopes that the temperate climate would alleviate his poor health.  France, in particular, is a place he developed a great deal of fondness for, an affection that was further encouraged by the fact that the German nationalists of his time (à la Richard Wagner) held French culture in very low regard.  In contrasts to the barbarianism of the northern cultures of Europe, Nietzsche described the French as possessing a more timid and sophisticated taste and mannerism:

Even now one still encounters in France an advance understanding and accommodation of those rarer and rarely contented human beings who are too comprehensive to find satisfaction in any fatherlandishness and know how to love the south in the north and the north in the south.[18]

Of course, it can be easily argued that Nietzsche is engaging in a very selective form of cultural analysis in his heralding of France as a society that has transcended politics and nationalities.  Furthermore, one is even justified in pointing out the apparent contradiction in Nietzsche’s reasoning, since the ideals of the French Revolution played a large part in nurturing the call for democratic reforms throughout the European continent—at least in spirit, if not in practice—a historical development Nietzsche claims to despise wholeheartedly.  The inconsistency in Nietzsche’s condemnation of the English for their historic role in nurturing democratic principles, but failure to acknowledge France’s equal part in this modernization effort, is a shortcoming that cannot (should not) be easily overlooked by even the casual reader.

On the face of things, Nietzsche’s opinions of nationalities and patriotism appear direct and concise, as he spends page after page polemically dissecting and chastising all who fall for such “infantile” ideals.  However, the man’s mindset on the modern development of Western society seems to be somewhat murky at times.  He writes as if he loathes the coming uniformity of society (a sentiment instilled through the growing influence of democratic institutions), but at the same time he condemns the narrow-minded tribalism on offer from the nationalists.  This leaves open the question on what sort of political development Nietzsche would like to see come about to reverse the wrongs we are currently on.  Moreover, is it even possible to develop any political ideals from a man whose philosophy is so staunchly anti-political to begin with; will not any such attempt result in complete failure, on account that one cannot successfully create an ideological foundation on inherently polemical premises?  I think Nietzsche’s primary goal on the issue of modern politics ought to be viewed more as a social criticism, rather than a social framework.  For instance, when it comes to European affairs, the philosopher distances himself from both the nationalist and democratic factions, but is astute enough to realize that the former is a final gasp of a dying sentiment, and that the latter will be the ultimate trend amongst modern man, because (above all else) “Europe wants to become one.”[19]  Yet, despite the potential that lie with the aim in greater social unity, the underlying principles upon which this globalizing trend is based on, is something Nietzsche simply cannot support in good spirit.

[1] Nietzsche, Friedrich.  Beyond Good and Evil, Part Eight “Peoples and Fatherlands,” section 242.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, section 243.

[8] Virgil, Aeneid, 6.395.

[9] Ibid, section 244.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid, section 251.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Nietzsche, Friedrich.  On the Genealogy of Morals, “First Essay: ‘Good and Evil,’ ‘Good and Bad,’” 1887, section 7.

[16] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, “Peoples and Fatherlands”, section 253.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid, section 254.

[19] Ibid, section 256.

Nietzsche’s Great Blunder on Human Inheritance

The agony and the destiny: Friedrich Nietzsche's descent into madness

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote extensively about his interpretation of human development (as well as human degradation), and in his beautifully articulated fervor he often fell into the habit of overextending his narrow understanding of evolutionary theory.

One cannot erase from the soul of human being what his ancestors like most to do and did most constantly / It is simply not possible that a human being should not have the qualities and preferences of his parents and ancestors in his body, whatever appearances may suggest to the contrary (Beyond Good and Evil, “What is Noble,” Section 264).

The detrimental part of Nietzsche’s error above is his apparent endorsement of Lamarckian inheritance (an early evolutionary hypothesis that states how organisms can pass on traits they acquired in their lifetimes to their offspring; considered to have been largely displaced as a scientifically viable theory in favor of Darwinian natural selection).  In the same section, Nietzsche goes on to say that if one knows about the character traits and likes of the parents, an accurate inference about the child’s personality traits and likes also becomes possible; emphasizing that it is only, “with the aid of the best education that one will at best deceive with regard to such a heredity.”  Nevertheless, Nietzsche ignores the impact that environmental pressure plays on the development of a child’s psychology, i.e. the fact that people (in particular children) seem to readily adopt the characteristics and traits that are prevalent in their surroundings (this is not an absolute rule, but a general statement).

For example, I have always lived in working-class urban areas in the United States, where there reside quite a few immigrant households (my own included).  And where there are immigrant households in the U.S., there are also first-generation Americans.  By Nietzsche’s assessment these first-generationers should retain the “qualities and preferences” of their parents and ancestors, yet in reality, more often than not, they simply don’t.

If they were born here–or arrived here at a young age–went to American schools, associated with American peers, and indulged in American pop culture to any extend, their qualities and preferences will be inseparable from that of anyone else whose ancestry goes back several generations in this country.  This will be true in regard to their most basic characteristics, such as their accents, their mannerisms, their values, their ideals, their politics, and their interaction with societal phenomena.  What remains of the traditional ties to the parent’s mindset becomes solely a sentimental practice for the sake of the still unassimilated elders, rather than a reflection of sincere attachment to ancestral values.

Nietzsche might have countered by saying that this is just part of the deceptive education he warned about.  But if we accept that people can be deceived about their likes and preferences by their surroundings, does it not also warrant the notion that people are deceived about their likes and preferences by their parents (i.e. childhood indoctrination), rather than having inherited them by Lamarckian means?  In fact, under close scrutiny Nietzsche’s two opposing premises seem to be virtually identical, as long as one does away with the Lamarckian inheritance component in the first.

Nietzsche rejected free will as a viable factor in human psychology.  Thus he may have been motivated to accept acquired inheritance as a necessity to explain human behavioral traits in a completely deterministic universe.  But, if so, this is a needless exercise on his part, since the fact that people’s behaviors are determined by a combination of genetic (in a purely biological sense, not the abstract personal interests discussed above) and environmental factors, is sufficient enough in offering a thorough explanation of the matter.  However, I doubt that free will held any real motivation in Nietzsche’s reasoning on the subject.

More likely, Nietzsche saw Lamarckian inheritance as a more fitting addition to his greater philosophical aims.  Charles Darwin had adamantly proposed that in the grand scheme of things, the only coherent way to speak of evolution is on the level of populations, not individuals.  To Nietzsche–who by all accounts had no trouble accepting either Darwin’s theory by natural selection, or the common descent of living organism–this view would have been too naive to satisfy his want for a more inwardly self-reflection (he was after all more a philosopher, than a scientist), not to mention I suspect he probably saw it as antithetical to his own promotion of individual development and preservation, in favor to the preservation of the population as a whole.

Thus, it might be safe to say, that in this case at least, Nietzsche had fallen into the same trap he had warned others of with so much rational eloquence.  He overlooked the fact that the veracity of a conclusion cannot be determined by its conformity to our preferences, but must stand on its own merits.

Nietzsche’s Will to Power

In defence of slavery: Nietzsche's dangerous thinking | The Independent |  The Independent

The proclamation that the ideal life philosophy is one in which the individual strives to live according to nature, has been a popular adage amongst spiritual and moral thinkers throughout the ages.  Generally speaking, this stance insists that since nature is what nourishes life, man—being an indisputable part of life—is also an intrinsic part of nature; therefore, he must seek to connect with the natural world to find peace, to ultimately be whole as a person, and as a living being.  Nietzsche considered such an outlook to be both narrow-minded and imbecilic, on account that nature is not only composed of (and nourishes) life, but is also (to a larger degree) made up of non-life, not to mention, plenty of matter that can be accurately described as innately hostile to life.  Thus, to base your life philosophy on living according to nature, demonstrates a naive willingness to self-deceive by virtue of ignoring all the undesirable aspects of the natural order, in favor of retaining a euphoric-sounding cliché about the dubious benignity of one’s surroundings:

Imagine a being like nature, wasteful beyond massacre, indifferent beyond measure, without purposes and consideration, without mercy and justice, fertile and desolate and uncertain at the same time.[1]

To elevate nature to a status of reverence, according to Nietzsche, reveals more about the person who feels the desire to partake in such an act of misplaced veneration, than anything about nature itself.  Because nature simply is, and all life is simply one of its inherent attributes (amidst a whole array of non-life, and anti-life attributes), any open espousal about the wish to live according to nature becomes completely redundant, since no living (or non-living) entity has any real choice in the matter.  As Nietzsche puts it, “Why make a principle of what you yourselves are and must be?”[2]  You cannot live according to nature, anymore than you can live in opposition to nature; all is encompassed in nature, and everything that occurs in life is already occurring according to nature by default—whether it’s conscious of the fact or not.

Clearly Nietzsche doesn’t see much merit in distinguishing between life and nature, and deems any attempt to do so as philosophically untenable.  The philosopher does recognize how there is a clear difference that needs to be identified between the distinct nature(s) of the living and the nonliving (much of the latter being, as already mentioned, hostile to living).

Like all pieces of matter, living beings are subject to a variety of forces that together operate to sustain physical reality (of which living beings are an inseparable part).  Similarly, Nietzsche maintains that there exists a force, analogous to any other physical force in reality, which is distinctive to the nature of living beings, and accentuates the very essence of what it means to be living as opposed to non-living matter.  He calls this force the will to power.

Despite its popular interpretation, Nietzsche did not personally conceive of the will to power as either a philosophical or metaphorical concept.  To him, the will to power is the underlying force that characterizes the nature of life.  Here, it’s important to mention that Nietzsche also did not mean to refer to the will to power as a mere attribute of life; nor is it meant to be an explanation of life.  Rather (as Nietzsche conceived of it), the will to power is life, above and beyond any conceivable traits or values living organisms wish to personally place on life:

A living thing seeks above all to discharge its strength—life itself is will to power; self-preservation is only one of the indirect and most frequent results.[3]

Just as all of physical reality is governed by the theory that bodies of matter exert force on one another, Nietzsche envisioned a comparable physics at work amongst the most basic instinctive functions of living matter, especially in relation of these functions operating between living matters.  None of which is a conscious act on the part of the living being, because the will to power is in no way contingent on the mindfulness of the organisms it’s operating on (again, it is not an attribute of life, it is life).

The will to power is also not a teleological concept, meaning it has no ultimate end-goal or greater purpose/desire in its effect (a common misconception even self-described Nietzscheans have about the subject).  The individual organism’s desire for life (i.e. self-preservation), and instinctive avoidance of death (i.e. nonexistence), should not be confused with the will to power itself.  Just like the force of gravity can’t coherently be said to have the purpose of wanting to keep you grounded to the Earth, the will to power shouldn’t be thought of as operating under the purpose of wanting to keep you alive.  Both may indeed bring about this result, but neither exists in itself for that purpose (or any conscious purpose, for that matter).

Of course, the obvious objection to Nietzsche’s conception of this will to power is in its inescapable dissimilarity with the physical forces the philosopher wished to liken it to.  Unlike a physical force like gravity, which can be measured, detected, and (most importantly) falsified for the sake of running an experimental model of its basic functions, the “will to power” allows for no such tangible confirmation of its existence.  In tradition with other mental concepts and social theories, the will to power seems to be just elastic enough of a premise to be immune to any concrete counterexamples.  In other words, it is a presumption that seeks to explain everything, and (like all such ambitious ideals) it’s relevance for accurately studying reality can be deduced to explaining nothing, at least from the standpoint of empirical reliability.

Nietzsche appeared to have foreseen this objection, and made it a point to clarify his case a bit:

The question is in the end whether we really recognize the will as efficient, whether we believe in the causality of the will:  if we do—and at bottom our faith in this is nothing less than our faith in casualty itself—then we have to make the experiment of posting the causality of the will hypothetically as the only one.[4]

Nietzsche defends the veracity of the will to power through a reductionist approach: if you believe in the existence of cause and effect on the physical level, and accept that a living being’s cognitive functions reside in this physical level (as an inherent part of it), then you have no reason not to believe in the existence of cause and effect acting on this neurological level, too (the realm of the will[5]).  The will to power, according to Nietzsche, is just that; cause and effect, for our base instincts.

But not of a directly physical nature (though it presumably has physical consequences), as Nietzsche puts it, “’Will,’ of course, can affect only ‘will’—and not ‘matter’ (not “nerves,” for example).”[6]  This sounds like a passive acknowledgment towards readers who are pedantic enough to attempt to scrutinize Nietzsche’s desire to define the will to power as being equivalent to an actual physical force, despite the fact that it fails to qualify for this categorization (for reasons listed in the previous paragraph).

Regardless, Nietzsche still wants to maintain that the will to power is essentially a force operating in the physical world, yet he does seem to recognize the fact that it does not function exactly akin to what are understood to be the proper qualities and functions of a force as described by modern physics.  He explains this away by stating that the will to power acts not on matter directly (though physical matter is affected by it), but the will (meaning the instinctive, cognitive faculties that themselves are composed and operating through physical matter on a neurological level).  In other words, to object to the will to power on the basis of its failure to meet the standards of scientific scrutiny, is (from Nietzsche’s perspective) an issue of conflating differing states of observation and functions on the critical reader’s part, rather than an incompatibility in terms on the part of the will to power as an active force in reality.[7]

Nietzsche considers it a given that we already recognize and accept the truth that there exist a number of active factors operating on the instinctive level of the cognitive body, which can be referred to as a living being’s will.  What the philosopher proposes is the consideration that these presumably varying active factors are really one underlying force—the will to power:

Suppose all organic functions could be traced back to this will to power and one could also find in it the solution of the problem of procreation and nourishment—it is one problem—then one would have gained the right to determine all efficient force univocally as—will to power.  The world viewed from inside, the word defined and determined according to its intelligible character”—it would be “will to power” and nothing else.[8]

Leaving aside the question of the empirical verifiability of all of this,  it is fundamentally vital not to forget that the will to power, within Nietzsche’s usage of the term, is not meant to be a mere feature of life.  The will to power is life, and life is the will to power.

Because nature cannot be a guide on which to differentiate between living and non-living (as Nature, writ “romantique,” still makes no active distinction or preference for life over non-life, evident by much of its—unduly anthropomorphized, though no less poignant—hostility towards both life and non-life), the will to power is Nietzsche’s answer to what defines living beings as distinct from the rest of physical matter.

Though the concept itself is not a feature, the will to power does produce a number of unique features amongst living organisms:

It will have to be an incarnate will to power, it will strive to grow, spread, seize, become predominant—not from any morality or immorality but because it is living and because life simply is will to power.[9]

Life, being an accumulation of matter acting on one another, is an exertion of power; including competing and subverting powers.  Though Nietzsche warns not to personify this living force—i.e. the will to power—he does remark that this force does and will personify life.  Moreover, like all competing forces, it will cause friction, and out of this friction will come dominance as some body of living matter’s will to power is bound to eventually run into a weaker body, causing it to naturally gravitate and subvert the less powerful entity’s will through the sheer strength of its magnitude.

Nietzsche also makes it a point to mention that there is no sense in rationalizing or arguing over the morality of this system, as the causal effect of the will to power neither cares (because it’s not consciously aware), nor operates on a moral/immoral framework.  As already stated, it is the basic force of life, not a contemplation of it.  In this light, while our notions of what is “right” and “wrong,” “good” and “bad,” are important in preserving the preferences we have set for ourselves in life and society, it is irrelevant to the basic functions of life itself.  In fact, Nietzsche stresses the idea that much of what modern society has come to denote as bad and immoral, is essentially inseparable from the brute reality of life:

“Exploitation” does not belong to a corrupt or imperfect and primitive society: it belongs to the essence of what lives, as a basic organic function; it is a consequence of the will to power, which is after all the will to life.[10]

Life is parasitic in nature; we feed off and/or exploit other living organisms for the benefit of our own existence.  Nietzsche’s philosophy emphasizes the idea that in man’s desire to construct a moral framework (in particular, a so-called objective morality), he often ends up neglecting, vilifying, and denying the aspects of his character that sociocultural trends have deemed as “decadent” and “evil,” despite the fact that these bad traits are as inherent to the human character as any hitherto conventionally approved good traits (and will often manifest themselves even within the implementation of these supposedly “good” traits).  The will to power, not being dependent on the conscious musings of the minds it functions on, has no such reservations.

As a force, an individual living organism’s will to power is not averse to subverting the will of other organisms, even creating the basis of a hierarchical order of rank within the natural world, which unconsciously permeates through to the conscious behavior and actions of living beings—including the social behavior of human beings.

All events in the organic world are a subduing, a becoming master, and all subduing and becoming master involves a fresh interpretation, an adaptation through which any previous “meaning” and “purpose” are necessarily obscured or even obliterated.[11]

The fact that it is fundamentally impossible to promote one’s viewpoint and ideas, without tarnishing and deposing the viewpoint of others (whether this is done aggressively or passively is irrelevant, as the underlying intent is still the same), seems to give a certain amount of credence to Nietzsche’s main thesis here.  Because even if your primary goal is for everyone to adopt a tolerant and moderate mindset, any actual traction you make in propagating this ideal within the greater conscience of human society, will be accomplished at the expense of any differing mindsets that have otherwise been in competition with your own.  The greater benignity and noble intent of your mindset—your instinctive values—in comparison to all others, is of no consequence to Nietzsche’s essential point.  Your will to power grows, spreads, dominates, and subdues to become master, no matter what conscious rationalizations for your instinctive behavior you happen to concoct to justify it.

When it comes to the will to power, intent is meaningless (as all intent and utility assigned are by definition post hoc rationalizations for a wholly deterministic system):

Purposes and utilities are only signs that a will to power has become master of something less powerful and imposed upon it the character of a function.[12]

What Nietzsche is basically saying is that care should be taken not to confuse the will to power with the more colloquially used willpower.  Broadly defined, willpower is the concept that a person can achieve some set desire or decision, through some form of mental concentration or restraint—however defined, willpower is undoubtedly a conscious act.  The will to power, on the other hand, is not conscious, and cannot be harnessed to achieve any purposeful goal or outcome by the living organisms it acts on.  The outcomes that do result from the will to power are the end product of entirely instinctive forces—you absolutely have no conscious control over the process, just like you have no control over how gravity works on your body, or how your atoms are arranged.

Although Nietzsche insists that the will to power has no consciously goal-oriented desires in itself (being a force of pure instinct, and all), he does propose that a sentient being’s creative output in life—the various details and ideals which end up defining value of life for said being—can be ascribed to his unconscious will to power:

For fundamentally it is the same active force that is at work on a grander scale in those artists of violence and organizers who build states, and that here, internally, on a smaller and pettier scale / creates for itself a bad conscience and builds negative ideals—namely, the instinct for freedom (in my language: the will to power).[13]

The will to power is universal in its scope amongst living organisms; however the affect it produces amongst individuals depends on the nature of each person’s particular instincts and impulses.  For the few who instinctively create value, rather than have it commanded to them, their will to power develops and grows into the contributions and advances that come to give life meaning and affirmation.

For the majority who lack the fortitude to be valuecreators of their own accord, and need to parasitically feed of the creative output of others, their will to power—if left unrestrained—also grows and develops, and what it develops is an inversion of anything close to life affirmation; a slave mentality of the individual.

It is Nietzsche’s opinion that this weaker, decadent drive of the will to power represents “the greatest danger for the healthy; it is not the strongest but the weakest who spell disaster for the strong.”[14] The reason for Nietzsche’s alarming pronouncement of the dangers posed by the “weakest” to the “strong,” is the fact that the philosopher views modern society as already being largely dominated by the product of this life-negating force.[15]  This is a disaster in Nietzsche’s eyes, as it fosters a sickening environment wherein the least competent are nurtured to set edicts for all others in society to follow (including their creative superiors):

Those who are failures from the start, downtrodden, crushed—it is they, the weakest, who must undermine life among men, who call into question and poison most dangerously our trust in life, in man, and in ourselves.[16]

The greatest danger expressed by Nietzsche is that this popular reverence for the weaker will within the human conscience has propagated (and will continue to propagated) a host of degenerate values on greater society, where even those individuals whose will to power would otherwise be instinctively inclined to detest and counter such a mentality, will succumb to its influence through the sheer magnitude of its prominence (remember, the herd is much larger in volume than the lone shepherd dog):

Undoubtedly if they succeeded in poisoning the consciences of the fortunate with their own misery, with all misery, so that one day the fortunate began to be ashamed of their good fortune and perhaps said one to another:  “it is disgraceful to be fortunate: there is too much misery!”[17]

The weak are a sick and depressing lot, and so is their will to power.  Given the opportunity to rule, the atmosphere they create will be equally sickening and depressing, so the point that all human developments and achievements that may subsequently arise within this atmosphere will still carry the stench of destitute and misery on them (if taken at face value, it is conceivable that the significant rise in clinical depression and pharmaceutical medication amongst modern societies is one possible result of this trend).

Yet, the obvious question that a reader might raise here is how, if the will to power is the force defining living matter, and the instinctive drive which nourishes all our unconscious passions and impulses, and this entire natural system functions on the basis of strength and dominance, could it ever happen that the stronger variant of the force became subdued by the weaker?

Nietzsche’s answer would most likely be that it wasn’t; at least not directly.  Instead, what the philosopher appears to suggest is that, over the last few centuries (possibly even millennia), the weaker herd-masses have managed to shift the paradigm to elevate their lowly traits (meekness, humility, pity, etc) as noble social virtues, not through strength or confrontation (either physically or intellectually; Nietzsche suggest they lack the fortitude for either), but through stealth and cunning—which is the true “strength” of their weaker will to power.  Thus, the instinctively stronger—and thereby far more creatively dynamic—will to power of the valuecreators has been redefined as a vice that society must tame for the sake of preserving civility and avoiding chaos.

Nietzsche sees something deeply unnatural about this mindset, as it seeks to castrate innate characteristics of human beings as bad and immoral, with the sole intent of preserving its own meek existence within the brute reality of life.  Furthermore, the will of the weak neglects what he considers to be an essential value in life; namely that, “the higher ought not to degrade itself to the status of an instrument of the lower, the pathos of distance ought to keep their tasks eternally separate!”[18]

At times, it does appear that Nietzsche is straying somewhat from the premise he has personally set up for his conception of the will to power.  This is particularly true when he begins to moralize about the depravity of the weakerminded will to power of the masses (which is incidentally dominant in current society), in comparison to the strongminded will to power of the far fewer value-creators, whose creativity and life-value are being subverted by the prominence of their weaker counterparts.  However, Nietzsche did warn us that it is futile to moralize over the effects brought about by the will to power, because (being an unconscious, undirected, purposeless force) it neither cares for, nor requires the subjective input of the bodies of matter it happens to be acting on instinctively.

Taken to its full conclusion, one can make the case that—even granting Nietzsche’s fears about the disaster it holds for society and the value of human existence if the will to power of the weakest continues to rule over the will of the strong—the propagation of the weaker will at the expense of the stronger will, cannot be deemed as a perversion or degeneration of life, since these weaker agents are simply acting in accordance to their will to power (which, going by Nietzsche’s own terms) means that they are just operating in accordance to life itself.

I imagine Nietzsche would have an effective counter to this point, most likely by appealing to the fact that he has also explicitly mentioned how the will to power, as the unconscious force acting on the instinctive level of living beings, operates on the basis of becoming master, and will inevitably subdue competing wills as a rule.  Hence, Nietzsche is not moralizing about the reality of the will to power, but reacting to the competing (in his eye’s negative) effect its weaker variant is causing, as it stands in opposition to his own person.  Something he cannot help himself but do, since his own will to power instinctively forces him to oppose and subdue the competing force that is exerting itself on him.

Nietzsche is not a relativist when it comes to either human moralities, or the underlying instincts that drive them.  He unashamedly has preferences, and considers it a genuinely moral imperative for him to warn modern society to move “away from the inner corruption and the hidden rot of disease!”[19]  that is plaguing its core.  Essentially, because the will to power forces on him no other alternative but to resist the opposing power pulling down at his being.

[1] Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil, “On the Prejudices of Philosophers,” Part One (1886), section 9.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, section 13.

[4] Ibid, “The Free Spirit,” Part Two (1886), section 36.

[5] This is not to be confused with the popular concept known as “Free Will,” which Nietzsche wholly rejected as an illusion.

[6] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (1886), section 36.

[7] Although a reasonable counter, I still maintain that this explanation does little to solve the problem of the will to power’s ultimately unfalsifiable nature, as its description allows for no external confirmation by experimentation.

[8] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (1886), section 36.

[9] Ibid, “What is Noble,” Part Nine (1886), section 259.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Nietzsche, Friedrich.  On the Genealogy of Morals, “Second Essay” (1887), section 12.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid, section 18.

[14] Ibid, section 14.

[15] His reasoning involves an even broader concept he calls the Slave-Revolt of Morality, which itself is key aspect of Nietzsche’s Master-Slave Mentality.

[16] Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals (1887), section 14.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

Friedrich Nietzsche on Religion and Atheism

In defence of slavery: Nietzsche's dangerous thinking | The Independent |  The Independent

Believe it or not, there actually exists some contention in Nietzschean circles about the philosopher’s religiosity (or lack thereof).  While most people maintain that Friedrich Nietzsche was undoubtedly an atheist, a few commentators see his creeds against Christianity as being indicative of a deeper understanding of the mystical; leaving room open for a belief in the divine.  Adding to the possible confusion for some readers comes from the writings of certain cranks (i.e. Thomas J.J. Altizer), who promote a wholly bizarre “Death of God” theology that stretches Nietzsche’s writings to absurd lengths.

But the best way to put the issue to rest is to go straight to the source himself.  In his final and most autobiographical full book, Ecce Homo, Nietzsche begins the second chapter, “Why I am so Clever,” by plainly stating his position on religious matters.

He states:  “‘God,’ ‘immortality of the soul,’ ‘redemption,’ ‘beyond’–without exception, concepts to which I never devoted any attention, or time; not even as a child.  Perhaps I have never been childlike enough for them?”  Here, he clearly sets his worldview as being completely divorced from what one would call religious sentiments, and, one could argue by the inclusion of ‘beyond,’ as devoid of the supernatural in general.  It is important to bring attention to the way Nietzsche claims to have never “devoted” any time to anything vaguely religious, because it is vital in understanding the manner by which he addresses theological positions in his writings.

Some have quoted the next paragraph in the text, where Nietzsche says, “I do not by any means know atheism as a result; even less as an event,” to indicate that Nietzsche might have still held to a spiritual sort of mysticism.  But this is unfounded in the actual text, because it places too much emphasis on the first part of the sentence, while ignoring the last.  Nietzsche qualifies that his did not know atheism as a result or event, precisely because his unbelief was not the product of some grand epiphany; he did not lose faith, because he never had it to begin with.  He goes on to explain, “it is a matter of course for me, from instinct.  I am too inquisitive, too questionable, too exuberant to stand for any gross answer.”  To Nietzsche, disbelief is his natural disposition, his inquisitive nature demands him not to accept anything more.

I mentioned earlier that it is noteworthy how Nietzsche never bothered to entertain any notion of the supernatural, and how this sentiment affected his approach to theology.  Unlike other prominent atheist writers of the 19th Century, who saw fit to argue against the existence of deities and religions, Nietzsche never bothered to engage or refute any of the arguments for the existence of gods.  He repeatedly affirms that gods do not exist, but his affirmations are meant to be taken as solid proclamations, rather than logical arguments.  The reason for this is that Nietzsche would have considered such engagements as insulting to his person, because to him, “God is a gross answer, an indelicacy against us thinkers–at bottom merely a gross prohibition for us:  you shall not think!”  To even go so far as to refute the standard theological arguments would have been too big of a concession in Nietzsche’s mind.  To him the nonexistence of gods was a given fact, unworthy of debate (a position that greatly influenced later existentialists thinkers, like Jean-Paul Sartre).

This might seem odd, since anyone who has read Nietzsche can attest to the fact that he spends a multitude of pages mentioning God.  Indeed, it can be argued that the topic seems to be somewhat of an obsession to the philosopher, even if he claims to not devote any time to it.  However, one must be very careful here.  In much of his writings, Nietzsche’s atheism takes on a very post-theistic tone (The Gay Science, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, etc.), where he asserts the death of God, not as an actual entity, but as a psychological concept.  Primarily, because that’s all gods are to Nietzsche, man-made concepts, whose humble origins have been forgotten.  What he discusses in his writings is not any sort of deity recognizable to the religious, but the role, power, and influence the concept of God has had on the psychology of humanity, as well as how modernity is leading to the gradual (and unavoidable) erosion of this concept from our psych, as supernatural suppositions become more and more untenable in contemporary discourse.

In these regards, Nietzsche’s post-theistic atheism is a unique take on the issue on religion and God, but one should avoid assigning to it any deeper meaning than even the philosopher himself intended.

Bibliography

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Ecce Homo. “Why I Am So Clever,” Section 1.

The specific translation I used for the quotes in this post, come from Walter Kaufmann’s Basic Writings of Nietzsche, 1967 (2000 reprint), The Modern Library: New York, pages 692-693.

Nietzsche on the Origin of Justice

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Similar to the sentiment found in Hobbes’ Leviathan, in section 92 of his 1878 work Human, All-Too-Human, Friedrich Nietzsche argues that the concept of what is just correlates from mutual agreements between persons.  Hobbes calls these agreements covenants, Nietzsche refers to it more pointedly by stating that, “the initial character of justice is the character of a trade,” and “justice is repayment and exchange on the assumptions of an approximately equal power position.”  Furthermore, Nietzsche follows Hobbes’ thinking that the root cause driving mankind to establish such ties is the desire for preservation, “Justice naturally derives from prudent concern with self-preservation.”  However, despite agreeing with Hobbes’ position on the natural origin of justice, Nietzsche differs sharply from the English philosopher in his analysis on man’s comprehension of justice.

Whereas Hobbes deems man as a rational animal, and his desire to forge a community, and maintain it justly, as the natural extension of his intellectual fortitude, Nietzsche has no such respect for human intellect.  He states, “In accordance with their intellectual habits, men have forgotten the original purpose of the so-called just, fair actions, and for millennia children have been taught to admire and emulate such actions.”  But if the origin of justice resides within man’s natural instinct for self-preservation, then–according to Nietzsche–it is by definition that just actions are egotistic.  Yet, mankind has forgotten this.  Instead, what one sees is the propagation of the idea that just actions are the result of selfless impulses, causing this false sentiment to be heralded in ever higher esteem as it gets passed on through the generations.  As this false notion of justice becomes more ingrained, individuals add value to this baseless sentiment, causing the morals of society to be founded on a flimsy structure of self-delusions, causing Nietzsche to declare: “How little the world would look moral without forgetfulness!”

The problem with what Nietzsche states here is the dubious premise he starts out with when he declares, “Justice (fairness) originates among those who are approximately equally powerful.”  However, it can reasonably be argued that, rather that originating amongst equals, the concept of justice traces its origin to the very presence of power inequality.  In an aristocratic system, justice is meant to preserve the hierarchical order by keeping the non-aristocratic masses content enough to not rebel.  In a democratic system, justice is meant to uphold the universal application of the nation’s laws, without regard to one’s individual power or influence (remember we’re speaking ideally here, not in practice).  In either case, justice did not originate among the equally powerful out of a fear of mutual destruction, but out of the sentiment that if a society is to function on all levels, some institutional gestures must be made to protect individuals from the influence of power disparity (even if such gestures are only superficially enforced).

Nietzsche’s point about justice being an extension of man’s egotistic instinct for self-preservation is still viable within this setting, however the strength of his assertion concerning the character of justice being a character of trade becomes problematic, since in the two examples above justice is not a mutual trade amongst equals but a bridging amongst societal antipodes.  It is true that justice can be an understanding between those of equal power, however the premise that this is the origin of justice, as opposed to being merely a derivative (or subset) of a broader notion of justice, is a matter that needs to be demonstrate, rather than simply granted as a given.

Truly, Nietzsche’s greatest blunder here is that he abandoned one of his own core principles; he attempted to give an absolutist answer to an issue that is largely provisional.  All-too-human, indeed.

Bibliography

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Human, All-Too-Human. Section 92, “Origin of Justice.”

All quotes used are taken from Walter Kaufmann’s The Basic Writings of Nietzsche (2000 reprint, 1967 original), pages 148-149.

Nietzsche Contra Socrates

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Friedrich Nietzsche was by all accounts an admirer of the Hellenic aesthetic tradition, and would often refer to the ancient myths and tragedies to frame his own philosophy.  In the philosopher’s first—and self-admittedly flawed—book, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Nietzsche presents his views on the development of the ancient Greek dramas, characterizing its growth as an artistic desire to thwart the emergence of pessimism in human expression.[1]  He framed this artistic development in terms of the philosophical dichotomy of the Apollonian and Dionysian elements.  Much can be written (and has been written) about these two elements as literary concepts, but the simplified idea is that there exists a delicate balance between the human striving for orderliness (the Apollonian element) in light of our innate attraction to chaotic irrationalities (the Dionysian element), in which the two sides are contingent on one another to create an essential harmony of human expression.[2]  Nietzsche considered the ancient Athenian dramas of Aeschylus and Sophocles to be the epitome of this dynamic in aesthetic form; i.e. their works signal the birth of tragedy, in human art.[3]  To Nietzsche this development was the zenith of artistic creation, a perfect balance between opposing drives of the human instinct, whose blending satisfied the artist in man as a whole.  Since this time in antiquity, however, we have experienced a decline—a devolution—in the aesthetic development of man.  A loss that Nietzsche traces to one fundamental source: Socrates.

Unlike the tragic writings of Aeschylus and Sophocles—which (according to Nietzsche) took care to appeal to the spirit of man’s inner struggle with the pessimism of life—the writings of later authors (and even Socratic contemporary like Euripides) abandoned the emphasis on tragedy and the imaginative aspects of art, in favor of dry epistemological musings.  For Nietzsche, the influence of Socrates serves as the catalyst for this change—loss—in artistic focus:

Might not this very Socratism be a sign of decline, of weariness, of infection, of the anarchical dissolution of the instincts?  And the “Greek cheerfulness” of the later Greeks—merely the afterglow of the sunset.[4]

With Socrates came the appeal of approaching inquiries dialectically: reasoning through dialogue, in which opposing premises are examined, and cross-examined, to determine the merits of an argument by sifting out its contradictions and inconsistencies.  Nietzsche’s aversion to this style is its innate reductionism, which to him meant a deterioration of expression, rather than a progression.  Throughout much of his later philosophical career, Nietzsche chastises his contemporary philosophers for pointing out the faults of ancient and modern institutions (be they religious or secular), without bothering to erect alternative models in their place (as Nietzsche himself attempts to do with his analysis and critique of modern moral values in On the Genealogy of Morals and Beyond Good and Evil).  Nietzsche identifies the Socratic Method as the inspiration for this deterioration in human creativity:

There is the understanding of Socratism:  Socrates is recognized for the first time as an instrument of Greek disintegration, as a typical decadent.  “Rationality” against instinct.  “Rationality” at any price as a dangerous force that undermines life.[5]

The obvious oddity readers see in the above quote is Nietzsche’s apparent disdain for “rationality”, and the implication that too much of it undermines life.  The reason for this is that Nietzsche recognizes mankind’s irrationalities as an essential part of its humanity.  Thus, to seek to annihilate irrationality, or ignore its presence in human consciousness, is to work against an instinctive part of human existence.  One needs to remember that, all in all, Nietzsche’s philosophy does not advocate for greater rationality, as much as it seeks to overturn the decadent value systems human beings readily accept as good without challenge.  In this regard, Nietzsche isn’t so much anti-irrationality, as he is anti-dependency.  In his eyes, despite his staunch godlessness, even the creation of myths to serve as the foundation upon which to build a greater human consciousness would not be unacceptable (albeit as long as the individuals who create the myth do not allow themselves to forget that their myths are fictitious frameworks, and therefore do not become servants to the beings they create):

Without myth every culture loses the healthy natural power of its creativity:  only a horizon defined by myths completes and unifies a whole cultural movement.  Myth alone saves all the powers of the imagination and of the Apollinian dream from their aimless wanderings.[6]

Nietzsche’s primary interest is in reigniting the creative spark humanity has lost.  In many ways, the philosopher’s critiques of religion, politics, and social values, stems from this underlying desire to awake a nobler spirit in man, that recognizes the power of his imaginative capabilities as a basic part of reality, and not something that needs to either be granted dominance over the person (“faith”) or sought to be exorcised (“rationalism”).  This is where the need for the Dionysian element in aesthetic expression comes in, to sooth the pangs of the monotonous and orderly; to overcome pessimism as the pre-Socratic Athenians had done, and provide a pleasant melody of Dionysian ecstasy and chaos in concurrence with Apollonian realism for the human form to sway to carelessly (in other words, turn the one-man play called life into an enchanting opera).

For Nietzsche it is a matter of principle—wanting to elevate the human psyche to the pinnacle of life affirmation—in contrast to the philosophy of someone like Socrates, whose method Nietzsche equates with doubt and disintegration:  “Always and everywhere one has heard the same sound from their mouths — a sound full of doubt, full of melancholy, full of weariness of life, full of resistance to life.”[7]  Socrates does not, in Nietzsche’s view, contribute to the betterment of the individuals he engages, but only seeks to tear them down; treating their values as symptoms of a faulty mind, but then refusing to erect a sturdier value model by hiding under the garb of self-righteous ignorance:

For a philosopher to object to putting a value on life is an objection others make against him, a question mark concerning his wisdom, an un-wisdom. Indeed? All these great wise men — they were not only decadents but not wise at all.[8]

Nietzsche proposes that the reason Socrates never issued any moral values of his own, wasn’t because he was too wise to know better, but because he was too incompetent to even attempt it.  Thus, his oft-heralded ignorance is not, in Nietzsche’s view, a modest form of wisdom; it is a result of his lowly plebeian mentality.[9]  Nietzsche’s master-slave morality is relevant in his denunciation of Socrates, due to the philosopher’s belief that the Athenian was a vital influence that set the stage for the slave-revolt in morality to occur, which set a trend wherein the decadent and impotent of society decreed terms of moral conduct to the nobler value-creators, in order to morally elevate themselves above their creative superiors[10]:  “With Socrates, Greek taste changes in favor of logical argument. What really happened there? Above all, a noble taste is vanquished; with dialectics the plebs come to the top.”[11]  [Nietzsche would also argue that this set the stage in the ancient world for the rise and dominance of, what he would call, the greatest of slave-moralities in human history: Abrahamic monotheism, as best characterized by the Christian faith.]

Nietzsche takes a great deal of issue with Socrates’ dialectic mode of argumentation.  As mentioned, he sees it as solely a means of placing the burden of constructing something of substance on one’s opponent, while the dialectician—i.e. Socrates—can indolently wallow around, without offering anything concrete to replace or correct the identified inconsistencies and irrationalities that have just been debunked.  The logical arguments derived from the Socratic Method are thereby equally valueless for Nietzsche:

Nothing is easier to nullify than a logical argument: the tedium of long speeches proves this. It is a kind of self-defense for those who no longer have other weapons. Unless one has to insist on what is already one’s right, there is no use for it.[12]

I personally feel that Nietzsche is overreaching the faults with the Socratic Method, due to the fact that pointing out the flaws in someone else’s premises does not immediately commit a person to constructing a better alternative to replace the insufficient proposition; simply saying “I don’t know the right answer in lieu of insufficient data, but the inconsistencies in your argument are too great for me to ignore” is not an invalid response to a dubious claim.  For example, 2400 years ago there existed two competing hypothesis in ancient Greece about the cause of bodily ailments.  One proposed that it was due to supernatural forces (i.e. curses) plaguing the soul of the victim, the other proposed it was due to a naturalistic unbalance between the four humors that make up the human body; both hypothesis are now discredited, and disease is treated as having nothing to do with curses or “humors”, hence the individual who refrained from constructing an alternative but nevertheless logically deduced both explanation as inconsistent and irrational, would still (in my opinion) hold the more respectable position.

However, Nietzsche’s disdain for depending on logical analysis to define reality does have some merit, especially if one applies it to the philosophical traditions that emerged out of the Socratic influence.  Nietzsche makes the bold statement that “Nothing is easier to nullify than a logical argument”, which is certainly true considering that in order for any logical argument to work (in particular syllogisms) the participants have to agree on the terms and definitions, and their usage, lest a philosophical deadlock occurs (as it usually does with two competing philosophical positions).  As a point of example, Aristotle logically proved that the earth is stationary and the sun rotates around it; he was still wrong, no matter how rational or consistent his premises were at the time.  Aristotle also logically proved that heavier objects fall to the ground faster than lighter objects; he was wrong about this, too, for the same reasons he was wrong about almost everything he wrote about the physical world.  Nietzsche probably considered the viability of Socrates’ dialectical method similarly flawed, in that Socrates is setting the terms of the discussion, while never committing to any concrete ideas.  The reason for this, Nietzsche proposes, is that Socrates had no other means by which to engage the intellectuals around him, other than by reducing their values to mere whims and fancies, while elevating his own in the name of “reason” and “rationality”.  And he could do this solely because he set up every argument with the premise that his approach was by default the proper way to reason:

I have explained how Socrates fascinated his audience: he seemed to be a physician, a savior. Is it necessary to go on to demonstrate the error in his faith in “rationality at any price”? It is a self-deception on the part of philosophers and moralists if they believe that they are extricating themselves from decadence by waging war against it. Extrication lies beyond their strength: what they choose as a means, as salvation, is itself but another expression of decadence; they change the form of decadence, but they do not get rid of decadence itself.[13]

For Nietzsche, Socrates sought to ostracize man’s instinctive attraction to the aesthetic virtues in life, causing them to be deemed as mere irrationalities.  The problem with this is that it ignores a vital component of the human experience, in that our species is not primarily an agent of rationality—which can be sifted out through dialectical reasoning—and to define our intrinsic irrational tendencies as inconsequential hurdles in any given discussion prevents one from reaching a true point of higher awareness, as it assumes that man will ideally arrive at a rational conclusion if he only removes his aesthetic subjectivity from the equation.  Nietzsche sees this as not only false, but crippling, because it forces man to turn against a powerful force that composes his humanity—his instinct:

All this was a kind of disease, merely a disease, and by no means a return to “virtue,” to “health,” to happiness. To have to fight the instincts — that is the definition of decadence: as long as life is ascending, happiness equals instinct.[14]

Nietzsche wishes to uplift the human spirit to a higher plane of life affirmation, to nurture his rational side and satisfy his irrational instincts, just as he envisions the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles to have done to soothe the pessimism apparent in their surroundings.  Although taking the fact that man is more a reasoning rather than a reasonable animal into account is, in itself, a worthy consideration when constructing a value system, one needs to also take great care not to get subdued by one’s passions when evaluating realty, since our passions are far more intoxicating to our senses and egos than the uncompromising facts encompassing the apathetic world around us.  But perhaps that’s where the Apollonian element comes in to check its Dionysian counterpart; making order amidst chaos, and using chaos to create order.


[1] Nietzsche’s characterization of the ancient Athenians as being innately pessimistic was at complete odds with the viewpoint of his contemporaries in academia, the majority of which denounced The Birth of Tragedy shortly after its initial publication. In 1886, Nietzsche republished the work with a scathing self-critique about the prose’s immaturity and hasty generalizations, but doubled-down on his original characterization of the ancient Greek dramatists as pessimists by adding the subtitle, “Hellenism and Pessimism,” to the republished edition.

[2] It needs to be remembered that, for the sake of brevity, this is a very simplified descriptions of a very complex philosophical concept.  I will not be dwelling too much on the Apollonian & Dionysian dynamic here, because it is tangential to the main premise of this essay, not to mention it is a literary device Nietzsche himself largely abandoned fairly soon after publishing The Birth of Tragedy; therefore, the various intricacies have little influence on Nietzsche primary philosophical contributions.

[3] Nietzsche, Friedrich.  The Birth of Tragedy (1872), section 19.

[4] Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy, “Attempt at Self-Criticism” (1886), section 1.

[5] Nietzsche, Friedrich.  Ecce Homo, “The Birth of Tragedy” (written 1888, published 1908), section 1.

[6] Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy (1872), section 23.

[7] Nietzsche, Friedrich.  Twilight of the Idols, “The Problem With Socrates” (1888), section 1.

[8] Ibid, section 2.

[9] Ibid, section 3.

[10] Saintevic, Sascha.  No Fear Nietzsche: A layman’s guide from Amor Fati to Zarathustra (2015), Part Five: “Nietzsche’s Master-Slave Moralities”.

[11] Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, “The Problem With Socrates” section 5.

[12] Ibid, section 6.

[13] Ibid, section 11.

[14] Ibid.