Beyond Good and Evil | Study Guide

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

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Beyond Good and Evil | Preface | Summary


Nietzsche divides each Part into numbered sections. The author makes liberal use of italics and quotation marks in Beyond Good and Evil, so any italicized text that is enclosed in quotation marks or that is part of a quotation reproduces Nietzsche's original italics. Any text that uses single and double quotation marks reproduces words or phrases that Nietzsche himself had enclosed in quotation marks. Thus the single quotation marks represent Nietzsche's use of quotation marks in the original text.


Friedrich Nietzsche wrote Beyond Good and Evil as a more straightforward, direct explication of many of the philosophical ideas that appeared in the earlier, allegorical Thus Spoke Zarathustra, written in 1885. Beyond Good and Evil also revisits the ideas that appeared in Human, All-Too-Human (1878). According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the table of contents and themes in both texts are quite similar.

Beyond Good and Evil asserts that it is the job of philosophers to use their imaginations and wills to create new values rather than simply follow "mere scholars" who continually regurgitate the same tired ideas. The narrator speaks directly to readers, often including them in his musing by using the first-person plural pronoun we.

The preface begins by asking a question: suppose truth were a woman? If she were, then philosophers who are dogmatists have been inexpert, attempting to use "awkward and very improper methods" for winning her heart. Dogmatic philosophizing is childish and has used popular superstition (for example, religious ideas or flimsy ideas hidden in words or grammar, or generalizations based on personal prejudices) to build its edifices. It seems that all worthwhile endeavors, such as philosophy, must first appear "in monstrous and frightening masks" to make an impression on humanity.

By dogmatic philosophers Nietzsche means metaphysical philosophers who posit there is an immaterial reality behind the material world. Such classical metaphysicians propose timeless principles that never change. The most dangerous error is that of the dogmatist—such as Plato's idea of "pure spirit and the good as such." To overcome such an error requires "standing truth on her head and denying perspective." The fight against Plato and Christianity—which is "Platonism for 'the people'"—has created in Europe a "tension of the spirit" that is new in history. To describe the situation in Europe, Nietzsche uses the metaphor of a very tense bow now capable of shooting an arrow at a very distant target. Europeans have previously responded to this tension with "Jesuitism," and more recently with "democratic enlightenment," but for "we good Europeans" and "very free spirits," Nietzsche says, the tension has not abated. And perhaps such people—good Europeans and new philosophers—may be able to reach the target, the philosopher implies. This is a metaphorical target that exists in the future, and it represents the possibility of creating a higher man.


The opening question of Beyond Good and Evil indicates that Nietzsche, like all philosophers, is concerned with truth—the age-old preoccupation of his occupation. But for Nietzsche, his colleagues by and large are dogmatists, and he sees himself as a prophet of sorts who has come to break the old mold of philosophy and usher in new ways of thinking. Sofia, or wisdom, is often personified as a woman, and she has been dealt with inexpertly and is not likely to yield to buffoons.

Nietzsche immediately identifies the "popular superstitions" upon which philosophy has relied and that he has spent a great deal of his career debunking: religion, for example, or any sort of metaphysics proposing a supersensible (above the senses) world beyond the palpable nuts-and-bolts world that people live in. Thus, Plato, whom Nietzsche admires to some degree, gets a drubbing for inventing the "pure spirit," and "the good as such," which he believed existed in the perfect world of forms upon which the real world is based. Nietzsche also objects to the idea of an "objective" good. Christianity is merely an extension of Platonism, in his view, and in fact Christianity owes its idea of a transcendent God to the philosophy of the Neo-Platonists of the first centuries of the Common Era.

In his writing Nietzsche also criticizes the religious ideas of the East. According to Vedanta philosophy, the world is unreal in the sense that the things of the world are subject to death, decay, and destruction. Additionally, Vedantins believe human beings can experience eternal and metaphysical oneness behind apparent creation through certain practices, something that Nietzsche would call a religious fiction. He objects to any view that disparages the sensible world while elevating a hypothetical metaphysical realm.

Nietzsche also attacks generalizations of other philosophers based on their pet ideas and personal preferences, something he will elaborate on later in the text. He notes that grammar and language itself create untruths, merely by coloring ideas with historical prejudices and falling short, because of their inherent limitations, of entirely conveying the nature of experience. He returns to these ideas in this text and elsewhere. In fact, Nietzsche was the first philosopher to emphasize the problem that language presents in a person's attempting to understand the nature of reality. For Nietzsche it will be necessary to stand truth on her head because he will argue that there is not one truth but only many perspectives. By denying truth a perspective, she will have to tell the truth. At the same time, she will be unable to do so without a perspective—at least if she is telling the truth according to the old rules. Thus, the preface introduces Nietzsche's perspectivism, which will be given considerable attention in the pages that follow.

Also introduced in the preface is the metaphor of the mask, which recurs throughout Beyond Good and Evil. Nietzsche argues that often what is valuable for humanity or an individual must be disguised with a mask, and he sees true philosophy as having been disguised for millennia by metaphysical thinking. Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that explores "first principles" or fundamental reality. In Nietzsche's day it was closely aligned with religious assumptions that unseen, immaterial forces were at work in the universe. But he asserts that it is time to take off the mask. Nietzsche includes his readers, whom he imagines as sympathetic to his way of thinking, by using the pronoun "we" in his discourse. By referring to his readers, Nietzsche also sets up the expectation that they will immediately agree with him. He calls these kindred souls "good Europeans" and "free spirits," terms that also become a kind of extended metaphor in Beyond Good and Evil. Together with the philosopher of this text, these free spirits may yet be able to release the tension created by false philosophy, sending forth an arrow that may reach the goal of a more clear-sighted, mature understanding of life.
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