Today’s reading begins with a kind of whining that I usually find insufferable—which you could probably tell just by virtue of my calling it “whining.” Nietzsche suggests that when we’re talking about morality, not only do we disagree about the hierarchy of ethics, we disagree about what it means to be ethical in the first place. Nietzsche uses the example of the desire of a man for a woman:
Those men who are more modest consider the mere use of the body and sexual gratification a sufficient and satisfying sign of “having,” of possession. Another type . . . wants subtler tests, above all in order to know whether the woman does not only give herself to him but also gives up for his sake what she has or would like to have . . . A third type . . . asks himself whether the woman, when she gives up everything for him, does not possibly do this for a phantom of him. He wants to be known deep down, abysmally deep down, before he is capable of being loved at all. (194)
There is a large part of me that rolls my eyes at that third type, because good lord get over yourself. With that said, Francis Schaeffer talks quite a bit about his interactions with these sorts of people in his Trilogy. So if you want to know more about how to interact with people who are worried about their lack of “true knowledge” of each other without my sarcasm, I’ll point you in that direction.
Aside from my own crankiness, Nietzsche’s point here is a part of his larger discussion of what he calls the “morality of timidity.” The argument is that, as much as morality claims to be aimed at the “happy” life, the reality is that they are little
but counsels for behavior in relation to the degree of dangerousness in which the individual lives with himself; recipes against his passions, his good and bad inclinations insofar as they have the will to power and want to play the master; little and great prudences and artifices that exude the nook odor of old nostrums and of the wisdom of old women. (198)
Our systematic claims about morality in the Aristotelian or Christian sense are little more than the elevation of the folksy wisdom we might (reasonably) draw upon in our daily lives to the level of universal truth.
We see an example of this is the Christian command to “love thy neighbor,” which is really traceable to the reality that all of us fear our neighbor (201). While this institutionalization of the Christian command may have some positive aspects in helping us live together without murdering each other, there have also been at least two unintended consequences.
First, we have seen in the West a gradual decline of “toughness” as it is replaced by a softer populace.
There is a point in the history of society when it becomes so pathologically soft and tender that among other things it sides even with those who harm it, criminals, and does this quite seriously and honestly. Punishing somehow seems unfair to it, and it is certain that imagining “punishment” and “being supposed to punish” hurts it, arouses fear in it. “Is it not enough to render him undangerous? Why still punish? Punishing itself is terrible.” With this question, herd morality, the morality of timidity, draws its ultimate consequence. (201)
As we become more and more distant from the toughness common in the past, we begin losing the ability to tell danger from safety. It is ironic that a morality based on avoiding danger—in Nietzsche’s view—ultimately leads to an inability to see danger when it arises, and an unwillingness to do what may be necessary to overcome it. (A friend of mine has written a piece on this very topic, which you can read here.) This is not to say that the solution is to “get tough.” When someone who has been raised to be soft tries to get tough, the resulting actions are often brutal beyond anything the former generations could have imagined. This makes sense, given that the goal is the final elimination of the objects of our fears:
Whoever examines the conscience of the European today will have to pull the same imperative out of a thousand moral folds and hideouts—the imperative of herd timidity: “we want that some day there should be nothing any more to be afraid of!” Some day—throughout Europe, the will and way to this day is now called “progress.” (201)
What is not allowed in the name of the elimination of fear? If we have to exterminate a whole race of people so that the world will be safe, well, is that not worth it?
But even the collapse of morals in the name of the new morality is not the final consequence. A second effect is the rise of democracy as its own moral end, over and above the old Christian ethic. As the herd morality of timidity gains traction,
it says stubbornly and inexorably, “I am morality itself, and nothing besides is morality.” . . . we have reached the point where we find even in political and social institutions an ever more visible expression of this morality: the democratic movement is the heir of the Christian movement. (202)
This democratic movement is, among other things, the absorption of all individuals into the “autonomous herd,” such that any idea of the individual as a being with value and rights disappears. “For once all are equal nobody needs ‘rights’ any more” (202). And so once again we can see why Peter Viereck insisted that Nietzsche belongs in the hall of conservative thinkers. And while I don’t think I ultimately agree, at least here we have a point of intersection with the concerns of Burke.
Finally, from today’s reading something ought to be said about race. As the note points out, if all we had from Nietzsche on race (and especially on the Jews) was paragraph 195, we might have to utterly reject his conclusions. Because it can be set into the wider context of his writings (again, see the note), this passage I think may be taken in a more generous spirit—as the beginning of the modern world, for all the good and evil that “the modern world” contains.
Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri, and cohost of the City of Man podcast.