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Nietzsche: The Subject of Morality

Nietzsche:

The Subject of Morality
Ross Poole

It is to be inferred that there exist countless dark bodies
close to the sun – such as we shall never see. This is,
between ourselves, a parable; and a moral psychologist
reads the whole starry script only as a parable and signlanguage by means of which many things can be kept
secret.

Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil. # 196 1
Parables are for concealing meaning, as well as displaying it.

Morality is a network of signs, hieroglyphs, and secrets; like
a dream, or a neurotic symptom, it always says both more and
less than it claims. To recognise this is to call attention to the
need, not just for a psychology of morals, but also for a
semiology and a natural history; in a phrase, it calls for a
, genealogy’ of morals.

What are the secrets kept by the’ starry script’ of morality?

One of Nietzsche’s best known claims is that ‘There are no
moral phenomena at all, only a moral interpretation of phenomena’ (BGE # 107; cp. WP # 258). But this is hardly news
to us, nor, I suspect, to Nietzsche’s contemporaries. Despite
his boast that he was the first to formulate the ‘insight’ that
‘there are no moral facts whatever’ (TI, p. 55), this was over a
century after Hume. Anyway, the impact of this claim is
immediately overshadowed by that of the much larger thesis
that in precisely the sense in which there are no moral facts,
there are no facts of any kind: ‘ … facts is precisely what there
is not, only interpretations’ (WP # 481). Morality may be only
an interpretation of the world, but so too is everything else.

This includes science, and also Nietzsche’s own view that science and morality are only interpretations (see, e.g., BGE #
14, # 22).

Nietzsche’s view is not a relativist one: he certainly does
not think that all interpretations are equally valid. Much of his
energies were spent trying to demonstrate the unacceptability
of certain interpretations, and in particular, to show that the
moral interpretation of the world is not a tenable one and
should be left behind: ‘Morality is merely an interpretation of
certain phenomena, more precisely a misinterpretation’ (TI,
‘The “Improvers” of Mankind’, 1; in PN, p. 501). The slogan
‘Beyond Good and Evil’ means beyond morality: the moral
interpretation of the world is one which should be rejected.

But why precisely should it be rejected? Is it on grounds of
truth? or of morality? If so, as critics have always been keen to
point out, there is more than a hint of self-refutation here. If
there are no facts, how can we appeal to the concept of truth?

And what moral reasons can we have for rejecting morality?

In order to answer these questions, we need to get clear
about what has come to be called Nietzsche’s ‘perspectiv-

2

ism’ .2 All views of the world are the creations of a particular
set of interests and a particular location with respect to the
world: these determine which questions are asked, which
insights are gained and which aspects are overlooked. There
is no one perspective which can make good the claim to
provide a privileged account of what the world is like. Some
accounts may be more adequate than others – because they are
more comprehensive, contain fewer internal inconsistencies,
are more exciting and stimulating, are more aesthetically
pleasing, or are more ‘life enhancing’. However, this greater
adequacy is achieved by developing a particular perspective,
not by denying it. The insights of a particular perspective are
the result of concentration; the price of these insights lies in
what is overlooked. A perspective is a particular structure of
knowledge; but it is also – and necessarily – a structure of
ignorance. What is characteristic of most accounts is that they
deny their perspectival character: they presenrthemselves as
the product, not of a particular point of view, but of how the
world is – of the ‘facts’. They claim knowledge, but deny a
corresponding ignorance. They characteristically deny, or
give a distorted account of, their own origins.

This provides some of the critical edge to the strategy
Nietzsche calls ‘genealogy’. In part, genealogy involves unpacking the desires and needs, hopes and fears which have
found expression in a particular account of the world. Philosophy is a confession (BGE # 6); morality a sign-language
of the emotions (BGE # 187). The genealogist must learn to
read philosophy as a confession; discern the emotions represented in morality. Even the most impersonal discourse is the
expression of a specific kind of psychic structure, and it is
Nietzsche’s task to uncover that structure. It is for this reason
that he often refers to himself as a ‘psychologist’ (see, e.g.,
GS, Preface # 2, BGE # 23, # 196, etc.). But his enterprise is
not – or not only – that of discerning the particular motives
which might lead an individual to invent or subscribe to a
particular view of the world. Nietzsche’s enterprise is also an
historical one: moralities, and metaphysical and religious
doctrines are located with respect to specific historical contexts and political struggles. Yet the point of Nietzsche’ s
stories is clearly not historical explanation in a conventional
sense. It is rather to identify the cultural residues which
continue to dominate individual and social life in order that
they be understood and their power diminished. We may
never overcome the past, but we may combat it, and genealogy is part of that struggle (see UM, 2, e.g. p. 76).

The stories which Nietzsche tells are more like fables than
actual histories. He is impatient with detail, and not concerned to rebut alternative accounts. This is partly because he

Radical Philosophy 54, Spring 1990

is not concerned with the past as such, but the past as it is
located in the cultural present. Here, there is no significant
distinction between myth and history. Nor does – or couldNietzsche claim any epistemological privilege for his genealogies: they are his stories, his truths and they are informed
by his values. They do not so much say ‘This is how things
were’, as ‘This is how I see things’. Their critical dimension
lies in the challenge they present to the reader to find and
defend an alternative account. Often enough, even to attempt
to meet this challenge is to risk defeat, as the existence of any
genealogy will undercut the pretensions to universality and
objectivity required to sustain the position being defended.

Perspectivism is a general epistemological position, and
genealogy applies as much to science as it does to morality.

However, while Nietzsche is often critical of the self-image of
science, he does not – at least after his early writings – attack
it with anything like the ferocity he directed at morality. Part
of the difference seems to be that Nietzsche thought that
science could survive the discovery of its own limitations;
indeed, that it is likely that the achievements of science will
be better appreciated when it is recognised to be a human
creation, rather than a register of pre-existing facts. On the
other hand, morality will not survive the discovery. It depends
on its claim to a non-perspectival status; once this has gone,
so too has morality. Nietzsche’ s position here is the reverse of
what has become orthodoxy. For him, science can do without
the claim to objectivity; morality cannot. 3
Moral judgments present themselves as unconditional, i.e.

not as conditioned by the particular desires, interests of the
person who makes the moral judgment, but as something
which must be accepted by everyone, whatever their interests
or desires. In the Kantian language that Nietzsche despised,
the dictates of morality are categorical, not hypothetical. The
human need which finds expression in morality is ‘the worst
of all tastes, the taste for the unconditional’ (BGE # 31).

(Nietzsche would have been pleased by the claim of psychoanalysis that everything unconditional belongs to the pathological.) The good which is posited by morality is supposed to
be a good for everyone; but this claim to universality is a
fraudulent one. Goods belong to their owners: they are private
possessions.

‘Good’ is no longer good when your neighbour takes it
into his mouth. And how could there exist a ‘common
good’! The expression is a self-contradiction: what can
be common has ever but little value. (BGE # 43).

This bogus universality is associated with another feature of
moral evaluation, that it is characteristically dichotomous.

Moralists, like metaphysicians, believe in ‘antithetical values’ (BGE # 2); they must falsify the complex and multivalued nature of reality. Whatever characteristics are selected as
exemplifying the good, these will be found always to exist
together with and to depend upon what is evil.

Examine the lives of the best and most fruitful people
and ask yourself whether a tree that is supposed to
grow to a proud height can dispense with bad weather
and storms; whether misfortune and external resistance, some kinds of hatred, jealousy, stubbornness,
mistrust, hardness, avarice, and violence do not belong
among the favourable conditions without which any
great growth even of virtue is scarcely possible.

(GS 1# 19)
The alleged good of altruism is parasitic, Nietzsche argues, on
egoism (GS 1# 21); sickness is necessary for self-knowledge
(GS III # 121); “‘higher culture” is based on the spiritualisaRadical Philosophy 54, Spring 1990

tion and intensification of cruelty’ (BGE # 229); the ‘profoundest and sublimest form of love’ grew from ‘the trunk of
that tree of vengefulness and hatred, Jewish hatred’ (GM! #
8). Everything of value will be found to depend at some stage
of its history upon an opposed value; no system of morality
has achieved dominance without the use of methods which
are, by its own criteria, immoral:

Everything praised as moral is identical in essence
with everything immoral and was made possible, as in
every development of morality, with immoral means
and for immoral ends. (WP # 272)
The creation of new values always involves the destruction of
other values: ‘If a temple is to be erected, a temple must first
be destroyed’ (GM 11 # 24). The great moralists in history
have had to be capable of equally great immorality as a necessary condition for their achievements. To advocate the good

and deplore the evil ignores their interdependence; it is also a
recipe for mediocrity and stagnation. Belief in the antithetical
values of morality is only possible on the basis of a wilful indeed hypocritical – blindness.

The moral interpretation of the world presupposes the
existence of agents who may be held morally accountable for
their actions. It posits subjects who are distinct from but
nevertheless causally responsible for what they do. Nietzsche
argues that the freely willing moral subject is a fiction, though
a deep-seated one. It is in part generated by the subject!

predicate structure of language. In too literal-minded a fashion we transpose grammar onto the world, and suppose that
there must be a subject underlying every attribute and every
action, as if – to use Nietzsche’ s own example – there must be
lightning apart from the flash (GM I # 13). Descartes’ inference from the existence of a thought to a self whose business
it is to think is based on just this assumption that the structure
of language must mirror that of the world.

‘There is thinking: therefore there is something that
thinks’: this is the upshot of all Descartes’ argumentation. But that means positing as ‘true a priori’ our
belief in the concept of substance – that when there is a
thought there has to be something ‘that thinks’ is simply a formulation of our grammatical custom that adds
a doer to every deed. (WP # 484; cp. WP # 477, BGE
# 17)4
3

The I is not a discovery but a creation; it is the ‘regency’

which provides – if only for a time – the political resolution of
an ongoing process of conflict and struggle, negotiation and
alliance (cp. WP # 90). It both is an interpretation, and also
defines the place from which interpretation takes place.4 Like
all interpretations, it is a structure of knowledge and ignorance: the I is not all there is to the self, nor does its knowledge exhaust what there is to be known about that self.

The relative ignorance in which the regent is kept concerning individual activities and even disturbances
within the communality is among the conditions under
which rule is exercised. (WP # 492)
Nietzsche recommends that we bypass the government and
communicate directly with the ‘inferior parts’ – especially the
body – if we wish to gain better knowledge of the domain of
the self.

There is no subject outside this process of conflict and
resolution. Nor is there any reason to identify certain aspects
as essential and others not. Domination and subordination
there may be, as well as interpretation and emphasis; but
essential and inessential, no. The self is the union, and there
can be little sense in supposing that it has an existence apart
from what it does. It will express itself in action, and in action
experience the feeling of freedom. But this is not freedom of
the will as the moralist understands it. It is the freedom of
artists to create as they must:

They know only too well that it is precisely when they
cease to act ‘voluntarily’ and do everything of necessity that their feeling of freedom, subtlety, fullness of
power, creative placing, disposing, shaping reaches its
height – in short, that necessity and ‘freedom of will’

are then one in them. (BGE # 213)
There is no subject underlying our various beliefs, thoughts
and actions; a fortiori there is no subject which is causally
responsible for them.

What then is the self? Up to a point, Nietzsche’s answer is
similar to Hume’ s: it is nothing but a collection of sensations,
passions, thoughts, and the like. S B ut far more than Hume,
Nietzsche emphasises the existence of the body as the ground
of these sensations, passions and so on. The I is not a mental
I, but a bodily I:

‘I’, you say, and are proud of the word. But greater is
that in which you do not wish to have faith – your body
and its great reason: that does not say ‘I’, but does ‘I’.

(Z, I, ‘On the Despisers of the Body’, in PN, p. 146)
If anything, it is the body which feels, wills and thinks. But ultimately, the body too stands in need of unification. It could

not on its own constitute the unity of the self. The various
bodily passions, desires, needs and thoughts exist in diverse
relations of compatibility, complementarity, tension, and
contradiction. The unity of the self comes when an order of
hierarchy and dominance is established amongst them. Certain desires establish their priority, and others fall into place
beneath them.

The impression of freedom of the will is given because the
self is constituted by the commanding will and takes pleasure
in the obedience of the now subordinated aspects of the self.

L’ effet, c’ est moi: what happens here is what happens
in every well-constructed and happy commonwealth;
the ruling class identifies itself with the successes of
the commonwealth. In all willing, it is absolutely a
question of commanding and obeying, on the basis of
… a social structure contained of many ‘souls’.

(BGE # 19)
4

.

It is also the freedom of the bird of prey to express its nature
by carrying off the lamb (GM I # 13) and perhaps, of Nietzsche

to pursue his ‘campaign against morality’ (EH, p. 290) into
madness. It is a freedom which embraces necessity; it is a
freedom which can do no other than what it does (cp. Luther:

‘Here I stand, I can do no other’).

The freely choosing moral subject is an interpretation of
the complex phenomenon of self-creation, but a misinterpretation. But how does this misinterpretation arise? Grammar
may suggest it, but is not the whole story. What desires and
fears – what kind of will – find expression in this fiction?

What is the genealogy of the moral subject?

Ultimately, the fiction of the moral subject is created and
maintained by the practice of morality itself. Consider for a
moment the story Nietzsche tells of the genesis of morality or, more precisely, of what he sometimes calls ‘herd’ or
‘slave’ morality.

Once upon a time, there were two kinds of people, the
masters and those over whom they ruled. The dominant morality – or better, the dominant mode of evaluation – was that
of the master. It was an expression of his respect and esteem
for himself: he judged himself to be ‘good’ and – consequently – what he did to be ‘good’. There were others like
himself – other masters – whom he also respected; they were
worthy of a fight or friendship. Then there were those over
whom he ruled: they were unlike him in all the respects that
counted, and he marked this difference by designating them
‘bad’ (or ‘base’: ‘schlecht’). But the badness of his slaves was
largely a matter of indifference to the master: he was concerned with pursuing his own life and creating his own values .

The master did not claim universality for these values: they
did not prescribe how others (and certainly not the slave)
Radical Philosophy 54, Spring 1990

ought to act; they simply described how he did act.

The slave, on the other hand, did not act; or, at least, his
actions were subject to the command of his master. To act on
his own behalf would be to deny his status as a slave, and this
he was afraid to do. If the master’s sentiment towards the
slave was the ‘pathos of difference’, that of the slave towards
the master was ‘ressentiment’, the hatred nourished in those
who were afraid to act.

The slave revolt in morality begins when ressentiment itself
becomes creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment
of natures that are denied their true reaction, that of deeds, and
compensate themselves with an imaginary revenge. (GM I #
10)
Slave morality is essentially reactive. It focusses on the object
of its fear – the master – and designates what he does as ‘evil
(‘bose’); the slave is, by contrast, ‘good’. It thus reverses the
values of the master. What for the master is good is precisely
what for the slave is evil: the master himself, his superiority,
and the characteristics which exemplify that superiority worldly success, wealth, fame, pride, brutality, and the like.

What for the master is bad is what is good for the slave:

submissiveness, denial of the self, equality, enjoyment, the
world. This is not a simple reversal of the content of values;
their polarity is reversed also. For the master, the primary
value is good, and what is not good is bad; for the slave, the
primary value is evil, and what is not evil is good.

The ‘revaluation of values’ was commenced by the Jews
and carried through by Christianity. Paradoxically, the slave
revolt in morality which was brought about by the fear of
action has come to dominate European moral sensibility. Fear
and mediocrity has triumphed over courage and achievement.

Almost all that is left of the noble morality is the image of the
barbarian – in its most extreme form, the ‘blond beast’:

one’s own values (GM II # 1). The slave does not act, and does
not have the strength to forget; so he remembers. Nietzsche
remarks tellingly that the Christian knows how to forgive, but
not how to forget. 6 The I is in part constituted by the continuing hatred and the memory of past injuries. This I, the subject
of morality, has a continuity and an intensity of focus not
available to the noble. It is also constituted by frustrated
desire: the I is not what it would be. The subject of morality is
in part defined by the gap between ‘is’ and ‘ought’.

The master does not draw such a distinction, either for
himself or for the slave. His judgement that the slave is bad
(or base) does not imply that the slave ought to be different.

He would probably not make much sense of the idea: the slave
is weak, and is a slave. The slave, on the other hand, thinks
that what the master does is evil, i.e. that he ought not to do
what he does. Nietzsche’s account of this reasoning is worth
quoting at length:

To demand of strength that it should not express itself
as strength, that it should not be a desire to overcome,
a desire to throw down, a desire to become master, a
thirst for enemies and resistances and triumphs, is just
as absurd as to demand of weakness that it should
express itself as strength. A quantum of force is equivalent to a quantum of drive, will, effect – more, it is
nothing other than precisely this very driving, willing,
effecting, and only owing to the seduction of language
(and of the fundamental errors of reason that are petrified in it) which conceives and misconceives all effects
as conditioned by something that causes effects, by a
‘subject’, can it appear otherwise. For just as the popu-

One may be quite justified in continuing to fear the
blond beast at the core of all noble races and in being
on one’s guard against it: but who would not a hundred
times sooner fear where one can also admire than not
fear but be permanently condemned to the repellent
sight of the ill-constituted, dwarfed, atrophied, and
poisoned. (GM 1#11)
For all his admiration for the masters, and his contempt for the
herd and its morality, Nietzsche did not think of the contrast
in antithetical terms. Here, as elsewhere, values do not come
in simple oppositions. Thus, just because the man of ressentiment lacks the ‘trust and openness with himself’ which is
characteristic of the noble, because he is ‘neither upright nor
naive nor honest and straightforward with himself’, he acquires subtlety and complexity.

A race of such men of ressentiment is bound to become
eventually cleverer than any noble race; it will also
honour cleverness to a far greater degree. (GM I # 10)
It was due to the ‘priestly form of existence’

that man first became an interesting animal, that only
here did the human soul in a higher sense acquire depth
and become evil – and these are the two basic respects
in which man has hitherto been superior to other beasts.

(GM I # 6)

The man of ressentiment hates; but he also fears, and
therefore does not act. He internalises his hatred, which comes
to pervade all that he thinks and does. The noble acts on his
emotions; he also forgets. It is not simply that the action
dissipates the emotion; it is rather that forgetting is a sign of
strength: it clears the way to live one’s own life and create

Radical Philosophy 54, Spring 1990

5

lar mind separates the lightning from its flash and takes
the latter for an action, for the operation of a subject
called lightning, so popular morality also separates
strength from expressions of strength, as if there were
a neutral substratum behind the strong man, which was
free to express strength and not to do so. But there is no
such substratum: there is no ‘being’ behind doing,
effecting, becoming; ‘the doer’ is merely a fiction
added to the deed – the deed is everything. (GM I # 13)
We might say that ressentiment creates a new kind of
subject: the subject of morality.7 However, we should keep in
mind Nietzsche’s insistence that the subject of morality is a
fiction, a misinterpretation of the complex phenomena of
subjectivity. It is a misinterpretation engendered by weakness. The failure of the man of ressentiment to act on his
hatred expresses his weakness just as the actions of the noble
express his strength; but both are interpreted by morality, not
as expressions of character, but acts of choice.

The distinction between action and the (moral) self is a
special case of the metaphysical distinction between appearance and reality. The world of appearance is given to the
senses, while reality is apprehended by the use of· reason.

According to Nietzsche it has, at least since Socrates, been the
special responsibility of philosophers to make use of this
faculty in order to establish the characteristics of the real
world (TI, especially the first three chapters; in PN, pp. 47386). What they have done is smuggled into their characterisation of the real world just those features which are necessary
to justify the existence of morality. Reality provides the
ground and the ultimate meaning of the world of appearance.

Metaphysics provides the guarantee that reality is on the side
of morality.

Something of the force of Nietzsche’s position here
emerges if we consider Kant’s ‘proof’ of the existence of God
in the second Critique. s Kant argues that even though the
motive of the moral agent must not be his/her own happiness,
there must be some rational expectation that those who do
their duty will eventually be rewarded with the happiness they
deserve. In other words, there must be some connection between moral agents acting as they ought, and thus deserving
happiness, and their actually achieving it. If there were no
such connection, or perhaps – as empirical evidence might
tend to suggest – a negative one, it is hard to see how morality
could continue as a going concern. We cannot have such a
rational expectation that individuals will be rewarded as they
ought unless we postulate the immortality of the soul and the
existence of God. Kant also argues that the actions of individuals doing their duty as (and because) they ought must also
contribute in some way to the historical progress of human
societies towards well-being and – more important for Kantfreedom.9 Again, we cannot have such a rational expectation
unless we can assume that the universe is governed according
to a moral law , and on the final analysis this requires that we
believe in God.

It is important to recognise that these arguments are not
mere aberrations. Despite – or because of – his insistence on a
non-consequentialist account of duty, Kant recognised that
individual morality also requires that individuals be able to
locate their actions and their lives in some larger order. There
must be some intelligible connections between people obeying the moral law , and at the same time making sense of their
lives in terms of their own destiny and a more comprehensive
world order. Certainly a stoic withdrawal from the temporal
world is possible; but even this only makes sense if we
suppose, as the stoics did, that such a withdrawal is in line

6

with a larger cosmology. We can make sense of the demands
of individual morality only if we locate it within a more encompassing narrative.

According to Nietzsche, it has been the task of reason – of
philosophy, or metaphysics – to discern this larger order. A
crucial step in this task has been the denigration of the world
as it is revealed to sense-experience. This has become the
world of (mere) appearance, and thus of unreality, in contrast
with the intelligible world revealed by reason. Reason discovers a cosmic order and purpose; if not the existence of God, at
least of a God like order working through history. In this
grander scenario, disaster and tragedy find their larger meaning. The suffering individual is compensated, or the suffering
is located in this more comprehensive story. The evil are
punished, or their evil explained as necessary for some greater
good.

Nietzsche’s claim is that, even if accounts such as these
were once believable, they no longer are. In large part this was
because of the development of modem science. Nietzsche
was certainly susceptible to the positivist claim that metaphysics and religion had tried to do badly what modern science did well. Indeed, he suggested that positivism was an important step on the route towards the overthrow of metaphysics (TI, ‘How the “True World” finally became a Fable’; in
PN, pp. 485-86). Still, when it came to the point his position
was not a simple advocacy of science against metaphysics.

After all, the dispute between science and metaphysics cannot
be for Nietzsche a simple matter of truth vs. falsity. Both are
interpretations; neither can claim truth in any simple sense.

Metaphysics and religion fail because they cannot do without
the claim to a truth which is absolute and unique. Truth is their
own value, and one they cannot give us.

Genealogy serves its purpose here too. The drive towards
metaphysics and religion is the drive to deny the world. It is
because the man of ressentiment will not act on the world that
he denies the need to act on it: the real world, if not the world
of appearance, is as he would want it to be.

Whoever does not know how to lay his will into things
at least lay some meaning into them: that means, he has
the faith that they already obey a will. (Principle of
‘faith’). (TI, ‘Maxims and Arrows’, 18; in PN, p. 469;
cp. WP# 585)
The task of reason is to establish that the world has the
characteristics that a more active will would seek to create.

Ressentiment is reactive; its strength is turned back on itself
and becomes thought. As reason it operates to undermine the
Radical Philosophy 54, Spring 1990

faith of the masters in their own unreflective judgement (see
TI, ‘The problem of Socrates’, in PN, pp. 473-79). More
positively, its role is to create a more real world. Reason can
only serve these purposes if it operates behind the mask of
impersonality and if its results have the appearance of objectivity. The claim to truth is essential to this enterprise.

The development of science has exposed this claim. It can
now only be maintained at the price of hypocrisy, concealment – of lies. It is now the task of the genealogist to turn its
own values against the moral interpretation of the world. The
morality of truth turns out to be a lie. It has devalued itself.

We must now give up morality for its own mendacity, and
perhaps also give up the moral value of truth.

not universal, and will be created by will and not discovered
by reason.

Nietzsche calls for ‘new philosophers’, ‘free spirits’ to
meet the challenge of nihilism, not to overcome it, but, by
pushing it beyond its limits, to turn its No into a Yes. Passive
nihilism retains the perspective of morality: it continues to
say No to the world, though it has lost the right to say Yes to

Among the forces cultivated by morality was truthfulness: this eventually turned against morality, discovered its teleology, its partial perspective – (WP # 5)
The failure of the moral interpretation of the world leads
directly to nihilism (WP # 1.2). This is the loss of value – of
meaning and purpose in life – not through the application of
higher values, but through a form of self-destruction. The
highest values have devaluated themselves (WP # 2).

According to Nietzsche, nihilism is the destiny of the
modern world – or at least of its ‘next two centuries’. Even
though only some have so far glimpsed that fate, its history
‘can be related even now; for necessity itself is at work here’

(WP, Preface # 2). Nietzsche draws an important distinction
between two kinds of nihilism:

Nihilism. It is ambiguous.

A. Nihilism as a sign of increased power of the spirit:

as active nihilism.

B. Nihilism as decline and recession of the power of
the spirit: as passive nihilism.

Passive nihilism is one of the forms in which nihilism is first
experienced: its symptom is pessimism (e.g. Schopenhauer).

Passive nihilism is the recognition of the failure of morality to
provide values and purposes to guide one’s life. There is no
world revealed by reason which provides a context for one’s
individual strivings; there is no larger web of meanings with
which one can identify; nor is there a final goal towards which
human history is heading (WP # 12(A». The pessimist – the
passive nihilism – says: There are no meanings of this kind,
but there ought to be. The failure of the moral interpretation is
experienced as a loss.

To which Nietzsche responds: If there is no morality, there
is no ‘ought to be’.

The philosophical nihilist is convinced that all that
happens is meaningless and in vain; and that there
ought not be anything meaningless and in vain. But
whence this: there ought not to be? From where does
one get this ‘meaning’, this ‘standard’? (WP # 36)
While passive nihilism pretends to reject the moral interpretation of the world, it secretly accepts it. The moral interpretation lingers on in the attitude that the loss of morality and
meaning is a loss, and that these ought to exist. Passive
nihilism is morality’S last desperate stand.

Active nihilism does not merely accept the loss of morality. It celebrates it. The self-refutation of the moral interpretation of the world is not a loss, but a triumph; an achievement
of spirit, and a liberation. In place of pessimism, its attitude is
one of joyfulness: it is the’ gay science’. Positive nihilism is
not a return to master morality. That is no longer possible. It is
a call for new values, not a reaffirmation of the old. But the
values it seeks will, like those of the master, be particular and
Radical Philosophy 54, Spring 1990

anything else. The active nihilist must say No to morality, and
Yes to the world. The world, and everything in it – life,
change, temporality, misery, sickness, horror, transient happiness, occasional glory – must be accepted, despite the lack
of any larger meaning or cosmic purpose. Of course, the ‘free
spirit’ will also act, and in acting strive to affirm its values.

Such actions have significance, not because of what they
achieve, but what they are. Like the world of which they are a
part, they exist, and therein lies their value.

There is a limit to what can be achieved by action. In
particular, it cannot change the past. This might seem to be a
limitation of yill: ‘The will cannot will backwards; and that
he cannot break time and time’s covetousness, that is the
will’s loneliest melancholy’ (Z, Part 11, ‘On Redemption’; in
PN, p. 251). But the power of will maybe exercised other than
in action. If we cannot change the past by acting on it, we may
do so by reconceiving it. We may ‘put our will into things’,
not just by changing them, but also by changing our perspective and re-interpreting them. Interpretation is a manifestation
of will. To accept what one cannot change is to will that it be
so.

‘The will is a creator.’ All ‘it was’ is a fragment, a
riddle, a dreadful accident – until the creative will says
to it, ‘But thus I will it.’ Until the creative will says to
it, ‘But thus I will will it; thus shall I will it.’ (Z, Part
11, ‘On Redemption’; in PN, p. 253)
Positive nihilism creates this new perspective on the world:

one acts as one must, and accepts what one must. For the free
spirit, there is no value above existence, no ought to be except
what is.

To say Yes to the world is not merely to accept it; it is also
to celebrate it. The re-interpretation required by Nietzsche is
not just a matter of new words, but of a new life: one in which
one loves what exists, even in its utmost horror or banality.

He who has really gazed … into the most world-denying of all possible modes of thought – beyond good and
evil and no longer, like Buddha and Schopenhauer,
under the spell and illusion of morality – perhaps by
that very act, and without really intending to, may have
had his eyes opened to the opposite ideal: to the ideal of
the most exuberant, most living and world-affirming
man, who has not only learned to get on and treat with
all that was and is but who wants to have it again as it
was and is to all eternity, insatiably calling out da capo
7

[i.e. again from the beginning] not only to himself but
to the whole piece and play. (BGE # 56)
This is the ideal of eternal recurrence; it is both the consequence and the test of positive nihilism. The free spirit must
celebrate existence by willing that it recur, or – what is the
same thing – interpreting the world as embodying such a
pattern of recurrence.

The doctrine of eternal recurrence is the ultimate denial of
meaning and purpose:

Let us think this thought in its most terrible form:

existence as it is, without meaning or aim, yet recurring
inevitably without any finale of nothingness: ‘the eternal recurrence’. (WP # 55)
But it is a denial which has become an affirmation. It is a way
of saying Yes to what exists, as not needing any other validation than that which is provided by existence itself. It accepts
the identity of the ought and the is; it recognises that the only
universal is the particular, and it affirms – and lives – the
identity of the eternal with the transient and the temporal.

In a world without God, the eternal recurrence is the
closest we can get to redemption:

If Nietzsche’s genealogy culminates in the struggle between

divinity and annihilation, what were the struggles of the
genealogist? If, like other philosophy, Nietzsche’s ‘moral
psychology’ was ‘a confession on the part of its author’ (BGE
# 6), it too stands in need of a moral psychologist.

We need to be careful here. A confession conceals as much
as it reveals. Zarathustra was, at most, one of Nietzsche’s
masks. But even a mask reveals more than a ‘hidden man’

would desire. If Zarathustra was written in blood (see Z, I,
‘On Reading and Writing’, in PN, p. 152), the blood was
Nietzsche’s own. The author of Zarathustra lived the same
struggle that he defined for his protagonist – between becoming a god and disintegration. His last but one book was the
divine or blasphemous autobiography, Ecce Homo. His final
destiny can – appropriately enough – be read in both ways: as
divinity or annihilation. To some extent this is due to the
secrecy and ambiguity of the madness which was Nietzsche’s
final mask. But it is also because the two possible outcomes of
the struggle waged by Nietzsche, the alternative between
which he lived and wrote, are not opposed but identical. 10
Notes
1

To redeem what is past in man and to recreate all ‘it
was’ until the will says, ‘Thus I willed it! Thus I shall
will it’ – this I called redemption and this alone I taught
them to call redemption. (Z, Ill, ‘On Old and New
Tablets’, 3; in PN, p. 310; cf. also Z, 11, ‘On Redemption’; in PN, pp. 249-54)
But it is a redemption which is not easily earned. Zarathustra
was the teacher of eternal recurrence; but he also recoiled
from it. It was his ‘abysmal thought’, the cause of nausea and
disgust; it was his destiny, but also his danger and sickness (Z,
Ill, ‘The Convalescent’, p. 327, pp. 331-32). When, in The
Gay Science, Nietzsche first proclaims the doctrine, he imagines two responses to the ‘demon’ who brings the news:

Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your
teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have
you once experienced a tremendous moment when you
would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never
have I heard anything more divine.’ If this thought
gained possession of you, it would change you as you
are or perhaps crush you. (GS, IV # 341)
To respond to the demon as a divine messenger means not
merely loving the world in all its horror and banality, but
taking responsibility for it. This is to become a god oneself; to
live the doctrine of the eternal recurrence is to live as if there
were no world which is not one’s own creation and re-creation. To respond to the demon with anguish, to receive the
news he conveys as ‘the greatest weight’ (GS # 341; see also
Z, Ill, ‘On the Vision and the Riddle’; in PN, pp. 267 -72) is to
lose oneself in a world without meaning or purpose; it is to ‘go
under’, not for rebirth as the near divine’ ubermensch’, but to
annihilation.

The culmination of Nietzsche’s genealogy of morality is
to confront the moral subject with the choice between divinity
and disintegration. The story of Zarathustra is largely the
story of his struggle between these alternatives. Zarathustra
must come to terms with the demonic or divine message of the
eternal recurrence. He must recognise the world in all its
meanness, emptiness and cruelty, but learn to love it – and
himself – not as a duty (this would be to return to the standpoint of morality), but as a joy and a triumph.

If this is the story of Zarathustra, what of the story teller?

8

2

3

4

References to Nietzsche’s work will be given in the text as
follows:

BGE Beyond Good and Evil, translated by R. J. Hollingdale (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1973; reprinted
1976)
EH
Ecce Homo, translated by WaIter Kaufmann, in On
the Genealogy of Morals; Ecce Homo (NY, Vintage Books,
.

1969)
GM
On the Genealogy of Morals, translated by Waiter
Kaufmann & R. J. Hollingdale, in On the Genealogy of
Morals; Ecce Homo
GS
The Gay Science, translated by Waiter Kaufmann
(NY, Vintage Books, 1974)
PN
The Portable Nietzsche, ed. WaIter Kaufmann
(London, Chatto & Windus, 1971)
TI
Twilight of the Idols, translated by Waiter
Kaufmann, in PN
UM
Untimely Meditations, translated by R. J. Hollingdale (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1983)
WP
Will to Power, translated by Walter Kaufmann & R.

J. Hollingdale (NY, Vintage Books, 1968)
Z
Thus Spoke Zarathustra, translated by Waiter
Kaufmann, in PN
In what follows, I am indebted – even at some points of disagreement – to Alexander Nehemas, Nietzsche: Life as Literature (Cambridge, Mass. and London, Harvard University
Press, 1985), especially Chapter 2. See also Paul Redding,
‘Nietzschean Perspectivism and the Logic of Practical
Reason’, Philosophical Forum (forthcoming).

For a sophisticated defence of the more orthodox view that
science both needs and can make good a claim to objectivity,
whilst morality neither needs nor can have it, see Bemard
Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (London.

Fontana Press/Collins, 1985), Chapter 8.

Paul de Man has drawn attention to a discrepancy between
Nietzsche’s assertion in GM 1, #10, that ‘the “doer” is
merely a fiction added to the deed – the deed is everything’,
and WP, #477, which holds that ‘the deed as well as the doer
are fictions’. De Man is probably right to argue that the
second passage is Nietzsche’s more considered view, but he
tries to make too much of the point. Nietzsche’ s rejection of
the distinction between the subject and its actions (doer and
deed, substance and attribute) abolishes the philosophical
category of action (deed, attribute), because the philosophi-

Radical Philosophy 54, Spring 1990

5

6

cal category is parasitic on the distinction. In a parallel way,
Nietzsche’s rejection of the distinction between ‘reality’

(truth, being) and ‘appearance’ abolishes the philosophical
category of appearance. Nevertheless, there is a clear sense
in which Nietzsche considers that actions and appearances
have a reality which the subject (substance, reality) does not.

See Paul de Man, ‘Action and Identity in Nietzsche’, in Yale
French Studies # 52: Graphesis: Perspectives in Literature
and Philosophy, pp. 16-30.

See Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. L. A. SelbyBigge (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1888; reprinted 1967),
Book I, Part IV, Chapter VI, pp. 251-263.

At least, I think that Nietzsche says this somewhere; I am at
present unable to locate the precise place. There is a similar
thought in Stevie Smith’s poem ‘I forgive you’:

I forgive you, Maria,
Things can never be the same,
But I forgive you, Maria,
Though I think you were to blame.

7
8

9

10

I forgive you, Maria,
I can never forget
But I forgive you, Maria
Kindly remember that.

From Me Again: The Uncollected Writings ofStevieSmith
(London, Virago, 1984).

I have been influenced here and probably elsewhere by an
interesting paper by Rosalyn Diprose: ‘Nietzsche, Ethics
and Sexual Difference’, RP 52, Summer 1989.

Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, translated by L. W.

Beck (lndianapolis, Bobbs-Merrill, 1956), Book IT: Dialectic of Pure Practical Reason, especially Chapters IV
and V, pp. 126-136.

See ‘Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan
Purpose’, translated by H. B. Nisbet, in Kant’ s Political
Writings, ed. Hans Reiss (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1970; reprinted 1977).

My thanks to Lisabeth During and Paul Redding for comments and discussion.

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