Nietzsche writes a lot of things which attack the ideal of selflessness. Yet he does not make any blanket call for an ideal of unmitigated, small-minded selfishness. He calls for certain kinds of self-concern and in some cases certain kinds of self-denial in the pursuit of higher purposes or higher ideals of self-cultivation.
Rather than try to sum up his nuanced views on selflessness, self-concern, and selfishness in one encompassing post, I want to occasionally address distinct texts where the theme comes up and let their contrasting and intertwining insights develop over the course of that process.
For the first of these posts, I thought it would be appropriate to examine remarks made in Gay Science 345, as I have already quoted and analyzed another portion of this same section on the blog in my post Nietzsche: Moral Absolutism and Moral Relativism Are “Equally Childish”. In that post I talked about the way that Nietzsche calls for a careful investigation into the ways that different moral codes actually contribute to the flourishing or decay of those who adopt them, regardless of their adherents’ own erroneous beliefs about the sources or justifications of the codes themselves. In the beginning of the section, Nietzsche wrote (in the Oscar Leavy translation):
Morality as a problem. A defect in personality revenges itself everywhere: an enfeebled, lank, obliterated, self-disavowing, and disowning personality is no longer fit for anything good—it is least of all fit for philosophy. “Selflessness” has no value either in heaven or on earth; the great problems all demand great love, and it is only the strong, well-rounded, secure spirits, those who have a solid basis that are qualified for them. It makes the most material difference whether a thinker stands personally related to his problems, having his fate, his need, and even his highest happiness therein; or merely impersonally, that is to say, if he can only feel and grasp them with the tentacles of cold, prying thought. In the latter case I warrant that nothing comes of it, for the great problems, granting that they let themselves be grasped at all, do not let themselves be held by toads and weaklings: that has ever been their taste—a taste which they also share with all high-spirited women.—How is it that I have not yet met with anyone, not even in books, who seems to have stood to morality in this position, as one who knew morality as a problem, and this problem as his own personal need, affliction, pleasure, and passion? It is obvious that up to the present morality has not been a problem at all; it has rather been the very ground on which people have met, after all distrust, dissension, and contradiction, the hallowed place of peace, where thinkers could obtain rest even from themselves, could recover breath and revive. I see no one who has ventured to criticize the estimates of moral worth. I miss in this connection even the attempts of scientific curiosity, and the fastidious, groping imagination of psychologists and historians, which easily anticipates a problem and catches it on the wing, without knowing what it catches.
What is Nietzsche saying here about selflessness and morality and how we can best go about knowing things?
First, it looks simply hyperbolic to say that selflessness has no value “in heaven and earth”. One tip off here is that in the previous sentence he was saying that self-denial is “no longer fit for anything good”, meaning, which implies in the past it may have been good for something. And this is consistent with Nietzsche’s general opposition to absolutism in values. Another tip off that he is being hyperbolic is that he is referencing “heaven” when he clearly does not believe in a literal heaven. I think he is grandiosely denouncing selflessness in overstated terms to draw attention to the contrast with what he takes to be both Christian morality’s and Schopenhauer’s morality’s idealization of selflessness as the highest good.
But his actual explanation of his negative judgment of selflessness is more specific than these broad pronouncements which exaggeratedly push back against that which has been esteemed in an exaggerated way previously. He quickly makes a specific argument about the problem with selflessness that reveals the way that it is bad. Selflessness is inadequate to dealing with “great problems”. Such problems require great love and strong, secure people to deal with them. Why is this so?
I think Nietzsche’s concern is that one-size fits all moralities have numerous drawbacks. They make people unnecessarily uniform by giving them all the same values and priorities even when for different people different values and rankings among values lead to genuine flourishing. Similarly what Nietzsche calls “herd morality” is defined in the Gay Science as the needs of the group felt in the individual. The values that the group’s preservation depend on are internalized by the individual and the individual thinks and feels with the mind of the herd in moral matters, rather than for himself.
In order to genuinely explore morality, Nietzsche thinks that you need to be personally invested in it in such a way that you understand the ways that it can be a personal need, an affliction, a pleasure, and a passion. To understand how it functions, you need to understand firsthand what makes people long for it, how people suffer from it, how people are pleased by it, and how people are inspired by it. He seems to think this personal immersion in it will make you more keenly sensitive to the intricate and nuanced ways that experientially it leads to harm and to help. Making morality a deeply personal matter helps the thinker who is strong enough to cope with great inner conflict, able to explore within the laboratory of himself the structures of values and what they lead to.
I think Nietzsche sees two benefits in this process. One is that the strong spirit gets a sense of the competing strengths and weaknesses of various value priorities in general from how they affect his own mind and his own life, and the individual is able to develop his own personal values and priorities which lead to his own personal flourishing the best.
This is Nietzsche’s perspectivist epistemology at work. Nietzsche argues many places that full understanding does not involve entirely removing yourself (as would be impossible) but rather using all of our emotional and other relationships to a thing to experience it and discover the potential value or harm in it. Rather than seeing ideal knowledge as a viewpoint that paradoxically is from “no individual perspective”, Nietzsche encourages us to appreciate the ways that knowing always involves alternating perspectives and seeing how things look from each one at a time. This does not make every perspective simply equal. We are to rank the various perspectives for what value they give us in understanding what we are looking at, even as we retain the ability to remember and helpfully reference what it is like to see things even from “lower” perspectives.
So, for example, think back to being a child and having your first impressions of things you later as an adult came to understand in far greater nuance and complexity as you saw them from more and more perspectives. Those childhood perspectives are riddled with mistakes that later development of more perspectives and perspectives with greater understanding make clear to you now. But the childhood perspectives still are worth returning to. They are not just flat out false. They provide another angle to refresh your understanding in helpful ways. (Hank Fox’s great piece recently on children’s perceptions of adults as aliens is a wonderful example of this.)
Now, when Nietzsche attacks the “selfless” in this text he is attacking those who would minimize their strength of personal character out of deference to others and who would not dare to engage morality in a way that cared much about their unique flourishing but which would defer to the herd’s judgments about good and bad. This kind of selflessness is so worthless because it refuses to engage the questions of values as deep, personal, existential struggles to define and to realize oneself—to fulfill powerful needs, to attain great pleasures, to express deep passions, and in the process to become vulnerable to painful afflictions.
Nietzsche thinks it takes a bold, fully committed personality which is in love with value in order to critique and form truer estimates of the moral codes we receive from our herds. The kind of selflessness which is the opposite of that is what Nietzsche rather narrowly and specifically expresses contempt for and argues against here. There are other forms of self-denial which yet gain his approval elsewhere.
Finally, it is no small thing to note that Nietzsche is not in this text writing like a nihilist—unless it is possible that somehow nihilists could simultaneously dismiss all questions of value and morality as utterly mistaken—there being no truth to them—and yet still consider such questions matters of the profoundest love and personal importance and fit subjects for science, as Nietzsche clearly does. And speaking of his references to science, while he throws into question whether a thoroughly detached science is adequate to the task of understanding the intensely personal character of values, he also in this section calls for more rigorous psychological, historical, and cross-cultural investigation into the real mechanisms by which moral codes lead to prosperity. And, as we saw when we covered the end of this section, that entails sometimes taking with a grain of salt people’s first-order, subjective, erroneous understanding of how and why their morality functions well and is true.