Foundations of Ethics, Vol. III:

Nietzsche’s Challenge to the Idea of Moral Good

Daniel J. Castellano


Part II

Full Table of Contents
Part II
5. Against Teleology in Ethics and Nature
6. Atheism
7. Against Materialism
8. Against Skepticism and Nihilism

5. Against Teleology in Ethics and Nature

Zarathustra’s revelation becomes possible only when we first discard every form of teleological metaphysics. This includes not only the overtly theistic systems, but also the more subtle forms advanced by secular liberals, so-called skeptics, scientists, and even the most strident atheists. All systems of objective ethics implicitly presuppose some teleological metaphysics, and Nietzsche takes secularist thinkers to task for this gross inconsistency.

One of the more common tropes used by secular ethicists, ancient and modern, is to seek what is “natural” to man. One may examine how man actually behaves, or how he behaved in the remote past, or how animals behave, in order to determine what behavior is “natural” and therefore presumably salutary. Such reasoning, even if it is gusseted with the trappings of biological science, is basically a reversion to static essentialism. Nietzsche, by contrast, recognizes that life is a constant activity of self-surpassing, so it is senseless to hold up “human nature” as some static standard. By the same token, it is even more senseless for scientists to ground liberal ethics in the behavior of monkeys, apes and australopithecines.

Man is something that is to be surpassed. What have ye done to surpass man? All beings hitherto have created something beyond themselves: and ye want to be the ebb of that great tide, and would rather go back to the beast than surpass man? [TSZ, Prologue]

Zarathustra is not speaking of some future evolution, but something that is possible even now if man will live according to some new mode of evaluation. The idea of “surpassing” man implies some objective evaluation of one state being “higher” or “better” than another, which is intelligible only if there is an objective good. We see right away that Nietzsche is not a nihilist like Stirner, for he does believe in such a thing as progress, and he does believe in some objective measure of improvement, namely the realization of Will to Power. This “good,” if we may call it such, is not moral, for the Will to Power is amoral, even immoral.

Zarathustra does hold up a natural ideal of remaining “true to the earth,” but not in the sense of a return to our biological past. Rather, it means embracing the corporeal world, in contrast with the idealistic religions and philosophies that use “the world” and “the flesh” as terms of opprobrium. The mind should not disparage the body, of which it was once but the most meager image.

The prophet proclaims that the greatest experience is “the hour of great contempt,” when one learns to disdain (idealist) happiness, reason and virtue.

The hour when ye say: “What good is my happiness! It is poverty and pollution and wretched self-complacency. But my happiness should justify existence itself!”

The hour when ye say: “What good is my reason! Doth it long for knowledge as the lion for his food? It is poverty and pollution and wretched self-complacency!”

The hour when ye say: “What good is my virtue! As yet it hath not made me passionate. How weary I am of my good and my bad! It is all poverty and pollution and wretched self-complacency!”

The hour when ye say: “What good is my justice! I do not see that I am fervour and fuel. The just, however, are fervour and fuel!”

The hour when ye say: “What good is my pity! Is not pity the cross on which he is nailed who loveth man? But my pity is not a crucifixion.” [TSZ, Prologue, 3]

Idealist happiness, disdaining the existent corporeal world, is an impoverished self-complacency. It is not the world or the flesh that corrupt, but retreat from them is a corruption or pollution of ourselves. Likewise, reason is a destructive self-indulgence when the pursuit of knowledge is divorced from any real need akin to the quest for nourishment. “Knowledge for knowledge’s sake” is just idle curiosity, a secular asceticism. The virtues of universal ethics are just empty rules and ideals that do not make us any more or less passionate than we already are. Acting “rightly” by following abstract rules of behavior is not the result of a sincere passion or love. This critique of ethicism is akin to that made by the Taoists against the Confucians, who proposed a rule of behavior for every circumstance, making virtue the execution of a program, and dispensing with spontaneous animal virtues such as maternal-filial affection.

The reflections on justice and pity are more obscure, yet the sense remains that these ideals do nothing to nourish or improve the living individual. Idealist justice is full of a burning zeal to see that wrongs are avenged, even if we are not the ones harmed. Yet such “fervor and fuel” (Ger. Brennstoff, lit. “stuff that burns”) does not arise spontaneously in us; it is something we are supposed to feel, even for injustices that do not remotely concern us. Likewise, actual pity is a far cry from the Christian ideal of the Cross. We will not torment or injure ourselves for the sake of strangers; at least, this does not come to us spontaneously. Our ordinary pity is merely a wish to relieve the discomfort we feel at the sight of human suffering in some circumstances. As Nietzsche will later expound, there is no general rule or imperative to pity or justice.

Zarathustra proposes that we sacrifice ourselves, seek knowledge, and labor not for some metaphysical ideal, but to bring forth the Superman, who surpasses humanity as we know it.

I love those who do not first seek a reason beyond the stars for going down and being sacrifices, but sacrifice themselves to the earth, that the earth of the Superman may hereafter arrive.

I love him who liveth in order to know, and seeketh to know in order that the Superman may hereafter live. Thus seeketh he his own down-going.

I love him who laboureth and inventeth, that he may build the house for the Superman, and prepare for him earth, animal, and plant: for thus seeketh he his own down-going.

I love him who loveth his virtue: for virtue is the will to down-going, and an arrow of longing. [TSZ, Prologue, 4]

Sacrificing ourselves to the earth entails repudiating the idealist view of mind or spirit, instead embracing our corporeality with its animal passions, so that we are at home in the world and not scandalized by it. It may seem that the Superman is a new ideal or “good,” but this is not some fixed endpoint. Rather, it is an ever-changing goal, an imperative to progress, where progress is measured by the realization of will-to-power. “Down-going” refers to Zarathustra’s return to the earth from the lofty heights, undoing morality and crossing the bridge of man to superman.

The alternative to bringing forth the Superman is to degenerate into the Last Man. Those who wish to remain merely Man are fearful of the danger of chaotic life, yet chaos is necessary for imagination and real creativity, which is to say real life. Adhering to rigid rules out of fear of chaos leads man to degenerate, diminishing his ability to assert himself and face danger. “They have left the regions where it is hard to live, for they need warmth. One still loveth one’s neighbour and rubbeth against him, for one needeth warmth.” [TSZ, Prologue, 5]

The supposed social virtue of liberalism is really motivated by a desire for comfort and ease in life, hence its consistent aversion toward struggle and conflict.

One still worketh, for work is a pastime. But one is careful lest the pastime should hurt one.

One no longer becometh poor or rich; both are too burdensome. Who still wanteth to rule? Who still wanteth to obey? Both are too burdensome.

No shepherd, and one herd! Every one wanteth the same; every one is equal: he who hath other sentiments goeth voluntarily into the madhouse. [TSZ, Prologue, 5]

The bourgeois love of industry is no less self-complacent than asceticism, since it is done as a hobby or pastime, not as part of a real struggle for survival. The hypocrisy of this industriousness is shown by the absurd rule that one’s work should not hurt the fortune of another. What sort of ambition is this, that we should fear to rise over others? The bourgeois liberal shuns the responsibilities of the aristocrat, and is horrified by the ruthless ferocity of the criminal lower classes. He can pretend to be morally superior to the despot and the hoodlum only because he retreats from the extremes into comfortable mediocrity.

Nietzsche illustrates the alternative to such complacency in the parable of the rope-dancer. A rope, representing the state of “man,” is stretched between two towers (i.e., from animal to superman). A rope-dancer, while traversing this, is overtaken by a second man, who leaps over him, causing him to fall. As he lies dying, Zarathustra tells him he needs fear nothing, for his soul will die even before his body.

The man looked up distrustfully. “If thou speakest the truth,” said he, “I lose nothing when I lose my life. I am not much more than an animal which hath been taught to dance by blows and scanty fare.”

“Not at all,” said Zarathustra, “thou has made danger thy calling; therein there is nothing contemptible. Now thou perishest by thy calling: therefore will I bury thee with mine own hands.”

Those striving to transcend humanity choose to live dangerously, and may even kill each other. This willingness to live with danger ennobles man above beast. It seems Nietzsche makes courage his primary virtue; indeed the word virtus meant “manliness” or bravery. Yet he takes courage in an aesthetic sense, not a moral sense. Likewise, when he speaks of a “calling,” he means a self-chosen way of life, not some goal extrinsically imposed by some moral ideal. Thus, even the one who fails to reach the “goal” of superman deserves honor, for it is in the struggle itself that his virtue is proved.

I am not to be a herdsman, I am not to be a grave-digger. Not any more will I discourse unto the people; for the last time have I spoken unto the dead.

With the creators, the reapers, and the rejoicers will I associate: the rainbow will I show them, and all the stairs to the Superman. [TSZ, 9]

Nietzsche will not write for the rabble or for the orthodox, but for those few exceptional souls who can appreciate the spectrum he will show them. It is not that Nietzsche will give others enlightenment, for he does not propose a determinate set of truths to be followed. Rather, he wishes to make people aware of the spectrum of possibilities available to man once he is freed from morality.

The revelation of Zarathustra is experiential, and is proved by an active life. It is not some set of ideas to be attained by contemplation. On the contrary, Nietzsche disdains idealist contemplation as another self-complacent escapism, which subjects man to external imperatives or metaphysical goals.

Those who claim to discern the greatest, most beautiful good or truth by contemplation of God, virtue, or some other ideal, while despising the earthly, in fact still serve “the covetousness of their bowels.” Their highest good is simply “to gaze upon life without desire,” which is to say, with dead will, free from selfishness, “but with intoxicated moon eyes.” [TSZ, XXXVII] This supposedly super-earthly happiness is really just another gross sensualism, and an especially debilitating one at that. Nietzsche calls it “immaculate perception,” wanting nothing from external reality but to lie before it and gaze.

Oh ye sentimental dissemblers, ye covetous ones! Ye lack innocence in your desire, and now do ye defame desiring on that account!

Verily, not as creators, as procreators, or as jubilators do ye love the earth!

Where is innocence? Where there is will to procreation. And he who seeketh to create beyond himself, hath for me the purest will.

Where is beauty? Where I MUST WILL with my whole Will; where I love and perish, that an image may not remain merely an image.

Loving and perishing: these have rhymed from eternity. Will to love: that is to be ready also for death. Thus do I speak unto you cowards! [TSZ, XXXVII]

The contemplatives do not have innocent desires, for they greedily wish to enjoy gazing at their ideal, while contributing nothing to the world. They will go so far as to defame desiring worldly goods, when their own navel-gazing covetousness is far more debilitating. The pursuit of worldly goods, at least, can admit a certain innocence, when it is part of the process of creating. Nietzsche sees innocence in the will to procreate, that is, in the will to make something beyond oneself. Here is purity to be found, not in any ideal, but in an openness to that which does not yet exist. We do not patiently await a new creation, but will it into being.

The act of creation—and here Nietzsche must especially have artistic creation in mind—requires us to fully apply our will, an imparting of the self that can only be called love. Yet love of this energetic sort, a love toward the worldly and concrete, necessarily entails a willingness to perish. If we are afraid of loss and death, we can never dare grow too attached to the things of this world. Thus Nietzsche calls the contemplatives cowards.

But now doth your emasculated ogling profess to be “contemplation!” And that which can be examined with cowardly eyes is to be christened “beautiful!” Oh, ye violators of noble names! [TSZ, XXVII]

There is nothing truly contemplative about passive gazing, as the most vigorous activity of the mind is disabled. The truly beautiful is not visible to the “pure discerner,” for beauty is where we impress our will upon concrete reality through a manful struggle to create.

Zarathustra admits that he was once duped by the godlike exterior of these “contemplative ones,” and thought theirs was the highest art. “Dare only to believe in yourselves—in yourselves and in your inward parts! He who doth not believe in himself always lieth.” [TSZ, XXVII]

For Zarathustra, real knowledge is “all that is deep shall ascend—to my height,” just as the sun loves all life and the deep seas with her creative warmth, and would draw it all up to herself.

Despite his use of poetic imagery, Nietzsche considers poetry to be a lie, insofar as it proposes its images as substantial realities. Poets think nature is in love with them because of their emotional response to nature. All gods are poet-symbolizations. Even the Superman is such a symbolization, which is why Zarathustra acknowledges that he too is a poet, sometimes obliged to lie: “…they all muddle their water that it may seem deep.” [TSZ, XXXIX]

Has Nietzsche himself merely muddled the water to make it appear deep? When he speaks more clearly in Beyond Good and Evil, he substantiates his aesthetic aversion to teleological metaphysics with the following remarks on “laws of nature.”

“Nature’s conformity to law,” of which you physicists talk so proudly, as though—why, it exists only owing to your interpretation and bad “philology.” It is no matter of fact, no “text,” but rather just a naively humanitarian adjustment and perversion of meaning, with which you make abundant concessions to the democratic instincts of the modern soul! “Everywhere equality before the law—Nature is not different in that respect, nor better than we”: a fine instance of secret motive, in which the vulgar antagonism to everything privileged and autocratic—likewise a second and more refined atheism—is once more disguised. “Ni dieu, ni maître"—that, also, is what you want; and therefore “Cheers for natural law!”—is it not so? [BGE, 22]

Secular liberal explanations of nature in terms of “law” are arbitrary projections of bourgeois democratic thinking onto nature. Yet nature could just as well be interpreted as acting tyrannically, with a will to power.

…somebody might come along, who, with opposite intentions and modes of interpretation, could read out of the same “Nature,” and with regard to the same phenomena, just the tyrannically inconsiderate and relentless enforcement of the claims of power—an interpreter who should so place the unexceptionalness and unconditionalness of all “Will to Power” before your eyes, that almost every word, and the word “tyranny” itself, would eventually seem unsuitable, or like a weakening and softening metaphor—as being too human; and who should, nevertheless, end by asserting the same about this world as you do, namely, that it has a “necessary” and “calculable” course, NOT, however, because laws obtain in it, but because they are absolutely LACKING, and every power effects its ultimate consequences every moment. Granted that this also is only interpretation—and you will be eager enough to make this objection?—well, so much the better. [BGE, 22]

Nature has a necessary, calculable course, not because it follows laws, but because there are no laws, so power always effects its full consequences at all times. In other words, the mathematical principles or laws we observe are just representations of the effect of what happens when each power exerts itself to its full measure. Nothing holds power in check except another power.

If one objects that Nietzsche’s account of nature is “only interpretation,” then this is “so much the better,” since one thereby concedes that natural reality is something distinct from the meaningful structures we impose. This is to concede Nietzsche’s essential point, that nature follows no law or any other idea.


6. Atheism

This aversion to all teleology implies the non-existence of God, a presupposition Nietzsche considers so obvious as to not need justification. In Ecce Homo, he claims that he never entertained the possibility of God.

“God,” “immortality of the soul”… concepts to which I never devoted any attention or time, not even as a child.…

I do not by any means know atheism as a result; even less as an event: it is a matter of course with me, an instinct. [EH, “Why I Am So Clever,” 1]

This is not literally true, since he had a religious upbringing, and at age thirteen, he posited that God was the author of evil. [GM, Pref., 3] This exaggerated disavowal of having ever been theistic is grounded in Nietzsche’s perception of himself as too strong and inquisitive to be religious or moral. Thus he claims:

…I lack any reliable criterion for recognizing the bite of conscience: according to what one hears about it, the bite of conscience does not seem respectable to me…

I am too inquisitive… too stand for any gross answer. God is a gross answer, an indelicacy against us thinkers—at bottom merely a gross prohibition for us: you shall not think! [Loc. cit.]

From what we know of his life, as well as from his writings, which give an account of the “worm of guilt” that can come only from familiarity, it is certain that Nietzsche is also lying about his ignorance of conscience. Such denials reflect his desire to make himself innocent of morality, like a child.

His aesthetic objection against God is that this is just a placeholder answer designed to stifle thought. Saying “God did it,” or “God wills it,” tells us nothing, since God is inconceivable and inscrutable. Thus explaining things by referring them to God is basically telling us to stop inquiring.

In parts of the Zarathustra prologue and elsewhere, Nietzsche takes atheism as a brute fact from which he infers the non-existence of objective moral good. Yet the presupposition of atheism is not necessary to arrive at this conclusion. It might suffice to assume that God is indifferent to good and evil among men, as Epicurus did. Still, Epicurus held up the gods as an ideal to be emulated, so this would not be acceptable to Nietzsche. No gods must exist, not even indifferent gods, if we are to guarantee the absence of any objective moral ideals.

While we may agree with Nietzsche that it is impossible for there to be any objective moral good without an existent God (i.e., a metaphysical Good), it might still be possible to know something of the good without explicit knowledge of God. After all, though physics depends on God, we may still know something of physics without divine revelation. We may understand immediate phenomena without knowing their deeper causes. Thus ignoring God does not necessarily prevent us from arriving at some knowledge of objective good.

Nietzsche’s ethical objection against the existence of God is that this stifles our creativity.

God is a conjecture: but I do not wish your conjecturing to reach beyond your creating will.

Could ye CREATE a God?—Then, I pray you, be silent about all Gods! But ye could well create the Superman.

Not perhaps ye yourselves, my brethren! But into fathers and forefathers of the Superman could ye transform yourselves: and let that be your best creating! [TSZ, XXIV]

Instead of imagining a Being well beyond our power to create, we should instead focus on the self-surpassing that is within our capacity to act. The ideal of God invites us to gaze passively, since we cannot make ourselves divine, while the Superman is an attainable reality toward which we might exert ourselves. Consider the contrast in energy between the man who builds a hut for himself with the one who hopes to be given a mansion.

Could ye CONCEIVE a God?—But let this mean Will to Truth unto you, that everything be transformed into the humanly conceivable, the humanly visible, the humanly sensible! Your own discernment shall ye follow out to the end!

And what ye have called the world shall but be created by you: your reason, your likeness, your will, your love, shall it itself become! [TSZ, XXIV]

Instead of the idealist’s notion of a Will to Truth, pursuing the abstract or inconceivable, Nietzsche proposes that the only “Will to Truth” is really a manifestation of Will to Power, as we impose our own reason, will, and likeness onto external reality. This sort of Will to Truth would be an act of creativity, rather than a passive reception. The one who thinks of Truth as some pre-existing or eternal thing “out there” has only to receive it with docility, taking care not to impose his subjectivity over it. Nietzsche, by contrast, recognizes no duty to accept “the truth,” but rather sees truth as something we create by imposing our designs on reality.

“IF there were gods, how could I endure it to be no God! THEREFORE there are no Gods.” [TSZ, XXIV] Divinity, being utterly transcendent, is inaccessible to us non-gods, so we cannot attain truly divine bliss. This frustration is not the only reason why the existence of divinity is an unbearably bitter conjecture.

God is a thought—it maketh all the straight crooked, and all that standeth reel. What? Time would be gone, and all the perishable would be but a lie?

To think this is giddiness and vertigo to human limbs, and even vomiting to the stomach: verily, the reeling sickness do I call it, to conjecture such a thing.

Evil do I call it and misanthropic: all that teaching about the one, and the plenum, and the unmoved, and the sufficient, and the imperishable! [TSZ, XXIV]

The idea that the fundamental reality is an eternal, unchanging, self-sufficient Deity would imply that the world as we know it, temporal, changing, incomplete, and perishable, is a lie. God is all the things that man and man’s world are not. Divine reality is a repudiation of human reality. Worse, there is nothing for man to do creatively, since all perfection already exists in God. Why should we bother to improve this incomplete world through our own creative exertion, when we can instead model it after an already existing ideal? Awareness of God stifles genuine creativity, as we instead try to conform to a given rule.

Nietzsche is more honest than most atheists, candidly admitting that he prefers for God not to exist, without pretending to be compelled by some scientific proof. Unlike most other unbelievers, he does not recognize a “will to truth” that forces him to “be objective” and passively submit to rules of criticism and evidence. Thus he sees no virtue in pretending to “follow reason,” for, like Stirner, he sees reason as his creature, an instrument for projecting his will.

The rejection of the Deity even as a conjecture is necessary for humans to be genuine creators: “what would there be to create if there were—gods!” [TSZ, XXIV] Only in the absence of gods can we truly create and not just replicate some prior template or ideal. A.M. Ludovici remarks on this passage that the ideal of the Superman gives the cheerfulness necessary to overcome the despair and aimlessness of a world without a god, yet I do not think Nietzsche sees things that way. First, the Superman is not an ideal, but a concrete entity realizable in history, and we manifest him even in the act of striving for him (recall the rope-dancer parable). Second, Nietzsche does not see the world without a god as something depressing and aimless by default, only to be “remedied” by the Superman, but rather he sees positive value in all assertions of Will to Power, from the inanimate to the animal, from man to superman. On the contrary, it is the existence of God that he finds would make life pointless, since everything has already been done for us.

Nonetheless, Nietzsche acknowledges that one function of the act of creating is to alleviate suffering. This does not mean that suffering is something from which we should flee, for we must suffer before we can create. A creator must be a newborn child and endure the pangs of the child bearer. There must even be bitter dying in the life of a creator.

All FEELING suffereth in me, and is in prison: but my WILLING ever cometh to me as mine emancipator and comforter.

Willing emancipateth: that is the true doctrine of will and emancipation… [TSZ, XXIV]

Feelings suffer, as they are forced to endure whatever comes from without. We are emancipated not by removing pain, but by becoming active instead of passive. This is accomplished by willing.

Self-actualization, self-creation, self-willing… however we choose to express it, Nietzsche sees this as incompatible with the existence of God. This has not prevented at least one Christian blogger (Chris Noland) from arguing that the Will to Power could itself come from God! While this may seem like clumsy apologetics, there really is nothing in Nietzsche to preclude such a possibility. God would stifle our creativity only as a consciously held ideal or template, but this objection dissipates if He operates “behind the scenes,” empowering that free, creative nature which Nietzsche so admires. God may exist, though it would still be best not to think about Him when we are creating, for much the same reason we should not ponder what comes from grace and what comes from free will, but instead we should act virtuously in innocence.

If not from God, perhaps, the Will to Power could come “from nature.” Nietzsche admires the beauty and wisdom of nature, though he denies that it has rationality. Nature’s wisdom is not discursive, but silent, unspoken. It is the very absence of discursive intelligence which is the wisdom of nature. [TSZ, XLVIII] Indeed, we marvel at the natural world most when we consider it as spontaneous and unplanned. If it were the direct product of an intelligent plan or design, there is much that we would find flawed, disorganized, or deficient.

What Nietzsche loves about nature is that it says only Yes to everything, revealing an innocent beauty and wisdom. Notions of good and evil, by contrast, are just passing clouds that come and go, denying various aspects of the natural world. “Rather will I sit in a tub under a closed heaven, rather will I sit in the abyss without heaven, than see thee, thou luminous heaven, tainted with passing clouds!” [TSZ, XLVIII] The tub, an obvious reference to Diogenes, indicates that Nietzsche would sooner adopt the impoverished, semi-bestial nature of the Cynics than suffer the world-denying notions of good and evil. He would even prefer nihilistic despair over any ideology that condemns the world.

Those who taint nature's innocence, mixing it with good and evil, cannot bless or curse from the heart: “…he who cannot bless shall LEARN to curse!” [TSZ, XLVIII] Those who will not partake of Nature’s spontaneous, boundless Yea will end up cursing the world as they find it, and even this cursing is an insincere, learned attribute.

Zarathustra, by contrast, is only a blesser and Yea-sayer.

This, however, is my blessing: to stand above everything as its own heaven, its round roof, its azure bell and eternal security: and blessed is he who thus blesseth!

For all things are baptized at the font of eternity, and beyond good and evil; good and evil themselves, however, are but fugitive shadows and damp afflictions and passing clouds.

Verily, it is a blessing and not a blasphemy when I teach that “above all things there standeth the heaven of chance, the heaven of innocence, the heaven of hazard, the heaven of wantonness.”

“Of Hazard”—that is the oldest nobility in the world; that gave I back to all things; I emancipated them from bondage under purpose.

This freedom and celestial serenity did I put like an azure bell above all things, when I taught that over them and through them, no “eternal Will”—willeth. [TSZ, XLVIII]

Zarathustra’s blessing is to make all natural objects free from any sort of fate or eternal will. It is precisely in Hazard or danger that nature is noblest. It is not providentially safeguarded, so it is free. Note his Epicurean concern for serenity, and his modern concern for freedom.

This wantonness and folly did I put in place of that Will, when I taught that “In everything there is one thing impossible—rationality!”

A LITTLE reason, to be sure, a germ of wisdom scattered from star to star—this leaven is mixed in all things: for the sake of folly, wisdom is mixed in all things! [TSZ, XLVIII]

Nature is not fundamentally rational, though we find rationality sprinkled erratically here and there in a universe of chance and wantonness. Rather than nature being subject to reason, instead we find that what little rationality the universe holds is subjected to the wanton willing of natural objects.

O heaven above me! thou pure, thou lofty heaven! This is now thy purity unto me, that there is no eternal reason—spider and reason—cobweb:—

—That thou art to me a dancing-floor for divine chances, that thou art to me a table of the Gods, for divine dice and dice-players!— [TSZ, XLVIII]

Nietzsche is in marked contrast with the atheists of his day, who sought to dispense with God by imposing strong determinism over nature. Nietzsche’s concern, being fundamentally ethical, makes him see that nature is ethically chaotic, so he regards the world as dancing to chance rather than mechanically following rational laws. Such laws would just be an atheistic substitute for divine providence, which Nietzsche more than once portrays as a spider at the center of a web. Both the rationalistic atheist and the theist share a mania for explaining everything in terms of an interconnected web of causality. Such ultra-rationalism leaves no room for real freedom and creativity.


7. Against Materialism

Since Nietzsche’s atheism is ethically motivated by the primacy of free, wanton Will, he does not follow other atheists into philosophical materialism. For him force, not substance, is primary. The central concept of the world as Will is antithetical to materialism and the strong determinism associated with it in the nineteenth century. By making matter primary, even to the extent that will is its supposed “epiphenomenon,” the active is made subject to the passive and inert. All willing would be robbed of its freedom, being entirely subject to matter. Matter, in turn, is subject to deterministic laws, so that all is ruled by an atheistic fate. Nietzsche rejects this view by turning to an alternative conceptualization of physics.

A philosophical basis for rejecting materialist atomism was already established by the Jesuit Roger Joseph Boscovich (1711-1787) in his treatise Theoria philosophia naturalis redacta ad unicam legem virium in natura existentum (Venice, 1758). Boscovich showed that the mechanistic assumption of solid, corpuscular matter was untenable. Instead of extensive particles, there were only centers of force, and physics could be understood entirely in terms of dynamic relations, without the supposition of substance. Boscovich thought he could reduce Newton’s three laws to one, and explain mechanics in terms of forces without matter. In this view, gravity would not be a property of matter, but pure force needing no substratum. Even space itself need not be thought of as extension, but rather relationally as Leibniz had conceived. The metaphysics of substance was thereby eliminated.

While Boscovich’s mathematical demonstrations were flawed, his ideas were nonetheless borne out by future developments in physics. Michael Faraday acknowledged his debt to Boscovich for supposing that charged particles were centers of “lines of force” that could exist even in a void, though he retained the supposition of a particle. Other natural philosophers likewise gave heed to Boscovich, but in the late nineteenth century, there was a revival of materialism in the form of atomic theory. Still, it was soon realized that a purely corpuscular theory of atoms was untenable. In the twentieth century, with the advent of quantum mechanics and the relativistic account of gravity, it is again no longer necessary to suppose that particles are discrete amounts of “stuff” occupying space, and in fact such a supposition becomes highly problematic. We need not think of forces or other dynamic quantities as properties of some substance, but as disembodied relations. Indeed, the question of the “size” of a particle is wholly dependent on the kind of force interaction we are considering.

Notwithstanding these developments, it remains commonplace among scientists and other thinkers to speak of reality in materialistic terms. They contrast their “empirical” view, accepting only material existence, with “superstitious” beliefs in the immaterial, incorporeal or ethereal. Yet Nietzsche reminds us that materialism itself is a metaphysical supposition ill-supported by empirical science. “Boscovich has taught us to abjure the belief in the last thing that ‘stood fast’ of the earth—the belief in ‘substance,’ in ‘matter,’ in the earth-residuum, and particle-atom.” [BGE, 12]

Materialism is a last attempt to preserve some eternal principle in the universe. Eternal, indestructible matter (as conceived in the nineteenth century) acted as an atheistic substitute for God, always remaining behind every phenomenon, governing everything with inexorable necessity. Once substance is cast aside, there is no longer any firm reference point to which we might anchor our beliefs. We are left only to accept the transient and relational.

Nietzsche rejects not only material substance, but all substance. He will not replace materialism with a substantial idealism, a “soul-atomism” that conceives of minds or souls as indestructible monads. Instead he favors “conceptions as ‘mortal soul,’ and ‘soul of subjective multiplicity,’ and ‘soul as social structure of the instincts and passions.’” [BGE, 12] This metaphysical account of the self differs from that of Stirner, who saw the self as a concrete substance, albeit one that it is ever-changing and self-creating. Nietzsche thinks of the soul as something intrinsically relational and transient, not substantial. While Stirner derided the incorporeal as “ghosts” or “spooks,” Nietzsche sees no discredit in admitting the soul to be insubstantial, since all reality is such.

The relational conception of the soul entails that we should see it as a network of desires and passions (i.e., the psychic variety of forces and impetuses). Such impulses, far from being a degradation of our nature, are the primary reality.

Supposing that nothing else is “given” as real but our world of desires and passions, that we cannot sink or rise to any other “reality” but just that of our impulses—for thinking is only a relation of these impulses to one another:—are we not permitted to make the attempt and to ask the question whether this which is “given” does not SUFFICE, by means of our counterparts, for the understanding even of the so-called mechanical (or “material”) world? I do not mean as an illusion, a “semblance,” a “representation” (in the Berkeleyan and Schopenhauerian sense), but as possessing the same degree of reality as our emotions themselves—as a more primitive form of the world of emotions… as a kind of instinctive life in which all organic functions, including self-regulation, assimilation, nutrition, secretion, and change of matter, are still synthetically united with one another—as a PRIMARY FORM of life?—In the end, it is not only permitted to make this attempt, it is commanded by the conscience of LOGICAL METHOD. Not to assume several kinds of causality, so long as the attempt to get along with a single one has not been pushed to its furthest extent… [BGE, 36]

If thought, long mistaken to be substantial, is just the result of the interaction of our impulses and desires, perhaps the pseudo-substance of the “material” world is likewise a product of analogous impulses, more primitive than our emotions, but not fundamentally different in kind. Nietzsche justifies this inference on the grounds of parsimony. We are directly aware of the causality of desire or impulse—indeed this is the model of our notion of causality—so we should see how far we can go with this before inventing another kind of causality. He distinguishes himself from the idealists, denying that the mechanical world is somehow derivative of the mental world. The mechanical world is every bit as real as the mental, and does not depend on the latter for its existence, but rather both exist by the same mode of relational impetuses.

Although Nietzsche elsewhere emphatically rejects the quest for certainty or truth, here he seems to make a Cartesian inquiry into fundamental reality, grounding his argument in what is most certain. For Descartes, this was thought, but for Nietzsche it is desire or passion. This is why Descartes produced a metaphysics of substance, while Nietzsche has a purely relational metaphysics.

The question is ultimately whether we really recognize the will as OPERATING, whether we believe in the causality of the will; if we do so—and fundamentally our belief IN THIS is just our belief in causality itself—we MUST make the attempt to posit hypothetically the causality of the will as the only causality. “Will” can naturally only operate on “will”—and not on “matter” (not on “nerves,” for instance): in short, the hypothesis must be hazarded, whether will does not operate on will wherever “effects” are recognized—and whether all mechanical action, inasmuch as a power operates therein, is not just the power of will, the effect of will. [BGE, 36]

Against those who claim that the causality of the will is an illusion, Nietzsche asserts that this is the only operation that we observe directly; indeed, it is the only empirically known causality. Our attribution of causality to the rest of nature is by analogy with the will. Materialists hesitate to attribute causality to the will because they see no way it can operate on matter. They are correct to note this impossibility, but their mistake is their underlying assumption about reality as material. Once it is understood that all reality consists of relational forces, there is no barrier to admitting that the will can act on the rest of reality, which is also constituted of forces or wills.

Nietzsche’s hypothesis is borne out by the observation that all physical “effects” involve measurable changes in force relations. Indeed, we measure effects precisely by these changes, so that the supposition of a force-bearing substratum is empirically unnecessary. Thus there is no obstacle to conceiving of the whole world as “Will,” with the understanding that this is not generally a rational consciousness, but a collection of impersonal, aimless impulses.

Mind-body duality is collapsed not by reducing mind to matter or making matter a mental representation, but by explaining all force as a will to power. In other words, reality consists of a collection of impulses or forces that exert themselves as far as they are able, until they combine with other forces or are opposed by them. The desires and emotions found in animals are just special cases of this more generalized willing in all nature. Such an account of the mind vaguely resembles the contention of eighteenth-century materialists that sensation must be a property of all matter, except Nietzsche, under following Boscovich, dispenses with matter.

In this world, will only operates on will. There is no “free will” in the conventional Christian sense of a self-causing agent, undetermined by anything extrinsic. For all his emphasis on freedom and self-actualization, Nietzsche rejects free will as a causa sui, regarding this as an incoherent attempt to explain will in terms of another kind of causality. He also rejects the “non-free will” of the materialists, which is utterly subordinated to mechanical causality. On the contrary, the “laws of mechanics” are effects of willing.

Expanding on Nietzsche’s remarks, it follows that no creature, whether a human being or a rock, obeys any law of nature, but rather each exerts itself fully until it is opposed or subsumed by another. All visible objects, which we naively call “material,” are really networks of impulses or wills, which may combine and act as a unit upon other objects. In the global network of wills acting upon wills, there is no room for a causa sui that initiates a chain of causality with nothing prior to it. The present state of each force is determined by other forces acting upon it. We are so many parts of the World-Will, influenced by and influencing the rest. We are part of the world, and participate in its self-creation, not by initiating a chain of causality ex nihilo, but by ever-shifting relations among the constituent forces.

This explanation agrees with Nietzsche’s description of how his physics yields the world as Will to Power, the centerpiece of his thought.

Granted, finally, that we succeeded in explaining our entire instinctive life as the development and ramification of one fundamental form of will—namely, the Will to Power, as my thesis puts it; granted that all organic functions could be traced back to this Will to Power, and that the solution of the problem of generation and nutrition—it is one problem—could also be found therein: one would thus have acquired the right to define ALL active force unequivocally as WILL TO POWER. The world seen from within, the world defined and designated according to its “intelligible character”—it would simply be “Will to Power,” and nothing else. [BGE, 36]

Organic life is not some strange new thing superadded to a mechanical universe, nor is it a mechanical effect. Life is characterized by generation and nutrition, which is to say assimilating other forces to itself and extending itself, imposing its own forms elsewhere. This is nothing but the Will to Power at the base of all reality, including mechanics, which is just another set of effects of such Will. Here we also find Nietzsche’s definition of Will to Power as active force. We will later see that he regards all force as active, regarding mere capacity without action as a contradiction, much as Stirner did.

Boscovich’s account of physics would have a further influence on Nietzsche, insofar as time was considered purely relational and non-extensive. This would help Nietzsche to formulate his doctrine of eternal recurrence, Zarathustra’s supreme revelation.


8. Against Skepticism and Nihilism

Although Nietzsche is often called a nihilist, he denounces nihilism as weakness whenever he mentions it. Similarly, he regards philosophical skepticism as a kind of timidity, notwithstanding his own strongly subjectivist, hypercritical thinking. Nihilism is a denial or despair of the world, and it can sometimes be the product of skepticism, insofar as this exalts a Will to Truth above all else.

While Nietzsche regards most idealism as a sham, with personal aesthetic preferences masquerading as discovered objective truths, he acknowledges that a minority may be sincere in their Will to Truth, accepting a few certainties rather than many possibilities

…there may even be puritanical fanatics of conscience, who prefer to put their last trust in a sure nothing, rather than in an uncertain something. But that is Nihilism, and the sign of a despairing, mortally wearied soul, notwithstanding the courageous bearing such a virtue may display. [BGE, 10]

Nihilism is cowardly despair, despite its pretensions of facing bleak reality bravely. Nihilists share with dogmatists a need to cling to certainty. They reject all dogmas precisely because they consider them to be uncertain.

It seems, however, to be otherwise with stronger and livelier thinkers who are still eager for life. In that they side AGAINST appearance, and speak superciliously of “perspective,” in that they rank the credibility of their own bodies about as low as the credibility of the ocular evidence that “the earth stands still,” and thus, apparently, allowing with complacency their securest possession to escape (for what does one at present believe in more firmly than in one’s body?),—who knows if they are not really trying to win back something which was formerly an even securer possession, something of the old domain of the faith of former times, perhaps the “immortal soul,” perhaps “the old God,” in short, ideas by which they could live better, that is to say, more vigorously and more joyously, than by “modern ideas”? [BGE, 10]

Skeptics, in their eagerness to discover the world as it really is, make the mistake of disparaging subjectivity as less real than objective, external reality. By doing so, they distrust their own bodies, which is all they have, and are inadvertently retreating to the older idealism of a reality beyond our senses. Still, Nietzsche admires the vigor of such skeptics, for they are right to be dissatisfied with modern ideas such as positivism, but they need to go somewhere new, not backward.

Scientific skepticism contradicts itself when it extols empiricism and denounces subjectivity. The empirical, after all, is the experiential, and all observation requires a determinate perspective. To sense something requires us to be in a determinate place, time, and circumstance, and to have a subjective perspective. It is from subjective sensation alone that we can know anything. “From the senses originate all trustworthiness, all good conscience, all evidence of truth.” [BGE, 134]

This exaltation of subjective sensation does not mean Nietzsche is taking the idealist’s view of physical reality.

To study physiology with a clear conscience, one must insist on the fact that the sense-organs are not phenomena in the sense of the idealistic philosophy; as such they certainly could not be causes! Sensualism, therefore, at least as regulative hypothesis, if not as heuristic principle. What? And others say even that the external world is the work of our organs? But then our body, as a part of this external world, would be the work of our organs! But then our organs themselves would be the work of our organs! It seems to me that this is a complete REDUCTIO AD ABSURDUM, if the conception CAUSA SUI is something fundamentally absurd.

Consequently, the external world is NOT the work of our organs—? [BGE, 15]

The idealist view that material objects are knowable only as phenomena is rendered incoherent when we consider the sense-organs themselves. These are clearly physiological, yet they cannot be mere phenomena, or they could not causally generate our perceptions. Once it is acknowledged that the sense-organs act as if they had a causal role in our sensations, though we might still deny that all knowledge really comes through the senses (i.e., sensualism as regulative hypothesis, not heuristic principle), it follows that at least the sensual aspects of our perceived world is the work of these organs. Yet if the perceived world is nothing more than the work of the sensitive mind, it would follow that even our material body, and the sense-organs themselves, would be the work of the sense-organs. This would make the sense-organs a causa sui.

Nietzsche’s argument certainly refutes the stronger forms of idealism, which would make the external world of phenomena the product of our mind. It leaves untouched, however, the more subtle versions that acknowledge an objective, extra-mental reality, but insist only that the world-as-percept is the creation of the mind. Nietzsche would not be satisfied even with these milder forms, insofar as they might try to deny or diminish the reality of the sensual. For him, subjectively experienced sensation is the prime reality, not because mind is primary, but because sensation is our link to the real, external world, which consists of will or desire (though generally not in a self-conscious sense).

This understanding is necessary to arrive at Nietzsche’s supreme confidence in his own instincts, desires and sensations, and his consequent disdain for skepticism.

[People fear that a non-skeptic philosopher is] perhaps a newly discovered Russian NIHILINE, a pessimism BONAE VOLUNTATIS, that not only denies, means denial, but—dreadful thought! PRACTISES denial. Against this kind of “good-will”—a will to the veritable, actual negation of life—there is, as is generally acknowledged nowadays, no better soporific and sedative than skepticism, the mild, pleasing, lulling poppy of skepticism; and Hamlet himself is now prescribed by the doctors of the day as an antidote to the “spirit,” and its underground noises. “Are not our ears already full of bad sounds?” say the skeptics, as lovers of repose, and almost as a kind of safety police; “this subterranean Nay is terrible! Be still, ye pessimistic moles!” The skeptic, in effect, that delicate creature, is far too easily frightened; his conscience is schooled so as to start at every Nay, and even at that sharp, decided Yea, and feels something like a bite thereby. Yea! and Nay!—they seem to him opposed to morality; he loves, on the contrary, to make a festival to his virtue by a noble aloofness, while perhaps he says with Montaigne: “What do I know?” Or with Socrates: “I know that I know nothing.” Or: “Here I do not trust myself, no door is open to me.” Or: “Even if the door were open, why should I enter immediately?” Or: “What is the use of any hasty hypotheses? It might quite well be in good taste to make no hypotheses at all…” [BGE, 208]

Skepticism, proposed as a remedy against nihilism, is really a sort of sedative, making the pessimists hesitate to declare their “Nay!” unequivocally. The skeptics are far from amoral, pretending to make a virtue of their aloofness or impartiality, which is really an intellectual timidity. Skepticism is symptomatic of a sickly temperament.

In the new generation, which has inherited as it were different standards and valuations in its blood, everything is disquiet, derangement, doubt, and tentativeness; the best powers operate restrictively, the very virtues prevent each other growing and becoming strong, equilibrium, ballast, and perpendicular stability are lacking in body and soul. That, however, which is most diseased and degenerated in such nondescripts is the WILL; they are no longer familiar with independence of decision, or the courageous feeling of pleasure in willing—they are doubtful of the “freedom of the will” even in their dreams. Our present-day Europe, the scene of a senseless, precipitate attempt at a radical blending of classes, and CONSEQUENTLY of races, is therefore skeptical in all its heights and depths, sometimes exhibiting the mobile skepticism which springs impatiently and wantonly from branch to branch, sometimes with gloomy aspect, like a cloud over-charged with interrogative signs—and often sick unto death of its will!

Nietzsche is quite serious in his assertion of a physiological basis for the strength or weakness of will, as well he should be, given his denial of a spiritual soul. If this makes liberal atheists uncomfortable, it is only because they are too timid to abandon the idealist notion of human equality. Individuals are unequal by every empirical measure, and if the mind is physiological, we should not hesitate to admit that mental traits are heritable like other physiological traits. We know now that heredity is not a simple linear process, but one of complex recombination, though we may still speak of general trends in the acquisition or loss of a trait in a population.

While lacking scientific accuracy, Nietzsche’s account is generally consistent with the facts of nineteenth-century Europe. Violent, aggressive types of desiring or willing began to be culturally suppressed in modern democracies, and were supplanted by softer traits such as “humanity,” tolerance, pity, and deference to the majority. The politically imposed mixing of classes and races increased this infirmity of will, by removing selective pressures. In order for an exceptional type to develop, some discretion or discrimination in breeding is required. This is seen, for example, in the marked intelligence of Ashkenazi Jews as a population. While this talk makes most moderns uncomfortable, again this is purely a symptom of holding the idealist dogma of human equality. One may object that most changes in mental states are driven by culture, yet such an objection holds force only if the mental is conceived as being on a different plane than physiological reality. In a purely physiological conception of man, even the capacity for culture and specific cultural inclinations have a physiological basis.

Regardless of where one stands on the heritability of strength of will, it can hardly be disputed that, wherever modern democracy has prevailed, we have seen an increased mixing of the classes and races, and a tendency away from violent, aggressive traits, toward more equivocal forms of self-assertion. To put this with Nietzschean bluntness, wherever liberal egalitarian herd morality prevails, we see a dilution of virility and increasing effeminacy. The liberal is too effete to be comfortable with the terms “virile” and “effeminate,” as his enslavement to the dogma of equality prevents him from plainly stating that a man is stronger than a woman, without introducing a host of caveats. More pertinently, he really does resent the classical masculine virtues: violence, aggression, a will-to-dominate, a sense of supremacy (now derided as “arrogance”), cruelty (i.e., delight in the pain of one’s enemies), and hardness (now “insensitivity”). In their place, we find an exaltation of “empathy” (really pity), altruism, deference toward the feelings of others, and a love of the weak as such (i.e., being a minority or other ostensibly disadvantaged group earns sympathy, even privilege). How one evaluates these changes is a matter of ethics, but the fact these changes have occurred is unquestionable.

Skepticism is prevalent in liberal democracies because it manifests the weak-willed timidity that democracy facilitates. We do not want to offend our ears with a harsh “Nay!,” so we will leave the door open, hedge our bets, and commit to nothing. Liberalism has continued the Christian project of suppressing and distrusting our animal desires, though it does this inconsistently. It promotes sexual indulgence as “natural,” yet opposes the no less natural desires toward violence and aggression. Nietzsche, by contrast, would have us trust all of our desires, and so he does not hesitate to make his own evaluations. In his case, he will say “Yea!” to the world.

Against skepticism, Nietzsche justifies his trust in his desires, since they are part of his body, which is a real, willing agent. “Body am I entirely, and nothing more; and soul is only the name of something in the body.” [TSZ, IV] The skeptic, like the idealist, retreats into the mind, despising the body and constructing an Ego that has nothing to do with it.

“Ego” (Ich), sayest thou, and art proud of that word. But the greater thing—in which thou art unwilling to believe— is thy body with its big sagacity; it saith not “ego,” but doeth it. [TSZ, IV]

Consistent with his conception of reality as force rather than substance, Nietzsche sees the Ego as physical activity rather than a thinking substance. The prime locus of the Self is the active body, not thought.

Behind thy thoughts and feelings, my brother, there is a mighty lord, an unknown sage—it is called Self (Selbst); it dwelleth in thy body, it is thy body.

There is more sagacity in thy body than in thy best wisdom. And who then knoweth why thy body requireth just thy best wisdom? Thy Self laugheth at thine ego, and its proud prancings. “What are these prancings and flights of thought unto me?” it saith to itself. “A by-way to my purpose. I am the leading-string of the ego, and the prompter of its notions.”

The Self saith unto the ego: “Feel pain!” And thereupon it suffereth, and thinketh how it may put an end thereto—and for that very purpose it IS MEANT to think.

The Self saith unto the ego: “Feel pleasure!” Thereupon it rejoiceth, and thinketh how it may ofttimes rejoice—and for that very purpose it IS MEANT to think. [TSZ, IV]

The thinking part of the body, which we call the conscious “ego,” is a slave to the real Self, which is the body. All of our conscious thoughts are subservient to the desires of the body, many of which are unknown to us.

To the despisers of the body will I speak a word. That they despise is caused by their esteem. What is it that created esteeming and despising and worth and will?

The creating Self created for itself esteeming and despising, it created for itself joy and woe. The creating body created for itself spirit, as a hand to its will.

Even in your folly and despising ye each serve your Self, ye despisers of the body. I tell you, your very Self wanteth to die, and turneth away from life.

No longer can your Self do that which it desireth most:—create beyond itself. That is what it desireth most; that is all its fervour.

But it is now too late to do so:—so your Self wisheth to succumb, ye despisers of the body. [TSZ, IV]

Even the despisers of the body serve the body, as esteeming and despising are products of the body. They are in a state, however, where the Self can no longer create beyond itself, and now wishes to die. This is why Nietzsche will elsewhere characterize despisers of the body as nihilists.

In the Self’s supreme desire to create beyond itself, we most clearly see the distinction between Nietzsche and the nihilistic Stirner, who saw self-enjoyment as consumption, and found no failing in suicide. The Self does have a supreme desire (though not a moral imperative), and those selves that lose the ability to create must desire their own annihilation. There is no contradiction here, as the Self never loses its desire to create, and in fact wishes to die precisely because it cannot do so any longer. We are not speaking of conscious intentionality, as even plants and brute animals decay and die once they are no longer capable of growth or reproduction.

This desire to create beyond oneself is what saves Nietzsche from falling into a dissolute egoism or despairing nihilism. Still, he is emphatically an immoralist, and does not conceive of the will to create as a moral imperative. The will to create, like all other desires, is generated by the bodily Self, which in turn is influenced by other natural forces or wills. Each Self sets its own goal and defines its own standards. Thus Nietzsche’s account of virtue, which is to follow, represents only his own aesthetic preferences.

Continue to Part III

© 2014, 2017 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved.