Whenever I teach a group of students, there’s usually one among them who is fascinated and persuaded by Nietzsche. Not surprising. With his strong critical claims, his powerful quotes and aphorisms and his limitless plea for creativity is enough to shake even the strongest intellectual movements out of their slumber.
Although Nietzsche is without a doubt one of the most influential philosophers of the past two centuries, he considered himself an anti-philosopher. He refused to call himself a philosopher, because he was critical of the assumptions all philosophers at his time took for granted. Nietzsche’s challenges to the philosophy of his time were radical. He put the very purpose of philosophy into question. This makes Nietzsche the rebel of the history of modern western philosophy.
We’ll discuss three assumptions moral philosophers in Nietzsche’s time generally held true, and Nietzsche’s critique of these assumptions. In light of these criticisms, Nietzsche’s own esoteric philosophy will come to the fore.
Is it true that the opposite of Good is Evil, and that this counts for everyone, at all times?
In On the Genealogy of Morals (19887), Nietzsche complains that philosophers are insufficiently aware of the history of morality. Morality is as old as mankind. There have always been moral prescriptions, but what is regarded as good – as the thing one ought to do or strive to – and what is regarded as to be avoided has shifted in the course of history. Philosophers have failed to understand that what is regarded as good is always what the powerful regard as good. Moral theories are nothing more than a rationalisation of the morals of the powerful. Christianity claimed to offer a god-given – and therefore universal – morality, which included admiration of the weak and condemnation of the powerful as well as the claim that everyone is equal. This introduced the idea that the opposite of ‘good’ is not ‘bad’, but ‘evil’. Nietzsche exposes this shift as stemming from the ressentiment of the slaves in antiquity. Whereas in ancient Greece and Rome the good/bad distinction really meant the noble/base distinction, where ‘good’ was everything that was refined, strong and life-affirming, with Christianity this aristocratic ‘good’ was rebranded ‘evil’ and contrasted with a new concept of ‘good’, which meant altruism.
Are humans really sufficiently similar, so that the same morality applies to all equally?
Nietzsche claims it’s a mistake that humans are all equal, which is an assumption uncritically accepted by almost all moral theories. Humans are never motivated by altruism, says Nietzsche, but by the will to power. This will to power is what motivates humans to true greatness. But some have a stronger will than others, or more power, or find more sublime ways to exercise their will to power. Others have a weak will, are powerless or are blunt in their expression of it. Most people fall in the latter group, but some individuals belong to the former. If we formulate a morality that applies to those of weak will, then we force the strong-willed individuals in a regime of mediocrity, and that paralyses humanity. Therefore, any morality that assumes universal application should be rejected, according to Nietzsche.
Are philosophers really detached, rational, honest reasoners?
Philosophers, too, are motivated by the will to power, according to Nietzsche. Their way of exercising their will is by formulating sophisticated justifications of the moral principles they always already had, without having to really challenge these moral principles. But this is just yet another way to affirm what Nietzsche calls “slave morality” or “herd animal morality”: a focus on eliminating suffering, universal applicability, excusing the weak and frowning on power. This makes philosophers moralists who aim to stifle the creative power of those who are willing to take risks and embrace suffering of themselves and others in exchange for progress. Moreover, philosophers who are unwilling to truly challenge their own moral perspectives and to test radical hypotheses are themselves guilty of weakness of will.
Nietzsche believes it is necessary for the progress of mankind that there be and aristocratic elite who are stronger, healthier, nobler and more creative than the rest. They then serve as a goal for everyone, as excellent individuals to look up to, heroes for inspiration. Without such an aristocracy, we’re doomed to mediocrity. Traditional morality stifles rather than encourages such individuals. Instead, such individuals should not be hindered, because they serve mankind as a whole, even if this means that sometimes this progress and creativity involves suffering. Nietzsche even contends it is a characteristic of higher individuals that they are willing to embrace suffering if that is necessary to exercise their will to power.