Introduction to Nietzsche: Weakness Corrupts
It is difficult to approach a thinker like Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). Oftentimes in order to understand a philosopher, we must delve into their ideas in full context, in order to understand the nuances of their thought. It’s tempting to seek out a quick, easy summary of a philosopher’s ideas. With someone like Nietzsche, that presents a huge problem. So much of the popular consciousness surrounding Nietzsche is influenced by the quick and dirty explanations of his ideas given by popular figures or agenda-driven pseudo-philosophers.
Nevertheless, here I am writing a quick and dirty introduction to Friedrich Nietzsche. So, if you came looking for that sort of thing, you’re in luck.
The difficulties in giving a brief overview of Nietzsche’s outlook are even greater than in the case of most philosophers, because the man was defiantly anti-system. “I mistrust all systematizers and avoid them,” he writes in Twilight of Idols, I.26. “ The will to a system is a lack of integrity.” Walter Kaufmann, who provided perhaps the best English translations of Nietzsche, calls him “systematically anti-systematic”.
It is for this reason that most people end up approaching Nietzsche through or one or two of his “big ideas”: the really famous ideas and thought experiments that everyone associates with Nietzsche. These include the idea of the Death of God, Eternal Recurrence of the same events, the Übermensch, and the Will to Power.
So, we’ll pick one of those. We’ll introduce Nietzsche here through the concept of the Will to Power.
The popular saying goes: Power corrupts — absolute power corrupts absolutely.
The Nietzschean inversion of this popular wisdom is thus: Weakness corrupts — and absolute weakness corrupts absolutely.
This is the basic idea behind the concept of Will to Power. It is also a summary of Nietzsche’s basic contribution to human psychology. Nietzsche, who wrote that psychology was the route to the most fundamental human questions, is often considered a proto-psychologist. He was heavily influential on the likes of Sigmund Freud and C. G. Jung.
For the sake of clarity, I must stress that my formulation above is not a direct quote from the works or notes of Friedrich Nietzsche. It is my own coinage, a simple reversal of the popular moral idiom. As such, we’ll now make the case in Nietzsche’s own words.
In aphorism #348 of The Dawn, Nietzsche writes:
One should distinguish well: whoever still wants to gain the consciousness of power will use any means… He, however, who has it, has become very choosy and noble in his tastes.
It is through the want of power — to want is to lack — that people commit evil deeds. Only the impotent person, Nietzsche writes in The Dawn #371 “wishes to hurt and see signs of suffering.” Oftentimes, people lash out and hurt others simply to gain a consciousness of their own power. In Nietzsche’s view, true malevolence is actually rather rare: people hurt not for the aim of hurting, but to enjoy the power of hurting.
A person who is secure in himself and in his own character would not need to create suffering, because the truly powerful have no need to demonstrate their power. To the extent that a powerful person does hurt others, Nietzsche says that he does this “without thinking of it.” (Ibid) Power ennobles the mind: Nietzsche thinks a person is actually improved when they are liberated from trivial concerns and menial tasks.
Kaufmann gives an example of how a noble-minded person might cause suffering without thinking of it, in his book, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Anti-Christ (pg. 193):
A good illustration… would be Goethe, whose loves Nietzsche probably had to learn by heart, like most other German students. Goethe — as German teachers like to point out — broke Friederike’s heart by lavishing his love upon her and then not marrying her: here is one of the seeds of the Gretchen tragedy. Goethe, however, had no thought of seeing the poor girl suffer. Only the weak need to convince themselves and others of their might by inflicting hurt: the truly powerful are not concerned with others but act out of a fullness and an overflow.
Nietzsche correlated power with qualities like truthfulness, restraint, and discipline. Power is first and foremost a form of self-mastery, and it was the nobility of past ages who were first educated and brought up through a course of mental discipline. He correlated weakness, meanwhile, with impulsive behavior, resentment, and self-hatred.
We should take note that Nietzsche has therefore associated conventionally moral traits with strength and conventionally immoral traits with weakness.
There is an argument to be made that he’s doing this intentionally, as an attack on the Christian morality. Christianity idealizes martyrdom, claims “blessed are the poor of spirit” and “the meek shall inherit the Earth”. One aspect of the Nietzschean critique of Christianity is that the Christian appraisal of weakness is backward.
That said, Nietzsche is not out to define power as “good” because it leads to conventionally “good” traits of character. On the contrary, Nietzsche is revealing to us that the conditions we think lead to our ideas of “goodness” are often flawed and tautological. While we think that suffering is good for the soul, or that humility brings character, Nietzsche writes, on the contrary (in The Dawn #571):
Medical Kit of the Soul: What is the strongest healing application? — Victory.
Kaufmann’s commentary (Ibid) on this passage is as follows:
This is not a doctor’s prescription, as it were, but an improvisation from a ‘medical kit’ (Feld-Apotheke); it is a strong — ‘the strongest’ — medicine, and thus it is dangerous and not to be prescribed generally.
This is because, as Nietzsche writes in Human, All Too Human #444, “[war] makes… the vanquished malicious”. The danger Kaufmann mentions is that war also makes the victor stupid, as Nietzsche says in that same passage. A discussion of Nietzsche’s views on war would be beyond the scope of this article; nevertheless, the relation of these observations to our central point should be clear: when people are dominated and oppressed, they are not made better on this account. They are made worse.
Nietzsche’s principal work concerning this idea is On The Genealogy of Morality. The morality of weakness, or the “slave morality”, as Nietzsche here calls it, both cultivates resentment and is driven by resentment. (Nietzsche uses the French term ressentiment, which has the same meaning as the English word resentment).
In that work, resentment is identified as a psychological poison. It is characterized by the desire for revenge — which sometimes takes the form of a mere imagination of vengeance (especially in religion). The resentful person does harm, causes suffering. Sometimes, he does damage to society and culture. The tragic part is that this is all to no benefit. The resentful person destroys for an imagined benefit: the idea of justice, in the sense of “getting even”.
Accordingly, Nietzsche says that resentment-based morality is fundamentally outer-directed. This type of morality is defined by the enemy, the other, the threat. This is in contrast to the morality of the powerful, who are inner-directed. Nietzsche writes in Genealogy of Morality, I.10:
The beginning of the slaves’ revolt in morality occurs when ressentiment itself turns creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of those beings who, denied the proper response of action, compensate for it only with imaginary revenge. Whereas all noble morality grows out of a triumphant saying ‘yes’ to itself, slave morality says ‘no’ on principle to everything that is ‘outside’, ‘other’, ‘non-self ’: and this ‘no’ is its creative deed. This reversal of the evaluating glance — this essential orientation to the outside instead of back onto itself — is a feature of ressentiment: in order to come about, slave morality first has to have an opposing, external world, it needs, physiologically speaking, external stimuli in order to act at all, — its action is basically a reaction. The opposite is the case with the noble method of valuation: this acts and grows spontaneously, seeking out its opposite only so that it can say ‘yes’ to itself even more thankfully and exultantly, — its negative concept ‘low’, ‘common’, ‘bad’ is only a pale contrast created after the event compared to its positive basic concept, saturated with life and passion, ‘we the noble, the good, the beautiful and the happy!
What are the implications here?
Well, first of all: that the ability to be concerned with yourself alone is a privilege of the powerful.
Secondly: The desire to cause suffering in others (cruelty) arises as a condition of weakness.
Nietzsche says that “love of one’s enemy” (a Christian virtue!) is only really possible among the powerful and/or noble. The meek shepherd does not really have access to the ability to “love one’s enemy” — this is why such a concept becomes so mysterious, divine, and sacred to him, because it is so contrary to his nature. The true nature of the weak is to be vindictive and unproductive, in Nietzsche’s view. They experience self-hatred and engage with the world on the basis of that hatred because they find their power is lacking.
We can therefore reject the characterization of Nietzsche’s Will to Power as merely validating the actions of the powerful. There are definite signs of a nobly-minded person. Nietzsche describes the virtues of such a person in one passage in Genealogy (II.10):
It is not unthinkable that a society might attain such a consciousness of power that it could allow itself the noblest luxury possible to it — letting those who harm it go unpunished. ‘What are my parasites to me?’ it might say. ‘May they live and prosper: I am strong enough for that!’ … This self-overcoming of justice: one knows the beautiful name it has given itself — mercy….
While it is hardly a flattering view of the underclass to designate them as ‘parasites’, Nietzsche believes that the parasitical relation between the “great people” and the masses is natural. It is even a sign of how powerful someone actually is, as he reiterates in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (I.19):
What is the highest of all species of being, and what is the lowest? The parasite is the lowest species; he, however, who is of the highest species feedeth most parasites. For the soul which hath the longest ladder, and can go deepest down: how could there fail to be most parasites upon it?
This is not to say that the weak don’t have their own ideas of compassion and mercy. Just as Nietzsche says that the strong have a different type of justice from the weak, and that these two types of justice are two radically different concepts confounded under a single label (Human, All Too Human, #451) — similarly, the strong have their own kind of compassion. In Nietzsche’s view, it is a more authentic compassion.
It is only the powerful person who has any choice in whether they act with mercy or cruelty, since the powerful are those who have the ability to requite. It is when someone hurts you, and you find you are stifled or unable to repay them for it that you begin to feel resentment. Eventually, such a person becomes cruel by nature — just like a beaten dog becomes mean by nature. This is the real danger of the “poison of resentment”. The later acquisition of power doesn’t necessarily undo the damage that has already been done to the psyche —weakness has already corrupted them.
I’ve chosen this explanation of Will to Power as an introduction to Nietzsche for a few reasons. For one, Nietzsche’s view of power exemplifies his penchant for cultural criticism. His view goes against the grain of all the easy-to-swallow moral sentiments we’ve all been fed since childhood. Secondly, I think we must contextualize Will to Power as a description of human psychology and culture rather than an abstract, metaphysical principle. Finally, and most impotantly, it also points to one of Nietzsche’s more subtle ideas: the illusory nature of antitheses.
It is very easy to accept the dualistic, Christian narrative of the corrupting influence of power. Our cultural instincts prime us to separate people into opposing categories: the evil, powerful villain; the innocent, weak victim. According to Nietzsche, however, all our grace, restraint, mercy and justice is handed down from those who were privileged and powerful. Meanwhile, the Christian religion — the religion of masses, in Nietzsche’s times — is merely masquerading as a religion of love and pity, and is actually driven by self-hatred.
The popular consciousness regards concepts such as good and evil as possessing a sort of opposite essence. We think in terms of these mutually exclusive concepts, like truth and falsehood. But Nietzsche believed that all these human phenomena had a natural origin rather than a supernatural one. The idea of an antithesis therefore demands a natural explanation.
“How can a thing develop out of its antithesis?” Nietzsche wondered in Human, All Too Human (I.1), “for example, the reasonable from the non-reasonable, the animate from the inanimate, the logical from the illogical, altruism from egoism, disinterestedness from greed, truth from error?”
Nietzsche’s argument was that, where we see antitheses, there are only gradations and mixtures. He argues for the adoption of a truly historical philosophy — which he defines as a philosophy that does not simply try to justify the prejudices of its own time and place. He says that a historical philosopher would conclude that “there are no antitheses”. In Nietzsche’s view, truth is simply a rarefied form of illusion, and selflessness is a sophisticated manifestation of vanity.
The same holds true for power and weakness, cruelty and mercy. Both the strong person and the weak person are equally driven by Will to Power. The difference between them is not one of essence, but of circumstances.