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«ORIGINS AND OPPOSITES Nietzsche criticizes past philosophers for constructing a metaphysics of transcendence – the idea of a ‘true’ or ...»

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Going beyond good and evil


Nietzsche criticizes past philosophers for constructing a metaphysics of transcendence – the idea

of a ‘true’ or ‘real’ world, which transcends this world of the senses, the world as we experience –

and for denying what Nietzsche calls ‘perspectivity’. Both errors can be found in Plato’s

philosophy, in particular his theory of the forms, which involves the ideas of spirit and goodness as independent and transcendent of this world. Plato left a legacy of error for Western philosophical and religious views; the idea of a ‘real’ world that is transcendent of this world can be found in Christian thought, and so all Christian philosophers, including Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Locke, and Leibniz. It appears in Spinoza, Kant and the post-Kantian tradition in which Nietzsche is writing, including Hegel and Schopenhauer.

Nietzsche argues that the origin of this false belief in a transcendental world is a moral belief, viz.

that what is of value – truth, goodness, altruism, wisdom – cannot have its origins in its opposite, i.e. in this ‘lowly, deceptive world’ of the senses and desire. These values must therefore come from, and refer to, something imperishable, not things as they appear to us, but Reality itself.

‘The metaphysicians’ fundamental belief is the belief in the opposition of values’ (§2). So before we accept their theories and arguments, we should ask a series of questions, each developing the


1. Do opposites exist, i.e. is truth the opposite of falsehood, is goodness the opposite of badness?

2. Why does it appear that opposites exist? Perhaps this is a shallow or misleading perspective.

3. Whatever the value of truth and goodness, could it be that deception, selfishness, lust are more valuable? Valuable to whom and for what, we have yet to see.

4. Can we explain the values of truth and goodness by their relation to their supposed opposites, so that the value of truth and goodness lie not in their transcendence but in their being necessary illusions and expressions of egoistic desire?


The title of the book, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future suggests that the past has been concerned with the wrong question, a concern with what is good and its distinction from what is evil. In §1, Nietzsche makes the same point with truth – philosophers have asked ‘what is true?’, but they have not asked what the value of the truth is. They have not questioned their will to truth.

Nor have they questioned their judgment that appearance is less important than truth. Less important in what way, or for what? There is an assumption that what is true will, in some way, be beneficial for us. We assume that the true and the good are the same (as in Plato’s theory of the Forms). Nietzsche invites us to consider whether what is false could actually be essential, essential for life, ‘that man could not live without accepting logical fictions’ (§4), such as the ‘I’ or the idea of a transcendent world. That ‘truth’ and ‘goodness’ are more important than falsehood and deception may itself be a deception that we cannot live without (§3). ‘Admitting untruth as a condition of life: that means to resist familiar values in a dangerous way; and a philosophy that dares this has already placed itself beyond good and evil.’ (§4) That is, such a philosophy does not approve just of what is good and true; it may also approve of what is false and evil. The standard by which it operates, the life it recommends, lies beyond our usual values.

These are not easy thoughts; they are difficult and distressing. Yet we must come to recognise, says Nietzsche, that hatred, envy, greed and hunger for power are necessary for life (§23). To disapprove of them is to disapprove of life. The ascetic ideal, he will argue, does just this – it disapproves of organic, bodily, instinctual life, and deceptively substitutes for it a life of the ‘spirit’. In rejecting the illusions created by the ascetic ideal, we travel beyond morality.

There will be a new kind of philosopher, Nietzsche prophesies (§2), one who understands the real origin of values and how values are connected to their opposites, who rejects the ascetic ideal and values ‘life’ above all. But for them to do this, the new philosophers need to have not just different beliefs. All animals seek to create conditions favourable to them – so new philosophers must be a different form of human being, with different instincts and drives, ones that do not express themselves best through the ascetic ideal. The new philosopher is aligned to the will to power, and they will create new values that understand and approve of the origin of values in instincts.

Nietzsche understands the new philosophers as the greatest and purest expression of the will to power. To say ‘yes’ to life is to say ‘yes’ to the will to power. New philosophers affirm eternal return (see below), and this is an expression of just how strongly they want to live. To understand why Nietzsche makes the will to power the basis of the new values they will create, one has to remember the sense of joy that comes from exercising power. This is not necessarily power over other people, but any successful attempt to overcome obstacles and suffering to achieve something genuinely creative. The new philosophers recognise the will to power for what it is and its place in human life; they are also the will to power recognising and affirming itself. Their whole lives, thought, values are a channel for the will to power; they are its embodiment.

The new philosopher will not have an unconditional will to truth (§25). They recognise the danger of the truth. They know that just because something makes us happy or even virtuous, this does not make it true; and likewise, that it causes harm, does not make it false (§39). On the one hand, then, new philosophers will travel further towards the truth, and so they need to be trained in the truthfulness that characterized the ascetic ideal. On the other hand, the truth is something that the ascetic ideal has disguised, and so they have to travel beyond the ascetic ideal.

They must therefore overcome the ascetic ideal, above all, in themselves. But, as Nietzsche notes, to go beyond good and evil (as understood so far) leaves one without an orientation in judgment (§23). And so new philosophers will create new values.

Does this make sense? Can anybody ‘create’ values? Nietzsche argues that we always have, in seeking to create favourable conditions for ourselves – it is just that we were not aware that this is what we were doing. Creating values self-consciously is impossible for most people; we have a need to receive our values from outside, a need to obey (§199). New philosophers, however, will have the strength: ‘true philosophers are commanders and lawgivers’.

In moving from the will to power to a morality beyond good and evil, we can object that Nietzsche moves from a factual claim – that the instinctual life of human beings is the will to power – to evaluative claims about the new philosophers. But what is natural is not necessarily what is good, or again, we cannot infer from how things are to how things should be. Just because life is the will to power does not make the will to power a standard of what should be valued.

Nietzsche’s argument occurs in the context of his rejection of a transcendent source of goodness. We create values. So without life, valuing is not possible. Therefore, any values that deny or impoverish our living undermine their own foundations. We must, therefore, take the affirmation of life to be the basis of all values; and that means the will to power is the evaluative standard we should endorse.

But this argument uses ‘life’ with two meanings. The sense in which Nietzsche approves of ‘life’ is life as the strong expression of the will to power. But the sense of ‘life’ that is necessary for valuing is simply a matter of being alive. People with a ‘weak’ will to power still have values. In fact, the forms of life Nietzsche calls weak are doing very well at staying alive (§199). The ‘higher’ form of life he praises is not what makes valuing possible. So we can coherently ask why we should value it over what he calls the ‘lower’ forms. Until we have discussed the values and virtues of the higher and lower forms, we cannot settle the issue.


Throughout history, human beings have suffered terribly, physically and mentally. For what purpose? We deceive ourselves about this to try to make life bearable. One self-deception is to say that this life is not worth much, that there is a better, greater world, that we suffer because we sin. But there is no transcendent world. This life is it. With no transcendent world, are we left with the judgement that life is worthless, pointless – pessimism?

We need a new ideal, one based in this life, not denying it. We need ‘the ideal of the most audacious, lively, and world-affirming human being, one who has learned not only to accept and bear that which has been and is, but who also wants to have it over again, just as it was and is, throughout all eternity’ (§56). The ability to say ‘Yes’ to life is the ultimate mark of someone who is ‘higher’ and a genuine free spirit.

To will eternal return is different from merely accepting it or resigning oneself to it. It is to want it. Second, in what you will to happen again, you change nothing. So to will eternal return is to will all the wars, genocide, natural disasters, diseases, torture, mental illness and broken hearts that have ever occurred. All events are ‘entangled’ with each other. So to will the return of any happiness or joy is to will the return of every sorrow. Third, to will something is also to accept responsibility for it. You can be held accountable for what you deliberate choose to do. To will eternal return, then, is to be able to accept responsibility for the entirety of human history. New philosophers ‘assign value and rank according to how many and how many sorts of things one person could bear, could take upon himself, by how far a person could extend his responsibility’ (§212). To will eternal return is to take responsibility, of a kind, for everything that happens.

New philosophers will take on themselves responsibility for the future of the human race, to make of us something ‘higher’ (§61).

So what would it take to be able to will eternal return? Above all, one needs to resist pity for people suffering: ‘taking all the pain of the world together, who could dare decide whether the sight of it should necessarily seduce and coerce us to feel pity in particular, thus redoubling the pain?’ (§30) – why should we add more suffering to the suffering we see? ‘There are heights of the soul from which vantage point even tragedy ceases to have a tragic effect’. To will eternal return is to have a particular perspective on suffering that is able to say ‘Yes’ to it because it is part of life.

Free spirits express a strong, healthy yearning for life, even as it is. They do not seek to avoid or minimize suffering. Suffering is necessary for people to achieve greatness. Free spirits are therefore grateful for everything that is past, all the suffering included, because it has made their lives possible. And in them, the joy of life is deeper and stronger than suffering, even though they suffer terribly because they are deep, insightful people.

Nietzsche can only negate the ascetic ideal, he cannot say what the new values are that new philosophers will create, but they will be ones that do not consider suffering evil. In some of his works, he claims that he says ‘yes’ to life, but in a letter to a friend, he writes ‘I do not wish for life again. How have I borne it? Creatively. What makes me bear the sight of life? The view of the ‘super-man’ [the higher type of human] who affirms life. I have tried to affirm it myself – alas!’ CRITICISMS There are many moral objections that we could make to Nietzsche’s ideal – that it supposes there are ‘higher’, and so ‘lower’, people; that it requires that lower people are sacrificed for the goal of creating ‘higher’ people; that what is worthwhile about life is demonstrated only in the lives of ‘higher’ people. However, these objections presuppose moral values, e.g. of equality, that Nietzsche rejects; and we have not looked in detail at his arguments for rejecting these values.

Moral objections, then, will have to deferred to handouts that discuss Nietzsche’s criticism of morality.

However, we can question whether the idea of eternal return has the significance Nietzsche gives it. We are being asked to imagine our response to the thought that everything will recur, just as it has. One response is ‘so what?’. If everything happens again identically, then just as we have no knowledge now of what we did last time, so next time, we will have no knowledge of what we will do this time. We can do nothing to change what happens – so why should we feel any horror at the thought?

But doesn’t the prospect of everything recurring make you feel, e.g. to think that all the suffering that has happened will happen again? Doesn’t this seem worse than it happening just once? But if eternal return makes things seem worse, then we can’t will it. To someone who can affirm eternal return, life recurring seems better, not worse. And Nietzsche is not asking us just to imagine how we feel at the prospect of eternal return, as though we were mere observers, he is asking if we can will it, if we could take responsibility for it. It is one thing to be aware of suffering, another to will it, even as a necessary means to greatness.

A second objection: suppose that we could affirm eternal return; then what? What difference does that make to our lives? How would we live differently? Nietzsche never discusses what new philosophers do. In fact, Nietzsche says that ‘It is not the works, it is the faith that is decisive here’ (§287).

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