Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Beyond Good and Evil: 208–212

A Greek sphinx. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen (2010), CC BY 2.5.


The reading from last time covered Nietzsche’s view of the “objective” philosopher. Today we see what he thinks of the skeptical ones—and he clearly doesn’t think much of them, despite their apparent dominance in society (or at least among the scholars):

For the skeptic, being a delicate creature, is frightened all too easily; his conscience is trained to quiver at every No, indeed even at a Yes that is decisive and hard, and to feel as if it had been bitten. (208)

In response to these “bites,” the skeptic reminds himself of the long line of noble skeptics in whose shadow he stands. Not philosophical skeptics like Sextus Empiricus or Hume, but rather “skeptics” like the sphinx and Circe.

Thus a skeptic consoles himself; and it is true that he stands in need of some consolation. For skepticism is the most spiritual expression of a certain complex physiological condition that in ordinary language is called nervous exhaustion and sickliness. (208)

We might think of the stereotypical college student today—not those who are ideologues, but those who exist on the back of the cult of niceness.  These are the students who simply will not take a stand on anything because to do so is to close off other possibilities.

The problem with this dominance of skepticism is that while we are busy wringing our hands over the choices before us (while reading the newspaper at breakfast, apparently), other parts of the world are busy assembling their will into one mass and driving in one direction. The time is coming when either we will shatter before the onslaught from such other parts of the world, or we ourselves will have to lay aside our skepticism and form our own “will to strength” and begin to engage in “large-scale politics.”

Of course, we know in hindsight how Germany’s first few decades of such an attempt turned out, but I’m not sure that Fascism is the inevitable end of Nietzsche’s thought here. It sounds to me on some level as if he is giving something of a modified Platonic criticism of his own times. We might be able to read this as him saying that the appetites have been exercising a soft tyranny over Europe, while other parts of the world have been cultivating “spiritedness.” When the two collide, either Europe will have to have its own spirited response or it will collapse.

This seems to follow in the next paragraph in Nietzsche’s discussion of the German military, where he makes it clear that military conquest is not really the goal of his line of argument. Really, this military spirit is just rabid skepticism run amok:

the skepticism of audacious manliness which is most closely related to the genius for war and conquest and first entered Germany in the shape of the great Frederick.
This skepticism despises and nevertheless seizes; it undermines and takes possession; it does not believe but does not lose itself in the process; it gives the spirit dangerous freedom, but it is severe on the heart. (209)

I think I disagree with Kaufmann’s footnote here, claiming that Nietzsche is idolizing Frederick. My read on this passage is that Nietzsche likes the shot against the weaker form of skepticism and the reaction against the passive strain in the German spirit, but isn’t such a fan of the swing the other direction into nationalistic militarism. (When in doubt, you should probably side with Kaufmann—he’s the Nietzsche scholar.)

If skepticism ultimately fails to satisfy, perhaps in the future it will be replaced and bettered by a robust criticism:

No doubt, these coming philosophers will be least able to dispense with those serious and by no means unproblematic qualities which distinguish the critic from the skeptic; I mean the certainty of value standards, the deliberate employment of a unity of method, a shrewd courage, the ability to stand alone and give an account of themselves. (210)

This is not to say that with the coming of the critic we have a new stage of Idealism or Transcendentalism. Instead, these critics will stand alone upon their own selves in contradiction to the fuzzy sentimentalism that has come to dominate the culture. Which is not to say that these critics will have yet arrived at philosophy (210).

The true philosophers are not those who are merely critical of existing ideas; they are those who create their own ideas and lead the human spirit forward:

Genuine philosophers, however, are commanders and legislators: they say, “thus it shall be!” They first determine the Whither and For What of man, and in so doing have at their disposal the preliminary labor of all philosophical laborers, all who have overcome the past. With a creative hand they reach for the future, and all that is and has been becomes a means for them, an instrument, a hammer. Their “knowing” is creating, their creating is a legislation, their will to truth is—will to power. (211)

I suppose we can take this passage in an number of ways. We might read this as a Burkean conservative (as Peter Viereck did) and argue that Nietzsche is claiming that the true philosopher is the one who builds a way into the future by imaginatively using the best of the past. We might also read this as a Rousseauean radical and argue that Nietzsche is claiming that the true philosopher is the one who destroys the past in the name of the future. In either case, Nietzsche’s focus is on the will to power as the means of accomplishing this building—the primary tool of the philosopher in building his imaginative vision of the future. And this makes sense, given that philosophers are always living with one foot in the future:

More and more it seems to me that the philosopher, being of necessity a man of tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, has always found himself, and had to find himself, in contradiction to his today: his enemy was ever the ideal of today. (212)

Philosophy is not done merely for the sake of interpreting the past, nor even for explaining the present—it also involves providing guidance for the future. And if guidance for the future is what is needed, then it goes without saying that there must be some defect in the understanding held at present. Philosophers, therefore, are always

applying the knife vivisectionally to the chest of the very virtues of their time. (212)

And they do so in the name of their idea of a great man. Just as they are always looking at the present and arguing for a way forward in the name of the future, so they make this argument with a vision of the human person as he ought to be:

a philosopher . . . would be compelled to find the greatness of man, the concept of “greatness,” precisely in his range and multiplicity, in his wholeness and manifoldness. (212)

This greatness will be different at different times. Nietzsche argues that in Socrates’s day, “greatness” meant an equalizing of men through the generous application of irony. Today, however, it means rising above the herd, even to the point of existing in solitude. Because the human spirit has fallen so far (thanks, Christianity!), to be truly great today one must be independent of the mass of men as they currently exist in Europe.


Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri, and cohost of the City of Man podcast.

2 Responses to “Beyond Good and Evil: 208–212”

  1. gabe


    Agreed that Fascism / Nazism is not an inevitable outcome of Freddie’s “will to power”

    Expand on that a bit, if you would. I share the sentiment but am at a loss for words when describing it.

    I mean, Freddie, while deploring the herd, and its passivity, does not appear to me to be someone who would welcome a state wherein the OVERWHELMING preponderance of inhabitants would be the ultimate expression of the herd, such as was the case with Nazism (less so Fascism). To Freddie’s mine would this not be the “Christian weakness” magnified to an order of ten?

    I think Freddie is a bit more *nuanced* than that!

    What say you?

    • Coyle Neal

      Yeah, I think it depends on how we read the “Will to Power.” If the conservatives are right–and I do think this is a fair interpretation, albeit probably not what Nietzsche meant by the term– then the “will to power” is just another way of saying “imaginatively recreating the past in the present in opposition to the growing democratization of the times.” That does not lead to National Socialism. That’s also not the way most people read Nietzsche, and because Nietzsche was so vague about his core ideas, we can’t even really say what he meant for sure.
      In any case, I suspect he would be horrified by the Nazis not so much because they appealed to “Christian weakness”, as because of their crass pandering to German militarism–something we’ll see him reject explicitly later in this same book.


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