Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Beyond Good and Evil: 186–93

“Alcibiades Being Taught by Socrates,” by Marcello Bacciarelli, CC BY-SA 4.0.


Nietzsche opens part five, “Natural History of Morals,” with his explanation of how he believes the study of morality has gone wrong over the past two millennia or so. Namely, he believes that the “science of morals” has been little more that philosophical self-justification and rationalization for beliefs already in place. Philosophers are not interested in discovering via the scientific method moral truths; instead they merely come up with arguments to defend what they believed when they began writing. If nothing else, we can see this when philosophers argue that morality can be understood as a science, when in reality it should be studied differently:

to collect material, to conceptualize and arrange a vast realm of subtle feelings of value and differences of value which are alive, grow, beget, and perish… all to prepare a typology of morals. (186)

“Morals,” for Nietzsche, are not rocks that can be picked up and defined in nature; they are rather a species that has a natural history which can itself be studied and explained.

Moreover, these philosophers have failed to properly understand even their own presuppositions—they all have begun with the idea that morality is a given and so needs no defense.

What the philosophers called “a rational foundation for morality” and tried to supply was, seen in the right light, merely a scholarly variation of the common faith in the prevalent morality; a new means of expression for this faith; and thus just another fact within a particular morality. (186)

If philosophers had bothered to seriously study moralities of other peoples and other times, they would be well aware of this reality. Because they don’t, all they end up doing is externalizing their own inherent drives and motivations.

In short, moralities are also merely a sign language of the affects. (187)

So far as this goes, Nietzsche is not exactly out of step with previous writers. To say that morality is an externalization of our internal desires is near to what someone like Aquinas had posited—so long as we add the modifier “rightly-aligned” to “internal desires.” (See Copleston’s excellent work on Aquinas for more on that.) But that’s not all that Nietzsche has to say on the matter:

Every morality is . . . a bit of tyranny against “nature”; also against “reason”; but this in itself is no objection, as long as we do not have some other morality which permits us to decree that every kind of tyranny and unreason is impermissible. (188)

The morality we systematize around our internal desires, once imposed on the external world, becomes a bit of tyranny against nature and reason. As Nietzsche has repeatedly said in previous passages, that tyranny is not inherently a bad thing—it is what holds civilization together. Even in this very paragraph (188) Nietzsche points out the greatness of thought and action that has resulted in the Western world from the human spirit being forced into a Christian and Greek mode of thought. But, despite its accomplishments, it is a tyranny nonetheless, because once something is taken from our internal life and imposed on the external world, it becomes stretched and misshapen beyond its original nature.

And yet, it may be that this inherent tendency to moralize is itself something natural:

But the curious fact is that all there is or has been on earth of freedom, subtlety, boldness, dance, and masterly sureness, whether in thought itself or in government, or in rhetoric and persuasion, in the arts just as in ethics, has developed only owing to the “tyranny of such capricious laws”; and in all seriousness, the probability is by no means small that precisely this is “nature” and “natural.”  (188)

I’m not entirely sure how we are to separate the negative aspects of a tyrannizing morality from the fact that tyrannizing morality is both natural and essential, but from what I can tell such a separation involves at least three things (in today’s reading, at any rate):

1) An incorporation of the whole person—including the parts of us that we experience in dreams:

What we experience in dreams—assuming that we experience it often—belongs in the end just as much to the over-all economy of our soul as anything experienced “actually.” (193)

2) A self-awareness both with regard to our abilities and experiences (192) and with regard to the relationship between our reason and our instinct (191). Specifically, we are to know that our instinct dominates and calls on reason to support its assumptions and to fill in the gaps whenever necessary and possible. Nietzsche believes that Socrates was aware of these relationships and able to laugh at himself as a result (190, 191).

3) An avoidance of teleology—we have to resist the temptation to decide that we know the end before we work our way forward from the beginning. We are to be honest about ourselves and the relationship between our reason and our instinct, but that should not close us off to the possibility that we have been moving in the wrong direction or have reached wrong conclusions:

Our eye finds it more comfortable to respond to a given stimulus by reproducing once more an image that it has produced many times before, instead of registering what is different and new in an impression. The latter would require more strength, more “morality.” (192)

It is easier to see what we want to see—what is familiar. Yet my impression is that Nietzsche isn’t encouraging us to take the easy route.

More on morality 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.

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