some notes on Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil

Here–free for the digital commons–are some teaching notes for chapter 1 of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good & Evil. Before discussing this text, my class had read Plato’s Apology; I present Nietzsche and the Socrates of the Apology as foils.

Socrates begins a quest for knowledge, claiming that he only knows that he knows nothing. Instead of writing or producing connected arguments, he merely interrogates his fellow citizens, testing what they think. He is a critic of rhetoric (who, however, speaks eloquently) and an ascetic who has renounced any role in society other than truth-seeker.

Nietzsche challenges this Socratic quest. He is a critic of language who uses it masterfully. He refuses to write connected arguments, instead employing an aphoristic style full of irony, paradox, and contradiction. He is a critic of asceticism who actually lives a solitary life devoted to writing.

What assumptions does Socrates make when he sets out on his mission? Maybe …

  • A good life, or perhaps the best life, is a life of pursuing truth. This is a demanding ideal that requires renouncing other entanglements, such as money, political power, and romance.
  • Customs and assumptions are unreliable and dangerous. You shouldn’t act on things that you can’t show are true. You should go through life with skepticism and doubt.
  • However, there is truth to be known and told in words. Specifically, there are knowable truths about human excellence or the good for us as human beings (moral truths).

What did we add to these assumptions in the 2,300 years between Socrates and Nietzsche?

  • Science and the scientific method. Socrates didn’t practice science. He was accused of studying the things in the sky and below the earth, but he denied it. Since his time, we have studied those things intensively. (What is science, anyway? Methods for understanding nature objectively, where nature includes human beings as natural phenomena. Science presumes that everything is understandable through these methods, unless it’s “supernatural.”)
  • Science as applied to human beings–social science and history–has revealed a deep diversity of values and basic beliefs.
  • We have developed various accounts of what “nature” is and how that might influence or even define morality or justice. (Natural rights, the state of nature, “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” Or Darwinism: nature as survival of the fittest. cf. Beyond Good & Evil §9: what if nature is “wasteful beyond measure, indifferent beyond measure …?”)
  • Beliefs in the underlying premises of the scientific method: math, logic, cause-and-effect, an objective world. (cf. §4 “… constant falsification of the world by means of numbers …”)
  • Some widespread moral premises? (“All men are created equal.”)
  • Confidence in the basic motivations of people, such as scientists, who say (and who probably believe) that they are seeking truth.

Nietzsche raises doubts about everything listed above. He thinks (§5) we’re “not honest enough” when we assume that we’re pursuing truth. We haven’t had the courage to turn that pursuit back on itself and ask hard questions about truth-seeking.

  1. Suspicion of words as representations of reality. §16 “I shall repeat a hundreds times: we really ought to free ourselves from the seduction of words!” Proceeds to investigate “I think” and all its linguistic assumptions. (That there’s an I, that we know what thinking is.) §14 “pale, cold, gray concept nets which they threw over the motley whirl of the senses.”
  2. We’re not deliberately thinking at all. §16: “When I analyze the process that is expressed in the sentence ‘I think,’ I find a whole series of daring assertions …. ” §17 “A thought comes when it wishes, and not when I wish, so that it is a falsification of the facts of the case to think that subject I is the condition of the predicate think. It thinks. …”
  3. We believe we’re discovering things about the world, but we’re expressing things about ourselves. §6 “Every philosophy is the involuntary and unconscious memoir of its author.” §9 You physicists pretend to find laws in nature, but you’re actually egalitarian democrats who want to believe that nature obeys laws because you like laws.
  4. He doubts the motivations of truth-seekers. §6 “I do not believe that a drive to knowledge is the father of philosophy, but rather that another drive  has … employed understanding (and misunderstanding) as its instrument.”
  5. We make an assumption about value: that truth would be better than falsehood. Why?  §4. “The falseness of a judgment is for us not necessarily an objection. The question is to what extent is it life-promoting, life-preserving, species-preserving, even species cultivating.” Falsehoods might do that better than truths. He says that this stance places us beyond good and evil. Why?

What does Nietzsche actually believe? The secondary literature discusses a set of “doctrines” that he may have held. One of them is explicit in Beyond Good & Evil, chapter 1: the Will to Power. According to §13, life itself is Will to Power (not self-preservation but the will to discharge strength). Nietzsche also says (§23) that he’s developing a psychology of Will to Power. Willing is “something complicated.” §19: “Freedom of the will” is “an expression for the complex state of delight of the person exercising volition. Here Nietzsche concedes that one drive might be for knowledge. It operates in scientists and scholars, but not in philosophers, because philosophy is “the most spiritual will to power.”

What does Will to Power mean? Some interpretations:

  1. A normative position: Nietzsche likes power and the powerful. Might is right. This interpretation was typical between 1900 and 1950 (and Nietzsche inspired fascists during that era), but is very marginal in the academic secondary literature today.
  2. A different normative position, and one that we might appreciate (i.e., not fascism): Will to Power is not about dominating other people but enhancing the individual and the species–making us somehow more creative. The reason to drop the will to truth is that it sometimes blocks our potential and creativity. “Why not rather untruth?” (Cf. §12, where he condemns himself to invention.) We should move beyond Good and Evil only in the sense that certain premises of traditional morality have limited our growth.
  3. A view of nature and human nature. Perhaps Nietzsche believes that every biological entity actually is a center of power rather than something stable. And perhaps this metaphysics (or physics?) is defensible.
  4. An intentional paradox that is meant to shake our convictions, roughly analogous to a koan. Start with the premise that everything is a manifestation of our Will to Power. Develop all the implications of that premise to make it plausible. Then apply it back to itself: the creature that envisions Will to Power is expressing its own power, not discovering truth. Then we know nothing. We don’t even know that “we” “know” nothing. What does it mean to live that way? In what style would one write?
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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.