Nietzsche: The Good, The Bad And The Evil

Posted: March 21, 2011 in Philosophy
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Friedrich Nietzsche

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Nietzsche does not agree with the prevalent idea of the origin of morality. He thinks it is too linear and constrained by the beliefs of its times. Analyzing our concept of good today reveals that we tend to see good and useful to be synonymous in many respects. However, Nietzsche does not think it is logical or historically consistent to infer from this that everyone, everywhere, at every time held the same concept of good as we do now. Nietzsche prefers a more genealogical view of the origin of morality, a view that accounts for the difference of cultures, and hence difference in lifestyles and philosophies, within human civilization.

Nietzsche turns to philology to try and find the very first concept of morality. Communal living necessarily entails some form of communication. It then seems reasonable to assume the development of language and human civilization are closely intertwined. So looking at the first definition of “good” should give us an insight into the first concept of good among human beings. Luckily, this is not as difficult as it might sound. Modern language is the like human genetic code – despite being the culmination of eras of evolution, they both retain remnants of their ancient origins.

The obvious next step is to pick a particular language. Not surprisingly, Nietzsche picks German! He concludes that in the beginning the noble, the powerful and the strong were considered good since the German words for “good” have roots synonymous with “noble”, “powerful” and “god like”. This is the obvious conclusion to draw given that human language reflects human perception. It is also the only conclusion that can be drawn unless other assumptions are made.

Nietzsche, however, comes to the additional conclusion that this original concept of good was developed by the noble and the powerful themselves. This is not necessarily true. We know the earth revolves around the sun, we know the trajectory of earth’s revolution is determined mostly by the sun’s gravity, but this does not mean we know who or what created the earth, the sun or gravity. Similarly, knowledge of the original concept of good does not imply knowledge of its creator. It is not logically impossible for the noble and the powerful to have had a completely different concept of “good”, which failed to find its way into mainstream language. It even seems probably, since according to Nietzsche himself, the weak were many and the strong were few. So, it would not be unreasonable to conclude mainstream language was shaped by the majority, the weak, rather than the strong. However, this possibility is easily dismissed in light of other assumptions he makes.
According to Nietzsche, the will to power, or the desire to impose one’s will, is an inherent part of human nature. If this is true then just having a personal idea of good would not be enough for anyone – the concept would also have to be imposed on others. Different definitions of good by the strong and the weak would then necessarily entail a battle of wills, each group trying to establish its definition as the “right” definition. The strong would obviously win such a battle. Thus, given the existence of an inherent will to power, the concept of good reflected in language has to be a concept the strong believed in.

However, so far we have no reason to believe the strong and the weak had differing concepts of good at all. They could all have been in agreement and no battle of wills would have taken place. So far we also have no reason to disregard the possibility that the strong had not created the concept of good they believed in. The weak could have created it and the strong could have thought it was neat and adopted it. It is important to note that the strong adopting an idea from the weak is a willing process and, thus, inherently different from the weak successfully imposing their will on the strong (which we have already established to be impossible).
Both these possibilities can be dismissed by introducing further assumptions Nietzsche makes. He thinks the strong spontaneously say “yes” to themselves. It is not the result of any sort of contemplation or introspection. In fact, Nietzsche does not think these ancient nobles indulged in any form of introspection at all. They were just creatures of passion that saw their selves as naturally happy and naturally good. They created their idea of good instinctively and did not indulge in the contemplation necessary for adopting ideas from others. They treated themselves as the ultimate moral standard and judged everyone else in comparison to themselves. When they saw others like themselves, that is, people who were also noble and happy, they thought they were good as well; and when they saw people unlike themselves, that is, people who were weak and unhappy, they thought they were bad. Nietzsche calls this system of moral evaluation “master morality”.

If the weak also thought being strong and powerful was good then they would have to see themselves as bad. However, this possibility is moot in Nietzsche’s universe since he does not think people are capable of self-depreciation without external influence. Even the followers of the ascetic ideal whom Nietzsche describes in the third essay do not come to self resentment by themselves – they are carefully guided there by the ascetic priest. Saying “yes” to oneself then seems to be a universal human trait. It would follow that the weak would spontaneously see themselves and others like themselves as good and people unlike themselves as bad in comparison. However, Nietzsche does not think is what happens.

The will to power leads the strong to subjugate the weak. This means the weak are no longer free to exercise their will to power, causing them to resent the strong. Nietzsche thinks the weak focus on their resentment rather than their instinct for self affirmation, but he does not explicitly explain why he thinks so. It seems fairly safe to assume the suppression of the will to power makes it harder to say “yes” to oneself. The weak dwell on their resentment and as a result demonize the strong as much as possible. They see everything the strong do as bad.

Since the weak cannot spontaneously satisfy all their impulses under the restrictions of the nobles, they turn their attention inwards. They learn to introspect; they become contemplative, “clever” and “interesting” according to Nietzsche. They devise ways of demonizing the strong in ways that the strong cannot refute since they are not as “clever”. They blame the strong for exercising their strength by developing the concept of free will. They separate subject from action and say the strong could choose to be weak if they so willed. Through this process of active, malicious demonization the concept of “evil” is born.

For the nobles “bad” is an afterthought, it is defined only in relation to “good”. For the weak on the other hand, bad is the focus; it is consciously developed and refined with hatred. As a result, their concept of bad is more intense than the nobles’ concept of “bad”. In fact, the idea of bad held by the weak is so much more intense that the word “bad” does not do justice to it. A new word, “evil” has to be introduced to adequately describe how bad their idea of bad really is.

After establishing the idea of “evil” the weak create their idea of “good” in relation to it. Everything that is not evil is labeled as good, namely themselves. Nietzsche calls this system of moral evaluation practiced by the weak “slave morality”. The idea of free will plays an important role in slave morality. Not only is it used to demonize the nobles, it is also used to glorify the weak. The weak highlight their own goodness by claiming that they choose to be “good”. Nietzsche finds this claim ludicrous. It implies the weak could be “evil” or strong if they wanted when in fact they came up with the idea of free will in the first place because they were not and could not be strong.

Nietzsche provides further evidence to support why he thinks being “good” is not a choice made by the weak. Besides the concept of free will, another major invention of slave morality is the concept of universal love. The weak claim that universal love is one of the reasons for which they choose to be weak. Since they love everyone they do not wish harm upon anyone, even those who have hurt them, namely the strong. However, Nietzsche thinks if this were true then their religion, Christianity, would not promise eternal damnation for those who are “evil”. If the weak truly disliked harming others then they would not take so much joy and comfort in the prospect of the “evil” burning in hell forever. Nietzsche takes this to be proof of how hypocritical the weak are. They lack the strength to exact revenge on the masters themselves so they fantasize about some other being taking revenge on their behalf, all the while pretending like they do want revenge at all.

It is not clear how historically accurate Nietzsche’s theories are or even if he meant them to be. However, he did claim master morality can be seen in the ancient Greek, Roman, Japanese and Arab nobilities, and that the Jewish slaves developed the most intricate version of slave morality. It is also not clear whether Nietzsche prefers master or slave morality. He seems to approve of both the introspection that the latter introduces and the self affirming nature of the former. However, I am skeptical about how much credit the nobles should be given for being self-affirming; everyone is self-affirming till someone or something takes away their ability to freely exercise their will to power. Perhaps the nobles would be just as resentful as the weak if someone conquered them.

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