Beyond Good and Evil | Study Guide

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

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Beyond Good and Evil | Part 1 : On the Prejudices of Philosophers | Summary



Nietzsche begins Part 1 by saying that "the will to truth" has laid many questions before philosophers. But who asks these questions, and what aspect of a human being wants truth? In essence where does this will to truth come from? Is it valuable? What if people preferred untruth instead? Can the opposite of something originate from its source—for example, can truth arise out of error or "selfless deeds out of selfishness?" Conventional philosophers claim that a thing of value must arise from "the lap of Being." Such metaphysical thinking is at the root of philosophers' "logical procedures," and "the fundamental faith of the metaphysicians is the faith in opposite values." The term opposite values refers to the either/or way of looking at life and assessing value: good/bad, right/wrong, black/white, and so forth. Nietzsche begs to differ, saying the conventional valuation of opposites are "frog perspectives," meaning limited views of a small creature looking upward.

In Section 3 Nietzsche proposes that the "greater part of conscious thinking must still be included among instinctive activities ... even ... philosophical thinking." Logic is guided by a desire to preserve "a certain type of life." Judgment is only as good as the extent to which it is "life-preserving" and "species-preserving"; it matters less whether a particular judgment is true or not. To wit, without "the fictions of logic ... man could not live." A philosophy acknowledging the necessity of "untruth," he writes in Section 4, would put itself "beyond good and evil." On the other hand, most conventional philosophers advocate their own prejudices, baptizing them as truths and not having the courage to admit they are preferences. Nietzsche then cites the Tartuffery (hypocrisy) of Emmanuel Kant's "categorical imperative," which is central to his moral philosophy, and the "hocus-pocus of mathematical form" claimed by Baruch Spinoza, who sought to justify his metaphysics with mathematical principles.

Similarly, the Stoics pretended to want to live according to nature, but Stoicism, like all philosophy that "begins to believe in itself," wanted to recreate nature in its own image. For that reason, the discipline of philosophy is "the most spiritual will to power," Nietzsche says. In fact, every great philosophy is "a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir," and "the moral (or immoral) intentions in every philosophy" are the seeds from which "the whole plant [has] grown." Nietzsche does not believe "'a drive for knowledge' is the father of philosophy" but that, rather, other drives that wish to "be master" are behind philosophical speculation. Moreover, the morality of philosophers bears witness to who they are and what drives them.

Section 11 critiques portions of Kant's philosophy, and Nietzsche sarcastically references his a priori synthetic truth—a meaningful statement about reality whose truth may be known without observing empirical facts. Nietzsche makes fun of Kant and other German philosophers who were so pleased that Kant had "discovered a moral faculty in man." Rather than ask Kant's question—"How are synthetic judgments a priori possible?"—a better question is "Why is belief in such judgments necessary?" Nietzsche answers that the reason is for the sake of preserving "such creatures like ourselves," even if these judgments are false. He then switches to a critique of "atomism," specifically the "soul atomism" of Christianity, which claims the soul is eternal and indivisible, a belief that should be "expelled from science!" Nonetheless, the concept of a "mortal soul" or a "soul as subjective multiplicity" or "a soul as social structure of drives and affects" should not be banished.

Physiologists are wrong to think the instinct of self-preservation is most prominent in a human being; rather, it is the will to power. Will to power is the cause, and self-preservation is an effect. In this regard Nietzsche warns against superfluous teleological principles. Teleology is a method of attempting to understand something according to its ultimate goal or purpose. Nietzsche moves on to assert that science, like philosophy, is also an interpretation of the world, and it is not possible to grasp "a thing in itself," or pure knowledge without the interference of either subject or object. Further, to say "I think" is customarily followed with a series of "daring assertions" that would be hard to prove: that it is "I who think"; that something is thinking; that thinking activity is created by a being who acts as a cause, and much more. Better to ask questions such as, "From where did I get this concept of thinking? Why do I believe in cause and effect?" and similar interesting questions that may be easily answered with glib metaphysics—but that do not uncover the truth.

In Section 19 Nietzsche attacks German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer's idea that the entirety of the will can be absolutely known to a person. While willing encompasses one ruling thought and has the effect of command, Nietzsche says it is "a plurality of sensations." Further, the one who responds to the command experiences "constraint, impulsion, pressure, resistance, and motion," but this multiplicity of "I" in that response is generally ignored and conflated into a "synthetic concept of 'I'." Thus, will and action appear together as one thing, but in fact they are not. In willing, there is commanding and obeying—whether of others or oneself. In both cases willing involves a "social structure composed of many 'souls,'" and for that reason should be included "within the sphere of morals." Nietzsche then defines morals as "the doctrine of the relations of supremacy under which the phenomenon of "life" comes to be."

In Section 21 Nietzsche debunks the idea of both "free will" and "unfree will"—calling the first concept "monstrous" and the second "a misuse of cause and effect." He concludes that "in real life it is only a matter of strong and weak wills." Some people cannot give up their grandiose belief in themselves as free agents, while others wish to blame others for their actions, and in these two extremes can be seen the two types of wills.

Part 1 ends with the idea that psychology has gotten stuck in "moral prejudices and fears" and does not dare to "descend into the depths." In Nietzsche's view a more balanced psychology must "contend with unconscious resistance in the heart of the investigator," who will shy away from such ideas as "the reciprocal dependence of the 'good' and the 'wicked' drives" or the idea that "the affects of hatred, envy, covetousness, and the lust to rule" are "conditions of life ... [and] must be present in the general economy of life," meaning that these qualities also must be enhanced to enhance life. Nietzsche makes use of the metaphor of a boat sailing into dangerous and uncharted territory, sailing "right over morality," yet entering a world of profound insight.


Nietzsche begins by interrogating the received notion, or an idea that is taken for granted, that human beings, particularly philosophers, desire truth. To do so Nietzsche must get underneath this idea, which is why he asks where the will to truth comes from and whether perhaps people prefer untruth—not exactly lies, but rather their biased assumptions that may not be borne out by the facts. This part is titled "The Prejudice of Philosophers" to point out that the so-called seekers of truth do not begin with a clean slate. In fact, they generally start with some sort of metaphysical agenda, in which all things that are good and have value must have an origin in something transcendent—an immaterial source, force, or being that is behind the manifest world.

By Nietzsche's time, in the last quarter of the 19th century, religion and philosophy had already parted ways enough to produce an empiricist philosopher like David Hume, who argued that all anyone could know was the data collected by the senses and that everything else was speculation, including the idea of selfhood. But metaphysics—the branch of philosophy that explores first principles or the ground of reality—still permeated philosophy and for the most part viewed first principles as unchanging. Nietzsche is at war with this view, which in his estimation blocks philosophical inquiry. The truth as such does not exist in Nietzsche's view, and those who wish to know reality should acknowledge that each interpretation of reality or each truth is merely a perspective. This notion, called perspectivism, can be said to be part of Nietzsche's metaphysics. Moreover, 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 believes that it is time for philosophers to get above frog perspective and beyond the false polarities of opposites in attempting to understand the world.

Nietzsche doesn't mind the "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." He attacks certain philosophers particularly on the first count. Emmanuel Kant, for example, refashioned a key concept in David Hume's philosophy. Hume had argued that analysis was either a priori analytic (derived from reasoning or knowledge gained through theoretical deduction) or a posteriori synthetic (derived from reasoning or knowledge gained through observation and experience). Kant agreed with Hume but added a new category of a priori synthetic truths—meaningful statements about reality that could be known without observation. The faculty of reason is able to produce pure concepts, untainted by the senses, in Kant's view. Kant's metaphysics also includes the categorical imperative, which is an unconditional requirement that remains the same in all circumstances—in essence, a universal law—such as people should refrain from killing or stealing. Nietzsche is not entirely fair in representing Kant, who does admit that "higher truths" about reality are unknowable; Kant argues, however, that a belief in such truths is necessary to make existence bearable. Nonetheless, Kant's philosophy aligns perfectly with his Christian religious beliefs, which seems to support Nietzsche's assertion that the moral intentions of every philosophy are the seeds from which the system is grown.

Not surprisingly, thinking about Kant leads Nietzsche to think about Christianity and the fiction, in his view, that the soul is immortal and eternal. However, in typical Nietzschean fashion, the philosopher has it both ways and does not completely jettison the idea of an individual essence—although he thinks of the soul as finite and as a multiplicity of drives and affects, two words that he uses throughout Beyond Good and Evil. According to translator Walter Kaufmann, "affekt" (affect) in German means feeling, but in a philosophical text carries the overtones of Spinoza's "affectus," which is a motivation to act stimulated by a feeling.

Nietzsche also introduces the "will to power" in this first section, which is a second important concept in his metaphysics. He argues that self-preservation is merely the effect of the cause—will to power. In Section 13 he says that all living things "seek above all to discharge ... [their] strength" and that "life itself is will to power." In Section 9 he says that philosophy is the most spiritual expression of the will to power. Nietzsche explicitly lays out his will-to-power doctrine for the first time in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, although his "crusade against morality" (Nietzsche's words in Ecce Homo) began earlier. Philosophers have continued to argue about the meaning of Nietzsche's doctrine, which seems to indicate everything in the world rests on a power base continually pursuing an expansion of its power. Another idea, says the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, is that the will to power is the drive to overcome resistance.

Nietzsche himself expresses his own will to power and desire to overcome his fellow philosophers by faulting them for presenting certain concepts as truths when they are no more than beliefs—for example, ideas about free will and polar opposites and an unwavering "I" consciousness. Although he doesn't mention René Descartes directly—famously known for coining the aphorism, "I think, therefore I am"—Nietzsche indirectly criticizes him and his followers for not locating self-consciousness in a matrix that includes both what is inside and outside the self. He scoffs at the notion of proving that the "thinker" is the cause of action or that it is "I" who thinks. For Nietzsche, I-consciousness is neither static nor unitary, and he asserts that each person is a plurality of conflicting thoughts and desires, just as will is a "plurality of sensations." Similarly, obedience involves many parts of both Yes and No. Thus, it is not possible to talk about free will, but its so-called opposite of "unfree will" is not more helpful. Rather, Nietzsche finds it more useful to think about strong wills and weak wills, with the strong will able to overcome what is weaker.

Nietzsche ends this section by emphasizing that it is no small thing to transcend "moral prejudices and fears" and descend into depth psychology. Humans would prefer not to believe that so-called good and bad drives depend on each other, or that base emotions, such as hatred and envy, might actually play a role in enhancing life. Indeed, only the most fearless and intrepid philosophers can sail their boats beyond good and evil and enter into deeper waters—and a more complex apprehension (understanding) of reality.

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