Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900)

Beyond Good and Evil

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.