Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Beyond Good and Evil: 258–62

“Count Ferdinand Adolf von Plettenberg and his Family,” by Robert Tournières, Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest


If nobility is limited to the few (which of course by definition it must be), then what is it that sets the nobles apart from everyone else?

The essential characteristic of a good and healthy aristocracy . . . is that it experiences itself not as a function (whether of the monarchy or of the commonwealth) but as their meaning and highest justification—that it therefore accepts with a good conscience the sacrifice of untold human beings who, for its sake, must be reduced and lowered to incomplete human beings, to slaves, to instruments. The fundamental faith simply has to be that society must not exist for society’s sake but only as the foundation and scaffolding on which a choice type of being is able to raise itself to its higher task and to a higher state of being. (258)

In a sense, Nietzsche has given us the most cynical view of Plato’s Republic possible. The idea is that true nobility exists for the sake of elevating the few—who are really the only ones capable of being elevated in the first place. In Nietzsche’s view the problem in the modern world is that the aristocracy has shed this (correct) approach to itself and replaced it with a sense that government ought to exist for higher purposes. What those higher purposes are hardly matters (democracy, monarchy, or any other appeal to transcendent values)—the result is that time after time the rights and privileges, and hence, the tools used by the aristocracy for their own elevation, are cast aside in favor of these nonexistent transcendent principles.

But aren’t these principles truly valuable? Isn’t the idea that we should all love God and our neighbor as ourselves the foundation of any stable society?

Refraining mutually from injury, violence, and exploitation and placing one’s will on a par with that of someone else—this may become, in a certain rough sense, good manners among individuals when the appropriate conditions are present . . . But as soon as this principle is extended and possibly even accepted as the fundamental principle of society, it immediately proves to be what it really is—a will to the denial of life, a principle of disintegration and decay. (259)

My life requires the death of some other life. This is certainly true in the crudest physical sense—for me to live some poor critter has to die. (Even vegetarians don’t escape this dilemma, since for every animal they don’t eat they must massacre an equal or greater number of plants.) Nietzsche takes this truth and applies it to all of human existence, both individual and social. Any attempt to eliminate this truth from one relationship either forces it onto another or kills the organism:

Even the body within which individuals treat each other as equal . . . if it is a living and not a dying body, has to do to other bodies what the individuals within it refrain from doing to each other: it will have to be an incarnate will to power, it will strive to grow, spread, seize, become predominant—not from any morality or immorality but because it is living and because life simply is will to power. (259)

Just as if I don’t want to have to gnaw off my own limbs I must eat something external to myself, so if we wish for peace within the state and the ability to get along well, we must consume some other peoples.

How we respond to this truth will determine the kind of morality we pursue in our society. Some approaches to morality will recognize it and embrace it. This is what Nietzsche calls the “master morality.” Others will push against it, often because they are the people being consumed—this is the “slave morality.” It is important to note that for Nietzsche, most societies (and most individuals) are actually a mixture of or tension between these two moralities.

“Master” morality tends to emphasize the person, rather than the action.

The noble type of man experiences itself as determining values; it does not need approval; it judges, “what is harmful to me is harmful in itself”; it knows itself to be that which first accords honor to things; it is value-creating. (260)

These are the types of men who drive conservative values into a society; who honor the past and tradition for their own sakes, since the past and tradition are the progenitors of the person who is noble now.

Our age, however, is increasingly defined by a “slave” morality, which insists on an abstract equality of persons and values not so much actions as sentiments. Under a slave morality,

those qualities are brought out and flooded with light which serve to ease existence for those who suffer: here pity, the complaisant and obliging hand, the warm heart, patience, industry, humility, and friendliness are honored—for here these are the most useful qualities and almost the only means for enduring the pressure of existence. (260)

Here, Nietzsche argues, is where we get our first true division between good and evil, as those who have or inspire the wrong sentiments are the opponents of the virtuous. Master morality has its oppositions as well, but opposition between nobles is opposition between equals and hence involves no higher or lower and hence no evil—opposition between a noble and a commoner is irrelevant since the commoner is, well, a commoner.

As slave morality continues to rise to dominance, we begin to see two things in society (in today’s reading, at any rate—there will be more): the rise of self-esteem and the death of growth.

What Nietzsche calls “vanity” I think we can go ahead and read into our modern pop-psychological language of self-esteem.

The vain person is delighted by every good opinion he hears of himself (quite apart from all considerations of its utility, and also apart from truth or falsehood), just as every bad opinion of him pains him: for he submits to both, he feels subjected to them in accordance with that oldest instinct of submission that breaks out in him. (261)

This is incomprehensible to the noble, who simply does not need the praise or blame of others because he is fully aware of who he is and what is true or false about him. Yet it is the slave who is increasingly dominating society, demanding certain affirmations about himself (regardless of their accuracy) and unable to be content without them. The person with the slave nature on some level knows that he must submit to an external opinion or ruling and so tries to take control of what that ruling will be. This puts the slave into tension with himself and ultimately leads to the dilemma mentioned earlier in today’s reading, that if we try to be at peace across the board, we either start to die or must dominate someone else. Our society seems to have chosen death.

The rise of slave morality has not only seen the development of a self-esteem culture, but also it has seen the end of the growth of humanity. Humanity only grows through conflict, and as our morality increasingly teaches us that conflict is wrong in itself, we see the death of our growth:

Eventually, however, a day arises when conditions become more fortunate and the tremendous tension decreases; perhaps there are no longer any enemies among one’s neighbors, and the means of life, even for the enjoyment of life, are superabundant. At one stroke the bond and constraint of the old discipline are torn: it no longer seems necessary, a condition of existence. (262)

This peace leads to the differentiation of the individual and the development of freedom, which I think Nietzsche has at least mixed thoughts about. But it also leads to the end of the opportunity for development:

These acute observers . . . discover that the end is approaching fast, that everything around them is corrupted and corrupts, that nothing will stand the day after tomorrow, except one type of man, the incurably mediocre. (262)

We use our peace, freedom, and individuality not to develop and to grow ourselves and others toward the higher life that man is capable of, but rather to tear down those who are above us and to make them our equals. And here we’re back to Nietzsche as a conservative, in the vein of Tocqueville (at least in his more conservative moments) and as developed by Peter Viereck.

More on this subject next time.


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: 258–62”

  1. gabe


    To what extent do you think Freddie is simply using hyperbole when describing the traits / proper behaviors of the noble, and to a lesser extent the commoner in order to illustrate the deficiencies he observes in the *democratic* sphere.

    something in me tells me that Freddie does not really want the superman that a superficial reading of Beyond would indicate and that he is really simply trying to accentuate the *weakening* / leveling of man under the 19th century European paradigm.

    • Coyle Neal

      I think Nietzsche would say that your discomfort with his overman is because you’ve been made too soft by the remnants of Christian ethics that still infect our society. 😉


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