Tag Archives: will to power

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.