Morality as it is currently understood is an inhibitor of the great life. At least, that is what Nietzsche argues in today’s reading. Assuming that the basis of morality popularly understood (whether that of Kant or that of traditional Christianity) is selflessness, Nietzsche argues that we’ve already shot ourselves in the foot.
“Selflessness” has no value either in heaven or on earth. All great problems demand great love, and of that only strong, round, secure spirits who have a firm grip on themselves are capable. It makes the most telling difference whether a thinker has a personal relationship to his problems and finds in them his destiny, his distress, and his greatest happiness, or an “impersonal” one, meaning that he can do no better than to touch them and grasp them with the antennae of cold, curious thought. (V.345)
In other words, when we start out to be selfless, we have already laid down the tools that make philosophy—and the whole of life—possible. Engaging the great problems and living as a full human being requires us to be passionate, which requires that the self be fully engaged.
Even worse, by preaching selflessness we lose the ability to examine ourselves and virtue alike, and we can no longer even ask the questions that need to be asked, namely: is this virtue actually a good, or are we deluded about both its source and its usefulness?
Thus nobody up to now has examined the value of that most famous of all medicines which is called morality; and the first step would be—for once to question it. (V.345)
I think Nietzsche is on to a key problem here—and it is one which I myself have not slogged through in great detail. Obviously I come at the issue from a Christian perspective, but even there we have something of a challenge. Christians are called to deny ourselves and take up our cross, in that sense we are to be selfless in our faith, hope, and love for God and others. And yet, we are also called to love others—and we cannot separate love for someone else from self. I cannot be at the same time selfless and loving. It may solve some of the problem to say that what we all really need is a self that is properly oriented, where through grace our delight and love is turned off of ourselves and onto God through the work of the cross… but only some of the problem.
If you want a popular-level exploration of this issue from a Christian perspective, the great devotional classic Desiring God is the place to begin—a book I’m especially happy to recommend given how much it would horrify Nietzsche.
Of course if we deny the value of selflessness, we have to do an entire reevaluation of morality. Nietzsche encourages this and argues that it is time to realize that the man/world dichotomy is a false one that leads to a false morality:
The whole pose of “man against world,” of man as a “world-negating” principle, of man as the measure of the value of things, as judge of the world who in the end places existence itself upon his scales and finds it wanting—the monstrous insipidity of this pose has finally come home to us and we are sick of it. We laugh as soon as we encounter the juxtaposition of “man and world,” separated by the sublime presumption of the little word “and.” (V.346)
Rather than defining ourselves and our morality in contrast to the existence we see around us, we ought to define ourselves as a part of existence. The response of course will be the charge of nihilism—if there is no transcendent reality and if all we have is the world in which we live, then nothing matters. Nietzsche admits that such may be a possibility but counters that denying the value of existence is itself a kind of nihilism, whereby our physical existence is devalued to the point where nothing matters. What we need instead is a reexamination and a revaluation of the whole thing from the ground up—in which case we might find some value in our existing in itself, without needing a made-up transcendence and without collapsing into utter despair.
We cannot of course expect people to embrace this kicking-to-the-curb of everything certain about morality and transcendence:
For this is how man is: An article of faith could be refuted before him a thousand times—if he needed it, he would consider it “true” again and again… (V.347)
This is not so much a failure of the intellect against the power of blind faith as it is a failure of the will. What we need is the will to charge forward into the unknown darkness regardless of how safe we feel on the solid ground of established doctrines. As evidence of this claim, he suggests that the great religions are established only when there is a crisis of faith that leaves people needing to be commanded. Into this void stepped Christianity and Buddhism.
Intellectuals are not exempt from this desire to be commanded, even if they are not as much prey to the allure of religion. Instead, they fall under the sway of systematization and logic. Whatever love they might have for freedom at the beginning is lost as they discover the usefulness of order and a scheme for explaining the world (V.348).
We’ll pick up there in the next post with the perspective of the common people.
Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri, and cohost of the City of Man podcast.