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Beyond Good and Evil

Friedrich Nietzsche

Preface

Overall Analysis and Themes

1 - "On the Prejudices of Philosophers"

Summary

Nietzsche opens with the provocative question: "Supposing truth is a woman--what then?" The dogmatism of most philosophers, Nietzsche suggests, is a very clumsy way of trying to win a woman's heart. At this time, no dogmatism seems wholly satisfactory and philosophy has yet to conquer the truth.

While dogmatism bumbles along in all seriousness, earnest of its purpose, Nietzsche suggests that the foundations of all dogmatism are based on childish superstitions or prejudices. He cites as examples the "soul superstition" which remains even in atheistic philosophy as the "subject and ego superstition" as well as seductions of grammar, or gross generalizations based on a narrow set of facts.

Dogmatism has been responsible for ##Plato##'s ideals of pure spirit and the Form of the Good which Nietzsche calls "the worst, most durable, and most dangerous of errors so far," and he also indicts Christianity as "Platonism for 'the people.'" However, the struggle against this dogmatism has created a tension in the spirit of modern Europe, and, Nietzsche suggests, "with so tense a bow we can now shoot for the most distant goals." He accuses Jesuits and democrats of trying to ease this tension rather than feeling it as a need, a means to a goal. This "magnificent tension" is valued by the kind of people Nietzsche values: "good Europeans and free, very free spirits."

Commentary

Nietzsche's association of philosophy with dogmatism was more apt in his day than in ours, but to his credit, he is in part responsible for philosophy's renunciation of dogmatism. Nineteenth- century German philosophy was particularly rife with "system" philosophers--the greatest of which was ##Hegel##--who developed from a few basic principles vast, complex systems that were supposed to provide complete and thorough explanations of the human experience. Because this was the philosophical mood of his day, we should not be surprised that Nietzsche was inclined to see the entire history of philosophy in the systematic terms in which his contemporaries interpreted it.

In particular, Plato is far from being a dogmatist in many senses, though many persistently try to read him as such. As a result, Plato's influence has largely been propagated according to dogmatic readings. The reading of Plato that Nietzsche associates with dogmatism interprets Plato as saying that the world of the senses is illusory, and that truth and reality reside in invisible, eternal, and unchanging Forms that underlie and animate the less real material objects that we perceive. This Plato, who had a tremendous influence on Christianity, suggests that our bodies are only temporary, physical things, but that we have a pure spirit, or soul, that is immortal and which animates us. Plato also posits the Form of the Good as being the highest of all Forms, that which is the ultimate ground for all reality. As a result, our task as human beings is to pursue and approximate the Form of the Good, and this task is essentially what all morality is based upon.

Nietzsche identifies dogmatism in this belief in the "pure spirit" and the Form of the Good. These beliefs are dogmatic to Nietzsche because they serve as foundations that do not themselves admit of criticism. According to the popular reading of Plato, the Form of the Good is the anchor for the rest of the Platonic "system" of philosophy. If we can believe in the Form of the Good as an absolute, everything else follows from it. Similarly, belief in the absoluteness and eternality of the pure spirit within us allows for a number of inferences about human nature, human society, and human morality.

Dogmatism, to Nietzsche, is taking any claim as an absolute truth that does not need to be justified. While philosophers claim to base everything in reason and to take nothing on faith, Nietzsche argues ultimately that all philosophy is grounded on some leap of faith. It is logically impossible to create a system where every claim in the system is justified by another part of the system. If we see a system as a building, where every block has to rest upon another block, we ultimately must arrive at the foundation blocks upon which all the other blocks rest. Philosophers generally take the foundations of their systems to be very simple and indubitable truths. Nietzsche, on the other hand, takes these foundations to be childish superstitions and prejudices. Nietzsche operates on the maxim that a claim taken as obviously true is really just based in assumptions so deep that we no longer recognize them as assumptions.

Nietzsche is often difficult to understand because he argues against anything that parades itself as an absolute truth, and our thinking is so influenced by a belief in absolutes that it is often difficult to take Nietzsche at face value. His position, which has been called "perspectivism," insists that there are not absolute truths, but only different and equally valid perspectives with which we can look at the truth. We might think of truth as of a sculpture: by looking at it from only one side, we don't understand or appreciate the whole sculpture. Only by walking around it and looking at it from all different angles can we properly appreciate it.

Nietzsche's main objection to Platonism is that it fixes our perspective, saying "there is only one truth and it must be looked at in this way." Such an insistence paralyzes our understanding and makes it impossible for us to reason freely. Nietzsche's ideal of "free spirits" is of people who do not allow themselves to be tied down to any one perspective, dogmatism, or faith.

The themes outlined in this preface serve to introduce the frame of mind with which the rest of the book must be approached. Nietzsche is essentially saying: "check all your assumptions at the door. I will not accept any objections that are based on any kind of dogmatism."

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