Skip over navigation

Beyond Good and Evil

Friedrich Nietzsche

6 - "We Scholars"

5 - "Natural History of Morals"

7 - "Our Virtues"

Summary

The main contrast of this chapter is between real philosophers as Nietzsche conceives of them and "philosophical laborers" and scholars. The great success of science and scholarship has generally encouraged philosophy to lower itself to the level of laboring on behalf of science, concerning itself with the theory of knowledge. A real philosopher must be able to rise above all this science, but this becomes increasingly difficult as our body of knowledge grows increasingly larger.

Nietzsche is critical of the objective spirit of modern scholars. A removal of oneself from one's work and a craving for generalities can be beneficial in that it helps us make sense of what we already know and thereby helps us to come to terms with and overcome our past. However, we should not see this objective spirit as an end in itself. Rather, it is a means that can be used by philosophers and artists to create something new. Nietzsche characterizes true genius as "one who either begets or gives birth," and mockingly associates scholars with old maids: neither is "conversant with the two most valuable functions of man." These scholars are not self- sufficient or creative, they lack self-knowledge and strong passions, and they thrive on a mediocrity that seeks to eliminate everything that is unusual or irregular.

Nietzsche also discusses two kinds of skepticism that he associates with these two different types. The first kind of skepticism, which he associates with mediocrity, is plagued by doubts that inhibit all kinds of action. By reassuring themselves with doubts, these skeptics pursue science and objectivity. By means of contrast, Nietzsche discusses a different kind of skepticism that he associates with Frederick the Great's influence. This kind of skepticism is strong-willed and intrepid, never resting content with easy answers but always questioning, seeking, and discovering.

Philosophers, as opposed to "philosophical laborers," are legislators and creators. While scholars and philosophical laborers seek to clear up the past, philosophers look to the future and say "thus it shall be." Because they speak for tomorrow, they are necessarily out of place in the here and now, and are always struggling against the spirit of the present. Socrates, for instance, rebelled against the aristocratic spirit of his day, showing the nobles by means of his irony that they were just as stupid and weak as he or anybody else. Today, on the contrary, a philosopher would rebel against the democratic spirit of the time, seeking solitude and difference.

For these philosophers, thinking is a light and easy process. Most of us find careful thinking difficult, and therefore serious. Most of us, Nietzsche suggests, don't have the strength of will to be philosophers. Such great minds need to be bred and cultivated.

Commentary

Nietzsche spends most of this chapter blasting modern scholarship or exalting his vision of what a philosopher should be in vague but vigorous language. As a result, he is often unclear as to what precisely a "real" philosopher might be like and how precisely the common university philosopher differs from this ideal.

The most notable characteristic of a Nietzschean philosopher is that such a philosopher must be a creator and a legislator. As we saw earlier, Nietzsche dislikes the spirit of objectivity that reigns in scientific research because there is a total absence of will. According to Nietzsche, there is no such thing as an objective standpoint: an interpretation of any fact (and Nietzsche might ask, what is an uninterpreted fact?) is a sign that some will is taking possession of that fact. A philosopher must not just describe the world, but must also give meaning to the world. Such a creative act is the sign of a strong and sublimated will to power.

To say that a philosopher must "give meaning to the world" hardly gets us beyond the vagueness Nietzsche himself presents us with. This concept might become clearer if we understand it in terms of a sublimated will to power. As we discussed in the previous commentary, sublimation consists of suppressing one's immediate instincts for domination in order to achieve a more sublime and satisfying feeling of power. The earlier example was of suppressing the instinct to beat up one's neighbor, and to gain instead a more sublime feeling of power by putting that neighbor in one's debt. The creative instinct is an example of an even more deeply sublimated will to power. In creating a work of art, for example, one is interpreting the world in a certain way, and persuading others to share that interpretation. Thus, one is not only exerting power over others, by making them see the world in a certain way, but one is also expressing one's power over the world by submitting it to one's own point of view. All acts of creation are acts of interpretation, and all acts of interpretation express a will to power.

Specifically, Nietzsche suggests that a philosopher should be a creator of values. A great deal of Nietzsche's writings deal with morality and the way that morality has shaped our history. Different moralities impose different kinds of order on the world. Philosophers who create their own morality will thus create a new world order.

Walter Kaufmann criticizes the simplicity with which Nietzsche presents his position. First, he suggests that all great moral philosophers have created a value system of sorts, and second, he suggests that a legislator of values who does not also do the analysis and scholarly work of the "philosophical laborer" is not a philosopher. This second criticism is more apt than the first: Nietzsche admires ##Napoleon##, a man who set up a new code of laws, but he does not consider Napoleon to be a philosopher. The first criticism is a little weaker, and answering it might give us a clearer sense of what Nietzsche means. Nietzsche is often critical of ##Kant##, who is undeniably responsible for one of the most influential systems of ethics in the modern world. Nietzsche's complaint is precisely that Kant does not create a new system of values, but rather comes up with reasons for justifying a morality that is already accepted and which he already holds. Nietzsche is quite explicit elsewhere in criticizing moral philosophers for doing very little more than coming up with reasons to justify what they already believe.

The difference, then, between Kant and a philosopher more after Nietzsche's heart is that Nietzsche's ideal philosopher is free from the morality of his own day. He is a "man of tomorrow and the day after tomorrow" because he creates new values that will influence the future.

As soon as we try to imagine what these philosophers might look like we recognize the vagueness of Nietzsche's formulation. The only clear example he uses is Socrates, who urged his fellow Athenians toward self-knowledge and a more rational way of thinking that relied on careful definitions as well as a recognition of one's own ignorance. But beyond this one example and the vague notion that a philosopher must be creative and not caught up in present-day morality, we are left pretty much in the dark.

More Help

Previous Next

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!

Follow Us