Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Gay Science: I.9–I.20

Romance is the height of our grasping for power.


Picking up the last post’s thought on the necessity of proper perspective and proper tools when it comes to judging humanity and its purpose, in today’s reading Nietzsche argues that we need a long-term view to discover what is really hidden in man—a view that may have to stretch over generations:

Some ages seem to lack altogether some talent or some virtue, as certain individuals do, too. But just wait for their children and grandchildren… (I.9)

This is clearly true of vices as well. Contemporary culture struggles with lust and sexual sin in a way unimaginable by previous generations—though the seeds of that sin were present in embryo even in the past.

Nietzsche, however, focuses on virtue. In a sense, he says, the virtues that were common in the past, when they pop up in the present, are vestigial remainders of a different time. For example: the chivalrous individual with a courtly view of love as opposed to a more egalitarian and individualistic view:

Now they seem strange, rare, extraordinary; and whoever feels these powers in himself must nurse, defend, honor, and cultivate them against another world that resists them, until he becomes either a great human being or a mad and eccentric one—or perishes early. (I.10)

And again, the same is true of vices—though that would be much less appealing as an example. Both virtues and vices, however, are glimmers of the developing role of “consciousness.” That is, our awareness of ourselves, our natures, our place in history, and so on. The problem is that we assume that we know where we are and that we have arrived at the truth and are moving in a good direction. This may very well be wrong—it may be the case that we are still in a state of immaturity, acting on instinct which offsets our otherwise dangerous disposition toward self-destruction in the name of exercising an undeveloped consciousness:

To this day the task of incorporating knowledge and making it instinctive is only beginning to dawn on the human eye and is not yet clearly discernible. (I.11)

Perhaps what we need to be doing instead of assuming a position of hubris is working on integrating what we “know” (I assume through the sciences, but Nietzsche is unclear) with our instinctive reactions. We have to blend the reality of our place in the world with our unfolding knowledge of nature before we can truly say that we have arrived at true knowledge of ourselves. And if we have not truly known ourselves, we can hardly claim to be living a life of either good or evil (assuming that Plato and the Delphic Oracle are correct that “know thyself” has to come first). Unfortunately, Nietzsche thinks we’ve only made a start in this process—and that mostly by incorporating “our errors” into ourselves. It’s all well and good to assume that there is a development of humanity that goes on organically over time—we simply must not assume we are ahead of where we actually are in that development. We must not be, as Lewis suggests, the children who play dress-up and pretend to be adults. If we are still at the instinctive, childhood stage, we will get in trouble when we begin to act like adults with all the destructive powers of the modern world at our disposal.

This raises the question of the role of science in our lives. If we are not really capable of living the fully evolved and mature lives that we think we are, what are we to do with all the learning pouring out of the “great” minds of the age? We tend to think that progress is about lessening pain and increasing pleasure. But Nietzsche thinks this is because we fail to understand the true nature of each of these. There is no pain without pleasure, and no pleasure without pain. True, we can lessen pain, but that brings with it a decrease in the amount of pleasure as well. The reverse is also true, as the amount of pain we suffer increases, the amount of joy we are capable of also increases. So our options may be either to embrace Stoicism and reject both possibilities (pain and pleasure), or to accept the heights and depths that it is possible for us to experience as human beings.

If pleasure and pain are not the ends which ought to be shaping and defining our pursuits in life but are rather complementary characteristics, then we have to ask what lies in back of them. And what we see when we peek beyond the curtain of pleasure and pain is power. Power is the way we make our mark on the world and the way in which we interact with others. Dispensing pleasure and pain is an action of power and the means by which we glorify ourselves. When we look at the world through the perspective of power, we start to see things in a different tint:

One hurts those whom one wants to feel one’s power… We benefit and show benevolence to those who are already dependent on us in some way… we want to increase their power because in that way we increase ours, or we want to show them how advantageous it is to  be in our power; that way they will become more satisfied with their condition and more hostile to and willing to fight against the enemies of our power. (I.13)

This does not mean that we become wantonly cruel (though it might) or that we are always only out for ourselves (though it might), it does mean that I as an individual can only truly understand my place in the world when I see it through the filter of my power in its true place.

This new view of the self with power as central begins to filter into our view of human relationships as well. “Pity” becomes obsolete, “the virtue of prostitutes” (I.13), something which only those who have no power need to bother with (remember, Nietzsche has said that power can do good to others, so he is using pity in a very specific way here). Greed and love likewise begin to look different. We begin to see that when we say “I love my neighbor,” what we really mean is that we wish to add to our own power by possessing some part of him through good works. When I mow my neighbor’s lawn, my power increases because now he thinks better of me. In a sense, he has become a part of me, and I am the better for it:

Our pleasure in ourselves tries to maintain itself by again and again changing something new into ourselves; that is what possession means. (I.14)

The height of this grasping after power comes in romance, where the goal is for one person to possess the other exclusively and fully, until the whole world is “indifferent, pale, and worthless” by comparison (I.14). Nietzsche does think that some of our language about romantic love is overblown and probably shaped by people who wanted it instead of people who enjoyed it in its best sense. And however much I disagree with the rest of today’s reading, I can at least go along with that point—if you’re getting your view of romantic love from young adult fiction, chick flicks, or Hallmark cards, you will have a functionally worthless view of love.

From time to time, Nietzsche says, we will find a pair of people in the world who share a craving for a higher good rather than for each other, for

a shared higher thirst for an ideal above them. But who knows such love? Who has experienced it? Its right name is friendship. (I.14)

This points us back to Aristotle.

If at this point in the reading we are shifting uncomfortably in our seats or even openly shouting at the page (not that I would ever do that), perhaps the problem is one of perspective. Maybe what we need to do is remember that we are coming to this text—and even more so to virtue itself—from our own perspective and in doing so may be approaching it inappropriately:

We had forgotten that some greatness, like some goodness, wants to be beheld only from a distance and by all means only from below, not from above, otherwise it makes no impression. (I.15)

Or, to give another example, think of people that we know who don’t like to wear their softer emotions in public and instead always put on a tough, cynical, or sarcastic facade. We know there is something more underneath, but whenever we get a glimpse of it they are ashamed and quickly cover it up. In either case, the truth must be approached from the right direction and in the right way.

We see an example of this in the ancient Greeks, who could not see the slaves in their own world—unlike in our time when we “are accustomed to the doctrine of human equality, though not to equality itself” (I.18). The results of this blindness opened them up to virtues and vices that we no longer have access to; which I think is an interesting direction for Nietzsche to have taken the discussion, but it does tie back in to his earlier point. We have eliminated the pains of slavery—and they are true pains to be sure, but in doing so we have also eliminated the joys that come with it. In this case, the joys of philosophers in their pride at not being slaves. In my opinion, that particular trade was worth it, which I guess makes me a Stoic. I think I understand Nietzsche’s repeated points that evils are necessary for goods (repeated again in I.19 and I.20), I just happen to think that the sacrifice of some goods is worthwhile.


Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri, and cohost of the City of Man podcast.

5 Responses to “The Gay Science: I.9–I.20”

  1. gabe

    Nietzsche would of course have rejected Stoicism; but, at least to my mind, it is not Stoicism to which he objects. It may very well be that he is fiercely opposed to the rather stultifying mores of his day – in short, the boring sameness of the received wisdom and social behavior of the time.

    Consider (and this is one of my all time Nietzsche favorites) the following opening to one of his works:

    “But what if Truth is a woman?” She wishes to be conquered, and boldly so, he goes on to say.

    Nietzsche suggests that we live “boldly” Yet this is not to be a *blind* boldness; but an energetic disposition that is capable of *seeing* and incorporating ALL those attributes, virtues and vices, that are an inherent part of human existence.
    Accept them, he says, as they make us who AND what we are and can be.

    How often do we observe in others a tendency to express great moral sentiment accompanied by a certain moral deadness – a ghostlike apparition! These are the people who “love humanity” but cannot love their neighbor (even if in Neitzsche’s peculiar sense illustrated above). There is a certain vacuousness about them as they trundle along upon the stream of contemporary “received wisdom.”

    Do we not sense that something is missing in them.
    Nietzsche would argue that they lack not just insight but joy; there is no *power* in them because they deny to themselves the understanding that their “moral uprightness” is not being complimented internally with an understanding of the more baser motives / drives AND that absent this knowledge they cannot enjoy / appreciate the fullness of their actions / thoughts and power.

    Life, for Nietzsche is to be *robust* – fully lived, experienced and this is possible only with a deep appreciation of ALL that human existence offers – virtue and vice.
    Unlike some, I, however, do not believe that Nietzsche was suggesting that one should engage in all these vices (or even virtues as many are simply incapable of doing so) but only that one should understand fully the range of possibilities. In a very real sense, the failure to recognize the *possibility* of doing wrong, reduces the (internal, and in the perception of others) the appreciation of the act of doing right. And one should do right, “robustly.”

    Perhaps, Truth is, or at least ought to be, a Woman.

    take care and keep ’em coming.

  2. gabe

    Oh, and Nietzsche would have definitely been for Brexit. If anything illustrates the “life poorly lived” (in political terms, of course) it is the EU.
    And while the EU has a form of power, it reduces all who labor under its oppressive mandates to a ghostlike existence and leads them to not only forget their own “virtues and vices”, it compels them to abandon / deny their own peculiar virtues and vices.

    Truth in this instance has been transformed into a dried up old harridan.

  3. Mark


    In sections 9-20, is Nietzche asserting how we should interact with each other, or is he describing how we actually interact with each other?

    • gabe

      To be honest with you, I have a hard time telling what he is doing. In other writings of his, it would seem that he is offering a “way” of being / interacting; yet at the same time it also feels like a critique of contemporary (his time) behavior.
      My sense is that he somehow blends the two.

  4. Coyle Neal

    Gabe–I’d agree with your response to Mark, that he either blends the two or shifts back and forth so subtly that it is impossible to track.

    Also, great points about Nietzsche and his (correct) insistence that we must be fully engaged in life. From a Christian perspective, I’d say it’s pretty clear that we are both to have correct doctrine and to have fully engaged and correctly aligned affections. Reason and emotion are to work in concert–if only one is engaged it is a sign that the individual is not (yet) saved.
    Speaking more broadly, the same is true. The individual is to be reflective in his daily life, but he is also to be passionate about it. Nietzsche points out that we tend to grab one of those and run with it, and so end up failing to live well. The only real alternative to a properly balanced life is Stoicism, which as you point out he rejects because of its costs.


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