Reflections on Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil
I. BIRTH OF POSTSTRUCTURALISM
Despite self-publishing and selling a mere 500 copies of the book at the time, Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil establishes a framework, tone and methodology for seeding the deconstructive dimensions of poststructuralist philosophy. Nietzsche’s radical assertion that there could be nothing impersonal in philosophy echoes in poststructuralist analyses of social location and challenge of epistemological power. Poststructuralism is the logical conclusion to the Nietzschean dilemma: God is dead, our value structure has collapsed. The spectre arises of all value structures collapsing and deconstruction, decentering and nihilism unfolds. However, Nietzsche, despite inadvertently planting the seeds for nihilism’s emergence, centered his approach on life, meaning and truth. The irony of Nietzsche being the originator of postmodern theory is that his project to explicate the insufficient foundations on which traditional truth is based on is aimed at deriving meaning in the space left behind deconstructive efforts, whereas the postmodernist tendency is to expand uncertainty into infinite regress, often to the point of nihilism. Postmodernists reflect Nietzsche’s doubt of language as a sufficient vehicle of meaning, moral maxims and objective truth but unlike Nietzsche, in doing so they hollow out the meaningful possibilities that like in skepticism’s wake. Beyond Good and Evil does not simply annihilate certainty, truth and the ‘good’ by dissecting the Christian morality of the late 1800s, it raises the value of skepticism and viscerally expresses limitations imposed on truth via this belief structure.
II. LIFE-AFFIRMING METHODOLOGY
Nietzsche takes nothing for granted, he wants to purge the mind of moral masks and embrace the true nature of our being in order to transcend our manufactured limitation and imposed finitude. While Nietzsche’s methodology is fixed in the embrace of creative potentialities via awakening suspicion, his secondary message, albeit woven throughout all of his work, is that of radical acceptance of the vicissitudes of life. In the Nietzschean view, truth serves life. The Will to Life serves as an engine for the Will to Truth and Will to Power. That which serves human capacity for life carries some element of truth within it, despite it’s potential ‘objective’ untruth. The delineation of a new morality lies within the cosmos of the present moment. Nietzsche wants an actualized individual, an integrated shadow self, a removal of moral masks and a way forward via any life-affirming means necessary. He sees a new epoch of enculturation, one in which the relationship between the individual and society is radically transformed by industrial forces. He notices the tyrannical nature of enculturation, despises the economy of restrictive dogma and hopes for a fuller, multiplicity of meanings for the individual. He recognizes the state of morality as stagnation, the cultural function of slave morality was exhausted but the belief structure still had currency. Repression, internal subdue, default nihilism, the negation of life – these are Nietzsche’s targets. Nietzsche knew it was necessary to tear down something secure, and functional (Christian morality) in order to make room for a more appropriate, authentic response to the human condition. He did not set out to disprove the existence of truth, to destabilize onto-theology or denigrate his fellow man, he intended on a dramatic restructuring of the soul in alignment with the true creative faculties of man. This, however, meant embracing the reprehensible, understanding it, self-actualization despite pain and the adoption of existential responsibility in the face of banal nihilism.
III. INVESTIGATING SYNTHETIC A PRIORI JUDGEMENTS
Nietzsche starts off his deconstructive effort by explicating the way in which rationality is intrinsically engineered with a design of human nature by its author. The concept of ‘reason’ for Nietzsche is fundamentally flawed. First, in a critique of Immanuel Kant, he questions whether synthetic judgments a priori are possible and second he asks why belief in them is necessary at all. His distaste for the function and glorification of ‘rationality’ lies in the instrumental obscuration of knowledge involved in creating ‘reason’ to begin with. Nietzsche describes, with apt detail, the failure of rationalism to account for the chaotic dimensions of existence. And further, he wants to make clear that explanatory networks involving rationalism as an instrument, distort truth and invisibilized the true and often unconscious motivations of the author. Nietzsche explains how it is a mistake to presume that most of our philosophies are natural and a mistake to assume there was a chaotic social state upon which rational order was imposed as consequence of rational action. He emphasizes that it is far more reasonable to presuppose that order emerged naturally over a period of time and then was interpreted, codified and given structure in secondary manner. Knowledge and language became instruments toward some ill-defined, over-operative notion of ‘reason’, which became naturalized as its emergence is erased in the language of objectivity. Nietzsche predicts a natural emergence of a new order of philosophers, embodying the “free spirit” he believes he, and very few others, have access to in its true form. He describes the truly free spirited philosophers of the future as still concerned with truth and subsequent morality but untethered from dogmatic rigidity of universalism. He writes, the new philosophers might add, “my opinion is my opinion: another person has not easily a right to it,” perhaps hinting at the moral relativism that dominates current modes of poststructuralist theory and praxis. (Nietzsche, 30) The first chapter of Beyond Good and Evil, ‘Prejudices of Philosophers’, attacks the obscuration of knowledge and meaning via ‘reason’ to highlight the complex instability of moral philosophizing. This is the first of many instances wherein Nietzsche artfully pulls the rug out from beneath the moral structure and replaces it, not with his own prescription of morality, but with radical doubt – a factor productive enough for a revolution in thought and spirit.
IV. TRUTH SERVES LIFE
What becomes obvious as one slowly traverses the pithy, dense and revelatory aphorisms of Beyond Good and Evil, is that Nietzsche is dedicated to several axiomatic threads. While remaining indestructibly contrarian, ruthless and precise in his demolition of dogmatic belief structures, Nietzsche fixates on the life-affirming, truth-affirming, creative virtue of knowing one’s true self. His insistence on foraging the moral masks, which obscure meaning, in exchange for a dangerous embrace of every latent potentialities (for good or evil) within echoes Carl Jung’s method of shadow integration. Nietzsche seems certain that in one might “keep his heart” or “lose his head.” (17) The economy of life, as Nietzsche calls it, is undermined by condemning “bad impulses” and moralizing them. To deny an entire aspect of one’s being is to jeopardize knowledge and “sail over morality with dogmatism.” (17) Nietzsche seems to posit that a Will to Life supersedes the Will to Truth and Will to Power or at the very least, that he latter two serve the former.
V. INTEGRATING THE SHADOW
To account for the full spectrum of human drives, Nietzsche wants to employ a “physio-psychology” to maintain hold of one’s “heart” and redefine morality. (17) This is partly because Nietzsche does not see the will as an act of thinking, he believes action based in the will is action commanded by emotion and therefore to live according to LIFE serves the individual and the society better than the illusion of “living according to Nature”, an inevitably distorted human symbolic construction. (5) To live according to life requires, for Nietzsche, a set of beliefs. (5) Existence requires belief and yet, not all of these beliefs as conscious or fully realized. This poses problems for the reconfiguration of morality – Nietzsche alludes to a preliminary step that, although not in the language of psychoanalysts, mirrors their reflection on the integration of the shadow self into the ‘persona’ of self. Carl Jung refers to the unconscious as knowledge not yet known, a psychic space wherein desires, ideas and drives manifest themselves in chaotic and inarticulate ways, sometimes emerging to the level of conscious thought and responded to as something to be erased or subdued. However, transcending the moral masks to first confront the chaos of internal being, then resist internal repression and eventually organize the psyche with a life-affirming orientation is essential in the implicit project of Beyond Good Evil. He is very clear throughout the work that the bad is just as essential and important as the good, and truly ‘free thinkers’ but confront both sides of the coin to gain access to the whole of being. (Nietzsche, 32) Not unlike his existentialist compeer, Søren Kierkegaard, Nietzsche implores the individual to cultivate himself in the awareness of all his multiplicity and embrace despair in order to gain access to infinitude of his being. Nietzsche seems to be pointing towards a radical acceptance of one’s capacity for evil as a logical step towards recognition of the infinite capacity of one’s soul for good. This requires a rigid skepticism towards dogmatic thinking, painful and cutting self-analysis and curiosity great enough to launch one into the chaos of the unknown to build an awareness strong and nuanced enough to create an applied new morality.
VI. THE ORIGIN OF THE SPECTRE OF NIHILISM // NIETZSCHE’S EXISTENTIALISM
Another central component to the message of Beyond Good and Evil lies in Nietzsche’s critique of “intention-morality”, inventive shame and belief in immediate certainties. These elements are woven together to establish what seems to be the origin of the spectre of nihilism. While Nietzsche sets out to discover new meaning in a godless universe, the social alchemy arrived at via slave morality is existentially dangerous. Nietzsche sees the inversion of morality, the valorization of equality, ugliness, sympathy, weakness, as life-denying, truth obscuring distortions in the formation of individuals and of culture’s potential. The godless universe should not be met with retreatism into nothingness, but rather, an embrace of the potentialities latent within one’s soul – accessible only through proper reconciliation with the shadow self, with overcoming one’s suffering and seeing meaning as intrinsic to it. Nietzsche likens puritanism with nihilism and announces that it is better to put your trust in an uncertain something than a sure nothing. (6) He wants to harness despair and instrumentalize it as a mode to being full in multiplicity and actualization. This sentiment is central to Nietzsche’s philosophy and arguably what grounds him in existentialist tradition, despite his popularized (and revisionist) identification as a nihilist. Nietzsche wants to reawaken the metareality of existence, to discover meaning in uncertainty, untruth, despair – the full spectrum of embodied experience and affirm existence in spite of its pain.
VII. REFLECTIONS ON MAUDEMARIE CLARK AND DUDRICK’S INTERPRETATION
Clark and Dudrick identify many of the same core thematic components I found to be central to Nietzsche’s project in Beyond Good and Evil. They see the seeds of postmodernist approaches to truth being planted in BGE and reaching fruition in the Genealogy of Morals. For Clark and Dudrick, the notion that truths are partial and that belief that one’s beliefs do not need to be true for everyone configures around Nietzsche’s “notorious perspectivism”. (301) However, there is concern that in presenting a view at all, there remains a superseding reliance on dogma, regardless of the relativism being employed. The problem is that, simply by “virtue of being offered”, any view inevitably offered in conviction that it is true. (Clark and Dudrick, 301) Getting around this implied truth is far more difficult than simply disregarding truth altogether. To deny any possibility of a view bearing truth at all is an act to disregard the statement in the very instant of proclaiming it. The tension arises between anti-dogmatism, (Nietzsche’s virtue) and reliance on perspectivism (Nietzsche’s vice?) This, I take to be a core tension woven throughout Beyond Good and Evil and also one that is built into all subsequent philosophy which takes up Nietzsche’s task of formulating a new morality. There is tremendous flexibility for expression and manipulation in the relationship Nietzschean perspectivism and postmodern moral relativism. How to grapple with truth in the midst of this flexibility and distaste for dogmatism recurs to in contemporary moral debates constantly, granting its origin in Beyond Good and Evil pragmatic value.
Another key insight clarified by Clark and Dudrick is the way in which Nietzsche’s writing retains a specific and highly effective rhetorical style. Clark and Dudrick believe Nietzsche embodies his views and attitudes towards life in his writing and as a narrator, he forces the reader to postulate. (301) The rhetorical dimension to Nietzsche’s style rests in terse confrontation with the taken for granted bits of knowledge and establishes a relationship, via the metanarrative of Nietzsche’s actual life, between the reader’s a priori belief structure and their ephemeral, seemingly destabilized mode of thought in the moment of reading Nietzsche’s aphorisms. He powerfully maneuvers his critique of traditional morality through the crevices of prejudice and metaphysical contours of confirmed ‘truth’. He wisps away the reader by proving the ground underneath him to be insufficiently solid and allows the strategic positioning of questions to produce a voluntary reconciliation of the reader’s own conscience with prescriptive morality. This is a particularly clever, perhaps unintentional, outcome of Nietzsche’s abrasive style. This style activates suspicion and throws the conscience into unknown territory as it breaks with traditional morality. Clark and Dudrick notice the cataclysmic quality of Nietzsche’s process as a means to translate the reader’s a priori knowledge as they navigate both Nietzsche’s refusal to account for his own views and his insistence on suspecting error in traditional views. They see Beyond Good and Evil as a text to be read in several different ways. The examination of Nietzsche’s character in Beyond Good and Evil is not meant to lead to cracking the “code” of his meaning, but instead, it remains a dynamic interplay between the reader’s own subjectivity being encoded in real time via Nietzsche’s aphoristic uncertainties. Yet Clark and Dudrick state that it is not truth situated in perspectivism, but simply knowledge which lies in flux. (300) They emphasize the epistemological reformation underlying the explicit message; reading between the lines of the text it is obvious: the medium is the message. Without explicitly creating new epistemic modalities, Nietzsche does exactly this by virtue of tearing down those which held dominance previously. The delivery of Nietzsche’s critique of philosophical traditional establishes a flexibility within the text and within the reader. This, as Clark and Dudrick point out, is the methodological basis on which poststructuralism was born, seeding the foundation for postmodern theory to gain it’s legitimation and draw inspiration from. (300)
In addition to these historical and subjective dimensions to Beyond Good and Evil, Clark and Dudrick identify a dual-interpretive potentiality for the text. They delineate two different readings on the text: the exoteric and esoteric. These two distinct interpretations form the core of what Clark and Dudrick was to emphasis in their response to BGE. Their concern lies within the apparent misunderstanding accessed in the exoteric reading of BGE. The exoteric reading is inevitably steeped in an awareness of Nietzsche’s apparent contradiction, inconsistency and incoherence. This involves reading Nietzsche with the expectation that he will adhere to the same standards for which nearly all prior philosophy conforms to and reproduces. The insistence on overarching consistent meaning, a thematic threading of ideas and a calculated effort to form logical arguments may cause the exoteric interpreter to conclude that Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil is impossible to decode. Applying modes of interpretation which function without disturbance in non-Nietzschean philosophy do not yield understanding for the nuance and process embedded in the form of Beyond Good and Evil. Clark and Dudrick describe in contrast, an esoteric reading which appeals to the “in-crowd” of those “in-the-know” and goes beyond the surface level analysis. (303) For BGE, the medium and the message align almost effortlessly – Nietzsche seems to be doing the exposition of moral philosophy without venturing into explanation of it. Clark and Dudrick fix the esoteric reading in subtle reconciliation of section 3 and 16 where Nietzsche first writes, “man is just the measure of things” and later elucidates that a thing can never be a thing in itself. (3) Noticing this tension, woven into the subtext of BGE, constitutes the esoteric interpretation.
While the exoteric interpretation might view Nietzsche’s writing as crudely naturalistic, the esoteric view may see the necessity of such empiricism as it remains in close relationship to normative and traditional aspirations of philosophy throughout Nietzsche’s work. This, I will submit, is precisely the detail that must be examined in order for the reader to purge the mind of all presuppositions or even predispositions and simply allow Nietzsche’s masterful deconstruction to envelop him – at least momentarily. To give up the rigid categorical judgemental slant applied to nearly all encountered moral philosophy, the reader should determine and investigate the reasons why it is suddenly so appealing to impose limiting conceptual boxes on a text that is fundamentally aimed at exposing these very boxes as false distortions of what is ‘true’. Furthermore, Clark and Dudrick want to problematize Nietzsche’s elusive meaning behind his “supposing man is just the measure of all things…” in BGE 3. (313) The ellipses are important – they signal in conclusion, that there is something left to be parsed. This is one example of the way Nietzsche raises suspicion with nonchalance – a powerful tool if the project is epistemological reform. They see this expression as an epistemic turn in philosophy, decentering transcendental explanations (external validation) as the standard through which cognitive processes are made sense of. (320) This articulation exemplifies what they deem Nietzsche’s “metaphilosophy,” which involves the “rejection of philosophical foundationalism” at its core. (Clark and Dudrick, 320)
Clark and Dudrick centre their analysis on the inexplicability of various intellectual puzzles presented throughout Beyond Good and Evil. They locate potential mediation of these puzzles by tuning one’s vision towards perhaps the imagined subjectivity of Nietzsche but more importantly, away from the conditioned moral and logical paradigms which disclose little but the author’s own conditioning underlying the belief structure. They, like myself, see the necessity of negotiating vulgarizations (exoteric readings) with sophisticated subtle and affective meaning (esoteric reading) in BGE. To recognize that BGE is situated in a particular onto-theological historical moment where aspects of the human psyche were marginalized in favor of utopian, reductive axiomatic ideals is critical if one is truly motivated to grasp the existential significance of BGE.
While there is a tendency to remember BGE as a direct, scathing and ceaseless disembodiment of traditional moral philosophy, it is more useful to extract the life-affirming value system in formation alongside this more critical project. While I agree with Clark and Dudrick in their assessment of alternative readings of BGE and notice of the transcendent feature of Nietzsche’s philosophy in surmounting conventional moral and logic systems, I find Nietzsche’s resistance to nihilism, his encouragement for the integration of the ‘shadow self’ for true self-understanding and embrace of uncertainty and life itself as the qualities in which true self-actualization can be drawn. Admittedly, there is bleakness in tearing down functional ideal systems for the organization of action and thought, but also, the demolition of repressive, life-denying structures of belief breeds new life into intellectual, personal and moral realization.
VIII. EVALUATION OF NIETZSCHE’s METHODOLOGY
Nietzsche disrupts predominant philosophical paradigms, mainly Kantianism, by constructing an image of what is said to be true, and asking the question of what is being left out? He describes traditional moral systems and points to potential errors, biases, or dogma built into the very scaffolding of which they are drawn. Nietzsche is takes aim at the root of what has been understood as moral truth in Europe since the Enlightenment and launches an arrow into the heart of the dogmatic European soul. His methodology centres on the awakening of suspicion, poking holes in accepted truths and attempting to understand the value of truth and the origins or function of the will to truth. This style of critique positions the reader in direct relationship to his own conscience. Unannounced anxieties about the potential shortcomings of knowledge are unveiled and call for interrogation by way of Nietzsche’s compelling discontent with preexisting convictions.
In section 6, Nietzsche embarks in the first step towards unravelling the nexus of traditional philosophy. He explains the problem of unconscious, involuntary bias steeping the whole organism of philosophy. Knowledge has been used as a means to a desired end, an instrument aimed at confirming and perpetuating a prior mode of being. Nietzsche remarks that rather than having an impulse to knowledge, philosophers develop an impulse to make use of knowledge. (4) The problem with this is that “every impulse is imperious, and as such, attempts to philosophie.”(Nietzsche, 4) Unaccounted for, the bias and dogma of a philosopher gets built into theory and by lacking acute awareness of this distortion, we allow knowledge to gain firmness and establish itself as objective truth, despite it’s subjective origins. Nietzsche is deeply concerned about the way in which the “actual interests of family, perhaps money-making, or in politics” inform the moral schemas developed by philosophers and projected as universal value systems. In bringing this feature of philosophy to light, Nietzsche unveils the invariable relationship between knowledge and the knower, ultimately destabilizing the entire enterprise of philosophy – a convincing and effective maneuver aimed toward a reconfiguration of moral systems.
One of the tenets upon which moral philosophy is based on, the Kantian notion of ‘reason’, is used to illustrate the weaknesses of the presuppositions left undisclosed in its conception. The Kantian virtue of reason stands as an example of the way in which knowledge can become instrumentalized to mobilize a particular worldview. Nietzsche asks, “how are synthetic judgments a priori possible?” and going further he asks, “are they necessary?” He wants to do away with superfluous teleological principles, for example, self-preservation, and situate the action and will in the present moment. (Nietzsche, 10)
For Nietzsche, philosophy is a world-exposition, not a world-explanation – explaining the world by appealing to our senses will get us nowhere as senses should not be the cause, and to posit that they could possibly articulate the truth of some phenomena is “reductio ad absurdum.” (11) His disavowal of intuitive perception as a mode to truth echoes Francis Bacon’s insistence that in order to know, one must purge the mind of all prior idols (dogma being one). Further, he denounces human constructions of cause and effect as “convention functions” for mutual understanding and not sufficient in explanation and to naturalize these categories is to justify, which is to avoid responsibility for the Will. (Nietzsche, 16) Altogether Nietzsche undermines the fabrication of morality by exposing the confused objective/subjective elements of ‘truth’. Without fully expounding a definite alternative moral system, he props up the ‘economy of life’ as a template with which we are to honestly operate in relation to. I submit that this absence of a replacement breathes introspective life into Nietzsche’s philosophy – the spirit of reflection that transcends historical and social context and demands something of the reader rather than providing new dogma to fill the moral gap left Nietzsche’s deconstruction. The inwardness required to complete a meaningful read of BGE is precisely why Nietzsche’s methodology, the awakening of suspicion, is unparalleled in terms of existential engagement and actualization.
Clark, M., & Dudrick, D. (2012). The soul of Nietzsche’s Beyond good and evil. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Nietzsche, F. (1997). Beyond good and evil: prelude to a philosophy of the future. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.