Beyond Good and Evil | Study Guide

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

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Beyond Good and Evil | Summary




The preface begins by asking a question: suppose truth were a woman? If she were, then philosophers who are dogmatists have done a poor job of winning her heart. Dogmatic philosophers lay down principles of truth and never stop to examine their own assumptions. Dogmatic philosophizing is childish and has used popular superstitions, such as religion and personal prejudices, to build philosophical edifices. The fault is with metaphysical philosophers who believe in an immaterial reality behind the material world. Such classical metaphysicians invent timeless principles that never change. To overcome these philosophical errors, it will be necessary to stand truth on her head and deny her a perspective. The fight against old ideas has created a tension in Europe, and it is now possible to use that tension to create something new—to use that tension like a bow to send a metaphorical arrow into a target in the future. Nietzsche implies that good Europeans—people willing to move beyond conventional notions of truth—and new philosophers may be able to reach the target; they may be able to create something new.

Part 1: On the Prejudices of Philosophers

So far conventional philosophers put their faith in an either/or way of looking at life to assess value: good/bad, right/wrong, black/white, and so forth. Most conventional philosophers are advocates for their own prejudices, baptizing them as truths and not having the courage to admit they are merely preferences. In fact, every great philosophy is "a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir," based on the moral preferences of the philosopher.

After introducing the idea of a will to power without yet defining it, 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 there are only strong wills and weak wills. Some people cannot give up the idea that they are entirely free agents, while others wish to blame everyone but themselves when things go wrong. 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. In Nietzsche's view, a more balanced psychology would take into consideration the investigator's natural tendency to shy away from the idea that good and wicked drives might be interdependent. 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.

Part 2: The Free Spirit

In Part 2 Nietzsche describes the qualifications of the true philosopher, whom he also calls the free spirit. "Independence is for the very few; it is a privilege of the strong," Nietzsche says. The truth at times can be harmful and even kill a person, thus the strength of a person's spirit may be measured according to how much truth they can endure. The philosopher needs hardness and cunning, while the mere scholar can afford the luxury of being gentle and good-natured. Moreover, profound spirits need masks, meaning they must be able to disguise themselves, since what they say and do is often distorted, misunderstood, and misinterpreted. The test of the profound spirit includes the ability to detach themselves from loved ones, fatherland, pity, science, and even their own detachment or virtues. Generosity can be turned into a vice, for example, since the free spirit must conserve himself. Today's free spirits guard their solitude and hope that the new philosophers who succeed them will be kindred souls.

Part 3: What Is Religious

Part 3 explains why Nietzsche thinks religion is pernicious, even though he also allows that religion can be useful. The philosopher calls the Christian religion a "continual suicide of reason." The "religious neurosis" often manifests as "extravagant voluptuousness," followed by remorse and "denial of the world and will." In Nietzsche's view, religious people indulge themselves emotionally by carrying out religious cruelty, even as they turn their backs on the world and their natural desires. Thus Nietzsche says religion is a "ladder of religious cruelty," in which first human beings were sacrificed to God, then sacrificed their "animal" nature, and finally sacrificed God himself, which Nietzsche sees as an ultimate act of nihilism—or the rejection of all human meaning. In the last part of this statement he is referencing Christianity and the death of Jesus on the cross, but he has equal contempt for Buddhism and faults the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer for being influenced by Eastern religious ideas.

Nonetheless, Nietzsche observes that religion serves multiple purposes. For example, asceticism and puritanism are means for religious aspirants to educate and ennoble themselves—even overcome themselves by internalizing the will to power. But religion for the majority of people teaches them to be contented with their lot in life.

Nietzsche maintains that Christianity and Buddhism side with suffering mankind and promote the idea that life is a sickness while attempting to suppress any other orientation toward life. In comforting the suffering, giving courage to the despairing, and supporting the dependent, these religions have preserved the worst in humanity. Nietzsche says that Christianity has turned man "into a sublime miscarriage" and Christian leaders of men have turned the European man into a "herd animal, something eager to please, sickly, and mediocre."

Part 4: Epigrams and Interludes

Part 4 of Beyond Good and Evil is a series of 125 aphorisms (concise statements or observations) on a variety of subjects. The aphorism, a device frequently used by Nietzsche, is a seed thought from which many ideas can grow—in the mind of both the reader and the writer. The aphorisms for the most part stay on the subject matter of the overall text and often startle the reader into thinking about a belief or idea in a new way. These short, pithy maxims showcase the range and depth of the philosopher's thinking.

Part 5: Natural History of Morals

Part 5 discusses the pros and cons of moral laws. Prior to Nietzsche's writings, 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. Perhaps their biggest fault in their assessment is the fact that they never look at "the problem of morality itself."

According to Nietzsche, every morality is a tyranny against nature and reason. Nonetheless, everything worthwhile about human culture owes its existence to "capricious laws"—laws and rules handed down by society. Obedience over a long period of time is necessary to develop virtue, art, music, dance, reason, and spirituality, as well as all other artifacts of culture. Moralities also serve to curb people's destructive passions. However, all moralities—regardless of time, place, and culture—generalize when people should not view themselves as "unconditional." In Nietzsche's view, a herd morality was created in Europe by Christianity, and the democratic movements of his era are based on that same morality. Nietzsche wants to cast off herd morality and see free spirits come forward to take humanity to a higher level.

Part 6: We Scholars

Part 6 compares scholars to philosophers and finds the scholars wanting. While genius "begets or gives birth," a scholar is like an old maid—remaining respectable but barren. The ideal scholar is nothing more than an instrument, not an end in himself. Such people are mirrors and passageways; they avoid taking a definitive stand on a subject because they are fragile and inauthentic. The scholar is a "sublime type of slave," but a slave nevertheless. While a philosopher sets aside skepticism when necessary, the scholar doubts everything and turns to a jellyfish in the face of No or even an emphatic Yes. The skeptic suffers paralysis of the will. The philosophers of the future will not be skeptics in this weak-willed sense. Rather, they will be able to say No and take things apart, know how to "handle a knife," and use critics and scholars as their instruments.

Nietzsche says that genuine philosophers are commanders and legislators, and their will to truth is a will to power, meaning that they wish to impose their views on the world. Such philosophers will always find themselves in contradiction with the thinking of their own time period, in which they will appear as "disagreeable fools and dangerous question marks." The philosopher holds as ideals a strong will and the ability to stand alone against the herd. Nietzsche calls such a person the "higher man." Such a human being is "beyond good and evil, the master of his virtues, he that is overrich in will."

Part 7: Our Virtues

Part 7 raises questions about what is generally thought to be good or virtuous. Philosophies that measure the value of things in accordance with how much pleasure or pain they provide are misguided. To want to "abolish suffering" is "insane," in Nietzsche's view. The new philosopher would rather heighten suffering; so-called "well-being" is not a noble goal, but rather makes man "ridiculous and contemptible." All improvements in human beings so far have been achieved through "the discipline of suffering." Through suffering the soul gathers strength, along with other virtues, and "creature and creator are united," so that a person might fashion himself or herself according to their own preferential image. Nietzsche means that suffering is the crucible in which human beings may create and perfect a self. In his view, those who simply wish to have a comfortable life are simply contemptible; the philosopher or free spirit nobly pursues knowledge, even if that pursuit is accompanied by suffering.

Nietzsche says, honesty is a virtue from which free spirits—true philosophers—cannot escape. Therefore, he recommends that true philosophers perfect honesty, the only virtue left to them. Nietzsche admits that while learning changes a seeker, there is always something incorrigible in a human being that refuses education. One way to solve this problem is to find workarounds that people label "convictions." Later they might realize those convictions were only the first steps to self-knowledge, "signposts" pointing to the "problem" that is each individual person.

Part 8: Peoples and Fatherlands

Chapter 8 is a discourse on ethnicities and nationalities. After some preliminary statements about nationalism, which he calls "fatherlandishness" and "soil addiction," Nietzsche turns to the democratization of Europe. This "democratic movement" is causing Europeans to become more like one another. These new conditions are leading to the "leveling" of the European, who is becoming more mediocre, but also more useful as a "herd animal"—easier to control and manipulate. At the same time this leveling will also produce some free spirits, "exceptional human beings of the most dangerous and attractive quality."

The first group Nietzsche considers in depth is the Germans, and much of what he says is not flattering. Nietzsche continues with a number of sweeping statements about other European ethnicities and spends time condemning anti-Semitism and praising the Jews of Europe. Nietzsche ends these sketches of various ethnic groups by saying that despite people's nationalist feelings, there is a historical current afoot to meld the nations into one people. The most profound men of the century have prepared for this "new synthesis" of Europeans, he says, mentioning Napoleon, the French novelist Stendhal, and the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer among them, and even composer Richard Wagner, an ex-friend and mentor from whom he had become estranged.

Part 9: What Is Noble

Part 9 of Beyond Good and Evil parses Nietzsche's ideas about order and rank in human society. He begins by declaring that any improvement in the human species has been made possible by an aristocratic society in which order of rank were assigned, along with value differences among people and the imposition of a form of slavery. Next Nietzsche asks the reader to face the truth about how culture began and how it progresses. He then lays out his analysis of how master and slave moralities evolved in ancient times, noting that the master morality promoted the exercise of the will to power, while slave morality promoted virtues such as compassion, pity, kindness, and humility because subjected people wish to stay alive.

After an extended discourse on this subject, Nietzsche asks what the word "noble" can mean in modern society now that democratic movements are following upon Christianity to further spread slave morality throughout Europe. He then applies his ideas of nobility to questing philosophers who use the will to power to overcome themselves in order to rise above their own prejudices and character weaknesses and discover new truths about life through their solitary endeavors.

Part 9 ends with a prose poem to the 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. Nietzsche ends by comparing 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 his thoughts—the words that he writes can never reflect the true glory of his ideas.

From High Mountains: Aftersong

The final part of Beyond Good and Evil is a poem expressing Nietzsche's loneliness as he waits for kindred spirits to join him in the high mountains of his philosophical thoughts. When his old friends arrive, they cannot stay because they lack the capacity to live in his realm. They are not strong enough to endure the new philosophy. He continues to wait for new, stronger friends. Finally, Zarathustra, the sage of his previous book, arrives, and together they prepare to attend the wedding "of light and dark," presumably relegating the philosophies of opposites to the dustbin of history.

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