Review of Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil

philosophy, life

26 Apr 2023

20 minute read

Note: Nietzsche really goes off in the last part and even in some of my quotes/earlier parts about this higher nobler kind, and how the greatness in the world is distilled or whatever Needless to say, I don’t share some of the very bad takes he has.

In this book, Nietzsche is appealing to a sense of aesthetics and truth that goes, according to him, beyond the impulse towards and good and evil, beyond the popularized version of ethics. He proposes a philosophy focused around the idea of a will to power, as a moving force pushing the world towards one focused more on greatness, and higher feelings he elaborates on in the book, rather than one that seeks to minimize pain.

In some sense, I can relate to Nietzsche’s focus on an aesthetic sense of the world rather than a purely moral or utilitarian one. Nietzsche’s aesthetics are also intertwined with suffering and the idea of triumphing over others and over difficulty. I believe (in a more healthy mindset however) that there is something to say about pain giving you a unique ability to see beauty in the world, and feel alive. But he definitely goes far out in a way I strongly disagree with regarding his quest to oppose what he sees as a puny visions of egalitarian societies where people have cushions and aren’t required to fight to survive, where a certain regard towards morality and a care for one another is upheld, versus a more brutal world where the “greats” reign. One understands why the Nazis liked using him. Nonetheless, his work is beautifully written and thought-provoking. This “philosophy of the future” aims to strike at the root of what humans are motivated by, and a desire to power that according to Nietzsche is central to life and is opposed and distilled by impulses towards morality and the impulse towards helping the weak survive. He is arguing that it’s under adversity, violence and suffering that humans are pulled upwards, that adversity makes power and desire makes life, and that in pain, disgust, poverty there’s also something to learn for the world, and a degree of life that is beyond the everyday.

Nietzsche focuses a lot on the idea of the “great man”:

What? A great man? I always see merely the play-actor of his own ideal.

The great man for him, is someone that has reached a higher understanding of the mechanisms of the world but also their own desires, and how to bring them about, who has seen the dirty and the bad, the good and the free, and learns to say “I want this in the world” and makes it happen. (In a way, analogous to modern startup bros… but probably with more refinement). It’s a very romantic vision of life, one where he is trying to find his place as a physically weak and feeble man.

To him, philosophy is an instantiation of such higher reflexes: Philosophers create the values of the future, they propose the models by which we judge and build, and have eternal importance in Nietzsche’s tableau:

it requires him TO CREATE VALUES. The philosophical workers, after the excellent pattern of Kant and Hegel, have to fix and formalize some great existing body of valuations that is to say, former DETERMINATIONS OF VALUE, creations of value, which have become prevalent, and are for a time called “truths” whether in the domain of the LOGICAL, the POLITICAL (moral), or the ARTISTIC. It is for these investigators to make whatever has happened and been esteemed hitherto, conspicuous, conceivable, intelligible, and manageable, to shorten everything long, even “time” itself, and to SUBJUGATE the entire past: an immense and wonderful task, in the carrying out of which all refined pride, all tenacious will, can surely find satisfaction. THE REAL PHILOSOPHERS, HOWEVER, ARE COMMANDERS AND LAW-GIVERS; they say: “Thus SHALL it be!” They determine first the Whither and the Why of mankind, and thereby set aside the previous labour of all philosophical workers, and all subjugators of the past they grasp at the future with a creative hand, and whatever is and was, becomes for them thereby a means, an instrument, and a hammer. Their “knowing” is CREATING, their creating is a law-giving, their will to truth is WILL TO POWER. Are there at present such philosophers? Have there ever been such philosophers? MUST there not be such philosophers some day?

But can we trust these brave new philosophers? Who see suffering in the world and are somehow “above it”? I’m not sure. There’s a balance between the startup vibe of going out in the world, being strong and powerful, and enacting your own version of reality, and the much more cool image of philosophy as something reflective, almost slow, that forms itself through a lengthy contact with many ideas and a central caution. Nietzsche wants power but his descriptions imply an individuality and a desire for change that seem like they could be blinding. Society should not be a great man’s playground, although it seems like sometimes it is (Cough Cough OpenAI).

Nietzsche is also just straight up doubtful in general about the concept of morality itself: what gives us the confidence we have in our moral system? Where does it come from and why? He couples this with the idea that “pain and suffering” are a fundamental way for man to grow and develop a will to power, to action and being. I can relate to this in some ways sad art has a striking beauty that has a touching quality very different than a hype song (for example: Between the Bars, Chandelier by Damien Rice, etc..), and there is something to say about the pensive, sometimes dangerous quality of people who have seen pain. This is why he says cynicists are useful.

In the quote below, Nietzsche portrays religion and the moral zeitgeist of Europe and religion as an artificial constraint, but not one that is necessarily bad. It provides a cage, an all-determining end goal of thought that was beneficial to channeling European intellect. By giving thinkers a conclusion to reason for that isn’t necessarily true, it gave a basis to thought that, according to him, allowed them to do more. This reminds me of all the ontological “proofs” of God’s existence, that aim to make divinity itself rigorous. Although I don’t agree in their validity, they remain ingenious. I think the idea of terminally useful but fundamentally arbitrary constraints as a nice perspective on originality and creativity — poetry stands out as a prominent example of chaos and creativity being able to flourish from constraint.

In contrast to laisser-aller, every system of morals is a sort of tyranny against “nature” and also against “reason”, that is, however, no objection, unless one should again decree by some system of morals, that all kinds of tyranny and unreasonableness are unlawful What is essential and invaluable in every system of morals, is that it is a long constraint. In order to understand Stoicism, or Port Royal, or Puritanism, one should remember the constraint under which every language has attained to strength and freedom the metrical constraint, the tyranny of rhyme and rhythm. How much trouble have the poets and orators of every nation given themselves! not excepting some of the prose writers of today, in whose ear dwells an inexorable conscientiousness “for the sake of a folly,” as utilitarian bunglers say, and thereby deem themselves wise “from submission to arbitrary laws,” as the anarchists say, and thereby fancy themselves “free,” even free-spirited. The singular fact remains, however, that everything of the nature of freedom, elegance, boldness, dance, and masterly certainty, which exists or has existed, whether it be in thought itself, or in administration, or in speaking and persuading, in art just as in conduct, has only developed by means of the tyranny of such arbitrary law, and in all seriousness, it is not at all improbable that precisely this is “nature” and “natural” and not laisser-aller! Every artist knows how different from the state of letting himself go, is his “most natural” condition, the free arranging, locating, disposing, and constructing in the moments of “inspiration” and how strictly and delicately he then obeys a thousand laws, which, by their very rigidness and precision, defy all formulation by means of ideas (even the most stable idea has, in comparison therewith, something floating, manifold, and ambiguous in it). The essential thing “in heaven and in earth” is, apparently (to repeat it once more), that there should be long OBEDIENCE in the same direction, there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living; for instance, virtue, art, music, dancing, reason, spirituality anything whatever that is transfiguring, refined, foolish, or divine. The long bondage of the spirit, the distrustful constraint in the communicability of ideas, the discipline which the thinker imposed on himself to think in accordance with the rules of a church or a court, or conformable to Aristotelian premises, the persistent spiritual will to interpret everything that happened according to a Christian scheme, and in every occurrence to rediscover and justify the Christian God: all this violence, arbitrariness, severity, dreadfulness, and unreasonableness, has proved itself the disciplinary means whereby the European spirit has attained its strength, its remorseless curiosity and subtle mobility; granted also that much irrecoverable strength and spirit had to be stifled, suffocated, and spoilt in the process (for here, as everywhere, “nature” shows herself as she is, in all her extravagant and INDIFFERENT magnificence, which is shocking, but nevertheless noble). That for centuries European thinkers only thought in order to prove something nowadays, on the contrary, we are suspicious of every thinker who “wishes to prove something” that it was always settled beforehand what WAS TO BE the result of their strictest thinking, as it was perhaps in the Asiatic astrology of former times, or as it is still at the present day in the innocent, Christian-moral explanation of immediate personal events “for the glory of God,” or “for the good of the soul”: this tyranny, this arbitrariness, this severe and magnificent stupidity, has EDUCATED the spirit; slavery, both in the coarser and the finer sense, is apparently an indispensable means even of spiritual education and discipline. One may look at every system of morals in this light: it is “nature” therein which teaches to hate the laisser-aller, the too great freedom, and implants the need for limited horizons, for immediate duties it teaches the NARROWING OF PERSPECTIVES, and thus, in a certain sense, that stupidity is a condition of life and development. “Thou must obey some one, and for a long time; OTHERWISE thou wilt come to grief, and lose all respect for thyself” this seems to me to be the moral imperative of nature, which is certainly neither “categorical,” as old Kant wished (consequently the “otherwise”), nor does it address itself to the individual (what does nature care for the individual!), but to nations, races, ages, and ranks; above all, however, to the animal “man” generally, to MANKIND.

At present, on the contrary, when throughout Europe the herding-animal alone attains to honours, and dispenses honours, when “equality of right” can too readily be transformed into equality in wrong I mean to say into general war against everything rare, strange, and privileged, against the higher man, the higher soul, the higher duty, the higher responsibility, the creative plenipotence and lordliness at present it belongs to the conception of “greatness” to be noble, to wish to be apart, to be capable of being different, to stand alone, to have to live by personal initiative, and the philosopher will betray something of his own ideal when he asserts “He shall be the greatest who can be the most solitary, the most concealed, the most divergent, the man beyond good and evil, the master of his virtues, and of super-abundance of will; precisely this shall be called GREATNESS: as diversified as can be entire, as ample as can be full.” And to ask once more the question: Is greatness POSSIBLE nowadays?

He bases his idea of greatness on a strong, almost American, sense of individuality, that cries out to you: I AM ME. That strives to be different, in its goals, but in the philosopher’s case, also in terms of its values, going beyond what he views as the problematic black and white dichotomy of his time: good vs evil. This strikes me as another form of prison: in striving to be always different, always to impose one’s ideal, to be great, one lives in a cage of their own making, navigating the current of their times in the small domain of things that can allow them to shine alone. Being a great man sounds to me like shackles. The usual tension between art and action resurfaces: does the philosopher bring visions into the world or bring ideas, and let them fester until the world decides it can no longer ignore them?

But coming back to this central idea: what does he mean by beyond good and evil? What is the philosophy of the future? It may be, ironically, one that comes back to a more dog-eat-dog world, where the “nobler” and the great are kings:

Well-being, as you understand it is certainly not a goal; it seems to us an END; a condition which at once renders man ludicrous and contemptible - and makes his destruction DESIRABLE! The discipline of suffering, of GREAT suffering know ye not that it is only THIS discipline that has produced all the elevations of humanity hitherto? The tension of soul in misfortune which communicates to it its energy, its shuddering in view of rack and ruin, its inventiveness and bravery in undergoing, enduring, interpreting, and exploiting misfortune, and whatever depth, mystery, disguise, spirit, artifice, or greatness has been bestowed upon the soul has it not been bestowed through suffering, through the discipline of great suffering? In man CREATURE and CREATOR are united: in man there is not only matter, shred, excess, clay, mire, folly, chaos; but there is also the creator, the sculptor, the hardness of the hammer, the divinity of the spectator, and the seventh day do ye understand this contrast? And that YOUR sympathy for the “creature in man” applies to that which has to be fashioned, bruised, forged, stretched, roasted, annealed, refined to that which must necessarily SUFFER, and IS MEANT to suffer? And our sympathy do ye not understand what our REVERSE sympathy applies to, when it resists your sympathy as the worst of all pampering and enervation? So it is sympathy AGAINST sympathy! But to repeat it once more, there are higher problems than the problems of pleasure and pain and sympathy; and all systems of philosophy which deal only with these are naivetes.

Similarly, Nietzsche believes suffering is another form of constraint, less arbitrary for him, that also creates value. He claims suffering in itself brings man towards elevation, towards greatness. The soul in being pressed down, forced into pain, learns new means by which to strive and reach the sky. This reminds me of Baudelaire’s tension between spleen and elevation, and the creative power of poetry to turn what he calls “dirt” into gold, for example in his draft epilogue of the 1861 edition of Flowers of Evil, where he talks about the dark beauty of Paris and the transformative power of poetry.

When I see the literary currents of his time and even modern work it’s hard not to notice how most of the story is not motivated by an imperative towards wellbeing but rather a complex exposition of, often, human problems and human pain. In these stories, it’s the pain, the suffering, the emotional complexity beyond good and bad, that makes the reader hooked. This contrast, this tension, is attractive and calls to people’s emotional sensibilities, but Nietzsche takes it a bit far by denigrating the search for wellbeing as something that dilutes greatness, and this is where I disagree. Not only on the premise that it’s dilutive, but also that the tradeoff shouldn’t be made sometimes.

It sometimes feels like Nietzsche is creating an ideal where he can be king, a form of thought where he, as a philosopher, can take greatness by the hands and shape the future, rather than starting from a place of reason. Maybe that taste of madness is what makes his writing beautiful.

Honesty, granting that it is the virtue of which we cannot rid ourselves, we free spirits well, we will labour at it with all our perversity and love, and not tire of “perfecting” ourselves in OUR virtue, which alone remains: may its glance some day overspread like a gilded, blue, mocking twilight this aging civilization with its dull gloomy seriousness! And if, nevertheless, our honesty should one day grow weary, and sigh, and stretch its limbs, and find us too hard, and would fain have it pleasanter, easier, and gentler, like an agreeable vice, let us remain HARD, we latest Stoics, and let us send to its help whatever devilry we have in us: our disgust at the clumsy and undefined, our “NITIMUR IN VETITUM,” our love of adventure, our sharpened and fastidious curiosity, our most subtle, disguised, intellectual Will to Power and universal conquest, which rambles and roves avidiously around all the realms of the future let us go with all our “devils” to the help of our “God”! It is probable that people will misunderstand and mistake us on that account: what does it matter! They will say: “Their ‘honesty’ that is their devilry, and nothing else!”

This setup of an us and a them: “philosophers of the future” vs the moral zeitgeist, is a convenient way for him to basically laud his ideas, as ones that pursue ideals of honesty, that stand against society, waiting patiently until they are recognized.

More than a quest for greatness, he is presenting a quest for truth at all costs. A gnawing, stubborn, philosopher’s truth that will stand contrarian and never stop asking why, that wants to understand on a deeper level what it means to live, and intrinsically, to desire, to will your vision of the world into reality

there operates the sublime tendency of the man of knowledge, which takes, and INSISTS on taking things profoundly, variously, and thoroughly; as a kind of cruelty of the intellectual conscience and taste, which every courageous thinker will acknowledge in himself, provided, as it ought to be, that he has sharpened and hardened his eye sufficiently long for introspection, and is accustomed to severe discipline and even severe words. He will say: “There is something cruel in the tendency of my spirit”: let the virtuous and amiable try to convince him that it is not so! In fact, it would sound nicer, if, instead of our cruelty, perhaps our “extravagant honesty” were talked about, whispered about, and glorified we free, VERY free spirits and some day perhaps SUCH will actually be our posthumous glory! Meanwhile for there is plenty of time until then we should be least inclined to deck ourselves out in such florid and fringed moral verbiage; our whole former work has just made us sick of this taste and its sprightly exuberance. They are beautiful, glistening, jingling, festive words: honesty, love of truth, love of wisdom, sacrifice for knowledge, heroism of the truthful there is something in them that makes one’s heart swell with pride. But we anchorites and marmots have long ago persuaded ourselves in all the secrecy of an anchorite’s conscience, that this worthy parade of verbiage also belongs to the old false adornment, frippery, and gold-dust of unconscious human vanity, and that even under such flattering colour and repainting, the terrible original text HOMO NATURA must again be recognized. In effect, to translate man back again into nature; to master the many vain and visionary interpretations and subordinate meanings which have hitherto been scratched and daubed over the eternal original text, HOMO NATURA; to bring it about that man shall henceforth stand before man as he now, hardened by the discipline of science, stands before the OTHER forms of nature, with fearless Oedipus-eyes, and stopped Ulysses-ears, deaf to the enticements of old metaphysical bird-catchers, who have piped to him far too long: “Thou art more! thou art higher! thou hast a different origin!” this may be a strange and foolish task, but that it is a TASK, who can deny! Why did we choose it, this foolish task? Or, to put the question differently: “Why knowledge at all?” Every one will ask us about this. And thus pressed, we, who have asked ourselves the question a hundred times, have not found and cannot find any better answer….

I recommend checking this book out, while remaining equipped with a critical perspective and an understanding that some of his ideas are triggering and abhorrent. Nietzsche lays out what he finds compelling in the tapestry of human life, the good, the evil, and everything above and beyond. He is telling us: greatness comes with action but also reflection on human values and what makes us, in a beautiful exposition of his aesthetics and his perspective on power and philosophy, as tools to better see the world but also to change it towards something full of strength but also obscurity. This obscurity is partly due to suffering but also it’s not judged to the norm of morality but tinted with a more complex idea of what constitutes value, one that seems at times contradictory, diffuse, ugly, and even horrific at times, but one nonetheless.

It’s also food for thought in the context of AI and the tech world. It feels like the pace of technological innovation especially in the field I’m interested in (AI) has been propulsed by a select few triggering their ideal of the world, risks and all. And the rise of such AI systems, but also of other technologies, might be giving more and more power to “great” men, to idea men who can turn visions into products and tools quicker and quicker, but as a result with much less reflexion on the consequences. This is true outside of AI too, although in other domains influence seems less centralized, with issues like climate and nuclear. I wonder whether Nietzsche would find our current world thrilling and rejoice at the possibilities, or worry about a future where everything might seem like it lays in the balance.