Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Gay Science: IV.335–IV.340

Emerson, like Nietzsche, knew the importance of learning from history.


In today’s reading, Nietzsche praises the usefulness of physics. By this, he apparently does not mean the high school class where we got to shoot ball bearings down the hallway with a miniature catapult. (If it were, it would be a very different book!) Instead, he means physics in the way the ancient philosophers meant it—as a comprehensive means of understanding the whole of natural existence, in contrast to (or, for the ancients, in cooperation with) ethics and logic.

Specifically, Nietzsche suggests that the proper application of physics teaches us that categorical imperatives, indeed all absolutist moral claims, are ultimately subjective and so cannot be universal. This is because all such claims must one way or another fall back onto the foundation of the conscience:

But why do you listen to the voice of your conscience? And what gives you the right t consider such a judgment true and infallible? For this faith—is there no conscience for that? Have you never heard of an intellectual conscience? A conscience behind your “conscience”? Your judgment “this is right” has a pre-history in your instincts, likes, dislikes, experiences, and lack of experiences. “How did it originate there?” you must ask, and then also: “What is it that impels me to listen to it?” (IV.335)

What we find is that our conscience is tied to our nature rather than to transcendent values or God or any other thing outside of ourselves. Instead of being impressed with our own moral judgment, we should

Rather admire your selfishness at this point. And the blindness, pettiness, and frugality of your selfishness. For it is selfish to experience one’s own judgment as a universal law; and this selfishness is blind, petty, and frugal because it betrays that you have not yet discovered yourself nor created for yourself an ideal of your own, your very own—for that could never be somebody else’s and much less that of all, all! (IV.335)

Our selfishness becomes even more apparent when we remember that no two combinations of actions, circumstances, and people are ever truly alike. I perform an action in a given circumstance, and then I immediately assume that said action was a reflection of an absolute universal value and that any other moral person in that specific circumstance would have taken exactly the same action. The problem is that this is an unrepeatable experiment, since I can never be in exactly the same circumstances, and someone else in those same circumstances is by definition, well, someone else. Any appearance of similarity between my actions and those of someone else is really only an appearance, because

as one contemplates or looks back upon any action at all, it is and remains impenetrable; that our opinions about “good” and “noble” and “great” can never be proved true by our actions because every action is unknowable; that our opinions, valuations, and tables of what is good certainly belong among the most powerful levers in the involved mechanism of our actions, but that in any particular case the law of their mechanism is indemonstrable. (IV.335)

Despite the obvious power of our moral actions, we run into a mystery when we try to dig underneath them to discover exactly how they work—to say nothing of any transcendent values that might drive them. This is not just a problem with nature and circumstance, it is a problem with our powers of observation and their inherent limitations.

The good news, according to Nietzsche, is that once we realize this truth about morality we are free from the dominant moral narratives to take up a tablet of stone and write our own Ten Commandments.

We, however, want to become those we are—human beings who are new, unique, incomparable, who give themselves to laws, who create themselves. (IV.335)

We cannot hope to discover universals within ourselves, but maybe we can discover who we are and try to live accordingly—even if such living flies in the face of the dominant culture’s moral norms and beliefs. In that sense, we are to become physicists, who understand reality as it actually is and not as others have tried to define it.

If in IV.335 Nietzsche appears to decry all custom and so place himself in the “progressive” camp (to use an anachronism), in IV. 337 he appears to embrace the “historical sense” and so place himself in the “conservative” camp. He talks about how some people have the “historical sense” that we are moving toward something—a sense of history that is focused on the future:

We of the present day are only just beginning to form the chain of a very powerful future feeling, link for link—we hardly know what we are doing. (IV.337)

This approach to the historical sense Nietzsche seems to result in people stumbling around in the dark with no guidance from the past.

Another sort of historical sense is what we might call rigid conservatism, where everything good was in the past and today we’re just tottering toward death, as we see “stealthily approaching old age” (IV.337).

What we need, Nietzsche argues, is a historical sense which embraces the past as a means of living boldly in the present. The challenge to know yourself and set your own moral standards given in IV.335 is not a challenge to forget everything anyone has ever known or done. It is the challenge to know yourself and live using the best tools that have been created for the job and left at our disposal:

if one could burden one’s soul with all of this—the oldest, the newest, losses, hopes, conquests, and the victories of humanity; if one could finally contain all this in one soul and crowd it into a single feeling—this would surely have to result in a happiness that humanity has not known so far: the happiness of a god full of power and love… This godlike feeling would then be called—humanness. (IV.337)

Poetic language aside, Nietzsche, like his predecessor Emerson, is well aware of the importance of history and the role it plays in the lives of anyone who wants to live well.

These historical tools are important if we are to face suffering well. For as Nietzsche has said repeatedly, suffering is inseparable from joy. Which in turn means that those who preach pity are really doing their best to damage the happiness of others. The imagery Nietzsche uses is that we are on our own path toward the goal of happiness and that if we want to arrive there suffering must be part of the journey. Yet pity would derail my journey by trying to remove the suffering, as well as the journey of the person exercising pity—who himself must get off of his path in order to interfere with someone else. There are of course many other ways to be distracted as well, which is why we ought to “Live in seclusion so that you can live for yourself” (IV.338). This doesn’t mean that there is no room for the corporate life, just that we are to share in each other’s joy, not in each other’s sorrows.


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

Please Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

%d bloggers like this: