The following pages are a commentary on Beyond Good and Evil (Nietzsche, 2003), considered by many, including Nietzsche himself, to be an expansion on the themes he treated in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. If the latter had the style of a work of spiritual fiction, Beyond Good and Evil is an attempt to expand on some of the same ideas in a more distinctly intellectual and argumentative fashion. At the same time, this paper posits that Nietzsche (2003) reveals much of his author’s inner contradiction and intimate suffering. In particular, this paper focuses on the tensions between joy and suffering, and between masculine and feminine, that run across the philosophical musings in Nietzsche (2003). The paper concludes that, notwithstanding Nietzsche’s genius, he is ill-suited for the task of taking the reader to the destination promised by the title, which points to an overcoming of the polarity between moral opposites. Finally, this essay celebrates Nietzsche’s destructive power while questioning his capacity to build on the philosophical ruins that he left behind.
Beyond Good and Evil (Nietzsche, 2003) sounds like a wonderful place to be. The vision of a state of absolute freedom beyond every distinction of opposites, a condition of primordial unity with life, touches a spot deep within our hearts. Adam and Eve lived in such a place, as do all children, before they enter the adult world with its taxing requirement of telling right from wrong. Nietzsche’s implicit promise to take us there is a bold proposition, and Nietzsche certainly was a brave philosopher. But every philosophic system also speaks about the person who conceived it, and Nietzsche (2003) portraits its author as a sensitive, tormented genius.
In his excellent introduction to Nietzsche (2003), Michael Tanner says that the characteristic condition of the German philosopher is “to be torn” (p. 15). One of the deepest fissures in Nietzsche’s spirit, continues Tanner, is that he endeavored to present himself as a philosopher of affirmation, a champion of the “yea-saying” to life (an effort which culminated in The Gay Science and Thus Spoke Zarathustra), yet he ended up becoming more and more critical towards everything and everyone around him. At the beginning of 1882, four years before the publication of Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche had even resolved not to waste his intellectual energy in criticizing others. He had vowed, as the proud intellectual that he was, to “look away” as his only way of dissenting (Nietzsche, 2003, p. 7). This sounds like a noble, even compassionate stance when taken by someone that holds a high reputation among his peers. But part of the tragedy of Nietzsche’s life is that his entry in the pantheon of western philosophers did not happen as long as he was alive. His work, undoubtedly the product of a brilliant mind, was met with indifference and scorn by his contemporaries. As a result, in Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche drops his lofty moral resolutions and allows his genius to strike back with a sting of vindictive clarity. Unafraid of philosophical confrontation, unaccustomed to half measures and intolerant of half-truths, he abandons himself to an ecstatic demolition of the pillars of the Western culture that had, for the time being at least, rejected him.
In Nietzsche (2003), oblivious to his previous resolutions, the philosopher says no: no to what he considers the decadent, life-denying state of European culture; no to an intellectual and spiritual milieu that did not pay him the respect that he felt he deserved; no to Christianity, in his eyes the root of much, if not all, moral decay. Naturally, from the vantage point of Nietzsche’s perspicacity, there was a lot to say no to in the world he inhabited. And, one might ask, when has that not been the case? When has any intelligent observer of his own times not found much to complain about? Whether Nietzsche’s corrosive analysis of the world around him is accurate (perhaps even premonitory) is open to interpretation, but his evaluation is certainly not as objective as he would like to present it.
If we read between the lines of Nietzsche’s caustic critique, we see everywhere signs of his intimate suffering. Too proud to admit his difficulties, he channels his pain in philosophical arguments, where it acquires almost mythological features, and becomes the mark of a superior soul. Page after page, the reader of Nietzsche (2003) perceives the drama of a highly sensitive man, both exalted and battered by the suffering inflicted on him not so much by honorable archenemies, but by the crushing, prosaic banality of the world that surrounded him. As a result, many of Nietzsche’s declarations about the human condition in general are really self-referencing confessions of a tormented man. At times, his reflections appear less grounded in profound philosophical insights than they are in his experience of the harrowing physical ailments that afflicted him for his entire life, until his premature death. Tanner writes in his introduction to Nietzsche (2003) that Nietzsche “brings gusto” to his demolishing of Western philosophy (p. 11). But the main enjoyment in Nietzsche (2003) is the satisfaction of the demolisher, the acrimonious laugh of a spirit that has suffered much and on many levels, for though there is no way to measure suffering, perhaps only someone as refined as Nietzsche could experience the full simultaneous extent of physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual pain.
Nietzsche (2003) reproaches philosophers for their intellectual dishonesty, for presenting as cold, rational judgments what is really the product of their prejudices and heartaches (p. 36). How true! There is no such thing as a dispassionate option, and certainly not in philosophy, a science whose very name contains the word “love.” Only relatively recently has philosophy tried to dissociate itself from poetry, devotion, and awe. But the same observation applies to Nietzsche himself: his insights are colored by his own emotional struggles and existential tribulations. As a consequence, we can read Nietzsche (2003) as much as a philosophical treatise as an excruciating account of a man’s tortured heart.
The Rank of Pain
Yet, for all his personal contradictions, Nietzsche is still a genius, and some of his insights do strike lethal blows to the intellectual and philosophical bigotry of the time. Nietzsche targets many of his arrows at a morality that, as he acutely observes, is after all just the product of cultural and religious conditions. Inimical to the current moral values, adverse to the idea of absolute truth, Nietzsche advocates the primacy of life over morals. Every judgment, every predicate that states “this is so” must be evaluated, says Nietzsche (2003), not based on the treacherous categories of truth and false, but rather on to whether it is “life-advancing, life-preserving, species-preserving, perhaps even species-breeding” (p. 35). With this vitalistic impulse, Nietzsche wishes to blow away the cobwebs of a moral structure that, in his view, has done little more than suffocating the best that humanity has to offer. Life, says Nietzsche, does not so much care about what is true or false—it just wants to express itself. So far, so good: the dogmatist philosophers and stern moralists are getting a good earful. But when Nietzsche is called to say what life is, not merely what it is not, the signs of his own personal prejudice start to show. “Life is will to power” says Nietzsche (2003) in one of his most famous statements (p. 43). And he presses on: “Life is essentially appropriation” (Nietzsche, 2003, p. 193), and exploitation “pertains to the essence of the living thing” (p. 194). Does he not succumb in this very moment to the unjustified temptation of defining life? Does he not fall in the same dogmatic trap he warned other philosophers to avoid, by telling us what the essence of life is? Faithful to his conception of life as fundamentally based on exploitation and appropriation, Nietzsche then present us with a moral system that has appropriation and exploitation as its cornerstones.
Nietzsche’s “perspectivism,” the recognition that truth depends on the viewpoint of the observer, supposedly means a relativization of morals and a denial of ethical absolutes. And indeed, Nietzsche (2003) affirms that applying the same set of moral rules to different people is not just absurd, but immoral (p. 151). But what may on the surface sound like a freeing impulse turns out to be something entirely different. Nietzsche has a very orderly, even stiff moral scheme in mind: only that it is based on the disparity of rank between men rather than on a hierarchy of moral values. Nietzsche (2003) advocates for fluidity in moral values, but total rigidity as far as classes of human beings, who are ranked in two impermeable categories: masters and slaves.
Nietzsche believed that every elevation of man is the product of an aristocratic society, one that recognizes a long scale of orders of rank and differences of worth between man and man and thus needs slavery—the lowest rank—to exist in some form or another (2003, p. 192). His moral vision is akin to a sort of caste system, where the masters get to be the creators of moral values (p. 21). Freedom is therefore only for the masters, the aristocrats of Nietzsche’s philosophical feudalism; for the slaves, on the other hand, sacrifice is the highest possible moral act. A sacrifice, that of the men that serve as their slaves and instruments, that the masters are advised to accept with a good conscience (Nietzsche, 2003, p. 192). Nietzsche is not so much interested in going beyond the moral system he saw as decadent and damaging, but in going back to something that had existed for centuries: the rule of a small, privileged class of men over the rest of humanity.
Beyond good and evil, then, actually means “beyond slave morality” and back to a morality of the powerful. According to Nietzsche, the very concept of evil originated together with slave morality (2003, p. 197). Overcoming the opposition between good and evil is part of the effort to disentangle humanity from the pits of slave morality in which Nietzsche sees it imprisoned. However, Nietzsche has no qualms with another polarity, that between good and bad: for the masters, the contrast between good and bad means the capacity to distinguish between noble and despicable, which is their birthright and privilege, and a healthy manifestation of their innate power (Nietzsche, 2003, p. 195).
That Nietzsche was not particularly aligned with the idea of “freedom for all” shows in his vitriolic comments towards the free-thinkers who, at the time of his writing, were spreading libertarian ideas throughout the Western world. Nietzsche is concerned not to be put in the same sack as the “anarchist dogs,” (2003, p. 125) who, repudiating the concepts of master and servant, pledged for a free society that, according to him, was nothing more than a society based on the instinct of the herd.
And indeed, in Nietzsche’s time, revolutionary forces were at play all over the world. In May 1886, the year Beyond Good and Evil was first published, a bombing at a labor demonstration in Chicago resulted in bloody events of the so-called Haymarket affair.1 The march was a milestone in the struggle for an eight-hour workday, and from the events of 1886 originates the celebration of May 1st as International Workers’ Day. Even as Nietzsche poured forth his longing for a more archaic, more aristocratic world, history was marching onwards; and while it would be limiting to label Nietzsche’s genius as conservative, he was certainly not a champion of progress. In fact, says Nietzsche, believing in progress and the future is a mark of ignobility; the morality of the noble and powerful is characterized by “prejudice in favor of ancestors and against descendants” (2003, p. 196). For all his iconoclastic impetus, Nietzsche fundamentally proposes a return to an ancient order from the chaos of modernity and democracy. Threatened by what he viewed as the decadence of modernity, he chose to put his formidable intellect at the service of a philosophy that looked back to the past, under the guise of ushering a new future.
What, then, determines the rank of men? In Nietzsche (2003), belonging to the caste of the masters or that of the slaves is a permanent condition. There is no mobility between the moral classes. But if there is a factor that makes one a master in the first place, that determines the nobility of a man’s soul, it is, paradoxically, suffering. That which ennobles us, gives us access to the spiritual heights, and makes us strong, is nothing less than pain. Nietzsche’s answer is most unexpected, coming as it is from a philosopher of celebration. The same man who declared that to live better means to live “more vigorously and joyfully” (Nietzsche, 2003, p. 40), affirms that the opposite of joy, suffering, is responsible for every elevation of mankind (Nietzsche, 2003, p. 154). How deeply human beings can suffer determines their rank in the natural hierarchy of life (Nietzsche, 2003, p. 209), and a man’s rank, in turn, determines the kind of morality he should be subjected to (p. 158). The value accorded to suffering, its function as the gateway into the masters’ ranks, shows that Nietzsche must have suffered deeply and extensively. But rather than break his heart open in vulnerability, the combination of his brilliance and his pain drove him into a sweeping critique of a world that neither understood not nourished him, and into conceiving a stark, unforgiving vision of life. The element of compassion, of tenderness—the Feminine, in short—is as missing from Nietzsche’s philosophy as it was lacking from his own difficult life, and his attitude towards women is a glaring testimony to that absence.
Tacere de Muliere
How Nietzsche felt about the Feminine is revealed by the fact that, in regard to women, he managed to agree with the much-despised Christian Church. The Church, says Nietzsche, did well to dictate mulier taceat in ecclesia (let the woman be silent in Church), proclaiming that women have no saying in spiritual matters (Nietzsche, 2003, p. 164). But there’s more: women should not concern themselves with politics, a claim that history itself has taken care of disproving.2 In fact, says Nietzsche, women should even tacere de muliere—be silent about womanhood. For Nietzsche, the highest authority on the Feminine are, contrary to common sense, men like himself, who had very little experience of it (a position, interestingly enough, that he shares with the male priesthood of the Catholic Church). True to his convictions, Nietzsche (2003) proceeds to “utter a few truths about ‘woman as such’” (p. 162), and illuminate the essential characteristics of womanhood.
Women, he says, have a natural instinct for the secondary role (Nietzsche, 2003, p. 101); they are mediocre whenever neither love nor hate is involved (p. 97); they cannot understand science (p. 129). Woman’s first and last role is to bear strong children (p. 168)—a statement which hardly needed a genius to be expressed. A deep man, concludes Nietzsche (and no doubt he considered himself to be a deep man), “must conceive of woman as a possession, as property with lock and key” (2003, p. 166). A property, it should be noted, which Nietzsche felt he could never have access to, perhaps precisely becauseof his attitude towards the Feminine. His complex personality, undoubtedly attractive and magnetizing, was tainted with too much bitterness and contempt to allow him to relate to women in a meaningful way.
But perhaps the most fundamentally flawed among Nietzsche’s ideas on women, the one that most blatantly reveals his failure not only to understand, but even to approach the Feminine, is his celebration of women’s fear of man. Nietzsche considers that a woman who is not afraid of man loses her most womanly instincts (2003, p. 167). Fear of man, says Nietzsche, is the most effective method of controlling a score of negative “feminine” qualities such as pedanticism, superficiality, immodesty (2003, p. 163). Women should fear men: it does them good. Nietzsche’s need for women to fear man not only reveals how much he himself feared women: it also shows how out of touch he was with the deep currents of development of the human consciousness and heart. Because clearly, fear between the genders is the cause of untold suffering and abuse, and it hurts men as much as it hurts women. Much of the work of all bonafide paths of self-development is targeted at dissolving fear, while fostering independence and respect, between the masculine and feminine poles within each one of us and in relationships. Nietzsche, on the other hand, complains that women do not fear men anymore, and considers woman’s claim to independence “one of the worst developments in the general uglification of Europe” (2003, p. 162). Nietzsche recognized that there is a profound connection between one’s Eros, and more in general how one fares in the realm of relationships and affects, and spiritual life: “The degree and kind of a man’s sexuality reaches up into the top-most summit of his spirit” (2003, p. 91). Yet, sexuality and relationships remained a sour affair for him, rife with pain and despair. The lack and frustration experienced in his relationship with the Feminine contaminated his spirit with resentment and disdain.
To his credit, Nietzsche was at least willing to embrace a conception of the Feminine beyond the maternal Christian ideal embodied by the Virgin Mary. His statement that “woman is essentially unpeaceful” (Nietzsche, 2003, p. 99), while in itself a coarse generalization, points to a recognition of the limitation of the ideal of perfection imposed on the Feminine by Christianity. And yet, between the hammer of Nietzsche’s desire for submission, and the anvil of Christianity’s virginal concept of womanhood, there is no space for a vision of woman as equal to man, and no possibility of recognizing her essential role in the scope of creation.
Not only does Nietzsche downplay women and the Feminine, but he also over-emphasizes all the qualities he considers as masculine. One of Nietzsche’s biggest grievances towards modern culture and Christianity in particular is that it has preserved too much of what ought to perish. This undue care for what is sick and suffering is a major cause of the corruption of the European race, as it is responsible for the breaking down of “everything autocratic, manly, conquering, tyrannical” (Nietzsche, 2003, p. 88). To Nietzsche, these are the paradigmatic noble attributes, to which he sings his praises in an unbridled exaltation of virility. Compassion, care, and tenderness do not rank highly in Nietzsche’s confrontational philosophy. But by committing to a one-sided masculine view, Nietzsche loses the possibility to go beyond polarity and forfeits his original intention.
Jung, who admired Nietzsche, also saw his extremism as a weakness: “Nietzsche is too oppositional. Like everything healthy and long-lasting, truth unfortunately adheres more to the middle way, which we unjustly abhor” (Jung, 2009, p. 293). The psychological observation that we tend to despise the middle way and prefer extreme positions is especially valid for those philosophers, Nietzsche among them, who left little space for nuances and doubt in their musings. Real philosophers are commanders and law-givers, writes Nietzsche (2003, p. 142)—but how can a philosopher be a commander without being a dogmatist? Bold, clear-cut philosophical statements like Nietzsche’s glow with apparent clarity and strength, exerting a deep fascination that resides in the unspoken promise that they will make life easy for us. Every fanatism (and, for all his loath of dogmatisms, Nietzsche’s tone is that of a fanatic) hides the same tempting siren’s song, that of clarifying reality once and for all. But the space beyond oppositions and contradictions can, in my experience, only be accessed by holding paradoxes together, not by choosing one side over the other. And if we long to access that space, we need wiser and humbler guides—those thinkers, philosophers, mystics, and poets who have attempted to speak of the indescribable, knowing well that the task was too enormous for their capacities.
A Silent Field
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing / there is a field. I’ll meet you there” (Rumi, 2015, p. 36), are some of the most quoted verses by Rumi, the 13th-century Sufi mystic and poet. Rumi expresses the deep human longing to go beyond morals and meet in a place of pure presence, but his journey beyond right and wrong is guided by a mystical heart, a heart that can embrace paradox. And in Rumi’s experience, once we get to that field, what happens is deep stillness and silence: “When the soul lies down in that grass / the world is too full to talk about. / Ideas, language, even the phrase each other / doesn’t make any sense.” Here there are no slaves and no masters, no Masculine or Feminine, for these are, after all, definitions that belong in the realm of opposites. Rumi knows that meeting “beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing” means renouncing every pretense to be right, every criticism, every opinion. This complete shutting up of one’s belief system is a risk that few philosophers are willing to take, and fewer less are able to write about.
Rumi enters the space beyond opposites through the heart, but there are other access doors. We can access non-dual states also through the body and through the mind; Zen koans are exquisite examples of how the mind can short-circuit itself into a state beyond opposites. Yet, no matter how we choose to make our way to the space beyond good and evil, those who have been there testify of their reverence and humbled respect for the immense space that lies, uncontaminated and undefinable, on the other side of all categories and labels. Nietzsche’s impulse to look through the opposites, instead, is motivated by pain and fueled by pride. His capacity to think beyond the current moral system is rooted in the raw power of his sharp intellect, supported by the acute sensitivity of his emotional body, but lacking the necessary qualities of humbleness and wonder, the willingness to get out of his own way and let something bigger speak through him. In many ways, Beyond Good and Evil is a book about Nietzsche himself, his personality and his opinions, written to assert his individuality against a world that threatened to forget him.
There is another essential difference between Nietzsche and Rumi. Rumi, having glimpsed the vast field beyond the opposites, knowing that the grace of accessing such a state does not depend on one’s personality or individual merit, offers his verses to anyone who will take them. Nietzsche, on the contrary, reserves the right to be free of the restrictions of moral values to a selected caste of aristocrats: the masters. As a result, Nietzsche’s vision of life beyond morals does not ultimately free, but it enslaves, at best substituting one form of subjugation—that to obsolete moral systems—with another: serfdom to the masters, the creators of moral values.
What is then the real value of Nietzsche (2003), if the promise of taking us beyond good and evil cannot be fulfilled? One possible answer lies in the subtitle to Twilight of the Idols, written by Nietzsche in 1888 as a sort of introduction to his whole opus, which reads “How to philosophize with a hammer.” Nietzsche has a philosophical hammer firmly gripped in his hand, and he does a great job of slamming it against Western philosophy. With his hammer, Nietzsche strikes at many of the cornerstones of Western philosophical discussion, such as the ideas of pure spirit and the good in itself, the concept of metaphysics, the hypothesis of an indivisible soul, the concept of will, and the idea of absolute truth.
Granted, the holes caused by Nietzsche’s strikes allow the passage of a gust of much-needed fresh air through the antiquated buildings of Western thought. But a hammer is not enough to build a better world. It is perhaps a truism that, in every age, there is a need for destroyers as well as builders, critics as well as creators. And for us to build on the ruins of the buildings that Nietzsche tore down, we need precisely some of the qualities that he abhorred: patience, care, and compassion.
1 On May 4, 1886, labor activists organized a rally at Haymarket Square in response to the killing and wounding of several workers by the Chicago police in one of the strikes of the previous days. When the police tried to disperse the crowd, an unidentified individual threw a bomb at them. As a result, a gunfight ensued, leading to the death of eight people and an unconfirmed number of casualties. Seven anarchists were condemned to death in the ensuing trial, which gained enormous exposure.
2 As an example, at the time of writing (May 2020), the world has been hit by a global emergency with the onslaught of the Coronavirus pandemic. In this collective test, female heads of state such as Angela Merkel, Jacinda Ardern and Tsai Ing-wen have acted as decisive but open leaders, permeable to the advice of scientists and grounded in common sense. On the contrary, typical masculine leaders such as Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Boris Johnson and Vladimir Putin have resorted to bellicose rhetoric against “the enemy” (in this case, a virus not susceptible to psychological warfare), systematic negation of scientific evidence, and dangerous blaming propaganda.
Jung, C. (2009). The red book : Liber novus. New York London: W.W. Norton & Company.
Nietzsche, F. (2003). Beyond Good and Evil : prelude to a philosophy of the future. London: Penguin Books. [Kindle Edition]
Rumi, J. (2015). Rumi : selected poems. Translated by Coleman Banks. London: Penguin Books. [Kindle Edition]