|Short Lectures on Ethics – David Keller
Existentialist Virtue Ethics: Nietzsche
My name is David Keller. Today we are going to look at the virtue ethics of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche lived in the second half of the nineteenth century, and like Augustine, he focused on the personality, the disposition, the character of the morally good person. But there the similarity ends. In direct opposition to Augustine, Nietzsche argued that virtuous character is a radical individualism, not submission to a supernatural being, to supernatural moral precepts. This makes Nietzsche an ethical relativist in terms of the metaethics that we talked about in the third lecture. For Nietzsche, there is no objective knowledge. There is no objective truth. There are no objective moral standards. Rather, for Nietzsche, the human intellect is a product of the natural world, a product of evolutionary processes. And hence, the human intellect is completely transitory, no more permanent than shifting sands.
In 1873, Nietzsche wrote in a memorable passage, “In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in innumerable solar systems, there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. That was the highest and most mendacious minute of “world history”—yet only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths the star grew cold, and the clever animals had to die” (“On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense”). The clever animals, of course, are us. And in our thrill of inventing the tools of rationality that I talked about in the third lecture, Nietzsche is saying that they are no more than constructions, epistemological constructions that will be fleeing in the grand cosmic flux of time. With the transitory nature of our intellectual constructions are also the transitory nature of our moral constructions, our ethics. So in terms of morality, for Nietzsche morals are man-made. They are a product of this world, not any supernatural realm, but of this world and this world only. The implication, then, is that there is no transcendent supernatural standard for morality, as Augustine would have us believe. Instead, Nietzsche asks the psychological question, perhaps the first moral philosopher in the Western intellectual tradition to do so. Nietzsche asks, “What is the value of morality?” Does our predilection for moral behavior make us better as human beings or worse? He says, “Under what conditions did man devise these value judgments good and evil? And what value do they themselves posses? Have they hitherto hindered or furthered human prosperity? Are they a sign of distress, or impoverishment, or the degeneration of life? Or is there revealed in them, on the contrary, the plenitude, force, and will of life, its courage, certainty, future?” (On the Genealogy of Morals). Again, he demands, “Let us articulate this new demand: we need a critique of moral values, the value of these values themselves must first be called in question” (On the Genealogy of Morals). What Nietzsche is asking us as students of ethics is whether the moral judgments, the moral behavior that we exhibit, does that further human creativity and human prosperity, or does it inhibit it? Nietzsche’s answer is that Judeo-Christian morality which has dominated the Western intellectual tradition, and which Augustine is a clear example of, has in fact made humans worse. How? By suppressing our individual creativity and turning us into meek herd animals. Again, Nietzsche says, “the meaning of all culture is the reduction of...’man’ to a tame and civilized animal, a domestic animal” (On the Genealogy of Morals).
So what is fascinating about Nietzsche is that in the Western intellectual tradition, the mainstream opinion is that from the time of antiquity, from the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans, there has been a steady moral progress upward, that we are getting better and better, morally speaking, all the time with revealed truths and advancements in human knowledge and human technology. That is the mainstream view. Nietzsche’s view is that from the time of ancient Greek and Roman antiquity, human beings have in fact degenerated. We have gone downhill. We have gotten worse. Our humanity has been denigrated and defiled due to Judeo-Christian morality, the morality of St. Augustine. Well, this is a radical claim, an outrageous claim. How does Nietzsche determine this? He determines it through what he calls a “genealogy of morals” What he does as a philologist, as a historian, is he traces the roots of Judeo-Christian morality back to its origins, back to the Roman Empire. He says in his historical investigation of the genealogy of morals that in the time of the Romans, those great pagans, noble meant good, and common meant bad. Now within this simple aristocratic social hierarchy of noble and good, and common and bad, there are all kinds of normative implications. Namely, the noble, the good, are powerful strong, dominant, beautiful, egoistic, self-absorbed, and indifferent to the weak. The bad, the common, on the other hand, are weak, humble, ugly, un-egoistic, and most importantly, absorbed and obsessed with their enemies, their oppressors, the people who are above them in the social hierarchy and dominating them. Nietzsche argues in his genealogy that the Judeo-Christian priests of the Roman Empire, knowing that a straightforward physical confrontation with the aristocracy would result only in slaughter and defeat, tried something different. What they did was they took the Roman value system, and in a cunning and stunning revaluation of values, they turned the aristocratic Roman value system on its head. What they did was they turned bad into good. They said what is bad is actually good, contrary to what the Roman nobles tell you. And what is good, according to the Roman nobles, is not just bad, it is evil. So in other words, the Judeo-Christian priests, in a transvaluation of values, flopped the Roman value system upside down, and turned bad into evil. So this means that on the new Judeo-Christian value system, it is the common people, the masses, who are good. And those are the weak, the humble, the ugly, the un-egoistic. And the evil classes are the powerful, the strong, the dominant, the beautiful, the egoistic. Now suddenly the people who are good on the old value system are evil on the new value system. This, Nietzsche says, is the origin of guilt, of psychological guilt. The strong, the Roman nobles, the Roman aristocracy, now feel guilty for being strong.
This is a paradigm example of what Nietzsche calls the transvaluation of values, and it is a stunning example of how one group can triumph over another group, not through straightforward physical confrontation, but through a psychological manipulation. In the Western Judeo-Christian tradition, Nietzsche calls this transvaluation of values the slave revolt in morality. Slave morality, Nietzsche says, is a herd morality. It is a morality of uniformity, of conformity. It is against difference, and according to Nietzsche, it has damaged and repressed the potential for human creativity. This leads us to position where we can see the three main themes, what I call the three main pillars of Nietzschian thought, and they are understandable within the framework of ethics. These themes are threaded throughout Nietzsche’s thought, and understandable within the context of these lecture on ethics. They are the transvaluation of values, which we have just talked about, the notion of the eternal return, and lastly, that of the Übermensch, the person of virtuous character.
Firstly, let’s look at the transvaluation of values. As I alluded to twenty minutes ago, for Nietzsche values are not permanent. They have no supernatural origin. Instead, values grow out of context, out of earthly existence, like flowers out of soil. These values can change. They can be created, and they can be destroyed. The transvaluation of values connects with a concept of time, and it is a cyclical concept of time. It is concept of time that is more represented in the Asian and Eastern cultures and indigenous cultures than in the Western intellectual tradition where we typically think of time in a linear fashion. Nietzsche calls this concept of time the “eternal return.” According to this idea of the eternal return, the same types of things, that is war and peace, suffering and ecstasy, joy and pain, happen over, and over, and over, and over again without end. Everything in human existence is intertwined, and there is no hope for a final judgment where good will be separated from evil, citizens of the city of God will be separated from the citizens of the city of man. Nietzsche says that is foolhardy. Everything about earthly existence and human existence is intimately intertwined, and can never be separated. Nietzsche is often misunderstood on this point. The idea of the eternal return is not a cosmology, not an actual model of time, but rather a metaphor for our earthly predicament, a metaphor for the human condition.
This leads us to the last and final pillar of Nietzsche’s thought, the Übermensch. The Übermensch is German for “overman,” that is, a self-overcoming person, a person who has the will, the will to power, to overcome obstacles that life throws in one’s path, and does not give up, and is persistent, and persists and overcomes those problems, and in doing so becomes a better person. You may have heard the famous Nietzsche quote “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” That is a maxim of the Übermensch, the self-overcoming individual, somebody who takes problems and becomes stronger by facing them. The model of the Übermensch is really that of an artist, a creative person, a person who creates one’s own values, and one’s own values flow out of them like a composer writing a symphony, or a painter painting a landscape. The creative person, the artistic person, the individualist, does not look at others for guidance, but rather creates one’s own values. They are not a conformist. They do not look to society. They don't look to religion. They don't look to a supernatural being for guidance. They only look to themselves. They are a radical individualist. We can see that the word Übermensch is often translated from German into English as “superman,” but this is a bad translation because an Übermensch might be a very un-superman-like person. It might be a person with a disability who achieves things that nobody else thought possible, somebody who has some kind of limitation and supersedes, surmounts that limitation, and achieves something that would have been thought by others to be impossible. And you know people like this, and I know people like this, people who do not give up. In Nietzsche’s ethics, they would be possibly Übermenschen.
In conclusion, we can see that these three themes, the transvaluation of values, the eternal return, and the Übermensch are all woven together in one whole. In Nietzsche’s thought, that is the Übermensch creates one’s own values, in other words transvaluates values in affirmation of the eternal return. This is the person of virtuous character. The person of virtuous character for Nietzsche is a radical individualist, an unconformist, somebody who is very oriented towards earthly life, not towards supernatural existence above the natural world. The Irish poet William Butler Yeats, in a famous poem called “The Second Coming,” weaves the ideas of Nietzschean thought nicely together, exemplifying particularly the transvaluation of values and the idea of the eternal return. I am not going to read the whole poem now, but I would like to close today by sharing with you a few passages from the poem. Again, it is by William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming.” He writes,
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed[,]
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
[W]hat rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
This beast, the second coming, is not of Christ, but it is of an Übermensch, somebody who is going to take the Judeo-Christian value system that has persisted for two thousand years and revaluate those values, just as the Judeo-Christian priests did in the Roman era. The Second Coming will be an example of the eternal return, and example of an Übermensch, the Anti-Christ, revaluating, transvaluating the values that we have been living with for two millennia. Thank you.