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Beyond Good and Evil

Friedrich Nietzsche

9 - "What is Noble"

8 - "Peoples and Fatherlands"

"From High Mountains": Aftersong

Summary

According to Nietzsche, an aristocratic caste is fundamental to the ennoblement of the human species. This caste must believe that there is an order of rank that differentiates great humans from the commoners, and that they, as being of the highest rank, are the meaning and end goal of their society. Society exists in order to create the few exceptional individuals that are its crowning glory, that justify any sacrifice or hardship endured by that society. Life is will to power, says Nietzsche, and will to power is exploitation. All organic processes rely on some form of exploitation of the weaker by the stronger, and it is folly to try to eliminate this exploitation altogether.

Section 260 is a concise and definitive account of Nietzsche's conception of master and slave morality. The contrast of "good" and "bad" was developed by the aristocratic "masters," and is analogous to the contrast of "noble" and "contemptible." The masters see themselves- -strong, healthy, and powerful--as "good," and look down upon the weak, poor, unhappy slaves as "bad." The slaves, on the other hand, come to see their oppressive masters as "evil," and develop the concept of "good" to describe themselves in contrast to these masters.

These are the two fundamental types of morality in the world, and all modern moralities are some kind of amalgamation of these two. For instance, our concept of vanity is a combination of the masters' inclination to think well of themselves and the slaves' sense that their worth is determined by the opinion of other people. Thus, vanity is an attempt to make others think highly of oneself so as to convince oneself of this good opinion.

Nietzsche makes explicit his Lamarckism in section 264. Our character is to a large extent determined by the characters of our ancestors as determined by their station in life. Thus, some people are naturally disposed to being of a more noble character.

By simple majority rule, the exceptional is always marginalized. Nietzsche points to the development of language as a means of expressing what people share in common and can understand of one another. Whatever is exceptional and uncommon is thus necessarily difficult to express in language and difficult for the majority to understand. The greater a thought is, the longer it takes for posterity to recognize it. Higher spirits are thus always misunderstood and made to suffer. In order to ward of unwanted pity, these higher spirits create masks that conceal this suffering from the public. The only thing worse than being misunderstood is being understood; that would mean someone else had been made to endure their suffering as well.

Nietzsche also remarks on the solitude of people who aspire to rise above the masses. To such people, all company is a means, a delay, or a resting-place: until their goal is reached, nothing else is of any importance. Reflecting on this fact, Nietzsche suggests that perhaps it is not genius, but the opportunity to take full advantage of genius, that is so rare. The noble man is not distinguished by works or deeds so much as by a degree of self-respect that commoners lack.

After a rhapsodizing to his god, Dionysus, Nietzsche concludes by despairing that his thoughts cannot find adequate expression in language. While his thoughts were free, light, and malicious, rendering them into words has tied them in place, making them dull and solemn: "some of you are ready, I fear," Nietzsche says to them, "to become truths." Language can only capture thoughts and ideas that are relatively rigid and fixed: the most beautiful, free- moving thoughts always escape expression.

Commentary

This chapter is Nietzsche at his stylistically strongest, and consists in large part of small observations and remarks using a variety of authorial voices and styles that defy summary. In both the thoughts and the expression we get one of the more vivid portraits of the philosopher behind the philosophy. Nietzsche was a lonely man with very few friends, persistently misunderstood, and suffering both from this loneliness and from ill health. Remarkably, he didn't simply endure this suffering, but turned it to his advantage, crafting some of the most remarkable books of the nineteenth century. While one should never reduce a philosophy to biographical details, it is not hard to see why Nietzsche is at his clearest and most poetic when writing about the loneliness, hardships, and self-overcoming necessary to genius. We can also see why Nietzsche might write so vigorously about the self- torture necessary to self-ennoblement, about how the creator in us thrives only at the expense of the creature in us.

Not surprisingly, the most stylistically exciting chapter of the book deals to a large extent with the difficulties of finding the right words for a thought. According to Nietzsche, language is rigid and talks about facts and things, whereas the universe is fundamentally in flux: there are no fixed facts or things. Nietzsche expresses the difficulty of putting thoughts into words with the brilliant metaphor of thought as a bird in flight. He alludes to this metaphor in the last section of this chapter, but it finds a more concise expression in section 298 of The Gay Science:

I caught this insight on the way and quickly seized the rather poor words that were closest to hand to pin it down lest it fly away again. And now it has died of these arid words and shakes and flaps in them-- and I hardly know anymore when I look at it how I could ever have felt so happy when I caught this bird.

What makes a thought beautiful to Nietzsche is the way is "flies," the way a free and flexible mind can move around a topic, seeing it from different angles. Language, in adopting a particular point of view, clips the wings of a thought, awkwardly forcing it to remain in place. Thus, the translation of any thought into language necessarily kills the birdlike quality that is the essential beauty of that thought.

A writer must necessarily be "masked" because best thoughts defy expression, and so in writing at all, he is giving the public a falsified, rigidified picture of the whole. Interestingly, we find Plato--a writer Nietzsche accuses of dogmatism-- saying something very similar in Letter VII: "whenever we see a book...we can be sure that if the author is really serious, this book does not contain his best thoughts; they are stored away with the fairest of his possessions."

Nietzsche's position on language also explains his aphoristic style. Rather than present one sustained argument, he attacks a given matter from as many points of view as possible.

This chapter also finds Nietzsche at his most abrasive. We might want to deal in particular with his highly contestable assertion that all life is exploitation. His assertion that all life is will to power has been discussed elsewhere, and we will accept it for the sake of the argument. The will to power, we must also concede, consists in what we might call exploitation: the dominance of one will over another. However, at its most sublime, this will to power is a kind of self- overcoming, where one turns one's instincts for cruelty and freedom upon oneself. "Exploitation" carries the connotation that one group of people exploits another, and Nietzsche's doctrine of the will to power does not always call for such exploitation.

In Nietzsche's defense, however, his discussion of exploitation is meant largely as a justification for the aristocratic caste's exploitation of the commoners. Nietzsche wishes to explain it as an expression of the aristocrats' will to power, and thus as nothing more than a fact of life.

We may wish to question Nietzsche's Lamarckism that divides the world up into different types, but we should also note that Nietzsche goes to some length in this chapter to suggest that the distinctions between different types of people is blurred, and that true greatness is usually unrecognizable anyway.

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