Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Gay Science: I.21–I.29

The “humble” monk


If we really examine virtues closely, Nietzsche thinks that what we find is that they are very destructive to the individual who possesses them, even as they are preservatives for mankind (or at least society) as a whole:

Thus what is really praised when virtues are praised is, first, their instrumental nature and, secondly, the instinct in every virtue that refuses to be held in check by the over-all advantage for the individual himself—in sum, the unreason in virtue that leads the individual to allow himself to be transformed into a mere function of the whole. The praise of virtue is the praise of something that is privately harmful—the praise of instincts that deprive a human being of his noblest selfishness and the strength for the highest autonomy. (I.21)

Not only is virtue fundamentally bad for the individual, it is actually inhabited by “unreason,” quite contrary to the claims made by Plato. This is not to say that Plato (or Christian thinkers) are unaware of the difficulty that Nietzsche is raising here—they tend to reply by arguing that there is a higher good that we achieve by undergoing the temporary suffering of virtue. We receive joy in this life and salvation in the next when we suffer for virtue today. Nietzsche argues that this approach brings a contradiction into our view of virtue—we tell people to be self-sacrificial for their own good. How exactly can one sacrifice one’s self for the sake of one’s self? Much more consistent is a Machiavellian selfishness where we tell others to be self-sacrificial because we know that in doing so they will do good things for us.

It should be no surprise that this line of thought about virtue feeds into an example of the relationship between the upper classes and the lower. The king has one kind of day, while we have another (I.22). Yet if we poke a little bit of fun at this distinction, we find that it utterly collapses because it has no more substance than a dream—exactly the same thing happens when we begin to examine our own individual approaches to the world when we have a “habit of  beginning the day by ordering it and making it tolerable for myself” (I.22).

If what Nietzsche is saying is true, does that mean our morality is in a state of collapse? Compared to the way earlier generations would have discussed virtue and goodness we can see why that might appear to be the case. And yet, Nietzsche gives us a view of the collapse of society (which I assume would have been a common one) and suggests that we reexamine it. A society in decline has several components (check out Spengler’s Decline of the West for a rigorous application of this):

  1. Superstition begins to replace faith;
  2. Society becomes exhausted, rather than energetic;
  3. Cruelty and corruption decline;
  4. Tyrants emerge.

And yet, Nietzsche argues that just as “evil” has its role to play in the forward progress of man, so these marks of a society in decline really have positive aspects that suggest a society still in motion, rather than in collapse. To wit:

  1. Superstition is the sign that thought and reflection are ongoing and the individual continues to develop;
  2. Luxury and private life become the new focus of the energy of the state, rather than war—in other words, they’re not truly “exhausted”;
  3. Cruelty and corruption get refocused, rather than actually declining—”malice” replaces open oppression;
  4. The tyrant is the truest and highest development of the individual and is reflective of a new radical individualism that dominates society.

All of this to say that “Corruption is merely a nasty word for the autumn of a people” (I.23).

The true contrast to good and evil, at least as it appears here, is the contrast between the masculine and the feminine views of the world.

The weak and quasi feminine type of the dissatisfied has a sensitivity for making life more beautiful and profound; the strong or masculine type… has a sensitivity for making life better and safe. The former type manifests its weakness and femininity by gladly being deceived occasionally and settling for intoxication and effusive enthusiasm, although it can never be satisfied altogether and suffers from the incurability of its dissatisfaction. (I.24)

As the note points out, this interpretation is more nuanced than its façade of chauvinism suggests. Kaufmann argues that we can look to Nietzsche’s other books to see that masculine and feminine, like good and evil, both have their place. But I think we can see something of that even here—feminine (which is mostly discussed, masculine is not taken up at this point) does have its social costs and weaknesses, but it is these very costs and weaknesses, this “dissatisfaction” that has kept change happening in Europe. Societies that have stamped out their own unhappiness have become stagnant and lost the energy for life (I lack the cultural and historical knowledge to comment on whether Nietzsche is correct when he uses China as an example).

It is this idea of dissatisfaction that seems to shape the next several reflections. If that inner urge to find something different is one of the things that keeps society moving forward and keeps humanity living, then there must be something to say about that urge. For one, we see that it has an enemy in “stupid humility” that opposes all new ideas (I.25). The person who is stupidly humble is satisfied with what he has and runs away from anything that challenges his possession of it. On the other hand, the “man of renunciation” is the man who “strives for a higher world”; he does so by throwing “away much that would encumber his flight, including not a little that he esteems and likes” (I.27). This man is unafraid of a truth about life, the contradiction that we see in existence: life is always in the process of dying, and yet we find in us (or given to us) the imperative: thou shalt not kill.

The contrast Nietzsche has drawn should be clear: we tend to think of humility as one of the defining contrasts of holy men in the world—monks and saints. Yet Nietzsche argues that the truly holy men are defined by pride, albeit a shrouded pride that hides their true greatness away from the world: “he is quite satisfied with the impression he makes on us: he wants to conceal from us his desire, his pride, his intention to soar beyond us” (I.27). The cassock hides not the sinful flesh but the proud man of affirmation, who is the same as the man of renunciation.

And yet, such men may progress far beyond their natural ability—their “strengths propel [them] so far forward that [they] can no longer endure [their] weaknesses and perish from them” (I.28). It would be as if one were to spend all his time lifting weights working on his upper body, only to have his legs break under him one day. Sometimes, this destruction even sweeps others along as well. The great man bleeds a bit of greatness into the lives of others, who then do terrible things with it, either because it is too much for them to properly handle or because they have failed to understand what they are doing in the first place.

Such men also generate a response from conservatives, who “add lies” when their habits and customs are challenged:

the reasons and purposes for habits are always lies that are added only after some people begin to attack these habits and to ask for reasons and purposes. At this point the conservatives of all ages are thoroughly dishonest: they add lies. (I.29)

The Nietzschean monk challenges the status quo while the conservative rises to its defense with deceit, rather than admitting that the status quo is no more than habit.

More on these men next time.


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

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