Virtue is something that must be deeply felt. This is not to reduce it to an emotion but rather to argue that it is something which must engage the whole person, including the affections:
May I be forgiven the discovery that all moral philosophy so far has been boring and was a soporific and that “virtue” has been impaired more for me by its boring advocates than by anything else, though I am not denying their general utility. (228)
The study of morality as it has been done so far is enough to put to sleep the hardiest student (I’ve certainly struggled to make it through much of Aquinas’s moral writing, for example—though I am by no means the “hardiest student”). And yet, this is a good thing, since the practice of morality is necessary for the survival of society, as we’ve seen. We can’t have everyone and their dog poking around at studying morality and realizing that it has no foundations—that way lies the collapse of society.
Nietzsche thinks that for all its weaknesses, the English Puritanism that has come to dominate has kept people away from digging too much into morality and in doing so realizing that the study of morality requires a starting point that is by definition immoral.
None of these ponderous herd animals with their unquiet consciences . . . wants to know or even sense that “the general welfare” is no ideal, no goal, no remotely intelligible concept, but only an emitic—that what is fair for one cannot by any means for that reason alone also be fair for others; that the demand of one morality for all is detrimental for the higher men; in short,, that there is an order of rank between man and man, hence also between morality and morality. (228)
It is important to point out that Nietzsche is not actually describing the Puritans (whom I would be surprised if he had ever read) but rather the nineteenth-century Utilitarians. Again, they are important for the stability of society, but they are not the great champions of morality that they claim to be.
One reason the utilitarians are wrong is that they measure morality in some sense by the standards of pleasure and pain.
Whether it is hedonism or pessimism, utilitarianism or eudaemonism—all these ways of thinking that measure the value of things in accordance with pleasure and pain, which are mere epiphenomena and wholly secondary, are ways of thinking that stay in the foreground and naivetes on which everyone conscious of creative powers and artistic conscience will look down not without derision, nor without pity. (225)
“Pity,” Nietzsche has said earlier, is destructive when its sole focus is pain. More on that below. Here we see that true pity is the pity of the one who sees for the one who does not. Those who know the true nature of reality are the ones with true pity for those who cannot get beyond the basic pain/pleasure interpretation of the world. These latter types declare pain to be the great evil that must be abolished and so work to end human suffering. Yet as Nietzsche has repeatedly said, pain and pleasure must go together and are different reflections of the same underlying principle. He doesn’t return to that focus directly here, but rather tangentially points out the utility of suffering. It is suffering that enables us to become creators, to tap into the primal aspect of humanity that is a combination of creature and creator and externalize the bits of us that the religious types call the Imago Dei. From this perspective, the elimination of suffering is the elimination of the source that drives the human spirit toward discovery and adventure and creation. So in the end, those who know the reality of where human creativity come from have pity for those who would stamp that out by eliminating suffering:
Thus it is pity versus pity. (225)
The pity of the creature who lives only as a creature versus the pity of the creature who also knows that he is a creator. That, at least, is the positive view. The negative view is that the former type of pity ultimately turns on itself and becomes self-contempt, which instead of alleviating suffering ends up wanting everyone else to share the same self-loathing, so that eventually pity for those who suffer becomes the cause of further suffering. (222)
True virtue remembers that suffering has a legitimate place in human existence; and if suffering does, so does cruelty. Deep down we all know that the source of creativity is some kind of suffering, and as a result we begin to work cruelty into our art and our day-to-day life.
Finally consider that even the seeker after knowledge forces his spirit to recognize things against the inclination of the spirit, and often enough also against the wishes of his heart—by way of saying No where he would like to say Yes, love, and adore—and thus acts as an artist and transfigurer of cruelty. (229)
As much as we rail against cruelty as a part of the animal nature that we hope will never return, we all know its true role in our lives and so keep slipping it back in, even if only in the form of self-mortification.
The “historical sense” likewise has a place in the life of virtue, though not perhaps in the same role that someone like Hegel or Burke would have given it.
Let us finally own it to ourselves: what we men of the “historical sense” find most difficult to grasp, to feel, to taste once more, to love once more, what at bottom finds us prejudiced and almost hostile, is precisely the perfection and ultimate maturity of every culture and art, that which is really noble in a work or human being, the moment when their sea is smooth and they have found halcyon self-sufficiency, the golden and cold aspect of all things that have consummated themselves. (224)
The historical sense both shows us our relationship relative to the past, and shows us its simultaneous value and worthlessness. It can show us the best of the past, as well as how little we need it to be fully complete in and of ourselves. (And of course, like all morality, it is useful for keeping the common people in their place.)
Perhaps above all, the chief virtue in today’s reading (in all of Nietzsche?) is honesty.
Honesty, supposing that this is our virtue from which we cannot get away, we free spirits—well, let us work on it with all our malice and love and not weary of “perfecting” ourselves in our virtue, the only one left us. (227)
The free spirit calls it as he sees it, even when it is difficult and all the herd is against him. This statement, of course, cannot stand unqualified—and I don’t know that Nietzsche would intend it to. The point is not that every person at all times and all places speaks his mind. The point is that the few who see the world as it truly is, who see reality as such, tell us the truth. Our temptation here is the same temptation we have when we read Plato—just as we see ourselves as the Philosopher Kings rather than the Craftsmen, so our temptation is to think “I am the one who will tell it like it is.” In reality, we are all likely a part of the herd—only the very few are capable of rising to the life of the free spirit.
And if these free spirits see the same reality that Nietzsche does, then of course I’m going to think they’re wrong anyway.
Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri, and cohost of the City of Man podcast.