Nietzsche The Violent Aristocrat

Nietzsche The Violent Aristocrat September 27, 2018

Guest post by Daniel Reynoso

“Face reality as it is, not as it was or as you wish it to be.” Jack Welch

In Search of Moral Truth

By now we’ve seen that Nietzsche was a virulent champion of the truth and an unabashed Yes-saying embracer of life, so the third myth to surround Nietzsche—that he was a proponent of aristocratic violence, especially against the weak and destitute—should be pretty hard to square with his larger philosophy as a whole. That’s because it’s not true at all, and, yet, the notion that Nietzsche advocated for a ferocious will to power at all cost is seared into the popular imagination.

The confusion does not come out of thin air, of course. Nietzsche writes A LOT about conditions of moral relativity, and he advocates for aristocratic taste and values over and against the taste and values of the masses, the hoi polloi, or the herd. But while this distinction entailed incredible violence in times past, Nietzsche’s focus going forward is centered on artistic self-creation and self-actualization. He believed that the morality of times past needed to stay in the past.[30]

Let’s begin by breaking down the concept of master versus slave morality. Nietzsche was extremely interested in determining the true history of morality and moral values because, he thought, only by correctly understanding mankind’s evolutionary past could we hope to formulate values that were in line with his nature—values that guaranteed him a future.[31]

Nietzsche believed that most moral values and moral behavior were essentially nihilistic; that is, that they ultimately devalued themselves and turned against life. Where he said Yes to life in its totality, most of our inherited morality teaches us to say No to aspects of life that, he believed, are indispensable to it. This morality teaches us to deny life, either in whole or in part, and to yearn for another kind of life, either in some kind of ideal mental fiction or in some kind of beyond, like the afterlife.

The Will of the Masters and the Reaction of the Slaves (270)

Nietzsche identified this “morality of resentment” in a now famous dichotomy between master and slave morality. This antithesis does NOT refer to a specific time and place but, rather, to a set of prehistorical conditions that he treats rhetorically. The masters, he thought, were those who acted as they willed and, in so doing, defined what was good and what was bad. The good was them and everything like them. The bad, by contrast, was everything that was not them, and this included the vast population of slaves over whom they ruled.

The slaves, on the other hand, approach this display of power from an antithetical point of view. They resent the exercise of power by the masters, but since they are powerless they must play long with the will of the masters and hide their resentment behind a crafty guise of obedience. Meanwhile, their resentment simmers under the surface waiting to take advantage of opportunities against the rule of the masters.

More importantly, the morality that develops among this slave class reverses the designation by the masters. It considers its own people, the slaves, to be the good and righteous, while the masters are not only bad but also evil. Where the masters had only considered the slaves to be commonplace—bad as in not good like them—the slaves consider the masters to inherently evil.

Now, while Nietzsche treats these two types of morality abstractly for the sake of critique, he’s clear that, in all higher and more complex cultures, these two types of morality have become intertwined and that oftentimes they even coexist within the same individual.[32]

A Provisional Attempt (276)

This treatment of master and slave morality forms the basis of Nietzsche’s first essay in his very late book, Toward a Genealogy of Morality: A Polemic (1887). Nietzsche composed the three essays that make up the Genealogy with an eye to a group of people that he calls the “English psychologists,” thinkers whom he considered to be completely off-base where their understanding of morality was concerned.

These thinkers were too busy making hypotheses by “staring off into the blue,” he thought, rather than concerning themselves with actual historical evidence that he, as a trained classical historian and philologist, knew only all too well. Their ideas were not faithful to the facts of mankind’s evolutionary past, and he offers a scientific redirection to these erroneous interpretations in the Prologue to Genealogy:

It is quite clear which color is a hundred times more important for a genealogist than blue: namely grey, which is to say, that which can be documented, which can actually be confirmed and has actually existed, in short, the whole, long, hard-to-decipher hieroglyphic script of man’s moral past.[33]

And so Nietzsche produced three polemical essays meant to offer an attempt at understanding how concepts like good and evil, guilt and bad conscience, and the devotion to apparently life-denying ascetic ideals originated and developed.

He made it very clear that this was only a provisional attempt,[34] and he even included a note in the final portion of his first essay to formally and publicly call for the institution of prize competitions to tackle questions like, “What indications does the scientific study of language, especially etymological research, provide for the history of the development of moral concepts?”[35]

Twisting Nietzsche’s Words (247)

Dr. Pinker quotes from the first essay of the Genealogy, the one dealing with master and slave morality, when he claims that “Friedrich Nietzsche, who coined the term will to power, recommends the aristocratic violence of the ‘blond Teuton beasts’ and the samurai, Vikings, and Homeric heroes: ‘hard, cold, terrible, without feelings and without conscience, crushing everything, and bespattering everything with blood.’[36] We’re now in a position to consider this claim.

In the passage in question, Nietzsche provides a critical assessment of the Greek poet Hesiod’s famous myth of the devolution of social ages. Hesiod imagines a mythical past where people were magnificent and beautiful—the golden age—but who then slowly devolve into baser metals, going from gold to silver, and then from silver to bronze. With each step in the decline the people becomes more crude and violent.

The quotation used by Dr. Pinker works as the perspective Nietzsche ascribes to the people of bronze when they looked upon the golden age of Homeric heroes, “a marvelous but, at the same time, horrifying and violent world,” as Nietzsche openly admits.[37] The quotation does NOT represent Nietzsche’s perspective on normative ethical values, as Dr. Pinker suggests.

And this is an important lesson when reading Nietzsche: in his writings, Nietzsche is usually thinking out and thinking through a variety of complementary and contradictory perspectives, often at great lengths. Simply latching onto a statement without understanding the rhetorical point he is trying to make often misses the boat.


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[31] Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is, Why I Write Such Excellent Books, “Daybreak,” 2: “The question concerning the origin of moral valuations is therefore a matter of the highest importance to me because it determines the future of mankind. The demand made upon us to believe that everything is really in the best hands, that a certain book— the Bible, gives us the definite and comforting assurance that there is a Providence that wisely rules the fate of man—when translated back into reality amounts simply to this, that the will to stifle the truth which demonstrates the reverse of all this, which is that hitherto man has been in the worst possible hands and that he has been governed by the physiologically defective, the men of cunning and burning vengefulness and the so-called ‘saints’—those slanderers of the world and desecraters of humanity.”

[32] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 260: “I would add at once that in all higher and complex cultures, there are also apparent attempts to mediate between the two moralities, and even more often a confusion of the two and a mutual misunderstanding… – even in the same person.

[33] Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is, Why I Write Such Excellent Books, “Daybreak,” 7. This passage, incidentally, demonstrates without a doubt that Nietzsche certainly considered real knowledge and demonstrable fact to be possible, but only once the proper interpretive framework had been established for the propositions themselves. Another passage from his Antichrist makes clear that knowledge was, for Nietzsche, something that required skill in proper interpretation and expertise in the subject in order to justify the claims that it makes: “Truth is not something that one man has and another man has not: at best, only peasants, or peasant apostles like Luther, can think of truth in any such way. One may rest assured that the greater the degree of a man’s intellectual conscience the greater will be his modesty, his discretion, on this point.  To know in five cases, and to refuse, with delicacy, to know anything further. ‘Truth,’ as the word is understood by every prophet, every sectarian, every free thinker, every Socialist and every churchman, is simply a complete proof that not even a beginning has been made in the intellectual discipline and self-control that are necessary to the unearthing of even the smallest truth. [The belief that something is true because someone dies for it] has been an unspeakable drag upon the testing of facts, upon the whole spirit of inquiry and investigation . . .

[34] Ibid, 4: “In the work I mentioned above, on which I was working at the time, I made opportune and inopportune references to statements in Dr. Rée’s book, not in order to prove them wrong (what have I to do with preparing such refutations!) but, as is appropriate to a positive spirit, to put in the place of something unlikely something more likely, in the place of some error in detail some other error.

[35] Ibid, Essay 1, “Good and Evil, Good and Bad,” 17: “I’m taking the opportunity provided to me by this essay publicly and formally to state a desire which I have expressed up to now only in occasional conversations with scholars, namely, that some philosophical faculty might set up a series of award winning academic essays in order to serve the advancement of studies into the history of morality. Perhaps this book will serve to provide a forceful push in precisely such a direction. Bearing in mind a possibility of this sort, let me suggest the following question—it merits the attention of philologists and historians as much as of professional philosophical scholars: What indications does the scientific study of language, especially etymological research, provide for the history of the development of moral concepts?

[36] Enlightenment Now: The Case for Science, Reason, Humanism, and Progress, “Counter-Enlightenments,” p. 38

[37] Friedrich Nietzsche, Toward a Genealogy of Morals, Essay I, “Good and Evil, Good and Bad,” 11: “Once before I have remarked on Hesiod’s dilemma when he thought up his sequence of cultural periods and sought to express them as Gold, Silver, and Iron. But he didn’t know what to do with the contradiction presented to him by the marvelous but, at the same time, horrifying and violent world of Homer, other than to make two cultural ages out of one and then place one after the other—first the age of Heroes and Demigods from Troy and Thebes, just as that world remained as a memorial for the noble races who had their own ancestors in it, and then the Iron Age, as that same world appeared to the descendants of the downtrodden, exploited, ill-treated, those carried off and sold—a metallic age, as mentioned: hard, cold, cruel, empty of feeling and scruples, with everything crushed and covered over in blood.”

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