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Beyond Good and Evil

Summary 9 - "What is Noble"
Summary 9 - "What is Noble"

After a rhapsodizing to his god, Dionysus, Nietzsche concludes by despairing that his thoughts cannot find adequate expression in language. While his thoughts were free, light, and malicious, rendering them into words has tied them in place, making them dull and solemn: "some of you are ready, I fear," Nietzsche says to them, "to become truths." Language can only capture thoughts and ideas that are relatively rigid and fixed: the most beautiful, free- moving thoughts always escape expression.


This chapter is Nietzsche at his stylistically strongest, and consists in large part of small observations and remarks using a variety of authorial voices and styles that defy summary. In both the thoughts and the expression we get one of the more vivid portraits of the philosopher behind the philosophy. Nietzsche was a lonely man with very few friends, persistently misunderstood, and suffering both from this loneliness and from ill health. Remarkably, he didn't simply endure this suffering, but turned it to his advantage, crafting some of the most remarkable books of the nineteenth century. While one should never reduce a philosophy to biographical details, it is not hard to see why Nietzsche is at his clearest and most poetic when writing about the loneliness, hardships, and self-overcoming necessary to genius. We can also see why Nietzsche might write so vigorously about the self- torture necessary to self-ennoblement, about how the creator in us thrives only at the expense of the creature in us.

Not surprisingly, the most stylistically exciting chapter of the book deals to a large extent with the difficulties of finding the right words for a thought. According to Nietzsche, language is rigid and talks about facts and things, whereas the universe is fundamentally in flux: there are no fixed facts or things. Nietzsche expresses the difficulty of putting thoughts into words with the brilliant metaphor of thought as a bird in flight. He alludes to this metaphor in the last section of this chapter, but it finds a more concise expression in section 298 of The Gay Science:

I caught this insight on the way and quickly seized the rather poor words that were closest to hand to pin it down lest it fly away again. And now it has died of these arid words and shakes and flaps in them-- and I hardly know anymore when I look at it how I could ever have felt so happy when I caught this bird.

What makes a thought beautiful to Nietzsche is the way is "flies," the way a free and flexible mind can move around a topic, seeing it from different angles. Language, in adopting a particular point of view, clips the wings of a thought, awkwardly forcing it to remain in place. Thus, the translation of any thought into language necessarily kills the birdlike quality that is the essential beauty of that thought.

A writer must necessarily be "masked" because best thoughts defy expression, and so in writing at all, he is giving the public a falsified, rigidified picture of the whole. Interestingly, we find Plato--a writer Nietzsche accuses of dogmatism-- saying something very similar in Letter VII: "whenever we see a book...we can be sure that if the author is really serious, this book does not contain his best thoughts; they are stored away with the fairest of his possessions."

Nietzsche's position on language also explains his aphoristic style. Rather than present one sustained argument, he attacks a given matter from as many points of view as possible.

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