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Beyond Good and Evil Chapter One: Part 19

Part 19 of Beyond Good and Evil starts off with another one of Nietzsche’s handy generalizations about all philosophers. This particular generalization states that “Philosophers are accustomed to speak of the will as if it were the best-known thing in the world; indeed, Schopenhauer has given us to understand that the will alone is really known to us…”

In response to this belief, Nietzsche unsurprisingly invokes one of his favorite criticisms: “…Schopenhauer,” he says, “only did what philosophers are in the habit of doing—he adopted a popular prejudice and exaggerated it.” According to Nietzsche, this is just another case of a comfortable preconception going unquestioned. Much like the belief in opposites, philosophers seem unwilling to scrutinize their understanding of the will, and are content to let their assumptions about it stand.

Like the statement “I think” that he examined in Parts 16 and 17, Nietzsche says it’s impossible to view the will as a singular entity, and certainly not as something easily understood. It’s complex, made up of many moving parts, and can’t be grasped intuitively except on a superficial level.

Nietzsche invites the reader to take an “unphilosophical” approach to the matter of the will—that is to set aside all preconceived notions and look at the will through the eyes of a novice. To what extent he’s able to do this himself is up for debate, if you ask me, but that’s a question for another day.

First, Nietzsche says that willing contains a “…plurality of sensations, namely, the sensation of the state ‘away from which,’ the sensation of the state ‘towards which,’ the sensations of this ‘from’ and ‘towards’ themselves, and then also an accompanying muscular sensation…”

According to Nietzsche, this muscular sensation is present even if it doesn’t actually result in the movement of our limbs. I know exactly what he means in this case, as I suspect most people would. Whenever I feel inclined towards something, whether or not I immediately start moving towards it, I find that there’s a sort of priming of the limbs that accompanies that inclination. This concept is straightforward, and doesn’t merit much discussion at the moment.

As for the more abstract sensations that precede the muscular sensation, I don’t think Nietzsche is wrong to identify them. They definitely play a part in willing, but each of them could be subdivided even further—probably dozens of times. I expect that Nietzsche would agree with me on this, and that he’s stopping where he does for brevity’s sake. But to do so without acknowledging that he’s done so, especially in the midst of demanding more rigor and honesty on the part of philosophers…well…let’s just say it’s not a great look.

The second thing that willing requires, says Nietzsche, is thinking. “…in every act of the will there is a ruling thought—let us not imagine it possible to sever this thought from the “willing,” as if any will would then remain over!”

Again, I won’t disagree with Nietzsche here, because it’s obvious that to will something requires thought. But he seems to have forgotten that he recently warned against invoking thought without defining exactly what’s meant by the word. I suspect this is intentional, and meant to cheekily ensure that the reader remains on their toes, but I’d have liked a few extra words on the subject. Then again, Nietzsche himself pointed out in Part 16 how monumental a task it would be to define thought, so maybe I should thank him for saving me the trouble of reading through his own definition.

The third aspect of an honest description of the will, according to Nietzsche, is that “…it is above all an affect, and specifically the affect of the command.”

To will something is to have one part of yourself issue a command to another part of you—basically to give yourself an order. The part of you that gives the command fixates on its desired outcome, and is certain that its command will be obeyed by the part “…that [you] believe renders obedience.”

Nietzsche is quick to point out that this is a weird proposition—that there’s an untenable duality at play here. The person doing the willing simultaneously feels as if they’re in control, but also that they are controlled. They give commands and expect obedience, but since they’re also the one to carry out said commands, they “…know the sensations of constraint, impulsion, pressure, resistance, and motion…”

He then goes on to say (rightly, I think) that the feeling of willing only arises “…when the effect of the command…was to be expected…” That is, the certainty of the outcome precedes the act of willing.

Willing is the result of many different processes working together, and not of a single, directed intention on the part of me, or you, or him, or her. The feeling of having willed is just a small facet of willing, and one that takes place fairly late in the game, as a sort of post hoc pat on the back.

It may feel like we act as a unified agent—an “I” that exerts its will in the world, influencing the actions of others and independently moving itself—but Nietzsche contends that “…our body is but a social structure, composed of many souls…” (See his musings on the mortal soul in Part 12)

He compares the feeling of having caused something to happen to the “…governing class [identifying] itself with the success of the commonwealth.” (An analogy which is not only effective, but that made me cackle aloud the first time I read it.)

He finishes Part 19 with a statement that probably merits its own separate post, and which I hope and expect he’ll expand upon later. He says that “…a philosopher should…include willing as such within the sphere of morals—morals being understood as the doctrine of the relations of supremacy under which the phenomenon of ‘life’ comes to be.”

With this final statement, Nietzsche seems to be questioning the necessity of distinguishing between individual people when describing the world. It may be a stretch to say so, but he goes from discussing the will as part of human behavior, to couching it in the context of morals, which are generally seen as transcending the inner life of individuals and affecting larger groups of people.

This makes me wonder if Nietzsche is trying to ease to reader into the idea of life not being interplay between separate, circumscribed individuals, but just between different kinds of forces.

It’s one thing to reject the idea of a soul or individual agent, but another entirely to suggest that maybe all of our little “under-souls”aren’t bound up in unique human vessels like we thought they were. I might be totally missing the mark here, but I think that’s what Nietzsche is suggesting—or at least preparing to suggest.

He’s been talking about the human experience in increasingly impersonal terms, and lingering on the notion that our experience of reality is made up of nothing but interpretations and “foreground estimates.”

Maybe Nietzsche’s getting ready to zoom out even farther, and to look at things from a distance at which all the little humans disappear, and from which only a roiling sea of wills and natural forces is visible.

Or maybe I’m just in a melodramatic mood.

In any case, I’m interested to see how (or if) Nietzsche explains this seeming non-sequitur.


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