Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche
I read Nietzsche’s book Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. This is the second part, after Crime and Punishment, in my project of integrating my culture by reading the great works of the past, writing and speaking about them.
In this article I’m going to traverse the book chapter by chapter and try to articulate their message with my own words.
1. Prejudices of philosophers
In the first chapter of the book, Nietzsche discusses the “prejudices of philosophers”. Philosophers, he argues, rather than “free thinkers” are advocates of their own unconscious presuppositions and moral prejudices, and protect these behind an armor of arguments to scare away critics. They claim to be motivated by truth and knowledge, but rather they are just following their instincts and biases, their need for certainty, and their desire to be the center of attention. A philosophy doesn’t say much about the nature of reality, but it says a lot about the philosopher, their deepest cognitive biases and instincts, that the philosophy is just there to justify. Even what philosophers decide to focus on and think about over their lifetime occurs in patterns, determined by things such as the closeness/relatedness of concepts, the grammar of the language they use, the culture they come from.
In short, a new breed of philosopher is needed that is able to ask “dangerous questions”, to “philosophize with a hammer” and take hits at even their deepest presuppositions. A philosophy who dares to ask such questions, Nietzsche claims, would put itself beyond good and evil.
There are more idols than realities in the world […] Finally to pose questions with a hammer, and sometimes to hear as a reply that famous hollow sound that can only come from bloated entrails— what a delight for one […] before whom just that which would remain silent must finally speak out.
- Nietzsche, Twilight of the idols
He then proceeds to exemplify this method, attacking a whole series of concepts dear to philosophers. Here are the topics I found most interesting.
The value of truth
Why should we pursue truth in the first place? Why not untruth, doubt, illusion, ignorance? For all we know, this bias for truth, logic and clarity could just be a biological peculiarity of ours. A false proposition, an incorrect judgment could be life-affirming, who knows?
Can one be stoic?
Life itself is a striving, you can’t be neutral, you can’t be indifferent. Stoicism, Nietzsche expounds, is off the table. Stoics themselves are motivated by the desire to be right about the nature of the world, and to be living according to it.
Can our thinking be grounded?
Nietzsche questions the legitimacy of grounding metaphysical and epistemological concepts such as judgments a priori and self-evident truths. He mocks Kant as having, in a feat of circular thinking, “judged a priori” that judgments a priori are possible. He attacks the “I think” in Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am.” Who says that the I is the cause of the thinking? That the I can cause anything? That there even is such thing as an I? It is not clear at all that we are in control of our thinking — and what does that imply for the project of logic?
Can there be free will?
In passing, Nietzsche deconstructs the concept of free will. First of all, what we call will is actually something quite complex. Much of it is actually feeling, the desire to move away from something, towards something else. Then there is thought, too, in the form of a command. And then there is an affect. But what happens, fundamentally, in an act of will, is that you order your body to move, and you see it move. You may then be led to believe that you caused the arm to move, but the evidence for a such cause-effect relationship, that is for the actual existence of will, isn’t there at all. He then effectively psychoanalyzes the desire for “freedom of will”:
[…] the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one’s actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance, and society therefrom, involves nothing less than to be precisely this causa sui, and, with more than Munchausen daring, to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the slough of nothingness.
But he goes further saying that unfree will, the idea that your will is determined, is an illusion too, by making an even deeper point: The “law of causality” is just a concept we use to describe the world. To say that in the world itself there is such a necessity, is to make things out of your concepts, that is a kind of abstract mythology. The whole question of whether will is free or not, a.k.a. whether will plays a causal role in the world, is meaningless, because the concept of causality can’t actually be real in that sense.
He proposes a version of will that can actually be meaningful:
The “non-free will” is mythology; in real life it is only a question of strong and weak will
In other words, it is equally pathetic to try to make yourself a primal cause as it is to apologize for your weak will.
The role of psychology
In conclusion of the first chapter, Nietzsche states that one of the fields that hasn’t been explored in depth due to our moral presuppositions is psychology. A host of hard-to-swallow truths lie in the depth of psychology, not least the primacy of the will to power as a pervasive and necessary, life-affirming instinct.
2. The free spirit
In this chapter, Nietzsche attempts to describe a kind of spirit that could characterize the new breed of philosophers he is calling for: a free spirit.
The core feature of free spirits is their independence. They are independent from other people, their country, even their own virtues. They are independent from the prejudices of philosophers described in the previous chapter, from truth and morality. Free spirits have to be strong, because to be independent is dangerous and lonely, and people can’t understand the free spirits’ journey or have compassion for their demise.
Independence from truth
Free spirits have a psychological understanding of their own motives, and will pause before saying that something they are pursuing is noble. For example they understand that the will to knowledge springs out of the desire to simplify and reduce the complexity of the world. Short, it is an evolution of the will to ignorance, not its opposite.
Free spirits beware of becoming martyrs of truth. They know truth doesn’t need defenders. They don’t care too much about who, in the end, was right. In fact, free spirits don’t put much value into being understood, they might even purposely obscure their points (as Nietzsche himself does), be mysterious. Truth, if it exists at all, is something rare and for the rare. Certainly they don’t believe in dogma, in the truth for everyone.
Free spirits are nuanced, they don’t see things in black and white. They don’t assume that truth is attainable (maybe there are just gradations of illusion). They don’t assume that truth is compatible with virtue and happiness (truth may actually destroy the knower of the truth). First and foremost, they take truth lightly. If you experience the search for truth as a war, if you don’t have fun, if you can’t be playful and humorous, it will ruin you.
Independence from Morality
One shouldn’t just be moral. Values, such as self-sacrifice, should be questioned, and the fact that people like them still isn’t an argument for them. Outraged and indignant people might be moral, but they are also deadening and less instructive than the “common people”, cynics, laughing satyrs. The shadow of Man serves the elevation of Man as much as its opposite.
Here Nietzsche gives a first outline of his history of morals:
- in the pre-moral period an act was judged directly by its consequences,
- in the moral period, an act is judged by its conscious origin, that is the originating intention, and finally,
- in the coming ultra-moral period, by its unconscious origin, the underlying, intention-generating instinct.
Again, Nietzsche advocates a deeper psychological self-awareness.
In essence, Nietzsche is calling for philosophers to be less neurotic, less obsessive-compulsive about truth and morality, and to take things more lightly; in a sense, to take reality itself with a grain of salt. Humor and lightness are both consequence and nourishment of the free spirit’s independence.
3. The religious mood
Taking truth and morality lightly? If no alarm bell went on in your head until now, it will in this chapter. Here, Nietzsche mercilessly applies the outlined method in attacking Christian morality. God on the cross was a reversal of all ancient values. It is a denial of life through the cult of ever-increasing self-sacrifices (from saints and ascetics to God himself). But what’s reigning behind it is the will to power, albeit a twisted one: what’s fascinating about the holy man is his paradoxical willpower, the power that denies itself. Christianity is the vengeance of the resentful slave, who decided that if he can’t be free and happy nobody can. Life is dreadful and the faith is serious.
The opposite ideal is radically self- and life-affirming:
behold the opposite ideal: the ideal of the most world-approving, exuberant, and vivacious man, who has not only learnt to compromise and arrange with that which was and is, but wishes to have it again AS IT WAS AND IS, for all eternity, insatiably calling out de capo, not only to himself, but to the whole piece and play; and not only the play, but actually to him who requires the play — and makes it necessary; because he always requires himself anew — and makes himself necessary. — What? And this would not be — circulus vitiosus deus?
To allow thousandfold perishings
Towards the end of the chapter, his criticism assumes traits I found concerning. Christianity, he claims, through its preservation of the weak and the sick has degraded the European race.
does it not actually seem that some single will has ruled over Europe for eighteen centuries in order to make a sublime abortion of man? […] I should say that Christianity has hitherto been the most portentous of presumptions. Men, not great enough, nor hard enough, to be entitled as artists to take part in fashioning man; men, not sufficiently strong and far-sighted to allow, with sublime self-constraint, the obvious law of the thousandfold failures and perishings to prevail; men, not sufficiently noble to see the radically different grades of rank and intervals of rank that separate man from man: —such men, with their ‘equality before God,’ have hitherto swayed the destiny of Europe; until at last a dwarfed, almost ludicrous species has been produced, a gregarious animal, something obliging, sickly, mediocre, the European of the present day.
In particular, what bothered me was this segment:
men, not sufficiently strong and far-sighted to allow, with sublime self-constraint, the obvious law of the thousandfold failures and perishings to prevail;
This sounded to me like an endorsement of some form of Social Darwinism. There is an interesting subreddit called /r/askphilosophy, where you can ask philosophical questions and get answers from philosophy students or professionals. I started a thread about this issue, but I came away somewhat disappointed. I didn’t get any answer from people with “flair”, i.e. people whose authority on the subject is recognized by that community (this doesn’t imply that the answers I did get are unauthoritative, only that there is no way for me to tell). I think the most relevant remark I got was to consider the original text:
Menschen, nicht stark und fernsichtig genug, um, mit einer erhabenen Selbst-Bezwingung, das Vordergrund-Gesetz des tausendfaeltigen Missrathens und Zugrundegehns walten zu lassen;
I happen to know German, and the word Zugrundegehns translates more accurately to downfall rather than perishing and is a Nietzsche favorite, even when talking about a person’s individual struggle. What I take away from this is that he is not advocating to let people die. What exactly he is advocating is hard to say (likely it has to do with the benefits of some form of harshness), but I think it’s fair to say it’s not Social Darwinism.
4. Apophthegms and interludes
Nowadays we would call this chapter a collection of “quotables”. He jumps from topic to topic, so it’s impossible to summarize it. I will just mention a few topics.
At this point one has to address the issue of sexism. It needs to be said that a few of these sayings are sexist, some of which irredeemably so. A couple of examples:
Where there is neither love nor hatred in the game, woman’s play is mediocre.
In the eyes of all true women science is hostile to the sense of shame. They feel as if one wished to peep under their skin with it — or worse still! under their dress and finery.
It might be possible to mine some of these precarious quotes for wisdom and insight, say for example:
The same emotions are in man and woman, but in different TEMPO, on that account man and woman never cease to misunderstand each other.
but, a century later, we know it would be absolutely necessary to make certain disclaimers. At the very least, one would have to say “men, on average”, and “women on average”, and if possible, quote a few scientific studies. Also, one would have to distinguish between “being a woman” and “being feminine”. In short, I didn’t find these quotes to be his most interesting insights, but thought I might mention them, you know, to be politically correct.
On another note, here’s an interesting quotable:
What is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil.
My interpretation: if you do something out of love you aren’t being moral because you aren’t doing it out of duty. But, I would add, that doesn’t preclude one to decide to be moral out of love. Duty can follow from love.
5. The natural history of morals
In this chapter, Nietzsche makes an interesting remark: philosophers, until now, have tried to ground morality, that is they assumed their morality is correct and tried to find justifications for it, in a supreme feat of backward-rationalization. The correct approach, though, is to start by deconstructing morality. One has to describe it, how it came to be and how it evolved over time, before a science of morality can arise.
Morality as instinct
Morality is an instinct that manifests itself as an internal commanding voice, as the conscience. The need to obey something.
it is ‘nature’ therein which […] implants the need for limited horizons, for immediate duties […] ‘Thou must obey some one, and for a long time; OTHERWISE thou wilt come to grief, and lose all respect for thyself’ — this seems to me to be the moral imperative of nature
Morality as backwards-rationalization
We create morals to justify our deepest biases. People with different instincts will produce different morals. The determining factor is the strength of the will of the person. The stronger your will, the more the world will push back, the more it will be dangerous. Some rare people are comfortable with the dangers of command, Nietzsche’s prime example being Napoleon.
People who highly value safety aren’t comfortable with the dangers of command: they have a weak will. Their conscience says is: everyone should act to make everyone more safe. The individual shouldn’t be strong, rather, everyone else shouldn’t be strong enough to be harmful. The elevation of compassion, or love for one’s neighbor, as a value, is the expressions of an underlying fear of the neighbor. Everything that elevates the individual above the pack is dangerous, therefore bad. This morality of fearfulness, this flattening (and deterioration) of social hierarchies finds its culmination in Judeo-Christianity, and continues in Western culture as the democratic ideal, the idea that each individual has the same fundamental value.
In other words, the very idea that is at the bottom of our civilization, the idea that every individual has value, is just the expression of fear. To put it bluntly: you want to have unconditional value because you would be scared to live in a world where you have to prove your value. Even more bluntly: your moral system is there to apologize for your weakness.
Morality as a disciplining force
Nietzsche also observes that the subjugation to a set of ideas also has some benefits:
[…] there should be long OBEDIENCE in the same direction, there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living; for instance, virtue, art, music, dancing, reason, spirituality — anything whatever that is transfiguring, refined, foolish, or divine.
This is the case even for Christianity:
The long bondage of the spirit, the distrustful constraint in the communicability of ideas, the discipline which the thinker imposed on himself to think in accordance with the rules of a church or a court, or conformable to Aristotelian premises, the persistent spiritual will to interpret everything that happened according to a Christian scheme, and in every occurrence to rediscover and justify the Christian God: — all this violence, arbitrariness, severity, dreadfulness, and unreasonableness, has proved itself the disciplinary means whereby the European spirit has attained its strength, its remorseless curiosity and subtle mobility; […] this tyranny, this arbitrariness, this severe and magnificent stupidity, has EDUCATED the spirit; slavery, both in the coarser and the finer sense, is apparently an indispensable means even of spiritual education and discipline.
I think Jordan Peterson said something along the lines of this: Nietzsche claimed that Christianity caused its own downfall, by giving rise to the spirit that could conceive of the scientific method and thus put into question the foundations of of Christianity itself, bringing about the death of God. This seems to be a key argument for that view.
6. We scholars
In this chapter, Nietzsche expresses his desire for philosophers to go beyond theorizing and “play the terrible game”, live more dangerously, be “commanders and law-givers”. He warns against skepticism as excessive prudence, claiming that the need to know the absolute truth before you can act boils down to fearfulness, a sickness of the will. More generally, he seems to wish Europe became more strong-willed.
I should rather prefer the contrary — I mean such an increase in the threatening attitude of Russia, that Europe would have to make up its mind to become equally threatening — namely, TO ACQUIRE ONE WILL, by means of a new caste to rule over the Continent, a persistent, dreadful will of its own, that can set its aims thousands of years ahead; so that the long spun-out comedy of its petty-statism, and its dynastic as well as its democratic many-willed-ness, might finally be brought to a close. The time for petty politics is past; the next century will bring the struggle for the dominion of the world — the COMPULSION to great politics.
I can’t help thinking that some worked hard to make that vision come true, though on a more nationalistic level.
7. Our virtues
Here, Nietzsche takes more blows at our moral sensibilities. Morality is resentment and revenge against those who get what they want. A large spirit is more important than a moral one. Uninterested action is actually quite interested. Pity is a form of self-contempt. There is a higher value than the reduction of suffering: suffering elevates the human being; it is a necessary consequence of humans molding and shaping themselves. Humans like and value cruelty. Cruelty is needed even when seeking knowledge:
[…] let us consider that even the seeker of knowledge operates as an artist and glorifier of cruelty, in that he compels his spirit to perceive AGAINST its own inclination, and often enough against the wishes of his heart: — he forces it to say Nay, where he would like to affirm, love, and adore; indeed, every instance of taking a thing profoundly and fundamentally, is a violation, an intentional injuring of the fundamental will of the spirit, which instinctively aims at appearance and superficiality, — even in every desire for knowledge there is a drop of cruelty.
In the future, Nietzsche explains, morality will become like religion: something of the past. “Our” virtues will arise from ourselves, we will have to look for them. It won’t be possible to have a “good conscience” anymore: we will be aware that we are choosing our values, thus we will have to own them.
8. Peoples and countries
In this chapter, Nietzsche speaks about the Germans, the Romans, the Greek, the French, the English, the Jews… Just like when he speaks about women, Nietzsche conflates certain crucial concepts (in this case races, cultures and their intellectual exponents), or fails to make the distinction as explicitly as would be necessary today. Anyway, even if we take all his remarks as being cultural, with a century of history between him and us, including two world wars, the cold war and the advent of globalization, it’s hard to map his descriptions of his world to ours. It would be interesting to hear what he would have to say about us today (he would definitely express himself with angry tweets).
9. What is noble?
Nietzsche uses the last chapter of his book to further characterize the concept of nobility, the idea that there is a hierarchy of human beings, whereby the scope of society itself is to give rise to noble human beings — the aristocracy.
What characterizes noble people is their unshakable faith, respect in themselves. They don’t look for external validation. They are the origin and originators of value. What harms them is intrinsically bad. Their duty is never duty towards someone, it’s theirs. They express their will unapologetically. They live in fullness, abundance. Their benevolence, goodness and even pity are an overflowing of their power, they come from above, from the point of view of someone who rules and deserves to rule. Nietzsche associates both the capacity to suffer and to laugh with noble people.
Noble human beings are again opposed to slaves. Slaves are fundamentally pessimistic about life and humanity. They wait for permission — until they are too old and filled with resentment. Slave morality is an expression of that resentment, it is the morality of pity and self-pity. For slaves, good and bad boil down to nice and mean, whereas for the master they signify noble and despicable.
From the heights
Nietzsche ends his book with a poem. It’s a poem about living dangerously, about leaving old friends and finding new ones. These are the closing verses:
We keep our Feast of Feasts, sure of our bourne,
Our aims self-same:
The Guest of Guests, friend Zarathustra, came!
The world now laughs, the grisly veil was torn,
And Light and Dark were one that wedding-morn.
I am aiming to learn and integrate my culture by reading the great works of the past, writing and speaking about them. In particular, I try to extract principles that I can apply to my own life. There is no way I could do justice to a book as dense and as deep as Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. There would be so many ways to improve this summary, but after weeks and months of part-time reading and notetaking, I had to force myself to wrap up and move on. Nonetheless, I’m going to try to draw some personal conclusions about this work.
I have now accepted that to state my morality is to describe my deepest instincts or intuitions. I now sense that it’s impossible to justify/ground one’s moral axioms in something more rational or absolute, because every rational system inevitably comes with certain presuppositions.
Ultimately, the only measure of the appropriateness of a moral system can be how meaningful it feels to me, i.e. how many instincts it integrates. Mind me, this is not a rational justification of such a system, just a statement that I, as a living organism, can’t step out of that constraint: I already seek what is meaningful to me and I can’t do otherwise. The only thing I can do is acknowledge it and try to explore and consciously formulate what it is that feels meaningful to me.
Something Nietzsche did for me was to highlight two contradictory instincts/intuitions:
- Every human being has unconditional value.
- There are more and less noble human beings.
Both slave and master morality don’t account for one of these instincts, and are therefore unsatisfactory. I need a morality that accounts for both.
Here, a passage from the Bible comes to mind.
You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet (John 13:13–14).
There is an interesting paradox in this passage. There is a hierarchy, and Christ is on top. But Christ represents the principle of reaching down and lifting the bottom of the hierarchy. The existence of nobility is acknowledged, but the essence of nobility itself is to be ennobling. People are admirable to the degree that they are able to help others be admirable. True strength is the ability to make others strong.
By definition, the only way someone can actually reach the top is if everyone reaches the top at the same time. At which point the hierarchy transcends itself. This concept is echoed in the vow of certain Bodhisattvas to forsake nirvana until all beings have been liberated from suffering.
Who knows, maybe slave morality is only a degeneration of the true message of Judeo-Christianity, which is rather a collapse of slave and master morality. Maybe I am wrong, all I can say is that this view neatly integrates the contradictory instincts described above, thus becoming a morality that I can strive to live by. An other aspect is that I can now see my culture as in essence the effort of thousands of generations to make me more powerful. I feel grateful and excited for the opportunity to pay this great gift forward.