Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil, Part Five

Welcome to Part Five of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. I’m reading from the Kaufmann edition, but you can find this text online, for example, Ian Johnston’s.

This section is titled “Natural History of Morals.”

In this section, Nietzsche again notes the limited vision (and limited self-understanding) of philosophers. He points out that every philosopher has “wanted to supply a rational foundation for morality … but morality itself, however, was accepted as a given.” He adds, “even apart form such claims … one can still always ask: what does such a claim tell us about the man who makes it?”

In section 188, Nietzsche says that morality, in any form, is a restraint against nature or reason. He says,

What is essential ‘in heaven and on earth’ seems to be, to say it once more, that there should be obedience over a long period of time and in a single direction: given that, something always develops, and has developed, for whose sake it is worth while to live on earth; for example, virtue, art, music, dance, reason, spirituality — something transfiguring, subtle, mad, and divine.

Of special interest to readers of this book blog, on which I review so many romance novels, is this passage from section 189:

“…it was precisely during the most Christian period of Europe and altogether only under the pressure of Christian value judgments that the sex drive sublimated itself into love (amour-passion).”

Kauffman writes that “Nietzsche was the first to use sublimiren in its specifically modern sense, which is widely associated with Freud.” As Freud later contend in Civilization and Its Discontents, Nietzsche believed that there is an instinctual energy in human beings that doesn’t just evaporate — it has to do something. And he’s always looking at what these efforts in fact achieve, as opposed to what we say we are trying to achieve.

So, as he says in section 190, Plato didn’t just intellectually build on Socrates an elegant (and, from Nietzsche’s point of view, life-denying) ontology and epistemology, he was an obedient student who felt impelled to whip up something “noble” out of Socrates’ rather utilitarian (meaning pedestrian in Nietzsche’s term) ideas about the relationship of the good to self-interest. Nietzsche wants the reader to see that despite the veneer of “reason” in Platonism, it is a triumph of a certain kind of herd instinct. He prefigures deconstruction in comments like, “there is something in the morality of Plato that does not really belong to Plato but is merely encountered in his philosophy — one might say, in spite of Plato….”

Nietzsche makes some interesting points in section 192, that echo both some recent neuroscience (he refers to “laziness” of our minds, while today we might refer to “cognitive shortcuts”), as well as certain complaints people have about how the internet has affected reading:

Just as little as a reader today reads all of the individual words (let alone syllables) on a page — rather he picks about five words at random out of twenty and ‘guesses’ at the meaning that probably belongs to these five words — just as little do we see a tree exactly and completely with reference to leaves, twigs, color and form; it is so very much easier for us to simply improvise some strange approximation of a tree.”

In typical Nietzschean hyperbole and smirking wit, he adds, “All this means: basically and form time immemorial we are — accustomed to lying. Or to put it more virtuously and hypocritically, in short, more pleasantly: one is much more of an artist than one knows.”

In section 194 he remarks on the fact that people have different ideas of what is good, and they rank order goods differently. He uses the example of a man possessing a woman. Some men are content with having her body. Other men want body and mind. Still a third group “wants to be known abysmally deep down … he dares to let himself be fathomed.”

He performs a similar analysis of “helpful” people, who “dispose of the needy as of possessions,” and of the relationship of parents to their children (“in every new human being an unproblematic opportunity for another possession.” The idea is that the drive to obedience, and to enslave is at the root of some seemingly disparate phenomena.

In section 195 we get a reference to “the Jews” who

brought off that miraculous feat of an inversion of values, thanks to which life on earth has acquired a novel and dangerous attraction for a couple of millennia: their prophets have fused “rich,” “godless,” “evil,” “violent,” and “sensual” into one and were the first to use the word “world” as an opprobrium. This inversion of values (which includes the use of the word “poor” as synonymous with “holy” and “friend”) constitutes the significance of the Jewish people: they mark the beginning of the slave rebellion in morals.

This is the narrative Nietzsche details in Genealogy of Morality, and although he thinks “the Jews” started it, he thinks the Christians ramped it up, and modern secular philosophy is the worst of the batch. His main point is that monotheism wasn’t actually divinely inspired, but a human invention that came out of a particular people at a particular historical moment, for particular psychological purposes. When Nietzsche talks about “Jews,” “Christians,” or, even “philosophers” these are interchangeable for “adherents to this blinding problematic moral tradition which I am critiquing.”

The very short version of Nietzsche’s story is that (Roman empire, first through third centuries?) a priestly caste broke off from the leaders, got the slaves on its side, and then eventually convinced even the leaders, that everything they had previously labelled “good” (namely, strength, vigor, nobility, creativity, suffering, self-reliance, independence, etc.) should be re-labelled “Evil”, and everything that had been referred to pre-morally as “bad” (passivity, weakness, altruism, pity, comfort), is now “Good” in a moral sense.

He make a joke in another text when he notes that if you have to wonder who won in the battle of Rome versus Judea, just ask yourself where the seat of power of Christianity is … Rome!

In section 198, Nietzsche refers to this sort of morality, which has dominated, i various forms but always having the same basic premises, for thousands of years, as neither science nor wisdom, but “prudence, prudence, prudence, mixed with stupidity, stupidity, stupidity.”

In section 199, Nietzsche notes that in Europe a certain kind of man is glorified, “the only permissible kind of man… tame, easy to get along with, and useful to the herd”, someone with public virtues like, “benevolence, consideration, industriousness, moderation, modesty, indulgence and pity.” And yet (in a disturbingly prophetic turn of phrase) “the appearance of one who commands unconditionally strikes these herd-animal Europeans as an immense comfort and salvation from a gradually intolerable pressure, as was last attested in a major way by Napoleon’s appearance.”

I’m going to wrap the end up quickly, as I’ve exceeded my self-imposed word limit on these posts: there’s a lot on fear as the root of morality in the end. So, “love of the neighbor” is “fear of the neighbor”, etc. The herd morality that now dominates should be but one possible morality, alongside other types, especially “higher” moralities that celebrate “high and independent spirituality, the will to stand alone, even a powerful reason.” But the Judeo-Christian morality which dominated has to be the one true morality: “It says stubbornly and inexorably, ‘I am morality itself, and nothing besides is morality.’”

Nietzsche concludes by making reference to the rare man who “knows with all the knowledge of his conscience how man is still unexhausted for the greatest possibilities and how often the type ‘man’ has already confronted enigmatic decisions and new paths…”

5 responses

  1. Sorry, but I find Nietzsche pretty insufferable. He’s an elitest. I feel like he’s a cog in the wheel of the powerful that allows and promotes the current power structure to be thought of as good and right. Almost to the point where I wonder whether or not he can really be that naive about the world around him, or if he’s simply writing propaganda or is he really a true believer who doesn’t know the propaganda he’s writing? Or perhaps I’m the naive one. Lately I’ve been looking into Ayn Rand and objectivism a bit because of mentions in the news (nothing in-depth really) and I’m finding similarities to some of the stuff Nietzsche presents here.

    While I’m reading this I’m left to wonder if the written word isn’t one of the most dangerous inventions of humankind.

    Can you tell me again why Nietzsche is to be considered so ‘fascinating?’

    PS. I will continue reading. I wonder as theoretical exercise if one were to introduce Nietzsche to the actual embodiment of the superior person he’s promoting how he would have judged him. Honestly, given Nietzsche’s own weaknesses, I fear that the superior being might have found him to be wanting and worthy of scorn (physical ailments, eventual mental breakdown, etc.) I’m left to wonder whether Nietzsche is ‘fooling himself’ with his own herd mentality.

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  2. @AQ: Good points. I agree he is an elitist, and so would he. He didn’t write with the kind of attention to the kinds of politically significant identities we would find important today — like class, race, gender, etc. So that’s a huge blind spot.

    Can you tell me again why Nietzsche is to be considered so ‘fascinating?’

    I can answer this only from my own very narrow path. As a philosophy professor steeped in a particular tradition, I see in Nietzsche a willingness to ask certain questions, to write in a certain way, and to make certain claims that are unique and important. But if someone isn’t interested in the philosophical tradition per se*, then I think he could be more off-putting than helpful.

    * I can compare this to romance. If someone is a dedicated romance reader, she might be really interested in things like new tropes, or old tropes being tweaked, or other forms of envelope pushing, and that might give her a way to appreciate romance novels she doesn’t actually much like. But a casual reader with little knowledge or concern for the way the book is challenging the romance genre is changing is merely asking “do I like this book” and if the answer is no, the book is worthless.

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  3. For the record, I don’t see his words or theories as worthless but he’s definitely not someone who can be read without context: both philosophical as well as a historical timeline. (Here’s what I’m thinking about historically while I read him and trying to place his word in context: the failed revolution of 1948, Germany becoming the German nation, the emigration of around 6 million ‘Germans’ to America during this 100 year span before WWI, European Imperialism, all of the skirmishes that weren’t war just pawn losses as their European parties moved their chess pieces across the board (Bismarck lost about 25,000 soldiers each year after he ‘formed the German nation’ but he’s historically thought of by many as ‘peaceful’), the rise of the workers, the rise of women, the three castes (aristocracy, military and workers) of Germany, etc.).

    Nietzsche isn’t coming right out and directly addressing any of these issues but he’s making pointed slaps throughout his discussion of morality: the reference to love vs. sex, the possession of women, equality of democracy, etc.

    For me the military saber rattling are echoing loudly and I don’t read this and think of an honest intellectual inquiry into philosophical reasoning of morality / good / evil, I hear purposeful political reasoning used to justify a right to power. (Again part of my biases.)

    One final thought: Is what we now classify as a psychopath someone Nietzsche might have considered ‘superior?’ (I know the word ‘psychopath’ brings a lot of negative baggage with it but some of his descriptions are similar to some of the articles I’ve recently read discussing their traits.)

    @Jessica:

    He didn’t write with the kind of attention to the kinds of politically significant identities we would find important today — like class, race, gender, etc. So that’s a huge blind spot.

    I tried to give a few example above of where my mind while reading this. Could you be more specific on what you mean?

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  4. @AQ: Of course you are right that history is important. As a typical philosopher trained in Anglo-Analytic philosophy, I pay little attention to it, and can’t comment at all on how Nietzsche’s historical context shaped his views.

    I hear purposeful political reasoning used to justify a right to power.

    That is definitely part of what is going on.

    As for my comment about race, class, and gender… it’s not that he didn’t notice these things, as you point out, it’s that he doesn’t seem to have the sense we do today about the ways these things can shape identity, nor the way they intersect with power, including political power.

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  5. @Jessica:

    As for my comment about race, class, and gender… it’s not that he didn’t notice these things, as you point out, it’s that he doesn’t seem to have the sense we do today about the ways these things can shape identity, nor the way they intersect with power, including political power.

    I will think on this further because I’m not sure I understand the nuances of what you’re trying to convey. I understand the individual words and have a general sense of your meaning but I have no idea how to apply it to this conversation. I’ll get back to you once I can come up with an actual question that gets to the heart of my disconnect.

    That is definitely part of what is going on.

    I think part of the difference is that I see this as the real intent of his writing as opposed to just a piece of it.**

    BTW: My reading of Chapter 5 & 6 was done with Marion Faber’s version. I just pulled out the Gutenberg translation (Helen Zimmern) for Chapter 6 and OY!!! the words and how they are put together make a difference on what is being conveyed. Faber’s Chapter 6 is still screaming political to me. But this time I’ll read both versions before commenting on Chapter 6.

    ** Note: I will try re-reading Chapter 5 with the Zimmer translation and see if the language choices change how I view the text.

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