Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Beyond Good and Evil: 36–44

Sometimes it’s convenient or necessary to wear a mask. Photo by Mykl Roventine, CC BY 2.0.


There is something of a problem with masks in Beyond Good and Evil. Nietzsche argues in today’s reading that sometimes we just have to hide reality:

There are occurrences of such a delicate nature that one does well to cover them up with some rudeness to conceal them; there are actions of love and extravagant generosity after which nothing is more advisable than to take a stick and give any eyewitness a sound thrashing: that would muddle his memory. Some know how to muddle and abuse their own memory. (40)

As the note points out, this causes problems because once Nietzsche has told us that masks are necessary to conceal the truth, we can’t necessarily know what to trust. “Beyond good and evil,” “will to power,” and all the other concepts that generate a surface revulsion might carry a deeper and much more serious/benign meaning; while those ideas which on the surface are unobjectionable might carry an earth-shaking revelation within.

That of course is the generous way to look at the problem Nietzsche causes with his discussion of masks. A less generous way to look at it is to say that he has given us cause not to trust him or his philosophy. For example, if I discover that a friend of mine has written an essay on how the real value of friendship is that one can milk one’s friends for all they’re worth while maintaining a facade of civility and care, the relationship between me and my friend is severely undermined. However much my friend protests “but I didn’t mean you!” the damage has been done. (Fortunately, I know of no such essay.) In the same way, once a philosopher tells us that he is using misdirection consciously and on purpose, the relationship between the philosopher and the reader by definition cannot be the same.

The least generous interpretation is to say that Nietzsche is using sloppy writing and lazy thinking. If he meant to say something, he should just say it and not tell us that he might have actually meant something deeper and more profound that the surface-level interpretation we make at first glance.

Setting aside the problem of whether or not Nietzsche actually means what he says, we see today the conclusion of “The Free Spirit,” where we get a glimpse at the thought and life of a “new philosopher.” Last time we saw that this new philosopher rejects traditional mechanistic views of the will in favor of an organic unity that ties the whole person together into one being. Today we get a part of Nietzsche’s view of what that looks like:

Suppose, finally, we succeeded in explaining our entire instinctive life as the development and ramification of one basic form of the will—namely, of the will to power… suppose all organic functions could be traced back to this will to power and one could also find in it the solution of the problem of procreation and nourishment… then one would have gained the right to determine all efficient force univocally as—will to power. The world viewed from inside, the world defined and determined according to its intelligible character—it would be will to power and nothing else. (36)

So in the first place, we must interpret our relationship with the world not as an abstract system created and imposed externally, but beginning and ending with the human soul and the totality of its operation. This totality Nietzsche believes he has discovered and explained in the “will to power.” (I think his comments on the French Revolution may be understood in this context: the revolution has been so interpreted by commentators who wished to avoid repeating it that its original cause has been lost under the weight of the systems they have created to explain it, which leaves us wide open to a repetition of the Terror [38].)

But! To begin and end with the will to power rather than with an external system of thought is not to say that we must take a subjective view of the world. Our worldview must still be rigorously and robustly realistic:

Happiness and virtue are no arguments. But people like to forget… that making unhappy and evil are no counter-arguments. Something might be true while being harmful and dangerous in the highest degree… not to speak of the evil who are happy, a species the moralists bury in silence. (39)

The philosopher must be willing to observe and understand not as we would like things to be, but as they actually are without regard to moral consideration. It may be that the people we judge to be evil are the ones who are most likely to survive and flourish, while the virtuous wither and die. This objectivity requires a good deal of independence from other people and from emotional and patriotic dedication to the nation and the culture, lest conceptions of morality begin to seep in and taint our perspectives (41).

Those who truly manage to achieve this independence, the rising generation of philosophers, will be the truly “free spirits” (42–43). These are not to be confused with the “levelers” or populist democrats who would overthrow the status quo in the name of the mob—though such individuals have perhaps unglued themselves from the nation-state, they still are following a set of prepackaged ideals rather than true independence:

only they are unfree and ridiculously superficial, above all in their basic inclination to find in the forms of the old society as it has existed so far just about the cause of all human misery and failure—which is a way of standing truth happily upon her head! [a Marx reference?] What they would like to strive for with all their powers is the universal green-pasture happiness of the herd, with security, lack of danger, comfort, and an easier life for everyone. (44)

Rather, the life of independence is not an easy life for those who follow it, and it is certainly not a life that is aimed at making things better for all—how could it be? It is a life that is intentionally un-aimed and which focuses on the reality of the existence it finds as honestly as possible.

I’ll say it again: I’m sure Nietzsche was a real delight at parties.


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: 36–44”

  1. gabe


    Consider this for a moment:

    Could it be that what Freddie is *openly* (not esoterically) advocating is precisely what we observe today in the US and elsewhere – “atomistic” individualism which to my mind has been the doom of our culture and traditions.

    /following Freddie’s admonitions on the “will to power”, the need to incorporate the *instinctual* with the so-called (according to Freddie) rational elements of human existence and the need, no, the requirement, to defy convention / norms, will we not end up with something akin to the “rights” activists of modern times?

    Those who advance the *sacred* individual w/o regard to communal obligations, in effect, are denying a) that humans are political animals (classically understood) and b) hate man!

    But I do think Freddie would be hilarious at parties!

    • Coyle Neal

      The problem with reducing his thought to individualism is the line he draws between the super men and the herd. Atomistic individualism isn’t for everyone, just the very few.
      In that case, the problem may be those of us who read Nietzsche think that he’s talking about us, when really we’re part of the herd who are not individuals. (Much the same way that everyone who reads Plato’s Republic sees themselves as Philosopher Kings rather than Craftsmen.

      • gabe

        We are in agreement on that – *atomistic* individualism is NOT for the herd but for Freddie’s superman. The problem today is that the “herd” believes or has deluded themselves into thinking that they are supermen and can express / fulfill their individual “instinct”.
        I suspect Freddie must be laughing at them (us).

        Oh and I am something of a craftsmen and Luvvin’ it!!!!

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