Review by Roy L. Smith, 2009
Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. The Modern Library, 1992. 845 pages. $24.95.
Friedrich Nietzsche is one of the most profound and divisive of philosophers. A precursor to the rise of Existentialism and Continental Philosophy, his impact has been felt. Kaufmann, translator of this book, notes Nietzsche’s influence on the philosophy of Jaspers, Heidegger, Sartre, and on the literary style of Camus, Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse and Rilke to name a few. Freud, Tillich, and Buber have also paid homage to Nietzsche (x-xi). There has been much criticism of Nietzsche, which after reading Beyond Good And Evil is no surprise. This book leaves an attentive reader exhausted and bewildered while also inspired and challenged to rethink, at the very least, whether morality or Christianity or theistic beliefs can be justified. Published in 1886, the force of critique and literary mastery bursts forth with at times overwhelming power. Beyond Good And Evil is arranged in nine sections. Space prohibits inhibits drawing out their density, thus brief summaries will trace the main points running through this text. In Ecce Homo, the author himself explains his intentions in Beyond Good and Evil. In short, a “revaluation of values” necessitated a “critique of modernity,” which meant demolishing—the “objectivity” and “pity” for suffering, the “historical sense” and its “submission to foreign tastes,” the “scientific” attitude, etc—under the hammer he said he philosophized with (766-67).
In Preface Nietzsche begins by confronting philosophical dogmatism and its positing of ancient superstitions like the “soul.” These superstitions are “masks” intending to strike fear and impose “eternal demands” on humanity. But “the worst” mask was “Plato’s invention of the pure spirit and the good as such.” Consequently Nietzsche’s “task” is to wake people up by tearing these ideals down, because they lead to a negation of life. The mask of Christianity has created a “tension” (like pulling the string of a bow). With this book then, Nietzsche says he will either unbend the bow or break it (192-93).
On the Prejudices of Philosophers is Nietzsche critique of philosophers’ notions of truth. Essentially he argues that their prejudices—not love of knowledge—is the basis for their truth claims. He calls this their “will to truth” and questions its “value.” Driving home his emphasis on the importance of this world and this life, he argues against metaphysical, other worldly realms posited by philosophers because they emphasize an afterlife and take attention off this world (200). Encouraging a philosophy of the future, Nietzsche argues that philosophical thinking, like all conscious thinking, is driven by “instinctive” psychological forces, underneath which lie “valuations or, more clearly, physiological demands for the preservation of a certain type of life.” What we really value is not truth, but survival, he says. He resists “accustomed value feelings,” and wants to go “beyond good and evil” (201). Thus Kant’s categorical imperative, Spinoza’s “hocus-pocus of mathematical form,” and all other philosophies “so far” have been mere “personal confession” driven by “intentions” (203-03). Instead we should recognize that philosophers, just as every “living thing,” desire to “discharge” strength. “Life itself is will to power,” and “self-preservation” is one of its effects (211). With this in mind he will stand truth on its head, offer a revaluation of values, and ultimately “sail right over morality” (221-22).
In The Free Spirit, Nietzsche addresses those elites like himself who can stomach the truths that the “herd” is terrified of. He wants to encourage and advise his “free spirit” friends how to proceed as philosophers of the future (225-26). The “free spirit” philosopher should be daring, nuanced, unafraid of “free-spirited thought,” unafraid to embrace solitude, loneliness, and breath the “pure air” that is found high up in altitude where it is cold, be “suspicious” of “all thinking” (“even his own”). He will concede that perhaps nothing in the world is really real “except our world of desires and passions” and last perhaps it is true that “our entire instinctive life” is in fact a “will to power” (230-38).
In What Is Religious Nietzsche develops his notion of the herd instinct and the will to power; and lambasts Christian morality. He says that original Christian faith was a “sacrifice of all freedom, all pride, all self-confidence of the spirit,” as well as “enslavement,” “self-mockery,” and “self-mutilation” (249-50). Religion involves a “religious neurosis,” which advises “solitude, fasting, and sexual abstinence.” Ultimately this encourages a “denial of the world and will” (251). Take the saint for example. This is a religious neurosis that represents “the riddle of self-conquest and deliberate final renunciation.” Christian veneration of saints is really about “power” as personified in the saint’s “‘will to power.’” Historically, religious neuroses was cruel; sacrificing humans, then instincts, and then “God himself” and “fate.” This has culminated in “most world-denying of all possible ways of thinking” “under the spell and delusion of morality” (255-58). Pietistic religion is really the “fear of truth,” and the false religion of the masses is essentially a negation of life (261-64). Christianity has attempted to “break the strong,” “bend everything haughty, manly, conquering, domineering” and ultimately led to “hatred of the earth and the earthly.” Thus “Christianity has been the most calamitous kind of arrogance yet” (265-66).
In Natural History of Morals, Nietzsche discusses the psychologists of morals, the herd instinct of obedience and preservation. “‘Morality as Timidity’” is Christian morality, and it is driven by the “herd instinct.” Moral tenets are “herd maxims” and are designed to make men timid, “tame, easy to get along with, and useful to the herd” (301). “‘Love of the neighbor’” is grounded in “fear of the neighbor;” and “fear” is “the mother of morals” (303). Thus “everything that elevates an individual above the herd intimidates the neighbor is henceforth called evil.” Consequently, “any high and hard nobility and self-reliance is almost felt to be an insult and arouses mistrust; the ‘lamb,’ even more the ‘sheep,’ gains in respect” (304). This applies to politics as well. Democracy is created by the herd mentality (306-07).
We Scholars addresses the “harmful shift” in scholarship that has yielded political consequences. Nietzsche especially critiques the objective or “scientific” approach (313-15). Two types of skepticism are discussed. The first is rejected and the second encouraged. The scientific-objective ideal is first type. This is “a will to the actual, active denial of life,” and has led to a “paralysis of the will” in Europe (319-20). The remedy is Nietzsche’s will to power in philosophers of the future. Take the “strength to will” exemplified in Russia, he says. He then makes an astonishingly accurate political prediction to support his remedy: “the next century will bring the fight for the dominion of the earth— the compulsion to large-scale politics” (321). The second type of skepticism, Nietzsche encourages. This skepticism “despises and nevertheless seizes,” “undermines and takes possession,” and “gives the spirit dangerous freedom” (322). This type is for the philosopher of the future, because it required in order to go Beyond Good and Evil. Thus they should have a “passion for knowledge,” resist the “softhearted and effeminate taste of a democratic century,” have “shrewd courage,” govern their emotions, and feel “nausea” all things “idealistic” and “feminine,” reject “‘Christian feelings,’” and create new values (324-26).
Our Virtues discusses predominate virtues held by the European culture of his day. One of Nietzsche’s key points is that morality is not equivocal, unconditional, or above relativity. He argues that whatever virtues a culture has are always based on their “most secret and cordial inclinations,” along with their “most ardent needs” (335). Beneath moral judgments lies inferiority and malice by those pronouncing them; “malice spiritualized” (337). High spirituality, in contrast, sees through these moralists. The preaching of pity is addressed. Pity is driven by “self-contempt,” he says (339-40). He then says that Europe has declined in part by embracing pity. The philosopher of the future, however, will shun this kind of pity, because the herd pity makes humanity “smaller” (343). Nietzsche then launches into a scathing analysis of feminism in Europe, and women in general; claiming that the “one of the worst developments of the general uglification of Europe” is the rise of early seeds of feminism (352). Women do “not want truth” because “her art is the great lie, her highest concern is mere appearance and beauty” (353). Nietzsche advises his reader to think “of women as Orientals do,” to “conceive of woman as a possession, as property that can be locked, as something predestined for service and achieving her perfection in that” (357).
Peoples and Fatherlands is an analysis of the decline of German culture. Nietzsche laments that Germans belong to the “age of the masses,” and the democratic movement taking shape in his day is fueled by the “art and power of adaptation” (364). Thus the “‘evolving European’” and its “apostles of ‘modern ideas’” is leading to the “mediocritization of man,” or a “useful, industrious, handy, multi-purpose herd animal” (366). German culture was distinctive and profound. But just as the “fleeting” and “superficial” movement of Romanticism transitioned into “the rise of democracy,” so also the “voice for the soul of Europe” descended “to mere fatherlandishness” (371-72). The rise of “nationalistic fever and political ambition,” including the “anti-French stupidity, now the anti-Jewish, now the anti-Polish, now the Christian romantic,” has led to the “political infection” surfacing in that day (376-77). Nietzsche then discusses the English, and their philosophers, and finally their hand in contributing to the “modern ideas” so despised by our author.
In What Is Noble the superiority of the “aristocratic society” is advanced on the grounds that it recognizes “order of rank and differences in value between man and man” (391). This distinction is applied to the task of going Beyond Good and Evil and the “overcoming of man.” Until the “fundamental principle of society” is recognized as the will to power, there will be a fundamental “denial of life, a principle of disintegration and decay” (393). Just as a body must “strive to grow, spread, seize, become predominate—not from any morality or immorality but because life simply is will to power” and “will to life,” so also is the best form of government (395). Two types of morality are discussed: “master morality and slave morality” (394ff). All moralities stem from one of these. The former defines good and bad in correlation to the noble and contemptible. The latter through suspicious, skeptical, eyes craving “pity” and “humility.” The conflict between these is the “origin of that famous opposition of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ (397-98). Masters create values. Slaves acquiesce to the values imposed on them. The rise of democracy is caused by the “intermarriage of masters and slaves;” and the origin of vanity is “‘the slave’ in the blood of the vain person…that seeks to seduce him to good opinions about himself…vanity is an atavism” (399). The fight against difficulties is what produces the survival of species; and this becomes a metaphor in which Nietzsche argues for the superiority of those who get beyond arbitrary and capricious goods and evils; embracing egoism, privilege, the noble soul, and shunning democratization, communality, and last but not least, Christianity.
My response to this book is highly conflicted. On the one hand, Nietzsche is a beautiful writer who at times inspires readers to great heights in thought. In addition, his literary style is debatably the greatest of any philosopher East or West. Thus whether or not one accepts the man’s ideas, I doubt anyone could argue convincingly against Nietzsche’s superiority as a writer. On the other hand, some of his views, namely his dismissal of equal rights, have no doubt been appropriated in problematic ways. Accordingly, one may raise the unanswerable question of the degree to which an author is responsible for the misuse of his or her ideas. I do not raise this question, but because so many do, I will briefly address this issue.
It is no secret that Nazi propaganda included quotations of Nietzsche. Many feel this alone warrants dismissal of his writings. But then Christianity can be critiqued on the same grounds. If we are to discredit Nietzsche because fanatical murderers appropriated some of his writings, would we then discredit the New Testament writers because their ideas were employed by the fanatical murderers of the Crusades or the Inquisition, et al? I suppose the answer depends on the degree to which the writings so utilized were intended by their authors towards these ends. For this reason the question, at least in regard to Nietzsche, is unanswerable. It is, however, crystal clear throughout the writings of Nietzsche that he was clearly and explicitly against anti-Semitism: “It is a matter of honor with me to be absolutely clean and unequivocal in relation to anti-Semitism, namely, opposed to it…my disgust with this party…is as pronounced as possible…that the name of Zarathustra is used in every Anti-Semitic Correspondence Sheet, has almost made me sick several times” (The Portable Nietzsche, Kaufmann, 467). At the end of the day, I think that Nietzsche was clearly a genius. That alone makes him worthy of reading, regardless of negative and ostensibly sexist passages in the texts.
Last, since this book review is intended for a website on arguments relating to atheism and theism, I will discuss atheistic notions commonly associated with Nietzsche. As far as Nietzsche’s critique of theism is concerned, I find it weak and unconvincing because it is not an argument about God. In a nutshell this is the argument: ‘God is dead because religious people have used the idea of God to negate life and to mask their deeper physiological motivations for religion.’ This says nothing about God. It does, however, say a lot about religion. Nietzsche writes primarily as a psychologist. Thus he is talking about people, not about God. This point alone warrants discontinuing the practice of labeling Nietzsche an “atheist.” Furthermore, just as with every argument I have read for atheism (barring only one—the theodicy argument—which Nietzsche does not mention), I do not find an argument about ‘God.’ Instead I find yet another argument about what people do with the idea of God. I mean to say, atheism is an argument against religion, not an argument against God (I consider theism guilty of the same charge). As a result Nietzsche is misappropriated if consulted to defend or deny God.