My valuation of Nz’s revaluation

(from the book I’m writing)

What are we to make of this bold attempt to revalue our values? A first thing to note is that, in some ways, Nietzsche’s new foundation for value is not unfamiliar. Aristotle (whom Nietzsche rarely mentions) based his ethics upon a science of human nature. He believed that, with broad experience, humans can determine the most natural way to behave in society and the world. He urged temperance or moderation in all things, which simply means gauging the “right” expenditure of effort in any direction. Aristotle’s ethics are similar to Nietzsche’s in that what is right or proper is supposedly determined by what human beings are and what their experience teaches. But Nietzsche departs from Aristotle’s teaching in two significant ways. First, Nietzsche opens the door to individuals having very different natures: what satisfies or thrills one may leave another cold. Aristotle recognized this to some extent, of course, but for Nietzsche the differences among individuals become stark and significant. “I am a law only for my kind,” says Zarathustra, “I am no law for all” (Z 4, “Last Supper”). Second, for Aristotle a major component of finding the “right” expenditure of effort has to do with the attitudes of one’s peers. The right actions are those which would be approved by the people who have been brought up well. Nietzsche, of course, is far more individualistic. The free spirit or übermensch may take societal norms as one consideration, as background information against which to make an informed judgment, but never would such a superior soul take orders from others.

This individualism is at the heart of Nietzsche’s revaluation. Most other systems of moral value are other-oriented: morality, after all, is meant to limit our behavior for the sake of others. But, for Nietzsche, others have value only insofar as they may, in one way or another, encourage our own strength. Indeed, given Nietzsche’s will-to-power psychology, it is hard to see how any genuine concern for others can even arise, except as a kind of sickness. If Nietzschean health is a flourishing of drives, each of which is concerned with its own strength and enhancement, then the only way I can will or desire your own flourishing, for your own sake, is if some of my drives are somehow twisted toward the ends of your drives. In other words, some part of me has to be tricked and turned into a pursuit for your own sake. That, technically, is a Nietzschean sickness. But that, on the other hand, is just what love is: a selfless concern for the welfare of another. Nietzsche is free to redefine love any way he likes, of course, but that would not change the fact that love, as we know it, is a disease, in Nietzsche’s view.

The closest Nietzsche’s philosophy comes to allowing for the possibility of healthy love is when a superior individual is so full of power that it pours out in all directions in a flood of noble generosity. But this again is not quite love as we know it, since it is not at all focused on others. It is accidental, and the lucky recipients of this generous outpouring could easily be replaced by others without affecting the attitude of the great soul. My love for you, we like to think, is more about you than it is about me, and that is simply what should not happen, according to the standards of Nietzschean health.

We can admire this strategy on the part of a man experiencing painful loneliness and heartbreak. But is it a set of values we want to place upon ourselves?

Of course not. What Nietzsche longed for his whole life, and felt he never received, was the fully compassionate fellow-feeling of being in love. No one could stand by him, he felt, except for a short time, in a limited degree. It took incredible strength for him to face this lonely abyss and in fact build a life around it. But this is clearly a case of settling for less. His life would have been better, we are all tempted to say, had he found someone to love. He would not have been as strong, perhaps, and his philosophy would have suffered as a result, and we would not be reading him now, in all likelihood. And yet he would have been loved. Who could say that would have been worse than the life he led?

But even if we acknowledge this major deficiency in Nietzsche’s thought — the lack of any space for love — there is plenty in his new system of values with which we still need to wrestle. Let us agree with him that God is dead, and that the great moral systems of western thought have been based on bad thinking, superstition, and an ill-placed faith in grammar. Let us agree with him that the only real values are the ones life itself encourages us to have, the values we have qua living beings. Where does this lead us?

In short, it leads us into a brave — and frightening — new world of possibilities. Consider the powers we now have over life, or soon will have. Consider the possibility of genetic engineering, of creating new species, of reconfiguring the human genome. Think of slowing or halting the breakdown and decay associated with aging. Think of living forever. Think of the ways we can integrate our biosystems with new technologies, such as (perhaps) immediate links between our brains and the internet. Think of new ways in which we could construct societies, if we have left behind the superstitions which tell us not to depart from tradition. Think of the wars that can be waged, particularly if we are keen to strengthen ourselves through dire challenge. If you learned of a new society which was interested only in achieving what is possible, technologically and physiologically and socially; and in what would strengthen them against all possible threats; and which was completely unfettered by traditional morals; would you cheer them on? Or would you blink?

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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7 Responses to My valuation of Nz’s revaluation

  1. Rob says:

    Your “valuation” is quite compelling, but I still wonder if there is a more congenial and no less textually-sensitive attitude towards fellow-feeling and love to be drawn from what Nietzsche says about friendship in, say, GS and TSZ. There, it seems to me, Nietzsche regards friendship as a kind of mutual affinity predicated on shared hopes and joys. And in TSZ, there’s all that stuff in praise of “going under” and squandering/sacrificing/consecrating oneself for something greater than one’s individual self. (I suppose this might have been quite consoling to some of the impressively well-read young men whose letters are featured in Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney’s KAMIKAZE DIARIES.) Also, in BGE 265 (and elsewhere) there is the idea of equality within a group based on mutual identification among its members.

    I also wonder if Nietzsche’s general severity in these matters should not be qualified to some extent by consideration of Nietzsche’s supposed hypersensitivity to the suffering of others — which perhaps he also assumed to be characteristic of his intended readers.

    In regard to your last paragraph — if Nietzsche’s ultimate unit of value is the individual, then given some of Nietzsche claims about how adverse conditions can have an enhancing influence, I wonder if his outlook leaves open the possibility that the values he promotes at the level of (relatively few) individuals should not be in major conflict with the values prevalent at the level of the wider society. Perhaps, for instance, the adversity posed by a culture of liberal democracy (in which compassion figures as a salient organizing principle) is just what the kind of individual Nietzsche is addressing needs for its enhancement.

    Just some random thoughts. I greatly appreciate you sharing your various works-in-progress on Nietzsche!


  2. Kleiner says:

    Warning: I’m going to be nitpicking here about Aristotle. So I am not sure what I have to say really impacts your reading of Nz (a reading which sounds about right to me).

    Of course Aristotle and Nz are really far apart, but – as you point out – they have a few things in common. Maybe even more than you suggest in your post:

    1) I am not sure it is fair to say that the phronemos (the Aristotelian good man) would “take orders from a superior soul”. Once he is the phronemos, he is himself the model – everyone else imitates him, he is the measure as it were. The truly virtuous person never needs to take orders from someone else. In fact, the phronemos is so excellent at the art of living that he can discern for himself the most excellent course of action for each particular situation (that is, he is master of his own desires, he does not subjugate himself to someone else).

    2) It isn’t clear that Aristotle himself makes a lot of room for love in the robust “agape” (self-less) sense that you describe. If you look at the types of friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics, the lower forms (friendships of utility and pleasure) certainly look ‘self-serving’. Even the highest, ‘perfect’ friendship is the sort of thing whose value lies, at least in large part, in its ability to preserve you from error and vice. In other words, Aristotle might be able to assent to your claim when you say that, for Nz, ‘others have value only insofar as they may, in one way or another, encourage our own strength.’ Keep in mind also that perfect friends are like ‘alter egos’ (alike in character), so there is a sense in which you are loving yourself when you love (philia) your perfect friend (Aristotle actually makes something of this with respect to taking pleasure in your own character vicariously through your perfect friend, apparently it is easier that way).

    To be fair, Aristotle is obviously not so individualistic as Nz. While virtue in fact makes one ‘healthier’, for Aristotle, one ought to be virtuous for its own sake rather than for the sake of some self-interest. In fact, if you do not do the good for its own sake Aristotle argues that you are not then really virtuous/healthy.

    I guess here is my argument: I think Aristotle and Nz have surprisingly similar concerns (healthy, artful living). Perhaps the real difference does not lie in what you suggest – that Aristotle’s good man is a follower and is self-less. Here is a stab at what might be the deeper difference:
    As you point out, they both agree that ethics is first a question about human nature. Then you suggest,
    ‘First, Nietzsche opens the door to individuals having very different natures: what satisfies or thrills one may leave another cold. Aristotle recognized this to some extent, of course, but for Nietzsche the differences among individuals become stark and significant.’

    This is really where the rubber hits the road. The difference between Aristotle and Nz is ‘older than’ their ethics, it is a ‘metaphysical’ difference. Aristotle recognizes a distinction between essential and accidental properties (properties that are essential to one’s nature, and those that are not), while Nz erases or at least substantially collapses that distinction. For Nz, it is individuality/freedom ‘wall to wall’ (this is why Heidegger accuses Nz of being a ‘modern’).
    If every human has a substantially different nature, then Nz’s individualistic ethics would perhaps be plausible (see early Sartre for a bit of Nz lite). But this assumes that differences like ‘I like ham and you like roast beef’ or ‘I love philosophy and you love opera’ are really important differences.
    I know one common attitude toward moral realism is that it is stifling to individual preferences, but we should keep in mind that Aristotle presents only a very general sketch of ethics (in NE I.3 he insists on only that). He leaves room enough for differences among personal preferences (that what ‘satisfies or thrills one may leave another cold’).

    Regarding this metaphysical difference – isn’t a bit of philosophical common sense in order here? Isn’t it obvious that you and I are substantially/essentially the same, and that our differences don’t effect the basic trajectory of what is good for us? Don’t we deny that on pain of saying something like looks obviously false, something like ‘we are not members of the same species’?
    In short, might Nz be wrong long before he gets to his ethics? That is, he has a crappy metaphysics (in this case metaphysics of man).


  3. Kleiner says:

    So, to answer your question: I don’t cheer, I blink. We all blink (thank God!). But I blink long before you do. You seem somewhat attracted to the account of human nature, but just hate the ugliness at the very end of the story. I think the story starts out ugly, so I never even get to the end.


  4. Huenemann says:

    Ad Kleiner: I agree that the big difference between Nz and Aris is metaphysical. But I also think that Aris thinks a human can’t be ethical without being embedded, so to speak, in a right-living community. The Nich Eth is drawn from the opinions of those who have been raised well. In short: no community, no ethics. But Nz seems to be completely blind to community — at best it provides a valuable opposition to one’s own strengthening. He’s a metaphysical loner! And I also agree with you that perhaps Aris is also unable to account for the sort of love I find lacking in Nz. (Where, oh where shall I turn, other than Jerusalem?)

    On the later matter — you know I don’t think species are real — just convenient generalizations, like races. Common sense may be misleading here.


  5. Kleiner says:

    Yes, I agree on the point about the importance of community. The phronemos could have never become a phronemos if he had not been morally formed in his youth by a culture with right moral opinion (you need role models since all moral education is imitation). Nz would have none of any of that business.

    I don’t mean ‘species’ here in any particularly robust way. I just mean something pretty basic like ‘we are both the same kind of thing’. If you think that common sense is misleading, then I am not sure what else we might say to each other. I believe I have passed along this story: I was arguing with Mark (a student) about the nature of man, and we seemed to be making a lot of progress. But, right at the end, he said ‘I agree with you about the nature of man, the thing is I don’t think I am a human.’
    Once Mark said that (appealing to the LDS view that man is just god in embryo), the conversation came to an abrupt end. If Mark and I cannot agree on such basic (‘common sense’) things like ‘we are human’, then why even bother talking at all?

    I had thought that you and I were not so different in this sense. That, as a starting point, we both agree that we are human and that we are, basically, the same ‘kind’ of thing. You aren’t really ready to sacrifice that, are you?! If you are, then I guess we won’t be having many more philosophical conversations. I don’t with Mark (how could we and why bother?), he has his little deal going on ‘over there’ while I try to talk with the rest of the world who thinks we are all human (share the same ‘nature’, however you want to cache that out).


  6. Huenemann says:

    Well, we are more similar to each other than either of us is to an onion. Less similar to each other than either of us would be to a twin (if we had twins). Certainly there’s enough overlap to make a conversation possible!


  7. Kleiner says:

    Huenemann and I already talked in person, but I thought I would put this on the public space.

    I am not overly attached to the idea of a ‘species’. My only point is this – there is something misguided about overemphasizing individuality to the point where our similarities become so minimal that we cease to be the same ‘kind’ of thing. All I really mean here by ‘same kind of thing’ is this: If Huenemann were to discover what was really good for him, it would be beneficial for me if he were to tell me.

    Nz agrees with this. Though Nz likes to talk up individuality, in the end he settles on an ‘essential’ attribute of all humans – the will to power. So the real difference between Nz and Aristotle is not what I suggested above (Nz denying the essence/accident distinction), it is a deep disagreement about which attributes are essential (will to power or will to eudaimonia). Nz is a metaphysician after all!


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