Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil: Chapter One
14th February 2014
Chapter 1, The Prejudice of Philosophers, is concerned with considering the history of philosophy and declaring that traditional philosophy now lies in ruins. Before moving on to consider key themes presented in Chapter 1, be aware that BGE (Beyond Good and Evil) has a clear structure to it. It is in nine parts: beginning with a Preface and ending with a ‘Concluding Ode’, it is broken up with the first three parts dealing with philosophy and religion, Chapter 4 as an ‘Interlude’ of very short aphorisms, and Chapters 5-9 are concerned with politics and morality. The importance of Chapter 1 rests in Nietzsche’s belief that his works can only be appreciated and understood by the few: if you can get through Chapter 1 and have survived then you can be initiated into the next stage.
Section 1 of Chapter 1 is one of the most famous in the book. It begins with something of a bombshell, “Given that we want truth: why not prefer untruth?” Nietzsche here is bringing into question what is regarded as the fundamental drive of philosophy: the will to truth. To assume the value of truth for human beings is to assume that there is a concord between truth and our nature; that truth is integral to our nature. However, for Nietzsche, truth is deadly. The philosophical quest for ‘truth’ is nothing but a myth, a lie that has become indispensable for our survival. Nietzsche, early on, is laying out the task before him: if mankind has lived on the ‘lie’ that we must look for ‘truth’ then how are we to break away from that belief?
Nietzsche, like all of us, is trapped by the limitations of language. As a philologist, Nietzsche recognised the power of language and is an early precursor of Wittgenstein in his views of language as imposing a ‘reality’ upon the world. Much of our language, containing such concepts as ‘God’, ‘truth’, ‘soul’ and so on are a product of primitive psychology and we are yet to accept that these terms are redundant. As Nietzsche points out:
“Language, at its origin, belongs to an age of the most rudimentary form of psychology. We enter a realm of gross fetishism when we become conscious of the fundamental presuppositions of the metaphysics of language or, in plain words, of ‘reason’…I am afraid we shall not get rid of God until we get rid of grammar”
(Twilight of the Idols, III)
Readers often find Nietzsche confusing when he criticises the quest for truth or, as in Section 12, talks of the need to get rid of the concept of the soul, yet also calls for “new and refined versions” of the concept of the soul. When Nietzsche talks of “untruth” he is not suggesting that we all should live a life of falsehoods, rather that what is regarded as ‘truth’ is a falsehood. The trick, when reading Nietzsche, is to know when he is talking about his view on truth and when he is using the word in reference to the quest of past philosophers such as Plato and Kant. Ideally, Nietzsche would like to be rid of such terms as ‘truth’ and ‘falsity’ altogether for, as he says in Section 4, “We do not object to a judgement just because it is false; this is probably what is strangest about our new language. The question is rather to what extent the judgement furthers life, preserves life, preserves the species, perhaps even cultivates the species…”
Nietzsche attacks Plato and Kant because of their methods of questing for truth, yet, because Nietzsche believes that philosophy has a future, that it can act as a guide for mankind, he does have views on what is truth. These views are tied in to the Will to Power, the basic drive of mankind. The Will to Power is mentioned four times in Chapter 1, with reference to philosophy itself, then in respect of biology (the ‘science of life’), to physics (the ‘science of nature’) and to psychology (the ‘science of the human soul’). It is the latter, the human ‘soul’ – bearing in mind what Nietzsche understands by the term ‘soul’…back to the problem of language again – that Nietzsche believes gives us privileged access to a ‘reality’, to a ‘truth’ shared by all beings. It is curious that, whereas Nietzsche is often critical of Plato, he also shares many of the same aims and methods, both in terms of the rehabilitation of the philosopher and his importance, and, for those of you who are familiar with Plato’s famous cave allegory, the Socratic ‘turning’ towards the truth.
This ‘turning’ however, is not seemingly a metaphysical one, not pointing towards the stars for answers. For Nietzsche, psychology is the “queen of the sciences” and, indeed, Nietzsche was as much a psychologist as a philosopher. Nietzsche took it upon himself to discover what it meant to be truly human. His criticism of such one-time friends as Wagner is that they ceased to be disgusted by the falsehoods and, instead, indulged in them. Again, not unlike the prisoners in Plato’s cave, it is far more comfortable to live in the world of shadows than to be dragged up towards the real world. For Nietzsche, this meant an existence that was jobless, wifeless, childless, homeless and stateless. Ultimately, it may have cost him his sanity, although, prosaically, this may well have been an unavoidable medical condition.
In Section 6, Nietzsche claims that the “instinct for knowledge” that is, the will to truth, is not the “father of philosophy”, but that there is a more basic instinct. “Every instinct is tyrannical; and as such seeks to philosophise.” Philosophies (and philosophers) are seeking one thing: mastery, to be the ultimate purpose for all existence. This mastery is what Nietzsche means by the Will to Power, although he reserves using the term itself until Section 9. Philosophy is driven by the lust to rule, a lust that can be utilised for good as well as bad. This is why Nietzsche gives philosophy such importance for, unlike other “scholars” (that is, the scientists), philosophers have the added bonus of being spiritual and intellectual. For Nietzsche, the best philosophy is ‘science with a soul’.
Nietzsche’s understanding of the Will to Power is best understood with reference to his own background. Nietzsche studied and taught philology, which is the study of language and literature. In particular, Nietzsche was concerned with classical philology. It is said that when he gave lectures at Basel University his students felt that this man had literally been transported through time from ancient Greece; such was his knowledge and explication of the subject. A key endeavour of BGE is to recover a Greek wisdom prior to Socrates and Plato; a ‘Homeric vision’ celebrated in its tragedies. Nietzsche believed that the Platonic distinction between the real and apparent worlds, for a metaphysical truth, replaced this pre-Socratic wisdom not because it is true, but because it is safe. Nietzsche believes his philosophy is a risk-taking adventure, a series of “dangerous maybes”. The science of the psyche, especially, he believed could make actual discoveries that are both dangerous and promising. It is the voyage of a new Odysseus who risks the danger of shipwreck for the hope of a whole new continent of discoveries. The theme of a ‘new voyage’ was a recurrent one with Nietzsche, as can be seen from this quote in The Gay Science:
“We philosophers and free spirits in fact feel at the news that the ‘old God is dead’ as if illumined by a new dawn; our heart overflows with gratitude, astonishment, presentiment, expectation – at last the horizon seems to us again free, even if it is not bright, at last our ships can put out again, no matter the danger, every daring venture of knowledge is again permitted, the sea, our sea again lies there open before us, perhaps there has never yet been such an ‘open sea’”
(The Gay Science, 343)
Nietzsche is not a nihilist in the sense that he does not conclude that, as there is no God, then ‘nothing matters’. He does not talk of the end of all values, but the transvaluation of all values. In Section 13, Nietzsche asserts, “life itself is the will to power”. Biology is wrong in believing that self-preservation is the primary instinct. Rather than preserve life, “A living being wants above all else to release its strength.”
Nietzsche was interested in Darwinian theory, and also had an attraction towards scientific knowledge, hence his tribute to Copernicus and Boscovich. Nietzsche is neither an idealist nor a materialist, but a philosopher who aims to provide an explanation of the world grounded in the interpretations of physics and biology. Buried as he was in ancient Greek wisdom, Nietzsche interprets physics as a rational inquiry into the way of human beings, as ‘physis’: he is not a proponent of modern physics, on the reliance upon materialism, but on the ‘psyche’ and human nature, on what it means to be a human being.