In 1924, Clarence Darrow’s eight-hour plea for Leopold and Loeb blamed the universities and scholars of Nietzsche (who died in 1900) for their influence on Leopold:

He became enamored of the philosophy of Nietzsche. Your honor, I have read almost everything that Nietzsche ever wrote. A man of wonderful intellect; the most original philosophy of the last century. A man who had made a deeper imprint on philosophy than any other man within a hundred years, whether right or wrong. More books have been written about him than probably all the rest of the philosophers in a hundred years. … Is there any blame attached because somebody took Nietzsche’s philosophy seriously and fashioned his life on it?

Nietzsche is popularly associated with Nazism and even before this with “the superman … free from scruple” that Darrow describes, but he was also popular among the left-anarchists and the Left generally. Meanwhile, Tyler Cowen reports that “if you meet an intellectual non-Leftist, increasingly they are Nietzschean” (whatever that means). Common sense demands that some of these people are misreading him.

Pinning down a moral theory that we can engage faces some initial hurdles:

  1. Nietzsche’s views changed over time. His works appear to make contradictory claims.
  2. His writing is notoriously poetic and obscure.
  3. Huge volumes of notes left behind after his 1889 mental collapse were compiled into The Will to Power and the Nachlass notes. It’s unclear how to consider these since he wanted his notes destroyed after his death.

I favor Brian Leiter’s approach and conclusions in Nietzsche on Morality. He offers practical solutions: identifying his works starting from Daybreak (1881) as “mature work,” working to extract philosophical content from even his esoteric output, and avoiding claims that depend on unpublished notes, in part just because they’re low-quality.

Nietzsche’s overarching project is the “revaluation of all values”: a critique of herd morality (which he typically just refers to as “morality”) on the grounds that it’s hostile to the flourishing of the best type of person.

First his broad outlook. Philosophically, he supports a methodological naturalism where philosophy aspires to be continuous with natural or social scientific inquiry. Metaethically he’s an anti-realist about value and would ultimately admit to defending his evaluative taste.

His psychological views can be strikingly modern. He argues that our beliefs are formed from the struggle of unconscious drives which compete in our mind so that our conscious life is merely epiphenomenal. He advances what Leiter calls a “doctrine of types” where everyone is some type of guy and the type of guy you are determines the kind of life you can lead, and that you’ll hold whatever philosophical or moral beliefs will favor your interests. He doesn’t hold any extreme “determinist” position but is broadly fatalistic about how your type-facts circumscribe and set limits on the kind of person you’ll be and the beliefs you’ll hold, within which you can be influenced by your environment and values.

From here we can proceed to herd morality, the general class of theories associated with normal morality. Nietzsche criticizes three of its descriptive claims (quoting exactly from Leiter):

  1. Free will: Human agents possess a will capable of free and autonomous choice.
  2. Transparency of the self: The self is sufficiently transparent that agents’ actions can be distinguished on the basis of their respective motives.
  3. Similarity: Human agents are sufficiently similar that one moral code is appropriate for all.

In line with Nietzsche’s theory of psychology, these empirical beliefs are held in support of herd morality’s normative beliefs: free will is needed to hold people accountable for their actions and transparency of the self is needed to hold people accountable for their motives. Without invoking any strict determinism, Nietzsche’s fatalistic view of human types contradicts (1). His beliefs about the epiphenomenalism of consciousness attack the transparency of the self. Against (3), Nietzsche holds that what is good for someone must depend of their interests, and therefore on the type of guy he is.

In particular, herd morality is harmful to the “higher type” of man in service of the lowest. This concern is more essential than the descriptive claims. A few points:

  1. Who are these higher men? They’re mostly creative geniuses exemplified by Goethe, the person mentioned most in Nietzsche’s writings—Beethoven, Napoleon, and Nietzsche himself also qualify. Besides their genius, they share attitudes: they’re solitary and self-interested, using others for their benefit while maintaining a dignified and superior bearing; they demand great responsibilities; they’re resilient, energetic, and not pessimistic. Importantly, they would support the “eternal recurrence,” the repetition of their life forever.
  2. How does herd morality hinder their flourishing?
    1. It tells them that suffering is bad, so that otherwise great men who might suffer and create pursue pleasure instead.
    2. It encourages altruism, while really the higher men should pursue their demanding obsessions instead.
    3. It advocates for equal regard and treatment, which removes the motivation to improve and create since even if you do you’ll be no better than you were.
  3. How does this benefit the lower men? People believe things that serve their interests, and so per Nietzsche, the “lowest order” makes these rhetorical moves (quoted from Leiter):
    1. their impotence becomes “goodness of heart”;
    2. their anxious lowliness becomes “humility”;
    3. their “inoffensiveness” and their “lingering at the door” becomes “patience”;
    4. their inability to achieve revenge becomes their unwillingness to seek revenge;
    5. their desire for retaliation becomes a desire for justice;
    6. their hatred of the enemy becomes a hatred of injustice.
  4. Why is the flourishing of higher men important? Life is hard to justify with all of its suffering and striving interspersed with brief respites of pointless satisfaction. Nietzsche rescues life only by appeal to the aesthetic spectacle of genius, which he elevates to the most important business, the only thing making life worthwhile.

This straightforward description of his thinking sheds light on some aspects of his work. Some notes:

  • Nietzsche’s pessimistic view of human rationality helps explain the poetic and rhetorical style of his writing.
  • His metaethical views support his esoterism. He sometimes says outright that he’s writing for a particular kind of person and not for everyone.
  • Nietzsche’s higher man is an archetype well-suited specifically for artistic and creative work (Leiter describes “a penchant for solitude, an absolute devotion to one’s tasks, an indifference to external opinion”). He may also be unhappy, though Nietzsche seems a bit unclear about this.
  • Nietzsche explains past philosophers’ views with their alleged psychology and self-interest, so it’s tempting to subject him to a similar analysis based on his disruptive health issues and unrequited love.

The initial puzzle of which supporters are misinterpreting Nietzsche seems answered. Allan Bloom’s 1987 The Closing of the American Mind argues that the kind of life that Nietzsche values is compelling enough to be absorbed by different ideologies.

But in spite of this, or perhaps because of it, the latest models of modern democratic or egalitarian man find much that is attractive in Nietzsche's understanding of things. It is the sign of the strength of equality, and of the failure of Nietzsche's war against it, that he is now far better known and really influential on the Left than on the Right.

This may at first appear surprising, inasmuch as Nietzsche looks toward the extraordinary, not the ordinary, the unequal, not the equal. But the democratic man requires flattery, like any ruler, and the earliest versions of democratic theory did not provide it. They justified democracy as the regime in which very ordinary people were protected in their attempt to achieve very ordinary and common goals. … Democracy presented itself as decent mediocrity against the splendid corruption of older regimes. But it is quite another thing to have a regime in which all the citizens can be thought to be at least potentially autonomous, creating values for themselves.

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13 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 6:10 PM

Thanks for writing this—I think it’s a fairly useful summary. I’m not a Nietzsche expert but it tracks well with what I know. I also find the L&L Darrow reference well-chosen: when I was younger I remember being excited the first time I read the Darrow plea, just because Leopold, whatever his other flaws, seemed to ‘take ideas seriously’—although I didn’t know the words for that then. I think one of Nietzsche’s contribution to culture is in some sense instantiating part of the essence of taking ideas seriously.

 

My main worry with your post is that, as with all analytic distillations of continental philosophy, it reduces a worldview to some claims about that worldview. In general I think Nietzsche’s whole work is written in a way that’s supposed to stylistically communicate his idea, in the same way the word ‘bell’ evokes the sound of a bell quite independent of the semantic content of that word. And so I read Nietzsche’s convoluted claims as on the level of explicit content vaguely irrelevant, because the style itself is an example of the eternal return (of his worldview).

I think we can distinguish between Nietzsche's ethic (I'm not sure morality is the right word) and his metaethics, his theory of what morality is.

His metaethics is that morality, like all psychological phenomena, is an outgrowth of the "will to power", the one true psychological universal. All beings seek power - he counts even the capacity to move and to act upon the environment, as examples of the power that living organisms seek - and the morality of a society or a people is just whatever helps that society flourish, reified into a set of values that are treated as objective good.

Nietzsche certainly respected individual greatness, but I believe his highest respect was reserved for the creators of new value systems, and the leaders and conquerors who made those value systems into the basis of a successful religion or civilization. And this is where we can discern what his own "morality" actually was. He saw himself as a philosopher who had imbibed the moral emptiness of a universe of warring wills to power, and summoned up from his own will to power, a new tablet of values.

The central symbol of the new values is "the superman", and the superman is a new human being who looks with joy upon the "eternal return". What is the eternal return? It is a belief that all the events of our lives, will repeat eternally. Nietzsche thought this was an emerging implication of the scientific worldview, and he thought that it would cause a vast spiritual crisis in the openly atheist Europe of the future. He envisaged masses of people committing suicide because they could not bear the thought of their unhappy lives repeating eternally.

The superman is a human being who is elevated, rather than crushed, by the idea of their life and their world being immortalized in this way. Nietzsche aspired to be the prophet of a future culture in which that life-affirming superman is the ideal, and he seems to have thought that a kind of eugenic aristocracy would be the best political order in which to cultivate and propagate that ideal, and to have viewed a hedonistic steady-state socialism as the chief rival ideology, once the era of religion had truly passed.

He never completed a work in which all of this is articulated, but you can find it in "Thus Spake Zarathustra" and in the unfinished notes that were later assembled as "The Will to Power". 

The Übermensch is discussed as an ideal kind of higher man only in Thus Spoke Zarathustra and disappears afterward. Zarathustra is often especially obscure and the Übermensch's importance in understanding Nietzsche is overstated in popular culture compared to the broader higher type of person exemplified by actual persons like Goethe. 

He envisaged masses of people committing suicide because they could not bear the thought of their unhappy lives repeating eternally.

Wait, does this even makes sense? If life repeats eternally, then suicide is a restart of the cycle.

Killing yourself (if you believe in the eternal return, but are otherwise rational) is not about how happy or unhappy you are, but whether you expect the following years to be better or worse than your life until now. So the people killing themselves should be exactly the ones whom Nietzsche admires, when they feel they have already passed their peak creative genius.

Nietzsche certainly respected individual greatness, but I believe his highest respect was reserved for the creators of new value systems, and the leaders and conquerors who made those value systems into the basis of a successful religion or civilization. (...) He saw himself as a philosopher who had imbibed the moral emptiness of a universe of warring wills to power, and summoned up from his own will to power, a new tablet of values.

Guy designed a new moral system putting himself on the top; news at 11.

Nietzsche is popularly associated with Nazism (...) he was also popular among the left-anarchists and the Left generally (...) “if you meet an intellectual non-Leftist, increasingly they are Nietzschean” (whatever that means). Common sense demands that some of these people are misreading him.

Alternative explanation: all these people understand Nietzsche more or less correctly as saying that geniuses are so awesome that nothing else matters, and all of them think of themselves as geniuses.

Ironically, eternal return is one step from many-world immortality, an even more mind-crushing idea

[-][anonymous]3mo10

The central symbol of the new values is "the superman", and the superman is a new human being who looks with joy upon the "eternal return". What is the eternal return? It is a belief that all the events of our lives, will repeat eternally. Nietzsche thought this was an emerging implication of the scientific worldview, and he thought that it would cause a vast spiritual crisis in the openly atheist Europe of the future. He envisaged masses of people committing suicide because they could not bear the thought of their unhappy lives repeating eternally.

Just wanted to flag that to me this sounds at best disputed and really just not accurate.

  1. The Ubermensch and the eternal recurrence both might be more literary devices than genuine things Nietzsche believes in. On the eternal recurrence, I think most people agree the main point of it is to serve as a kind of litmus test for a person's constitution. There's an attempted proof of the idea in the Nachlass but I don't think most scholars think Nietzsche literally endorsed it. On the Ubermensch, there are not many references to the character outside of Zarathustra, and most of the external references are about TSZ, and within TSZ there's a reading that the Ubermensch is itself an idea that needs to be overcome. Happy to elaborate but note that the Ubermensch is already mentioned as Z's ideal prior to his encountering the idea of the eternal recurrence, and it doesn't seem like the idea is part of his convalescence. I also think you can read Part IV as being about overcoming the idea, or anyway not taking it quite so seriously.

  2. I don't know where you are getting the thing about mass suicides. Maybe it's true, but I've never heard anyone say that before.

For a scholarly argument that Nietzsche expected humanity to literally be divided between those who could bear the eternal return, and those who couldn't, apparently Paul Loeb is the person to read. 

I think there was a great effort to bury political readings of Nietzsche, after his science-fictional musings about future humanity being culled by the thought of the eternal return, were subsumed into Nazi ideology. Thus the modern emphasis on literary and individualist interpretations of Nietzsche. Nietzsche himself was a mild-mannered loner who never actually published a political program, so one is free to focus on his completed works as containing the true Nietzsche, and to regard his fleeting futurology as symbolism or madness that was appropriated and amplified by fascists. 

If I had time to be an actual Nietzsche scholar, I might write something on the passage from the German Nietzsche of racial supremacy, to the French Nietzsche of critical theory, to the American Nietzsche of techno-optimism, and how they draw on different parts of his work. 

The ”eternal recurrence” is surprisingly the most attractive picture of the ”afterlife”. The alternatives: the annihilation of the self or eternal life in heaven are both unattractive, for different reasons. Add to this that Nietzsche is right to say that the eternal recurrence is a view of the world which seems compatible with a scientific cosmology.

Mostly unrelated but IMO funny: 

My friend Jesse Clifton once gave this summary of Nietzche's philosophy: "Life is meaningless. Nevertheless, you should be a Chad."

Absolutely fascinating! Thanks for posting! This gave me a new lens onto Nietzsche.

That seems quite simplified, but I don't have any strong disagreements.

But herd morality is not just hostile to higher men, it's hostile to all positive development in mankind in general. If you glorify everything which makes weak and weary, you trap society in a prison of its own making. You'll end up with Nietzsche's "last men", which is a mediocre but content population at best, and a society of mentally ill people who have to falsify life at every point in order to cope with it at worst (and this seems to be the current state of things). 

Consider one instance of such: The victim mentality. Making other people responsible for you, and blaming them when your life isn't working out. This isn't helpful to either of you. You'd effectively be a parasite, but you'd also lack control over your own life since responsibility equals control. The will to power often manifests itself as subversive parasitism, and when the weak (that which has low darwinian fitness) only lives on because it steals surplus from that which is healthy (high darwinian fitness), the whole starts to degenerate. I believe that this is already happening.

Also, morality appears to be the laws which we want reality to adhere to. When we're dissatisfied about life, it's because reality is different from how it's "supposed" to be in our heads. The most obvious solution then, is to stop lying to ourselves and eachother about reality, i.e. to remember that moral values are human ideals and not some force of the universe (like karma). If something can be changed, it's worth fighting for. But if something cannot be changed, since it literally conflicts with reality, then one ought just to accept it.

From a perspective of "The health of humanity as a whole", I belive that there's a lot of beliefs we need to do away with, lest they do away with us. I do not believe that the health and well-being of humanity is zero-sum. It's possible to better or degrade the whole all at once. Nietzsche understood all this to a much better degree than I can write here.

I guess my point is that not all preferences are livable. It's not that ideals like "equality of outcome" aren't appealing in some sense, rather, the attempt to fulfill them would destroy society, they're unrealistic.
Nietzsches philosophy can sound brutal, but that's because the laws of reality are brutal. Restrict moralities to what's actually livable and preferable, and you will find that all the "sweet" and naive ones disappear.

I will end off with a quote by Nietzsche: "Wherever one has not yet been capable of causal thinking, one has thought morally."

But herd morality is not just hostile to higher men, it's hostile to all positive development in mankind in general. If you glorify everything which makes weak and weary, you trap society in a prison of its own making.

Sometimes Nietzsche will use terms like "life" in e.g. "[a] tendency hostile to life is therefore characteristic of [herd] morality." But in context this refers to the higher type (in this specific passage to the man "raised to his greatest power and splendor"). The term "anti-nature" is the same way.

This is complicated by the sense in which herd morality is considered harmful to life in an indirect way, because Nietzsche's response to Schopenhauer's challenge of life's suffering is that "it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified." So herd morality is also injurious to life generally because it hinders the Goethe/Beethoven-style aesthetic spectacle that makes life worthwhile.

Importantly, I'd say with confidence that Nietzsche's opposition to herd morality is driven only by its direct effect on the norms of higher men, without any consideration for its good or bad effects on those of the lower men.

Zarathustra starts out with chapters like "despisers of the body" and "Preachers of death".
In "The Will to Power", you'll find quotes like: "A kind of self-destruction; the instinct of preservation is compromised. -The weak harm themselves. -That is the type of decadence"
And: "In the doctrine of socialism there is hidden, rather badly, a "will to negate life"; the human beings or races that think up such a doctrine must be bungled. Indeed, I should wish that a few great experiments might prove that in a socialist society life negates itself, cuts off its own roots."
He also often speaks of the degeneration of the species, as if what morality is doing is a kind of eugenics which weakens the species.
This is harmful to our collective health, and much in tune with "weak men create hard times" (semi-famous quote, but not by Nietzsche).
I'm reading a translation here, I don't know the original German, but I'm seeing words like "destructive elements", "decay" and "rot".
He also calls the evaluation of peace over war "anti-biological", criticizing Mr. Herbert Spencer as both a biologist and moralist. That he brings up biology as well as morality tells me that he's not speaking purely aesthetically.

When Nietzsche speaks of biology, psychology, physics and evolution, most of what he says still holds up today. Unlike many philosophers before him, he isn't basing all his ideas on a naive misunderstanding of reality and human nature.
Here's another quote from Will to Power: "In order to understand what "life" is, what kind of striving and tension life is, the formula must apply as well to trees and plants as to animals". Nietzsche even traces back this "Will to Power" to the fundemental laws of physics.

In either case, a society which can produce geniuses and higher men must have a certain level of quality. Nietzsche must have realized that one cannot optimize for just one thing at the cost of something else, since everything is interconnected. If great men are apples, then society is the tree, meaning that harming the tree would be a bad idea.