(For purposes of length, I’ve adjusted today’s reading, as well as the next post.)
If the nobility of the world is really so high above the rest of us, why don’t we see them all the time? Why is it that so rarely anyone stands out above the crowd?
It requires strokes of luck and much that is incalculable if a higher man in whom the solution of a problem lies dormant is to get around to action in time—to “eruption,” one might say. In the average case it does not happen. (274)
Kaufmann’s note suggests that Nietzsche widens this statement out to be much more inclusive of all mankind and to begin to dissolve the line between noble and commoner:
Could it be that in the realm of the spirit “Raphael without hands,” taking this phrase in the widest sense, is perhaps not the exception but the rule? (274)
I think Kaufmann is being too generous and that here Nietzsche is only repeating his statement that the nobility as a rule do not rise to the occasion, not that the category of “nobility” is itself wide and fluid.
In either instance, we tend not to see the nobility in action because getting them to take action in the first place requires a combination of correctly attuned external fortune, internal drive, and preparedness that simply rarely happens. Just as some of us only think of the right rejoinder long after the conversation is over, so the nobles regularly miss their chance to do what they by nature ought to be doing. In part, of course, this is because we can only really be prepared after we’ve already done something. Just as I can only really be prepared to build a house after I’ve done so, in the same way the noble is only really ready to act after he has done so (277). Add that to the fact that such action can actually be dangerous to a noble in the way it never really can be to a commoner, it’s surprising that they ever do anything at all (276).
Another reason we so rarely see nobles at work is that we don’t want to:
Anyone who does not want to see what is lofty in a man looks that much more keenly for what is low in him and mere foreground—and thus betrays himself. (275)
This could be intended to apply to either the nobles or the common people. It may be that the nobles are so caught up in the idea of the equality or baseness of mankind that they fail to see what is noble in themselves and so focus only on the lower aspects of their nature. Or it may be that the nobles are out there and doing what they should be (when that perfect combination of circumstance and preparedness arises), but the rest of us refuse to see the noble aspects of their actions and characters and instead focus on the negatives, thus pulling them down to our level.
But perhaps the biggest problem the noble has with living as a noble in the modern world is that the modern world has left no real place for such a person:
If a person has the desires of a high and choosy soul and only rarely finds his table set and his food ready, his danger will be great at all times; but today it is extraordinary. Thrown into a noisy and plebeian age with which he does not care to eat out of the same dishes, he can easily perish of hunger and thirst or, if eventually he “falls to” after all—of sudden nausea.(282)
There is no rest or recreation (278) in this world for such people, only a profound sadness (279) and an inability to escape (280–81). All that is really left to such a person is the mask (278), the hiding of one’s true noble self in a world that otherwise would not understand:
To live with tremendous and proud composure; always beyond—. To have and not to have one’s affects, one’s pro and con, at will; to condescend to them, for a few hours; to seat oneself on them as on a horse, often as on an ass—for one must know how to make use of their stupidity as much as of their fire. (284)
It seems that increasingly the most prominent aspect of a noble is his ability to hide his nobility from the world. This means that we basically live unaware of the best of what is going on around us. History might someday reveal the work and greatness of the nobles, but
the generations that are contemporaneous with them do not experience such events—they live right past them. (285)
If what the nobles do is hidden, then it should be no surprise that we cannot identify them.
But that leads back to the original question: if we can’t identify the nobles, and if we can’t see their actions, and if only later in history will they be known at all, what on earth makes someone a noble in the first place?
What does the word “noble” still mean to us today? . . . It is not actions that prove him . . . nor is it “works.” . . . it is the faith that is decisive here, that determines the order of rank—to take up again an ancient religious formula in a new and more profound sense: some fundamental certainty that noble soul has about itself, something that cannot be sought, nor found, nor perhaps lost. The noble soul has reverence for itself. (287)
The noble is known ultimately only by his internal orientation toward himself. In this sense, Nietzsche is not actually using the “ancient religious formula,” since the Christian view of faith is that it begins internally but is revealed as it works itself out in external practice—through the love of God and the love of man. True faith is known by works and by actions, not by confidence in itself—and certainly not by secret confidence in itself. (Though of course if by “ancient religious formula” Nietzsche was referencing the Gnostics, that would be an entirely different matter.) By describing faith as the primary component of nobility in the specific way he does, he has ultimately turned away from any traditional meaning of the word and turned toward its meaning as used by the existentialists. (And for more on that, see Francis Schaeffer’s Trilogy.)
And yet, for all their attempts at concealment and solitude, the noble soul still bleeds through.
They may turn and twist as they please and hold their hands over their giveaway eyes . . . in the end it always will out that they have something they conceal, namely spirit. (288)
This revelation is not to be confused with the book of a philosopher. Nietzsche has already discussed the difficulties of writing and something of the gap between contemporary thought and true greatness. Rather, the true noble (“hermit,” in this case—289) will see the philosopher as the beginning or groundwork for greatness, and often a skewed or poorly understood one at that.
More on the noble in the last post.
Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri, and cohost of the City of Man podcast.