As with the section of aphorisms in The Gay Science, for today’s post I plan to skim the whole and only pull out the occasional saying that stands out to me. Again, feel free to bring up any that you think important/relevant in the comments.
And again, as with the parallel aphorisms in The Gay Science, the point appears to be to see the life of a fully human philosopher in motion as it truly exists. Hence we see themes like love, morality, praise, knowledge, others, and pride acting different ways in different contexts—but all presented in ways that are on some level understandable to the common sense of the reader. Which is not to say that an individual with common sense will agree with them all, merely that they are usually comprehensible.
“Knowledge for its own sake”—that is the last snare of morality: with that one becomes completely entangled in it once more. (64)
I think the idea here is that knowledge does not exist in a vacuum. When we think we are pursuing knowledge for the sake of knowledge, what we are really doing is establishing a moral framework within which that knowledge exists but of which we are unaware. Knowledge must be pursued and used for something, which means an awareness of what we are doing is requisite if we are not to be caught in the “snare of morality.”
There are no moral phenomena at all, but only a moral interpretation of phenomena. (108)
This is an interesting claim, depending on how Nietzsche intends the word “phenomena.” Obviously in one sense when someone takes an action, that action has a moral aspect to it—in this case, I don’t think Nietzsche would disagree that there is a moral phenomenon in play. But, when we see someone else take an action, the suggestion here is that all we have with regard to that action is an interpretation. That person’s action has been taken and we must process it, which is where Nietzsche thinks morality comes in. This is presumably even more true when we are thinking about natural phenomena—an earthquake in Nietzsche’s view is neither good nor bad but simply an event which we then run through our moral worldview. Morality is, in this view, in the eye of the beholder. Annie Dillard would disagree.
The lawyers defending a criminal are rarely artists enough to turn the beautiful terribleness of his deed to his advantage. (110)
Nietzsche clearly would have appreciated Clarence Darrow.
The great epochs of our life come when we gain the courage to rechristen our evil as what is best in us. (116)
To drop the name of yet another author, this is the point behind Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy. (A truly superb work of fiction, for what it’s worth.) Pullman shapes a narrative around the life of a young girl who can survive only by rejecting the traditional morality of religion and embracing that which is strongest in her—her ability to lie. The narrative Pullman crafts is compelling and well-written, but it’s also worth noting that the vice chosen as an object of celebration is to some extent one that is socially benign. In the views of some, the white lie is occasionally the glue of civilization and marriage. Obviously it would have been a very different story had Pullman chosen “murder” as that which was strongest in the protagonist. Nietzsche would have us pull no punches here—punting morality and embracing what is means at times embracing what is called evil as something which has existence and celebrating it as such.
In revenge and in love woman is more barbarous than man. (139)
I have no comment on this aphorism, other than to note that for Nietzsche being barbarous is sometimes a slight and sometimes a compliment.
Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you. (146)
Coming at nearly the middle of the book (depending on how the aphorisms are numbered—see Kaufmann’s note on epigram 65a, and on how we count the preface and the aftersongs), this idea has been picked up by numerous pop culture icons. At this point in the reading of Nietzsche’s works, however, it should be no surprise. He has said many times that civilization is a thin veneer of morals and habits pulled over the horror of the abyss, and that that veneer must be preserved at all costs. Although there are other things that could be said here, I want to be careful not to push this particular epigram/aphorism too hard in an effort to get more meaning out of it than a two-sentence statement can bear. I suspect that we all have our own definitions of monsters and how one becomes one, and all of us want to assume that it’s the other people who are in real danger of doing so. Nietzsche is simply reminding us that the danger is there for everyone. More than that and we run the risk of stumbling back into morality.
We’ll be back to the (slightly) more substantive writings next time.
Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri, and cohost of the City of Man podcast.