1. My impossibles. Nietzsche derides various philosophers, assigning them scathing and insulting titles. He calls Seneca “the toreador of virtue.” He calls Rousseau “the return to nature in impuris naturalibus.” And so on.
Seneca (c. 4 B.C.E. – 65 C.E.) was a Roman Stoic philosopher. The Stoics believed that virtue is the highest good, and that virtue is based on knowledge and reason. The Stoics also condemned human passions as the effects of poor judgment or moral/intellectual inferiority. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was an important Enlightenment philosopher. In this section, Nietzsche undermines philosophers whose concepts contradict his own. So here, he’s attacking philosophers who prioritize reason and virtue over instinct and sensory experience. This sets the stage for the project of “Expeditions of an Untimely Man,” the book’s longest chapter. Nietzsche is going to attack influential thinkers whose ideas, he feels, have contributed to the degradation of culture in the modern world.
2. Renan. Nietzsche attacks the writer Renan, who gets more positive praise than he deserves. Renan aspires to be a serious intellectual, but he is unable to leave Christianity out of his work. Nietzsche compares Renan to a Jesuit or “father confessor,” referencing how Renan “becomes dangerous only when he loves.” He implies that Renan’s work endangers France’s “poor, sick, and feeble-willed.”
French rationalist writer Ernest Renan was a popular historian of religion. He also held racist and nationalist views. Nietzsche is suggesting that Christianity is what prevents Renan from being a serious scholar and what shapes his more problematic views.
3. Saint-Beuve. Nietzsche calls Sainte-Beuve effeminate, a gossip, and accuses him of having no taste. He longs to be a revolutionary but is too constrained by fear. He is “embittered against” great men, and “like the celebrated worm, […] constantly feels himself trodden on.” He aspires to be a libertine but is too cowardly to admit it.
In his attack on popular literary critic Sainte-Beave, Nietzsche recalls the trodden worm metaphor he first mentions in “Maxims and Arrow.” Here, Nietzsche is suggesting that Sainte-Beave’s literary scholarship draws on his feeling embittered by writers who are more successful than him, or that his opinions are all reaction and projection.
4. Nietzsche can’t stand The Imitatio Christi, which reeks of what he calls the “eternal feminine.” Its author’s views on love would confound even the French, he asserts.
The Imitatio Christi (The Imitation of Christ) is a Christian devotional book by Thomas à Kempis, published c. 1418-1427. The book argues that Christians should imitate Christ (acting Christlike is a foundational principle of Christianity) inwardly and renounce external vices. The “eternal feminine” is a concept imagined by Goethe in his play Faust. It’s the idealization of abstract (stereotypically) feminine qualities. Nietzsche calls on the term here to, in modern (and still sexist) parlance, insult Kempis by calling him effeminate.
5. G. Eliot. Nietzsche sees Eliot’s work as indicative of the English move to get rid of “the Christian God” only to hold tightly to Christian morality. Nietzsche thinks this is impossible. Because Christianity is a system, breaking free of one component (God, for example) shatters the entire system. Christianity centers around the idea that humans don’t know what’s good for them and only makes sense if one assumes the existence of God. For the English to stop believing in God but continue subscribing to Christian values in counterintuitive.
It’s illogical to stop believing in God but continue to uphold Christian values, as Nietzsche claims the author George Eliot (and the English as a whole) do. The whole purpose of Christianity is to give moral guidance to people who don’t know right from wrong. And in Christian doctrine, God is the only being that can know right from wrong. So, to assess the rightness or wrongness of Christian morals while simultaneously denying the existence of God doesn’t make sense, since the morals only hold up if there’s a transcendent, infallible God to enforce them. Again, this scenario just illustrates Nietzsche’s main point: we can’t adapt and amend old idols and moral codes, we have to destroy them and create new ones.
6. George Sand. Nietzsche criticizes George Sand. He’s read the first Lettres d’un voyageur and finds it just as “false, artificial, fustian, [and] exaggerated” as everything else inspired by Rousseau. He also attacks Sand for “coquetting with male mannerisms.”
Nietzsche uses stereotypically feminine traits as insults throughout this book, and he also criticizes women who participate in conventionally male spheres. Nietzsche’s stance on women is a controversial subject among scholars. Some claim that Nietzsche is only “anti-feminist” rather than an outright misogynist. Others believe his perceived misogyny is merely a rhetorical strategy.
7. Moral code for psychologists. Nietzsche attacks psychology’s effort to “observe for the sake of observing,” which he claims leads to a “false perspective.” When we experience things, we can’t redirect our gaze back toward ourselves, or else “every glance becomes an ‘evil eye.’” Nietzsche compares born psychologists to born painters. Neither actually works “from nature,” instead turning to their instinct to inform their painting/observing. They care about “the universal, the conclusion, the outcome” but can’t see the “individual case” at hand. Artistic nature “exaggerates, […] distorts, [and] leaves gaps.”
Nietzsche sees the error of false causality in the discipline of psychology, too. Psychology purports to be the objective study of the human mind, to “observe for the sake of observing,” yet it’s impossible to judge the human mind without attaching one’s subjective moral perspective onto it. Psychology tries to work “from nature” to discover a “universal” way of understanding the human mind, but Nietzsche thinks this is simply not possible.
8. Towards a psychology of the artist. Art can’t exist without intoxication, claims Nietzsche. Intoxication can be sexual, but it can also be an intoxication of other strong emotions—of bravery, victory, anger, cruelty. Nietzsche defines intoxication as a state of “feeling of plenitude and increased energy.” Intoxication leads to “idealizing,” which—contrary to popular belief—isn’t about creating a better version of “the petty and secondary.” Instead, it’s an “expulsion of the principal features.”
Nietzsche’s argument about the necessity of intoxication in art prioritizes the senses over rationality. Good art isn’t the product of deft skill alone—it must come upon the artist in a moment of passion or “increased energy.” This section also offers another lens through which to understand “idealizing” and idols. Instead of conventional morality’s view of the ideal, which sees the ideal as a perfect (and unattainable) version of reality, Nietzsche sees the ideal as coming from within the artist. Humans shouldn’t aspire to ideals—they should create them. Intoxication’s role in art also gestures toward Nietzsche’s concept of the Dionysian impulse, which he will discuss in greater depth later on.
9. Intoxication magnifies the artist’s senses, transforming their surroundings to mirror their powerful inner state. Art, then, is a “compulsion to transform into the perfect.” An anti-artist, by contrast, “impoverishes and attenuates things and makes them consumptive.” These artists replicate existing styles of art—they don’t create anything new. As an example of this type of artist—of which there are many throughout history—Nietzsche points to Pascal, a Christian, arguing that one can’t be a Christian and an artist because Christians are incapable of celebrating life. By contrast, Raphael, who was not a Christian, was an artist.
Good art expresses the artist’s powerful, larger-than-life inner state—the creation of good art is a positive, energizing means through which the artist acts out their will to power, their aspiration to “the perfect,” or the ideal. By contrast, anti-art is “consumptive.” Making it drains the artist of energy because it’s an act of labor, not of vital, life-affirming creation. Nietzsche doesn’t think Christians can be artists because he thinks that Christians are too self-effacing and weak to experience the intoxication required to create good art.
10. Nietzsche considers Apollonian and Dionysian, opposing “forms of intoxication” he created and introduced in The Birth of Tragedy. Apollonian intoxication—which affects visual artists and poets— involves sight, while Dionysian intoxication involves all the senses and is impossible to resist. The Dionysian is also intuitively wise and aware of their emotions. Music is a kind of art that requires Dionysian intoxication.
Nietzsche adapts the rationality vs. instinct dichotomy to an examination of art. In so doing, he further develops the argument he’s been getting at all along: that human instinct is a positive, beautiful, and life-affirming force—not a negative, sinful flaw that we need to transcend through rationality and control.
11. Nietzsche lists actors, mimes, dancers, musicians, and lyric poets among artists whose crafts involve the instincts. These crafts were once one but have become more distinct and specialized over time. The architect, by contrast, is neither Dionysian nor Apollonian. Instead, the “act of will” inspires them. Only the most powerful men have inspired architects, who have historically been inspired by “power.” Architecture is a power so mighty it speaks for itself.
With his examination of architecture, Nietzsche draws on another key element of his philosophy: the “act of will” and the will to power. Nietzsche is fairly vague about why architecture is more inspired by “power” than other art forms, but the visual appearance of architecture—the way a building looms over a city and its people—suggests a very literal presence of power in addition to whatever powerful, intoxicating impulses inspired the architect to create in the first place.
12. Nietzsche attacks Thomas Carlyle, referring to him as an “involuntary farce.” He claims that Carlyle was both a man who wanted a strong faith and “the feeling of incapacity for it,” and in this way he’s “a typical Romantic.” In fact, wanting a strong faith isn’t “proof of a strong faith,” but, in fact, the opposite.
Scottish essayist, historian, and philosopher Thomas Carlyle lacked but longed for a strong religious faith. Nietzsche suggests that Carlyle internalized Christianity’s self-effacing message without being a Christian. His internalized guilt speaks to the pervasiveness of Christian ideals in the modern world.
13. Emerson. Nietzsche argues that Emerson is “happier” and “more refined” than Carlyle. He also has better taste, and his “cheerfulness […] discourages all earnestness."
American transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson was an avowed individualist; he wrote a famous essay about self-reliance (aptly titled “Self-Reliance). Nietzsche respects him because he’s transcended institutions. He trusts his instincts and doesn’t need an outside authority to tell him right from wrong.
14. Anti-Darwin. Nietzsche challenges the “struggle for life” Darwin outlines in his theory of evolution. Nietzsche argues that this struggle isn’t for life but for power. Nietzsche thinks that it’s not the strong who defeat the weak, as Darwin suggests, but the weak who rule the strong. Nietzsche thinks that the weak rule the strong because they outnumber them. He also thinks that the strong suffer (even as they survive) because rote survival doesn’t fulfill their innate drive for power and creation. Meanwhile, the weak are content to survive and not aspire to more.
Nietzsche takes issue with Darwin’s theory of evolution because it suggests that humans come from animals and, as such, doesn’t place humanity and human creation on a pedestal. Nietzsche also prefers a model where human progress is driven by the individual strength and achievement of those who rise above the masses. Darwin’s evolutionary theory, by contrast, is purely about survival and says nothing about the human desire to create and exercise power.
15. Psychologist’s casuistry. Nietzsche compares psychologists to politicians—both desire leverage and power over their patients. This is true even of “impersonal” psychologists, for it’s just as bad—worse, even—“to have the right to look down on them” and feel oneself better or superior.
Nietzsche thinks that psychologists analyze patients to feel better about their own mental states. He sees the relationship between doctor and patient as a power struggle—to Nietzsche, the way psychologists assess their patients is analogous to the way moralists and religious leaders judge their followers. Both are based on an arbitrary, subjective standard of behavior.
16. Nietzsche criticizes Germans’ “psychological taste.” He hates how they’ve wrongfully elevated the “backdoor philosophy” of Kant.
Nietzsche thinks that 19th-century advancements in psychology (which strove to apply empirical reasoning to the study of human behavior) are flawed in the way they’ve drawn from Kant. Nietzsche wants us to revere and celebrate human passion, not try to dissect it like it’s something we can solve with rational, critical thinking.
17. Nietzsche asserts that “the most spiritual human beings” (who are also “the most courageous”) feel tragedy more acutely than others. This is also why they have greater respect for life.
People who feel tragedy more acutely embody Nietzsche’s concept of the Dionysian impulse. These people accept and revere passions—even negative passions like suffering and tragedy—instead of trying to eliminate them. To deny or condemn any experience or emotion, to Nietzsche, is to condemn life itself.
18. On the subject of ‘intellectual conscience’. Nietzsche thinks that “genuine hypocrisy” is absent from today’s culture. He thinks that hypocrisy arises from “strong belief,” which today’s people lack. He attributes this to “self-tolerance,” which allows people to “possess several convictions,” more so than they’d been able to have before. Nietzsche is afraid that contemporary humanity is “too indolent for certain vices,” and that humanity will die out as evil (which requires strong will) gives way to virtue.
Nietzsche thinks that “genuine hypocrisy” requires a strong personal conviction. And because nobody today knows how to think for themselves (they see everything through the lens of morality), nobody holds any strong convictions. He also implies that dialectical thinking contributes to people’s lack of strong opinions, since dialectics encourages people to consider different perspectives before they commit to one. Nietzsche thinks this gives credence to bad ideas that don’t deserve anyone’s time of day. Nietzsche prefers moral hypocrites to weak-willed people who consider multiple perspectives.
19. Beautiful and ugly. Nietzsche thinks that our attitudes toward beauty are “conditional.” There’s no such thing as “beautiful in itself,” since people judge beauty against “a standard of perfection.” They tie beauty to humanity’s self-worship, which reflects their instinct for “self-preservation and self-aggrandizement.” When humanity basks in beauty, they forget they were the ones who created those standards of beauty in the first place.
Like morality, beauty is subjective and “conditional,” based on a set of standards that a culture has decided on, but which aren’t true in and of themselves. Thus, just like no moral code is true itself, neither is anything “beautiful in itself.” So morality and the worship of ideals is at play in our ideas about beauty, too.
20. Nietzsche criticizes the aesthetic view that “only man” is beautiful. As well, aesthetics suggests that “nothing is ugly but degenerate man.” Humanity tends to associate ugliness with anything that feels dangerous and uncomfortable, and beauty with anything it finds pleasurable. Nietzsche thinks that ugliness inspires hatred because a person equates ugliness with “the decline of his type.”
This recalls Nietzsche’s much earlier remark about anthropologists and criminologists’ claim that criminals are often ugly. To revisit this idea in light of Nietzsche’s examination of morality, we can claim that it’s not that criminals are ugly, it’s that society has imagined a correlation between crime and ugliness—two characteristics it associates with degeneracy—that doesn’t actually exist. This passage illustrates the idea that Nietzsche put forth in the above passage—that humanity creates a standard of beauty based on its values. So here, Nietzsche argues that moral codes directly influence a culture’s standard of beauty.
21. Schopenhauer. Nietzsche identifies Schopenhauer as Germany’s most recent significant intellectual figure. Still, Nietzsche argues that Schopenhauer misinterpreted every subject he covered, from knowledge, to art, to “the will to truth,” to genius. Only Christianity has escaped Schopenhauer’s intellectual gaze. Yet Nietzsche also claims that Schopenhauer is merely “the heir of the Christian interpretation,” since he took the ideals that Christianity rejected and reinterpreted them through a Christian lens.
As a young philosopher, Nietzsche was greatly influenced by Schopenhauer, though he diverged from Schopenhauer’s pessimism as he matured. Nietzsche dislikes Schopenhauer’s nihilism, which he considers just as life-devaluing as Christianity.
22. Nietzsche continues his tirade against Schopenhauer. He cites Schopenhauer’s “melancholy” take on beauty, which Schopenhauer sees as both a “redeem[ing]” force against the baser instinct of sexuality and “the ‘focus of the will.’” Nietzsche heckles Schopenhauer, claiming that the existence of nature, which is full of beauty (and procreation) disproves this assertion. Nietzsche adds that Plato, too, discredits Schopenhauer’s claim (Plato argued that beauty encourages procreation).
Society’s standard of beauty, which equates beauty with virtue and ugliness with sin, falls apart once a person brings nature into the equation: society thinks that nature is beautiful—yet nature is full of things like procreation and violence, which society claims are immoral and bad.
23. Nietzsche expands on Plato’s views on beauty. Plato argued that Platonic philosophy would not exist had Athens “not possessed such beautiful youths.” Nietzsche scoffs at this erotic assertion. Still, Nietzsche appreciates Plato’s eroticism, for today’s philosophy is devoid of the erotic. Nietzsche also argues that dialectics came from Plato’s eroticism.
For Nietzsche, Plato’s unwillingness to separate his philosophical views on beauty from his “erotic” appreciation for young boys is a thinly veiled attempt to justify his immoral pursuit of the erotic. So, Plato is using reason to suit his personal interests, just as Socrates had before him. Still, Nietzsche prefers Plato’s public, honest eroticism to the virtue-driven, anti-passion philosophy that would develop out of Platonic philosophy.
24. L’art pour l’art. Nietzsche equates the struggle to find purpose in art with the struggle against moralizing art. Furthermore, Nietzsche claims that the sentiment “art for art’s sake” only reaffirms morality’s hold on art. To claim that art does nothing if it doesn’t moralize is to discount how art praises and glorifies, for instance.
“Art for art’s sake” (the idea that art shouldn’t moralize or preach—it should only be appreciated for its aesthetic value) was a popular idea when Nietzsche was writing Twilight of the Idols. Nietzsche disagrees with the sentiment, though, because it suggests that art is useless outside of its ability to moralize. Nietzsche thinks that stirring the human spirit, for instance, is something that art does that’s highly valuable.
Not only is art “the great stimulus to life,” art also sheds light on all that is ugly and hard about life. But does this mean that art “suffer[s] from life?” Schopenhauer seemed to think so—he thought that art’s purpose was to “liberate from the will.” But Nietzsche rejects this “pessimist’s perspective” on art and wants the artist more involved in ideas about art.
When Nietzsche calls art “the great stimulus to life,” he’s referring to the way art stirs the human spirit. His appreciation for art’s ability to illuminate life’s suffering is important. Unlike morality, which argues that living virtuously eliminates suffering (and thus devalues human suffering—seeks to extinguish it) art sees and elevates human suffering. It gives it value and a voice.
25. Nietzsche argues that “keeping open house in one’s heart” is “liberal.” For even open houses “capable of noble hospitality” keep certain rooms closed to guests. This is because they have more desirable guests they’d like to invite into those rooms.
Nietzsche seems to imply that there’s something disingenuous or performative about modern virtue/generosity. People act like they’re helping people for the sake of helping them, but they’re really doing so because there’s something in it for them—they’re not being genuinely altruistic. By extension, then, modern morality, too, is disingenuous and performative.
26. People today don’t know how to communicate what they really mean—they’ve “grown beyond whatever we have words for.” Words are for basic ideas and speaking only “vulgarize[s]” the speaker.
Nietzsche argues that the most profound human experiences can’t be expressed with language. By extension, there are passions that rationality (language as the rational translation of passion into communicable, understandable terms) can’t explain.
27. Nietzsche quotes the opening line of Tamino’s aria in The Magic Flute: “This picture is enchanting fair!” Then Nietzsche mocks “The literary woman,” who anguishes over having to choose between “aut liberi aut libri,” (freedom or books) and who praises (in French) her own intellectual abilities.
The Magic Flute is an opera by Mozart. In it, Prince Tamino must rescue Princess Pamina from the high priest Sarastro. In the process, though, Tamino becomes enchanted by Sarastro’s high ideals. Nietzsche is mocking Tamino’s fascination with these ideals, which he finds “enchanting fair!” Nietzsche also mocks well-read women. He thinks they’re vain and self-satisfied. If Nietzsche is otherwise such a proponent of self-reliance, individualism, personal freedom, and noble pursuits, it’s unclear why he mocks women for pursuing these things. At any rate, this is more evidence against Nietzsche in the long-winded, controversial debate over his contested misogyny.
28. The ‘impersonal’ take the floor. People have no trouble “being wise, patient, superior,” and sympathetic to the less fortunate. Nietzsche thinks we ought to redirect some of this energy toward the occasional “emotional vice,” since this is the only way to overcome “the virtue of the ‘impersonal.’”
Nietzsche mocks “impersonal” moralists who claims it’s easy to have compassion for the less fortunate—and hard to exercise “emotional vice,” so we ought to let loose from time to time and exercise these hard “emotional vices.” He thinks these people are just trying to justify their own vices that their own moral frameworks condone. They’re acting like it’s a chore for them to indulge in vices when really…they want to indulge in vices and just want a logic to justify it.
29. From a doctorate exam. In a mock question-and-answer format, Nietzsche argues that the purpose of a higher education is to “turn a man into a machine.” Higher education does this by making learning boring and by instilling in students “the concept of duty.” Kant’s philosophy is most effective at turning students into obedient “civil servants.”
Nietzsche thinks higher education has shifted away from knowledge for knowledge’s sake and personal fulfilment. Now, knowledge is for a specific end: to “turn a man into a machine.” He thinks contemporary society uses education as a tool to push (moral) agendas onto students instead of giving them the noble, intellectual tools they need to think for themselves.
30. The right to stupidity. In our “Age of Work,” we see the “good-natured” and tired worker in all economic and social classes. Today, the worker intrudes upon our culture’s art, too. This “man of the evening” has (in the words of Faust) his “wild instincts lulled to sleep.” He likes to vacation at the seaside or Bayreuth. Today, Nietzsche argues (as, he suggests, Wagner knows) that “art has a right to pure folly—as a kind of holiday for the spirit, the wits and the heart.”
Nietzsche argues that art suffers because the “good-natured” and tired worker only wants to be entertained—to have his “wild instincts lulled to sleep” by art that entertains but doesn’t stimulate. Nietzsche makes subtle (and unsubtle) digs at the composer Richard Wagner here—Wagner built an Opera house in Bayreuth (a town in Bavaria) at which to perform his operas. Nietzsche used to be friends with Wagner but cut ties with him in response to Wagner’s German nationalist views.
31. Another problem of diet. Julius Caesar used “tremendous marches” to protect himself against sickness. To Nietzsche, this is the most ingenious way to protect oneself against ruin.
Nietzsche commends Caesar’s marches because he sees suffering and physical endurance as signs of strength and life-affirmation.
32. The immoralist speaks. Philosophers are most offended by people who express desire. They like to see people being shrewd and cunning, but they despise it when people stoop to desire. But what’s so bad about desire? Why do we need to pretend, absurdly, that desire does not exist?
Nietzsche reaffirms one of the book’s most important themes: that desire is a natural part of life, and so when moral codes condemn desire, they also condemn and devalue life.
33. The natural value of egoism. Egoism’s value varies from person to person. The value of a person’s ego depends on whether they have an “ascending or descending line of life,” and all people are one or the other. People on an ascending line preserve and advance themselves, which makes their ego valuable. Meanwhile, people on a descending line are sickly and decaying, which makes their ego worthless.
Nietzsche thinks that affirming life and practicing self-preservation is important, but he doesn’t think that all lives are equal. In this passage, he explicitly states that only “ascending” lives are worth preserving; degraded, pitiful lives, by contrast, don’t advance society in any way and matter less. This logic contributes to Nietzsche’s broader dismissal of modern liberalism and democracy. He thinks that such institutions prop up the weak at the expense of the strong and, thus, degrade society.
34. Christian and anarchist. Anarchists who demand “‘rights’” and “‘justice’” are only bitter over their “want of culture.” They don’t understand why they suffer and feel unfulfilled. They also find value in the “cause-creating drive,” since it gives them a reason for their suffering. Whether or not a person complains about themself or others makes little difference (Christians complain about themselves, Socialists complain about others). In either case, the complainer seeks to alleviate suffering with “revenge” instead of “pleasure.”
Nietzsche likens anarchists (and socialists) who rally against injustice to Christians. He sees in both groups an aversion to human suffering, though while socialists think that corrupt institutions, for instance, cause suffering, Christians argue that personal sin causes suffering. But in both cases, Nietzsche identifies a resistance to human suffering and, by extension, a devaluation of human life (since suffering is as much a part of life as pleasure).
35. A criticism of décadence morality. Nietzsche asserts that “altruistic” morality dampens the ego. To seek out “disinterested” motives is almost decadent. But to not “seek one’s own advantage” more accurately points to not knowing what one’s advantage is. Nietzsche sees this as a “[d]isintegration of the instincts!”
Humankind has an instinctive drive to survival/self-preservation. So, morality’s praise of “altruistic” behavior (altruism is “disinterested” or selfless care for the welfare of others)—which explicitly asks people not to act out of self-interest—is a “[d]isintegration of the instincts” and a rejection of life.
36. A moral code for physicians. “The invalid is a parasite on society,” asserts Nietzsche. Physicians ought to be disgusted by patients who continue to live despite their lives no longer being worth living. The job of physicians is to maintain “ascending life” and “suppress […] degenerating life.” To Nietzsche, it’s more noble to die when it’s one’s time to die than to prolong the inevitable.
#36 expands on the point Nietzsche makes in #33 about “ascending” egos being worth more than “descending” egos. He thinks doctors should focus on saving only lives that are worth living. One could argue that Nietzsche’s point here seems somewhat hypocritical, though—Nietzsche multiple times argues that society should embrace human pain and suffering as important, meaningful elements of life—and that to reject suffering is to reject life.
Nietzsche thinks we need to determine what makes a death “natural” versus “unnatural.” We should also stop thinking of suicide as a shameful thing. The only proud, free, and natural death is death by suicide. We might not be able to control the circumstances of our birth, but we can control the circumstances of our death through suicide.
The Church condemns suicide, but Nietzsche embraces it, since dying by suicide is a way that people can exercise control over the trajectory of their lives. He sees suicide as empowering rather than shameful. It’s a way people can exercise their natural will to power.
37. Whether we have grown more moral. “Moral stupidity” (or just plain morality in Germany) has demonized Nietzsche’s concept of “beyond good and evil.” His critics accuse him of trying to eradicate “all decent feeling.” The backlash has prompted Nietzsche to reflect on the notion that today’s moral judgment is the greatest in history. People think society has achieved a new height of morality. But Nietzsche insists that contemporary people’s “nerves” couldn’t survive under Renaissance circumstances. And this isn’t a good thing. Nietzsche thinks our sensitivity has made us weak, not moral.
Nietzsche challenges critics who claim that his immoral position eradicates “all decent feeling.” He thinks that life is about more than feeling comfortable—it’s about rising to challenges and reaching new creative heights. People who think that today’s world is better than the past are prioritizing comfort over greatness, power, and intellectual rigor.
Our loss of “hostility” reflects an inner “decay of vitality.” To Nietzsche, everyone today is either an “invalid” or a “nurse.” What we today call “virtue,” men of another time would call “cowardice” or “old woman’s morality.” Furthermore, equality is not compatible with greatness. A widening of the distance between individuals, classes, and types is one characteristic of a great age. By contrast, becoming more equal reflects a civilization in decline.
Nietzsche thinks humanity has grown too soft and sentimental. This goes against (what Nietzsche sees as) humanity’s instinctive drive for power. So, modernity continues to coerce people into suppressing their natural impulses.
38. My conception of freedom. A thing’s value isn’t in what it gives us, but in what it costs us. Nietzsche argues that liberal institutions imperil freedom. They dampen “the will to power” by leveling the playing field. Liberalism makes “herd animal[s]” of people. By contrast, freedom is the consequence of the “manly” instincts to war overcoming other instincts, such as the “instinct for ‘happiness.” A free person has risen beyond the feeble wants of “shopkeepers, Christians, cows, women, Englishmen and other democrats.”
Nietzsche thinks that his contemporary world’s emphasis on equality and justice elevate the weak at the expense of the strong. This is bad for humanity in the long-term. He thinks that equality makes herd animal[s]” of people and suppresses humanity’s innate drive to rise above the masses and revel in creative power. As he sees it, catering to the masses holds back great people, and great people are the ones who advance society in the long run.
39. Criticism of modernity. Democracy is what a society becomes when it lacks “the power to organize.” For an institution to exist, it must be “anti-liberal to the point of malice” and possess “the will to tradition, to authority, to centuries-long responsibility, to solidarity between succeeding generations backwards and forwards in infinitum.” This is the only way a nation can become as great as the Roman Empire.
Nietzsche goes into greater detail about the systemic issues of modern government. He thinks that democracy is not effective because it has abandoned tactics of governance that work. Though much of this book is about breaking from past traditions, there are certain institutions of antiquity, such as the Roman Empire, that Nietzsche thinks modern society should emulate.
It’s a critical time for the German Reich. In contemporary Germany, people live in the moment and advance ideas that lead to “dissolution” rather than progress. Marriage used to have a man at the center, which gave it a “centre of gravity.” But now that women have more agency, marriage “limps with both legs.” Indulging love as part of romance is also destructive. Formerly, the institution of marriage rested on sexual drive and the desire to own property (women and children). Thus, today, marriage is meaningless.
Nietzsche’s opposition to equality extends to women’s rights, as well. Nietzsche thinks it subverts the natural order of things and offsets the “centre of gravity” for women to have agency in marriage. He thinks that catering to meet the desire of women, who are physically weaker, goes against the will to power. Scholars who defend Nietzsche against claims of misogyny argue that his derogatory remarks about women are only rhetorical.
40. The labour question. We can blame the labour question for today’s social ills. The contemporary European worker feels comfortable enough to ask questions, which implies that he feels dissatisfied with his current life. This is bad for society. Nietzsche argues that “if one wants slaves, one is a fool if one educates them to be masters.”
Nietzsche thinks society is willfully giving too much power to common people, much like Socrates’s dialectics gave a platform to common, inferior ideas. Nietzsche sees something self-destructive about giving power to people who shouldn’t naturally (in Nietzsche’s mind) have it.
41. “Freedom as I do not mean it,” begins section 41. Today, Nietzsche argues, one can no longer rely on one’s instincts, for the various instincts contradict and confuse one another. Nietzsche argues that the central defining characteristic of modernity is “physiological self-contradiction.” Education today encourages people to dampen one instinct to entertain another, and society makes individuals by “pruning” them. But, Nietzsche insists, it takes strength—not suppression—to make an individual.
Today, as in antiquity, people are taught to doubt their convictions. This is a long-term consequence of prioritizing reason over instinct; it’s taught people that there is no end to the ways they can undermine and degrade their personal convictions. Nietzsche thinks that self-doubt makes a person—and by extension, society—weak.
42. Where faith is needed. Saints and moralists mostly lack integrity. But many people believe the opposite, for “faith is more useful, effective, convincing than conscious hypocrisy.” Faith works only because its preachers emphasize certain truths while concealing others.
Moralists are hypocritical; they pretend to be virtuous in public, since nobody would follow their teachings if they didn’t maintain a pious public image.
43. In the ear of the Conservatives. Priests and moralists have long wanted to force society back to a time that enforced “an earlier standard of virtue.” Some politicians also want this. But the only direction to move is forward.
People who want to return to an earlier, better time are idolizing the past. While there are certain aspects of antiquity that Nietzsche admires (such as the intellectual culture of ancient Rome) Nietzsche sees the future of society as dependent on progress and creation.
44. My conception of the genius. Great men contain “explosive material.” Genius happens when great men conserve their energy over time. When the tension inside of them grows too intense, a stimulus sets it off and they release their genius into the world. Nietzsche argues that neither “circumstances,” nor “the Zeitgeist,” nor “public opinion” can stop this eruption.
For Nietzsche, great men aren’t part of some big plan—they’re not divinely sanctioned or fated to exist during a certain time for a certain purpose. They exist arbitrarily, and they rise above the masses by virtue of their innate power alone.
While the world needs great men, “the epoch” in which great men appear is arbitrary. Nietzsche cites Napoleon as an example of a great man. Revolutionary France, had it the choice, would have created a much different great man than Napoleon. And yet, Napoleon is what it got. The relationship between the genius and their epoch is much like “that between strong and weak.” The genius is older than their epoch and more mature. People in contemporary France have an opposite stance on this idea.
Nietzsche sees great men, such as Napoleon, as existing outside of time and circumstances. They are a product of their own vitality and capacity for creation—not a product of circumstance or necessity. For this reason, Nietzsche believes, it’s common for the epoch out of which great men arise to misunderstand or undervalue great men.
England, too, has bad ideas about great men. The English think greatness comes from democracy (like Buckle) or from religion (like Carlyle). But Nietzsche argues that society (mainly Christianity and moralists) misunderstand the sacrifices that great human beings make. The great human being doesn’t sacrifice himself and demonstrate an “indifference to [his] own interests.” Rather, he has a “devotion to an idea,” and so “he uses himself up.”
Christianity and other systems of conventional morality think that great men make personal sacrifices for the welfare of others—like Christ, for example. But Nietzsche thinks that the opposite is true. The great man isn’t “indifferen[t] to [his] own interests.” Rather, he cares so much about his interests and creations that “he uses himself up” to propel them into existence.
45. The criminal and what is related to him. Nietzsche defines the criminal as a “strong human being under unfavorable conditions, […] being made sick.” The criminal needs the freer state one finds in “the wilderness” to recover, for society has rejected his virtues. He must do what he does and likes to do best in secret, and this hurts him. As an example, Nietzsche cites Dostoevsky’s surprisingly positive experience living among criminals in Siberia.
While circumstances don’t make great men great, circumstances can make great men weak. Here, Nietzsche suggests that “unfavorable conditions” can make an otherwise “strong human being” weak and “sick.” This is one consequence of society misunderstanding and rejecting great men. Nietzsche isn’t the only 19th-century intellectual figure to think this way—the Russian novelist Dostoevsky, too (who wrote about the time he spent in a Siberian work camp), was sympathetic to the ways that society can deflate and “ma[k]e sick” otherwise great people.
46. Here is the prospect free. Nietzsche lists a series of contradictions. For instance, sometimes a silent philosopher is evidence of an inner “loftiness of soul.” And sometimes good manners can conceal lies.
This passage recalls #26 of this section, in which Nietzsche argues that the deepest human experiences evade language. He thinks the wisest philosophers are those who know to keep silent about things they don’t understand rather than grasp at straws and create shoddy frameworks to explain them (morality being one of these shoddy frameworks).
47. Beauty no accident. A people or a race must work for their good fortune—it’s not just given. “Good things are costly beyond measure,” argues Nietzsche. Maintaining beauty and goodness takes physical effort and involves the body. This is why German culture has failed at this endeavor, and why the Greeks “remain the supreme cultural event of history.” Because the Greeks “knew [and] did what needed to be done.” Christianity, in contrast, rejects the body.
Nietzsche identifies Christianity’s rejection of the physical body as another reason that humanity needs to break its ties to Christian morality. Nietzsche sees human progress and power as inexorably linked with physical strength and vitality. It’s not enough to have immaterial strength (virtue)—humanity needs to undergo physical effort to save itself from the ravages of decadence and nihilism.
48. Progress in my sense. Nietzsche wants to “return to nature,” but his return is a “going-up” rather than a “going-back.” Napoleon wanted to return to nature in the way Nietzsche understands it. Rousseau, however, suffered from “unbridled self-contempt” and preached equality—both of which Nietzsche condemns.
Again, Nietzsche emphasizes that humanity will improve by creating and moving forward—not trying to recapture some lost, more virtuous past. We need to break with the old idols and create new ones.
49. Goethe. Nietzsche praises Goethe’s “grand attempt to overcome the eighteenth century through a return to nature[.]” Goethe has all the “instincts” that Nietzsche values, such as the “anti-historical” instinct and the “idealistic” instinct. Nietzsche considers Goethe’s “joyful and trusting fatalism” to be Dionysian, since it’s “the highest of all possible faiths.”
Goethe was a hugely influential cultural force in Europe. He ushered in a new cultural preoccupation with the senses. His most famous work, the play Faust, sought to synthesize Enlightenment ideals and Romantic ideals. It also grapples with humanity’s struggle to find meaning in life and connect with nature—with the broader existing world. These are some of the elements of Goethe’s work and intellectual philosophy that Nietzsche is praising when he compliments Goethe’s “idealistic” and “anti-historical” instincts as “joyful and trusting fatalism.” For Nietzsche, Goethe was so great because he was a freethinker who examined the world as it was and wasn’t restrained by morality or ideology.
50. Nietzsche contends that 19th-century society has, to a degree, wanted some of the same things Goethe wanted, such as “universality in the understanding and affirmation,” and “reckless realism, reverence for everything factual.” How, then, has society become so chaotic and nihilistic? Nietzsche thinks the chaos is the result of society wanting to return to the 18th century.
Goethe was writing during the Enlightenment Era, which wanted to return to the “understanding and affirmation” and “reverence for everything factual” of antiquity (as influenced by Socratic philosophy). But the reason that Goethe was great and wrote works that celebrated life and passion and sought to find meaning (while today’s society is chaotic and nihilistic) is that Goethe was interesting in understanding and giving meaning to human pursuits. Today’s society, on the other hand, is driven by these same things because they want to return to the past. This divide hearkens back Nietzsche’s earlier praise for Goethe’s “anti-historical” impulse.
51. In response to people who have asked Nietzsche why he writes in German if nobody reads him there anyway, Nietzsche jokes that nobody even knows if he wants to be read in the first place.
Nietzsche ends a long section of scathing critiques of culture and its ambassadors with a tongue-in-cheek nod to criticism directed toward his own work. It’s played for comedic effect and demonstrates Nietzsche’s use of style and literary elements in his writing.