Beyond Good and Evil | Study Guide

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

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Beyond Good and Evil | Part 2 : The Free Spirit | Summary



Nietzsche begins Part 2 by asserting that one thing may arise from its opposite; in fact, the will to knowledge has risen on the foundation of the will to ignorance, "Not as its opposite, but—as its refinement!" Having said that, Nietzsche warns philosophers to "beware of martyrdom ... of suffering 'for truth's sake ... [and] of defending yourselves." In fact, truth does not require protectors; no philosopher "so far has been proved right," and they would do well to put question marks after their favorite doctrines. They should conceal themselves and wear masks, veiling their true thoughts. They should avoid moral indignation and martyrdom, which can only end in degeneration and farce.

Every exceptional human being "strives instinctively" for a personal, secret citadel far from the madding crowd where they may forget ordinary people. But knowledge requires mixing with the unwashed masses, so it is necessary for the philosopher to come down from the citadel. Of special interest to the "higher man" are the cynics, who recognize their own animal nature and the "commonplace" in themselves. They are a worthy subject of study.

Section 27 distinguishes between those who think and live gāngāsrotagati (a Sanskrit term in essence meaning "as the river current moves") from those who move like the turtle (kūrmagati) or the frog (mandūkagati). Nietzsche sees himself as a fast-tempo thinker, moving like the river. In the next section, he continues a discussion of tempo and accuses the Germans, generally, of being incapable of a rapid tempo: "Everything ponderous, viscous, and solemnly clumsy, all long-winded and boring types of style are developed in profuse variety among Germans."

"Independence is for the very few; it is a privilege of the strong," begins Section 29. If independence is attempted without "inner constraint," a person enters "a labyrinth" of danger and may lose their way, become lonely, or may be torn apart by the "minotaur of conscience." Moreover, there will be no pity for such a one who cannot be comprehended by the masses. The insights of such exceptional people should sound "like follies and sometimes like crimes" when inadvertently heard by the uninitiated with shallow understanding. Similarly, there are books meant for higher natures, and if they get into the hands of those with a "lower soul" they can cause "crumbling and disintegration."

In the "pre-moral" period of humankind, the value of an action was determined by its consequences. Today, in certain parts of the world, the origin of an action determines it value—a step forward and an "aftereffect of the rule of aristocratic values." Humankind is now paused on a threshold of the "extra-moral," in which the value of an action lies in "what is unintentional in it." According to Nietzsche, traditional morality judging intentions is merely a prejudice and something to be overcome. Also, to be "taken to court" must be the "morality of self-denial" and the "aesthetics of 'contemplation devoid of all interest.'"

According to Nietzsche today's thinking person knows that much of what they believe about the world is false. "Faith in 'immediate certainties' is a moral naïveté." While for an ordinary bourgeois (middle-class person), constant suspicion may be a sign of bad character, philosophers have "a right to 'bad character'" and a duty to be suspicious. For example, that truth is worth more than appearance cannot be proved, nor can the idea that true and false are opposites. It would be better to acknowledge "degrees of apparentness." Moreover, philosophers should be allowed "to rise above faith in grammar."

Nietzsche asks the reader to imagine nothing else as a given except desires and passion—would this be enough to understand the world? In this thought experiment, the world is imagined as "affects in which everything still lies contained in a powerful unity before it undergoes ... developments in an organic process." The purpose of this experiment is to determine whether the will is recognized as "efficient," whether or not it is believed to be causal. In fact, people do believe will is causal, but perhaps one underlying will affects all acts of will. Thus, perhaps instinctive life proceeds from this one will—the will to power.

The truth at times can be harmful and dangerous, and it could be that if a person knew the entire truth they might die; in that case, "strength of spirit" may be measured according to how much truth a person can endure. No doubt evil and unhappy individuals are more likely to discover parts of the truth. Perhaps the philosopher must be hard and cunning, while the mere scholar can afford the luxury of being gentle and good-natured. Nietzsche then quotes the French writer Stendhal who says that a good philosopher must be "dry, clear, without illusion." Moreover, "every profound spirit needs a mask: even more, around every profound spirit a mask is growing continually, owing to the constantly false, namely shallow, interpretation of every word, every step, every sign of life he gives." The tests of the profound spirit include not remaining attached to loved ones ("every person is a prison"), fatherland, pity, science, their own detachment, or their virtues, particularly generosity, which can be turned into a vice: "One must know how to conserve oneself: the hardest test of independence."

The free spirits, the philosophers of the future, will be thoroughly different from their predecessors. They should not be mistaken for the current "levelers" who call themselves free spirits but are "scribbling slaves of democratic taste." They may be "good fellows," but they are "unfree and ridiculously superficial." They wish to make life easier for the masses, believe in equal rights, and want to end suffering. Today's free spirits, however, believe that "hardness, forcefulness, slavery, danger in the alley and the heart," and the like enhance the species as much as their opposites. Today's free spirits avoid the snares of the world—such as money and honors—and are grateful for all manner of experience furthering their knowledge. They guard their solitude and hope those new philosophers who will succeed them will be kindred souls.


Nietzsche's style of writing sometimes makes it difficult to immediately see how his thoughts are connected, since he doesn't bother to write transitions from section to section, and he doesn't use headings. Difficult, idiosyncratic, and dense, his writing is also layered and lucid. His ideas are organized, although that organization may not be immediately apparent. Now that he has critiqued the prejudices of philosophers in Part 1, he sets out to draw a portrait of the new philosophers—the free spirits, himself among them—and how they will differ from the old philosophers.

First, free-spirited philosophers should not feel sorry for themselves. If the free spirit suffers, they suffer not for the truth but for themselves as they quest for knowledge because their task is not easy. If they are virile, they keep their suffering quiet. Free spirits are strong and should not waste time feeling indignant about what ordinary people say or do—otherwise they belittle their own vocation. Rather, they should conceal themselves as they work and find joy in their quest. While such people—Nietzsche's so-called exceptional human beings or the higher souls—may be tempted to shun society, their quest for knowledge requires that they study ordinary humans, and if they are fortunate enough to become acquainted with a cynic, all the better, since a cynic does not hide their worst side and can provide good intelligence on seamy part of human nature.

The free spirit's thought processes move like a quickly flowing river, and Nietzsche, an atypical German thinker in his own estimation, pauses to make a joke about his fellow Germans, who are ponderous and long-winded and proceed slowly, step-by-step. Nietzsche is taking a sideswipe at the German philosophers Emmanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer—giants in the field of philosophy to whom Nietzsche is indebted, despite the fact that he unceremoniously kicks them to the curb. Nietzsche, who is not without a sense of humor, obliquely acknowledges his debt at the beginning of Part 2 when he says that the will to knowledge can rise out of the will to ignorance and is not its opposite but a refinement. Clearly, he sees himself as refining the thinking of those other ponderous Germans.

The philosopher now homes in on the free spirit, whose independence marks them among the few and the strong. Independent thinking is dangerous because it separates the free spirit from the herd. With few or no kindred spirits to commiserate with, the free spirit must battle their internal demons—the "minotaur of conscience." The minotaur represents the unconscious mind or those thoughts that usually stay just below the surface of consciousness—often not very pretty and primitive thoughts, sometimes ugly emotions and desires. A free spirit willingly faces such thoughts, but without help in parsing the unconscious mind, he or she might be overwhelmed or "torn apart." Not surprisingly, their insights may seem like crimes to the uninitiated—the ignorant who live on the surface of their minds and never plumb its dark depths. They can neither understand the insights of the exceptional person nor bear the truths the free spirit may bring back from the labyrinth after battling the minotaur.

Continuing on this train of thought, Nietzsche notes that in the days of pre-morality, the result of an action was the measure of its value. In a modern society imbued with moral values, the motive behind human action takes precedence. Thus, people will be punished for crimes according to their intentions. For example, someone who deliberately kills someone will get a much harsher punishment than someone who causes a death by accident. What Nietzsche says, however, is that such judgments are mere prejudices, that the true meaning of an action lies in the unconscious mind, beyond conscious intent. Almost everything people believe about the world is false, in the sense that people cling to a single perspective and therefore deprive themselves of a multitude of alternative truths that would become visible if they were not stuck in one way of seeing. Here Nietzsche is obliquely referring to perspectivism, which stresses the limitations of one point of view. Also limiting is a morality of self-denial or disinterested contemplation, because both activities are life-denying in Nietzsche's worldview. Disinterested contemplation is a Schopenhauerian idea that a person can have an aesthetic experience by suspending the will—an idea Nietzsche thought absurd. The free spirit embraces life and engages with it—there is no room for denial or detachment in this approach to living.

Since the free spirit starts with the notion that what they believe is likely false, they seem suspicious and lacking in good character, according to a conventional point of view. Why wouldn't they take things at face value unless they themselves could not be trusted at face value? But the free spirit reserves the right to interrogate received notions. Furthermore, such people understand how language itself becomes a barrier to truth, since it carries in its very grammar and syntax the prejudices and presumptions of a culture. Nietzsche was among the first philosophers to tackle the problem of language—specifically its role in shaping belief systems. Language assumes certain religious ideas and is laden with religious associations as well as primitive human psychology. This is something free spirits understand, which is why Nietzsche says they can rise above their faith in grammar—even if they can't rise above the grammar itself.

In Section 36 Nietzsche proposes a thought experiment to consider whether his will to power might in fact be a primary driver behind even will itself, presenting his concept in this instance as almost a metaphysical principle, similar to Kant's categorical imperative. But he does not repeat this formulation of the will to power elsewhere and perhaps realizes he has drifted into the metaphysical realm. The last sections of Part 2 reiterate that truth can be harmful and dangerous, yet the free spirit is free to pursue it to its end. The free spirit affirms all of life, even its dark underbelly.

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