Beyond Good and Evil
5 - "Natural History of Morals"
Morality is as old as humanity, and there have been many different kinds of morality across the millennia. Moral philosophers today lack this historical perspective, and in searching for a "rational foundation" for morality, all they really do is try to justify their own morality. Unable to see outside the perspective of their own morality, they are unable to see the concept of morality itself as problematic and needing to be questioned and justified.
Anything great that we have achieved or become has been the result of a strict obedience in one particular direction over a long period of time. Great art, thinking, and spirituality has occurred through constant and harsh discipline. Only through a kind of enslavement and hardship can we refine ourselves.
Nietzsche asserts that we actually register far less than we think we do. For instance, when we see a tree, we don't see the detail of every branch and leaf, but only glance at the rough shape of the whole, and from that construct all the smaller details in our head. Similarly when we read a book, we really take in only a few words and then fit those words into what we already think we know. In this sense, Nietzsche suggests, we are all inventors, artists, and liars: our so-called "knowledge" is our own make-believe.
People differ not only in what they think is worth pursuing, but also in what they take to be possession of what they pursue. One man may feel he "possesses" a woman if he can have sex with her, while another feels this possession is only worthwhile if the woman is willing to give up everything for him. This second kind of possession is made the more valuable the more deeply the woman knows the man, so the man must be able to make himself known to her as best he can. Nietzsche also uses examples of charity and education as means of possession. For instance, in educating, the teacher makes the child see the world according to the teacher's perspective; the teacher thus comes to possess another soul.
Nietzsche bemoans the "slave revolt in morality," which considered the rich, violent, and sensual to be evil, while considering the poor holy. We have come to see everything healthy, dangerous, and passionate about ourselves as pathological. This morality of the "herd" claims in the name of "happiness" that we should avoid our darker instincts. This may be true for some, but Nietzsche despises moralizers precisely because they generalize on matters that depend greatly on the individual. There have always been more people obeying than commanding, but simply because the majority is suited to submissiveness we should not conclude that this is a general principle that all should obey. Nowadays, those who command are almost ashamed of it, and dare only do so if they do it in the name of God, the law, or the people.
Nietzsche suggests that our moral valuations are based largely on fear. In a community that is safe from external threats, any aggressive members of that community come to be seen as a threat. Thus, our morality condemns all that is lively, preferring the safety of a tamed, mediocre mass. This morality of the "herd" then proclaims itself as the only true morality (other moralities are "immoral") and as the savior of the herd.
Nietzsche worries democratic sentiments may tame us and render us all equal in mediocrity with no way out. He calls for a species of "new philosophers" to arise and lead the way out of this longing for peace and mediocrity.
As we have discussed earlier, Nietzsche sees all drives as resting ultimately on the will to power. My beating up my neighbor and my giving my neighbor a gift are both expressions of my will to power; they are both ways in which I can gain a feeling of power over my neighbor. But how is it that two totally opposite deeds can ultimately boil down to the same will? Nietzsche suggests that we learn to sublimate our will to power; we channel it and redirect it in order to give it a refined, more subtle, and higher expression. Beating up my neighbor is about as unsubtle an expression of power as there is; I get a simple and immediate gratification. However, if I resist the urge to beat up my neighbor, and instead give him a gift, I will have sublimated my will to power. Now I will feel my neighbor is in my debt and will have a greater, longer- lasting, and more sublime feeling of power than if I had just beaten him up.
Nietzsche clarifies the importance of sublimation in his suggestion that refinements in art, thinking, and spirituality depend upon a kind of obedience. If one is unable to command, one will be a slave, but if one is unable to obey, one will be a mindless barbarian. True artists submit themselves to all kinds of rigorous laws in order to discipline themselves and their art. Obedience and sublimation go hand in hand; the obedience of artists teaches them to sublimate their will to power so that their feeling of power reaches a climax in the act of creation. Most of us lack the talent and the discipline for truly great art, but for those who can create, what greater feeling of power is there than to know that one is the source of something truly beautiful?
We also see the concept of sublimation present in Nietzsche's discussion of possession. His example of the man who "possesses" a woman by having sex with her has only the basic non-sublimated animal instincts of lust. The man who wants the woman to give up everything for him wants a more refined feeling of power over the woman. This man also recognizes that he can only be certain that the woman is giving up everything for him, and not some false conception of him, if she knows him deeply. In order for him to reveal himself deeply to the woman, he must first know himself deeply. Thus, a refined will to power, among other things, encourages self-knowledge.
We have now found a formula for what Nietzsche considers to be good: sublimated will to power. The slave is powerless, the modern European has no will, and the barbarian lacks sublimation. While Nietzsche admires the "healthy" power of the violent barbarian, he admires this power only as an alternative to the impotency of the modern European.
If we contrast what Nietzsche considers worth pursuing with other moralities, we can understand why he so bitterly despises utilitarianism, democracy, and other "taming" forces. The Christian ethic, which is now the only ethic, wants to speak for everyone. Everyone should love his or her neighbor, everyone should act with the happiness of the greatest number in mind. Nietzsche calls this "herd" morality because it speaks to our herd instincts. It assumes that we are all the same and should all follow the same rules.
In urging us to sublimate our will to power, Nietzsche does not pretend to be speaking to everybody. Some of us were simply born to be mindless slaves, according to Nietzsche, and those people are not his concern. What worries Nietzsche is that the minority that is potentially great has been seduced by the preaching of the herd and has attempted to follow the same rules as everyone else. These rules, Nietzsche claims, exist in large part precisely to keep these freer, more dangerous spirits in line. Democracy is just one more attempt to force us all to be equal.
While it is easy for an atheist reader of Nietzsche to nod passively at his criticisms of Christianity, morality, or mediocrity, it might raise a few eyebrows when he vilifies democracy. After all, most of us have been brought up to think of democracy as a great thing. This commentary will not attempt a synthesis of Nietzsche and the democratic spirit, and it will not take a side; instead, it will rest content in having highlighted just one way in which Nietzsche's bold worldview is mightily at odds with everything we presently take for granted. If anything, the liberal democracies of today would seem far worse to Nietzsche than his own Germany. Our consumer- driven society is fully geared toward making life as easy as possible for everyone. A sublimated will to power is a result of a struggle that demands that we make life as difficult as possible.
Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!