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Nietzsche’s Immoralism

In writing about Nietzsche’s immoralism I am going to ask a simple question about him, something that is difficult to do: it is hard to hold onto anything simple in the face of this determined joker, who loved masks and hidden things, and whose protean style is sometimes of the most lapidary aphoristic simplicity but often lush and rhetorical. It has been said that Thus Spake Zarathustra should be read as an opera, and it is surely a great shame that we never had a rendition by Anna Russell of those wild journeys between mountain, marketplace, and cave.

Nietzsche thought he could discredit morality; and I want to ask, “Was he right?” I think the question should be asked. It is always respectful to ask of a great philosopher whether what he says is true, and hardly respectful not to ask it. Why do so many contemporary moral philosophers, particularly of the Anglo-American analytic school, ignore Nietzsche’s attack on morality and just go on as if this extraordinary event in the history of thought had never occurred? It is true, of course, that it is hard for those of us who belong to the plain-speaking school of analytic philosophers to grapple with his work. We are used to ferreting out entailments, and lines of argument, and building up a theory from individual passages. And I do not think that one can work on Nietzsche quite like that. The unity of his writings—which is most remarkable in spite of their amazing richness and many superficial contradictions—comes from his attitudes, from his daring, his readiness to query everything, and from his special nose for vanity, for pretense, for timid evasion, and for that drive to domination which he finally supposed to be the principle of all life.

One must take account of Nietzsche’s attitudes; of the contempt he felt for modern European man, for the “newspaper-reading” public,1 for democracy, for nationalism, for Bismarck and all things German (save for Goethe, “the exception among Germans”2 ). And account too, of course, of his vituperative attitude to Christianity, which he saw as the religion of pity and weakness but also, at times, as the beneficially tyrannical source of spiritualization in man.3 One has to remember that Nietzsche was one who wanted to be an affirmer, not a caviler, who repeatedly praised lightness of spirit, and wrote much about dancing and laughter. When he put forward his strange theory of the eternal recurrence of all things—round and round again—this was most significantly a rejection of gloomy nihilism and a way of saying “yes” even to his own physically painful, and painfully lonely, life.

All this, and much more, is needed to interpret Nietzsche. But what, then, can he have to offer to the descendants of Frege and Russell, of G.E. Moore and Wittgenstein? What can we ourselves take from the strange Nietzschean symphony of subjectively interrelated attitudes and beliefs? Even in those matters in which there is overlap between his interests and ours, can we assume that he is seriously concerned with the truth? Was it not Nietzsche who saw truth in terms of divergent “perspectives,” and who insisted on questioning the value of truth itself? He said all this, and meant it. Nevertheless he saw as a great sign of those things he so much celebrated, “strength” and “life,” the ability to face reality as it is. Honesty (Redlichkeit) was, he wrote, the one virtue that he and other “free spirits” must take from morality, that they could not leave behind:

let us work on it with all our malice and love and not weary of “perfecting” ourselves in our virtue, the only one left us….And if our honesty should nevertheless grow weary one day and sigh and stretch its limbs and find us too hard let us dispatch to her assistance whatever we have in us of devilry….4

Nietzsche may have thought of even his own views as merely his truths (whatever exactly that means). But his love of truth was based on one of the strongest things in him, that is on his contempt for evasive falsification. So in spite of all the discouraging omens, I want to ask what truth there could be in the doctrine that makes us name Nietzsche, as he sometimes named himself, “immoralist.”

Nietzsche’s immoralism! A host of problems and many interpretations live together under this roof. Was he perhaps preaching in favor of a new morality rather than against morality as such? I think not. Nor was Nietzsche simply a run-of-the-mill moral relativist. He branded as “childish” the idea that no morality can be binding because moral valuations are necessarily different among different nations.5 So even his arguments for the subjectivity of moral judgment were idiosyncratic. He saw different moralities as determined by the desires and needs of peoples and generations: at one time the need to control aggressive individuals when they were no longer useful in meeting external enemies; in the long reign of Christianity the desire of the weak and “misbegotten” to brand themselves as “good” and those stronger characters, whom they feared, as “evil”; in modern Europe the longing of the mediocre “to look nobler, more important, more respectable, ‘divine.”’6 Throughout all these changes morality was, Nietzsche insisted, fundamentally a subterfuge by which the weak—the members of the herd—tried to dress up their weakness and their fears as “goodness,” a device by which they produced self-doubt and a bad conscience in those who, as nobles, had once unquestioningly called themselves good. The “nobles,” the type of the original barbaric Greek and the Renaissance Man, had called “inferior” men bad (schlecht) only by contrast to themselves. The “inferiors” on the other hand needed to see dangerous men as “evil” (böse) so as to see themselves as good.

In suggesting that different moralities were rooted in the different needs, fears, and desires of different peoples Nietzsche was applying to valuations the characteristically Nietzschean “perspectivism”: the interpretation by historical genealogy, and above all by underlying desires, that he applied to all modes of thought. He applied it particularly to abstract philosophies, which he saw as expressing instincts, needs, and fears rather than that will-o’-the-wisp, “pure thought.” Thoughts, he said, “are the shadows of our feelings, always darker, emptier, and simpler.”7 But there is, of course, something more specific than this in Nietzsche’s insistence that “there are no moral facts.”8

This problem of the value of pity and of the morality of pity…seems at first sight to be merely something detached, an isolated question mark; but whoever sticks with it and learns how to ask questions here will experience what I experienced—a tremendous new prospect opens up for him, a new possibility comes over him like a vertigo, fear leaps up, his belief in morality, in all morality, falters—finally a new demand becomes audible…we need a critique of moral values, the value of these values themselves must…be called in question….9

Nietzsche says that he is going to query the value of moral values, which suggests that he has some other value in play. And there is, indeed, a positive side to Nietzsche’s ideology. He is affirming a special kind of aestheticism, and attacking morality partly on its own ground but partly in the interest of what he calls the “ascending” type of man. What was to be seen as “good” was the “strong,” “fine,” “noble,” “subtle” type of human being. This free and joyous spirit, subjecting himself to the sternest discipline but accepting no rule from others, was sometimes seen by Nietzsche as the “overman,” the superman of Nietzschean popular legend: that is as one who belonged to the future. But actual human beings might be seen as stepping stones or bridges on the way to this future. The important question to ask about any man was whether he represented an ascending or descending type. This was the profound classification, and determined the worth for the particular instance of those elements of character and action that moralists wrongly thought significant in themselves. So egoism, for instance, should not be thought of as either bad or good in all individuals.

The value of egoism depends on the physiological value of him who possesses it: it can be very valuable, it can be worthless and contemptible. Every individual may be regarded as representing the ascending or descending line of life. When one has decided which, one has thereby established a canon for the value of his egoism.10

Nietzsche thus, very characteristically, saw our common moral classifications as reflecting reality in a herdbased way that was deleterious to the exceptional man. What was worst about them, and was common to all morality, was the attempt to determine the value of any kind of conduct in the case of each and every person. “Good and evil the same for all,” he scoffed. There could be no beneficial rules of conduct. “A virtue has to be our invention, our most personal defence and necessity: in any other sense is merely a danger.”11 And again, ” ‘Good’ is no longer good when one’s neighbor mouths it.”12 Thus Nietzsche thinks of value as belonging only to a person who has created his own character in a pattern that cannot be prescribed for others, and it is here that his shift from a moral to an aesthetic form of evaluation becomes clear. Not surprisingly, he is writing of what he himself, as a genius of style and image, knew best. Not for nothing does he say in one place, “We want to be the poets of our lives.”13

The discipline that he so much stresses for the creation of a splendid individual human being is modeled on the discipline of the artist. For an artist, rules would indeed be beside the point: the goodness of what he or she makes cannot be the same as the goodness of other artists’ work, as if there could be a manual for producing what is good. This analogy seems to be an essential element in Nietzsche’s aestheticism—in his shift from moral to aesthetic valuation. Theoretically, it is separate from his perspectivism, since, after all, the absence of rules for artistic creativity does not entail the subjectivity of aesthetic judgment. But when the individual himself is both artist and art-work they come together in the fact of his special “interpretation” of the world, the interpretation that determines what he sees as good.

There have been many attempts to see all this as an inspiring call to a kind of joyous paganism that would leave us with all that is best in morals. Can this be sustained? I think not, just because of Nietzsche’s attack on the universalism in morality. He insists that there are no kinds of actions that are good or bad in themselves, and this has, it seems, a fatal implication for the teaching of justice. It is justice—understood as one of the four cardinal virtues and as having to do with all that one person owes another—that forbids such acts as murder, torture, and enslavement and brands them as evil, whoever carries them out. Nietzsche, on the other hand, says that there is nothing good or evil “the same for all,” and he tells us we must look to see what kind of a person is doing an action before we can determine its “value.”

  1. 1

    Beyond Good and Evil, 263.

  2. 2

    The Gay Science, 103.

  3. 3

    Beyond Good and Evil, 188.

  4. 4

    Beyond Good and Evil, 227.

  5. 5

    The Gay Science, 345.

  6. 6

    The Gay Science, 352.

  7. 7

    The Gay Science, 179.

  8. 8

    Twilight of the I dols, VII, 1.

  9. 9

    Genealogy of Morals, preface, 6.

  10. 10

    Twilight of the I dols, 33.

  11. 11

    The Antichrist, 11.

  12. 12

    Beyond Good and Evil, 43.

  13. 13

    The Gay Science, 299.

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