Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Beyond Good and Evil: 26–35

“Sweet Solitude,” by Edmund Blair Leighton.


In the last post we saw that innocence and ignorance provide a foundation for joy and wisdom that can be undermined by systemization. This does raise the question of where the community fits in to wisdom. What is the relationship between the individual and the society when it comes to joy and wisdom?

Every choice human being strives instinctively for a citadel and a secrecy where he is saved from the crowd, the many, the great majority—where he may forget “men who are the rule,” being their exception—excepting only the one case in which he is pushed straight to such men by a still stronger instinct, as a seeker after knowledge in the great and exceptional sense. (26)

The few true philosophers will have their retreats and places of solitude, where they can get away from it all—but they will also realize that they cannot escape the mass of mankind if they wish to have true wisdom. Full independence is not common, in fact

Independence is for the very few; it is a privilege of the strong. And whoever attempts it even with the best right but without inner constraint proves that he is probably not only strong, but also daring to the point of recklessness. (29)

The problem with independence is that once you’ve got it, you can never really give it up. Having left society (I assume we’re talking existentially here, not about some kind of mountain-man trope) one cannot return “to the pity of men” (29).

On extended study of the “average man,” the philosopher will in his honest moments come to disdain them and may very will skip to the end by adapting the beliefs and attitudes of the cynics. Which is not to say that all people are awful; there are from time to time even among the mass of mankind the few who are worthwhile, who rise above their base animal natures into some kind of greatness:

It happens more frequently, as has been hinted, that a scientific head is placed on an ape’s body, a subtle exceptional understanding in a base soul, an occurrence by no means rare, especially among doctors and physiologists of morality. (26)

All this to say that we ought to pay close attention to what people say and do and make our judgments accordingly. This will require a good deal of patient indulgence on our part, even when we are with our friends.(27). No doubt Nietzsche was just a ray of sunshine at parties…

We also find that the relationship between the average man and the philosopher is not one of exact parity.

What serves the higher type of men as nourishment or delectation must also be poison for a very different and inferior type. The virtues of the common man might perhaps signify vices and weaknesses in a philosopher. (30)

This . . . is a tough one to sort through. On the one hand, as a Christian I affirm the equal value and dignity of all human beings made in the image of God, and their equal fallenness through original sin. And yet, we also know that people are different and have different inclinations and aptitudes—some take their delight in learning and education, and others in activity and action. Very often books are poison to the athletes, while athletics are hell for the intellectuals. (Obviously each side would declare itself to be the “higher” type.) So, in a sense, it depends on the context in which we are taking the point—and Nietzsche insists that we take it from such a high point that “even tragedy ceases to look tragic” (30), a point at which we have become “extra-moral” (32). Such a perspective I do not have, but Nietzsche believes it to be possible because of our location in history.

But today—shouldn’t we have reached the necessity of once more resolving on a reversal and fundamental shift in values, owing to another self-examination of man, another growth in profundity? (32)

If in the distant past people were judged for the consequences of their actions; and today people are judged for their intentions; ought there not be a coming time when “the decisive value of an action lies precisely in what is unintentional about it” (32)? An action is not just event plus motivation; it is a revelation of the being of the actor. The time may have arrived when we overcome common tropes about morality by digging beneath them to a deeper reality that explains how the world works. This may make philosophers appear to be immoral—though what they are really doing is realizing that there is a tension between appearance and reality that cannot and must not be resolved:

Indeed what forces us at all to suppose that there is an essential opposition of “true” and “false”? Is it not sufficient to assume degrees of apparentness and, as it were, lighter and darker shadows and shades of appearance… Why couldn’t the world that concerns us—be a fiction? And if somebody asked, “but to a fiction there surely belongs an author?”—couldn’t one answer simply: why? Doesn’t this “belongs” perhaps belong to the fiction, too? (34 )

If we are living in a fiction, it is a useful one that allows us to survive. As we saw in The Gay Science, this fiction and those who criticize it as a fiction must both be maintained in proper balance. Too much of the former stultifies life, while too much of the latter destroys it. As I said, this is a perspective that I find interesting but that at the end of the day I just can’t go along with.


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

3 Responses to “Beyond Good and Evil: 26–35”

  1. gabe


    You raise the issue of “where society fits in” when it comes to joy and wisdom.

    I’m not certain one can answer that with Freddie other than to say that he thinks one should look askance at the general mob.

    Yet, the more intriguing argument is Freddie’s position that the wise man needs to conceal himself from the mob, that his knowledge of “a-morality” as an operating principle ought best be reserved for his *retreat* is not unlike the argument(s) advanced by Leo Strauss and others that the philosopher, “doomed” to live within society must also mask his meaning. Strauss used the device of esoteric writing / meaning; a method of saying one thing while meaning another. The surface meaning was to mollify the masses and their morality while the “elect” / philosopher would be able to discern the true meaning AND at times, Strauss would admit, that meaning ran counter to conventional morality.

    Of course, the ultimate moral values held by these two thinkers was quite different. Strauss believed that one needed to live in the “tension” between Athens (Reason) and Jerusalem (practice / morality / theology) and that this was necessary for a “good life” even if the philosopher ultimately knew Jerusalem may be false.
    Freddie, on the other hand seems to believe that it is pointless for the philosopher to hold Jerusalem in any regard – that is purely for the mob – but even Freddie seems to recognize that the philosopher must not be too bold about this. The philosopher transcends both – even still, he must be cautious – the acceptance of the “fiction” is not for just any old yahoo off the street.

    As an aside, I wonder what fun a contemporary of his would have had doing an analysis of Freddie: what would Sigmund Freud think of Freddie?

    Or another way of looking at it:
    Who is the better psychologist: Siggy or Freddie?
    (Just some rainy day musings, I suppose)

    • Coyle Neal

      Heh, I’ve not read much Strauss (or Freud), but my dissertation director thought he was Satan incarnate.

      If I remember Kaufmann’s book correctly, he argues that Freud had read–and appreciated–Nietzsche fairly closely. So there’s probably literature on that out there somewhere.

  2. gabe

    “Satan incarnate” – now that is an interesting characterization – and such a nice little fellow he was! Ha!


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