Part of my ongoing project to carefully re-read On the Genealogy of Morals and offer some commentary as I go. In this part, we’re dealing with the First Essay, section 12.
Here we begin with one of N’s more famous quotes:
What is it exactly that I find so totally unbearable? Something which I cannot deal with on my own, which makes me choke and feel faint? Bad air! Bad air! It’s when something which has failed comes close to me, when I have to smell the entrails of a failed soul!
What a tosser. But philosophically, what is interesting here is the way that Nietzsche has moved from plain appraisal of things in their own right toward the concept of his inferior beings as ‘failed’. This is important, because failure implies an intent, a proper aim – to call a thing a failure means first holding it up against some ideal and then assuming the the actual was somehow meant to be the ideal.
What might Nietzsche say about that if he were willing to criticise himself? Well, fortunately for us he discusses this exact thing in Twilight of Idols, as the third step in his ‘history of an error’ (where in context ‘the true world’ is an ideal contrasted against reality):
The true world — unattainable, indemonstrable, unpromisable; but the very thought of it — a consolidation, an obligation, an imperative.
(At bottom, the old sun, but seen through mist and skepticism. The idea has become elusive, pale, Nordic, Konigsbergian)
This is what Nietzsche is doing as regards ‘failed souls’ – the criticism of them as failures necessitates an ideal that imposes an obligation, even if it’s only an aesthetic obligation.
Of course, what he is also doing is defining the self not through the self but through the other…
But if there are heavenly goddesses who are our patrons, beyond good and evil, then from time to time grant me a glimpse, just grant me a single glimpse into something perfect, something completely developed, happy, powerful, triumphant, from which there is still something to fear! A glimpse of a man who justifies humanity, of a complementary and redeeming stroke-of-luck of a man, for whose sake we can hang onto a faith in humanity!
Huh. Nietzsche goes all Heiligenstadt on us… he also becomes even more no-saying an life-hating than normal. What, the whole of the human species stands then in need of some justification? This great and many-splendoured and unparalleled flower of the tree of life lies summed up and measured and condemned by a merely human intellect and now must in some way be justified? Has Life then strayed so badly that it is not merely painful or distateful, in some way that could still allow us to rejoice in its elements, but so that it is actually in need of justification? Something that requires justification and yet has none is something that would better not to be at all. How can any flaws then outweigh the immeasurable virtues of any part of Life? Does a man dying of thirst complain that the water he is given to drink tastes brackish, is too warm, fails to smell of summer grass and fresh-cut fruit? Perhaps he does – but does he, can he, then exclaim that the water must justify its existence, that without a sufficient excuse the water ought not to exist? And if we berate nature and say that it requires some justification, why would nature pay any attention to us? Has its exuberance and joy so weakened that it allows itself to be subjugated to the petty and myopic and grandiloquent demands – be this way – don’t be like that – justify yourself – of Herr Nietzsche?
Of course, you may not see the world this way; I’m not sure I do. But it is Nietzsche who teaches us the glories of life, the absolute necessity of saying yes to life; and yet at every turn we see him separate himself from life and cry out a resounding no.
Europe’s fate lies right here—with the fear of man we also have lost the love for him, the reverence for him, the hope for him; indeed, our will to him.
I can see elements of a point here. Indeed, things we fear often inspire awe, or reverence, and they in turn can inspire love, and faith. But are these the only routes to love? Is Nietzsche not adopting here a slave’s mentality? Our masters are so mighty they can kill us – how glorious and wonderful are the masters! Nietzsche, who wants philosophers to stand tall, to command, prefers himself to crawl and hide among the crowd, begging for someone to push his face into the dirt, a slave soul who yearns for a master because he cannot comprehend himself without a master to define him. What a pitiable creature. And he prefers to say that his demands to be dominated, his attempts to strongarm other men and force them to stand above him on a pedestal, are efforts born of love for others? Ressentiment! Ressentiment and false humility! And is he not indeed loving only one part of mankind? And a part, at that, that he does not believe exists? He takes his purported and impossible love of a terrifying man who no longer lives (if he ever did) as reason to despise mankind as it actually exists. Oh, there is no love in this, except perhaps self-love.
A long section that brings in one of N’s most famous metaphors: the eagles and the lambs.
That the lambs are upset about the great predatory birds is not a strange thing, and the fact that they snatch away small lambs provides no reason for holding anything against these large birds of prey.
And if the lambs say among themselves, “These predatory birds are evil, and whoever is least like a predatory bird, especially anyone who is like its opposite, a lamb— shouldn’t that animal be good?” there is nothing to find fault with in this setting up of an ideal…
A clever argument: whoever is least like our enemies is a good person. I think it’s hard to deny that many people do think like this. But of course the problem with these genealogical arguments is that they concern the is, not the ought – even if we take them at face value. It’s true that being disliked by lambs is not inherently a reason to hold anything against the eagles… but likewise, the fact that the lambs dislike the eagles for their own reasons is not a reason for us to dismiss the reasons the lambs give for holding something against the eagles. Nietzsche tries to delegitimate rival views by suggesting ulterior motives, but this does nothing to address the views themselves.
I suspect also that Nietzsche isn’t being honest when he says that there’s nothing to find fault with here… given how vituperous he was in earlier sections about the monstrous villainy of it!
… except for the fact that the birds of prey might look down on them with a little mockery and perhaps say to themselves, “We are not at all annoyed with these good lambs. We even love them. Nothing is tastier than a tender lamb.”
No doubt which side Nietzsche sees himself on here… but he doesn’t just leave it as a conflict of tastes:
To demand from strength that it does not express itselfas strength, that it does not consist of a will to overpower, a will to throw down, a will to rule, a thirst for enemies and opposition and triumph, is just as unreasonable as to demand from weakness that it express itself as strength.
Here we see the ideology of the lambs as not just self-interested but as “unreasonable”. But I think Nietzsche is treading onto dangerous ground here. First, the standard of reasonableness is itself a value that must be questioned; and second, this implies an essentialist view of the world in which things simply are what they are. But this essentialism is something that it is difficult to sustain from a Nietzschean perspective. Finally, we can of course argue with his definition of strength, which equates strength with the actions of warrior barbarians – even taking strength on its own merits, we must surely observe that everywhere the wild and the dangerous is penned in and domesticated by the orderly and the civilised, not merely through psychological poisoning or through genetic dilution, but through force and strength. How then can we equate strength with the blond beast?
What follows is a vital section that I’ll quote in full:
A quantum of force is simply such a quantum of drive, will, action—rather, it is nothing but this very driving, willing, acting itself—and it cannot appear as anything else except through the seduction of language (and the fundamental errors of reason petrified in it), which understands and misunderstands all action as conditioned by something which causes actions, by a “Subject.” For, in just the same way as people separate lightning from its flash and take the latter as an action, as the effect of a subject, which is called lightning, so popular morality separates strength from the manifestations of strength, as if behind the strong person there were an indifferent substrate, which is free to express strength or not. But there is no such substrate; there is no “being” behind the doing, acting, becoming. “The doer” is merely made up and added into the action—the act is everything. People basically duplicate the action: when they see a lightning flash, that is an action of an action: they set up the same event first as the cause and then yet again as its effect. Natural scientists are no better when they say “Force moves, force causes,” and so on—our entire scientific knowledge, for all its coolness, its freedom from feelings, still remains exposed to the seductions of language and has not gotten rid of the changelings foisted on it, the “Subjects” (the atom, for example, is such a changeling, like the Kantian “thing-in-itself”): it’s no wonder that the repressed, secretly smouldering feelings of rage and hate use this belief for themselves and basically even maintain a faith in nothing more fervently than in the idea that the strong are free to be weak and that predatory birds are free to be lambs:—in so doing, they arrogate to themselves the right to blame the birds of prey for being birds of prey.
It seems to me that there are three key theories here. First, Nietzsche does away with the subject, and indeed with the object – all that exist are actions. The self, a fiction, is shaped by its actions, rather than its actions being chosen by the self. This is a big idea for the 19th century, but the passage of time has leant more and more support to it, through scientific experiments as well as through philosophical considerations, and Nietzsche gives some compelling metaphors and explanations of this myth. But, second, he believes that this entails some sort of determinism: things are what they are, and are not free to be otherwise. This is more than just denying the reality of the subject: after all, if freedom is defined through the choices of subjects, and subjects are themselves defined through their actions, then subjects, even if not ‘real’, will still be ‘free’ to act this way or that, provided that their actions are not entirely determined (there will be no other ‘freedom’ to contrast this freedom with and against which to find this freedom wanting). Nietzsche’s leanings toward determinism show up elsewhere too, as in his famous doctrine of eternal return; but are they really convincing? To take him at face value we must accept physical determinism, and then must rule out any sort of compatibilism that allows both freedom of will and physical determinism. Moreover, taking words like ‘freedom’ themselves at face value, it seems hard to deny that humans have immense powers of plasticity within them, and are able to change their natures to an unparalleled degree – so even if we do not believe that their changes are the result of free will decisions, they are still free to change. Finally, Nietzsche also makes the assumption that we cannot be blamed (or praised – the section goes on to depict the opposite side of the matter) for things we did not choose. But this seems tendentious, and out of character for Nietzsche. After all, can we not say that this is an excellent eagle, or that an excellent lamb, or this a thoroughly admirable piece of architecture? Why then shouldn’t we be able to praise an individual? And if perhaps ‘blame’ is too tied up in notions of free choice, why should that be an important thing, why would the move toward other terms of disapprobation be significant? After all, the ‘slave morality’ has been equally promulgated by those who do not believe that evil is the result of free choices.
…what that amounts to, coolly expressed and without bias, is essentially nothing more than “We weak people are merely weak. It’s good if we do nothing; we are not strong enough for that”—but this bitter state, this shrewdness of the lowest ranks, which even insects possess (when in great danger they stand as if they were dead in order not to do “too much”), has, thanks to that counterfeiting and self-deception of powerlessness, dressed itself in the splendour of a self-denying, still, patient virtue, just as if the weakness of the weak man himself—that means his essence, his actions, his entire single, inevitable, and irredeemable reality—is a voluntary achievement, something willed, chosen, an act, something of merit.
Aside from the comments above, there are three points to bring out here: first, the confirmation that Nietzsche is indeed talking about essential natures; second, the explicit contrast being action (strength) and inaction, ‘not doing too much’ (weakness); and third, the objection to how the weak portray themselves.
The second point may allow him to find some root for his essentialism: it’s conceivable that we might hold a coherent view in which exact qualities were not essential, but that raw quantities, degrees of action, were essential, and indeed objective. In practice, however, it requires Nietzsche to define rather conveniently which actions are actions and which actions are not actions… since of course we can hardly, objectively, say that 19th century society was inactive. Indeed, industrial society in some important senses did more than centuries of happy bloodletting in earlier times.
The third point, combined with the determinism, may remind us of stoicism. Stoics believed that physical events were predetermined, and that all we had power over was how we felt about them – thus, they preached emotional disengagement from the world. We cannot stop our children from dying, for instance, so we must simply learn not to care. Now of course the details of this are utterly inimical to Nietzsche, but he does often seem to be falling into the stoic division between what happens and what we think about it. We cannot blame a person for their behaviour, nor praise them, since that’s just their essence – but it certainly seems as though Nietzsche is willing to praise and criticise on the grounds of what people think about behaviour, and how they describe behaviour. But Nietzsche has no metaphysical grounds for making this distinction. What we think, what we say, that’s (in the absence of any belief in the soul/subject) just as determined as what we do. So why is it so unreasonable to criticise Aryans for raping people, yet perfectly reasonable it seems to criticise peasants for being proud of their non-violence? Nietzsche seems to be trying to have it both ways: put his own favoured things beyond criticism, but leave the things his enemies do as fair game. [Indeed, the whole fact of his writing these books, and the passionate, rhetorical, persuasive efforts he makes in doing so, belie his fatalism]