Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Gay Science: I.30–I.47

Alexander the Great at the Battle of Gaugamela. Photo by Luis García, CC BY-SA 3.0.


In the last post, Nietzsche began to discuss the sort of person who is dissatisfied with the world established and run by convention and who is quietly searching for something greater and higher. At the start of today’s readings, we see who these individuals are not. For example, they are not merely “famous” men, who “need their fame, like all politicians…” (I.30). There are superficial similarities of course, but the “famous” men out there need the constant attention and effects of being famous and having a large crowd of hangers-on. This means constantly changing to fit the times and constantly adjusting one’s character so as to continue to feed off one’s followers. They are much more like characters on a stage than they are like real people. Nor are the dissatisfied seekers merchants or noblemen, though we can perhaps imagine a circumstance where that could be the case.

Nietzsche now gives a few aspects of the intellectual life of someone who is pursuing the truth. For one, they must be totally dedicated to the truth rather than simply being either acquiescent or compromising:

they are unwelcome students. This one cannot say “No,” and that one says to everything “Half and half.” Supposing that they adopted my doctrine, the former would suffer too much… the other one would make some personal compromise with every cause he represents and thus compromise it. (I.32)

This life must be an all-or-nothing life but not a life in which we always unreservedly go alone even with what Nietzsche himself says. We must be able to say “no” even to our teachers. (So my students do not need to read this book until after they’ve graduated.)

This is not, however, to say that man is mistrustful by nature. In a sense, being willing to say “no” in our own world is being able to exercise trust even when “science” is saying something else:

I do not understand this: why should man be more mistrustful and evil now [than in the past]? “Because he now has—and needs—a science.” (I.33)

I do think this is one aspect of Nietzsche’s time that has lasted to our own—we tend only to trust things that come from established, “scientific” sources. This doesn’t necessarily mean science in the way we popularly use the term, it is being used here in a broader sense of “culturally established authorities and processes.” Why do some people think gay marriage is a social good? Because that is what the dominant culture, the “science” of our times, has said. Nietzsche is calling for people to believe things without such confirmations or instructions. This does not mean believing contrary to history, though it might mean believing a history that is contrary to the established wisdom:

Every great human being exerts a retroactive force: for his sake all history is placed in the balance again, and a thousand secrets of the past crawl out of their hiding places—into his sunshine. There is no way of telling what may yet become part of history. Perhaps the past is still essentially undiscovered. So many retroactive forces are still needed! (I.34)

As an example: prior to Alexander the Great, Greek history was a war for the freedom of the polis against external tyrants and internal threats. After Alexander the Great, Greek history was a war for the cosmopolitan freedom of mankind against external tyrants and internal threats. Of course, we may agree or disagree with either of these readings, but we cannot disagree that Alexander changed the way Greek history works.

This pursuit of wisdom contrary to the culture and current historical interpretations does not necessarily mean the embracing of heresy:

Thinking in a way that is not customary is much less the result of a superior intellect than it is the result of strong, evil inclinations that detach and isolate one, and that are defiant, nasty, and malicious. (I.35)

This must be remembered in the context of Nietzsche’s earlier claims that good and evil are different sides of the same coin, but his point is still an interesting one. Heresy is not the cause or driving force behind reinterpretations of history and the rejection of the common wisdom, it is rather the result of it. Heretics are not the moving forces behind events like the Reformation, they instead follow in the wake of such large events as the old wisdom is rethought and reimagined. Imagine the kind of heretical views of leadership that would follow if the reinterpretation of the virtues of the Roman emperors presented in I.36 were seriously proposed and Tiberius held up as a “good” emperor instead of Augustus.

The dissatisfied individual will see the truth behind common mores and tastes and use his energy not as a means of upholding them but in pointing out the necessary truths about them. This includes our assumptions about science (I.37) and popular culture (I.39). And there is something that resonates with us when one does this, so long as it is done with an air of superiority and nobility about it:

Oddly, submission to powerful, frightening, even terrible persons, like tyrants and generals, is not experienced as nearly so painful as is this submission to unknown and uninteresting persons… For at the bottom the masses are willing to submit to slavery of any kind, if only the higher-ups constantly legitimize themselves as higher, as born to command—by having noble manners. The most common man feels that nobility cannot be improvised and that one has to honor in it the fruit of long periods of time. (I.40)

I think this goes a long way to explaining our current political climate. Two centuries of democratic practices have made modern Americans incapable of identifying truly noble manners when we see them, so instead we accept brute declarations as legitimate claims to power. Simply shouting “I want to be president” loudly enough is sufficient to establish one’s claim these days. The problem is that when we live in a society where it is quite obvious that no one is truly worthy to lead, we start to conclude that “accident and luck have elevated one person above another” and that anyone can say “let us try accident and luck! Let us throw the dice! And thus socialism is born” (I.40).

Nietzsche’s dissatisfied monk (to draw two phrases from yesterday’s reading together) also has an internal life—one without remorse and without improper boredom, but with proper motives and passions.

A thinker sees his own actions as experiments and questions—as attempts to find out something. Success and failure are for him answers above all. (I.41)

Clearly this is problematic, since the actions may very well have been evil. But it is also true that if we’re taking a holistic view, even our failures have a role in our lives. As a Christian, I think that even my sin works for my good and the glory of God. This doesn’t become an excuse for sin and it doesn’t mean that I never feel remorse (Nietzsche is just wrong on that), but it does mean that there is a place for sin in my life that must be recognized. I regret the sin, not the movement toward God caused by the sin.

The same attitude has to be taken toward our work. Boredom does have a place in the life of those who are truly seeking higher goods—that is one of the things that sets them apart from everyone else. Many people are content on some level working a mindless job in the fields or in the factories. Some few will only be bored in these circumstances—”to ward off boredom at any cost is vulgar, no less than work without pleasure” (I.42).

In terms of right motivations, we’ve got to remember that our view of ourselves is often as important as our internal realities:

For their inner happiness and misery has come to men depending on their faith in this or that motive—not by virtue of the actual motives. (I.44)

That is, it may be that in retrospect I see that on one occasion when I gave money to charity, my true motive was that I wanted to look good in front of those who were with me. But if you had asked me why I was giving at the time, I would have said because I am commanded to love my neighbor. Which of those is more important? Well, I can tell you which one makes me feel better…

Likewise we must have the right views of pleasure. Pleasure is not something that we pursue for itself (as we’ve already seen), but it is also not something that we pursue by itself. Considering Epicurus, Nietzsche says that his happiness “could be invented only by a man who was suffering continually” (I.45). Pleasure must come with pain. We’ve already seen that the passions must not be suppressed without the loss of both pain and pleasure, but here we also see that this includes everything attendant on the passions as well:

If one continually forbids oneself the expression of the passions… desiring to suppress not the passions themselves but only their language and gestures—the result is nevertheless precisely what is not desired: the suppression of the passions themselves or at least their weakening and alteration. (I.47)

People are whole creatures, you cannot suppress one part of us and expect the rest to be unaffected. If we tell our children not to hit someone out of anger, that small part of them that experiences anger begins to wither. Now that may be a good thing in some circumstances, but we should at least be aware of the cause and effect relationship.

We should also be aware of the potential fickleness of the things that we hold as certain. These days we tend to assume that what science discovers is firm and lasting while the things we do politically or in society are in flux and ever changing, and yet

Formerly, nothing was known of this fickleness of everything human; the mores of morality sustained the faith that all of man’s inner life was attached to iron necessity with eternal clamps. (I.46)

Our amazement at the wonders of technology now may very well be a reflection of the amazement of people in the past at poetry and fairy tales. If we attach ourselves too much to what is “certain” in the culture, we stand on very shaky ground.


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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