In the previous reading Nietzsche had given us a series of virtues that he believes the “free spirit “will exercise, along with a description of the kinds of circumstances in which those virtues will exist (especially in suffering). Today, we see that Nietzsche is concerned that we will not understand what he calls the “basic will of the spirit” that underlies these virtues. This will has at least five characteristics:
1) It “wants to be master in and around its own house and wants to feel that it is master; it has the will from multiplicity to simplicity, a will that ties up, tames, and is domineering and truly masterful.” This is the aspect of our selves that takes in a multitude of external stimuli and sifts them down into the simple and basic concepts by which we understand the world. In doing so, we begin to feel that we are the masters of our environments, we have a “feeling of growth, the feeling of increased power.”
2) This same will has the power of ignorance as well, “a suddenly erupting decision in favor of ignorance, of deliberate exclusion, a shutting of one’s windows, an internal No to this or that thing…” There are some things that our senses take in which we simply are not capable of handling, so our will excludes them and turns us away. Some truths are too terrible to behold, and so we refuse to do so. This is related to the fact that
3) The will not only turns away from uncomfortable truths, but actively lets itself be deceived. This too becomes an expression of power, as that which is rejected by the will is subsumed before the active deception created by the self.
4) The will is likewise ready “to deceive other spirits and to dissimulate in front of them, that continual urge and surge of a creative, formgiving, changeable force.” All of us take the deceptions we create and try to thrust them on others, again giving rise to a sense of power in our own abilities.
5) The will lives in tension, with the sight of the truth and the desire for deceit waging war on each other. This leads to a fifth aspect of the will in the free spirits, the characteristic of honesty (230).
And so we must understand “our virtues” not as conformity to an imposed external standard, but rather as reflections of our internal synthesis of and reaction to the nature of reality as filtered through our senses. If it helps clarify anything, the definition of will to power in 230 is very similar to the traditionalist conservative view of the human imagination. For more on that, see Claes Ryn’s Will, Imagination, and Reason and Irving Babbitt’s Rosseau and Romanticism. I don’t know that the parallel between the will to power and the conservative imagination holds through all of Nietzsche’s writings on the subject, but there is at least a similarity here.
And closing out “Our Virtues,” we have yet another reflection by Nietzsche on women that I’m tempted to just skip over, since 1) it’s a touchy subject on which Nietzsche pulls no punches; and 2) I’m not yet tenured. Still, despite Kaufmann’s footnote, I think this isn’t quite as bad as it sounds. But to be clear, it sounds quite bad:
To go wrong on the fundamental problem of “man and woman,” to deny the most abysmal antagonism between them and the necessity of an eternally hostile tension, to dream perhaps of equal rights, equal education, equal claims and obligations—that is a typical sign of shallowness, and a thinker who has proved shallow in this dangerous place—shallow in his instinct—may be considered altogether suspicious, even more—betrayed, exposed. . . . A man, on the other hand, who has depth . . . must conceive of woman as a possession, as property that can be locked, as something predestined for service and achieving her perfection in that. (238)
Is Nietzsche’s problem with developments in the relationship between the sexes that he is a misogynist who believes women are inferior creatures, better fitted for service than for independence? We can certainly understand why he is often read that way, and he does himself no favors in the way he uses his language.
And yet, I’m not so sure that we should be quick to judge Nietzsche’s conclusions. It may be that his concerns with the women’s movement is not the equalization of women with men in the absolute sense. Rather, his concern may reflect that of some contemporary feminists—that in the rush to equalize the sexes, the distinctiveness of women is being lost:
Wherever the industrial spirit has triumphed over the military and aristocratic spirit, woman now aspires to the economic and legal self-reliance of a clerk: “woman as clerk” is inscribed on the gate to the modern society that is taking shape now. As she thus takes possession of new rights . . . the opposite development is taking place with terrible clarity: woman is retrogressing. (239)
Nietzsche’s problem may not be so much that women are getting “above themselves” as it is that women are getting “away from themselves.” If there is something inherently feminine, some virtue or capacity that belongs to women and women alone, then the demand to be treated like a man can only come at the cost of that feminine attribute as its reality is ignored and a deception about the nature of existence is put in its place.
What’s worse, women are claiming their equality not with men at their best (the military and aristocratic spirit, which is now passing) but men at their worst—the job of a “clerk.” Women are striving after equality so that they too can live in the herd-like banality of the modern world. If we think about the political changes of our own time, most recently women have fought for the right to serve in every capacity in the military. And while I think there might be good reasons to grant that right, at the end of the day they are still asking to do the worst imaginable job in the worst sorts of circumstances. Rather than enjoying the long-standing exemption, they have demanded the right to a bloody and painful death far from home.
Again, I don’t know that even this completely redeems Nietzsche, but he at least is in the company of a good number of contemporary feminists.
Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri, and cohost of the City of Man podcast.