In the foreword to Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche declares that a “magnificent tension of the spirit” has seized European society. This tension comes from the decline of Platonic and Christian ideals, he says, and the empty space that they’ve left behind. Nietzsche is happy enough to see these old “dogmatic” ideals fall by the wayside, but asserts that a new philosophy is required to replace them, and to satiate the “need of the spirit” that has arisen in their absence.
Chapter One of BGaE, called On the Prejudices of the Philosophers, sets out elaborate on just how those older philosophical traditions fall short, and why it is that we need something new and better. I’m still not all the way through Chapter One, but I’m going to take this week to go back over what I’ve read so far and highlight some key points.
Even though my posts to date have really only scratched the surface of the subject matter, I’d still like to look at what I’ve read through an even wider lens for the benefit of anyone who’s as overwhelmed as I am.
When I’m in the thick of one of BGaE’s subsections, I’m often so absorbed in trying to make sense of Nietzsche’s prose that I forget what came before the paragraph I’m currently reading. His writing can be rambling, and it frequently seems that each section of the book begins midway through a train of thought. But after going through everything I’ve written up to now and looking at it all with fresh eyes, I’ve identified a few points that pop up with some regularity, and that are worth revisiting.
One of Nietzsche’s first complaints targets the assumptions that philosophers have made over the years. In Part 2, he identifies the existence of opposites as one of these assumptions, and questions why it is that selflessness, for example, should be considered the opposite of selfishness, or truth the opposite of deception. In making their judgements, philosophers lean heavily on their belief in opposites, and the fact that they never question this “faith,” as Nietzsche calls it, casts doubt on every conclusion they draw. He proposes that selfishness and deception might well be on equal footing with selflessness and truth, at least in terms of their necessity for the preservation of life.
Keeping with the theme of opposites, Nietzsche also calls out the assumption that conscious thinking is the opposite of instinct. Though this is regularly taken for granted, Nietzsche contends that much of conscious thinking is in fact directed by instinct without our realizing it, and that philosophy itself is driven by instinct.
And with that in mind, the next point I’ll touch on is the effect of philosophers’ subconscious desires, or instincts, on their philosophy. Nietzsche is adamant that philosophers bring their preexisting worldviews to their work, and that whatever conclusions they draw are not descriptions of the world so much as they are reflections of how a given philosopher thinks the world should be. Most philosophers, he contends, don’t set out to learn about the world, but to describe it in such a way as fits their preconceived notions.
This extends to laypeople as well, and Nietzsche frequently talks about the average European’s desire for a philosophy that feeds their innate sense of piety, or which contains elements of Christianity, or which at least leaves room for the existence of God and the immortal soul. In part 11, he points to the “discovery” of the faculty of intuition as being particularly attractive to a populace that is mired in sensualism, but that also feels a strong need for the spiritual.
Another theme that has come up more than once in BGaE is truth, not surprisingly. Nietzsche has complicated views on truth, which I suspect will only get more complicated as the book goes on. So far, he’s questioned both the honesty of those who claim to seek truth, and even its necessity.
When the subject of truth comes up, he says, most philosophers are more concerned with appearing to have hit upon it than with actually having hit upon it. They all have opinions about what it is, and are certain that they’ve discovered its nature, when in fact they’re mostly just “advocates who resent that name,” as Nietzsche says in Part 5. This goes back to his assertion that philosophers are more concerned with promoting their own prejudices than with discovering truth, and he points to Kant and Spinoza as examples of philosophers who rely on jargon and obtuse, overcomplicated reasoning to bewilder people into accepting their notions of truth.
But even though Nietzsche doubts the honesty of philosophers who claim to know the truth, he also doubts the value of truth itself—or at the very least he suggests that untruth might be just as valuable.
He points to a priori judgements as an example of the importance of untruth. A priori judgments are judgments made using reasoning and calculation rather than by observing the real world. These sorts of judgments are used every day, and are invaluable to us as humans, but they all hinge on imagined scenarios and the hypothetical. Because of this, Nietzsche classifies a priori judgments as untrue, and considers it significant that they are simultaneously untrue and indispensable.
The last point I want to touch on, and one of the most interesting, is Nietzsche’s repeated allusion to the idea that our experience of life is but a pale reflection of what life actually consists of. This comes across as odd, given that it’s reminiscent of the Platonic idea of the real and apparent world—an idea that Nietzsche doesn’t seem to favor, at least in its modern incarnations. But there are several points in the excerpts I’ve read so far where Nietzsche talks about “foreground estimates,” and the fact that our limited human perspective fails to capture the real stuff of life.
With regard to a priori judgements, for example, he talks in Part 11 about how we likely aren’t actually using these kinds of judgment to arrive at our own conclusions. Rather, they are simply the visible part of much more complex processes that take place below the surface of our awareness, and which only seem to be our conscious handiwork.
In Part 2, he uses similar language about the opposites of which he’s so dismissive. He says that the value of things like honesty and dishonesty, and their perceived opposition, may be nothing more than a trick of the perspective from which we Humans view the world.
Finally (for this article at least), I’ll return to consciousness. We know that Nietzsche doubts that consciousness is separate from instinct, but that doesn’t mean he discounts its importance altogether. He doesn’t believe that consciousness allows us to make totally independent decisions, but he does acknowledge that it is vital to life. All of the valuations and impressions that underly our conscious experience are important to us and to how we function, but Nietzsche just doesn’t think that they tell the whole story.
So, there you have a few points that I see Nietzsche driving at so far. I could have said more, and could have offered more opinions to go along with my summary, but I’ll stop here in the interest of brevity. I know that if I tried to do more than just summarize, that this post would stretch out for far too long. I did try to include the greatest hits from Parts 1-11 here, though, and I hope I’ve been able to bring some of Nietzsche’s ideas together in a more cohesive way.
He does ramble, and his writing is dense and hard to follow, but there are definitely some common themes developing. They’re just not necessarily developing in a linear fashion.
I hope this post helped to illuminate what I’ve covered so far and to connect a few dots. I know that writing it was helpful for me, and I have a much clearer picture now of the problems that Nietzsche sees with his European predecessors and contemporaries. Now it’s time to see if the picture gets any clearer as I read on.