Context

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Friedrich Nietzsche holds a commanding historical significance in modern thought in spite of a continuing controversy about his stature as a philosophical mind. Many scholars refuse to judge Nietzsche’s brilliant writings as serious philosophical contributions. They prefer to view him as a poet, as a critic of culture and religion, or even as a superb master of the German language. Yet some scholars insist on Nietzsche’s importance as a genuine philosophical figure—a lonely, disturbed thinker who anticipated criticism of the classical ideal of a rigorously deductive model of philosophical knowledge and of the accompanying belief in the possibility of a completed metaphysics. Nietzsche felt keenly the impact of Darwinian evolutionary views that so stirred many nineteenth century thinkers in a number of intellectual fields. As a philosopher, he must be included in that group of thinkers for whom the philosopher’s primary function is to lay bare the unexamined assumptions and buried cultural influences lurking behind supposedly disinterested moral and metaphysical constructions.

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Symptomatically, Beyond Good and Evil begins with a chapter entitled “About Philosophers’ Prejudices.” Written during Nietzsche’s intellectual maturity, hard on the heels of a lengthy literary development yet prior to the illness that ended his career, this book reflects the many important central tendencies of his thought. Its contents illustrate the surprisingly wide range of Nietzsche’s intellectual interests: the origin and nature of moral valuations, the history and psychology of religion, the psychology of human motivation, and historical processes. Nietzsche often uses aphorisms that, though unsystematic from a logical point of view, manage to express a tolerably consistent philosophical viewpoint.

Nietzsche’s writings contain numerous passages that suggest similar positions worked out in greater psychotherapeutic detail by Sigmund Freud. Frequently, he shows greater interest in the question, “What are the motives of philosophizing?” than in “What do philosophers say?” When he turns to an analysis of moral judgments, Nietzsche worries about what may hide submerged in such valuations—much as a student of icebergs wants to discover what exists beneath the surface. Perhaps the valuations produced by moralists always represent a perspective on things in the sense that there may exist no final metaphysical standpoint from which to render such valuations.

In a similar manner, the philosophical quest after truth may peculiarly express what Nietzsche terms the “will to power” rather than a disinterested description of things. Even assuming that genuine truth can be obtained in principle, Nietzsche points out that the value of an idea has greater significance than the truth of the idea. The value perspectives by which individuals live may be necessary and yet not objective. “Un-truth” may carry greater value than “truth” in many situations. Such perspectives must be judged in terms of the degree to which they are life-furthering. Early in Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche suggests, “Even behind logic and its apparent sovereignty of development stand value judgments, or, to speak more plainly, physiological demands for preserving a certain type of life.” On this supposition, a psychologist would ask of any belief whether it is conducive to sound health (a therapeutic matter) rather than whether it is true. “True” and “health-producing” become synonymous in Nietzsche’s treatment of ideas.

Physiology and Philosophy

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Nietzsche criticizes a philosopher such as Immanuel Kant for having assumed existence of an unknowable “thing-in-itself” behind the phenomenal universe available to science. Similarly, he shows scorn for Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who sought to find in the antithetical aspects of existence (passions, ideas, moral valuations) the expressions of a more fundamental rational reality. The tendency toward dualism, by which the “I” as subject stands independent of that which is perceived (as well as logically distinct as “subject” against “object”), receives criticism as a possible grammatical prejudice erected into a false and misleading metaphysical argument. Rather than philosophizing in “the grand manner,” Nietzsche encourages piecemeal treatment of a host of specific, clearly stated problems. Physiology may hold the key to the solution of a number of old and baffling questions, including moral ones.

Philosophical investigators must forgo easy solutions happening to fit their prejudices—just as physiologists must cease thinking that the basic drive behind organic life is that toward self-preservation. The will to power may prove more fundamental than desire of self-preservation. The will to power expresses an expansive, assimilating, positive, value-creating tendency in existence, nonhuman as well as human. There may also be no immediate certainties like the philosopher’s “I think” or “Schopenhauer’s superstition, I will.’” The older superstition that thinking activity results from a human will requires sophisticated and subtle analysis, for “A thought comes when it’ and not when I’ will.” Indeed, even to say “It is thought” instead of “I think” may cause another set of misleading metaphysical puzzles to arise. Nietzsche also argues that the metaphysical question about freedom of the will results from misuses of terms such as “cause” and “effect,” which are simply concepts. These concepts are fictions useful for the facilitation of common understanding but not as explanations. People must stop creating myths about an objective reality based on pure concepts useful for other ends. There is neither “free” nor “nonfree” will, according to Nietzsche, but simply “strong will and weak will.”

Psychological investigations done prior to Nietzsche’s day are found suspect because of the subtle ways in which their conclusions reflect human prejudices and fears. This theme sounds constantly throughout Nietzsche’s writings. Nietzsche wanted a new kind of psychologist able to resist the unconscious forces influencing one to accept conclusions dictated by one’s “heart.” The evidence is what must count in such investigations. He asks his readers to imagine an investigator in physiology-psychology who possesses the courage to believe that greed, hatred, envy, and such passions are “the passions on which life is conditioned, as things that must be present in the total household of life.” So, too, the new philosophical breed will approach the study of the origins of morals with a ruthless honesty.

Values

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In a later book, Zur Genealogie der Moral (1887; On the Genealogy of Morals, 1896), Nietzsche in practice attempted the kind of historical-genetic investigation his Beyond Good and Evil recommends in principle. In the former book, it is suggested that the concepts “good” and “bad,” as well as “good” and “evil,” arose out of a spiteful transvaluation of classical values by the meek and the lowly. “Evil” is the valuation placed on acts previously termed “good” in an aristocratic, healthy culture. Jewish and Christian priests, expressing their hatred of life, described as “evil” those biological functions fundamental to creation and healthful strength.

The central suggestion in Beyond Good and Evil is that another transvaluation of human values must now follow from the evolutionary notion of the will to power—that the cultural standpoint of Western Europe so influenced by Christian valuations must undergo a deep change to usher in gigantic, even sometimes cataclysmic, alterations in the table of values. Humanity must “get beyond” existing valuations in order to live creatively and even dangerously. A culture whose established values are foundering, in which the faith in metaphysical absolutes wobbles unsteadily on aging legs, throws up the question whether the belief in the possibility of an objectively justifiable morality is an illusion. Never does Nietzsche say that people can live without making valuations. Nor does he argue that moral valuations are unqualifiedly relative—one as good as another. His point is psychological and critical. Nietzsche believed that human nature, a product of evolution, demands the constant creation of new valuations even in the face of the absence of absolute standards. This aspect of his thought brings to mind existentialist thought that, however differently expressed by numerous existentialist writers, responds to the anguish of the human situation by making value judgments possible even though absolutes are lacking.

Nietzsche warns that the new philosopher must guard against some of the characteristics of the “intellectuals.” Nietzsche cautions against bringing up a German generation so preoccupied with history that the value of those things whose history is studied could receive neither affirmation nor denial. Intellectualistic pursuit of objective knowledge tends to weaken the critical and evaluative capacities needed as a basis for living. Nietzsche never ridicules the scientific quest after objective knowledge as such. What he warns against is the production of scientific minds unable to make judgments about better and worse. Objective knowledge functions valuably only as a means to some other end or ends, such as those that actualize human potentiality in all its possible varieties. Scientific knowledge fails to show people what they should agree to or object to from a valuational standpoint. Judgment is a function of the will—something that the scientific person can never determine.

For many centuries, people decided on the value of actions by reference to their consequences. Nietzsche calls this the premoral period. Because he elsewhere caricatures English utilitarian thought, one must assume that Nietzsche thinks little of a value standard based on the tendency of acts to produce pleasure rather than pain. A second period, lasting for the past ten thousand years (according to Nietzsche, who made no anthropological survey of such an enormous space of historical time), is marked by a predominant tendency to judge the value or worthlessness of an act by its origins. “The origin of an action was interpreted to rest, in a very definite sense, on an intent.” Such an intentional yardstick for judging actions reflected an aristocratic stance. In his own time, Nietzsche believed neither the intent nor the consequences of an act would play the crucial role. This would be the amoral period. In a famous passage, Nietzsche characterizes the nature of the philosophers who would conduct new amoral analyses of human valuations:A new species of philosopher is coming up over the horizon. I risk baptizing them with a name that is not devoid of peril. As I read them (as they allow themselves to be read—for it is characteristic of their type that they wish to remain riddles in some sense), these philosophers of the future have a right (perhaps also a wrong!) to be called: Experimenters. This name itself is only an experiment, and, if you will, a temptation.

These thinkers will view pain and suffering as the necessary preconditions of any new valuations. They will also issue commands rather than simply describe or explain.

Religion

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Nietzsche’s treatment of what he calls “the peculiar nature of religion” bears a crucial relation to his prophesied transvaluation of existing values. According to Nietzsche, students of religious phenomena should develop that kind of malicious subtlety that moral investigators need in all times and places if they are to succeed in their work. Although he despised the moral values taught by traditional Christianity, Nietzsche nonetheless admired the psychological self-discipline of the Christian saints. Religious phenomena fascinated him. The faith demanded of early Christians, a rarely attained reality, provides an example possessing peculiarly tough and lasting appeal. Nietzsche writes that contemporary people lack the corresponding toughness to appreciate the paradoxical statement of faith: God died on a cross.

Early Christian faith demanded qualities found in the philosopher Blaise Pascal, according to Nietzsche. In Pascal, this faith “looks in a horrible way like a continuous suicide of the reason, a tough, long-lived, worm-like reason that cannot be killed at one time and with one blow.” Nietzsche believed that such a faith would require careful study if the new experimenters were to learn how to succeed in their own transvaluation of Christian values. Especially intriguing are the three restrictions associated with what Nietzsche calls “the religious neurosis”: solitude, fasting, and sexual abstinence. For students to understand the earlier historical transvaluation that occurred, they must answer the question, “How is the saint possible?” Genuinely to understand how from the “bad” person one gets, suddenly, a saint, requires one to compare Christianity’s valuations to the lavish gratitude characteristic of earlier Greek religion before fear made Christianity a possibility.

Additional Reading

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Berkowitz, Peter. Nietzsche: The Ethics of an Immoralist. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995. Shows how Friedrich Nietzsche’s attacks on conventional and traditional morality entail a distinctive ethical outlook.

Chessick, Richard D. A Brief Introduction to the Genius of Nietzsche. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1983. One section deals specifically with Beyond Good and Evil. A wonderful primer for understanding the concepts of nihilism and eternal recurrence.

Conway, Daniel W. Nietzsche and the Political. New York: Routledge, 1997. A thoughtful discussion of the political implications of Nietzsche’s philosophy.

Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Modern Philosophy. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1965. Copleston provides a good overview of Nietzsche’s thought and situates him in his nineteenth century European context.

Hayman, Ronald. Nietzsche. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented and requiring no special background. Bibliography.

Hayman, Ronald. Nietzsche: A Critical Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. A chronological account of Nietzsche’s life and work.

Heilke, Thomas. Nietzsche’s Tragic Regime: Culture, Aesthetics, and Political Education. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1998. A fascinating treatment of the theme of political education in Nietzsche’s early work.

Higgins, Kathleen. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987. Clearly written and accessible, this book explores in depth the themes and issues raised in Nietzsche’s work Thus Spake Zarathustra.

Jones, W. T. A History of Western Philosophy: Kant to Wittgenstein and Sartre. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1969. Provides a good introductory discussion of Nietzsche’s main themes.

Kaufman, Walter Arnold. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. 4th rev. ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974. Underscores the radical nature of Nietzsche’s philosophy, especially given the Christian focus of the European literary world of his time.

Klein, Wayne. Nietzsche and the Promise of Philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997. Discusses Nietzsche’s vision of what philosophy should and should not be and traces the implications of his analysis.

Krell, David Farrell. The Good European: Nietzsche’s Work Sites in Word and Image. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. Analyzes Nietzsche’s philosophy in relation to the contexts and places in which he developed his distinctive vision.

Krell, David Farrell. Infectious Nietzsche. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996. Shows how Nietzsche’s influence has been challenging, ongoing, and significant in ways that will continue to make him a thinker of immense importance.

Magnus, Bernd. Nietzsche’s Existential Imperative. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978. An interpretation of Nietzsche that focuses on his doctrine of eternal recurrence and takes Thus Spake Zarathustra as a principal source.

Magnus, Bernd, and Kathleen M. Higgins, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Nietzsche scholars contribute insightful articles about diverse aspects of his influential philosophy.

Mencken, H. L. “Beyond Good and Evil.” In Friedrich Nietzsche. New Brunswick: Transaction, 1993. A sympathetic treatment of Nietzsche’s work. Probes Nietzsche’s attacks on conventional morality.

Nehamas, Alexander. Nietzsche: Life as Literature. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985. An instructive interpretation of Nietzsche’s philosophy and his view that philosophy has close links to narrative.

Porter, James I. The Inversion of Dionysus: An Essay on “The Birth of Tragedy”. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford, 2000. An insightful interpretation of Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy.

Solomon, Robert C., ed. Nietzsche: A Collection of Critical Essays. Garden City, N.J.: Anchor Press, 1973. A valuable collection of essays by such greats as Thomas Mann, George Bernard Shaw, and Hermann Hesse. Discusses Nietzsche’s views on nihilism, moral change, and eternal recurrence.

Stack, George J. Nietzsche: Man, Knowledge and Will to Power. Durango, Colo.: Hollowbrook Publishing, 1994. A modern and critical analysis of the major tenets of Beyond Good and Evil. Easy to follow and elucidating. Extended bibliography, detailed index, and footnotes.

Waite, Geoff. Nietzsche’s Corpse: Aesthetics, Politics, Prophecy, or, the Spectacular Technoculture of Everyday Life. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996. An assessment of Nietzsche’s significance and impact on the development of culture, politics, and technology in the twentieth century and beyond.

Dan Barnett John K. Roth

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 661

Additional Reading

Berkowitz, Peter. Nietzsche: The Ethics of an Immoralist. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995. Shows how Friedrich Nietzsche’s attacks on conventional and traditional morality entail a distinctive ethical outlook.

Chessick, Richard D. A Brief Introduction to the Genius of Nietzsche. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1983. One section deals specifically with Beyond Good and Evil. A wonderful primer for understanding the concepts of nihilism and eternal recurrence.

Conway, Daniel W. Nietzsche and the Political. New York: Routledge, 1997. A thoughtful discussion of the political implications of Nietzsche’s philosophy.

Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Modern Philosophy. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1965. Copleston provides a good overview of Nietzsche’s thought and situates him in his nineteenth century European context.

Hayman, Ronald. Nietzsche. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented and requiring no special background. Bibliography.

Hayman, Ronald. Nietzsche: A Critical Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. A chronological account of Nietzsche’s life and work.

Heilke, Thomas. Nietzsche’s Tragic Regime: Culture, Aesthetics, and Political Education. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1998. A fascinating treatment of the theme of political education in Nietzsche’s early work.

Higgins, Kathleen. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987. Clearly written and accessible, this book explores in depth the themes and issues raised in Nietzsche’s work Thus Spake Zarathustra.

Jones, W. T. A History of Western Philosophy: Kant to Wittgenstein and Sartre. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1969. Provides a good introductory discussion of Nietzsche’s main themes.

Kaufman, Walter Arnold. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. 4th rev. ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974. Underscores the radical nature of Nietzsche’s philosophy, especially given the Christian focus of the European literary world of his time.

Klein, Wayne. Nietzsche and the Promise of Philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997. Discusses Nietzsche’s vision of what philosophy should and should not be and traces the implications of his analysis.

Krell, David Farrell. The Good European: Nietzsche’s Work Sites in Word and Image. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. Analyzes Nietzsche’s philosophy in relation to the contexts and places in which he developed his distinctive vision.

Krell, David Farrell. Infectious Nietzsche. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996. Shows how Nietzsche’s influence has been challenging, ongoing, and significant in ways that will continue to make him a thinker of immense importance.

Magnus, Bernd. Nietzsche’s Existential Imperative. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978. An interpretation of Nietzsche that focuses on his doctrine of eternal recurrence and takes Thus Spake Zarathustra as a principal source.

Magnus, Bernd, and Kathleen M. Higgins, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Nietzsche scholars contribute insightful articles about diverse aspects of his influential philosophy.

Mencken, H. L. “Beyond Good and Evil.” In Friedrich Nietzsche. New Brunswick: Transaction, 1993. A sympathetic treatment of Nietzsche’s work. Probes Nietzsche’s attacks on conventional morality.

Nehamas, Alexander. Nietzsche: Life as Literature. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985. An instructive interpretation of Nietzsche’s philosophy and his view that philosophy has close links to narrative.

Porter, James I. The Inversion of Dionysus: An Essay on “The Birth of Tragedy”. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford, 2000. An insightful interpretation of Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy.

Solomon, Robert C., ed. Nietzsche: A Collection of Critical Essays. Garden City, N.J.: Anchor Press, 1973. A valuable collection of essays by such greats as Thomas Mann, George Bernard Shaw, and Hermann Hesse. Discusses Nietzsche’s views on nihilism, moral change, and eternal recurrence.

Stack, George J. Nietzsche: Man, Knowledge and Will to Power. Durango, Colo.: Hollowbrook Publishing, 1994. A modern and critical analysis of the major tenets of Beyond Good and Evil. Easy to follow and elucidating. Extended bibliography, detailed index, and footnotes.

Waite, Geoff. Nietzsche’s Corpse: Aesthetics, Politics, Prophecy, or, the Spectacular Technoculture of Everyday Life. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996. An assessment of Nietzsche’s significance and impact on the development of culture, politics, and technology in the twentieth century and beyond.

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