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Nietzsche’s Will to Power

[The following essay is an excerpt from a wider work titled No Fear Nietzsche, available on Amazon Kindle.]

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

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 contemporary thinkers 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 popular 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.

Now, I mentioned earlier that it is noteworthy how Nietzsche never bothered to entertained 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

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

[A year ago, I published an eBook titled No Fear Nietzsche: A layman’s guide from Amor fati to Zarathustra, which set out to outline the basic themes of Nietzsche’s philosophy.  Unfortunately, for the sake of brevity, a handful of essays were left out of the final draft.  “Nietzsche Contra Socrates was one of those essays, and because I still feel that it covers a lot of essential points of the man’s thought process I’ve decided to make it a post on my blog.]

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.

Nietzsche’s Views on Women

[The following is an essay from a book I wrote covering the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, called No Fear Nietzsche: A layman’s guide from Amor fati toZarathustra.  Available for purchase here.]

I.

If you are a woman, and you hold Friedrich Nietzsche in high esteem as one of the great enlightened thinkers of modern philosophy, there is a decent chance you might be unfamiliar with the full extent of the man’s musings about the fairer sex.

Since his own lifetime, the philosopher has been accused of promoting misogynistic ideas in his writings, due to his tendency of abrasively referring to women—and femininity as a whole—in largely hostile terms (as we shall explore shortly).  However, it should be stated for the sake of objectivity, that this sentiment is not universally accepted amongst prominent female authors and thinkers, as some of these individuals interpret Nietzsche’s apparently sexist aphorisms as a rhetorical strategy, used to illustrate the vain construct men have of women, and the potential to possibly move beyond this simplistic sentiment.[1]  Whether any of these more favorable interpretations are viable positions in light of Nietzsche’s own words, or simply attempts to exonerate the philosopher of the charge of misogyny, is the focus of the analysis that follows.

Although Nietzsche never wrote a single cumulative work on the topic of womanhood, his books are nevertheless filled with countless critiques and examinations of the female psyche, thereby making it possible for the reader to gather a coherent impression of the philosopher’s views on women, and gender relations in general.

Before looking into anything else, let us first give some background on Nietzsche’s personal experiences with the opposite sex.  After his father died when he was only five, Nietzsche was left to be raised in a household solely occupied by women (his mother, his sister, and two maiden aunts).  How much this affected the young man’s lifelong attitudes towards women is impossible to tell, but it would be disingenuous to dismiss it as a triviality.

Throughout his life, Nietzsche had few companions (of either gender), and virtually no real romantic relationships (nothing that would qualify as reciprocal love, anyway).  In his younger years, he would comment on his determination to remain a lifelong bachelor, because “on the whole, I hate the limitations and obligations of the whole civilized order of things so very much that it would be difficult to find a woman free-spirited enough to follow my lead.”[2]

This remark is noteworthy for two reasons: first, his expectation that a woman (even a “free-spirited” one) is to follow his lead, indicates a base level of chauvinism in Nietzsche’s mentality towards women.  And second, the philosopher seems to think his personal views are much too radical for any woman to either accept, or be capable of following.

The letter also serves to illustrate the divergent tones the philosopher adopts, depending on who he is corresponding with at any given time.  This is most evident from a later correspondence (this time with a woman), where Nietzsche uncharacteristically expresses a deep longing for a romantic partner:

Do you know that no woman’s voice has ever made a deep impression on me, although I have met all kinds of famous women? But I firmly believe there is a voice for me somewhere on earth, and I am seeking it. Where on earth is it?[3]

One can argue that—like so many men—Nietzsche perhaps feels more comfortable expressing his romantic desires to a woman, than to one of his masculine peers.  However, it is easily just as likely that this could simply be a case of Nietzsche minding his audience, and that (for all we know) he has some ulterior motive for the divergent viewpoints he expresses in the two correspondences.

Whichever the case, the fact that the philosopher is overall quite open in relating his apprehension about not wanting to settle down with any woman, is by all accounts a consistent theme in his communications:

I have not yet found a woman who would be suited to associate with me, and whose presence would not bore me and make me nervous / Moreover I know the women folk of half Europe, and wherever I have observed the influence of women on men, I have noticed a sort of gradual decline as the result.[4]

The use of “yet” in the first sentence of the above statement seems to imply that despite his unyielding mindset on the matter, Nietzsche is still interested in possibly pursuing a romantic relationship with the right woman Yet, the assertion that follows soon thereafter, indicates that Nietzsche holds a certain level of distrust in the effect women have on the character of men—whether it is a fear of being distracted from one’s work, or a deeper psychological fear of having his thinking negatively influenced, is not completely clear from the cavalier statement.

One cannot help but take note how once again Nietzsche hints that his rather heterodox social views lie as a barrier to the possibility of finding romantic companionship.  Indeed, at times, Nietzsche appears to dismiss the idea of getting married simply because he considered his personal character (and views) as too bombastic for any woman to have to deal with:

Certainly it would do me good to have something so graceful about me—but would it do her good? Would my views not make her unhappy, and would it not break my heart (provided that I loved her) to make such a delightful creature suffer? No, let us not speak of marrying![5]

Such an unexpected display of concern for the feelings of a potential spouse would almost make one believe that Nietzsche’s aloofness towards the opposite sex stems not from disdain, but from a strange sense of responsibility in not wanting to torment any woman with the eccentricities of his person.  Unfortunately, the rest of this very same letter makes such a claim nearly impossible to defend:

You can take my word for it, that for men like me, a marriage after the type of Goethe’s would be the best of all—that is to say, a marriage with a good housekeeper! But even this idea is repellent to me. A young and cheerful daughter to whom I would be an object of reverence would be much more to the point.[6]

What Nietzsche seems to want at this point in his life [1888; one year before his mental breakdown] is a spouse who will serve the role of a maid, rather than an intellectual partner.  A sharp contrast to the free-spirited woman he claimed to be incapable of finding in the first reference above [dated to 1876].

Whatever the case for Nietzsche’s obvious lack of romantic engagements, the fact remains that one can see a longstanding sentiment of distrust and ridicule towards female intelligence and character within the philosopher’s private correspondences.  A sentiment that is only amplified in Nietzsche’s published work.

II.

In Beyond Good and Evil (1886), Nietzsche gives us a number of witty aphorisms, which according to him shed light on the deeper layers and vanities of female psychology.  He states:

Woman learns to hate to the extent to which her charms—decrease.[7]

The same affects in man and woman are yet different in tempo:  therefore man and woman do not cease to misunderstand each other.[8]

Woman themselves always still have in the background of all personal vanity an impersonal contempt for “woman.”[9]

The second statement is probably the least damning amongst 21st Century egalitarians, as it simply suggests that men and women develop differing perspectives from equivocal external stimuli.  Although this is highly debatable, it is not altogether condemnable, since few would take the position that men and women absolutely cannot react differently in overlapping situations, and that the difference could not possibly stem from our differing biology.  Thus, the second part of the statement, asserting that this difference in perception creates a communication barrier between the two sexes, is also not controversial.  The problems arise, however, when such ideas are examined in line with Nietzsche’s statements as a whole.

For instance, the first aphorism draws on Nietzsche’s observation that the central source of power that is available to a woman is in her charismatic and sexual persuasion over men.  This leads the philosopher to purport that as a woman approaches the zenith of her ability to wield this power of persuasion (i.e. as she ages, and becomes less desirable to men), she begins to develop an ever-increasing level of discontent against the world; the rate at which this tradeoff occurs is, according to Nietzsche, moderated by the rate at which the woman feels her feminine charm to be decreasing.  Combined with the third aphorism in the quote, a reader can conclude that the overall sentiment Nietzsche is promoting is that women exist in a constant state of vanity, which causes them to occupy a perpetual state of antagonism against both men and other women.  If one accepts Nietzsche’s rationale as valid, than what follows is a natural inclination to associate femininity as an exclusively restrictive manifestation, whose existence lies squarely with its innate desire to control the emotive (and sexual) aspect of human psychology; or as Nietzsche says it, “where neither love nor hatred is in the game, a woman’s game is mediocre.”[10]

Of course, the most obvious counterargument one could raise against Nietzsche in his critique of womanhood is to point out that most—if not all—of the criticisms he makes against the opposite sex here, is equally present in the behavior of the masculine gender.

Men, too, indulge in vain interests, and have a tendency to become bitter and sensitive as age starts to diminish their charm and virility (not to mention their hairlines).  When it comes to the issue of competition—which Nietzsche characterizes as a vanity—it is only fair to say that if the philosopher wants to state that the highest contempt against women comes from other women, then one has to also acknowledge how (in light of all of human history) the greatest focus of contempt against men, has been other men.  Does it not allow itself to conclude then that Nietzsche’s criticisms of femininity are more accurately understood as criticisms against humanity, in general?

I doubt that Nietzsche would even object to any of the counterpoints made, and would probably add that they are entirely compatible with his views.  Furthermore, I suspect that the philosopher would make the counter-counter claim that such attempts at refuting his views on women, arises largely from my superficial interpretation of his words[11] (i.e. An eagerness to refute his ideas, because one has already decided his views are wrong long before one has even started reading his book).

A common approach on this topic is to make the argument that Nietzsche’s misogynistic attitude doesn’t stem from a feeling of superiority over women, but a deeply set suspicion of them:

The sexes deceive themselves about each other—because at bottom they honor and love only themselves (or their own ideals, to put it more pleasantly).  Thus man likes woman peaceful—but woman is essentially unpeaceful, like a cat, however well she may have trained herself to seem peaceable.[12]

Nietzsche doesn’t deny that men are vain and deceptive (much of his life’s work attests to that), but he apparently sees a dramatic difference in the way the two sexes express their individual vanity and deceptive qualities.  This difference can be put very simply: men—according to Nietzsche—seek to deceive themselves first, and external factors only by extension of wanting to maintain this first self-deception.  In contrast, women seek to deceive solely the external world about their persons, thereby having no need to engage in the same sort of initial self-deception men are foolish enough to fall prey to.  This is why in the quote above Nietzsche states that man projects his ideal of woman as peaceful, and then goes on to construct societal norms to uphold the illusion that this is her natural state.

( The issue that many readers will notice is the last line of the quote, in which Nietzsche implies that women allow men to continue believing this lie by virtue of having “trained” themselves to appear more docile than they really are.  Yet, if men are making the external world fit their ideal of women as peaceful, in what sense can it be said that it is women themselves who have taken on this deceptive characteristic?—Doesn’t it follow more readily to say that, for those who grant the validity of the premise, this falsity has been imposed on womanhood, rather than concocted by it?)

When discussing Nietzsche’s views on women, it is important to remember that the philosopher wholeheartedly rejects the notion that women occupy the more oppressed role in society.  The rationale he gives for this view is directly tied in with his conspiratorial-like assessment of feminine attributes.  This leads Nietzsche to argue that a woman’s perceived secondary status is self-inflicted, presumably as a means to insure a better venture point for her instinctive interests:

Compare man and woman on the whole, one may say: woman would not have the genius for finery if she did not have an instinct for a secondary role.[13]

Having a genius for finery can be understood as having a talent for showy ornamentation; in other words, knowing how to distract others to frivolous adorations.  Nietzsche attributes this as a method by which women maintain their womanliness, and “charm” society into not taking their persons seriously enough to analyze their deceptive nature (for which their assumed secondary role serves as a perfect clout) and the full extent of their cunning influence.

Despite his chauvinism, Nietzsche staunchly believes that woman is the cleverer sex, and thereby also the more evil one.[14]  This belief in the diabolical cleverness of women leads the philosopher to conclude that the overconfidence men have in their so-called domestication of the female sex, is nothing more than a facade, promoted by women themselves:

Woman, the more she is woman, resists rights in general hand and foot: after all the state of nature, the eternal war between the sexes, gives her by far the first rank.[15]

It can be hard to follow Nietzsche’s reasoning for believing that women are inherently opposed to their own emancipation from traditional gender roles, because to do so would somehow rob them of their natural rank over men.  His justification for this seemingly incoherent viewpoint appears to be the woman’s power over birth and her subsequent control of her status as the sole vessel of life—which is a woman’s idealized state:

Has my answer been heard to the question of how one cures a woman—“redeems” her?  One gives her a child.  Woman needs children, a man is for her always only a means: thus spoke Zarathustra.

“Emancipation of women”—that is the instinctive hatred of the abortive woman, who is incapable of giving birth, against the woman who is turned out well—the fight against the “man” is always a mere means, pretext, tactic.  By raising themselves higher, as “woman in herself,” as the “higher woman,” as a female “idealist,” they want to lower the level of the general rank of woman; and there is no surer means for that than the higher education, slacks, and political voting-cattle rights.  At bottom, the emancipation are anarchists in the world of the “eternally feminine,” the underprivileged whose most fundamental instinct is revenge.[16]

Nietzsche states that a woman’s true source of power lies in her ability to bear children (essentially the power to grant life), and that this trait serves as her underlying motivation for dealing with men (who are dependent on women for the propagation of their bloodline—their physical immortality, so to speak).  Because of man’s dependence on woman in this regard, the masculine gender will readily deify womanhood (i.e. motherhood), to a higher realm of existence, a sentiment women will shrewdly use to “raise themselves higher,” to a plane of virtue that is beyond reproach.  By this logic, Nietzsche reaches the conclusion that the emergence of the Woman’s Rights Movement, championing the “emancipation of women,” is the result of the resentful infertile female, who is incapable of attaining this higher plane due to her defect in drawing strength from the source of womanly power (childbirth).  Thus, she must seek to lift herself higher by other means; namely by lowering the existing rank of the fertile woman and focusing her mind away from the ready-made “sanctity” of motherhood, towards non-feminine—i.e. infertile—interests.

There is much that can be said against Nietzsche’s reasoning here, but by far the most devastating is the fact that a woman’s control over her reproductive rights is a relatively recent phenomenon in human history (so recent that it still hasn’t permeated to many sects of the human population).  While the case can be made that historically (both in modern times and in antiquity) men have shown an abstract, philosophical reverence for the feminine form (for her ability to create life), this abstract idealization has very rarely gone far beyond a sparse collection of poetic musings.

In practice, women, and their reproductive capabilities, have historically been subject to the control and regulation of their male counterparts (mostly husbands, or other male relatives), for various reasons that range from basic chauvinism, to the outright superstitious.  This is a fact that Nietzsche fails to address in his above philosophizing about “women” and their “idealized elevation by men”, despite it being an indispensable part in any thorough narrative about femininity, and history thereof.  (I cannot personally see how to reconcile this fact with the picture Nietzsche has presented thus far, and I refuse to hypothesize on how the philosopher could have possibly countered the objection, for fear of infusing undue thoughts into the man’s philosophy.)

But even if, for the sake of argument, the reader grants Nietzsche’s narrative above as valid, there is still a simple discrepancy that stands out when looking at the philosopher’s views on the subject as a whole.  If Nietzsche’s criticism against women lies in their vain control over men to further consolidate their fertile power as the “higher” being (the creators of life, “the eternally feminine”), why is he so staunchly dismissive of the women (the “infertile” breed) who, in his view, are working to overturn this sentiment?  I suppose the answer lies in Nietzsche’s conviction that a woman’s mindset is unfailingly tuned to propagating deception about her feminine nature, thus no matter which side she happens to fall in the gender equity debate, her motive is to be viewed with suspicion:

So far enlightenment of this sort was fortunately man’s affair, man’s lot—we remained “among ourselves” in this; and whatever women write and “woman,” we may in the end reserve a healthy suspicion whether woman really wants enlightenment about herself—whether she can will it[17]

To Nietzsche, women are incapable of separating the search for objective truth, from their own subjective interests.  Thus, in women’s hands, truth reduces to nothing more than a whimsical dictum, to be discarded with if found inconvenient; making truth antithetical to femininity:

From the beginning, nothing has been more alien, repugnant, and hostile to woman than truth—her great art is the lie, her highest concern is mere appearance and beauty.[18]

There is no seriousness in a woman’s thought, according to Nietzsche, and any profundity a man ascribes to her stems from his inability to see past her vain shallowness.[19]  Playing perfectly into the cunning woman’s hands, as it frees her from having to indulge in the petty seriousness men are foolish enough to pursue:

Let us men confess it:  we honor and love precisely this art and this instinct in woman—we who have a hard time and for our relief like to associate with beings under whose hands, eyes, and tender follies our seriousness, our gravity and profundity almost appear to us like folly.[20]

I imagine how we who hold a certain degree of admiration for Nietzsche’s usually sharp analytic mind are by now feeling a clear sense of embarrassment for the philosopher’s strenuous desire to convince us of this simplistic and one-dimensional portrait he is drawing of female psychology.  Some Nietzscheans might try to soften the impression by pointing to the quasi-preface Nietzsche himself provides before stating his case against the feminine sex, where he seems to claim that his musings on womanhood are to be primarily understood as just his subjective opinion on the matter:

After this abundant civility that I have just evidenced in relation to myself I shall perhaps be permitted more readily to state a few truths about “woman as such”—assuming that it is now known from the outset how very much these are after all only—my truths.[21]

This is a noteworthy admission by the philosopher, indicating his possible awareness that the analysis he is providing on women is more of a personal assessment, and shouldn’t be regarded as the final word on the topic.

This is all well and good, but the problem is that Nietzsche’s words on the subject of womanhood are stated in absolutist terms (a practice the man himself spent much of his active life criticizing in others), which makes it near impossible to approach from a rational standpoint.  Not to mention, the not-so-subtle undertone of suspicion and conspiracy that emits from the spiteful prose, causes the reader to instinctively view Nietzsche’s own words with a layer of suspicion, unable to shake the feeling that perhaps this fight stems more from the philosopher’s desire to settle an inscrutable personal score (though I’m inclined to find such seemingly handy conclusions much too convenient to be of any real use).

Acknowledging his subjectivity on the subject or not, it is clear that Nietzsche does not see woman as being naturally inclined towards intellectual matters, because he identifies such matters as fundamental about a want to seek truth, which is barred to women because to face the truth of their deceitful character is too shameful—and ultimately harmful—to their person:  “Among women: ‘Truth? Oh, you don’t know truth! Is it not an attempt to kill our modesty?’”[22]

This defensiveness, according to Nietzsche, serves simply as a crafty cover to distract lurkers and probers from inquiring too deeply into the shallowness at the core of the female psyche:

Woman has much reason for shame; so much pedantry, superficiality, schoolmarmishness, petty presumption, petty licentiousness and immodesty lies concealed in woman.[23]

Feminist Nietzscheans have proposed the idea that Nietzsche’s over the top misogyny in his writings is his unique way of demonstrating the absurdly chauvinistic sentiment exhibited by the domineering males of his days[24]; not to mention, accentuate the superficiality of the traditional gender roles, many women themselves refused to deviate from in his time.[25]  Although, at the face of it, one might be generous enough to consider that Nietzsche’s sexist prose might be a rhetorical tool he uses to point to a deeper level in the intricacy of human behavior—which most of us are just not capable of grasping—I personally find such rationalizations highly dubious.

This is most evident by the fact that Nietzsche does not extend to women the ability to take part in the intellectual project the philosopher has spent his entire career championing; the transvaluation of all values.  And central to this project is the discarding of religious thought, a theme that Nietzsche repeats so often in his writings that it has become synonymous with his name.

While Nietzsche maintains that all men ought to move beyond the superficiality of deities and the supernatural, and embrace godlessness as the only viable stance for the thinking person, the philosopher flatly refuses to even consider the attempt to have women, too, take part in this intellectual reevaluation—and ridicules those men who do:

Here and there they even want to turn women into freethinkers and scribblers—as if a woman without piety would not seem utterly obnoxious and ridiculous to a profound and godless man.[26]

If nothing else, this alone (in my opinion) negates any attempt to reconcile Nietzsche’s views on woman with our modern understanding of gender equality.  Nietzsche simply does not see intellect as a “natural” characteristic of the opposite sex.

As I said before, I don’t think it would be accurate to wholly ascribe to Nietzsche the label of having a superiority complex towards women.  His views are better characterizes as hierarchical, placing women in a natural role, which in his unique view actually places her in firm control over the masculine gender.  To Nietzsche, woman is most powerful in her “natural state,” and that state is one of deceit and suspicion towards the external world, with no other interest but the propagation of her own image as the ideal of virtue, desirability, and (overall) the symbol of fertility itself.

The extent to which Nietzsche’s premise in all of this fails is best demonstrated by the superficiality and paranoia-like generalizations his argument takes against the supposed superficiality and paranoia of femininity:

What inspires respect for woman, and often enough even fear, is her nature, which is more “natural” than man’s, the genuine, cunning suppleness of a beast of prey, the tiger’s claw under the glove, the naiveté of her egoism, her uneducability and inner wildness, the incomprehensibility, scope, and movement of her desires and virtues.[27]

[1] Nietzsche’s onetime companion, and possible love interest, Lou Andreas-Salomé [see Nietzsche in His Work (1894)] & feminist author Frances Nesbitt Oppel [see “Nietzsche on Gender” (University of Virginia Press: 2005)] are probably the two most well-known proponents of this viewpoint.

[2] “Letter to Freiherr Karl von Gersdorff,” Bâle, May 26, 1876.

[3] “Letter to Madame Louise O.”, Rosenlauibad, August 29, 1877.

[4] “Letter to His Sister [Elisabeth Nietzsche]”, Nice, Wednesday, March 23, 1887.

[5] “Letter to His Sister”, Nice, January 25, 1888.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Nietzsche, Friedrich.  Beyond Good and Evil, Part Four “Epigrams and Interludes” (1886), section 84.

[8] Ibid, section 85.

[9] Ibid, section 86.

[10] Ibid, section 115.

[11] He practically says so much in section 238 of the previously quoted book, when he refers to those males who reject his analysis of the shallowness of womanhood as “incapable of attaining any depth.”

[12] Ibid, section 131.

[13] Ibid, section 145.

[14] Nietzsche, Friedrich.  Ecce Homo, “Why I Write Such Good Books” (1908), section 5.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, section 232.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Nietzsche, Friedrich.  Twilight of the Idols, “Maxims and Arrows” (1888), section 27.

[20] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, section 232.

[21] Ibid, section 231.

[22] Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, “Maxims and Arrows,” section 16.

[23] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, section 232.

[24] See footnote 1, above.

[25] Nietzsche’s reference to woman as occupying the place of “work-slaves and prisoners” in society has been cited as evidence of his understanding of the cultural subjugation of women (Genealogy of Morals, Third Essay, section 18).

[26] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, section 239.

[27] Ibid.