Nietzsche opens with the provocative question, “Supposing truth is a woman—what then?” Then truth would need to be cajoled and flattered, not pursued with the tactless dogmatism of most philosophers. While philosophy must overcome its dogmatic thinking, it has at least provided our culture with the tension to spring forward into something new and better. Nietzsche catalogs a number of the dogmatisms inherent in philosophy, such as the separation of ideas into binary opposites like truth and falsehood; “immediate certainties,” like Descartes’ certainty that he is thinking; and the idea of free will. Philosophy is interested in giving us insight not into truth but into the minds of the different philosophers. Everything is governed by a will to power, and in philosophy, we see great minds trying to impose their will on the world by persuading others to see the world as they see it.
The will to power is the fundamental drive in the universe. Behind truth, thought, and morality lie drives and passions that we try to mask behind a veneer of calm objectivity. What we call truth, for instance, is just the expression of our will to power, where we declare our particular perspective on reality to be objectively and universally true. Ultimately, all reality is best understood in terms of competing wills. Nietzsche praises “free spirits” who struggle to free themselves from the prejudices of others and to question their own assumptions. In particular, they will look beneath the “moral” worldview that examines people’s motives and perceive instead the “extra-moral” worldview that examines the unconscious drives that determine our expressed motives.
Nietzsche characterizes his age as atheistic but religious. He identifies the religious spirit with a willingness to sacrifice, to assert one’s power by submitting oneself to torture. In primitive societies, people sacrificed others, whereas the people of more advanced cultures sacrificed themselves through self-denial. The Christians went one step further in sacrificing God himself. While Europe is still nominally Christian, Nietzsche suggests that its faith in God has been replaced by a faith in science. He warns that this faith in science leads to nihilism and that we must find something more spiritually affirming.
Nietzsche traces our spiritual decline to the rise of Christianity, which he calls the “slave revolt in morality.” Because most people are unable to handle the darker aspects of their natures, and we would be less safe if all people gave free rein to the violence and sensuality within them, Christianity declares that only meekness and timidity are holy and condemns these other things as evil. By majority rule, Christian morality condemns us to prefer tame, peaceful lives. Even in an atheistic age, this egalitarian spirit lives on in democracy. Nietzsche longs for a generation of “new philosophers” who can rescue us from our mediocrity. These philosophers will differ markedly from the “philosophical laborers” and scholars of the universities, who work to find new knowledge but lack the creative spirit to do anything with it. Nietzsche’s new philosophers will rebel against the values and assumptions of their day and will have the strength of will and creativity to affirm something new.
Rather than thinking on egalitarian lines that the same rules apply to all people, Nietzsche argues that there is an “order of rank,” among both people and philosophies. Some people simply have stronger and more refined spirits than others, and to hold those people to the same rules is to hold them back. Pity is just a refined form of self-contempt, whereby we show preference for weakness.
As a race, we have never lost our instinct for cruelty; we have only refined it. We are unique among animals in being both creatures and creators, and the strongest among us turn our instinct for cruelty against ourselves. The creator within us reshapes the creature that we are by violently attacking its weaknesses. Suffering, then, is essential to growing stronger, and we must struggle constantly to remake ourselves by assailing our weaknesses and prejudices. However, at heart, we have certain stupid convictions and assumptions that we simply cannot change. As if to prove his point, Nietzsche launches a diatribe about how he hates women.
Nietzsche criticizes the narrow nationalism of many Europeans and praises the idea of the “good European,” who foreshadows the future uniting of Europe. He discusses a number of different races, reserving particular venom for the English. He has high praise for the Jews, saying that though their religion is responsible for the slave morality that afflicts Europe, they also carry tremendous creative energy.
Modern culture is defined by a tension between two kinds of morality. Master morality comes from the aristocratic view that whatever one is and likes is good and whatever one dislikes and is unlike one is bad. Slave morality, by contrast, comes from a resentment of the power of the masters: slaves see masters as evil and see themselves, in their weakness and poverty, as good. Thus, the master’s “good” is the slave’s “evil,” and the master’s “bad” is the slave’s “good.”
Nietzsche believes that aristocratic nature is to some degree bred into us, so that some of us are simply born better off than others, and that society as a whole thrives with a strong aristocratic class. He suggests, however, that genius is perhaps not as rare as we suppose. What is rare is the self-mastery to remove oneself from others and discipline oneself to the point that one can refine one’s genius. Nietzsche closes the prose section of his book by lamenting that all his thoughts seem so dead and plain on paper. Language can only capture ideas that are fixed in place: the liveliest thoughts are free and constantly changing, and so they cannot be put into words. The book closes with a poem in which the speaker has climbed a high mountain and awaits like-minded friends to join him.
For Nietzsche, change is the predominant feature of reality. Everything is always changing: not just matter and energy, but ideas, wills, and hence truth. Philosophy and science tend to see the world as primarily made up of facts and things that we can observe and regulate, providing the illusion of stable, objective truths. Nietzsche rejects this metaphysics of facts and things, suggesting instead that the world is primarily made up of wills—some conscious and some unconscious—which are constantly competing for dominance. Whatever we see as “true” at a given moment is not objectively so but rather represents the victory of a particular will against the others working within us. Nietzsche’s main targets, from Christianity to science to democracy to traditional philosophy, are all guilty in one way or another of denying or avoiding the fact that reality is composed of a constantly shifting competition between wills. They wish to see the universe as fixed—whether by divine law or the laws of nature—and wish to slacken the struggle and competition that characterize existence. Nietzsche sees any effort to resist struggle and change as contrary to life.
While Nietzsche’s account of the will to power applies to everything in existence, the concept is easiest to grasp if we think of it in terms of an inner struggle. We all live according to certain assumptions or fundamental beliefs, some more obvious than others. One person may hold fundamentalist religious views, while another may cling unquestioningly to the assumption that democracy is the best political system. For Nietzsche, the question of whether these assumptions and beliefs are true or false, just or unjust, is not an issue. What matters is that all beliefs and assumptions represent our identity—they are the bedrock from which we build ourselves. The greatest power that we can have is power over ourselves, and we gain power over ourselves in the same way we gain power over external enemies: by attacking them and submitting them to our will. Strong-willed people, whom Nietzsche often refers to as free spirits, are always ready to attack their fundamental beliefs and assumptions, to question their very identity. There is great safety in resting assured that certain truths or beliefs are beyond question, and it takes great courage to question our fundamental “truths.” Nietzsche writes that what is important is not the courage of our convictions but the courage for an attack on our convictions. Such courage exhibits a strong will to power, the will to choose self-mastery over safety.
With Nietzsche’s denigration of Christianity and democracy, and his ardent praise of strife and violence, it is important to note that he is not the warmongering brute that the Nazi party, among others, proclaimed him to be. Nietzsche does not so much promote physical violence as he admires the vigor of those who are capable of it. He thinks it hypocritical that people who lack the vigor to be violent condemn violence. However, physical violence is usually destructive and hardly ever useful. What Nietzsche admires most is the person who is capable of physical violence but sublimates this will to destroy others, directing it instead at himself or herself. Better than being ruthless with others is being ruthless with oneself and attacking all the petty beliefs and assumptions one clings to for a feeling of safety and stability. A free spirit is free by having won an inner struggle, not an outer one. When Nietzsche writes approvingly of violence, it is not so much that he thinks of war as inherently good but rather that he thinks anything is preferable to the mediocrity of our cloistered modern lives. Better to suffer hardship, he believes, than lead a safe and unadventurous life.
The title of this book expresses Nietzsche’s interest in an extra-moral worldview. Concepts like good and evil come from a moral worldview, where we question people’s motives and judge them accordingly. However, as Nietzsche shows, our motives are themselves subject to analysis. For example, he criticizes the seemingly altruistic motives of Christian charity as a form of resentful vengeance by the powerless. Throughout the book, Nietzsche highlights the various drives and wills that lead us to adopt one or another moral worldview. In doing so, Nietzsche hopes to lead us to a point “beyond good and evil,” where we see moral concepts as manifestations of deeper drives. At this point, we will no longer judge an action based on its motives but will judge motives based on the spirit in which they were formulated. For example, we should not condemn a violent act for being violent; rather, we should inquire about the will behind it. If the violent act were motivated by a spiteful, resentful will, then the violent act is contemptible, but if it were motivated by a healthy will, guiltlessly claiming what it wants, then the violent act is acceptable. Nietzsche advocates for a strong and healthy will, which acts cheerfully, independently, and free from resentment.