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.”

If this implies, as it seems, that not even the most flagrant acts of injustice can be called evil in themselves, then was Thomas Mann not perhaps right in saying that Nietzsche had not faced the reality of evil? Mann said in 1947,

How bound in time, how theoretical too, how inexperienced does Nietzsche’s romanticizing about wickedness appear…today! We have learned to know it in all its miserableness.14

Mann was writing, of course, soon after the facts about Belsen and Buchenwald, and their images, had come to haunt us. So however much the Nazis had had to distort Nietzsche in order to claim him as one of their prophets, Nazi actions and Nietzsche’s reputation may be linked in the way suggested by Mann; that is, in the way his treatment of evil has to look to us in the light of what they did.

It may be argued that this is unfair to Nietzsche. It may be pointed out that neither Hitler nor Stalin were individuals of whom it should be thought for a moment that they embodied his ideals. J.P. Stern is surely mistaken when he writes, “No man came closer to the full realization of self-created ‘values’ than…Hitler.”15 Nietzsche is, after all, vituperative about merely cruel monsters, and while, to be sure, he praises the (as he says) “pranksomely” ruthless “nobles” above the resentful “herd” Alexander Nehamas seems right to say that they do not need to be seen as his ideal for all times.

Nietzsche’s defenders may, of course, also remind us of what he said about the need to discipline the passions, which is indeed a central element in his philosophy. For Nietzsche is not at all like Callicles, the immoralist in Plato’s Gorgias, whose ideal is that of the libertine. Nietzsche preaches hardness and self-mastery. The passions are not to be weakened or extirpated, but used in the creation (once more one thinks “it’s like the artist’s creation”) of the self. Moreover he puts forward a doctrine of the sublimation of the passions (he was one of the first actually to use the term “sublimieren“), believing for instance, that the “drive” of cruelty could be turned into a desire for truth. It will be said therefore that Nietzsche did not actually countenance acts of injustice in substituting for morality’s canon against such things as murder and oppression his own prescription of self-creation. Did he perhaps believe that no one who truly embodied the Nietzschean ideal would ever find himself in such actions? Might the ideal of self-realization turn out in the end to be unshocking?

I am sure that something of all this is true, and that one side of Nietzsche would have welcomed such an accommodation. He speaks of gentleness, in some convincing passages; and he was himself, I would suppose, for all his insistence on the beneficial effect of suffering, actually over-sensitive to it in others, really experiencing pity as he notoriously represented it—as “suffering’s contagion.” The character of the man himself shows too in his heroes and the books he loved. Cesare Borgia was not a hero of his, in spite of his preference “even,” as he notoriously said, for him over a meanspirited member of “the herd.” True, he admired Napoleon, but said that he was “half superman half monster.”

Nietzsche’s great hero was, it seems, Goethe, whom he praised especially for his molding of sensuality and spirit into a harmonious self. And among the literary works Nietzsche most loved there were not only the novels of Stendhal and Dostoevsky but also two quiet-mannered books, Eckerman’s Conversations with Goethe and Emerson’s Essays, a book he “felt at home in” and seems to have kept by him for much of his life. (One gets interesting light on Nietzsche from both of these works.)

Nevertheless there was a side of Nietzsche’s deeply pathological psyche that seems to have gloried in the fact that his immoralism allowed, if done by certain people, even terrible deeds. Unlike other proponents of self-realization Nietzsche does not say that these acts could never be a sign of health and of truly “becoming what one is.” On the contrary he stresses the fearfulness of his “revaluation of values.” He insists that he has set out on a journey over terrifying seas, and, from the time in the early Eighties when he first started to attack morality, to the end of his working life, one can find passages that stress the fearfulness of his thought, and seem to license injustice.

In The Gay Science of 1882 he writes,

Hatred, the mischievous delight in the misfortunes of others, the lust to rob and dominate, and whatever else is called evil belongs to the most amazing economy of the preservation of the species.16

And again in the same work

Some kinds of hatred, jealousy, stubbornness, mistrust, hardness, avarice, and violence…belong among the favorable conditions without which any great growth even of virtue is scarcely possible. The poison of which weaker natures perish strengthens the strong nor do they call it poison.17

Four years later, in Beyond Good and Evil, he writes that

everything evil, terrible, tyrannical in man, everything in him that is kin to beasts of prey and serpents, serves the enhancement of the species “man” as much as its opposite does.18

And in a note from 1887 included in the Nachlass collection The Will to Power:

when one makes men more evil, one makes them better—…one cannot be one without being the other—…At this point the curtain rises on the dreadful forgery of the psychology of man hitherto.19

Perhaps these passages are not absolutely decisive. Perhaps Nietzsche is talking about “drives” that might be “enhanced” and “strengthened” before being sublimated into harmless actions. But this does not seem at all plausible in the face of his insistence that his doctrine is a fearful one.

In any case I do not think it should be argued that the virtue of justice can be accommodated within Nietszche’s picture of splendid individuals finding each his own values and “his own way.” For there is something in Nietzsche’s description of this “higher type” of human being that positively tells against it. I mean the way in which the self-guiding person is described as seeing those whom he counts as “inferiors.” One simply cannot ignore all that Nietzsche says, approvingly, of the experience, the feeling, the “pathos” as he likes to put it, “of distance,” of being not just apart from, but higher than, those who belong to “the herd.” Nietzsche says at one point that contempt is better than hatred, and of course he thinks the idea of equality utterly despicable.

Now what I wonder is this: whether the practice of justice may not absolutely require a certain recognition of equality between human beings, not a pretense of equality of talents but the equality that is spoken of in a passage of Gertrude Stein’s when she says (pretending to be Alice B. Toklas) that she herself had a sense of equality, and that was why people would help her. “The important thing…is that you must have deep down as the deepest thing in you a sense of equality.” This is particularly striking in Gertrude Stein, who was certainly not one to underestimate her own individuality, talent, or place in literary history. The sense of equality that she is thinking of must, surely, have to do with thinking that one is always, fundamentally, in the same boat as everybody else, and therefore that it is quite unsuitable for anyone to see himself as “grand.”

Perhaps I am wrong in thinking of this sense of equality as necessary for the practice of justice. That the two are connected seems, however, to be supported in a certain passage I once came across in which G.K. Chesterton wrote about Charles Dickens. Dickens, Chesterton said,

did not dislike this or that argument for oppression: he disliked oppression. He disliked a certain look on the face of a man when he looks down on another man. And the look on that face is the only thing in the world that we really have to fight between here and the fires of hell.20

Nietzsche’s endless talk about inferiors and superiors, and the way he countenances some men looking down on others, together with his own readiness to sacrifice—to write off—the “mediocre,” confirms the impression that justice gets short shrift in his scheme of things: that it is quite wrong to see his “aesthetic” as taking nothing we think precious from the morality he attacks. Nietzsche’s defenders will rise up, of course, to insist that the “looking down” that he speaks of is nothing so crude as that of which G. K. Chesterton speaks. But the language of contempt is undeniably there. Nietzsche’s defenders are like those who say of Wagner that he is better than he sounds.

To our objections on behalf of justice Nietzsche would, no doubt, reply that what should be in question is not whether we want to hold on to a moral mode of valuation, but whether we can do so with honesty. For his contention is that morality is tainted by certain pious falsehoods that are necessary to it; so that morality, in praising honesty, sowed the seeds of its own demise. Therefore we do have to ask ourselves not just what Nietzsche’s own system of valuation amounts to but also if morality can withstand his attack.

What were these falsehoods—the “errors” that Nietzsche saw as endemic to morality?

First there is the belief in free will, which he challenged on the ground that will itself, as required for either free or unfree will, is nonexistent. What we call will is, he said, in truth nothing but a complex of sensations, as of power and resistance, and it is pure illusion to think of it as a basis for “moral responsibility.” Our actions arise not primarily from conscious motivations but rather from physiological and psychological factors of which we are unaware.

It follows, Nietzsche thinks, that men are totally innocent, as innocent as anything else in the world, though this, he says, is something we hate to accept.

Man’s complete lack of responsibility for his behavior and for his nature, is the bitterest drop which the man of knowledge must swallow if he had been in the habit of seeing responsibility and duty as humanity’s claim to nobility. All his judgments, distinctions, dislikes have thereby become worthless and wrong: the deepest feeling he had offered a victim or a hero was misdirected; he may no longer praise, no longer blame, for it is nonsensical to praise and blame nature and necessity. Just as he loves a good work of art, but does not praise it, because it can do nothing about itself, just as he regards a plant, so he must see the actions of men and his own actions.21

The topic of free will and moral responsibility is itself so large that one cannot quickly assess Nietzsche’s idea that there is an error on which morality is based. But it may be pointed out that the theory of the will that he attacks would find few defenders today; and of course few would deny unconscious motivation. Nevertheless moral, as opposed to aesthetic, evaluation does require some distinction between actions for which we are responsible and those for which we are not responsible. For moral evaluation describes a person in terms of virtues such as courage and justice and charity, and we cannot, of course, ascribe virtues to anyone without knowing first of all which of the things that he did were intended and which unintentional, and secondly which of the unintentional actions were due to lack of care, or to ignorance of that which he could and should have known.

It is not, however, obvious that these distinctions rest on a doctrine of “moral responsibility” that Nietzsche is in a position to deny. He is surely wrong in thinking that we might have to give up thinking in a special way about the goodness of men, that we should have to relinquish the concept of a virtue as it applies to human beings and not to plants or to the objects of aesthetic evaluation. The idea of a virtue might even be the correct starting point for a solution to the problem of moral responsibility. For the way in which moral responsibility exists can perhaps be traced precisely by asking how it enters into the concept of a virtue, as shown by the irrelevance to virtue of things done accidentally or in (many cases of) ignorance. And as for unconscious motivation: we might say that this is relevant to moral evaluation (as when we count a person’s deep hidden malice against a claim to the virtue of charity) without any implication that the subject is “responsible” for being as he is. So far from destroying morality, Nietzsche’s challenge to the possibility of distinctively moral evaluation may actually help us to see what it does and does not require.

Second among the “errors” Nietzsche claims to have found in morality there is the classification of types of actions under the descriptions “good” and “bad.” For Nietzsche’s objection to this we must go back once more to his scorn for the universality in moral judgment, his scorn for its branding of certain kinds of action as good or bad “for all.” This was not the commonplace insistence on the relevance of circumstances to moral good and evil. It was not that objection to absolutism which Nietzsche had in mind; he meant rather that moral generalization was impossible because the proper subject of valuation was, instead, a person’s individual act. We were to ask not what is done, but rather whom it is done by. He even said that no two actions can be the same, meaning, again, that each individual action takes its character from the character of the one who does it.

His chief defense for this comes, I think, from the skeptical eye that he casts over the motives of the actions that moralists call good. Thus he points out the vanity that is behind many acts of “kindness”: the wish to create a good opinion in others by a kindly deed, so as to be able to buy this good opinion back from them. (As T.S. Eliot said, “the endless struggle” to think well of ourselves.) The wish to be a benefactor was, he said, impertinent in its claims to understanding the one to whom “good” was done, and jealous in the desire to possess him. Where moralists find altruism Nietzsche sees various kinds of egoism, self-mistrust, and fear: above all the desire to “live abroad” with others rather than at home with oneself. Under the heading “The elevating aspect of our neighbor’s misfortune,” he says that we gather to bemoan the ill that has befallen him and “spend an enjoyable afternoon.” Nietzsche was a genius at finding hidden motivations, and it is not surprising that Freud found him so much of a kindred spirit that he deliberately avoided reading Nietzsche until his own work was well advanced.

It is surprising, however, that Nietzsche thought the discovery of the possibility of dubious motivation behind, for example, acts of “kindness” to be a count against the moral mode of valuation itself. For it is traditional in moral philosophy that actions are to be judged not only for the type of actions that they are but also as individual acts done by a particular agent at a particular time. Aquinas, for instance, pointed out that a concrete act could be spoiled, morally speaking, either by what it was “in its kind,” as for example murder or robbery, or by the motive from which it was done, using for this latter possibility the example of giving alms “for the praise of men.” If Nietzsche extends the range of experience in which the standard of honesty about motives applies, moralists should not take this amiss.

So far, then, Nietzsche seems to be on strong ground in his psychology, even if mistaken about the import of his psychological observations. It is not, however, always so, and the next of the “errors” he claims to find in morality sees him far out in a very doubtful field of psychological speculation. For he believed that he could discern the “drives” (Triebe) that motivate all human action, and could map their dependence on one another. He thought he knew, for instance, that “drives,” such as cruelty, that were branded by moralists as “evil,” were the condition of all “good.”

Thus, in Beyond Good and Evil he speaks of “the reciprocal dependence of the ‘good’ and the ‘wicked’ drives” and the derivation of good impulses from wicked ones; continuing, in a famous passage, that we

should regard even the affects of hatred, envy, covetousness, and the lust to rule as conditions of life, as factors which, fundamentally and essentially, must be present in the general economy of life (and must therefore be further enhanced if life is to be further enhanced). 22

This was a favorite thought of Nietzsche’s: one that he several times illustrated with the image of a tree which to flourish had to have its roots in the mud.23 He saw that his views about “evil” drives were inimical to morality, because morality has to set its face against certain desires; and he must surely be right about that. But whether there is the least warrant for the kind of psychological speculations that would support this part of Nietzsche’s immoralism is quite another matter. In the theory of “drives” that finally crystallized into the theory that all “drives” are contained in the Will to Power, Nietzsche seems to have fallen into the trap of working a modicum of psychological observation into an all-embracing theory which threatens to become cut off from facts that could possibly refute it. Nietzsche saw himself as a wonderful psychologist, but the truth is that he was partly a wonderful psychologist and partly a mere speculating philosopher far exceeding any plausible basis for his speculations.

Is no part of Nietzsche’s attack on morality, then, convincing? Probably not. It would be wrong, however, to conclude that we analytic philosophers should leave him alone. On the contrary, I think that he should shake us up. For his deepest conviction was that the fact that “God is dead” (so that nothing is guaranteed to us) could not leave our faith in morality unchanged.24 He was particularly scornful of “philosophers”—he singled out George Eliot—who were “fanatics” for morality in spite of their atheism. Nietzsche believed, in effect, that as the facts of human psychology really were, there could be no such things as human virtues, dispositions good in any man; and even if he did not prove it, might he not alert us to the fact that that could be how it is? For if “God is dead” what guarantees that there is a human aptitude for the virtue of justice, given that this requires quite generally that men and women can do certain things—as, for example, pass up great advantage in refraining from murder or theft and moreover do this in a certain way: that is without ulterior motive, false elevation, or bitterness? Wittgenstein has taught us to see the existence of some things we take for granted as being a remarkable fact. Should we, perhaps, see the capacity to acquire justice in this light, as depending on certain general human reactions to teaching, somewhat as it is with the capacity to learn to talk or to make calculations?

On grounds such as this, one can well believe that analytic philosophers must lose something if they do not study a philosopher as surpassingly bold and original as Nietzsche, if only because of his capacity to stretch our philosophical imagination. And of course if I am right there is also work to be done in criticizing his theories from the point of view of philosophical argument and truth. This is what I have been just beginning to do here. In a way it is bound to be a somewhat comical proceeding, because it has to be carried out at a schematic level that leaves behind all the riches of Nietzsche’s psychological insights and images. So one feels rather like a surveyor reducing a glorious countryside to contours, or like someone telling the Sirens they are singing out of tune. But that is not to say that this rather dry philosophical work can be left undone, especially if, as I think, Nietzschean teaching is inimical to justice. His teaching has been sadly seductive in the past. Who can promise that it will never be seductive again?

This Issue

June 13, 1991