What’s it about?
Beyond Good and Evil (1886) provides a comprehensive overview of the concepts and themes of Nietzsche’s philosophy. This work is very different from the Western philosophical tradition of the time. It mocks the limitations of philosophers and denigrates basic concepts such as truth, personality, and morality. Since then, it has proven to be one of the most influential texts of the 19th century, sowing the seeds of many later European philosophical movements.
About the author
Friedrich Nietzsche is one of the classic figures of European philosophy. He is well-known for his unorthodox thought and stylistic prose and his influence on the development of European thought is immeasurable. With extraordinary resistance, Nietzsche painted all of his most influential works in space. A few years later, he suffered a mental breakdown in 1889 and spent the rest of his life in a vegetative coma. His other famous works include Thus Spoke Zarathustra, On the Genealogy of Morals, and Twilight of the Idols.
Making assumptions is an unavoidable part of philosophy:
Much of Western philosophy has been fascinated with starting the philosophical process from “first principles” – that is, performing philosophy without taking any inappropriate assumptions for granted – since the seventeenth-century French philosopher René Descartes said, “I think. Therefore I am.”
As we’ll see, Nietzsche placed doubt on the concept that philosophy may exist without presupposing anything. He also made fun of almost every philosopher for smuggling prejudices into their theories.
Nietzsche, in particular, believed that superstitious confidence in Christian theological dogmas dominated the entire Western philosophical heritage. Even when conscious Christian faith faded in nineteenth-century Western Europe, philosophers continued to take for granted concepts like the “soul” and “morality” in their secular philosophies.
Philosophers, according to Nietzsche, were deceitful. They pretended to give the objective, irrefutable truth, but all they did was disguise their inclinations as scientific reasons. This is what Nietzsche meant when he said that every philosophy is nothing more than the author’s autobiography.
Let us return to the proverb, “I think. Therefore I am.” This was an example of what is known as an “immediate certainty” for many of Nietzsche’s forefathers — a concept that is so obviously true that it doesn’t need to be defended. You’re aware that you’re thinking, so you’re aware that you exist. That’s all there is to it, or so the logic goes. Descartes’ entire philosophical system was based on this single, apparently irrefutable assumption.
But wait a minute. Is the claim “I think. Therefore I am” so self-evident that it can’t be questioned?
Nietzsche, on the other hand, claimed the opposite. This little line contains a lot of assumptions that aren’t supported by evidence. For starters, it presupposes the existence of an “I” who thinks. Who knows, though. Perhaps the “I” is the result of thinking.
The assertion also assumes that the concept of thinking is understood. But how can you be sure that what you’re doing now is thinking? Perhaps you’re feeling or doing something completely different!
It’s enough to raise an eyebrow when a philosopher declares something to be true. If a notion appears apparent to them, it’s often because it’s so deeply embedded in their worldview that they can’t perceive it for what it is: an unjustified prejudice.
There is no such thing as a cohesive self; all that exists is the will to power:
The concept of the “soul,” which philosophers have unknowingly inherited from Christianity in their notions of “the self,” is the first prejudice on our list.
It may seem weird to describe something as seemingly incontrovertible as “the self,” a Christian construct. But it is a particular idea of the self that Nietzsche aims here that we tend to take for granted. According to this viewpoint, we are a single, undivided being that exists indefinitely. We also believe that we behave freely and that our intentions are essentially moral and honest.
This self-concept is thrown into the flames by Nietzsche. According to him, what we term “the self” is simply a jumble of disparate and contradictory forces. The human experience is not a single thing but rather the result of a slew of competing urges, desires, and passions, all vying for conscious manifestation. As Nietzsche calls it, the will to power is the only thing these forces have in common.
Human beings, according to Nietzsche, are distant from the pious picture generally projected by Christianity. We know that we are not fundamentally different from the rest of nature in the post-Darwinian era. At our most fundamental level, humans are bestial beings driven by instincts to breed, spread our species over the globe, and impose dominance over inferior organisms.
According to Nietzsche, the underlying force of all human behavior is our fundamental need to exert authority – or, to use his words, our will to power. It’s not something we can disable; it’s simply a natural self-assertion principle that allows biological life to live and develop.
From the dawn of civilization, this repulsive vision of humanity has been repressed in philosophers’ and religious’ ideologies. They want to think of society as something more superior and holy than other creatures. However, while these teachings have given us a spiritual makeover, they have never removed the creature within us.
So, while we often tell ourselves nice-sounding stories about how compassionate and unselfish humans are, there are usually darker and more feral forces at work beneath the surface.
For example, when we help someone less fortunate, we may persuade ourselves that we are doing so out of altruistic goodwill. But have you ever observed that if you’re attracted to someone, you’re more likely to help them out?
According to Nietzsche, we never truly understand our true motivations. He does, however, dispute the utility of having such knowledge in the first place. It’s sometimes simpler to believe the lovely lie than it is to face the unpleasant truth.
There are no everlasting facts that are independent of one’s viewpoint:
The most ubiquitous and ingrained orthodoxy in philosophy may be traced back to Plato, the 2,500-year-old Greek philosopher who founded the Western tradition. That doctrine refers to a specific interpretation of “truth” that was later adopted by Christianity.
This interpretation of truth holds that there are everlasting, unchangeable facts about the world irrespective of human observers. According to Plato’s philosophy, this eternal truth takes the form of unseen ideals like “justice” and “beauty,” which exist outside of human experience and serve as the foundation for that experience. We are urged to think that these unchanging, unseen principles are somehow more accurate than the changing reality of our experience — the one we live in – under this philosophy.
By stating that the world of experience is the only reality, Nietzsche flips the Platonic philosophy on its head.
The entire philosophy of Nietzsche is predicated on the belief that the only reality we can know is the one we see around us – the turbulent and always-changing world of our experience.
While words like “justice” and “beauty” have their place in this image, they aren’t timeless forms that dwell in some ethereal, metaphysical dimension. They are, on the contrary, merely components of our language as notions. They’re human inventions that help us make sense of the world and make sense of it all.
However, because people have various experiences and use different conceptions to describe them, they have diverse ways of making sense of the world. People come to understand the cosmos in their tracks and speak about it in their terms, which explains the world’s vast range of viewpoints.
Nietzsche’s perspectivism theory is founded on this fundamental insight. According to this viewpoint, adopting an “objective” stance independent of human perspective and language is impossible. The significant plurality of human views, according to Nietzsche, is the only truth.
Nietzsche’s criticisms of other philosophers are frequently based on their propensity to speak on behalf of everyone, regardless of their personal experiences. Such philosophers act as if their viewpoint is the only one that can be taken.
While Nietzsche condemns philosophers for imposing their viewpoints on others, he also acknowledges that this is an unavoidable process. This is exactly how people’s opinions are shifted. Great brains employ logic and rhetorical skills to persuade others to adopt their language or way of thinking.
This is only another manifestation of the desire for power. Nietzsche claims that philosophy is the highest spiritual manifestation of the ambition to power.
Christian morality prioritizes the herd over the individual:
Now we get to Nietzsche’s main concern: Christian morality.
When Nietzsche spoke of “Christian morality,” he referred to a set of values that include a sense of generous kindness toward others. Generosity, compassion, modesty, pity, and empathy are some of the values we’re talking about.
Before Nietzsche, the primary goal of almost every moral philosopher’s work was to provide a rational foundation for this morality. Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher from the eighteenth century, is famous for suggesting that universal moral principles can be deduced from solely philosophical grounds.
On the other hand, moral philosophers like Kant have always taken the worth of morality itself for granted. They never considered if morality is a good thing.
Nietzsche, predictably, takes a more aggressive stance on the subject. He claims that Christian morality is a shaky value system that harms individuals.
It makes perfect sense to Nietzsche to examine a value because values are often helpful to the individuals who articulate them. Scientists who need to remove themselves from their work, for example, might benefit from the virtues of modesty and self-renunciation. On the other hand, such attributes would be counterproductive in a leader — you can’t inspire people if you don’t believe in yourself.
According to Nietzsche, we should always consider if our values benefit us or harm us. Shouldn’t we reject them if they degrade us?
This, he believes, is the problem with Christian morality: it reduces the individual. The entire goal of this morality is to tame and suppress individuals to make them harmless, docile, and productive members of society. As a result, Nietzsche refers to it as herd morality.
Nietzsche challenges us to compare the modern European’s cowardice and humility to the barbarian’s furious vigor and energy. He claims that we must have taken a false turn somewhere.
That miscalculation was taking a prohibitive value system that prioritized our relationships with others over our relationships with ourselves. Our morality is intended to motivate us to limit our own will to power, decrease our self-esteem, and suppress our desires and passions for the sake of others.
To be accurate, morality has been highly influential in repressing humanity’s aggressive instincts, but that energy hasn’t vanished. On the contrary, we’ve turned the tables on ourselves. We have flipped our desire for power and become the object of our violence due to Christianity.
The origins of modern European morality can be traced back to “slave morality.”
When looking at the origins of our values, the temptation is to seek inward for some eternal truth of human nature. We find it difficult to believe that such essential aspects of our experience as love and empathy may be cultural inventions. And yet, that is precisely what Nietzsche wants us to think about.
In terms of history, it’s apparent that there’s never been a single morality. At different times, different values – distinct rules of behavior – have ruled other peoples. Slavery, for example, was considered a part of the “natural” order of things in Ancient Greece, which is, of course, absolutely untrue.
If we look closely, we may observe that different classes have tended to exhibit diverse values even within the same community. Nietzsche distinguishes between two primary sorts of morality, which correspond to the two introductory courses. He refers to them as master and slave morality.
The main point is that modern European morality has its roots in “slave morality.”
A value system that was fundamentally different from the one we know now reigned among the ruling class of pre-Christian nations, such as ancient Greece. These individuals didn’t think in terms of “good” and “evil,” but rather “good” and “bad.”
The ruling class’s definition of “good” was straightforward. Everything they already had, such as freedom, riches, power, and sensuality, came effortlessly to them. And what they deemed “bad” was the polar opposite of “good”: lack of freedom, poverty, unhappiness, and so on.
This form of value system is referred to as “master morality” by Nietzsche. What distinguishes master moralities, according to him, is that they are life-affirming value systems that celebrate the self and promote virtues that lead to a joyful life.
But, in addition to the morality of the ruling elite, the enslaved people had another value system — one that demonized the oppressors. This, according to Nietzsche, is how the concept of “evil” was born. Enslaved people interpreted everything that belonged to the ruling class as “evil” because of fear, envy, and hate toward those who oppressed them. And what they considered “good” were virtues like compassion, kindness, and pity that made life’s suffering easier to bear.
The difference between “slave morality” and “master morality,” according to Nietzsche, is that “slave morality” is a life-denying value system. In other words, it aims to criticize, stifle, and prevent more vital spirits from living. When Christianity rose to popularity in Rome in the third century AD, he saw it as a potent tool for preaching slave morality, eventually permeating the governing elites.
By limiting the development of outstanding brains, Christian morality jeopardizes culture and civilization:
One of the results of Christianity’s spread was that it served to level society to some extent. The Christian conceptions of “divine justice in heaven” and “equality before God” helped dispel prior notions that people of different classes had fundamental disparities.
We could be inclined to believe that this is a good thing. But, according to Nietzsche, sticking to the concept of equality is disingenuous if we genuinely desire to transcend beyond confidence in Christian theology.
People can only be compared by their earthly bodies and thoughts in the absence of mythology that equalizes everyone in the afterlife. And, in Nietzsche’s opinion, human beings are inherently unequal. Diverse people have varying abilities, different levels of health and strength, and different intellect levels.
Nietzsche thinks that different value systems are suitable for other persons on this premise. While the existing morality may be acceptable to some, it is oppressive to those with more autonomous tastes.
The main point is that Christian morality jeopardizes culture and civilization by impeding the development of extraordinary minds.
One of Nietzsche’s main criticisms of modern morality concentrates on universalizing a single set of ideals for everyone. Our morality is fundamentally a one-size-fits-all value system that is intolerant of alternative perspectives. When moral systems prescribe the same moral code for everyone, society becomes relatively homogeneous, as people who act on the same values all behave and think the same way.
Differentiation was not tolerated in Nietzsche’s time. People who attempted to break free from the traditions and norms of “normal” society were treated with hatred and hostility.
And this, according to Nietzsche, was a significant issue because society benefits from the creative endeavors of autonomous minds. Whether we’re discussing science, philosophy, or culture in general, it’s the efforts of genuinely great people who propel civilization forward and give birth to new theories, discoveries, ideas, and art. A homogenizing Europe is at risk of losing its creative zeal.
We should encourage, not discourage, the formation of independent thought, according to Nietzsche. In other words, we should be promoting inequality rather than equality. Genius isn’t all that uncommon in and of itself.
It’s unusual for the social circumstances to align so that brilliance and creativity can completely bloom and make an impact on the world. As a result, Nietzsche believed that our politics should try to create those conditions.
Nietzsche predicted the emergence of a new sort of philosopher who would challenge society’s dogmas:
It’s reasonable if you think Nietzsche’s philosophy provides a fairly grim view of the world at this point. So far, we’ve discovered that objective truth is nearly difficult to achieve, that the base and animalistic instincts drive humans, and that nineteenth-century European society was morally and culturally declining.
Nietzsche’s pessimism, however, was tempered by an optimistic view of the future. He predicted that a new breed of philosophers, whom he called “free spirits,” would emerge shortly and lead Europe to greener pastures.
Has anyone seen these “free spirits” yet? And how will we know whether or not they have arrived?
So, according to Nietzsche, these future philosophers will have two essential qualities. For one thing, they’d be people who were indeed masters of themselves, with no obligations other than the ideals they freely created. Second, when it came to their perspective, they’d be able to show a sense of humor and flexibility.
The main point is that Nietzsche foresaw the emergence of a new sort of philosopher who would challenge society’s dogmas.
These free spirits, according to Nietzsche, would reject the dogmas of the current mode of thinking in favor of something new and different.
This, of course, would entail renouncing slave morality. That isn’t to say that free spirits will return to a master ethic of living exclusively for themselves. Instead, they’d advance to a new kind of morality, one that combined both master and slave moralities.
Free spirits would be “masters” in the sense that they would be in charge of their own lives and legislators of their values. They would, however, “enslave” themselves to the discipline of their principles in some ways.
The goal of this discipline would be to redirect their animalistic urges toward higher and more productive objectives, such as creating incredible works of art rather than suppressing and taming them.
Likewise, free spirits would be free of the “eternal Truth” assumption that has plagued Western philosophy since its inception. They wouldn’t be bound by a single philosophy or point of view but experimenting with new ways of thinking. They would dress up as if they were trying on costumes, even though no outfit would ever fit perfectly.
Such a philosopher would regard the conceptions of “good” and “evil” as cultural creations that expressed the spirit of their time rather than as sacred, everlasting beings. According to Nietzsche, it’s past time to put these ideas back in the closet with the rest of the clothes.
To sum it up
In Nietzsche’s opinion, the entire history of Western philosophy was ultimately a long-winded endeavor to establish secular reasons for the Christian faith’s dogmas and prejudices. In reality, he argued that philosophy and all of nineteenth-century European society were groaning under the weight of a life-denying morality that it had acquired from Christianity. This morality, he believed, encouraged widespread mediocrity, which threatened to hinder the intellectual growth of independent minds.
Europe was in desperate need of a new kind of philosopher who could think and live outside the Christian faith’s teachings. He predicted that by reimagining themselves, creating a new system of values and meaning, and leading the way for the rest of Europe, this new breed of philosophers would perform a divine-like act of creation.