Nietzsche and Modern Virtue

(form work in progress on Nietzsche’s ethics)

Nietzsche envisages an end to the morality of good and evil. He distinguishes the morality of good and evil from the morality of good and bad, for example On the Genealogy of Morality (Nietzsche 1989), ‘Essay I’ 17; but he also suggests that morality can be displaced by a philosophy of life, for example Daybreak (Nietzsche 1997), Preface 4. This raises the question of whether a morality of good and bad is compatible with a philosophy of life. This birth of new values is linked by Nietzsche in Ecce Homo (Nietzsche 1989), ‘Why I Write Such Good Books’, with the idea of yes saying which he suggests can be found in Daybreak (Nietzsche 1997), The Gay Science (Nietzsche 1974),  andThus Spoke Zarathustra (Nietzsche 1954).

The relation between the positive affirmative and negative critical aspects of his work can be explored around the value of the promise, or oath. The capacity of a human to bear promises is the suggested outcome of history in Genealogy Essay II, but that may be an equivocal suggestion since it is portrayed as the outcome of cruelty and violence, which disciplines us to keep promises rather than as the consequence of keeping to a promise for reasons of virtue. The autonomy of the end of Genealogy II is maybe a quality of the merely bourgeois individual.  In that  case,the promise keeping capacity looks like it might be a product of the process which also gives us the slave morality of good and evil,  and a distraction from Nietzsche’s real positive values.  However, we should bring Daybreak 350 into play with the Genealogy here.


How Best to Promise.  — When a promise is made, it is not the words [das Wort] that are said which constitute the promise but what remains unspoken behind the words that are said. Indeed, the words even weaken the promise, in as much as they discharge and use up a strength which is a part of the strength which makes the promise.  Therefore extend your hand and lay your finger on your lips — thus you will take the surest vows.

Genealogy II 1:  To breed an animal with the right to make promises [ein Thier heranzüchten das v e r s p r e c h e n  d a r f]  — is not this the paradoxical task that nature has set itself in the case of man?  is it not the real problem regarding man?

To ordain the future in advance in this way, man must first have learned to distinguish necessary events from chance ones, to think causally, to see and anticipate distant eventualities as if they belonged to the present, to decide with certainty what  is the goal and what the means to it, and in general be able to calculate and compute.  Man himself must first of all have become calculable, regular, necessary, even in his own image of himself [seine eigne Vorstellung, um endlich dergestalt], if he is able to stand security for his own future, which is what one who promises does!

The paragraph from Daybreak combines with Genealogy II 1-5 to convey a full Nietzschean view of promising. The promise should be more than the external promises of contract, and of the violent reminders to obey promises from the history of penal violence.  The promise contains both possibility of the contract and the inner unity of body and consciousness.  It contains the wish to command the future, not necessarily a complete sovereignty over the world, but a wish to approach the world with a purposeful will.

Daybreak 152 further suggests a new kind of oath [Eid], which would omit reference to God. Nietzsche also refers to something of concern to religious purists, Moses’ Third Commandment: ‘Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain!’.  Nietzsche’s substitute for an oath in court invoking God is: ‘If I am now lying I am no longer a decent human being and anyone may tell me so to my face’.  This suggests that Nietzsche takes a positive view of the development of humanity as bearing promises, and related value charged performatives.

One position he excludes is an ethics based on sympathy.  Nietzsche’s comments on the neighbour could be taken as comments on David Hume’s view of sympathy, in moral philosophy. Aphorism 146 is pertinent here.


Daybreak 146

Out beyond our neighbour [Nächsten] too.— […] May we not at least treat our neighbours [Nächsten] as we treat ourselves?  And if with regard to ourselves we take no such narrow and petty bourgeois thought for the immediate consequences and the suffering they may cause, why do we have to take such thought in regard to our neighbour?  Supposing we acted in the sense of self-sacrifice, what would forbid us to sacrifice our neighbour as well? […] Finally: we at the same time communicate to our neighbour the point of view from which he can feel himself to be a sacrifice, we persuade him to the task for which we employ him.  Are we then without pity [Mitleid]?  But if we also want to transcend our own pity [Mitleid] and thus achieve victory over ourselves, is this not a higher and freer viewpoint and posture than that in which one feels secure when one has discovered whether an action benefits or harms our neighbour?  We, on the other hand, would through sacrifice — in which we and our neighbour are both included —strengthen and raise higher the general feeling of human power, even though we might not attain to more.

The view that the individual with the right to bear promises at the end of Genealogy II is a bourgeois citizen and part of commercial life, both things scorned by Nietzsche is a plausible one. But it we take that passage in conjunction with others in Nietzsche, we can see reasons for thinking that he took the oath or the promise as part of the values he wanted to promoted after good and evil. I may be useful to compare this with his view on sympathy and passage from Daybreak above, because it all points in the direction of a value given to a transformation of the neighbourly relation, as well as the promise as it exists in the liberal bourgeois world. If Nietzsche wants to transform the bourgeois values, how far is he from those values? The transformation of all them creates a transformed rather than abolished bourgeois world, the difference is important, as is the bourgeois tendency to try to be aristocratic, to create its own romantic anti-borgeois fantasy, an inevitable result of bourgeois individualism.  It should also be noted that while Nietzsche defined himself as anti-political his ethics is very tied up with politics.

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