(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?