Foundations of Ethics, Vol. III:

Nietzsche’s Challenge to the Idea of Moral Good

Daniel J. Castellano


Part I
1. Introduction
2. Before Zarathustra
   2.1 Fichte
   2.2 Schopenhauer
   2.3 Stirner
3. Zarathustra’s Revelation
4. Life as Will to Power
Part II
5. Against Teleology in Ethics and Nature
6. Atheism
7. Against Materialism
8. Against Skepticism and Nihilism
Part III
9. Epistemology
10. Self-Assertion and Self-Surpassing
11. Virtue as Aesthetic Good Taste
Part IV
12. Aristocracy or Nobility
Part V
13. Master and Slave Morality
Part VI
14. Origin of Moral Good and Evil
15. Guilt, Bad Conscience and Punishment
Part VII
16. Modern Herd Morality
17. The Superman
18. Against Moral Idealism
19. Utility and Happiness
20. Asceticism
Part IX
21. Will to Truth
22. Eternal Recurrence
23. Dionysus
Part X
24. Conclusion

Part I

1. Introduction

Having discussed in previous volumes the early attempts at systematic ethics by the Stoics and Epicureans, it may seem out of place to leap ahead two millennia, without first reviewing all the ethical philosophy that intervened. Yet it would hardly be fair to burden the reader with extensive discourses on ethics if it cannot first be ascertained if there is even such a thing as objective moral good, or at least that there is no insurmountable objection to this notion. The Stoics took some generally accepted virtues as brute facts, and then used logic to classify and analyze ethical behaviors. The Epicureans held that pleasure is the good, though they found it necessary to broaden the notion of pleasure to encompass traditional virtues. All assumed that there is such a thing as the good, and that there are intelligible norms of behavior that all may follow in order to lead a good life.

The classical Greeks and their contemporaries, though ancient to us, were in a fairly advanced state of civilization, far removed from the condition of prehistoric man. It cannot be safely assumed that the virtues known to them are natural to man, rather than the products of convention or custom. It might even be the case that the notion of moral good is itself a culturally contingent artifact, in which case it is impossible to speak of natural ethics. In place of ethics, we could only have aesthetic judgments or preferences.

Various philosophers throughout the centuries have challenged the notion of objective ethics, usually lapsing into a self-stultifying solipsism, relativism or nihilism. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), by contrast, attempted to give a positive account of life beyond morals, firmly repudiating skepticism and nihilism. We will consider his challenge to the notion of moral good, as his arguments in this vein are among the strongest, and he offers the most credible alternative to morality as a guide for living.

The central concept in Nietzsche’s thought is that life is a “will to power” (Wille zur Macht), always seeking to impose itself on other things, subordinating and assimilating them. This viewpoint entails an epistemology that places full confidence in the body and its instincts. Although Nietzsche presupposes atheism, his philosophy is not materialistic, as he makes force rather than substance primary. He likewise rejects the skepticism and nihilism often found among atheistic philosophers, attributing such defects to an unpardonable timidity and need for certainty. He wishes to advance a positive set of values, while rejecting any attempt to ground morality in some natural teleology or metaphysics.

For Nietzsche, virtues are characteristics of health and strength, combined with a sureness in aesthetic judgment. He finds this notion of virtue among the ancient aristocrats, who measured worth in terms of strength, courage, power, and self-sufficiency. Yet, at some point, this “master morality” (Herrenmoral) was replaced by the morality of slaves, who valued themselves according to external criteria. Nietzsche believes that the notions of moral good and evil have an origin in early human history, which can be traced by philology. Our feelings of guilt and bad conscience are consequent to the development of the concepts of good and evil, as are the notions of reward and punishment.

Slave morality (Sklavenmoral) is motivated by ressentiment, an envious antipathy toward the strong. Thus it makes the exertion of power a sin, while praising actions of meekness and altruism. Nietzsche found that modern democratic Europe remained steeped in herd morality and ressentiment. The English moralists still tried to ground ethical analysis in an unwieldy dichotomy of selfishness and altruism. Nietzsche accordingly saw a need to move beyond the concepts of good and evil, to arrive at a method of valuation that was grounded in a positive assessment of “master” virtues. This ultra-moral stage of development entailed surpassing “man” as he had been psychologically constituted for the past ten millennia. Thus Nietzsche referred to such a person as a “superman” or “overman” (‹bermensch), though he did not mean by this any definite future ideal, nor some consequence of biological evolution or social progress.

Nietzsche forcefully rejects any sort of moral idealism, and does not propose replacing old ideals with new ones. He finds that all past moral philosophers were secretly persuaded by their idealistic preferences. Even the notions of utility and happiness are an inadequate basis for explaining ethical action. Rather, it is desire or will that is the ground for all healthy, energetic activity. Thus Nietzsche reserves his strongest invective for his attack on ascetic ideals, religious and philosophical. Asceticism seeks to weaken or suppress the will, though in fact this self-denial conceals a deeper willfulness. Taken at face value, asceticism is nihilism to Nietzsche, since it denies the bodily world, the only world that is. The last gasp of asceticism, found even in the most skeptical atheists, is the “will to truth” or notion that the pursuit of truth is a categorical imperative. Only when man is willing to challenge even the moral value of truth itself can he fully extricate himself from moral asceticism.

Nietzsche is definitely future-oriented in his vision, yet he takes pains to distance himself from the Enlightenment idea of inevitable human progress. He resists the temptation to make an ideal out of “progress” or “the superman,” as some of his interpreters have done. Indeed, his doctrine of eternal recurrence decisively rejects any notion of unending progress. As everything we do has already been done and will be done again infinitely many times, the future is in the present. Nietzsche’s Dionysian free spirit embraces and affirms what exists and is done now. The notion of regret or remorse is foreign to Nietzsche, who embraces fate, since he sees it as the realization of will, rather than the product of mechanical necessity or cosmic purpose.

We will discuss these themes in the order given above, following Nietzsche’s later works, which present his more developed thought. His masterwork, Thus Spake Zarathustra (Also sprach Zarathustra) [‘TSZ’ in footnotes], completed in 1885, conveys his central insights in the form of a poetic or prophetic revelation. A more discursive, even systematic, mode of exposition is found in the subsequent works Beyond Good and Evil (1886) [BGE] and On the Genealogy of Morals (1887) [GM]. As Nietzsche’s rhetorical style can make interpretation difficult, we are guided by the author’s self-explanations in Ecce Homo [EH] (1888), as well as the remarks of qualified commentators such as Walter Kaufmann.

Through analysis of the ethical themes in Nietzsche’s later works, we hope to examine the feasibility of reducing ethics to aesthetics. Nietzsche rejects morality in the sense of there being a single set of rules for correct human behavior. Rather, values originate from each person’s perspective, and the aesthetic good of one person may differ from that of another. It remains to be seen whether such an account of values successfully avoids nihilism. This bears on the question of whether an objective notion of moral good is essential to ethics.


2. Before Zarathustra

Nietzsche was not the first philosopher to find Will at the base of all reality. This notion, now identified with Nietzsche’s anti-idealism, first appeared, ironically enough, in the German idealists Fichte and Schopenhauer. The origin and development of the concept of World-as-Will, and the different uses to which this concept was subjected, may give us some insight into its rational basis. We may construct, as it were, a brief “genealogy of immoralism.”

2.1 Fichte

In the 1790s, Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) introduced the notion of the self as willing or striving when giving an account of ethics and religion that would perfect Immanuel Kant’s project of criticism. Fichte accepted Kant’s denial that we can know things as they are in themselves, and thus retained a sharp separation between conceptual and physical reality. He felt that Kant had not successfully reconciled ethics and deterministic physics, and sought to supply this deficiency.

Fichte made the freedom of the will his primary axiom, this being something he found unprovable yet absolutely desirable. This freedom is identical with selfhood, so that the “I” (Ich) is that which is free. This self-determination indicates that selfhood is distinct from thinghood, for physical objects are governed by necessity; indeed being a thing means being under necessity.

Per Kant’s critical principles, it is not licit to arrive at any knowledge of consciousness from a knowledge of things. No permutation of necessities could ever give us understanding of freedom. The only way we might possibly arrive at knowledge of a world that has both selfhood (freedom) and thinghood (necessity) is to begin with selfhood or the “I.” Thus only idealism, the philosophy where ideas determine objects, can give us knowledge of a world that includes consciousness. It remained for Fichte to show that this consciousness can be embedded in some deterministic physical or metaphysical order without contradiction.

Fichte grounds his ethics in a categorical imperative of accepting that “the I posits itself” (das Ich setzt sich selbst) as an “I,” that is, as something free. We have an absolute duty to acknowledge our own freedom, and are not permitted to adopt any other view.

This act of self-positing is the essence of “I-ness” (Ichheit), not something separate from it. Self-consciousness is not a fact or accident of some substance, but is identical with consciousness. That is, in self-consciousness, the fact and act are one. The action of the I is identical with its existence. With things or substances, by contrast, action and existence are distinct.

The act of the I is both doing and knowing, that is, both practical and theoretical. Ethics concerns the practical. Although the “I” as such is pure free willing, it discovers itself to be limited, through sensation, intuition and concept. By this check (anstoss) or limitation, “the I posits itself as determined by the non-I” (das Ich setz sich als bestimmt durch das Nicht-Ich). At the same time, the I defines or determines the “non-I” by perceiving this check.

The I’s power of willing, when checked, becomes striving. The will endlessly struggles violently to assert itself against the non-I. This power to act is prior to the ability to know, the latter being derivative of the former. Free willing determines our knowledge of the world; there could be no theoretical reason if the will did not have the power to act.

In its act of striving, the I pursues an unachievable self-determinacy, where “is” and “ought” are one. As long as the will is checked, there can be a distinction between what is and what ought to be. Ethics deals with how the world ought to be; that is, how rational wills should alter it.

Fichte’s ethics would have the I guided only by its own self-legislated laws, telling it to find its own happiness. This emphasis on self-determination accounts for why Fichte was accused of nihilism and atheism, since the logic of his position seems to make all ethics dependent on one’s arbitrary will.

Notwithstanding such accusations, Fichte sincerely believed that there were objective, universal moral laws, and that his philosophy gave the best account of them. From the aforementioned duty to accept that the I posits itself as free, he deduces that this freedom entails a “law of self-sufficiency,” and that there is a moral obligation to exercise freedom in accordance with this law. From this general imperative, one may derive more particular moral obligations that apply to all rational beings.

The I posits for itself an ability to impose purpose or causation in the sensible world. It thereby posits and discovers itself as an embodied will. This objective being is determined by the subjective concept of will. Only idealism, where ideas determine objects, can account for the power of will over physical acts.

Fichte is not saying that the corporeal world is a mere product of our will. Rather, the world may be considered from two perspectives, those of theoretical science and practical science (ethics). From a theoretical perspective, the corporeal world may be accounted for by the laws of physics. Even the I has some contingency and limitation imposed on it by the physical world. Yet from a practical perspective, beginning with knowledge of the will and its power to act, the corporeal world is defined or determined by the exertions and limitations of this power of action. We come to a practical knowledge of the corporeal world by pushing against it and feeling it push back. The disparity between what we would will if we were absolutely self-determining and what we actually can willfully impose on the world creates a distinction but what is and what ought to be. From an ethical perspective, the world is, as Fichte says, “the material of our duty made sensible.”

In Fichte, we do not yet find the idea that “everything is Will.” The world is the material of the will’s duty only in an ethical context. It may also be considered, without contradiction, in a theoretical or physical context, where bodies are mere things.

Fichte, like Nietzsche, rejects any metaphysical teleology in the act of willing. Our drives as such have no goals outside themselves or their own satisfaction. Even pleasure is not regarded as a goal. Yet the drives of rational beings are distinct in kind from those of physical objects or brute beasts. While the latter follow an instinctive drive (Trieb) only for the purpose of its satisfaction, a rational being may direct his willful action to some end that is extrinsic to the mere satisfaction of the drive. An animal may eat and reproduce only to fulfill a bare need imposed by such drives. A human, by contrast, can direct those same drives to other ends beyond physical necessity. Even if this goal is merely pleasure, the human has already demonstrated a higher use of will. Instead of following a mere inner purposiveness, the rational being can strive and long for external goals, so its drive becomes a yearning (Sehnen) for some desired state of reality. Even the pursuit of pleasure as such implies a self-conscious freedom to choose one’s external goals, rather than to be content with the satisfaction of inner drives.

Fichte confines the domain of ethics to the interior conscience, while he considers justice or “right” (Recht) to be independent of ethical imperatives. He grounds right in the idea that individual identity is determined by the presence of other free individuals. Until now, Fichte’s “I” may be considered as a general freedom or self-determining drive that exists in the world, rather than an individual self. We can only arrive at the individual self—our common-sense notion of “I”—when it becomes meaningful to distinguish "this self" or "myself" from some "other self". That is, the notion of individual selfhood supposes the existence of some other free individual; otherwise, there would be no distinction between "myself" and a world-soul. Yet this very supposition of another free individual entails that we recognize the "other" as a free self, and this recognition of the other's freedom of action entails a limitation of one's own action, out of respect for the other's freedom. All of this is prior to (or simultaneous with) the positing of one's own individual existence, so the individual "I" is consequent to society.

It may seem strained for an ethics grounded in the axiom of a freely willing self to find a way to make the other or non-self existentially prior, justifying altruistic behavior. Indeed, Nietzsche would skewer the idealists for their perceived hypocrisy, as they had not the courage to follow the theory of will to its logical conclusion, but instead turned to a post hoc rationalization of bourgeois morality.

Indeed, Fichte’s theory of right substantively resembles conventional Enlightenment liberalism and egalitarianism. In his account, right is that which maximizes the mutual freedom of multiple individuals. He assumes that society ought to consist of mutually free and equal individuals, although nature and history both attest, as Nietzsche rightly points out, that humans are unequal in strength, even more so than other animals, and that the ordering of society often entails the subordination of the activities of the many for the goals of a few.

Even if we accept the Enlightenment axioms of an individual right to liberty and the equality of all men (both of which are historically grounded in Locke's interpretation of Hooker's theology), it is far from obvious that individuals acting in “enlightened self-interest” will result in a society that maximizes the freedom of all. The historical record attests, on the contrary, that classical liberal societies tend toward plutocracy. There may be a certain equality of regard among propertied gentlemen, but disparities in power across classes of men - whether due to circumstance or innate ability - soon make it impossible for there to be any real equality in the freedom to act.

Nonetheless, proceeding from his assumptions, Fichte is able to derive certain moral imperatives, beginning with the rule that we should not harm other people, since we must regard them as free. Apart from such general norms, there are additional moral imperatives specific to each individual. Each of us needs to find a vocation and follow the duties proper to that vocation. The supreme imperative common to all is productive activity. We should try to find satisfaction in the activity of our vocation. This does not mean pleasure, which is only incidental to our satisfaction, not a moral goal. With activity as the supreme good, Fichte identifies sloth as our greatest temptation.

This emphasis on work further accentuates Fichte's dependence on liberal Protestant morality. Although his contemporaries astutely recognized the nihilistic and atheistic implications of his tenets, Fichte believed that he had vindicated the emergent morality of his time, and proved the existence of God from this objective moral order. Indeed, even his emphasis on the self and will is indebted to Protestant heuristics, focusing on the individual experiential encounter with given external reality. We must recall that he strenuously asserted the will as free precisely because he ardently wanted it to be free, in keeping with the spirit of individual liberty of his time.

Already in Fichte’s idealism, we can see some of the concepts that would serve Nietzsche well. Yet it remained for another, eventually more celebrated thinker to make Will the fundament of all reality, and to begin to divorce this notion from that of universal moral imperatives.

[For more on Fichte, see: E. Shimomisse, The Contemporary History of Western Philosophy, Lecture 2 (1997)]


2.2 Schopenhauer

Whereas Fichte had identified will with the self-consciousness at the foundation of ethical reality, Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), by contrast, posited Will as a mindless, non-rational impulse at the foundation not only of our own drives, but of everything. When Schopenhauer speaks of “the World-as-Will,” he means something very different from Fichte, for his Will is mindless, and encompasses even corporeal reality.

Schopenhauer rejected Kant’s notion that our sensations are caused by some unknowable thing-in-itself. Instead, following thoughts similar to those of Berkeley and Spinoza, he found that rational animals have a double aspect to their being, which may serve as a model of the relation between the ideal and corporeal worlds. Only the bodies of rational beings can be posited in two ways: in objective or external reality, and as a subjective, internal reality, that is, as Will. Like Fichte, Schopenhauer considers Will as but one aspect of reality, still allowing for an external corporeal reality. Yet his Will is not confined to conscious creatures, but is an aspect of reality that permeates the entire world of things.

The unity of the subjective and objective aspects of reality is exemplified in rational beings, where willing and bodily motion are two aspects of the same act. Neither the action of the body nor of the Will precedes the other. The Will’s act is that of the body, considered subjectively (i.e., from its own perspective), while the act of the body is that of the Will objectified (i.e., considered externally).

These two ways of knowing the body of a rational being can be applied even to non-rational beings. That is, each thing may be considered as it is in itself (i.e., from its own perspective), which is as Will, and as it is known from without, which is as representation (i.e., Kant’s “phenomena”).

The World as Will, or as it is in itself, is an endless striving, much like Fichte’s will of the Ich, yet this is a blind impulse, without any self-awareness in general. Schopenhauer’s World-as-Will strives without regard for any goal or law, being pure freedom and self-determination. Unlike Fichte, who believed there was an objective moral order that was evidence of God’s existence, Schopenhauer leaves no room for any objective good or meaning in the world, and his atheism, though undeclared, is nonetheless forcefully implied.

Decades before Darwin, Schopenhauer posited a world in which everything is in ruthless competition. The various natural beings manifest Will to different degrees, yet they all are driven by a striving activity. In Will, Schopenhauer finds a basis for the “principle of sufficient reason,” the idea that everything must be accounted for by some reason or cause, or that nothing can come of nothing. Our intuitive apprehension of this principle is grounded in the reality that everything is the product of Will, which makes connections among representations. That is to say, Will or intrinsic reality makes possible objects, or realities as they are given externally.

Schopenhauer perceived a single, universal World-Will at the root of things, and in a sort of Neoplatonism, this World-Will was objectified into universal objects or Ideas. The human mind introduces the principle of individuation in its act of knowing. Prior to this, there are no individuals, only Will. By knowing, we objectify an appearance or phenomenon, thereby fragmenting Will. Each fragment or individual consequently strives against every other, as X can be X only by opposing not-X, or by imposing itself as something distinct from all that is not X. By conceiving things as individual, we create a violent state of nature, turning Will against Will.

Nietzsche would reject the Neoplatonic aspects of Schopenhauer’s account of the World-as-Will, along with all forms of idealism, yet retain the notion of Will as strife as central to his thought. He would embrace this “will-to-power,” as he called it, while Schopenhauer recoiled from it.

Schopenhauer called his philosophy Pessimism, taking a dim view of the blind strife his metaphysics portrayed. Influenced by the Hindu Upanishads, he found that our way of knowing doomed us to violence, making us want more than what we have, to wish to be what we are not. As the life of individuals is suffering and strife, Schopenhauer sought peace through contemplation of universals and detachment from individual desires. This embrace of Indian asceticism would earn the sternest condemnation from Nietzsche, who called it nihilism and a rejection of life. While Schopenhauer sought to apprehend universal Ideas through ascetic perception, forgetting one’s individuality and becoming a mirror of the object, Nietzsche denounced this as a repudiation of life, which is Will, and staring dumbly before reality.

Schopenhauer believed that aesthetic pursuits left men out of the world of strife. Indeed, the highest function of art was to facilitate the contemplation of Ideas. In particular, Schopenhauer singled out music as the artform best suited to this function. Music can convey the forms of feelings, abstracted from any determinate circumstance or occasion that causes them. In its communication of pure joy, love, sorrow, etc., music acts as a copy of Will itself. It enables us to experience these emotions with disinterest. When we experience sorrow or fear during an opera, for example, we are not genuinely troubled, for this emotion is not tied to any real danger or strife. Nietzsche violently mocked the notion of “disinterested emotion,” but he retained Schopenhauer’s high estimation of music, which emboldened Wagner in his period of greatest creativity. Indeed, it was disgust with Schopenhauer and Wagner for their lapse into asceticism that helped propel Nietzsche into the philosophy for which he became famous.

Aesthetic perception may alleviate our own suffering, but it does not help us alleviate the suffering of others. To minimize strife among men, it is necessary for us to adopt ascetic practices, minimizing our carnal desires. In the ascetic mentality, as Schopenhauer conceived it, we abstract from our egoistic individuality, so that we feel compassion or solidarity towards others. This sympathy induces us to refrain from violence and to relieve the suffering of others.

The key to this ascetic outlook is to see each person as an instance of the one Will, so that the distinction between tormentor and tormented is collapsed. This solidarity implies that each person bears the suffering and the guilt of the whole world, being one with every criminal and every victim. There is some obvious parallelism with Christianity here, except, instead of Christ alone, every man takes on the guilt and penalty of all. This pseudo-messianism would make the world redeemed through mere sympathy or pity.

Schopenhauer justifies this odd outlook by claiming that evil, crime or sin arises from the illusion that individuals are distinct from each other. We should instead focus on human unity, not merely by contemplating our common nature, but by vicariously experiencing the determinate lives of others.

It is perhaps Schopenhauer’s revulsion toward struggle that impels him to a fatalism whereby everything happens of necessity, including acts of Will. For him, Will is not free in the sense it was for Fichte, who asserted a real capacity for the I to have acted otherwise. Since Schopenhauer’s Will is one for the world of things and thinkers, it operates under physical necessity. Yet he considers the Will free in the sense that “we are the doers of our deeds,” and this responsibility for our actions shows a genuine self-determination. Schopenhauer is not distressed, but actually relieved, that everything happens of necessity, so we need not be troubled about struggling to change the world.

Schopenhauer candidly asserts that revulsion toward the violence of nature leads to a rejection of much of the human condition, culminating in a denial of the will-to-live. This will-less ascetic state, where desires are renounced in order not to be frustrated, yields peace and tranquility. Here he follows the well-trod paths of Buddhist and Christian asceticism. Nietzsche would regard this course as choosing death or sleep, out of weariness or cowardice in the face of life’s struggles.

It is by no means clear how a will-less state can exist in Schopenhauer’s metaphysics. It is as if the philosopher, repulsed by his own system, sought to create an escape hatch whereby one might live outside his chamber of horrors. Nor is it certain that he was successful in this endeavor, for the life of asceticism itself entails mighty struggles against temptations and desires. Nietzsche would seize upon this fact to show that asceticism is itself a manifestation of will-to-power on a deeper, hidden level.

Schopenhauer would reconcile these contradictions by holding that the Will as individual is being subordinated to the universal Will. The ascetic struggles against human nature in order to achieve harmony with a more universal nature. Human nature entails individuation, so it is necessary to transcend human nature in order to eliminate occasions of conflict or violence. By considering our actions not as a struggle against other individuals, but as instances of our intelligible character, which is an Idea considered subjectively, we are actually realizing our essential self more fully. This notion that the essential person is a timeless act of Will will recur in Nietzsche, whose only imperative, if it may be called such, is to be oneself fully.

Nietzsche refers to Schopenhauer extensively in his writings, and not always by name. In his early academic career, he had followed Schopenhauer’s philosophy, whence arises his claim that one must thoroughly understand morality before becoming ultra-moral.


2.3 Stirner

Although it cannot be proved that Max Stirner (1806-1856) had any direct influence on Nietzsche, there are certainly some significant anticipations of Nietzsche's thought in his work, Der Einzige und sein Eigentum (1844). This lesser known figure was influential among the Young Hegelians in the 1840s, but generally ignored by the rest of his contemporaries. Drawing upon Hegel's dialectic while rejecting his idealism, Stirner offered a radical critique of existing political and religious institutions, as well as the idealistic vision of the Communists. Holding an anti-essentialist metaphysics that rejected all universal ideas and normative thoughts, he posited a radically individualistic egoism in place of ethics. Departing from the idealists, he denied “the Ego” as a universal or general type, accepting only each unique individual (Einzige) as the sole reality and basis for choosing and acting.

Stirner resembles Nietzsche stylistically in his approach to philosophy, giving special attention to the use of language, and sometimes resorting to etymological arguments. He takes care not to bind himself with the limitations of conventional usage. This is consistent with his general attitude of regarding thought as a mere instrument of the self, which is to be subordinate to what the will wishes to express. He also frequently resorts to the free-form arguments, aphorisms, typographic emphases, vitriol and deliberate abrasiveness for which Nietzsche is known.

Still, Stirner anticipates Nietzsche in content more than style. He is insistent on the fact the self is not bound by any higher principle, not even one he should construct for himself. Instead he determines his own interest, and subjects everything to himself, thereby making it his property (Eigentum). While Christianity and Eastern civilization helped liberate man from enslavement to things, they only created a new enslavement to thoughts. Liberalism and socialism persist in this error, by making “freedom” and “equality” into binding ideals or norms. Banishing all ideals as mere “ghosts” or “spooks,” Stirner locates reality in the concrete and individual, and so regards his interests of the moment as the only real interests. There is no “human potential” or “social progress” to fulfill. We are what we are, and there is no distinction between capacity or power and its exertion. All life exerts itself, not because it is obligated to do so by some law, but because force is always operative.

Stirner, like Nietzsche, rejects all higher causes, such as God, humanity, goodness, and the nation, recognizing that these are just selfish masters. Instead, he will be the master, serving only his own interest. “The good cause” does not interest him. “I interest me, and I am neither good nor bad.” Long before Nietzsche, he even dared to reject truth as an imperative, denying that he is bound to pursue or believe in what is true. In this way, he makes thoughts utterly subordinate to himself.

His account of human development, through the metaphors of childhood and racial history, parallels the three stages outline by Nietzsche of master morality (paganism), slave morality (Christianity and Oriental philosophies), and future egoism (the superman). The ancients, like children, were realists who feared things and responded only to punishment; the world was the highest value. Christians and other idealists, like adolescents, developed mental skills to undermine authority (of parents or kings), demystifying the world. Yet these ideals can become new masters, and Stirner, like Nietzsche, holds that liberalism is just an extension of Christian idealism, replacing God with “humanity.” Only the mature adult learns not to conform the world to his ideals, but instead takes it as it is, and pursues his own interests. It remains for future men to become mature egoists. An image of this development can be seen in the racial tendencies of the superstitious Negroids, so fearful of the natural world, followed by the idealistic, “heaven-building” Mongoloids, who stagnate in systems of eternal truths that prescribe behaviors for every situation, and finally the “heaven-storming” Caucasians, who recognize no higher imperative than what they will, and are willing to challenge all received authority.

For Stirner, the ego self-creates, while thinking is just something we do and therefore is part of our property. Instead of receiving ideas as given to us, we must make them our servants and creations, subordinate to whatever end we choose at the moment. There is no right or wrong way to be a human, or to be an egoist; the very notions of right and wrong are nonsense to an egoist.

Instead of following fixed rules of behavior, the egoist values things amorally as good or bad insofar as they enhance or diminish “own-ness” (Eigenheit) in a particular instance. We relate to objects and other people through relations of expedience, using them for our benefit and nourishment. I “own” other people insofar as I use them for my “good” of the moment. There are no moral constraints on these relations, and the egoist may even allow himself to commit incest or murder if he likes.

Like Nietzsche, Stirner had low regard for the egalitarian herd morality of the democratic age. Equality of rights and the abolition of privilege effectively meant that the state had no regard for a person in his individuality, but only as an instance of “man.” Political liberty merely meant there was no authority besides the state over the individual. Such “liberty” would free man from personal willfulness in order to be enslaved to universal rules or laws. This depersonalization of authority exemplified the idealism that hated men as individuals, while esteeming “man,” the abstract essence.

Stirner set himself apart from other Left Hegelians, who would do away private ownership. Like the liberals, the socialists sought to disenfranchise men of their personal prerogatives, instead recognizing only impersonal or common rights. Stirner, on the contrary, rejected the tyranny of “man” over the egoist, since the ego has real interests while “man” is an abstraction, designed to make men ignore their own interests. Everyone is already egoistic, but some use abstractions to impose their interests over others. Stirner would bring egoism into the open, and let each seize whatever property (material or mental) that he can.

For Stirner, there is no imperative to act in a certain way, not even a self-imposed imperative. Not thought or principle governs him, not even an imperative to criticism, much less any impersonal rule of “freedom of thought.” No thoughts are sacred to Stirner, and he will defend his skin against them. To be autonomous or one’s own” merely means to belong to oneself, to be one’s own master, not slave to another person, idea, appetite or thing.

It is unclear how Stirner’s egoism, which thoroughly rejects any sort of principle as governing behavior, can in practice differ from merely following appetites aimlessly. He denies that such drifting from one pleasure or interest to the next is a waste of life, for the enjoyment of life consists in using it up or expending it. If any philosophy deserves to be called moral nihilism, it is Stirner’s, and if he sometimes seems to impose egoism as a moral imperative, it is only by linguistic necessity, for he emphatically denies any such obligation.

While there is no definite proof that Nietzsche read Stirner, he definitely read books that discussed Stirner, so he must at least have been aware of his general ideas. The profound similarities between philosophers need not indicate direct copying, for Stirner follows an inexorable logic from his anti-essentialist assumptions. Nietzsche would only need to share his fearlessness in drawing out the immoralist consequences. Likewise, the racialist and evolutionary views expounded by Stirner were commonplace in German philosophy, as was the emphasis on egoistic exertion of the will, found in Fichte and Schopenhauer, among others. It is likely that Nietzsche would not have identified his thought with that of Stirner, no matter how great the superficial similarity, for Stirner was an unabashed nihilist, while Nietzsche sought to oppose nihilism. Also, Stirner was indiscriminate in his egoism, seeing nothing shameful in using “weak means” (i.e., cunning, outward servility), while Nietzsche clearly admired “master morality” as aesthetically superior.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the predecessors of Nietzsche’s ethical philosophy, and we have given only a cursory discussion of the philosophers named. Still, these precursors should provide sufficient context for Nietzsche’s thundering revelation in the person of Zarathustra, which otherwise might seem like a bolt out of the blue.


3. Zarathustra’s Revelation

Nietzsche distinguishes himself from his predecessors by embracing danger and conflict, rejecting the safe escapes of idealism and nihilism. Schopenhauer’s pursuit of aesthetic ideals and abandonment of desires for the sake of mental tranquility, to Nietzsche, is a denial of the will-to-live, and a continuation of the ascetic escapism found in Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity. The “superman,” by contrast, personifies the embrace of the energetic life, which is necessarily willful and dangerous. Such a man will not flee into a realm of ideals, nor narcotize himself with sensual pleasures, nor will he content himself with whatever he happens to acquire, like a Stirnerian nihilist. The superman insists on being a master over others, an immortal, a great one. We should take heed, then, when Nietzsche calls his Zarathustra “the supreme type of all beings” [EH, 6] and regards the work Also sprach Zarathustra as a supreme deed unmatched in energy. It is here that we should find his revelation most perfectly expressed.

Zarathustra really is a revelation, not a mere ideology or system of thought. This is why Nietzsche chooses to express it poetically and aphoristically, in the grand literary style of religious revelations. The life of Zarathustra is something to be experienced, not merely described or explained. As Nietzsche shows in Ecce Homo, this experience is identical with what he calls Dionysian. This begs the question: why introduce the figure of Zarathustra?

The use of Zarathustra (Zoroaster) as the spokesman for Nietzsche’s revelation is deliberately ironic. In reality, Zarathustra was the prophet of the dichotomy of good and evil, truth and lies. He was the consummate moralist, and in the nineteenth century, it was widely believed that the Jewish and Christian religions borrowed heavily from Zoroastrianism. Thus Zarathustra lies at the apex of the institutions imposing good and evil on the human race. Yet it is not mere irony that makes Zarathustra the appropriate spokesman, but Nietzsche’s belief that the one who understands morality best and is furthest along its path will also be the first to surpass it and move beyond good and evil. This reflects Nietzsche’s own personal experience, having explored the idealistic ethics of Schopenhauer and the life-affirming aesthetics of Wagner. His point of departure is not one of nihilistic despair or ignorance, but a thorough exploration of ethical concepts to their roots, and a consequent recognition of the necessity of transcending them.

While Nietzsche may be an “immoralist,” he is far from unethical. On the contrary, he is thoroughly obsessed with ethics—the determination of choiceworthy acts—to the point of being a throwback to a more ancient style of philosophy, generally unconcerned with dry demonstrations and refutations of theses. His central task is more subtle, for he is trying to share some ineffable insight and experience, showing aspects of it through various metaphors and analogies. Still, like all philosophers, he uses reason at least for supporting arguments, and to show the interrelationships of his ideas.

Nietzsche’s writing, as has often been noted, generally does not present his thought in a systematic exposition. He frequently revisits themes haphazardly in various works, often giving the impression of being repetitive or disorganized. Part of this problem results from his experimentation with various styles. Following the dense symbolism of Also sprach Zarathustra, he presented his ideas more prosaically in Beyond Good and Evil, though even this made extensive use of aphorisms. Lastly, in the Genealogy of Morals, he takes a philological and historical approach that is almost conventional in form, and seeks to place his ethical ideas on a sound scientific footing. In the present work, material from all three sources is organized according to a logical succession of themes. This should simplify analysis and avoid redundancy. It is beyond our scope to give a comprehensive survey of Nietzschean thought; rather we will focus on ideas related to his denial of the notion of ethical good.


4. Life as Will to Power

Like Schopenhauer, Nietzsche conceived of the world as Will in an unconscious sense of blind impulse or striving, without regard for any goal or law. Writing after Darwin, Nietzsche sees life as manifesting a particular mode of willing: expanding, conquering, imposing itself on the world and assimilating it to itself. Yet where Schopenhauer recoiled from the violence and brutality of the natural world, retreating into idealistic morality, Nietzsche boldly accepts the immoral consequences of a non-teleological world.

Schopenhauer, for all his iconoclasm, ultimately adopted the tame liberal bourgeois Christian morality: neminem laede, immo omnes quantum potes juva. (“Hurt no one, but on the contrary help everyone as much as you can.”) This is the exact opposite of what we would learn from the World-as-Will, and Nietzsche rightly points out the contradiction: “a pessimist, a repudiator of God and of the world, who MAKES A HALT at morality—who assents to morality, and plays the flute to laede-neminem morals, what? Is that really—a pessimist?” [BGE, 186]

Zarathustra’s opening discourse gives a parable of three metamorphoses, reflecting man’s self-imposed subjection to morality and his eventual self-liberation. The first metamorphosis is from Spirit to Camel. The Spirit or Mind wishes to be burdened, so it may mortify its pride, embrace suffering, love enemies, etc. This bears similarity to what Stirner called the Mongolian stage of humanity, characterized by enslavement to thoughts. Nietzsche’s solution is similar to Stirner’s: one must claim ownership over one’s thoughts. This is achieved by replacing “Thou shalt” with “I will,” which is the transition from Camel to Lion.

Yet Nietzsche adds a further metamorphosis, beyond the self-willing Lion, to the innocence or forgetfulness of the Child. “Aye, for the game of creating, my brethren, there is needed a holy Yea unto life: ITS OWN will, willeth now the spirit; HIS OWN world winneth the world’s outcast.” [TSZ, 1] While the emphasis on “own-ness” is already found in Stirner, Nietzsche makes Will to Power directed to the imperative of creating. Yet creating is not so much a moral obligation or imperative, but rather something spontaneous. It is best achieved when one is innocent or forgetful of rules of behavior, even of any rule of self-willing. Instead one simply affirms life by accepting it. Since life is Will to Power, our Yea must be to such will.

This conceptualization of life makes nonsense of any attempt to propose a universal morality or goal of “happiness.” All such moral systems are really attempts to deal with danger posed by one’s passions and their Will to Power that would make them our masters. Methods of dealing with one's passions are necessarily individualized and contingent upon circumstances, so “generalization is not authorized.” [BGE, 198] Attempts to generalize morality for all people and all conditions take us out of the realm of expediency and into “the other world,” leading to innumerable follies, such as Stoic coldness and Spinoza's injunctions against laughing or weeping. It is not just emotional suppression that Nietzsche finds objectionable, but any attempt to create a universal rule for dealing with the passions. This includes the Aristotelian "mean," avoiding excess or deficiency in passion, as well as those attempts to attenuate or spiritualize emotion in art, music, or love of God and mankind, which Freud would later call sublimation. Even those, like Goethe, who advocate surrender to our emotions are foolishly proposing a universal rule for what should be contingent upon person and circumstance.

This radically individualized notion of ethics, dispensing from all mores or laws, follows from the recognition that each living thing imposes its will insofar as it is able, without regard for any goal or law. What we call “natural laws” are really just images of the limits of power of corporeal creatures in determinate circumstances. No natural creature restrains itself out of respect for any law, but rather it extends its power as far it is able. These ideas about will and force presuppose some anti-essentialist metaphysics and epistemology, which we will explore in the chapters to follow.

Continue to Part II

© 2013-14, 2017 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved.
* Original publication dates: Part I, 6 Sep 2014; Part II, 20 Sep 2014; Part III, 26 Nov 2014; Part IV, 18 Jan 2015; Part V, 27 Jun 2015; Part VI, 30 Apr 2016; Part VII, 18 Jul 2016; Part VIII, 26 Aug 2016; Part IX, 12 Nov 2016.