Beyond Good and Evil | Study Guide

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

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Beyond Good and Evil | Part 5 : Natural History of Morals | Summary



Until now philosophers have foolishly insisted on supplying "a rational foundation for morality" instead of attempting to describe types of moral behavior. Moreover, they tend to limit their moral investigations to their own experience and environment rather than compare moralities. Also missing from their questionable "'science of morals'" is "the problem of morality itself." Nietzsche's "'rational foundation'" has been nothing more than the scholar's "common faith in the prevalent morality" and denial that it was at all problematic. This is the very opposite of a true analysis and a "vivisection" of their faith.

The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once again takes a drubbing, as Nietzsche scoffs at his idea that all moral philosophers agree on the "fundamental proposition" to "hurt no one; rather, help all as much as you can." Neither Schopenhauer nor anyone else was able to put a rational foundation underneath this principle. Nietzsche calls the principle itself "insipidly false and sentimental ... in a world whose essence is will to power." He also criticizes philosopher Emmanuel Kant's categorical imperative, which claims that there is are certain unconditional moral obligations that never vary, regardless of time or place. Such pronouncements say more about the moral prejudices of philosophers than anything else, as Nietzsche pointed out in Part 1.

According to Nietzsche in Section 188, "every morality is ... a bit of tyranny against 'nature'; also against 'reason.'" Nonetheless, "the curious fact" is that all "on earth of freedom, subtlety, boldness, dance, and masterly sureness," whether in government, rhetoric, the arts, or in ethics has developed "only owing to the 'tyranny of ... capricious laws.'" What Nietzsche means is that civilization as we know it is based on several layers of laws, and these laws may, at times, seem arbitrary to an individual who is obliged to follow the law. Moreover, such tyranny is probably more "natural" than "laisser aller" (letting go). For example, an artist obeys a thousand laws in the process of creating a work of art. Specifically, they might use three-point perspective to create the illusion of three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface or use shading to create a dramatic effect in a drawing or painting. According to Nietzsche, "obedience over a long period of time and in a single direction" is necessary to develop something that makes life worth living—"virtue, art, music, dance, reason, spirituality—something transfiguring, subtle, mad, and divine." Even if this "unfreedom of the spirit" is at times gruesome or anti-rational, it has been the means by "which the European spirit has been trained to strength, ruthless curiosity, and subtle mobility," even if that spirit has also been partially stifled and crushed. Nietzsche says that slavery in all its forms is "the indispensable means of spiritual discipline and cultivation, too." Morality instills the idea that people need "limited horizons" and a "narrowing of our perspective, and ... in a certain sense stupidity, as a condition of life and growth." To replace Kant's categorical imperative, Nietzsche proposes nature's moral imperative—to obey someone for a long time.

Nietzsche spends a few sections on side roads to his main argument that morality is a way to control people and then returns to it in Section 198, noting that all moralities address individual happiness and offer counsel in protecting oneself against one's own "dangerousness." Moralities are "recipes against [man's] passions, his good or bad inclinations insofar as they have the will to power and want to play the master." All moralities generalize all people when they should rather take themselves as "unconditional." Nietzsche says that for the entire history of humanity, there have been herds of people—clans, states, churches, etc.—representing the majority but commanded by the minority. Thus, it can be assumed that most people have an innate need to obey, having developed a sort of "formal conscience" telling them to do so. This conscience somewhat arbitrarily "seizes upon things ... shouted into its ears by someone who issues commands." Nietzsche claims that the herd instinct has so taken hold of humanity that even the commanders must find a justification for their right of precedence, citing such reasons as God or ancestors, or even that they are the servants of the people. Meanwhile, herd men wallow in their tameness. The herd extols the virtues of benevolence, consideration, moderation, pity, and the like. Sometimes the herd tries to use "clever herd men" to replace "commanders," and this results in such phenomena as "parliamentary constitutions." Nonetheless, herd man is relieved when someone who "commands unconditionally" arises, as was seen when Napoleon Bonaparte made his appearance in Europe in the beginning of the 18th century.

So long as the good of the herd is the first consideration of moral judgments, "there can be no more morality of 'neighbor love,'" Nietzsche says in Section 201. The love of one's neighbor in any society must go hand-in-hand with the fear of one's neighbor, which creates new moral valuations. What Nietzsche means is that in a democratically minded society or herd, the individual is always a threat to other individuals unless every individual agrees to abide by the rules that have been established by the herd. Traits such as daring, enterprise, and shrewdness, previously cultivated to protect the community against its enemies, become immoral, since these traits are uncommon and can be used against other herd members. Now opposite drives are cultivated that cannot pose a danger to the community, since fear becomes "the mother of morals" and the most highly valued trait. Traits such as "independent spirituality" or "the will to stand alone" put a person above the herd and thus intimidate the herd (and can pose a threat). Not surprisingly, according to Nietzsche these qualities become "evil" qualities. Meanwhile, mediocrity, in the form of submissive, conforming behavior, is honored.

In Section 202 Nietzsche says Europe's morality is herd animal morality, one morality among many. This morality could be succeeded by higher moralities, although the current morality recognizes none but itself. 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 "once all are equal nobody needs 'rights' anymore." All three—democrats, anarchists, and socialists—share the "religion of pity" and threaten Europe with "a new Buddhism." They have faith "in the community as the savior," which means they have faith in the herd.

The last section, 203, is a call to "new philosophers." Nietzsche calls to them to stimulate opposite values and teach people that the future of mankind depends on human will. The "dominion of nonsense and accident that so far has been called 'history'" must be put aside. More specifically, Nietzsche wants to throw down herd morality and see free spirits come forward who will cultivate leaders who can take humanity to a higher level—they will create the conditions for the higher man to emerge. His focus is not on any solution, but on the problem he sees as the basis for what he despises in society. Nietzsche's art is in destroying, not creating.


In this chapter on the natural history of morals, Nietzsche picks apart a number of related threads as he parses the evolution of morality. He will revisit this evolution in more depth in The Genealogy of Morals (1887), but his first outline of the subject appears here. It is important for the reader to remember that Nietzsche is not making value judgments in a conventional way—after all, the title of this book is Beyond Good and Evil. Rather, he is interpreting the facts as he sees them; it helps if readers remind themselves of that so that they can more clearly consider whether they agree with what he is saying.

This section explicates Nietzsche's ideas about herd morality, which evolved from Christian morality. He will discuss the noble man (person) in the last part of Beyond Good and Evil—who, for him, is much preferable to the herd man. Nietzsche uses a kind of shorthand for what he sees as master and slave morality. The original masters in Europe were the Roman aristocrats who had full scope to exercise their will to power. The slaves were the oppressed and persecuted Christians. They expressed their ressentiment—a psychological state of suppressed hatred and envy—against their masters by imagining they would be rewarded in the afterlife for their virtue while their masters would be punished. The Christian ressentiment also expresses itself as apparent love and charity for one's oppressor, an expression of bad faith (hypocrisy). Eventually, the slave morality won over the master morality as all of Europe became Christianized. These are ideas that can be found in other works by Nietzsche and can help the reader as background to understand this part.

Nietzsche begins Part 5 by debunking the notion that there can be a rational foundation for morality. The philosophers before him wished to find rational reasons for why people have determined some behaviors are good and others are bad. In general, human beings feel intuitively that people have innate or intuitive knowledge of morality, which Nietzsche did not believe. In more recent times, scientists have found that both aggressive and cooperative behavior is innate in primates, including humans, and that even other species (such as dogs) have an innate sense of fairness. While "proto-morality" or some basic sense of right and wrong may be innate, Nietzsche is not wrong to think morality is relative, given the range of behaviors that have been deemed acceptable by human societies. With the advent of science in the West, philosophers had sought to provide a "scientific" underpinning for moral aspects of their philosophies that were essentially religious ideas. This is why Kant discovers the "categorical imperative," which provides a rational reason for the Christian idea to not harm others. But in Nietzsche's view this is no more than a prejudice.

He moves on to say that every morality is a tyranny against nature because it imposes rules on people's natural inclinations. At the same time, he fully acknowledges the importance of morality. Without "capricious laws" there would be no possibility of freedom or mastery because people who live together must necessarily be governed by rules; without them society would fall into chaos and destruction. Even on a micro-level, tyranny is necessary—and Nietzsche makes a subtle switch away from moral law to the imposition of rules and structure in his example of what artists do. Artists must obey laws, and in fact people in civilizations learn the habit of obedience, which allows for the creation of everything worthwhile about human culture—including the traits he later ascribes to the noble man. On the other hand, a habit of obedience crushes the spirit. At the end of this part of his discussion, Nietzsche turns Kant on his head, opining that his "categorical imperative" should be replaced with a "moral imperative," which is an inclination for slavery created by the habit of obedience.

Moralities—Nietzsche acknowledges that there is more than one kind—are also useful to rein in people's passions, which are exhibitions of will to power and are often dangerous to themselves. For example, some people have a passion for food that, if left unchecked, can kill them. Nietzsche sees morality as useful, although he objects to the fact that one system of morality is imposed on everybody as unconditional. This unconditional morality can also be called "herd morality," and Nietzsche says people's desire to be led and to follow the herd is so strong—having been strengthened by the habit of obedience—that even leaders feel guilty about leading. He posits that a herd must always have commanders, but the "herd instinct" is even in them, which is why they have to come up with excuses for why they have chosen or have been chosen to lead. In Nietzsche's view, they should need no justification if they are above the herd in some way. He also says that the democratic instinct is a herd instinct, since it is society's way of attempting to get around the necessity of commanders. Nonetheless, the herd mentality necessitates a strong leader, which is why people feel relief when man of action steps forward—such as a Napoleon—and takes charge of them.

Within herd morality the herd elevates the virtues of kindness, compassion, moderation. Such virtues render people harmless so they cannot hurt others, Nietzsche argues, and preserves society or the herd. In fact, such morality does not promote the Christian idea of loving one's neighbor because the herd morality is actually based on fear of the other—fear of the damage they can do. There is a paradox here: on the one hand herd mentality protects individuals, but on the other, its purpose is to protect the herd. Nietzsche points out a second paradox, which is that the virtues suppressed by the herd—such as foolhardiness (daring or risk-taking), enterprising spirit (initiative and creativity), and craftiness (the ability to strategize and predict)—are the very traits that are needed to protect a society from outside enemies. Thus, herd morality also poses a danger to the herd by suppressing people's anti-social instincts. On the whole, herd morality and a herd mentality promotes mediocrity and conformity and contains the seeds for the ultimate destruction of the herd. In Nietzsche's view herd morality is the product of Christianity—the religion of pity—which he also equates with a "new Buddhism"—i.e., Schopenhauerian philosophy. He calls for philosophers and free spirits to stimulate opposite values—the cultivation of master morality and the noble man—which is necessary for moving humanity to a higher level, in his view.

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