Assessing Nietzsche

Nietzsche staked his reputation on the future. He believed that a great cultural upheaval was imminent and that his thought provided the resources required to make the best of it.

In some ways Nietzsche’s expectations for the future of Western civilization were borne out by the twentieth century. He said that Christian belief would decline; it did. He predicted newly destructive wars driven by ideological conflict; they came to pass. He hoped for creative geniuses who would free themselves from Christian morality and other forms of the “ascetic ideal” and create great works of art that would celebrate “this world” rather than the metaphysical “other worlds.” Here too, in my opinion, the last century did not disappoint. It would be silly to try to list the artistic accomplishments of the last 120 years. But in literature, names such as T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Ezra Pound, Marcel Proust, and Wallace Stevens come to mind. In music, it’s difficult to imagine a more Dionysian composition than Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (1913), not to mention composers like Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. With the exception of Eliot, their works were not notably shaped by Christian morality; in fact many were inspired or influenced by Nietzsche himself. An assessment would also have to take into account the achievements of film, an art form that didn’t even exist in Nietzsche’s time.

In moral theory virtually no one working in the field relies on religious assumptions; academic moral philosophy, at least, is emphatically post-theological. It is true that most contemporary philosophers uphold the universality and objectivity of our moral obligations to one another, and Nietzsche wouldn’t approve of that. On the other hand, during the last decades of the twentieth century many philosophers (e.g. Bernard Williams and Susan Wolf) argued for a more “relaxed” understanding of the place of morality in human life, as one among other legitimate goods. Again, the influence of Nietzsche himself is at work here. In the wider moral culture, the sexual revolution beginning in the 1960s was just one expression of the emergence of a more tolerant and pluralistic atmosphere than the Victorian morality that Nietzsche found so destructive. Continue reading

The Blond Beast, Parsed.

In some passages, it seems pretty clear that Nietzsche’s “blond beast” is a lion. In others, Nietzsche is referring to the Aryan “conquering races.” Here are the passages with the first kind of blond beast:

At the center of all these noble races the beast of prey, the splendid blond beast avidly prowling around for spoil and victory; this hidden center needs release from time to time, the beast must out again, must return to the wild – Roman, Arabian, Germanic, Japanese nobility, Homeric heroes, Scandinavian Vikings – in this requirement they are all alike.

One may be quite justified in continuing to fear the blond beast at the core of all noble races and in being on one’s guard against it.

The above quotations are from the Genealogy of Morals, First Essay §11.

Another instance is in the Second Essay §17:

I used the word “state”: it is obvious who is meant by this – some pack of blond beasts of prey, a conqueror and master race which, organized for war and with the ability to organize, unhesitatingly lays its terrible claws upon a populace perhaps tremendously superior in numbers but still formless and nomad. That is after all how the “state” began on earth: I think that sentimentalism which would have it begin with a “contract” has been disposed of.

The point is that the civilization of the “noble races” of antiquity was a rather thin veneer under which the predatory nature of these peoples was concealed. It couldn’t be permanently concealed, and it occasionally expressed itself openly as an unrestrained will to conquer. This is the real origin of the state: it was an instrument of domination, not a mutual aid society as social contract theorists liked to imagine. Continue reading

Stop Making Sense: The Tedium of Morality

In Beyond Good and Evil §228 Nietzsche says: “I hope to be forgiven for discovering that all moral philosophy hitherto has been tedious.” What’s so boring about moral philosophy?

For Nietzsche, the fundamental assumption underlying the moral tradition (and the Western philosophical tradition as a whole) is the idea that things ought to make sense. Nietzsche denies this premise. For Nietzsche, the deep truth about the human condition is that, at bottom, it’s senseless and without meaning. This is something, he thinks, we learn not from philosophy but rather from art – above all from ancient Greek tragedy, precisely what Plato, the father of philosophy, abhorred.

Any philosophical doctrine that fails to face up to the deep senselessness of the human condition, Nietzsche thinks, is doomed to superficiality. The moral philosopher is convinced that there are universal principles that ought to guide human conduct, that we can rely on our ability to reason impartially to work out what these are, that we can choose to act in accordance with them, that if everyone does so things should go well for us, and that, as reasonable beings, we should all want things to go well.

This, Nietzsche believes, is a banal view of the human condition, and it’s the moral philosopher’s banality that makes him or her boring. Stories about impartial do-gooders who see one another as equals and treat everyone fairly are sleep-inducing. Far more interesting are stories about people as they are – conflicted, partial, egoistic, ambivalent, given to misunderstandings, and, so far as morality is concerned, as Kenneth Burke put it, “rotten with perfection.”

Philosophy and/or Literature: The Case of Nietzsche

Which is more important: the artistic merit of Nietzsche’s writing, or its philosophical content? A similar question could be asked about Plato. Dialogues such as the Apology and Republic are works of art that also convey philosophical arguments.

Let’s take a look at a passage from The Anti-Christ §11. (I’ve compressed it a bit.)

A word now against Kant as a moralist. A virtue must be our invention; it must spring out of our personal need and defence. In every other case it is a source of danger. That which does not belong to our life menaces it; a virtue which has its roots in mere respect for the concept of “virtue,” as Kant would have it, is pernicious. Quite the contrary is demanded by the most profound laws of self-preservation and of growth: to wit, that every man find his own virtue, his own categorical imperative. Nothing works a more complete and penetrating disaster than every “impersonal” duty, every sacrifice before the Moloch of abstraction. Continue reading

Nietzsche on the Intellectual Conscience

By “intellectual conscience,” Nietzsche means the idea that it is wrong to believe something unless you have good reason to think that the belief is true. Someone with an intellectual conscience will form and endorse beliefs by applying the best epistemic standards known to him or her.

Most of us, Nietzsche thinks, lack an intellectual conscience:

[T]he great majority of people lacks an intellectual conscience. […] I mean: the great majority of people does not consider it contemptible to believe this or that and to live accordingly, without first having given themselves an account of the final and most certain reasons pro and con, and without even troubling themselves about such reasons afterward…. (The Gay Science §2.)

Exercising the intellectual conscience, if one does possess it, doesn’t necessarily lead to certainty; on the contrary. The more you subject your beliefs to scrutiny, the less certain you will become about them. This is good, because searching for the truth, as well as finding it, is good. Bernard Reginster puts the point as follows:

[T]he seeker after knowledge must want both knowledge and uncertainty or ignorance. He cannot be a genuine seeker after truth unless he actually wants to find it, but since what he cares about is the search after truth, he must also welcome the uncertainty and ignorance that supply opportunities for it. (The Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism.)

Although intellectual conscience is a necessary condition, it is not, Nietzsche seems to think, a sufficient one. The “last idealists of knowledge in whom alone the intellectual conscience dwells today,” namely the scientists, have rendered Christian belief untenable, but they shrink from questioning their own values. “These are by no means free spirits: for they still believe in [the value of] truth.” (On the Genealogy of Morals, III §24.) Continue reading

Why did Nietzsche call Kant a “theologian in disguise”?

Nietzsche meant that Kant established the validity of Christian morality by making philosophical arguments that didn’t rely on Christian beliefs.

In The Gay Science, Nietzsche writes:

Kant wanted to prove, in a way that would dumbfound the common man, that the common man was right: that was the secret of this soul. He wrote against the scholars in support of popular prejudice, but for the scholars and not for the people. [§193.]

Kant held that all rational persons have an a priori understanding of the basic principles of morality. These consist of duties, both to oneself and to others, and above all the duty to respect rational agents. Most persons, however, do not understand that morality is a priori, and their moral commitments are therefore vulnerable to corrosive skeptical criticism. In The Metaphysics of Morals Kant formulates the ultimate standard for moral judgment, namely universalizability, and establishes the rational necessity of morality.

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What did Nietzsche mean by “decadence”? Has the culture become decadent?

The short answer is that decadence, for Nietzsche, is being drawn to what is bad for you.

Acting effectively requires self-confidence, great passion to achieve one’s aim, and unity of purpose. To be very successful, and certainly to achieve anything truly great, all of one’s abilities and all aspects of one’s personality must be devoted to achieving one’s aim.

This requires self-mastery, by which Nietzsche means the ability to cultivate one’s drives, desires, and abilities in ways that maximize their contribution to one’s project. Self-mastery is not achieved by conscious deliberation alone; it is an “instinctive” ability to do what is good for you. Faced with a choice, one with self-mastery will identify the best course of action without needing to deliberate.

He guesses what remedies avail against what is harmful; he exploits bad accidents to his advantage; what does not kill him makes him stronger. He collects instinctively from everything he sees, hears, lives through, his sum: he is a principle of selection, he leaves much behind. He is always in his own company, whether he associates with books, human beings, or landscapes: he honors by choosing, by admitting, by trusting. (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Wise” §2.)

The decadent, on the other hand, chooses what is bad for him, again in a largely non-deliberative way. A decadent or “corrupt” person instinctively seeks out that which harms him.

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What does Nietzsche mean by this: “To admit a belief merely because it is a custom – but that means to be dishonest, cowardly, lazy! – And so could dishonesty, cowardice and laziness be the preconditions of morality?”

As he often does, Nietzsche omits a premise required by his syllogism, leaving to the reader the task of filling it in.

Let C = admitting a belief because it is a custom, let DCL = being dishonest, cowardly, and lazy, and let M = morality. Nietzsche’s observation takes this form:

If C, then DCL.
If DCL, then M.

Obviously, we’re missing a premise:

If M, then C.

By morality, Nietzsche seems to have in mind beliefs, values, and practices that are adhered to merely because it’s customary to do so. This is contrary to the leading principle of the Enlightenment, according to which something should be done only if it is rational to do it.

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What did Nietzsche mean when he wrote: “If you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you”?

Nietzsche makes his remark about the abyss (in Beyond Good and Evil §146) just after cautioning the reader that someone who fights monsters risks becoming a monster himself.

That can happen to the man of ressentiment. He’s convinced that his various disabilities are caused by someone or something out to get him, and that if only the scourge were eliminated from the world all would be well.

If this is your attitude, Nietzsche is saying, you’re going to get really good at ferreting out the nasty parts of life, wherever they might be hiding, and you’ll uncover one hitherto unrecognized injustice after another: first racism, then structural racism, then elitism, then heteronormativism, ableism, lookism, microagression…. You may get to the point where you can see nothing but monsters.

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