Friedrich Nietzsche has long been smeared as a ghastly nihilist who repudiated all conceptions of morality. Critics point to the title of his famous work, Beyond Good and Evil, which appears to call for the repudiation of morality, as well as contain his vociferous condemnations of eternal moral standards. With his proclamation that “God is dead,” and his assertion that there is “no such thing as moral phenomena, but only a moral interpretation of phenomena,” the evidence initially appears substantial that Nietzsche was an adherent of the crassest form of relativism and a radical opponent of any notion of morality. This facile accusation, however, misconstrues the philosopher’s purpose and agenda. Far from being a moral nihilist, Nietzsche in fact labors to construct a life-serving moral system in Beyond Good and Evil. Certainly, he has nothing but contempt for traditional notions of morality, but his critique is based upon the conviction that traditional morality has failed to promote greatness and has instead elevated weakness. Claiming to be universal in application and demanding dogmatic fealty, traditional morality, he charges, has enervated noble men and has encouraged mediocrity. Nietzsche believes that the promotion of human greatness demands a new moral system that favors unique, particular perspectives instead of universalized dogmas.
Nietzsche suggests that the degeneration of Western morality began with the writings of Plato. He was responsible for moral dogmatism, “the worst, most durable, and most dangerous of all errors.” In his “invention of the pure spirit and the good as such,” Plato created transcendent standards of morality and ultimately denied that personal perspectives should influence moral decisions. Nietzsche critiques not only Plato but many modern philosophers for engaging in similar dogmatism by striving to demonstrate the existence of absolute moral truth. Spinoza, for instance, claimed to develop a moral philosophy based upon permanent “mathematical forms,” while Kant spoke of the “categorical imperative.” These pretensions for absolutes and objectivity, Nietzsche argues, are deceptive and opportunistic. These philosophers were merely taking their own unique personal preferences and attempting to impose them upon everyone else by “proving” their universality. Nietzsche suggests that moral philosophers are not actually the disinterested, rational, and objective calculators that they believe themselves to be. Though they claim to reach their opinions only after the “self-development of a cold, pure, divinely unconcerned dialectic,” they actually had their minds made up long before they wrote anything down. Under the guise of “absolute truth” philosophers from Plato to Kant have universalized their personal preferences as eternal moral dogmas when they are no such thing.
Nietzsche labors to destroy the philosophic search for absolute moral truth, not because he is disinterested in morality, but because he desires that moral decision-making would take into account unique individual circumstances. Nietzsche’s “philosophers of the future” would admit the deeply-personal nature of philosophy, a profession which at its best is a “kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir.” Recognizing that there is no such thing as an indifferent search for moral truth, the philosophers of the future would embrace their personal interests instead of concealing them and passing their teachings off as universal moral dogmas. Ultimately, all moral philosophers must recognize that a “good” action for a noble man will not be a “good” action for a weak person. There is no “common good” because such a notion is a contradiction of terms. “Whatever can be common,” Nietzsche chides, “always has little value . . . Great things remain only for the great.” Even if it were true that Plato’s moral teachings benefitted the Athenian philosopher’s own lifestyle, they should not be universalized and applied to everyone else. Great and noble humans, in Nietzsche’s view, need to possess a situational and undogmatic moral philosophy. As universal moral dogmas are spurious, intellectual honesty is a preeminent virtue for the philosopher. Since no man has a hold on the “absolute truth” of a moral issue, there is a need to admit that you may be wrong and consider a variety of other perspectives. Diverse perspectives are the grounds for Nietzsche’s moral philosophy—not unchanging absolutes—because they provide noble men with less constraint and allow them to exude their skills in ways that benefit mankind.
As corrosive as the philosophers have been in their promotion of moral dogmatism, Nietzsche considers traditional religion—especially Christianity—to be an even more formidable impediment to his moral project. At least philosophic moral treatises impact only those who are substantially educated. Christianity, in contrast, is “Platonism for the people.” It brings the moral universalism and focus on eternity to the masses, and also elevates equality as a premier moral virtue. “Christianity,” Nietzsche polemicizes, “has been the most calamitous kind of arrogance yet.” Committed to their idea of “equality before God,” Christians refuse to recognize “the abysmally different order of rank, chasm of rank, between man and man” and have entrenched a mediocre “herd animal” as the prevailing human type in Europe. Additionally, the Christian doctrine of the eternal and unchangeable soul promotes “soul atomism” by suggesting that each human possesses a fundamentally similar soul. The soul, Nietzsche counters, enjoys numerous “unexhausted possibilities” because it manifests differently in unique circumstances and histories. Worst of all, Christianity enthrones fear instead of life. Christians appeal to “equality of all men before God” only out of their apprehension for their superiors and their desire to bring them down to the level of the herd. Appeals to universal morality for the purpose of condemning others, Nietzsche argues, are attacks on the human spirit. Nietzsche perceives Christianity as a preeminent source of European moral decadence due to its production of “tame, domestic animals” in the place of great human beings.
Christianity legitimizes the slave morality, but that does not mean that all religion is worthless in constructing a moral order. Indeed, surprising as it may be in light of Nietzsche’s militant atheism, the philosopher appears to endorse the use of religion to manipulate the masses and promote strength among the nobility. Scattered throughout his largely hostile assessment of religion in Beyond Good and Evil are praises of non-Christian religions such as Judaism and Greek paganism. He notes that the Hebrew Bible of the Jews—in stark contrast to the New Testament—provides people with “grand” examples of “human beings, things, and speeches” worthy of emulation. Greek paganism, similarly, produced noble men who desired to confront nature and not live in fear. Even Christianity, with its noble admonishment “to love man for God’s sake” maintains some praiseworthy elements that Nietzsche would utilize in his religion of the future. The truth or falsity of religion is irrelevant to him. The central utility of religion should be, not adherence to abstract moral dogmas, but the encouragement of action that favors strength and life. Human greatness would be an important element of his future religion, not equality. Elite philosophers should “make use of religions” to “develop man” and manipulate “ordinary human beings” into a situation of contentment with their condition. There is moral utility in religion after all, Nietzsche reluctantly admits, but religion must be radically reevaluated to promote greatness instead of weakness.
Nietzsche, for all of his professed hatred of moralism, retains a genuine concern for virtue. Much like religion and philosophy, it is not virtue per se that he detests. What he hopes to overcome is the Platonic-Christian misunderstanding of virtue that equates it with knowledge of and adherence to transcendent moral standards. Moral virtue, for Nietzsche, is about command, creation, and assertion of the will to power. The will to power is nothing less than the driving force of all human decisions. “A living thing,” he maintains, “seeks above all to discharge its strength—life itself is will to power.” The will to power suggests that all actions will be about either command or obedience. The philosophers and the religious authorities demand obedience to their universal dogmas by proclaiming them to be eternal moral truth. What they do not recognize, however, is that not everyone needs to be obedient. The great man would need to be a commander. A natural leader “who is called and made to command” would be ill-served by a life of “self-denial and modest self-effacement.” In fact, this would “not be a virtue but a waste of virtue” because the man is failing to utilize the talents that nature and circumstance have equipped him with. For Nietzsche, a virtuous person would recognize that all men are determined “by different moralities” and that their actions “shine alternately in different colors.” Different histories, circumstances, and biologies naturally equip people with different moralities and this fact makes human greatness possible.
In contrast to the most unrefined relativists, who would insist that all moral systems are fundamentally equal, Nietzsche believes that there is a natural inequality of moralities and of people. “There is,” Nietzsche remarks, “an order of rank between man and man, hence also between morality and morality.” Universalistic moralities bind the noble man as much as they constrain the mediocre and thus stymy greatness. In his view, “the demand for one morality for all is detrimental for the higher men.” What Nietzsche here calls the “higher men” he later refers to as noble aristocrats. Aristocracy, however much egalitarians despise it, is the sole mode of organization that provides for human greatness. “Every enhancement. . . has so far been the work of an aristocratic society. . . a society that believes in the long ladder of an order of rank and differences in value between man and man, and that needs slavery in some sense or other.” In Nietzsche’s thought, aristocracy is not about family titles at all; it is about actual nobility of soul. The noble aristocrat is an “incarnate will to power” who will strive to “grow, spread, seize, become predominant.” Strength and courage must guide him instead of pity and altruism. As such, he perceives suffering as a chance to grow and he has no qualms with exploiting the weak if it leads to great things. With greatness as his sole motivation, the noble aristocrat does not degrade his “duties into duties for everybody.” Nietzsche insists that a recognition of the different ranks of people and moralities would bring with it the potential for a more just arrangement that would better encourage human greatness.
Nietzsche believes that the world needs to jettison its concern for unchanging moral standards of good and evil and instead ask whether individual moral decisions are “life-promoting, life-preserving, species-preserving, perhaps even species-cultivating.” Using this as his standard for right and wrong, Nietzsche indicts the philosophers for their spurious attempts to craft a universal morality based upon “reason.” To salvage philosophy, Nietzsche proposes that “philosophers of the future” embrace the personal nature of the field and provide people with different moral perspectives. He thoroughly repudiates Christianity as a “sacrifice of all freedom, all pride, all self-confidence of the spirit” and hopes to see it fundamentally destroyed. He admits, however, that the destruction of all religion may not be desirable and hopes to see religion redefined in ways that affirm strength instead of weakness. In the place of traditional philosophy and religion, Nietzsche proposes that the will to power should be viewed as the source of virtue. Virtue involves command, not obedience, and it is this understanding of virtue that guides Nietzsche’s noble aristocracy. Epitomizing human greatness and strength of soul, they create new values and carry out their duties only to those sharing their rank. Beyond Good and Evil has as its moral project not the abolition of all morality. It intends to create a new morality that recognizes the diverse assortment of perspectives in the world and to better cultivate human greatness.
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Nietzsche, Friedrich. “Beyond Good and Evil.” In Basic Writings of Nietzsche, translated by Walter Kaufmann, 179-437. New York: Random House, 2000.
 Nietzsche, Basic Writings of Nietzsche, p. 108.
 Ibid., “Preface.”
 Ibid., p. 5.
 Ibid., p. 6.
 Ibid., p. 43.
 Ibid., pp. 227, 230.
 Ibid., “Preface.”
 Ibid., p. 62.
 Ibid., p. 45.
 Ibid., p. 219.
 Ibid., p. 52.
 Ibid., p. 49.
 Ibid., p. 60.
 Ibid., p. 61.
 Ibid., p. 190.
 Ibid., p. 13.
 Ibid., p. 221.
 Ibid., p. 215.
 Ibid., p. 228.
 Ibid., p. 257.
 Ibid., p. 259.
 Ibid., pp. 259, 268.
 Ibid., p. 272.
 Ibid., p. 4.
 Ibid., p. 46.
Editor’s Note: The featured image is a portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche by Hans Olde (1855-1917), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.