Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Gay Science: IV.276–IV.290

“The Rich Man and Death,” by David Kindt, own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.


Following the aphorisms that round out book three, book four begins with a new beginning (I’m told it’s a very good place to start). This new beginning is to be the focus of Nietzsche’s desire, wherein he declares:

I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly… (IV.276)

Nietzsche is declaring himself to be enraptured with existence as it actually is, with what is “necessary in things,” with “fate.” We can probably think of these terms not in the religious sense but in the sense they were used by Machiavelli: as a declaration of what is to come regardless of our subjective human thoughts about the matter. We are to reconcile ourselves to existence as such, rather than creating fantasy lands to live in or taking our subjective interpretations of reality and applying them to the external world. There is a place for that kind of subjective externalization, as we’ll see, but it is not at the beginning.

And yet, we see that in our love of reality there will come a temptation: to infuse reality with divinity and to see an intelligence at work behind it:

For it is only now that the idea of a personal providence confronts us with the most penetrating force, and the best advocate, the evidence of our eyes, speaks for it—now that we can see how palpably always everything that happens to us turns out for the best. (IV.277)

Just when we are most convinced that the world is chaotic and separated from all reason, that’s when the sweltering summer day cools off or a friend tells a joke or we read a good book or anything that cheers us up comes our way. All of a sudden this bit of “personal providence” tempts us to suspect that perhaps there is a divinity behind the world after all, perhaps there is a God out there who “personally knows every little hair on our head” (IV.277). Nietzsche encourages us to stand strong and remember that this joyful look at the world is not a look that is out there somewhere but that it is internal and only responding to chance.

But! We might respond, what about death? Surely that must give us some hope for a transcendent reality beyond this world, a deeper truth to inspire us to live well in this world? Rather than respond directly, Nietzsche simply points out that the thought of death just doesn’t have that big of an impact on the average person’s life.

How strange is it that this sole certainty and common element makes almost no impression on people, and that nothing is further from their minds than the feeling that they form a brotherhood of death. It makes me happy that men do not want at all to think the thought of death! I should like very much to do something that would make the thought of life even a hundred times more appealing to them. (IV.278)

If this was true in Nietzsche’s day, it is even more true now when we have done our best to scrub even the sight of death from everything but quick moments in popular fiction. There’s a reason the best (i.e., most faithful) preachers have to work so hard to remind us that we are mortal and that there is a coming judgment. Nietzsche argues that they shouldn’t bother and, instead, should encourage us to enjoy life.

But how do we enjoy life in the face of death? How do we enjoy this world when, because there is no God, we have no hope of anything beyond this world? Nietzsche argues that we do so by being at peace with ourselves:

For one thing is needful: that a human being should attain satisfaction with himself, whether it be by means of this or that poetry and art; only then is a human being at all tolerable to behold. Whoever is dissatisfied with himself is continually ready for revenge, and we others will be his victims, if only by having to endure his ugly sight. (IV.290)

This satisfaction, in turn, is accomplished when we bring those parts of us that are dissatisfied into proper perspective. Philosophically, this means that some people need a worldview that allows their own character to be in harmony with existence. For some, this will mean a rejection of the dominant philosophies and an embracing (or creation) of alternative ones with different definitions of good and evil:

Those who are evil or unhappy and the exceptional human being—all these should also have their philosophy, their good right, their sunshine!… What these people need is not confession, conjuring of souls, and forgiveness of sins; what is needful is a new justice! (IV.289)

This will require striking out on our own in shaping ourselves and, to some extent, the world around us (IV.280). This is not a safe endeavor,

For believe me: the secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment is—to live dangerously! (IV.283)

Nor is this a hopeless pursuit, even if some of us do die in the wars of ideas Nietzsche hopes to see in the future (IV.283). We do have hope, but it is a natural hope that comes from the repetition of the world—the “eternal recurrence” which we first see mentioned in IV.285. Rather than being satisfied with what we are told to accept, rather than flowing all of ourselves “out into a god” (IV.285), we are to will the dominance of ourselves in our place in reality. We are to resist the cheap and easy answers and double down on the place of ourselves in the world as ourselves, rather than as broken or evil people in need of reform.

Clearly I disagree with most of what Nietzsche says in today’s reading, largely because I believe in the doctrine of original sin. If you tell people who are touched in every part of their person with sin to go out and aggressively be themselves, they will do exactly that and the results will be the disasters of the twentieth and (so far) twenty-first centuries.


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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