Misreading Nietzsche


John S Moore


In this paper I attempt to argue that Nietzsche's most original discoveries are rooted in his own experience of emotional crisis, and what we may call his resentment. His personal experience in overcoming demoralisation he felt had brought facts before consciousness, recognition of which he embodied in his key ideas about master morality and will to power. From acknowledgement of these facts derive standards of truthfulness, strength, health and justice, a framework which he used rather to defend and justify his given attitudes than to establish them, confident he could convict his opponents of demonstrable error.


I offer a few examples of how common confusions and misreadings can arise from neglect of this starting point. While some readings do not particularly relate to each other, on some interpretations certain others come across as failures in understanding. A quite different point is the question of what is to be identified as the most original and interesting among all Nietzsche's ideas. Here direct misreading, rather than philosophical interests and affiliations, is not so much the issue. In my choice of title, some irony is intended. Obviously I would not rule out the possibility of a viewpoint from which my own interpretation may appear as a misreading. However, it does appear that if mine is right certain others are misreadings, and the converse also applies.


More than most philosophers, Nietzsche has been subjected to a variety of very different interpretations. There is profound disagreement as to what is essential in his work. Many people have been inspired by him, and he is invoked in support of diametrically opposed political or philosophical beliefs. We may be thoroughly immersed in and familiar with his writings, yet fundamental questions still arise as to how well we understand him. Wherever we think we have grasped something important, there is as often than not an opposing interpretation. So we take sides. Reading Nietzsche, it is a common enough experience to come across passages which seem to support one's adversaries, dismayingly sweeping the ground from one's feet. A little reflection is usually enough to overcome the disturbance. When interpreting one takes serious notice only of what seems to oneself to be sensible and productive. If you read him with sympathy, Nietzsche's discoveries are likely to seem compatible with whatever philosophical ideas seem right to you. The way in which he is read suggests the way Christians read the scriptures. There are many mutually antagonistic readings. Out of any ten sentences, some are neutral, some may be attractive, some repellent. Reading him involves filtering. We pick out what is important. Others read the same passages in a completely different way. They select a part which to us seems banal or insignificant, and accuse us of neglecting what is most vital in him.


For such reasons it is not enough simply to quote or to cite him. He is not like Hegel or Kant, where meaning is often more obscure than ambiguous. He straddles some of the most fundamental disagreements between people. One needs to argue each position attributed to him on its own ground. Beyond a certain point, more detailed knowledge of what he wrote is not necessarily the path to greater understanding, though the filling out of the historical context is virtually limitless in its possibilities. It can be fascinating to explore the now forgotten writers he read, the nineteenth century philosophy in which he was immersed, together with the contemporary science, politics, and his own life history.


Many these days take his "perspectivism" as central to his achievement, perhaps taking his attack on Plato's idea of the "unity of truth" as what is most important, marking a significant step forward in philosophy. Others for whom this attack is philosophically unimpressive, identify other, more congenial, suggestions in his writings. Accepting Nietzsche, one will judge him compatible with whatever philosophy one finds acceptable. Further than that, he can even seem to contain in embryo the developed systems of later thinkers. Existentialists and more recently postmodernists, have seen him as one of their own, even their first exponent. Alternatively one may be tempted to see him as anticipating later Wittgenstein if one is oneself a Wittgensteinian. There are lots of hints and suggestions in his writings. What he said, if we are attracted to it, we put into the context of the philosophical ideas we believe in. But there must be a limit to this. There is something that he really meant, and difficulties that arise with understanding what he was saying, that do not simply reduce to how we fit him into some other philosophy.[i] What reform is he inviting us to accept? What does 'will to power' mean? It surely makes sense to look in him for that which is most original. If we discover in him powerful and coherent ideas that are found in no previous thinker, then perhaps these may be identified as his true message. This probably involves disregarding some of what Nietzsche himself counted important.


Right up till his last recorded writings, he was still concerned with arguments many might consider trivial or irrelevant. We may not think much of the physico-mathematical argument for eternal recurrence, which there is a lot of evidence to suggest he took perfectly seriously Other philosophical opinions some may see as unimpressive are the theory that representation involves falsification, or the idea that the human being is a battleground of instincts each with its own separate will to power. Some ideas we may not wish to respect were perhaps very important to Nietzsche himself. So we will almost inevitably discard quite a bit of what he himself considered important. This does not mean that it is up to each of us to reject whatever we dislike. If there really is a powerful and original argument identifiable as his 'true message' this will have to be taken account of. Whether or not will to power can be dismissed as an irrelevant concept is a most contentious issue. While some commentators treat even this as simply an extravagant hypothesis[ii], for others it is a key concept and a most valuable contribution to human thought. I take the latter view. At the end of his career he identified will to power and transvaluation of values as the most important themes, the cornerstones of his achievement. These were the titles he chose for what was intended to be his masterwork Something may be made of this, which makes it a significant and not a trivial claim. I try to make sense of it, bearing in mind that the very attempt is controversial.


Even if we pass the first hurdle by settling on what is important, there are many more obstacles to be faced. Even among those who concede that transvaluation and will to power, are significant and valuable ideas, there is much controversy as to what he meant, or could have meant by them. The idea that in seeing everything as will to power we are to take sides with one or other manifestation of power seems compelling, though some deny it. Nietzsche had strong opinions about many things, and people look in various different directions to find where to take sides, which creates endless argument. Related difficulties arise with the ideas about morality that we find in the Genealogy of Morals. What is Nietzsche advocating? Is he suggesting that we adopt master morality? Or instead that we reconcile ourselves to being something in between masters and slaves? And what should we take master morality as meaning?


So there appears to be a problem as that of how to take sides. Given that every attitude and opinion is an expression of will to power, and presumably justifiable on that basis, how we side with one manifestation of power rather than with another? A very similar question is how we are to reconcile perspectivism with commitment to any particular value or opinion. More specifically, what grounds can Nietzsche have for repudiating what he calls slave morality, and what would be involved in doing so?


Richardson, after talking of the conflict between perspectivism (understood as will to power) and will to power understood as ‘Nietzsche’s ontology’, writes[iii]:- "In fact the tension we find here holds also between the perspectivism and all of Nietzsche's other positive views insofar as he promotes these as truer than what we believed before. In particular that claim seems to undermine the status not only of his ontology but of his values, of the new ideal he presents and preaches, apparently something more than just what his single perspective prefers.

Interpreters of Nietzsche have often noted this crucial problem."


Richardson’s own solution is to identify values intrinsic to what he calls Nietzsche’s ontology, which, we learn at the end of the book, where he cites Quine’s dissolution of the analytic/synthetic distinction, is ultimately verifiable in empirical terms. He applies the distinction, of which Deleuze and his school make so much, of active (good) and reactive (bad) forms of the will to power.


He finds both an is and an ought in will to power, the latter deriving from the former. This itself raises difficulties, but he does accept the evaluative nature of Nietzsche’s basic position. However, the values Nietzsche advocates are not to be understood as master morality.


In a paper in Nietzsche’s Postmoralism, Nietzschean Normativity, Schacht, with some reference to Hegel, argues that we view morality in terms of Wittgenstein style “forms of life”. P156 "There are no absolute duties, no absolute rights (human or otherwise) and no absolute prescriptions and prohibitions of which sense can be made by the Nietzschean moral philosophy. The only moral rules there are, on this view, have their only basis in contingent features of human life that have no universal or absolute validity and authority".


Schacht suggests a Humean view of morality that it would not be anachronistic or unreasonable to attribute to Nietzsche[iv]. Accordingly we can see morality as enabling rather than prohibitive. A Nietzschean need have no problem with making moral judgements. We do not have to see morality as restraint on our power, rather it is part of it, expression of the form of life that we are. Attitudes to some forms of life are hostile, notably to slave morality. Schacht suggests that one opposes this because it is pathological.


As I understand this, accepting Nietzschean morality would not demand abandonment of our ordinary moral attitudes, all of which are themselves to be taken as expressions of the form of life that we are, and therefore of our will to power. Fear of the police and concern for our own reputations are factors that come into play, and quite legitimate ones. So far so good, but what then is Nietzsche against? Rather than attacking all morality, on this account he is only attacking what is sick, the pathological forms of morality associated with slave values. Why certain forms of life are rejected is because they are considered to be pathological, but where could we derive such a standard?


The implication is to give his taking sides the quality of something like a medical diagnosis. The guiding value behind it would therefore be some kind of benevolence, such as inspires a physician. But then why, on his own principles, does Nietzsche come to express such a benevolent value? That is itself a way of taking sides that would require justification. And how would we justify our diagnosis of anyone else’s values as sick? If taken as a solution to the problem of the derivation of Nietzsche’s values it still leaves open questions. Both the origin of the concept of health, and the reason for his wanting to promote it are values extraneous to the will to power. Where do they come from? They are not explained by the will to power itself.


In Nietzsche’s Voice pp106-7, Staten proposes an impartial view of will to power, from which he says Nietzsche lapses. On this view Nietzsche should not be taking any sides at all, rather presenting an impartial perspective that does not even make a truth claim [v]. “Nietzsche’s perspective, which should be the perspective of the whole, slips into one part of the whole he looks at” (p106). At least this avoids having to think of Nietzsche as essentially a benevolent physician. As admitted, it flies in the face of many of Nietzsche's more committed remarks as well as what is usually taken to be the whole orientation of his thought. For Staten many of Nietzsche's attitudes are something he slips into and contradict what ought to be his objective.


Whatever impartiality Nietzsche occasionally professed would seem to be subordinate to his very committed attitudes. An argument which takes Nietzsche away from what he was trying to do for most of the time may well seem to have got him the wrong way round. If it has it is at least historically misleading.


Schacht suggests Nietzsche sides against the pathological, Staten that he ought not to take sides at all. Both these interpretations involve difficulties of their own, and are attempts to deal with a problem to which there is a simple and straightforward solution. If it is supposed that Nietzsche is recommending some ideal, the question naturally arises as to where he gets it from, what is its justification, and how it can be made coherent. People go to quite some lengths to make sense of it. Where does it come from? From a love of health, or fairness, or what? There is no need to get tangled up in such questions, because we do not have to think of him as telling us what we ought to value or desire.


We need to concentrate upon the questions Nietzsche is asking and answering. One way to clarify what he means, is to look at the personal motives that inspired his philosophy. While it may be difficult to get from purely descriptive language to value judgement, in Hume's famous dichotomy, there is no such problem in deriving a value from a given desire, irrespective of its origin, a feeling in the real world, Nietzsche's here and now. Nietzsche had many such desires and feelings. We do not have to choose which manifestation of will to power to commit ourselves to if the very origin of the idea lies in the attempt to justify an original attitude. We are led to his resentment. Lest anyone think that the idea of resentment is alien to his understanding of himself, take this passage from Twilight of the Idols:-


"All innovators of the spirit bear for a time the pallid, fatalistic sign of the Chandala on their brow: not because they are felt to be so but because they themselves feel the terrible chasm which divides them from all that is traditional and held in honour. Almost every genius knows as one phase of his development the 'Catilinarian existence' , a feeling of hatred, revengefulness and revolt against everything which already is, which is no longer becoming…" (Expeditions of an Untimely Man, §45).


The emotional autobiography that is the key to much of his philosophy is to be found in Zarathustra. Here we can see the almost surreal intensity of feeling it took to produce an idea such as the Ubermensch. The Ubermensch is an embodiment of extreme desire that suggests megalomania. Such unlimited ambition is the Muse that inspired his thought, the emotional force that went into the creation of his philosophy. In this book he expressed his frustration at not being heard. To say this did not amount to resentment is surely stretching a point, whatever he said in Ecce Homo.


We need to grasp the confusion he is concerned to overcome, recognise the demoralising and depressing nature of the ideas (egalitarian, relativistic etc) that he feels he is wearing down. Against these, he aims to uphold and restore his own will. He searches for arguments that can succeed in doing this. This restoration of depressed morale is one of the principal effects of his philosophy and explains why it appeals to people of views so divergent that they appear to have little to nothing in common. However, when we try to conceptualise this revitalising effect, we are easily thrown into perplexity. Does he want us to accept master morality as a way of restoring morale? If so what does this mean, how are we to understand it? Are we to become like ancient nobles? Alternatively are we to accept ordinary morality but only reject the 'pathological' versions? Or are we not to take sides at all? For those who take Nietzsche to be against all resentment, what about his own resentment, the hostility he expresses towards Wagner, Christianity, socialism etc? To some people he seems to be turning on himself. People take his attacks on resentment and construct moral theories according to which whatever springs from resentment is to be condemned. And being consistent they are prepared to convict him of inconsistency on these grounds. Such seems to follow from Deleuze's famous reading.


From Nietzsche's experience of emotional crisis came his most original philosophical insight. To access this, we need to be able to identify with his feeling of discouragement, as well as his rage and resentment at being unheard. From his own reaction comes the conscious perspective of will to power. His claim is that this embodies truth to a greater extent than alternative perspectives. This comes down largely to the concrete possibility of perverse, selfish, dissident, points of view, a fact which has identifiable empirical manifestations he is concerned to uncover.


Speaking generally the basic question that confronted him was not how to take sides, but how to overcome a demoralisation that can result from intellectual reflection. Culturally this task expressed itself as that of overcoming nihilism, and ethically of repelling slave morality. The formulation of the will to power theory was the solution.


Will to power


It makes sense to look at his perspectivism, not as a metaphysical theory of truth, but as relating to his understanding of will to power. As a result of their different perspectives, their conflicting desires, ambitions, and the different ideas in their heads, different people assert very different things. Nietzsche's own perspective he calls will to power. This perspective insists upon recognising the suppression of alternative possibilities that is involved in any change or assertion, and sees different viewpoints as striving with each other for mastery. Crucially, there are some perspectives with which this demonstrably conflicts. Insofar as Nietzsche can convict these of untruth, or falsification, his own perspective is vindicated. Insofar as it uncovers material facts which an opposing perspective denies or conceals, his is a true perspective. To do this it is not necessary to have a metaphysical theory of truth, that might rather be an encumbrance. His concern is with truth in an ordinary, everyday sense, that can win general assent.


Rather than an idiosyncratic reading devised to meet these specific difficulties, this appears to me to be the most natural and straightforward interpretation of will to power, which otherwise seems a random hypothesis which hardly bears the weight he puts upon it as his most important discovery. As metaphysical metaphor without truth claim the will to power would be insufficient to defeat the democratic and relativist arguments that have such demoralising potential.


In places Nietzsche does float an idea of will to power as mere interpretation. In Beyond Good and Evil §22, for example, he writes:- "There may arise an interpreter who might so focus your eyes on the unexceptionality and unconditionality of all 'will to power' that almost every word that you now know, including the word 'tyranny' would finally become useless and sound like a weakening and palliative metaphor-as something too human. And yet he might end up by asserting about this world exactly what you assert, namely that it runs a 'necessary' and 'calculable' course-but not because it is ruled by laws, but because laws are absolutely lacking, because at each moment each power is ultimately self consistent. Let us admit that this too would be only an interpretation - and you will be eager enough to make this objection. Well so much the better!""


Some commentators make much of such metaphysical speculations but they are only one aspect of what he says about will to power, and have not usually been thought the most interesting. Nor is their hypothetical character decisive. Deciding whether or not we ourselves treat will to power primarily as a speculative hypothesis is not essential for Nietzsche to carry his point. Obviously there are aspects of pure hypothesis in the very many things he wrote upon the subject. On the view presented here Nietzsche’s theory is a perspective that claims to embody truth. The truth comes from convicting an opposed perspective of error. The possibility of constructing a hypothesis itself contains a significant truth claim, in the very assertion of its meaningfulness. Before we are in a position to agree with Nietzsche's philosophy, we are first asked to understand it, but this is a far from straightforward issue. It can seem that he has been wilfully misunderstood, that there is even a conspiracy deliberately to misconstrue what he is saying, to deny the very meaningfulness of the points he is trying to make and to turn them into something else. It is as if some of his opponents feel that to concede meaningfulness is to concede his whole case. With those who take such a view there is a difficulty in communication, suggesting a dialogue of the deaf.


On the proposed interpretation, will to power is a perspective that definitely involves a claim to truth. We may say that Nietzsche's resentment, his prejudice, his 'immoralism' are what gives him his motive. We may place the root of his philosophy in this, which we can see it as a form of Satanic rebellion, in Milton’s sense. Here is the origin of the will to power doctrine, which insists upon the recognition of how much is at any time suppressed. It is important that his viewpoint is itself felt to be suppressed by prevailing views, and that in pointing this out he undermines the claims of that which suppresses him. To practice Nietzschean philosophy is to strive to expose the falsification that has been perpetrated. To tyrannise, he says, is, in a modern context, unhealthy. Healthy power subsists in the light of truth. But this standard of judgement can prevail only after the tyrannical 'truth', falsely so called, has been vanquished. Victory eventually comes as the reward of struggle. Nietzsche's view of health and strength is something that is asserted from a particular perspective.


What he is primarily against is what threatens to demoralise him, what attacks his own particular will in an identifiably mendacious way. As to the question in what consists his will, his project, his discovery of the will to power has clarified this so that it is no longer the imprecise ambition of youth. We may say he desires to procure an existence in the world for his own ideas, ultimately his theory, which he identifies with his own will to power. He is attached to this as a scientist to his own discovery. His guiding motive can be taken as envy or resentment of what stands in his way. His frustration at the obstruction of his own will is a natural source of resentful feeling. With this comes all kinds of angry ambition. Before the perspective is established he has not established the ground to speak convincingly of truth or health.


Master Morality


The proposition that Nietzsche expects us to accept master morality is a good focal point on which converge the different ways in which he is understood or misread. What might he mean by this, given that it makes sense for us to accept it without abolishing all decent feelings, which he gives us to understand is not his intention? (Twilight of the Idols, Expeditions of an Untimely Man § 37). It appears he is advocating the adoption of a new and consistent perspective that comes with acceptance of his philosophy, a point of view which has the character of a solution. To have reached this is to have clearly rejected 'morality of the weak'. But to understand the solution we must see the problem.


It can seem a pressing issue to keep some kind of grip upon ordinary moral judgements. We feel a need to repel the nazi interpretations that surround his reputation, together with a fascistic account of 'nobility' or 'master morality'. It is not altogether a question of whether or not Nietzsche himself was some kind of proto fascist, more one of whether his ideas can be of any use to most of us today. Those to whom it is quite evident that they can, may yet feel forced onto the defensive when challenged.


There is a persistent view that there is a logical connection between Nietzsche’s advocacy of master morality and fascistic ideas. Any suggestion that the Nazi interpretation has been finally laid to rest would be difficult to defend. Heidegger’s view of the Nazi implications of Nietzsche’s project still has currency Derrida has said that “There are, for example, discursive elements in Nietzsche that lend themselves to Nazi re-appropriation; one can discern a lineage from Nietzsche to Nazism and this cannot be denied”[vi]. There are a number of different ways of resisting this implication. One is called upon by Foucault and Deleuze's reading, by which Nietzsche holds out a promise of Dionysian enjoyment.


This is a different take on Nietzsche’s philosophy from the one proposed here and one that has a particular problem with avoiding expressions of desire that might be fascistic or otherwise socially intolerable. Foucault and Deleuze tend to see Nietzsche’s happiness less as the triumph he experienced from his own overcoming and more in terms of a revolutionary discovery addressed to humanity. Something more exciting than everyday life and the problems it raises is promised. Deep taboos need to be broken, but not in a way that might have politically unacceptable consequences.


It is said Nietzsche takes sides because he is for ‘active’ forces against ‘reactive’, life affirming against life negating, or healthy against sick. Such categories lend themselves to subjective interpretations, the ‘reactive’ may come down to something we do not like, the ‘fascism in our minds’. An obvious objection is that to divide will to power up in this way seems an ad hoc solution to meet a particular difficulty.


In his 1887 preface to the Genealogy of Morals (§4) Nietzsche informs us:- "At bottom I was concerned at that time with something much more important than either my own or someone else's hypotheses about the origin of ethics - more precisely this origin mattered to me only as one of the means towards an end. This end was the value of ethics…"


With his antithesis of master and slave morality he speaks so favourably of master morality that it might seem obvious that this is what he believes in. One problem is that the ancient masters as he describes them behave with considerable brutality. Is he advocating cruelty? And if not, should we say he is not advocating master morality but something else[vii]?


There are those who see him as holding that we are each some inextricable mixture of master and slave, that it is wrong to think he wants us to take the side of the master against the slave, that being all part slaves ourselves, our values will be partly slavish, and that is to be accepted. If we want to avoid the idea of identification with master morality on anti-fascist grounds, this interpretation offers a way of doing so. But there are other readings of what is meant by master morality.


As against Kaufmann who argues that Nietzsche's own position is beyond master and slave, Nehamas insists that Nietzsche did admire the personality type of the master, but that the same type would express itself differently in the modern age, and its cruelty would be sublimated.[viii]


Others would argue that even this qualification misses Nietzsche's real distinction. Being masters relates to control we have over our own lives. This is something it is possible to have in common with the ancient nobles given a complete difference of context. What is admired about them is not what they wanted, but something about their capacity to achieve it, their perceived freedom from certain obstacles that may beset us. This need not mean wanting to imitate them on any level at all, any more than desire for wealth has to be understood as just the desire to copy the lifestyles of the rich. Nietzsche is not suggesting that we act like brutes or even sublimated brutes. Nor is he concerned to lament supposed wrong turnings in history.


For us to adopt master morality, would not involve acting like ancient Greek slave owners, because that is not the situation in which we find ourselves. It may appear that the mixture view, together with the fascist view to which it is a response, stems from a serious failure to grasp the whole meaning of the distinction Nietzsche is trying to make. It is not the case that my values have to be part slave values simply because I am part slave by descent, or because my power is subject to various limitations. What comes into being has its own standards of strength and weakness, that are not tied to its origins. We are to relate our judgements to the existing individual. Our feelings and desires are what they are, whatever their origins, and it is on that understanding that Nietzsche addresses his analysis.


Beginning from the perspective of my own will, I object to morality of the weak, not because it is sick, nor even because it is unfair, but because it is directed against myself. That it can be shown to rely upon lies and falsification is a reason for not working to overcome my objection. One resents what frustrates the will, meaning one's own will. One thing that frustrates Nietzsche's will he identifies as morality of the weak (which includes both ‘herd’ morality, and ‘slave’ morality). This is offensive to him but not because of a philanthropic motive which he does not necessarily possess.


Morality of the weak as he describes it may be something that is objectionable to strength everywhere. But his formulation of it is not welcome everywhere, even to what he would call strength. He does not speak words of encouragement to strength everywhere, but only to what is compatible with the particular formulation with which he identifies his cause. What he wants to promote is that theory, his own description of strength and weakness. His object is not so much to help or benefit other people. He may do that incidentally, but that is not where his real originality lies. That is to be found in his particular understanding which relates to his own desires. The revaluation of values involved in accepting the will to power idea involves an interpretation of experience which demands acceptance whether one likes it or not. Nietzsche is not just fighting for strength against weakness, but for an interpretation of strength and a specific view of enlightenment. He is against what threatens him, and for his theory which overcomes it.


His achievement brings him great joy and satisfaction. The triumph is twofold. As a result of overcoming all sorts of demoralising suggestions, he has made a discovery which he is able to call his life's work.


The individual


In describing the falsification and demoralisation to which his own will has been subject, he claims to have uncovered a pattern and a model that has quite general application. The significance of what he has overcome extends far beyond his personal situation. It offers a way in which other people may describe the demoralisation they experience in their own lives and overcome it.


His principal objection is to a 'decadent' form of morality, though 'decadence', is a term with all sorts of meanings, even in his own mouth. The effect of decadence is to subject the strong to the tyranny of the weak. He insists upon the intensity of his dislike for what he calls this ‘revolting fact’. He is for the exceptional individual, the "free spirit", under hostile pressure from the gregarious, and places great emphasis on this.


In Will to Power §685 Nietzsche writes:-

"Anti Darwin.- What surprises me most on making a general survey of the great destinies of man, is that I invariably see the reverse of what today Darwin and his school sees or will persist in seeing: selection in favour of the stronger, the better constituted, and the progress of the species. Precisely the reverse of this stares one in the face: the suppression of the lucky cases, the uselessness of the more highly constituted types, the inevitable mastery of the mediocre, and even of those who are below mediocrity. …. That will to power, in which I perceive the ultimate reason and character of all change, explains why it is that selection is never in favour of the exceptions, and of the lucky cases: the strongest and happiest natures are weak when they are confronted with a majority ruled by gregarious instincts and the fear which possesses the weak…..

"Strange as it may seem, the strong have always to be upheld against the weak; and the well constituted against the ill constituted, the healthy against the sick and physiologically botched'.


It is those in this position with whom Nietzsche identifies and whose perspective he is concerned at all costs to defend. The passage shows his overriding interest in the strong considered as weak. The individual dissident, the perverse, count as the strong. The 'strong' have to be upheld against the 'weak'. Therefore those called the strong, presumably Nietzsche himself in important respects, are in one obvious sense the weak.


Health strength and justice


Following from this interpretation of will to power, I try to explain something of these other concepts, the framework for a future programme.


A new ideal of health follows from explicit acknowledgement of the truth contained in the idea of ‘will to power’. Nietzsche’s own experience with his own will is a paradigm of all human nature. Recognition of will to power is his standard of enlightenment. This is a rule originating in his own perspective, and his own ambition. It offers a framework for conflict, rules of debate, within which he is willing to abide, knowing he can always defeat the worst of his opponents.


This interpretation may seem to contradict Nietzsche’s own assertion in Ecce Homo that his judgements and attitudes spring from a prior understanding of a concept of health, something that has been given to him in the way he describes in that book. He explicitly denies the existence of resentment in himself. In Why I am so Wise §6 he claims to be free from all such low motives (He carries on (§7):-


"War is another matter. I am warlike by nature. Attacking is one of my instincts....the aggressive pathos belongs just as necessarily to strength as vengefulness and rancour

belong to weakness. Woman, for example is vengeful: that is due to her weakness, as much as in her susceptibility to the distress of others".


Having denied resentment in himself Nietzsche dignifies his hostile feelings by the name of 'aggressive pathos'. Rather than taking this entirely seriously, we may prefer to treat it as a Nietzschean joke. We find similar moves in other inflated egos like Aleister Crowley. Much of Ecce Homo gives the impression of a gratifying self image that suggests megalomania. Nietzsche presents himself as the most noble and generous of beings. That is how we may all tend to see ourselves in our most elated moments. What you call my resentment, I call my aggressive pathos. Whether there is actually any failure of self knowledge here is an interesting question. The master defines what is noble, and it is whatever is like himself.


Of course Nietzsche has much to say against resentment, and the attitudes that flow from it. From his generally conservative perspective, egalitarian resentment is a most unpleasant phenomenon. From his own ‘healthy’ perspective the Jacobin ideal is suffused with unwholesome hatred and resentment. Yet other people level equivalent charges at him. From his perspective egalitarians are resentful, from theirs he is the one with the vicious motive. It is up to Nietzsche to establish the truth of his own perspective.

The desire for equality natural to those who feel themselves inferior is exalted into morality. For those who do not feel this in the form of desire, it is experienced as a reproach, an assault, an uncomfortable demand. The egalitarian ideology becomes something entirely unpleasant. As the answer to the questions what is life for, how is it to be lived, how we are each to get the best out of the time we have, we are recommended ideals springing from some inferior person's desire. So the overwhelming feature is irrational repression.


When the egalitarian lays claim to an ideal of abstract justice, to the Nietzschean that is a dishonest way of disguising destructive desire. But how are we to say what is the reality of feeling? Within this universe of discourse the ‘no facts, only interpretations’ maxim might seem more plausible than elsewhere. So how does he establish his perspective against other perspectives and where does he begin? If it is a truth, how does he establish it as such? What he resents he desires to overthrow. He does so by exposing the dishonesty on which it rests, its disregard for plain realities. Concede his argument, and to evade it becomes dishonest, self deceiving and the standard of an unhealthy attitude. Fresh light is thrown on ideas like strength, health, justice and enlightenment.


In Joyful Wisdom §120, Nietzsche writes “there is no such thing as health in itself”, but this caveat does not unduly inhibit him Reading what he says about health, we will easily get confused unless we distinguish different concepts he applies in different contexts. One is the ordinary idea of health based around the idea of a norm. Sometimes he makes use of such a concept, but that is not to say that he concurs with the implied value judgement. It is a useful reference point. For him the ‘sick’ in this sense may have higher value than the ‘healthy’, and the 'healthy' may be no more than massed mediocrity. The standard of the Ubermensch, with his supreme intensity of desire suggests another possible ideal of health. Kaufmann argues of Nietzsche’s praise of Cesare Borgia that he represents health to Nietzsche (see his Nietzsche Chapter 7 §3). Such a principle undoubtedly does have a place in Nietzsche’s thought, but it stands in need of justification. Moreover, imitation of the Borgias is hardly a standard for you or I to adopt. There would seem little sense in doing that against all our own interests.


Alternatively, and more sensibly, we apply Nietzsche's philosophy to our own ends, in the context of the situation in which we find ourselves. Rather than yielding to masochistic adulation of some supposed embodiment of the Ubermensch, like star struck groupies, we utilise master morality for the pursuit our own objectives. In the light of this we conceive a more practical value of health, which involves submission to a standard of fair competition springing from a common acceptance of truth. From this perspective, the ordinary concepts of health etc may be examined and sometimes found wanting.


Nietzsche's standards of truth, health, and fairness, are derivable from his initial resentment, a given motive which does not stand in need of justification. The intensity of the feeling forces facts before the consciousness which convict the opposing perspective of dishonesty and mendacity. All disputes are to be conceived in terms of a universal struggle for power. To reject and deny this interpretation involves disregard of psychological facts or realities that it is possible to insist upon. If I try to conceive my cause as the expression of something other than will to power, then I am being dishonest.


To deny will to power is an objective that undoubtedly some may have. Against those who would aim to expose Nietzsche's whole philosophy as erroneous, he would hold that whatever denies the universal conflict involved in will to power can be shown to be mendacious. As a standard of enlightenment this is more than a gentleman's agreement, a game we may or may not choose to play.


Nietzsche is concerned with overcoming what he understands as a false interpretation. In the universal struggle of ideas and opinions he aims not so much to change the terms of conflict as to dismantle a particular weapon, slave morality, which he shows as relying upon untruth, but is still a most effective force in the world. The Nietzschean dissident would reinterpret the existing order by insisting upon commonly ignored aspects of reality. Nothing of value need be lost. Such philosophy can be properly grounded in resentment, which opens up as much opportunity as we could reasonably desire. In itself resentment is a neutral term that need have no pejorative implication. Like the Buddha Nietzsche begins with a perception of 'this suffering'. We might call it his warlike impulse as he does himself, a sort of natural aggression.


But his thought is bound to create furious animosity when he attempts to show that other people's most cherished beliefs are identifiable in the terms in which he describes them. It is only his perspective. His opponents will not see their own beliefs in that way. They are fully ready to impugn his own motives, as did Nordau in his notorious chapter on Nietzsche in Degeneration.


The proclaimed dynamite lies in his interpretation of what we do desire. Some things Nietzsche doesn't like, but he is very far from specifying what others ought to want or what their political opinions should be. The limitation is unsatisfactory to some readers. Unwilling to admit the extraordinary ambition of his claim, the stupendous implication of being able to refute decisively ideas which have such a tremendous hold upon mankind, they hold this interpretation as I have put it forward to be unacceptably negative and thin, making Nietzsche into an uncreative parasite, living off the energy of what he rebels against. So they look elsewhere for the liberation they feel it has failed to capture. They want to see Nietzsche as a philosopher who creates out of abundance and strength, bringing a new faith, even a new religion. Such is the reaction of the Catholic theologian to the pipsqueak who dares to despise his God. He in turn feels a lofty contempt for the basic Satanic resentment from which such rebellion springs. He sees it as a low destructive motive and calls for something richer and deeper.


In Human all too Human Part II, Miscellaneous Maxims and Opinions §289, Nietzsche asserts that:- “Profundity of thought belongs to youth, clarity of thought to old age”. Going by that, perhaps we should judge his profoundest work to be the Birth of Tragedy. There we had detailed guidance as to what to think and feel, the apparent revelation of great spiritual truths. The later Nietzsche does not offer such answers. For philosophy to promise to benefit us in some absolute sense may even be a form of dishonesty. His eagerness to promote his ideas is not be disguised as altruistic idealism. His idea of truth and enlightenment grows out of his own selfish ambition, and his refusal to submit to the will of another.


To understand Nietzsche, it is necessary to understand what he reacts against, what, from his own position, he most detests. This, it is claimed, he is able to refute by a standard of truth, health and justice. All this comes down to is respect for the facts brought to our attention. This is equivalent to accepting the will to power and so rejecting slave values. Having done this we may be said to have accepted master morality.


Beyond that however:-

"People demand freedom only when they have no power. Once power is obtained, a preponderance thereof is the next thing to be coveted: if this is not achieved (owing to the fact that one is still too weak for it) then 'justice' i.e. 'equality of power' become the objects of desire." (Will to Power §784)


Following through this thought, we may conceive his perspective as justified essentially as an appeal to weakness. What he claims in demanding that we acknowledge will to power, is 'justice' in one sense. Unlimited mental tyranny is something which he lacks the power to exercise. Others will feel the same, once he has brought reality to their attention. They unite in a demand for justice. So we have derived truth and justice. From these we derive health, because the evasion of them demonstrably involves self deception, which means self division. The demand for fair rules is not a moral standard he aims to set up in the hope people will want to abide by it, it is something he feels able to enforce. In the same way his freedom (anti-tyranny) ideal is not one of sympathy and benevolence, but derives from competition between would be tyrants, and the threat felt by each when his own intense ambition runs up against that of others.


The weakness of being restrained from exerting tyranny, is not to be a cause for regret. Politically it has led to civil society with all its advantages and opportunities, and on the cultural plane to an improved idea of truth. There was once a time before there was truth, or more accurately a time before the conception of truth had been so clearly worked out. Looking back to the Greeks, we see the origin of a concept of truth coming from the urge to tyrannise intellectually, and the checks that were inevitably put upon that. Insistence upon reality was a weapon to be used against the tyranny of others. Among the Greeks Nietzsche saw an honesty that he could identify with consciousness of the will to power. It took first the form of tyrannical ambition, the individual against all others, rooted in the same raw egoism that inspired himself.


'What took place with the ancient Greeks (that each great thinker, believing he possessed absolute truth, became a tyrant, so that Greek intellectual history has had the violent, rash and dangerous character evident in its political history) was not exhausted with them. Many similar things have come to pass right up to the most recent times, although gradually less often and hardly any longer with the Greek philosophers pure, naïve conscience. For the opposite doctrine and scepticism have, on the whole, too powerful and loud a voice. The period of the spiritual tyrant is over. In the domain of higher culture there will of course always have to be an authority, but from now on this authority lies in the hands of the oligarchs of the spirit. Despite all spatial and political separation, they form a coherent society, whose members recognise and acknowledge one another whatever favourable or unfavourable estimations may circulate due to unfavourable public opinion and the judgements of the newspaper and magazine writers. The spiritual superiority which formerly caused division and enmity now tends to bind: How could individuals assert themselves and swim through life along their own way, against all currents, if they did not see their like living here and there under the same circumstances and grasp their hands in the struggle as much against the ochlocratic nature of superficial minds and superficial culture as against the occasional attempts to set up a tyranny with help of mass manipulation?'

(Human all Too Human I §261)




But Human all too Human is a relatively humane work from his middle period. In some of the notes he wrote towards the end, he looked forward to a new age of tyrants. With his great discovery behind him, Nietzsche speculates about dispensing with as many assumptions as possible, truth, the individual, pity, morality, all sorts of things. From the perspective he has achieved, he imagines rejecting its building blocks, and himself playing the open tyrant. Usually this is interesting, but it is far from his central or original discovery. Quite obviously he does sometimes say things which sound like a demand for more cruelty in society, or for the extirpation of pity. It is not pick and mix Nietzsche to argue that such suggestions are not an essential part of his thought. An argument from compassion is an integral part of the assaults of modern herd/slave morality, to repel which is his principal concern. Incidentally it may be of interest to speculate whether we might not be better off if we could eliminate compassion altogether, or morality or anything else. But those are peripheral issues.


Against my individual strength by which I would engage in competition with other people, is directed the weapon of the weak, slave morality. The values of weakness are given an immense boost by the fundamental principle of the dominant religion, which has all kinds of historical prejudice in its favour. We oppose the alleged interests of the weak to the extent that we insist their values should not prevail over ours. We do not pretend that our own values are necessarily in their interests. Nietzsche offers us a language within which we may describe and achieve these objectives. For various reasons, some innocent, some less so, the terms of his solution have been confused and obfuscated, so he is construed as asserting some very different things. The cruel nazi Nietzsche, the pitiless Nietzsche are the product of misreading.


In particular his single-mindedness is misunderstood by those who fail to grasp what he is specifically for and therefore search his writing for something else that must be his true message. Nietzsche's ruthlessness relates to the establishment of his particular perspective, from which nothing is to be allowed to deflect him. Until this is understood, pitilessness and cruelty can appear to be at the heart of his philosophy. To understand, we must try and feel the pain that he would have felt if he believed himself to be in fact wrong. Only then one can see what it is that he is trying to refute. Grasping that, one sees more precisely what he is trying to convict of mendacity.


Not understanding his starting point, or what his ruthlessness is for, people look for attitudes he is exhorting us to adopt, specific reforms of morals or manners. Looking at him in the wrong way, trying to work out first principles, it may seem he is arguing against the possibility of any morality. To see what he specifically wants to oppose we must begin from his resentments rather than trying to deduce those from his philosophical axioms.


As I wrote at the beginning, there are difficult passages for any interpretation.:-


Will to Power § 749 "The princes of Europe should really consider whether as a matter of fact they can dispense with our services,- with us, the immoralists. We are today the only power which can win a victory without allies; and we are therefore far and away the strongest of the strong. We can even do without lying, and let me ask what other power can dispense with this weapon? A strong temptation fights within us; the strongest perhaps that exists - the temptation of Truth… Truth? How do I come by this word? I must withdraw it: I must repudiate this proud word. But no. We do not even want it - we shall be quite able to achieve our victory of power without its help. The real charm which fights for us, the eye of Venus which our opponents themselves deaden and blind - this charm is the magic of the extreme. The fascination which everything extreme exercises: we immoralists - we are in every way the extremists."


Is he justified in his hope that he can achieve his "victory of power without the help of "this proud word"? His motive is not will to truth, there is no need to appeal to that. To pretend otherwise would be self deceiving. He does not want to fight under the banner of truth, believing he can win without it. Nevertheless, he claims to be able to do without lying, and "what other power can dispense with this weapon?"


If Nietzsche's theory has the psychological basis argued in this paper, to see him as ideally impartial towards any particular expression of will to power is to take his words out of context and apply them in a way that is detached from his intention. Conceding the factual anchoring claimed for his argument, it would also be misunderstanding to treat him simply as proposing an ideal or a new perspective which he invites us to adopt, whether this is justified as 'health', 'affirmation', 'life' or some new metaphysic. The importance of such concepts notwithstanding, to make them the key to his philosophy and the foundation of his envisaged revolution apparently springs from a failure to identify the real logic of his argument. To claim superiority for his own perspective on the basis of some such standard would give a much weaker position than we may legitimately grant him.


Some other interpretations


In recent years there have appeared a number of studies which attempt to understand Nietzsche's philosophy in the context of his personal emotional history. Many of these interpretations discover failure in his thought. The fact that his career ended in insanity is taken as justification for this, and as licence to explore as Nietzsche's philosophy precisely chains of ideas that do not succeed. This is Nietzsche as pathology, suggesting the sort of neurotic thought patterns sketched by Freud and his followers.


I have been advised to consider Blondel, Klossowski, Parkes and a number of other writers. It might seem at first that their interpretations are not directly relevant to the questions I am trying to address. Engaging with other scholars would be of limited value if  the issues they consider were in each case derived from questions unrelated to the problem to which I see the discovery of the will to power as an answer. It is suggested I should involve myself in a dialogue with these scholars. It may be thought that my argument is so little convincing that I should consider whether something altogether different might not be better.


The key factor in my interpretation is the identification with the philosophical problem of overcoming demoralisation. To drop this question is hardly an option, once it has been raised. To leave it unanswered and turn instead to unrelated questions would be a frivolous move. The extent to which it is or is not resolved will have an important bearing on the acceptability of an interpretation. If the question has been answered, then the peculiar psychological danger will not assume such a threatening character. Nietzsche’s insanity will have nothing whatsoever to do with what we are to think of his philosophy. Looking at it this way, it does not appear that my understanding of Nietzsche’s problem can be completely irrelevant to these other readings. The interpretation of Nietzsche’s thought as pathology involves a sickness that is transmitted from an unsolved philosophical problem to an attempted solution.


To those excited by the Dionysian promise of revolutionary enthusiasm, my reading might seem thin and uninspiring. Nevertheless an interpretation that Nietzsche fails intellectually is prima facie questionable. One that makes him a major philosopher and to come extent accounts for his influence must be in some way better, as must an interpretation of his philosophy that finds it successful in the way he required of it. Nevertheless interpretations of a philosophy as failure quite obviously do have logical possibility, and might have some appeal to the concerns of desires and needs of a (post?)modern public.


In Nietzsche, the Body and Culture Blondel interprets Nietzsche as contesting a culture that has metaphysics embedded in its very language. Against metaphysics he sets a new culture of the body. This a paradoxical project, as Blondel writes on P 205 (quoting Fink) “For language itself is metaphysical”. Metaphysics has a monopoly of language.


P203 “Nietzsche’s principle is therefore not to take language … at its word or literally. The entire dilemma of his undertaking can be measured in the these two similar and opposite signifiers. How can Nietzsche ‘say yes’ and be the spokesperson or advocate of life? The only solution would seem to be silence”.


If Nietzsche’s fundamental objective is as I have put it, this would be a very roundabout way for him to have tackled it. If his problem can be resolved without needing to go to such lengths then the simpler solution is naturally preferable. But is it the same objective, that of overcoming the demoralisation which would follow from the consideration that the claims made by hostile valuations might actually be true? It is that particular crisis that is of interest here. It may still be asked of other interpretations whether they work as answers to that question.


In Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle Klossowski invokes psychoanalysis, describing Nietzsche as yielding so much to the authority of his own moods that he suppresses the reality principle. He concludes "The incoherence that certain people thought could be found only in the final messages from Turin exists at the start of his career, his paralysing confrontation. Over the years he had painstakingly disguised and dissimulated this confrontation before producing it on the squares of Turin." (p220)


In his Introduction he writes:-


“But there is a Nietzschean conspiracy which is not that of a class but that of an isolated individual (like De Sade) who uses the means of this class not only against his own class but also against the existing forms of human species as a whole” (p xv)


“It is modernity that must now be charged with determining whether this initiative has failed or succeeded. But because the world is itself concerned with Nietzsche’s initiative, the more the modern world experiences the threat of its own failures the more Nietzsche’s thought gains in stature”. (p xvi)


On my own interpretation Nietzsche’s subjective moods are only relevant to what he has discovered insofar as they can yield demonstrable facts. He does not aim or need to get everyone else to share his mood, and if his mood is sick that makes no objective difference. To criticise Klossowski on such grounds may seem to show disingenuousness on my part. Here is someone who writes in the spirit of Bataille, and who sees Nietzsche’s motive as something far more destructive than anything I have identified.


Though in many cases interpreters are trying to answer different questions, and to use Nietzsche for a very different purpose from that which interests me, the questions overlap. It may be argued that whether or not an interpretation is or is not a misreading is a minor consideration, and that such objections are no more than a nuisance. This can hardly be sustained. The existence of a ‘new Nietzsche’ is a challenge to the old one, and the converse also applies.


Graham Parkes also invokes ‘depth psychology’ to elucidate Nietzsche. In Composing the Soul, he takes Nietzsche's idea of a 'great health' as something he lived, and asks whether his madness showed this idea to be dangerous. He writes (p 18) “The fundamental question in Nietzsche’s psychology, what disposition among the various drives or forces within the soul leads to the most fruitful life”.


On my view that is not an especially fundamental question, belonging rather to the category of thought experiments, hypotheses and speculations. To see Nietzsche as working on himself in such a manner surely underplays the success he did achieve, which he experienced as that of having solved his intellectual problem.


Parkes writes (p360) "The life that is lived comprehensively as will to power, having to go through Apollonian discipline and beyond the realm of spirit, will range through all domains of Dionysus through channelling a maximal influx from the life of the past so as to generate the most fecund future".


If Nietzsche came up with such suggestions in a playful creative spirit, having solved his basic problem, they would hardly have the dangerous desperate character many have seen in them. The perilousness of the undertaking seems predicated on the idea that it is an attempt to answer something like the original question about demoralisation. On my view the discovery of the will to  power itself holds out the promise of a fecund future. The overcoming of morality of the weak is itself sufficient to release ambition.


Richardson follows Parkes in upholding the central importance of ideals like the Ubermensch, and the Great Health. Taking such a view the demoralising philosophical perplexity does not get solved short of the formulation of such grand ideals.


Though Richardson sees the will to power perspective as confirmed by facts, he does not see this in itself as Nietzsche’s ultimate message. This would apparently emerge from a psychological procedure of trying to achieve affirmation. Nietzsche’s solution as I see it is intellectual and for all time. The discovery itself has overcome nihilism. The alternative view, popular among recent scholars, would see that as only a preliminary step. It turns Nietzsche himself into a potentially sick thinker, with his subjective attitudes and opinions assuming a much greater importance to the essence of his philosophy.


Their suggestion is that that the ideals proposed as the Ubermensch or the great health, are what offer the ultimate solution to Nietzsche’s fundamental problem, which we might still presumably state as overcoming demoralisation, conquering nihilism, and repelling slave morality. It means that to overcome slave morality it is not enough to diagnose it and embrace master morality, but that we further need to adopt a therapeutic strategy derived from some of the many hints and suggestions Nietzsche made about psychology or politics. This is a psychological, even subjective way of looking at Nietzsche’s problem quite different from convicting his opponents of clear error.


The obvious weaknesses of such a solution lies in its instability. It is indeed dangerous. If it is taken as an answer to the original question, then demoralisation is not something that can be got rid of once and for all. It is not like a scientific problem that has been solved, but a psychological or even a political programme which may or may not work. On my view Nietzsche himself solved his problem, and the process of solving it is not something that has to be repeated indefinitely, even though to access it we enter into his state of mind.


In Nietzsche's Voices, Staten, in treating of universal affirmation, talks of affirming the viewpoint of the suffering lamb, and this as leading to negation, which the affirmationist has to avoid. He sees Nietzsche as delighting in tyrants as the only way out of life negation. The accusation is that that the dialectic of his position leads him to take up cruel attitudes. Against this is the commonsense view that as to affirm everything without discrimination is the fast route to hell, to aim to do so must spring from some kind of intellectual mistake, and one we do not have to see Nietzsche as making. There is no necessity on his principles to affirm cruelty except insofar as one wants to do so.


How much is the achieving of universal affirmation a healthy or desirable objective? To what question would it be an answer? The necessity to avoid negation would argue a connection with my original question, which would still and remain, that of how to overcome the mental and moral confusion we identify with nihilism. For if this has been overcome, the unsatisfying, distressing, or even insane, nature of an unresolved philosophical problem would not be transmitted to the solution.


On the view put forward in this paper, the production of the theory of will to power itself, with its claim to factual truth, was the solution to the intellectual problem that underlay the young Nietzsche's emotional crisis. Missing how this has been achieved, or refusing to grant his claim, people search his words for another message. Over and above affirming the ubiquity of will to power, Nietzsche is thought of as advocating some specific vehicle for it which he urges others to embrace. There is nothing so Herculean that he has to do, no such cause that he is specifically inviting us to join. Presumably we already have wills of our own. We take him as speaking to those.


The objection to some other interpretations, goes to the extent of suggesting they have misunderstood Nietzsche’s intention. It would not be difficult to back up this reading with detailed quotes from his notes and published writings. However, quite different threads can easily be constructed by taking different passages. So the question remains what ground can we have for saying one is better than another? How can we avoid the charge that our own reading is arbitrary? The claim is to find in Nietzsche an argument that works and that can justify his pride in his achievement. It identifies a disturbing question of philosophical interest and significance, which clear roots in Nietzsche’s personal experience. If it answers that, according to statements that may be found in his writings, then the same question does not need to be answered in another, far less effective way. Accordingly those passages that some want to interpret as providing such an unsatisfactory answer must be interpreted differently. Mere opinion, enjoyable speculation, poetic effusion, playing the tyrant, trying out his strength, are all possible ways of understanding them. Once he has solved his problem he can say what he likes.


It is a weakness in an interpretation to leave important questions unresolved, or poorly answered, or which may come to the same thing, to produce a poor kind of philosophy. It would be a form of arbitrariness to take Nietzsche himself to be holding and advocating philosophical principles as well as solutions which are arbitrary. This may of course be taken as a criticism of a lot of interpretations of Nietzsche and is reason for dismissing them out of hand.


In conclusion


On the question of what brings Nietzsche to take sides there are a number of interpretations I have suggested to be misreadings. Such are the idea that he speaks from a preconceived ideal of health, views that involve attributing to him an altruistic motive, that he does not or should not take sides, or that he objects to all resentment.


The idea that everything is will to power underlies his perspectivism. We can say that that slave morality is in a sense what he is most importantly opposed to, his term for what he is most against. Sharing his motive we gain access to his original question, which we understand as that of overcoming demoralising ideas. For any interpretation we should ask what question it is answering. If it is a different question like ‘what is he saying we ought to want or desire?’ then its relevance is tenuous. The dispute becomes that of establishing what the real question is. If it is the same question, then if his solution obviously or demonstrably does not work, if it does not effectively overcome demoralisation, why was Nietzsche so triumphantly assured that it did?


On the subject of master morality. I am not suggesting Nietzsche thought we should aspire to become like ancient masters, but I would want to say that master morality is nevertheless what we are meant to adopt. Some who think otherwise look forward to the idea of the great health. Why they do not want to locate his discovery with master morality, is to do with the idea that they think his problem is not solved so easily, that not until the idea of the Ubermensch or the eternal recurrence does he think he has the key to overcome what he needed to overcome.


This is one reason why some deny master morality as something to be adopted. It may appear a mere matter of terminology. I myself argued the role of resentment, which some would see as a plebeian emotion, in generating Nietzsche’s perspective. Whatever moral attitudes we do take up will in some respects be different from those of the ancient masters, so whether or not we call it the same or something different may seem an unimportant matter. Neither view actually suggests we should become like ancient masters. The difference hides a larger difference in interpretation.


The view that the discovery of will to power does not in itself solve Nietzsche’s problem, but that that has to wait until the Ubermensch and the eternal recurrence, or the great health, finds favour with many anti-Nietzscheans. Refusing to concede the meaningfulness of Nietzsche’s attack on the weapons they regularly employ, they prefer to  interpret him as urging them to desire something other than what they do desire. Either Nietzsche speaks to the will and aims to release it from some obstacle, or alternatively he redirects and reforms it, producing his solution by finding a new vehicle for it.


Unless we think that Nietzsche was unclear or ambivalent on this vital question, one of these views (or even both) is wrong, either the view put forward here or the other one is clearly a misreading. Either Nietzsche’s fundamental problem continues, and is to find its solution in a psychological way, in the pursuit of one of the various programmes that he proposes to us, or he thinks he has solved it with will to power and master morality, and the production of such programmes is just something he chooses to do with his strength, his playful energy. On the latter view, having solved his problem he can say what he likes. The original danger, that of the possible truth of the worst idea, will not come back to haunt him, at least until the destruction of his reason, a catastrophe which might happen to anyone.


Against my own view, is that it does not take full account of ideas like the Ubermensch and eternal recurrence, failing to find a place for them as vital pieces in a comprehensive system having the quality of a solution. Considerable ingenuity has been expended to achieve this. Another objection would be that it does not offer a sufficiently thrilling project. Against this we might say that any such projects are up to the individual to discover. If he wants to be told how to live he can look elsewhere, and spice it up with Nietzsche if desired.


Although I would place Nietzsche’s overcoming in his attainment of certain states of mind, the value of this lay entirely in the revelation of clear facts. This does nothing to reduce the extraordinariness of his claim to the effective demolition of a whole lot of views that have a very great influence within our civilisation. Thus he makes a very great deal of difference even on the view expressed in this paper.




JSM 2001




Works by Nietzsche

Human All Too Human trans. Faber and Lehmann University of Nebraska 1984

Human All Too Human Part II trans. Paul Cohn, Foulis London and Edinburgh 1911

The Will to Power trans. Ludovici, Foulis London and Edinburgh 1911

Twilight of the Idols trans. Hollingdale Penguin books, Harmondsworth 1968

The Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, trans. Kaufmann, Random House New York 1967

Beyond Good and Evil trans. Cowan Chicago 1955

The Joyful Wisdom trans. Thomas Common New York 1970


Works about Nietzsche


Blondel, Eric, Nietzsche: The Body as Culture: Philosophy as a Philological Genealogy, translated by Seán Hand, (London: The Athlone Press), 1991


Clark, Maudemarie, Nietzsche on Truth and Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 1990


Deleuze, Gilles: Nietzsche and Philosophy. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson. (London Athlone Press Ltd), 1983.


Derrida, Jacques. Spurs = Éperons. Nietzsche's styles = les styles de Nietzsche. introduction by Stefano Agosti .... English translation [From the French] by Barbara Harlow. drawings by Francois Loubrieu..  (Chicago. London. University of Chicago Press), 1979


Kaufmann, Walter, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. 4th edition (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press), 1974.


Klossowski Pierre Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle translated Daniel W Smith (London: Athlone), 1997


Nehamas Alexander Nietzsche, Life as Literature (Cambridge Mass. London. Harvard University Press) 1985


Nordau Max Degeneration trans. from the second edition of the German work (London: Heinemann) 1895


Parkes Graham Composing the Soul. Reaches of Nietzsche's psychology  (Chicago. London. University of Chicago Press). 1994


Richardson Nietzsche’s System New York. (Oxford. Oxford University Press), c1996


Schacht Richard (ed) Nietzsche's Postmoralism. Essays on Nietzsche's Prelude to Philosophy's Future.( New York: Cambridge University Press), 2001


Staten Henry Nietzsche's Voices (Ithaca. New York. Cornell University Press), 1990

[i] Derrida does not agree. In Spurs p 103 he writes "There is no such thing as either the truth of Nietzsche or the truth of Nietzsche's text"


[ii] Maudemarie Clark denies that Nietzsche claims truth for his theory. p227 "Although Nietzsche says that life is will to power, he also gives us clues that he does not regard this as a truth or a matter of knowledge, but as a construction of the world from the viewpoint of his values"


[iii] Nietzsche’s System (p 10).


[iv] Unlike for example the neo-pragmatism adduced by Clark to elucidate Nietzsche’s concept of truth.


[v] ‘For what reason does Nietzsche come to privilege this specific perspective and to privilege it so massively as an entire history of his culture? Is it because he thinks it’s true? Not is he is really a perspecitivist. What then?’ (P 6)


[vi] From an interview with Richard Beardsworth in the Journal of Nietzsche Studies issue 7 1994. p25


[vii] Richardson sees three types, master, slave and Ubermensch, the latter being a synthesis of master and slave.


[viii] Nehamas p 206 "…these nobles still do not constitute a particular type of person he wants directly to praise. Rather, we can take them as one manifestation, under specific historical circumstances, of a general personality type which Nietzsche outlines and of which they are an example".