Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Gay Science: V.359–V.367

Writing limits the free expression of the spirit.


If there are the few who can rise above the crowd to greatness, as we saw last time, then there are also a few who can recognize the possibility of such a rising but lack the spirit to do so themselves. These individuals become bitter and fall back on petty revenge, taking it upon themselves to appear to be great while simultaneously keeping anyone else from doing so:

What do you suppose he finds necessary, absolutely necessary, to give himself in his own eyes the appearance of superiority over more spiritual people and to attain the pleasure of an accomplished revenge at least in his imagination? Always morality, you can bet on that. Always big moral words. Always the rub-a-dub of justice, wisdom, holiness, virtue. (V.359)

Nietzsche admits that from time to time there may be the rare actually great man who fits this mold, and they are the worst sorts of all. They turn their hatred and “fear of the spirit, revenge against the spirit” into a system that can be grasped by all. Nietzsche’s example of this is Augustine, who like other great philosophers used wisdom as a screen to put a wall between man and spirit. In other words, they hate humanity and turn us against ourselves in the name of made-up transcendent claims. Which leads to the problem of the “actor”:

The problem of the actor has troubled me for the longest time… Falseness with a good conscience; the delight in simulation exploding as a power that pushes aside one’s so-called “character,” flooding it and at times extinguishing it; the inner craving for a role and mask, for appearance; an excess of the capacity for all kinds of adaptations that can no longer be satisfied in the service of the most immediate and narrowest utility—all of this is perhaps not only peculiar to the actor? (V.361)

Clearly Nietzsche intends to tie this into his discussion of philosophers and the human spirit and the wall of falsehood that we build to keep us from reality.

But what is this spirit that great philosophers like Augustine would have us reject? We may be helped if we reflect on the idea of “cause.” Nietzsche argues that this concept is more complicated than it might seem. Namely, there is a “cause of acting” in an absolute sense—the “quantum of dammed-up energy that is waiting to be used up somehow,” all the potential energy that might ever be drawn upon in the world. But there is also “the cause of acting in a particular way, in a particular direction, with a particular goal,” which are almost afterthoughts compared to the overall “cause of acting.” We might think of the cause of acting as a bonfire, while the causes of specific actions are sparks occasionally thrown off (V.360).

What is the point of this way of stating things? To argue against teleology:

The usual view is different: people are accustomed to consider the goal… as the driving force, in keeping with a very ancient error; but it is merely the directing force—one has mistaken the helmsman for the stream. (V.360)

In other words, philosophers like Augustine are trying to focus us on the sparks at the expense of the bonfire. In doing so, as we follow the spark from the fire (or talk to the helmsman while ignoring the stream, to use Nietzsche’s example) we allow ourselves to pretend that what matters most is the destination of the spark while simultaneously ignoring the fact that there is no actual purpose behind the fire (or stream) itself. Which means that “we still need a critique of the concept of purpose” (V.360).

Of all that he has said so far in The Gay Science, Nietzsche’s comments on books are, as far as I’m concerned, the most unforgivable. (Which may be a result of sin on my part.)

We do not belong to those who have ideas only among books, when stimulated by books… Almost always the books of scholars are somehow oppressive, oppressed… Every scholarly book also mirrors a soul that has become crooked; every craft makes crooked. (V.366)

Obviously some of this is tongue-in-cheek, given that Nietzsche is a scholar making his points in a book and that he ends the section with some light praise of certain kinds of scholars. And yet, I think his wider point is at least an interesting one—the very act of writing something down according to a system (perhaps the very act of writing itself) is to some degree inhibiting the free flow of the spirit. When we write, we are in a sense creating a confinement of words for our ideas and our actions. By putting this sentence on paper, I am excluding all other possible sentences at that moment and so placing at least some kind of inhibition on the flow of the spirit—and that’s without considering things like conventions of grammar and spelling. Now, obviously we have to communicate somehow, and I think that’s why Nietzsche ends so positively after such a negative beginning. But, again, I think it does raise an interesting argument—one also raised by works like The Alphabet versus the Goddess and Amusing Ourselves to Death. This is also at the core of Burke’s philosophical treatise On the Sublime and the Beautiful.

Were I a feminist, I would have much to say about Nietzsche’s observations on Napoleon and the differences between men’s and women’s views of love in V.362 and V.363. I am not, and so I am not going to touch those with a ten-foot pole.


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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