Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Gay Science: III.230–III.275

“Prometheus” by Gustave Moreau


Today’s post covers the last of book three’s collection of aphorisms. As with the last two posts, I’ll be picking and choosing those that jump out at me as particularly insightful, useful, or objectionable. Feel free to do the same in the comments.

What is the seal of liberation? – No longer being ashamed in front of oneself. (III.275)

The footnote points out the parallel between the end of book two and the end of book three, both of which have to do with getting rid of shame and facing ourselves with boldness. Sections III.273 and III.274 both suggest that the true “evil” is shame, to tell someone that they are wrong because of who they are or what they’ve done. This implies that we have given in to the “prejudices of God,” “good and evil” (III.259). Instead of accepting external definitions of how we should live and what we should be, we ought to live according to our conscience and be true to who we are (II.270). Of course, if people actually are awful, if there are such things as objective good and evil, and if there is a God who has the right to define good and evil and hold us to his standard rather than to the one we make up, then the whole thing falls apart.

“Oh, my greed! There is no selflessness in my soul but only an all-coveting self that would like to appropriate many individuals as so many additional pairs of eyes and hands—a self that would like to bring back the whole past, too, and that will not lose anything that it could possibly possess. Oh my greed is a flame! Oh, that I might be reborn in a hundred beings!” Whoever does not know this sigh from firsthand experience does not know the passion of the search for knowledge. (III.249)

I think Nietzsche is right here, sort-of. To be sure I have had those moments where I was overwhelmed by the number of topics and ideas and events I would like to learn about, the number of books to read, and the number of people to study. The passion to know is a desire that is human, even if it manifests itself differently in different people. (I certainly know people who know little about academic matters but have a great passion for other pursuits.) What Nietzsche doesn’t say is that this desire is one which will ultimately be frustrated in this life. However deeply we desire it, however much we want to know all things and all people, there are not enough hours in a day or years in a lifetime to read and learn everything.

What I do or do not do now is as important for everything that is yet to come as is the greatest event of the past: in this tremendous perspective of effectiveness all actions appear equally great and small. (III.233)

This is an interesting claim, which probably merits more consideration than I am going to give it here. The basic idea is that what I have for lunch today is just as important as the fact that Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire. And if your gut response is to say “no way!” Nietzsche would say that you need to zoom out your perspective. Ten thousand years from now, won’t those two events be of equal importance? Twenty thousand? A million? Of course, again this is contingent on an entirely naturalistic worldview…

Magnificent characters suffer very differently from what their admirers imagine. They suffer most keenly from the ignoble and petty agitations of some evil moments—briefly from their doubts about their own magnificence—not from the sacrifices and martyrdoms that their task demands from them. (III.251)

So Prometheus was happy despite his torture while he had the moral high ground that put him in the role of hero, yet once he begins to see that the mortals love Zeus as well (perhaps more?) he begins to be miserable and suffer. I tend to think there is something pathetic about these types of “sufferers,” who tend to be more in the romantic worldview (today we’d say “hipster,” though there are certainly still romantics around) that cares far more about its own authenticity than anything. Prometheus of course had actually suffered physically, more than most romantics or hipsters, so he at least wasn’t all emotions and ego. The same cannot be said for our contemporary “sufferers.”

Next time, we’re past the aphorisms and into the, well, longer aphorisms.


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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