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Beyond Good and Evil

Friedrich Nietzsche

4 - "Epigrams and Interludes"

3 - "What is Religious"

5 - "Natural History of Morals"

Summary

This chapter is made up of 122 short one- or two-line epigrams on a wide range of topics. Rather than try to touch on each epigram individually, this summary and commentary will trace several themes that run throughout, and identify a few epigrams as particularly illustrative.

Nietzsche focuses largely on psychological observations. He challenges our habit of seeing our motivations and drives as transparent and easily understood. For instance, in section 100, he says: "In front of ourselves we all pose as simpler than we are: thus we take a rest from our fellow men." We seem to assume that we understand ourselves perfectly well, but Nietzsche suggests that in fact we are far more complicated than we think. We are made up of conflicting drives, and our reason is far from being able to take an unbiased perspective toward these drives. In section 158, he asserts that both our reason and our conscience bow toward "the tyrant in us," our strongest drive.

Nietzsche's observations dig up a number of facts we try to keep hidden. Our dislike for others, for instance, says more about ourselves than about those we dislike: "The vanity of others offends our taste only when it offends our vanity" (176); "The familiarity of those who are superior embitters because it may not be returned" (182). In a particularly brilliant epigram, Nietzsche suggests why we fail to recognize the darker motives behind many of our thoughts and actions: "'I have done that,' says my memory. 'I cannot have done that,' says my pride, and remains inexorable. Eventually--memory yields" (68). Our pride does not permit us to see ourselves as we really are, and will work all kinds of self-deception to hide us from ourselves. However, a careful observer can catch hints of what lies beneath by the way we unconsciously betray ourselves: "Even when the mouth lies, the way it looks still tells the truth" (166).

Our inner life is more like a battlefield than an open book. Nietzsche writes, "Under peaceful conditions a warlike man sets upon himself" (76). If our drives can find nothing in the world to struggle against, they turn inward and struggle against themselves. Our reason, thoughts, morality, etc., are all just expressions of different drives. There is no will that is purely our own: "The will to overcome an affect is ultimately only the will of another, or of several other, affects" (117). This inner struggle is a difficult one that only the strongest are adequately equipped to cope with, a thought Nietzsche expresses in one of his more famous epigrams: "Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you" (146).

Nietzsche sees morality as born out of our inner struggle. In section 143, he suggests we might find the origin of a great deal of our morality in the fact that "our vanity desires that what we do best should be considered what is hardest for us." Morality does not exist in itself, but is instead just a way of looking at the world that is directed by our inner drives: "There are no moral phenomena at all, but only a moral interpretation of phenomena" (108).

The epigrams in this chapter also cover a number of other topics, including remarks on the nature and value of knowledge, the psychology of women (not Nietzsche's strong point), Christianity, sexuality, nationalism, and teaching and learning.

Commentary

This section is a return to the style of some of Nietzsche's earlier writings. Human, All-Too-Human, The Dawn, and The Gay Science are all collections of aphorisms and epigrams on various themes, not arranged in any particular order. Given that Beyond Good and Evil presents a far more cohesive philosophy than those earlier works, we might ask what purpose these "interludes" serve.

The subject matter of this chapter is also more akin to these earlier books. They were laden with disconnected series of witty and insightful psychological and other observations. These observations served as the raw data from which Nietzsche built his mature philosophy. From these observations he inferred the will to power as the underlying drive that motivates all things, and developed his conception of the overman and the eternal recurrence, which were introduced in ##Thus Spoke Zarathustra##. Starting with Zarathustra, Nietzsche's thought took on a more cohesive and directed shape. For instance, in Beyond Good and Evil we get not a disconnected series of aphorisms, but aphorisms organized into chapters, building upon themes, and developing the major conclusions of Nietzsche's mature period.

If Beyond Good and Evil is to present Nietzsche's thought in its completeness, however, it must also present the psychological and other observations upon which his more organized thoughts were built. This chapter does largely that. The other chapters play upon themes that took shape with the advent of Nietzsche's mature philosophy. Because these observations are the basis for, and not the result of, Nietzsche's mature philosophy, they lack the shape and direction of the thoughts developed in the other chapters.

Nietzsche's view of psychology has been touched upon earlier. He battles against the conception of the human mind and will as being unified and transparent. If it were, it would be static: such dynamic processes as thought and conscience could not exist. That we even have an inner life suggests that there are multiple drives competing within us for dominance. If we see our mind as a battlefield of competing drives, we can no longer assume that we can take an unbiased look at ourselves. What we think of ourselves is always biased by the perspective of whatever drive is dominant at a particular time, and does not represent the whole complex of drives that make us up. Nietzsche often refers to our vanity or our pride convincing us that our motives or feelings are different than they are. Self- deception is a concept that is only possible when the "self" can be divided into deceiver and deceived.

This view of psychology then informs much of Nietzsche's criticism. In particular, morality is no longer seen as a simple and rational matter, but comes to represent the competing drives within us and their drive to remake our view of the world in the image they desire.

Much of what Nietzsche says here is more comprehensible and agreeable to us in the post-Freudian world. When Nietzsche was writing, the idea of the unconscious had not been introduced, and the prevailing theme in Western philosophy of mind was a Cartesian rationalism that saw the mind as an open book, the one thing that could be known with certainty. We could see Nietzsche in some ways as a precursor to Freud, and indeed, Freud acknowledged a great debt to Nietzsche.

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