Beyond Good and Evil | Study Guide

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

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Beyond Good and Evil | Main Ideas


Will to Power

A key idea in Beyond Good and Evil, as well as in many of Nietzsche's other works, is that the will to power is the driving force behind all of life and the most powerful instinct in a human being; the philosopher even gives it precedence over self-preservation, which he sees as merely an effect or by-product of the will to power. All living things seek "above all to discharge [their] strength," says Nietzsche. "Life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of what is alien and weaker, suppression, hardness, imposition of one's own forms, in-corporation," according to the philosopher. The will to power wishes to "grow, spread, seize, become predominant," not out of any feelings of morality or immorality but because it is natural for it to do so. Based on this idea that people naturally wish to predominate, he fashions the theory of master and slave moralities. The master morality reflects early aristocratic societies in which the strong had full rein to exercise their will to power, while the slave morality arose from the weaker people who were subjugated. The only choice they had was to turn their will to power inward as ressentiment, or spiteful hatred of their oppressors, which they had to suppress or direct into some other channel—often with the help of religion.

In Nietzsche's view, slave morality is the morality of the weak, who had to make themselves humble, patient, kind, and compassionate to cope with the masters—the aristocrats who had control over their lives. In Nietzsche's view, in the centuries after Christianity displaced the religions of the Roman Empire, Christianity enforced the morality of subjugation and kept people in line. But as religion lost its hold, philosophers sought to create a secular underpinning and justification for the prevailing morality. Thus, Nietzsche sees the history of Western philosophy as a continuation of a justification for slave morality.

Philosophical thinking is the most spiritual expression of the will to power. The noble man also wishes to overcome the weakness in himself or to get beyond himself. Nietzsche describes the process of turning the will to power on oneself, in an effort to overcome self. Noble warriors of the spirit in the form of philosophers may thus use the will to power to raise themselves to the level of "overmen"—Nietzsche's term for human beings who have gone beyond good and evil and have become part of higher humanity. The subtitle of this philosophical treatise is "Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future." Nietzsche envisions a future in which philosophy uncouples itself from the remnants of religion and promotes a way of thinking that will bring to birth the "higher man."


Perspectivism is a very important concept in Nietzsche's philosophy. He is an unsystematic philosopher because he has no faith in systems. His position is that life is in flux and truth is a moving target. It is impossible to know some "objective" truth because objective truth does not exist in Nietzsche's view, even though philosophers and free spirits cannot help but seek knowledge, and knowledge generally is thought to lead to some type of truth or other. In fact, he does not believe the philosophers who came before him were seeking truth; rather, they were seeking to create a justification for their moral worldview. The free spirit and the philosopher of tomorrow do not get attached to one perspective but attempt to investigate as many perspectives as possible to reach into the heart of existence.

Traditional metaphysical thinking has nurtured "the faith of opposites"—moral and immoral, good and evil, real and apparent, immanent and transcendent, material and immaterial, truth and falsehood. This is a "frog perspective," the view from the ground. Nietzsche wants philosophy to get above frog perspective and false polarities of opposites in attempting to understand the world. Nietzsche doesn't mind "fictions of logic," but he would rather philosophers were more honest about their fictions, which they need to render life coherent and meaningful, and that they would create fictions that are "life-preserving" and "species-preserving." Thus, in Nietzsche's view, every perspective is in part a falsehood, and it would be better if philosophers would admit that they sell the world a shoddy bill of goods.

The Noble Man

Two moralities exist in the world, of master and slave. Nietzsche's view is that moral discrimination began with the rulers, who separated themselves from the slaves—the people they subjected. The original aristocrats of ancient cultures were these noble men, the strong who subdued the weak. In this stage "good" and "bad" meant the same as "noble" and "contemptible." The nobles experienced themselves as good and their slaves as contemptible or bad. The nobles determined values, and they admired strength, courage, cunning, daring, all characteristics that expressed their will to power. They did not respect compassion nor pity, the characteristics of the slave. They might offer assistance to someone, not out of charity but rather out of a feeling of excess of their will to power. The noble man was never vain, Nietzsche says, because he already had so much respect for himself and did not need the approval of others. In Nietzsche's view Europe rejected the values of the nobles once Christianity conquered the Roman Empire and instead took on the values of the slaves, the practitioners of Christianity. He believes that these values continue to taint Western philosophy.

Nietzsche also asks what the word "noble" can mean in modern society, at the beginning of the democratic age, which he sees as a continuation of Christianity. Nietzsche answers, "The noble soul has reverence for itself." This is true regardless of whether the noble one earns name and fame. Today's noble is akin to a free spirit or a true philosopher—someone who is willing to deeply question their own presuppositions in their interrogation of reality. Today's noble turns the will to power on themselves in a genuine quest for knowledge and a desire to overcome themselves. The free spirit or the philosopher wishes to reach to the level of an overman.

The Free Spirit

At various times Nietzsche equates free spirits with new philosophers as well as the philosophers of tomorrow, and they have the characteristics of nobility, in that they exercise their will to power in an effort to overcome their own limitations. The free spirit says Yes to all of life—the "good" the "bad" and the "ugly." They are not afraid to look down the barrel of life, as it were. Nietzsche sees himself as a free spirit, and he invites his readers to become free spirits, including them consistently by using the pronoun we. It is often the fate of the free spirit—the person who suffers profoundly to uncover the truth—to end up alone, misunderstood, and isolated. Such exceptional individuals are brave enough to face up to the fact that their toil in the realm of the mind is on some level futile—though necessary. Like Sisyphus of Greek myth, who must continue to roll his boulder up the hill every day, even though it falls down every night, the free spirits and philosophers must continue to say their partial truths, fully knowing that "every philosophy is a foreground philosophy ... [and] conceals a philosophy; every opinion is also a hideout, every word also a mask."

The Herd Morality

According to Nietzsche, the herd instinct has taken hold of Europe. The herd man is the descendent of the slave, and he glorifies those characteristics that make him tame. The herd extols the virtues of benevolence, consideration, moderation, pity, and the like. Traits such as initiative, daring, cunning, and courage, previously cultivated to protect society from enemies, are suppressed. Traits such as "independent spirituality" or the cultivation of solitude that puts a person above the herd also "intimidates the neighbor," and such qualities are called "evil." Meanwhile, mediocrity, in the form of submissive, conforming behavior, is honored.

In Nietzsche's view "the democratic movement is the heir of the Christian movement," which promulgates the herd morality. Nietzsche classifies the anarchists and socialists as part of the herd, noting that when all become equal no one has rights. All three—democrats, anarchists, and socialists—share the "religion of pity" and threaten Europe with "a new Buddhism." They put their faith in the community, in the herd. Nietzsche wants to throw down herd morality and have free spirits come forward who will cultivate leaders to take humanity to a higher level—they will create the conditions for the higher man to emerge.

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