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A Theory of Moral Objectivity (Section 4g - Nietzsche)

By Robert M. Ellis, originally written as a Ph.D. thesis 'A Buddhist theory of moral objectivity' in 2001. This html version copyright 2008.

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4g)      Nietzsche

i)                    Nietzsche’s “nihilism


From the pragmatists, who are in general subtly scientistic, I shall now move on to the modern manifestations of the existentialist type of nihilism, in which the scientistic attempt to derive a descriptive value from universal knowledge, in addition to eternalist universal prescriptive values, is more definitely abandoned than it was by the pragmatists. Instead the existentialist is thrown back onto the value-coherentism of the individual, with a corresponding phenomenological reliance on freewill as the only remaining source of an irretrievably subjective value. This existentialist perspective begins with Nietzsche.


The only real precursors for the existentialists in their degree of individualism were the Classical Sceptics, but the Sceptical tradition only influenced them very indirectly via Hume and Kant. Nietzsche’s Sceptical arguments about the world and the self often echo Hume’s, and like Hume he also adopts a naturalistic solution: but unlike Hume’s this is a pragmatic rather than a scientistic naturalism. Kant’s “Copernican revolution” in realising the ways in which the mind constructs the world is also important to Nietzsche as to the other existentialists, although they all firmly rejected the universality that Kant claimed for the synthetic a priori. Nietzsche’s existentialism is thus at least partly an independent counter-reaction to the eternalistic and scientistic doctrines available at his time rather than the result of prior philosophical influence, yet counter-reactions are a common response to the removal of overbearing authority, and often illustrate only a counter-dependency. There is something adolescent about Nietzsche’s constant aggressive tone and self-aggrandisement which suggests from the outset that we are unlikely to find balanced insights there. His unsystematic flashes of brilliance, like those of a gifted adolescent, mask an underlying immaturity of outlook which has failed to reconcile itself to the existence of a reality beyond his wishes.


Nietzsche is perhaps the most important existentialist in the sense of being the first to abandon all metaphysical truths and to unfalteringly draw what he saw as the obvious moral facts out of this failure of metaphysics. Although he was contemporary with Kierkegaard, he is distinguished from him in being convinced of the positive value of the abandonment of metaphysics and thus offering a form of existentialism which is valuable in itself rather than as a jumping-off point for a return to eternalism. On close examination his approach shows many non-dualist features, but I shall argue that it is still fundamentally dualist because, like all preceding dualist philosophies, it continues to identify the ego with the psyche. His Sceptical arguments also commit the common error of confusing sceptical agnosticism with negative dogmatism.


Nietzsche’s denial of all metaphysical truths about the universe, both factual and moral, was termed by him “nihilism”. Nietzsche’s use of this term differs from mine insofar as he identifies it with the lack of either a scientistic “factual” truth or an eternalistic moral truth, whereas I have used it to refer only to the latter. Due to the overwhelmingly moral emphasis in Nietzsche’s work, however, his sense of “nihilism” differs less from mine than might be expected. For him, too, “nihilism” is not a resting point but the basis of critique of metaphysics preparatory to the creation of a new type of ethics. My argument will not be that Nietzsche does not try to transcend nihilism but that he does not succeed.


The epistemological aspect of Nietzsche’s nihilism takes the form of a rejection of the noumenal world on pragmatic grounds. It is thus not the ground of his moral nihilism but an application of it. He argues that the belief in a “real” world beyond the immediate one is a result of a lack of appreciation of the phenomenal world and of life as we experience it[1]. Whilst his position in some ways resembles a phenomenal positivism, even his more phenomenalist arguments have a pragmatic emphasis:

The “thing-in-itself” nonsensical. If I remove all the relationships, all the “properties”, all the “activities” of a thing, the thing does not remain over; because thingness has only been invented by us owing to the requirements of logic, thus with the aim of defining communication (to bind together the multiplicity of relationships, properties, activities).[2]


Here he emphasises the linguistic function of realism, an explanation in line with his evolutionary explanation for why it is necessary for people to accept “truths”[3]. This approach could put him in harmony with William James, but the context, intent, and tone are all quite different from James’s. James has an inclusiveness of approach which leads him to conclude from the constructedness of reality that those who construct it in fairly traditional (eternalist) ways may still be justified in doing so. Nietzsche, on the other hand, uses the same kind of pragmatic argument to support a vitriolic attack on eternalism and bleed it dry of all pretensions to truth. As Solomon writes, “Nietzsche’s epistemology explains how we have come to hold certain conceptions, it does not justify those conceptions”[4].


Nietzsche’s epistemology thus exhibits an idealism of the linguistic form which is typical of all dualism, putting this idealism more bluntly than it had ever been put before as he derived it from our physiological nature.

There are many kinds of eyes. Even the sphinx has eyes – and consequently there are many kinds of “truths”, and consequently there is no truth.[5]


Here Nietzsche re-uses a Classical Sceptical argument in a way which shows the same slip from metaphysical agnosticism to negative dogmatism that the Sceptics were prone to. The limitations of our senses do imply a pragmatic account of belief, but, as I have already argued in relation to the pragmatists[6], they do not justify an appropriation of “truth” to a relative sense and a denial of meaning to all talk about understanding that we do not yet have. Similarly, then,  they do not justify Nietzsche’s denial of truth beyond the relative.


The pragmatism of Nietzsche’s arguments then, should not blind us to the negative dogmatism with which he uses them. This negative dogmatism manifests itself in two other ways: firstly as a categorical denial of eternalist assumptions rather than an attempt to sort helpful from unhelpful elements (I shall be commenting on this in more detail later in relation to Nietzsche’s account of “slave morality”), and secondly in his denial of the possibility of any kind of systematic element in his philosophy. This second feature involves the adoption of a deliberately fragmentary style in rejection of the false syntheses which he perceived as supporting the more systematic accounts of the great German systematists like Kant and Hegel. “The will to a system is a lack of integrity[7] he wrote. As in the parallel case of Wittgenstein, this deliberate lack of systematisation in Nietzsche’s writing seems to act primarily as a decoy by means of which both writers were able to distract themselves and others from the systematic negative assumptions in their critical philosophies. When the ego has in any sense attempted to jump the walls from its rational constructions over into identification with the non-rational, the adoption of purely incidental non-rational features can provide the furnishings of the illusion that the subjectivity of the ego has been transcended instead of merely shifted over the walls.


As with Nietzsche’s epistemological nihilism, so with his moral nihilism, the arguments are pragmatic and moral ones. He does not so much argue from the lack of absolute cognitive truth to the lack of absolute moral truth as the reverse, since he sees the invention of either as the effect of the “life-denying” values that he opposes. “God is dead” not in any simplistic metaphysical sense, but in the sense that people no longer believe in him implicitly even if they profess to do so explicitly. The Death of God is presented is an event which has crept up on Western culture so stealthily that few are aware of it.

The most important of more recent events – that “God is dead”, that the belief in the Christian God has become unworthy of belief – already begins to cast its first shadows over Europe. To the few at least whose eye, whose suspecting glance, is strong enough and subtle enough for this drama, some sun seems to have set, some old, profound confidence seems to have changed into doubt: our old world must seem to them daily more darksome, distrustful, strange and “old”.[8]


Here Nietzsche can only be referring to the effects of science and capitalism (both themselves developments of the naturalism and asceticism of eternalism respectively) in undermining, not just the belief in God, but eternalism in general. The increasing lack of certainty about a universal ethical foundation has resulted, as he perceives, not in a sudden explicit renunciation of Christianity by most people, but in the appearance of nihilism and an increasing defensiveness and insecurity in eternalism. As the value of egoistic identification with the eternalistic account of the moral universe is questioned by those who stand beyond it, the majority who maintain such an identification can only feel uneasy.


In part then, Nietzsche’s moral nihilism is just a statement of historical fact about people’s beliefs: they no longer have any grounds for universal belief because of the dissolution of the metaphysical structures on which this belief depended. Because eternalist belief was a social construction to begin with, it is threatened by social and cultural changes which make it impossible to sustain, regardless of whether or not it is true in some abstract metaphysical sense. The proclamation of such facts, as well as the understanding that they are liberating ones, is propaedeutic to non-dualism as well as to nihilism, and the joy with which Nietzsche greets it seems to indicate that it was accompanied for him by at least a temporary psychological integration in which he was opened to new beliefs and ways of understanding beyond old dualities.

In fact, we philosophers and “free spirits” feel ourselves irradiated as by a new dawn by the report that the “old God is dead”; our hearts overflow with gratitude, astonishment, presentiment and expectation. At last the horizon seems open once more, granting even that it is not bright; our ships can at last put out to sea in face of every danger; every hazard is again permitted to the discerner; the sea, our sea, again lies open before us; perhaps never before did such an “open sea” exist.[9]


But Nietzsche also argues that universalist beliefs are not justified because, according to his higher scale of values, they have bad effects. This case cannot really be understood without reference to this higher scale of values itself, since Nietzsche’s account of these values includes the basis of his critique of eternalism in the form of its “life-stultifying” nature and its use of “Slave Morality”. In the next subsection I shall argue that the confusions in this account of the failings of eternalism are indicative of dualism in Nietzsche’s whole positive ethics, which are based on the egoism of the Will to Power. The effect of this argument when brought back to bear on the assessment of Nietzsche’s nihilism will thus be that it cannot be understood merely as a preparatory stage in Nietzsche’s philosophy, but one in which Nietzsche is held stuck by dualistic egoism. Furthermore, the grounds of the nihilism itself (with the exception of the Death of God as a historical claim) are not consistent with a further move to non-dualism because they enshrine not only linguistic idealism but egoism.


ii)                  The Will to Power


The Will to Power is a doctrine with some resemblance to Schopenhauer’s will: a universal energy running through all creatures and activating the ceaseless strife of evolution. But Nietzsche saw this energy quite differently from Schopenhauer: it was not a noumenal energy, but a phenomenal one, and thus its basis was naturalistic. Nietzsche also did not see this conflict as something unfortunate to be overcome, either by a Schopenhauerian denial of the will or a Hegelian synthesis whereby the evil of conflict was explained as ultimately good. For Nietzsche, conflict was a feature of the universe to be fearlessly ridden: not something to be unnecessarily sought but certainly something to be gloriously engaged in, since the end towards which the Will to Power tended was not just an existence but an overcoming. To engage with the Will to Power in this way was to be “life-affirming”.


Life, as the form of being most familiar to us, is specifically a will to the accumulation of force; all the processes of life depend on this: nothing wants to preserve itself, everything is to be added and accumulated.[10]


…life is merely a special case of the will to power; - it is quite arbitrary to assert that everything strives to enter into this form of the will to power.[11]


Nietzsche’s understanding of our fundamental desires is thus not only naturalistic but egoistic, since the Will to Power is understood as a universally-operative force, and its nature is of the kind which is separate from other forces which it then either appropriates or overcomes, making it egoistic. Both of these aspects of the Will to Power involve Nietzsche in problematic assumptions.


Firstly, Nietzsche’s naturalism is of the very type he appears to reject when wearing his nihilistic hat. To make assumptions about “all the processes of life” is to make a universal claim which goes beyond even the totality of human experience. This universal claim is not only one that he advances as a factual hypothesis, but one that he takes as the basis of value and argues has been the basis of all values. The claim seems to indicate that Nietzsche recognises the need for a universal or foundational element in values, but, despite his previous Scepticism about naturalistic claims Nietzsche feels obliged to lunge straight back into naturalism to support them. With apparently no understanding of epistemological incrementality (despite what often appears to be a critical awareness of the limitations of dualism) Nietzsche is left either with naturalism or solipsism: but solipsism is a position he would find even more abhorrent than naturalism because of its rejection of the common-sense interpretation of the evidence of the senses[12].


It is true that Nietzsche’s criticisms of reductive scientism do seem to imply a sophisticated pragmatic understanding of the apparently naturalistic language that he uses. Take for example this passage from Beyond Good and Evil in which Nietzsche follows up his criticisms of freewill with an attack on determinism:

One ought not to make ‘cause’ and ‘effect’ into material things, as natural scientists do (and those who, like them, naturalise in their thinking - ), in accordance with the prevailing mechanistic stupidity which has the cause press and push until it ‘produces an effect’; one ought to employ ‘cause’ and ‘effect’ only as pure concepts, that is to say as conventional fictions for the purpose of designation, mutual understanding, not explanation.[13]


Are we then to take the naturalism of the appeal to the Will to Power as a “convenient fiction”? But the pragmatic justification of such a fiction only depends on what James would rather crudely call its “cash value” in experience. A single explanation of all the processes of life (as opposed to those I encounter) has no such value, and, as I argued in relation to the eternalist appeal to cosmic justice, it is likely to produce a dogmatism about our future experiences which prevents us from engaging with them in a way which allows for the belief to be contradicted. The measure of a pragmatic justification is thus not the mere attachment of a pragmatic label to what is otherwise functionally dogmatic, but whether the belief leads consistently to moral progress in its relationship to psychological states. The implications of the remainder of my arguments in this section will be that the belief in the Will to Power as an inevitable feature of our natures (which psychologically correlates to the identification of the ego with the psyche) has no such effect. The “fiction” is not “convenient” in the broadest sense of the latter term.


Nietzsche’s recourse to naturalism also means that his ethics is not really new or radical at all. For together with the naturalistic account of the origins of our passions goes the idea that their energy constantly takes the form of the overcoming ego: just another version of alienated reason. Solomon, writing very much in the grip of dualist assumptions himself, nevertheless brings out how Nietzsche is also in them in this respect.

If self-overcoming…is the sublimation of impulse by reason, then we can easily understand how the Will to Power underlies every morality, and Nietzsche’s ‘new’ morality is seen to be very much within the traditions of Western philosophy. Whatever their differences, every morality has been an imposition of constraint on the passions – an attempt to overcome one’s ‘nature’ – one’s unthinking, even ‘stupid’ impulses and conform to an ideal….From this description of self-overcoming, however, one might well wonder why Nietzsche has caused such a commotion in recent history. If his claim is only that every morality has aimed at self-control in order to approach some ego-ideal, then how does he differ, if at all, from Socrates, Aristotle, and even Kant, with whom he apparently takes himself to be utterly in opposition? The excitement of Nietzsche’s philosophy is, ultimately, essentially negative; the Will to Power does not so much give us a new standard, but makes explicit the standard we have always used. The radical conclusions of Nietzsche’s philosophy are not so much a result of his offering us a replacement for traditional values, rather, he shows us these traditional values are inconsistent..[14]


This inconsistency, however, is only the same pluralism pointed out by scientistic philosophers. Nietzsche only goes further by urging us to accept the egoism of this pluralistic situation without fleeing into conventionalism or a belief in scientific neutrality.


The second problematic feature of the Will to Power, then, is its egoism. Again, the pragmatism of Nietzsche’s language in explaining this could have the effect of concealing the extent to which he slides back into the dualisms he attacks when in his nihilistic mode. Nietzsche appears to have an impersonal or associationist view of the self similar to Hume’s which enables him to make a distinction between the Will to Power as it operates through the “ego” in a dynamic sense on the one hand, and the self and its ends as we experience them on the other. His “egoism” is thus the impersonal exercise of the Will to Power through us, and is not to be identified with what we conceive as our own ends.

The “ego” – which is not one with the central government of our nature! – is, indeed, only a conceptual synthesis – thus there are no actions prompted by “egoism.[15]


The “egoism” which Nietzsche denies here is the egoism which claims that doing what one consciously wishes is justified, but he nevertheless claims that “egoism” in the sense of following the Will to Power is the only available moral prescription.


This distinction between different types of egoism interestingly suggests that what we conceive to be immediately in our own best interests is not.

Man is an indifferent egoist: even the cleverest thinks his habits more important than his advantage.[16]


Nietzsche’s distinction can thus be fruitful if applied to provide the basis of an incremental distinction between long-term and short-term self-interest. Nietzsche would evidently apply it even to the extent of claiming that our long-term interests as self-overcoming dynamic egos extend even beyond our lives as self-conscious individuals. But the danger of such a distinction, if the long-term or impersonal element does not consist in a completely open universality, is that it simply provides a rationalisation for the appropriation of the rational justification attached to longer-term and less personal aims to immediate and personal ones. The naturalism attached to the “Will to Power” as an idea enables it to be appropriated abstractly by a narrowly-focussed ego and used to justify actions which are only effectively based on short-term considerations. This danger appears to be as much present in Nietzsche’s account of an impersonal egoism as it is in the absolutist approach of eternalism, and is perhaps reinforced by Nietzsche’s deluded belief that he has shaken free of the old metaphysics and can thus frolic in a new world free of such complexities.


The fundamental difficulty with Nietzsche’s account of the ego, however, is its reliance on the psychological pattern that I have already described as typical of the ego, its very egoism in the terms I have adopted hitherto[17]. The ego rejects the remainder of the psyche and defines itself against it, thus constantly perpetuating a false duality in the objects onto which it projects otherness. Nietzsche’s pluralistic account of the Will to Power manifesting itself through the egoistic desire to “overcome” takes this process of dualistic rejection for granted, and although Nietzsche may be rejecting a dualism, the way in which he is attempting to do so actually perpetuates that dualism. The process by which a separate ego “overcomes” objects also amounts to a functional freewill, in spite of Nietzsche’s criticisms of freewill as a metaphysical doctrine[18]. I shall be arguing these points in more detail in relation to Nietzsche’s ideas about the process of self-overcoming (selbstüberwindung) in the next subsection.


The reason for this slide back into the metaphysics he has rejected appears to be primarily that Nietzsche could discern no middle way between this and the false syntheses he takes to be involved in any account that begins with monistic assumptions. Conflict is thus inevitable: “opposites, obstacles are needed; therefore, relatively, encroaching units”[19]. The only respect in which Nietzsche’s approach apparently allows incrementality in this respect is in his account of sublimation, but I shall deal with this in the next subsection.


Nietzsche’s rejection of any recognition of the “other” in the psyche beyond the ego can also be charted in his rejection of Hegelian dialectic. Nietzsche denied the possibility of any synthetic resolution between two conflicting forces on the grounds that this would deny the nature of the two conflicting forces and thwart their energies. As Deleuze puts Nietzsche’s argument:

In its relationship with the other the force which makes itself obeyed does not deny the other or that which it is not, it affirms its own difference and enjoys this difference. The negative is not present in the essence as that from which force draws its activity…[20]


In this respect Nietzsche not only denies the false synthesis of Hegel but turns to a false analysis in reaction. The Will to Power is assumed to inevitably be expressed in incompatible individual forms. But here Nietzsche has drawn his conclusions from the observation of a world where each individual psyche is in conflict and projects those conflicts onto the world beyond it. At the psychological level, however, (as I am arguing in the book as a whole) that conflict is far from inevitable, and a world in which all the participants had resolved their psychological conflicts would also apparently be a harmonious world without conflict. The avoidance of conflict through the psychological integration of individuals also preserves the differences between individuals which are so important to Nietzsche and Deleuze. The pluralism which Nietzsche identifies in the world is the result of dogmatic assumptions made about the necessity of features which are contingent.


Having thus outlined the weaknesses in Nietzsche’s scheme of the Will to Power as an alternative basis of ethics, I shall now return to the issue of the ways in which these weaknesses undermine the case against eternalism which I outlined in the previous subsection. As I have mentioned, Nietzsche claims that all values are manifestations of the Will to Power. However, this is not taken to imply an equality between different values, because Nietzsche also makes a distinction between those values which reflect the Will to Power directly and explicitly and those which, although implicitly manifestations of it, explicitly go against it. In his earlier work, where Nietzsche talks in terms of “life”, rather than the Will to Power, these approaches are described as life-affirming and life-denying respectively. Nietzsche’s argument against eternalism in dependence on the Will to Power, however, gets its clearest expression in the theory of Master and Slave Moralities.


Nietzsche’s account of Slave and Master Moralities contains some elements of agreement with my own account of eternalism and nihilism, although some crucial distinctions need to be made between them. Nietzsche presents his account of two types of psycho-philosophical tendency in terms (at least at its origin) of a struggle between two classes of society: “Masters” and “Slaves”, or “Strong” and “Weak”. This results not only in a dogmatically oversimplified account of various social and ethnic histories which he comments on in these terms, but in a confusion of the ideas of strength with integration, and of weakness with alienation. Whilst Nietzsche notices that weakness (whether physical, social or economic) often leads to a consoling turn to eternalism with its alienation from present suffering, he fails to account satisfactorily for the ways in which eternalism is also an instrument of rule, which contradicts his hypothesis that “slave morality” is a device of the weak. “The values of the weak prevail because the strong have taken them over as devices of leadership[21], he writes, but surely in that case they then become the values of the strong? Even if the values now held by the strong had their origins with the weak, they have done so for so long that the association becomes so tenuous as to be of little use. But it seems unlikely, when the full interrelationship of naturalistic with rationalistic and revelatory elements in eternalism is considered (in the way I have tried to do in chapter 3), that the whole set of tendencies even originated solely with “the weak” as a class: Nietzsche has mistaken a psychological division for a social one because the social one shows a very faint reflection of the same pattern. This also involves the historical mistake of identifying eternalism in the West too exclusively with Christianity and neglecting its purchase on what is for Nietzsche the “aristocratic” civilisation of the Romans through the medium of Stoicism.


The more useful aspect of Nietzsche’s account of Master and Slave moralities is found in his account of ressentiment, a term which might well be translated as “alienation”, at least in the sense I have been using that term here to mean a narrowly-focussed psychological state with a strong dogmatic tendency.

The slave revolt in morals begins when ressentiment itself becomes creative and ordains values: the ressentiment of creatures to whom the real reaction, that of the deed, is denied and who find compensation in imaginary revenge. While all noble morality grows from a triumphant affirmation of itself, slave morality from the outset says no to an ‘outside’ to an ‘other’, to a ‘non-self’: and this is its creative act. The reversal of the evaluative gaze – this necessary orientation outwards rather than inwards to the self – belongs characteristically to ressentiment. In order to exist at all, slave morality from the outset always needs an opposing, outer world; in physiological terms, it needs external stimuli in order to act – its action is fundamentally reaction. The opposite is the case with the aristocratic mode of evaluation: this acts and grows spontaneously, it only seeks out its antithesis in order to affirm itself more thankfully and more joyfully.[22]


Here Nietzsche identifies a crucial effect of the eternalist focus on the future and alienation from the present: a discontent with present experience which limits awareness of, or reflection upon, the breadth of present experience (Nietzsche perhaps misleadingly puts this in terms of “inner” and “outer” experience). Nietzsche’s account of the opposed “aristocratic mode”, however, shows the same confusion of nihilist and non-dualist elements found in the rest of Nietzsche’s philosophy, and is particularly characterised by a lack of awareness of the vast tract of intermediate states, generally associated with nihilism, where some spontaneous hedonistic enjoyment of objects is mixed with some alienation[23]. Since complete spontaneity can only be achieved by the removal of rational conflict in the psyche, the case that Nietzsche seems to be referring to (and in fact appropriating to a nihilist morality) is one of complete integration through the practice of non-dualism. He does in fact attempt to appropriate even the techniques of integration in his ideas about sublimation, which I shall consider in the next subsection, but, as I shall argue there, not in a manner consistent with non-dualism.


Nietzsche’s case against eternalism through the psychological hypothesis of ressentiment  is thus unfortunately weakened by the overstated claims and confusions which accompany it. The confusions occur because of his attachment to the egoistic doctrine of the overcoming Will to Power, which leads him to stress dualistic antagonisms between the “good and bad” of his own scale of morality where he might have continued to more consistently apply the structurally non-dualist rejection of both “good and evil”, a dualism which he believed slave-morality to be responsible for. Whilst he was thus correct in identifying some of the dualistic features of eternalism, he failed to realise that his own opposition to it was also part of the same pattern.


iii)                The Übermensch


I shall now consider some of the unfortunate implications that the egoism and naturalism at the basis of Nietzsche’s ethics have had for their working-out in Nietzsche’s ethical ideal of the Übermensch. The Übermensch or “overman” is one who has followed the master morality and in doing so overcome all obstacles – of which the chief is himself. The Will to Power thus flows freely through his egoism.


The ethical ideal of the Übermensch is an aesthetic one. This follows from Nietzsche’s nihilism, according to which our sense of value can only be what we immediately encounter through aesthetic sensibility: any appeal to ethical or religious values beyond that immediate experience can only be dogmatic. The aesthetic in Nietzsche thus combines the two confused elements of nihilism and non-dualism as values that I have been discussing, for on the one hand it requires no appeal to any truths beyond an apparently subjective experience, but on the other aesthetic values are apparently capable of development and refinement. In the earlier part of his career, during his friendship with Wagner, Nietzsche had seen art itself as the basis of a value which could transcend the limits of reason: such art, however, needed to be “Dionysian” in going beyond the limitations of reason and confronting us with the tragic fact of reason’s inability to explain the universe[24]. In the later ideal of the Übermensch expressed in Thus Spake Zarathustra the refinement of value through art had become combined with the egoism of the Will to Power as the idea of working on oneself as a work of art, earlier expressed in Daybreak as “giving style to one’s character”.

Giving style to one’s character – a great and rare art! It is exercised by those who see all the strengths and weaknesses of their own nature and then comprehend them in an artistic plan until everything appears as art and reason.[25]


This suggests that Nietzsche saw the moral objectivity developed by the Übermensch as combining the synthetic vision and the particular activity of art. The relationship of the Übermensch to his own nature is like that of the artist to his materials: as objects to be “overcome” in the sense of being worked in accordance with his overall desires. Again this suggests that the drives pursued by the Übermensch are not just short-term egoistic ones, and certainly demand the exertion of all human faculties to be pursued. The vision pursued by the Übermensch may even be inspired by temporary psychological integrations[26].


However, the nature of the vision of the Übermensch is in the end a coherentist one that, like the coherentism of the pragmatists, is not measured against the foundational recognition of our ignorance. In denying moral activity any element of objectivity beyond its own coherence, Nietzsche confronts us with the suggestion that style (even of character) may justifiably exist coherently in a broader context of  the greatest conceivable barbarity and terror. Well-known examples of highly-developed aestheticism in the Third Reich spring to mind, such as the Auschwitz officers who regularly played Beethoven string quartets, or the moment strongly depicted in the film Schindler’s List where a German officer sat down calmly to play classical music on a piano he had encountered in the midst of the massacre of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto.


Such examples are extreme, and Nietzsche might well be defended from the accusation that his ideal of the Übermensch encompasses them by pointing out another feature of that ideal: the Übermensch is an individual who is not subject to the herd-mentality of the crowd. This is forcibly expressed in Zarathustra’s account of the Last Man, the pusillanimous modern creature who works only in harmony with the rationality of the group, seeking his comfort in accordance with the group’s ideas of an acceptable life and limiting his vision of happiness to the conventional[27]. This Last Man is the antithesis of the Übermensch, but again, we are confronted only with an ideal discontinuous with the reality. The Übermensch is an individual because he has achieved a spontaneity in the fulfilment of his desires and is thus free of the alienation which occurs when the desires of an individual are subordinated to those of the group. But, as I argued in the previous subsection, such spontaneity requires a complete psychological integration to be already achieved. If we merely seek such spontaneous hedonistic experience within a more generally alienated group-oriented experience, we are likely to merely form a nihilistic pattern of defence for that sphere of hedonism by means of alienated belief.


Without an incremental method for reaching spontaneous individual experience beginning with our actual habits and experiences, then, our individuality will take a nihilistic form which may well involve the use of a group to defend it. Though the incongruous Nazi musicians who managed to combine artistic refinement and butchery had certainly not achieved the ideal of the Übermensch, it cannot  be claimed that they were not following it insofar as they were capable simply because of their subordination to the group. For them, the subordination to the group was a necessary, if rather distasteful, sacrifice which needed to be made for the continuance of the aesthetic cultivation they valued. The happiness of the Last Man may consist precisely in maintaining the privilege of imagining himself the Übermensch in moments of leisure.


The objector can also point out that Nietzsche saw the Übermensch as cultivating many traditional humane virtues, wherever these are compatible with master morality, for example

The good four – Honest towards ourselves and whoever else is a friend to us; brave towards the enemy; magnanimous towards the defeated; polite – always: this is what the four cardinal virtues want us to be.[28]


But these virtues are ones of social behaviour, the virtues required for smooth social interaction within a certain context. For the same reason, Nietzsche does not recommend unnecessary cruelty: but cruelty may be an unfortunate side effect of the need to overcome ones enemies. Far from removing us from the pressures of the group, Nietzsche’s ethics is here putting us within the power of the aristocratic group (or its emulators) and recommending conventions which often merely serve to conceal a narrow focussing of interest within a limited sphere of ethical coherence, beyond which lie unconsidered injustices.


A more profound and important objection arises from a consideration of the kind of virtues that are required by the Übermensch to achieve self-overcoming (selbstüberwindung). This self-overcoming involves the application of power to sublimate grosser and less controlled drives into more subtle ones which are better contrived to bring about desired ends. Nietzsche sees this process happening even in the tradition of Christianity (where he suggests that scientific scrupulosity is a sublimation of Christian veracity of conscience[29]) but advocates that the Übermensch employ it consciously and wilfully. The question then arises of whether  this process of sublimation actually provides a means of mediation across the discontinuity between the Last Man and the Übermensch. Does it provide a method whereby the Last Man can actually become an Übermensch instead of pretending to be?


As part of his study of “ironic affinities” between Nietzsche and Buddhism, Robert Morrison pieces together a case that it might, though he admits that it is based on only a few examples[30]. He brings out Nietzsche’s belief that, due to the natural origins of both good and evil desires, both exist on a continuum which always makes it possible to turn one into the other, and that Nietzsche’s nihilism gives him a Humean understanding of the relationship between reason and passion which enables desires to be sublimated through conscious manipulation. He also approvingly quotes Nietzsche’s list of six “methods for combating the vehemence of a drive” in Daybreak, which amount to non-gratification, regularisation, creating disgust from over-indulgence, aversion therapy, diversion to other activities, or complete asceticism by weakening all drives together[31]. This is probably the nearest Nietzsche gets to offering a technique, though the techniques are actually so basic that most of them are habitually used by the parents of small children.


However, Morrison’s argument neglects an important contextual feature. This is the respect in which, even in that Daybreak passage, it is clear that Nietzsche sees the deliberate use of sublimation in entirely adversative terms. It is a method for combating the vehemence of a drive and thus gaining self-control, and, as he stresses at the conclusion of that passage,

What is clearly the case is that in this entire procedure our intellect is only the blind instrument of another drive which is a rival of the drive whose vehemence is tormenting us: whether it be the drive to restfulness, or the fear of disgrace and other evil consequences, or love. While ‘we’ believe we are complaining about the vehemence of a drive, at bottom it is one drive which is complaining about another; that is to say: for us to become aware that we are suffering from the vehemence of a drive presupposes the existence of another equally vehement or even more vehement drive, and that a struggle is in prospect in which our intellect is going to have to take sides.[32]


Nietzsche’s residual determinism here leads him into a vision of our desires as pitched in perpetual warfare, not as uniting towards a common goal. “Sublimation” is hence merely a subtle method of gaining control on the part of the ego, not a method of psychological integration. As such it is almost bound to fail for the same reasons that Nietzsche, prefiguring Freud, identifies in the Christian tradition: a repressed energy will inevitably return in another form which is still opposed to the rational imposition and inclined to sabotage it.


Morrison’s argument cannot disguise the respects in which Nietzsche’s ethics (as I have already mentioned) are actually a re-run of traditional rationalistic ethics. Nietzsche appears to offer us no substantial method of avoiding a repetition of the alienation he criticises in Christianity when we force control onto our unwilling drives, precisely because of the context of egoism, coherentism and naturalism in which his ideas about sublimation are placed. Nietzsche’s ethics are, in fact, ascetic, despite the vehemence of his attacks on asceticism: a contradiction which he can only explain through the naturalistic appeal to the egoistic will as the more basic one. It is clear in his conclusions about asceticism at the end of the Genealogy of Morals that he really sees no Middle Way between egoistic asceticism and altruistic asceticism: even Christianity is thus better than nihilism for him.

The meaninglessness of suffering, and not suffering as such, has been the curse which has hung over mankind up to now – and the ascetic ideal offered mankind a meaning! As yet, it has been the only meaning; and any meaning is better than no meaning; in every respect, the ascetic ideal has been the best ‘faute de mieux’ so far. It explained suffering; it seemed to fill the gaping void; the door was closed against suicidal nihilism. The explanation – there is no doubt – brought new suffering with it, deeper, more internal, more poisonous, gnawing suffering; it brought all suffering under the perspective of guiltBut in spite of this – or thanks to it – man was saved[33]


Perhaps the main reason for this lies in Nietzsche’s own temperament, since he was not only extremely ascetic himself, but felt the immense pressure of the void as the only alternative to the continual exercise of his will. Nietzsche was himself the product of an intense dualism: an insatiable introspection and an indomitable will trapped in a pitifully sick body for much of his later life. It was hardly surprising that he should be unable to see beyond those extremes, but only push them to their furthest limits.


If any further evidence should still be required for the dualism of the ethic of the Übermensch, it can be found in Nietzsche’s doctrine of eternal recurrence. This, like the evolutionary elements in the theory of the Will to Power, appeals to a naturalism which appears to contradict Nietzsche’s nihilism, for the same reasons. Nietzsche attempts to provide a foundation for the value of ones acceptance of the present moment by positing its eternal recurrence within the scope of infinite time: if one can accept ones life in its infinite recurrence, it will be of true value[34]. Here the entire apparatus of the eternal recurrence, together with its apparently very un-Nietzschean assumptions about identity and time, appears quite unnecessary to the question Nietzsche is asking: “Do you value your life now?”, for this is a question about our psychological state of awareness rather than a metaphysical question[35]. It is difficult to see how an affirmative answer to the question is made more likely by the belief in eternal recurrence, and Nietzsche’s need to provide this kind of external justification (in effect an implicit form of cosmic justice) for a psychological question thus only further shows his dependence on the eternalist models he explicitly rejects.


The psycho-philosophical basis of Nietzsche’s ethics thus turns out to be a discontented, restless individualism: an endless scepticism which ends up turning full circle back to dogma. As such Nietzsche’s work can be both expressive and supportive of a wide range of positions: his nihilism does not so much represent a particular type of position (except perhaps as a transitional position – the negative dogmatism of the nihilistic student) as a particular way of defending it negatively: the atheist, the Nazi, the anarchist, and the Buddhist can all be attracted by him because he enables them to cleanse themselves of an old culture and believe that they are beginning again despite the maintenance of many old attitudes. Nietzsche’s writings are also ambiguous enough to support a wide range of positive constructions, and impressive and insightful enough to provide an absorbing false substitute for non-dualism.


In a broader sense, the Nietzscheans who have never read Nietzsche are all those who pursue a personal end without regard for the context, those egoists who remain unapologetic and do not even try to adopt a broader eternalist or scientistic ideology to serve their egoism. Such genuine Übermenschen are rare, but often both impressive and destructive in the way in which Nietzsche is himself.


[1] Nietzsche (1997) p.21-2

[2] Nietzsche (1967) §558

[3] Solomon (1972) p.114

[4] ibid.

[5] Nietzsche (1967) §540

[6] See 4.f.ii

[7] Nietzsche (1997) p.9 (“Epigrams & Arrows” §26)

[8] Nietzsche (1960) §343

[9] ibid.

[10] Nietzsche (1967) §689

[11] ibid. §692

[12] E.g. Nietzsche (1997) p.19 (“Reason in Philosophy” §3)

[13] Nietzsche (1990) §21

[14] Solomon (1972) p.129-130

[15] Nietzsche (1967) §371

[16] ibid. §363

[17] See especially 2.a.iv

[18] See Nietzsche (1990) §21, a later section of which is quoted above

[19] Nietzsche (1967) §693

[20] Deleuze (1983) p.8-9

[21] Nietzsche (1967) §863

[22] Nietzsche (1996) p.22 (§1.10)

[23] These are described in 4.a.iii

[24] See Danto (1980) ch.2

[25] Quoted by Solomon (1972) p.134, allegedly from Daybreak (a.k.a. Dawn). Despite an exhaustive search of  Daybreak as Nietzsche (1997b), however, I have been unable to trace the source of  Solomon’s reference.

[26] On the important distinction between temporary and permanent psychological integrations, and their relationship with aesthetic values, see 5.f.

[27] Nietzsche (1933) Prologue §5

[28] Nietzsche (1997b) §556

[29] Nietzsche (1960) §357

[30] Morrison (1997) p.155-171

[31] Nietzsche (1997b) §109

[32] ibid.

[33] Nietzsche (1996) §3.28

[34] Nietzsche (1960) §341

[35] An alternative interpretation is that Nietzsche means the doctrine of eternal recurrence to be interpreted ironically, and that his purpose is only to mock metaphysical notions of cosmic justice. In this case the nature of his dependence on cosmic justice beliefs is no longer direct, but consists in a counter-dependence. Nietzsche’s dependence on eternalist models is, however, rather emphasised than refuted by such an interpretation.


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A Theory of Moral Objectivity: quick links to other sections


1. introduction

2a. Psychology of belief

2b. Heuristic process

2c. Psychology & philosophy

3ab. Eternalism

3cd. Plato

3e. Stoicism

3f. Christianity

3g. Kant

3h. Hegel

3i. Marx

3j. Schopenhauer

3kl. Utilitarianism

4a. Nihilism

4b. Scepticism & Aristotle

4c. Hume

4d. Analytic Philosophy

4e. Wittgenstein

4f. Pragmatism

4g. Nietzsche

4hi. Existentialists

5. Integration

6. Philosophical Problems

7. Normativity

8. Middle Way Ethics

9. Conclusion

10. Appendix



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