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Beyond Good and Evil

Friedrich Nietzsche

7 - "Our Virtues"

6 - "We Scholars"

8 - "Peoples and Fatherlands"

Summary

One of the driving concepts in this chapter is that there is an "order of rank" that exists between people and between moralities. Some people simply have stronger and more refined spirits than others. Those of lower rank hate those who are exceptional, and this hatred is most commonly expressed in moralizing against and condemning the higher spirits. The idea of divine justice was invented so that people could falsely claim that we are all equal on a fundamental level.

No moral philosopher seems to consider that perhaps no moral laws are universally applicable. For instance, while self- effacement can be a virtue in some people, the self-effacement of a born leader who doesn't feel worthy of taking charge would be the waste of a virtue. In that sense, "it is immoral to say: 'what is right for one is fair for the other.'"

Pity, at bottom, is merely one way of covering up self-contempt. Because misery loves company, a self-condemning person will feel pity for others in order to suffer with them. Pleasure and pain, like pity, are mere surfaces for our deeper drives, and any philosophy that stops with those impulses--such as utilitarianism--is shallow. For instance, suffering is not something to be avoided (if that were possible), but celebrated. Nietzsche suggests that humans are unique in being both creature and creator: we necessarily make ourselves suffer in our creative efforts to make ourselves greater. Pity for suffering is essentially pity for the creature in us that is being remade into something greater. Nietzsche feels pity only for the creator in us that is being stifled by modern society.

Nietzsche goes so far as to suggest that all of higher culture is derived from the "spiritualization of cruelty." We like to think that we've killed our animal instincts for cruelty when in fact we've rendered them divine by turning them against ourselves. The search for knowledge is one of the highest forms of cruelty; we uncover truths we would have been happier not knowing, and go against our natural inclination for superficiality and shallowness. For instance, we would like to believe that we are naturally higher beings, but we learn to our dismay that we are descended from apes and are not essentially different from them.

Among the virtues of Nietzsche's ideal philosophers of the future, this will to go deeper than all superficialities (call it honesty or cruelty, as you prefer) is paramount. The knowledge that scholars try to look at with disinterest is precisely what interests Nietzsche.

Even in the freest of free spirits, however, this digging for truth will hit bedrock. Fundamentally, we all have a set of unshakeable convictions that make up the core of our being, that say "this is I." These expressions of what is fundamentally settled in us show "the great stupidity we are."

As if to prove that this core does indeed consist of stupidity, Nietzsche shares some of his unshakeable convictions about "woman as such," which he opens with the disclaimer: "these are after all only-- my truths." The rant goes on for several pages: Nietzsche argues that women are pretty and superficial and are at their best when using their charms to make men take care of them. He mocks the feminist movement for trying to make women more like men. To say that Nietzsche claims that women should be locked up in the kitchen is only half right: while he suggests that men should treat women as possessions, he also argues that women lack the subtlety and intelligence to make good cooks.

Commentary

Considering Nietzsche's cavalier attitude toward the truth, it might seem odd that this chapter essentially lauds the pursuit of knowledge as the highest goal for Nietzsche's philosophers of the future. While we normally associate "truth" with "knowledge," it is crucial to our understanding of Nietzsche to recognize that he does almost the opposite. When Nietzsche talks about "truth" he almost always uses a tone of derision. To believe in "truth" is to allow one's perspective to become locked, so that one is unable to see a matter from any different point of view.

Knowledge, on the other hand, involves free inquiry into the way things are. If we recall the earlier analogy of reality as a statue, and a "truth" as a fixed point of view, we might consider the pursuit of knowledge to be an inquisitive stroll around the statue, looking at it from all sorts of angles. The pursuit of knowledge, in Nietzsche's understanding of the phrase, is to see all "truths" as fixed perspectives, to doubt all assumptions, and to ponder what motivates our will to adopt this or that way of looking at the world and then proclaim it to be the only way.

For these reasons, Nietzsche condemns the shallowness of the utilitarian emphasis on pain and pleasure. Pain and pleasure are mere sensations that point to deeper drives working within us. To rest content with them as the ultimate basis of any system displays an unwillingness to dig deeper. Nietzsche claims that this pursuit of knowledge is a sublime form of cruelty to oneself: one never allows oneself to rest content with any truth, but is always digging deeper and upsetting one's assumptions.

This kind of inquiry takes mental courage and flexibility. Nietzsche calls it honesty--the ability to look oneself in the eye and challenge every last assumption. We suffer as the creature in us, while its instinct to rest content with simple "truths" writhes and screams, but this is done for the sake of our better half, the creator in us, and its sublimated will to power.

In the end, however, Nietzsche asserts that we cannot eliminate the creature in us. We may dig very deeply and overturn all sorts of prejudices and assumptions, but we have to stop somewhere, and wherever we stop there will be a set of assumptions, a set of "truths" lying underneath. Nietzsche's "truths" seem largely to be about women. Rather than dismiss it or laugh it off, however, we should ask what Nietzsche's misogyny can teach us about him and his thought.

First of all, let us try to be as charitable as we can. Nietzsche opens his rant with a disclaimer that these are his "truths." He has mocked "truth" from the start, and now he is finding what there is in himself to laugh about. Clearly, he himself acknowledges that his bias against women is unreasonable, and he has greater courage than most of us in being able to admit to his prejudices and even to laugh at them.

His discussion of truth and his blatant example of prejudice also highlight an interesting new twist to his perspectivism. It seems that, while Nietzsche lauds the ability to remain free-spirited and see matters from all sorts of different points of view, he is convinced that no one is totally free from being fixed in a certain perspective. In a sense, one of the virtues of digging deeply into oneself is to uncover one's own prejudices, one's own "truths," with as much clarity as possible.

Nietzsche's confession of his prejudice against women can also help us to highlight a more general weakness in his writing: he has a tendency to see people according to types. While his attitude toward the Jews is far more complex and admiring than anti-Semitic interpreters believe, Nietzsche does have a tendency to talk about "the Jews" as though what he says could possibly apply to all Jews. He generalizes about race a great deal, and this criticism could also be extended to Nietzsche's remarks about Christianity and democracy. Nietzsche tends to caricature his opponents, and while his criticisms are often viciously accurate, it is highly contestable that they apply to all Christians or all democrats. In fact, we could even use Nietzsche's own method, and suggest that stopping with "Christian" or "democrat" is like stopping with "pleasure" or "pain"; these generalizing titles obscure the more complex and subtle fact that, for example, all sorts of different people believe in democracy for all sorts of different reasons.

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