Beyond Good and Evil | Study Guide

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

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Beyond Good and Evil | Part 9 : What Is Noble | Summary



The culminating part of Beyond Good and Evil parses Nietzsche's ideas about order and rank in human society. Most of the ideas in Part 9 go against the grain of readers who have grown up in a representative democracy or subscribe to the Jeffersonian ideals of the American Constitution, but it is important when reading Nietzsche to attempt to put preconceived notions aside to properly give the philosopher a hearing. Rather than think about whether what he says is good or bad or whether the reader agrees with him, it might be better to look for what is true, if anything, in what he says.

Nietzsche begins by declaring that any improvement in the human species has been made possible by "an aristocratic society," one in which order of rank was assigned, along with value differences among people and the imposition of a form of slavery. Moreover, such societies have also nurtured inner order of rank—"the craving for an ever new widening of distances within the soul itself." In other words, according to Nietzsche, only in societies that enforce social and political distinctions is there a corresponding longing for certain individuals to "overcome" themselves and become a higher type of human being.

Next, Nietzsche asks the reader to face the truth about how "higher culture on earth so far has begun." Strong warrior cultures with a lust for power took over weaker peoples who were perhaps farmers or traders. A healthy aristocracy "experiences itself not as a function (whether of the monarchy or the commonwealth) [as was true in France, before the French Revolution] but as their meaning and highest justification." Thus, in a true aristocracy, all of society exists only for the sake of the aristocracy. Any number of slaves, used as instruments, can "in good conscience" be sacrificed so that "a choice type of being" might fulfill its destiny to rise to a "higher state of being." Aristocrats naturally refrain from hurting and exploiting one another, in a show of "good manners" among equals, but if this courtesy is extended to everyone, "as the fundamental principle of society," it becomes "a will to the denial of life, a principle of disintegration and decay." This is because "life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of what is alien and weaker, suppression, hardness, imposition of one's own forms, in-corporation." Even the aristocratic "body" (community) is "an incarnate will to power," which will "grow, spread, seize, become predominant," not out of any feelings of morality or immorality but because it is a living body and "life simply is will to power."

Section 260 is a key passage in Beyond Good and Evil, wherein Nietzsche explains master and slave moralities, which he has touched upon in an earlier work and explains in even more depth in The Genealogy of Morals, published in 1887. Two moralities exist in the world, of master and slave, and in all higher and "mixed" cultures there is a "mediation between these two moralities ... and at times they occur directly alongside each other—even in the same human being." Moral discrimination began with the rulers, who were delighted to be different from the slaves they ruled. The noble, exalted ones separated themselves from the slaves, whom they despised. In this stage "good" and "bad" meant the same as "noble" and "contemptible." Thus, the nobles felt contempt for "the cowardly, the anxious ... those who humble themselves ... the begging flatterers, above all the liars." The noble ones believe they never lie, says Nietzsche.

Gradually, the terms good and bad, first applied to people, came to be applied to actions. The noble ones experience themselves as "determining values"—which is to say that if it is bad for them, then it is bad. The noble ones are sometimes charitable, but not out of pity, but rather as an expression of an "excess of power." The noble ones delight in being hard on themselves, as an expression of having power over themselves. Most distasteful to modern man, says Nietzsche, is the idea that the ruling group feels no obligation to any but its own class and can behave as it sees fit toward those of lower ranks.

On the other hand, the slave is skeptical about what the noble calls good. Slave morality is "a morality of utility." Qualities that are honored include "pity ... patience, industry, humility, and friendliness," which can help the slave endure their life. For the slaves "those who are 'evil' ... inspire fear," while a good person is "undangerous" and perhaps "good-natured, easy to deceive, a little stupid." The longing for freedom is a key aspect of slave morality, just as reverence and devotion are key to aristocratic ways of thinking.

Beginning in section 268, Nietzsche raises the problem of language—or communication between those of different ranks or sensibilities. It is important to have experience in common with others to understand their language. Language here is used in both the literal and metaphorical sense: people may have a language in common, but they understand each other best if they share a common world of experience, embedded in the layers of linguistic meaning. Thus, average people who have common experiences encounter more people who understand them because there are more others like them. Those out of the norm find themselves alone and isolated and not easily understood, and they have a difficult time finding mates. The "spiritual haughtiness and nausea" of people who have experienced deep suffering also determines rank order, and those who have suffered profoundly disguise themselves and their suffering. They pride themselves on being "the elect of knowledge" but protect themselves from the pity of those who have not suffered. "Profound suffering makes noble; it separates."

In section 287 Nietzsche turns to ask what the word "noble" can mean in modern society, now that "the beginning rule of the plebs" has made "everything opaque and leaden?" Nietzsche answers, "The noble soul has reverence for itself." This is true, regardless of whether the noble one earns name and fame. When a person has been sitting alone in their metaphorical cave, "year in and year out," they become a dragon of sorts, guarding his treasure. Such a hermit does not believe that any philosopher "expressed his real and ultimate opinions in books." Rather they write books to conceal what they know. What philosopher can have "ultimate and real" opinions, Nietzsche asks, when behind every one of their caves is "another deeper cave—a more comprehensive, stranger, richer world beyond the surface, an abysmally deep ground behind every ground, under every attempt to furnish 'grounds.' Every philosophy is a foreground philosophy ... [and] conceals a philosophy; every opinion is also a hideout, every word also a mask."

In contrast to the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, Nietzsche does not find laughter suspect. Rather, he would "risk an order of rank among philosophers depending on the rank of their laughter—all the way up those capable of golden laughter." Laughter for Nietzsche is a symbol of the joyous affirmation of life. According to Nietzsche's Dionysian vision, the free spirit must say Yes to everything, even the tragic, and sometimes to say Yes to tragedy a little seasoning of laughter is in order.

Section 295 of Part 9 is a beautiful, haunting prose poem to Nietzsche's god Dionysus, "the genius of the heart," who, among other things "smooths rough souls and lets them taste a new desire—to lie still as a mirror, that the deep sky may mirror itself in them." Dionysus is the Greek god of ecstatic vision. In The Birth of Tragedy Dionysus stands for "uncontrolled, frenzied, intoxicated passion and is contrasted to Apollo," the god of reason, translator Walter Kaufman says. But in Beyond Good and Evil he stands for "controlled and creatively employed passion." Nietzsche says he has learned a lot about "the philosophy of this god [Dionysus]" as his "last disciple and initiate," and he offers to readers—addressing them as "my friends"—"a few tastes of this philosophy, insofar as this is permitted to me." He admits it concerns much that is "secret, new, strange, odd, uncanny." In section 296 Nietzsche ends by sadly addressing his "painted" thoughts, which he fears are ready "to become truths." He compares himself to a Chinese painter who attempts to immortalize the flight of a captured bird—but captures merely a shadow of the original once the image has been committed to paper. Such is also the case with Nietzsche's thoughts—the words that he writes can never reflect the true glory of his ideas.


While Nietzsche's explanation of how master and slave morality evolved may at first seem far-fetched, a look at history confirms his essential correctness, if the reader steps back and does not superimpose a value judgment on the word "morality." That is, the reader ought to suspend the modern definition of treating all people fairly, or following the laws of the reader's country, or following the tenets of the reader's religion. When Nietzsche says "master morality," he is referring to the traditional code of behavior of ancient rulers, and when he says "slave morality," he is referring to the enforced code of behavior of subjected peoples in those same eras. However, master and slave moralities still exist, in that there are still rulers and subjected peoples in the world.

Returning to the origin of these moralities, the reader can think about ancient Rome, for example, or ancient Egypt, in which aristocratic rulers lorded over large groups of subjected peoples—many of them literally slaves with very little control over their own lives. For example, in ancient Rome, a slave might be a gladiator doomed to an early death in the Roman arena or a female slave forced to be the concubine of a powerful person. The Roman Empire had a complex, hierarchical class structure in which a person's rights and duties, as modern people would understand them, differed according to rank. Patricians, the highest class of Romans, wore special clothing to denote their rank, and other classes had to publicly show them deference. Slaves had no rights at all and were of no concern to the government. They could be punished in any way deemed appropriate by their masters, and slaves who killed or revolted against masters were severely tortured before being killed. While Nietzsche may exaggerate the degree to which aristocrats could do what they liked (since they governed themselves according to a set of rules), they had enormous power and complete power over slave populations. Further, their idea of duty to other people extended only to members of their own class and those they had chosen to patronize. Thus, what was good for them was good for society, as Nietzsche argues. Clearly, for a slave to stay alive in the Roman Empire, they would need to constantly practice the "virtues" of kindness, patience, humility, and the like with regard to their "betters."

This type of behavior—the unbridled seizing of privilege on the part of a ruling class—has not disappeared from the world. First, there is more than one totalitarian regime today in which the majority of people are not free. In these countries, the ruler or rulers have the power to do as they like and force "laws" on the populace that they themselves do not follow. Totalitarian regimes sometimes force a population into virtual slavery, disguising it as dedication to the state and pretending that the toil of the people benefits everyone. Even in representative democracies there is a ruling class of people with financial resources an ordinary person would find staggering, and the ruling class is continually trying to grab more power to increase their wealth and influence. Although they may pay lip service to democratic values, they are mainly interested in working the system to accumulate more power, and there is a constant battle going on between this ruling class and the forces in representative democracies that attempt to preserve benefits and freedoms for the working and middle classes and the poor.

Nietzsche believes that this will to dominate, seize, control, and extend oneself and one's influence is natural, and that to pretend otherwise is to be in "bad faith," which is an existentialist term for the refusal to confront the facts at hand or the choices they indicate. While Nietzsche condones this natural "will to power" in human beings and all that it implies, he does so mostly to shake people up so that they may realize that their morality is not based on some universal metaphysical principle that applies for all time, in all places in the universe. Rather, human ideas about morality have mostly emerged as a result of human necessity (there is some evidence that basic concepts of fairness are genetically determined) and a way to negotiate power relations among people. Thus, in an aristocratic society, what is moral is determined by the rulers, according to what benefits them, and the subjected people create a morality that will allow them to survive in their conditions. This includes naming their persecutors as evil, which affords them some measure of psychological solace. In societies in which power is shared, it becomes necessary to make people as harmless as possible. This is done by enacting and enforcing codes of law and rewarding people for following the rules while punishing law breakers. In a democratic society, what is good is that which allows individuals to exercise as much freedom as possible without infringing on the freedom of others, while evil is defined as persons and forces that take away that freedom.

Nietzsche expresses skepticism about future enhancements of society in which exploitation will be abolished, since he doesn't view it as "corrupt or imperfect," but rather as "a basic organic function." The reader may find Nietzsche hard-hearted in this regard, but consider that, as a truth-teller, he clearly saw what people are like; and as perhaps the first existential philosopher, he took a stand to determine the meaning of his life by defining himself and his mission. He determined that life is good and worth living and must be embraced without reservation. He took his mission to be telling the truth and exposing the lie. For Nietzsche, embracing life meant embracing humanity as it is, with all its ugliness. For the centuries after Christianity displaced the religions of the Roman Empire, Christianity enforced the morality of subjugation (in Nietzsche's view) and kept people in line. But as religion lost its hold, philosophers sought to create a secular underpinning and justifications for the prevailing morality. This is where Nietzsche objects: for him moral philosophy and metaphysical justifications for the existence of "the good" are no more than religion warmed over. Nietzsche also sees the down side of democratic flattening. Democracy tends to impose its own brand of rigid conformity through the popular vote and popular opinion, ostracizing (excluding) people who do not agree. Public opinion and majority rule tend to give pride of place to the lowest common denominator. Or to put it another way, the vast majority of people are not exceptional, and when the unexceptional rule, they do not encourage humanity to move in the direction of self-overcoming, according to Nietzsche's definition.

Nietzsche also applies nobility to the internal world and shows how it is possible to be a free spirit in the worst conditions. He himself faced the pain of being ahead of his time and misunderstood and unappreciated by his peers. He also suffered loneliness and did not succeed in finding a spouse to share his life with. He says in this last part that this is often the fate of the free spirit—the person who suffers profoundly to uncover the truth. Further, he suffered terrible debilitating illness for most of his life and yet was able to maintain his cheerfulness and produce brilliant books of philosophy. Most tragic, he spent the last 11 years of his life in madness, at the mercy of his caretakers—and not all of them had his best interests at heart. Yet, while he still had his faculties, he maintained reverence for himself, as a noble soul ought to do, according to his philosophy. 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—even 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."

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