Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Gay Science: III.144–III.173

Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach


Today’s reading begins with Nietzsche taking a somewhat controversial position on the subject of religious wars. Namely, that these are actually social goods because they suggest that the majority has begun to understand that the nuts and bolts of ideas matter and should be carried out to their logical conclusion. Notice that we’ve moved on now from the discussion in the previous post of Nietzsche’s idea that polytheism allows latitude for the individual to flourish while being true to himself, while monotheism forces a level of conformity. Now, conformity has been established amongst the majority, and we have majority battling majority between peoples and cultures. The next several reflections work out different implications of this claim, arguing that each culture works for its own good, whether vegetarian or German or what have you.

Which is not to say that we’re done with the individual by any stretch of the imagination! It is just that the context in which the individual has to operate is no longer one of polytheistic freedom; it is one that is defined by an established dogma. Luther, for example, stood as an individual against the established Roman dogma and so created a new culture—Nietzsche thinks it’s time for the Germans to do so again by jettisoning Christianity all together (III.146).

But under what circumstances might such an individual succeed? Obviously there are failed reform movements (both legitimate, as that of Savonarola in Italy, and heretical, as that of the Albigensians in France, to use Christian examples) that do not manage to rise above the levels of a cult or sect—why is this the case?

Whenever the reformation of a whole people fails and it is only sects that elevate their leader, we may conclude that the people has become relatively heterogeneous and has begun to move away from rude herd instincts and the morality or mores; they are hovering in an interesting intermediate position that is usually dismissed as a mere decay of morals and corruption, although in fact it proclaims that the egg is approaching maturity and that the eggshell is about to be broken. (III.149)

I admit I’m not up on the contemporary literature that studies popular movements and religious revival (or both together), but this sounds like it might run counter to what a scholar in those areas would say. My impression is that it is diversity and fragmentation—or even immorality—which prepare a people for reformation, rather than unity and morality. (The claim that the church in Germany was not corrupt prior to the Reformation [III.148] is certainly an interesting one and might depend on which other churches we’re comparing it to.) And yet, I think Nietzsche’s point makes sense to some degree. In order for a popular movement to spread there must be some kind of popular agreement that whatever it is trying to fix actually needs to be fixed. A society that is fragmented isn’t going to agree on the problems it faces, let alone on the solutions to those problems.

What’s more, Nietzsche argues that these “heterogeneous” societies are the ones which are most likely to foster the maturity of the individual. That reformers cannot make headway suggests that individuals are thinking independently rather than going along with the mob. The converse is also true:

Where someone rules, there are masses; and where we find masses we also find a need to be enslaved. (III.149)

When one person is capable of swaying the multitude in his favor, we can conclude that the multitude is little more than a herd of sheep and that the society in question is experiencing the grave disease of homogeneity.

The symptoms of the disease of homogeneity that besets the world include (but presumably are not limited to) morality, religion, and tradition (III.150–52). Each of these can be understood in purely natural terms, without application to a supernatural realm, though over time they have come to be firmly entrenched in the ideas of man about a future life. And although some progress in recent years has been made toward overcoming these symptoms, they are obviously still dominant among the masses.

At this point, as Kaufmann points out in the note, in III.153 Nietzsche transitions away from longer reflections to short aphorisms. Nietzsche argues that he has undermined the assumptions and prejudices that govern the world, but he isn’t sure whether the next stage will be tragedy or comedy. Kaufmann suggests that the aphorisms aren’t all that comic, which implies that tragedy may be what’s under consideration here. I think the right approach here is to take the rest of book three as the same kind of writing as the book of Proverbs in the Bible. We’re not being given so much a systematic treatment of philosophical ideas as we are a group of snapshots of Nietzsche’s ideas in motion.

Practically, this means that we really won’t be able to cover everything Nietzsche says here, so instead I’ll pick and choose the aphorisms that jump out at me. Feel free to speak up about the ones that strike you in the comments.

As far as the aphorisms for today (III.154–73), the common thread is usually the relationship of the aware individual to the unaware crowd. The individual appears to have something of a love-hate relationship with the mass of men. He runs with them but won’t always (III.170); he desires their praise while simultaneously judging it to be worthless (III.168); and he realizes his place and the changing nature of history and virtue (III.159–61). But I think the most important reflection in today’s reading is III.173:

Those who know that they are profound strive for clarity. Those who would like to seem profound to the crowd strive for obscurity. (III.173)

And so we have the modern academy in two sentences.


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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