Chapter 11. Existentialism
Section 3. Nietzsche



Omonia Vinieris (QCC,  2002)     Nietzsche’s Will to Power

            Nietzsche’s ethical principle of the will to power makes a claim to the egoistic nature of humanity.  The doctrine asserts that all humans strive to forcibly impose their will upon others as a primal drive in their nature compels them to do so.  Man will relentlessly exercise his will over others as an example of his determination, spirit, and strength of character.  To demonstrate and acquire his power and influence is his inherent motivation to act, even if his actions essentially seem unselfishly provoked.  Nietzsche alleges that no true altruistic deeds exist because humans are wholly egocentric and self-seeking by nature.  We may give the impression that we are considerate, caring, and selfless as we may perform kind deeds for others that regard us as humane, but our innate intensions are truly self-absorbed and do not entail goodness or benevolence.  By this, Nietzsche does not suggest by any means that mankind is innately malicious out of its deceptive intentions, but rather that it is more rapt in its own aspirations or purposes of life.  These aspirations are to be esteemed as an example of human prominence and not mistaken for the malice and deterioration of mankind.

            Conversely, sympathy, generosity, and equality are all qualities that one associates with good moral character, not with contemptibility as Nietzsche does.  The noble spirit that Nietzsche speaks of would not embrace these traditional ethical traits.  To manipulate characters of fragility and frailty, to indulge in one’s supremacy, and to pamper one’s self with praise, are preferably what Nietzsche considers to be the intrinsic and admirable traits of the good.  Traditional ethicists revile these characteristics and see them as they may prompt the decaying of civilization.  Nevertheless, Nietzsche merely suggests that it is instinctive of humans to inflict their will to power.  Analogously, the Darwinist theory of evolution verifies such a claim as it is the survival of the fittest that determines what species endures and what species ceases to exist.  The fittest in accordance to Nietzsche’s ethical principles are the good and those who strive to dominate over inferior beings.  Perhaps this is precisely why many conventional ethicists would refute Nietzsche’s will to power.  It is evident that the fundamental institution of morals into society is to impede many of our natural propensities in order to avert the chaotic unruliness that may arise from them.

            Nietzsche distinguishes between noble (masters) and base (slaves) souls.  The concept of a noble soul originates from Nietzsche’s admiration of ancient Greek culture.  The ancient Greeks were an animated people who paradoxically welcomed the inevitability of death, facing the ordeals and hardships of life, whilst celebrating its magnificence.  The noble soul or master, according to Nietzsche, is a replica of the ancient Greek.  He grows comfortably amidst the suffering and toils of human pain as he confronts life.  This confrontation is natural and only drives him to grow and acquire more.  He may have to exploit the base soul for his own good, but this maltreatment of another being only supplements his pride and his will to power.  In this sense, affliction provides the master with the prospect of extensive growth, and does not hinder his path to power.

            On the contrary, the base spirit or slave trembles in the face of affliction.  He does not challenge the hardships of life, but rather seeks to assuage the pain which he finds intolerable.  Such a being seeks out consolation from others out of his apprehension and despicability.  He considers sympathy, benevolence, and equality to be the essential attributes of goodness because they falsely detract from the injustice and agony of life.  The slaves are inferior to the master in that they do not anticipate growing in a torturous, pain-inflicted world.  Nietzsche considers this base soul to represent the greater part of humanity today.  Thus, his ethical principle of the noble’s will to power over the base epitomizes a complete avant-garde reversal of the nature of bad and good in traditional ethical thought.


Nietzsche in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and a  Nietzsche Page at USC.

Nietzsche’s anti Ethics  G. J. Mattey U.C.Davis

Nietzsche submits this idea of morality to radical critique.  He believes both that the idea is philosophically insupportable and that when we understand its genealogy, we will see that what actually explains our having it are profoundly negative aspects of human life.  Morality is an ideology.  We can believe it only if we ignore why we do.  Central to Nietzsche’s thought is a fundamental distinction between the ideas of good and bad, on the one hand, and those of (moral) good and evil, on the other.  The natural form ethical evaluation first takes, he believes is that of excellence or merit.  People who excel, who have merits we admire and esteem, thereby have a kind of natural nobility. 

A.  These are “rank-ordering, rank-defining value judgments.” 

We naturally look up to, we respect and esteem, those with merit.  He calls them “knightly aristocratic values”

B. The “primary” half of the pair is good.  Bad is what is not-good.  What is not worthy of esteem and respect.

C. The “good” features are naturally “positive”:  they affirm and sustain life, vigor, strength, etc., e.g. openness, cheerfulness, creativity, physical strength, agility, grace, beauty, vigor, health, wit, intelligence, charm, and friendliness. 

On the other hand, the “primary” half of the good/evil pair is evil.  The idea of evil is reactive.  It comes from the negation of good.  Indeed, Nietzsche believes that it derives from negating good (natural merit).  And the idea of  moral good is simply the negation of that negation.  It is what is not evil.   The original negation is due to resentment—a psychological process  through which the naturally weak suppress their anger at being slighted by  the strong who consider them of little merit.  Unable to express their anger honestly, they suppress it to an unconscious level, in the “dark workshop” of the human psyche.  It then comes to be expressed not as personal anger, but in an alienated, impersonal form, namely, as moral indignation and resentment.  The strong who disrespect the weak are seen, by virtue of their disrespect, as deserving moral disapproval—as being evil.  

We can see how this process is supposed to work in Nietzsche’s parable of  the lambs and the birds of prey .  The birds see the lambs as their  natural inferiors, as meat.  The lambs are angered by this, but can’t do  anything about it directly by expressing personal anger.  So they express their anger in an impersonal way.  They reproach the birds; they hold them morally responsible for what they lambs see as their evil conduct.  They project the ideology of morality, which is just the impersonal expression of their personal anger and hatred.  Nietzsche is saying that morality is born in denial. 

The problem from Nietzsche’s perspective is that, unlike the birds of prey, the naturally strong have been taken in by this ideology.  Through Judaeo-Christian religion, a “priestly caste” has taken over culture to such a degree that the ideology of morality is now the dominant view.  But in addition to being born in hatred and denial, Nietzsche believes both that the idea of morality is philosophically insupportable (for example, in its assumption of free will) as well as one that has terrible consequences for human culture—it is an ethic of weakness and illness that chokes off genuine human achievement.  


READ:  by G. J. Mattey U.C.Davis

Now we turn to a philosopher who was in no way delicate, but said that he wanted to philosophize with a hammer. Friedrich Nietzsche is a philosopher much misunderstood in his own time and especially in the first half of the 20th century, when he was adopted by the Nazis as having given the theoretical basis to National Socialism. This came about largely because his philosophy was distorted by his sister, who was married to a notorious racist activist. In the latter half of this century, he has been rehabilitated and is now one of the hottest philosophers around. I will mention a couple of reasons for his current popularity in the course of the discussion of his views.

One of the themes of the ethical theories of the Greeks was that moral goodness is a kind of healthy functioning of the human being. In Niezsche's view, the human condition is one of profound illness. Its symptoms are to be found everywhere, but nowhere more prominently than in the world's religions. Eastern religions, such as Buddhism, have as their ultimate goal emptiness, nothingness. They are nihilistic, seeking only release from life. Western religions, led by Christianity, are even worse, according to Nietzsche. So hostile are they to life that they hold before us the promise of eternal torture. So the modern condition is one in which the masses of people say "No" to life.

Nietzsche attempted to account for the modern condition through an explanation of its development. In the pre-human condition (compare Hobbes' state of nature), people distinguished by their strength, vitality, courage form a kind of natural nobility or aristocracy. They get their own way through the exercise of power. (One reason for Nietzsche's recent popularity is the widely-held view that power-relations are at the basis of all social institutions.) Even if he were to grant with Hobbes that these noble ones were themselves vulnerable to sudden death, Nietzsche would say that they would laugh at the prospect, for putting a value on one's own life is a later development.

Eventually the masses were subdued by the nobility and civil society began. A necessary condition of society is a system of exchange, which requires that values be placed on things. Here is the origin of human rationality, in the reckoning of values and equivalences. The placing of things in equivalent categories is the basis of the use of general concepts, which therefore is always practical, on Nietzsche's view.

Though now subdued, the human community could hardly have lost its animal instincts overnight. The discharge of the urges of power remains a necessity, but bound by obligations and prohibitions, social man is unable to continue in his wild ways. The pent-up vitality must be directed somewhere, and the only place it can go is inward. Thus the "human soul" is refined as the target of our own aggression. Thus the sickness of the modern human being is self-inflicted. We tear ourselves down in the way a caged animal rubs its skin raw chafing at the cage which confines it.

The cure for this sickness is not to be found in the human race as it presently exists. The product is fatally flawed: we have made ourselves what we are, and there is no turning back to the days before the rationality leveled the chief distinctions among us. The only hope is the development of a new form, an "overman," to go beyond the rigid moral categories of good and evil which have grown up around, and are inextricable from, the human race. Incidentally, this shows why the Nazi notion of the German (more broadly, "Aryan") people as a master race finds no basis in Nietzsche. Whatever their virtues or vices, the German people share in the basic sickness of the modern human being. To this day, Nietzsche's readers identify themselves as the nobility, as the powerful ones to whom the categories of good and evil do not apply. I suspect this is another reason for Nietzsche's popularity. But this distorts Nietzsche's meaning grotesquely.


Nietzsche's Superman:

Nietzsche as presenting The Ethics of an Immoralist:


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