Durant 1926: Hero-morality (Nietzsche)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter IX Section 5 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The  contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.


V. Hero-morality

Zarathustra became for Nietzsche a Gospel whereon his later books were merely commentaries. If Europe would not appreciate his poetry perhaps it would understand his prose. After the song of the prophet, the logic of the philosopher; what though the philosopher himself should disbelieve in logic?—it is a tool of clarity, if not the seal of proof. 

Following Zarathustra, Nietzsche simply used prose and logic to clarify his philosophy expressed earlier in that poem. 

He was more than ever alone now, for Zarathustra had seemed a little queer even to Nietzsche’s friends. Scholars like Overbeck and Burckhardt, who had been his colleagues at Basle, and had admired The Birth of Tragedy, mourned the loss of a brilliant philologist, and could not celebrate the birth of a poet. His sister (who had almost justified his view that for a philosopher a sister is an admirable substitute for a wife) left him suddenly, to marry one of those anti-Semites whom Nietzsche despised, and went off to Paraguay to found a communistic colony. She asked her pale, frail brother to come along, for the sake of his health; but Nietzsche valued the life of the mind more than the health of the body; he wished to stay where the battle was; Europe was necessary to him “as a culture museum.” He lived irregularly in place and time; he tried Switzerland and Venice and Genoa and Nice and Turin. He liked to write amid the doves that flock about the lions of St. Mark—“this Piazza San Marco is my finest work-room;” But he had to follow Hamlet’s advice about staying out of the sun, which hurt his ailing eyes; he shut himself up in dingy, heatless attics, and worked behind closed blinds. Because of his failing eyes he wrote henceforth no books, but only aphorisms.

Nietzsche was more than ever alone now as his friends and sister went away. He lived irregularly in place and time and gradually his eye start failing. He shut himself up in dingy, heatless attics, and worked behind closed blinds. 

He gathered some of these fragments together, under the titles Beyond Good and Evil (1886) and The Genealogy of Morals (1887); he hoped, in these volumes, to destroy the old morality, and prepare the way for the morality of the superman. For a moment he became the philologist again, and sought to enforce his new ethic with etymologies that are, not quite beyond reproach. He observes that the German language contains two words for bad: schlecht and bose. Schlecht was applied by the upper to the lower classes, and meant ordinary, common; later it came to mean vulgar, worthless, bad. Bose was applied by the lower to the upper classes, and meant unfamiliar, irregular, incalculable, dangerous, harmful, cruel; Napoleon was bose. Many simple peoples feared the exceptional individual as a disintegrating force; there is a Chinese proverb that “the great man is a public misfortune.” Likewise, gut had two meanings, as opposite to schlecht and bose: as used by the aristocracy it meant strong, brave, powerful, warlike, godlike (gut from Gott); as used by the people it meant familiar, peaceful, harmless, kind.

Nietzsche looked for a way beyond good and evil. He hoped to destroy the old morality, and prepare the way for the morality of the superman. 

Here then were two contradictory valuations of human behavior, two ethical standpoints and criteria: a Herren-moral and a Heerden-moral—a morality of masters and a morality of the herd. The former was the accepted standard in classical antiquity, especially among the Romans; even for the ordinary Roman, virtue was virtus—manhood, courage, enterprise, bravery. But from Asia, and especially from the Jews in the days of their political subjection, came the other standard; subjection breeds humility, helplessness breeds altruism—which is an appeal for help. Under this herd-morality love of danger and power gave way to love of security and peace; strength was replaced by cunning, open[ness] by secret revenge, sternness by pity, initiative by imitation, the pride of honor by the whip of conscience. Honor is pagan, Roman, feudal, aristocratic; conscience is Jewish, Christian, bourgeois, democratic. It was the eloquence of the prophets, from Amos to Jesus, that made the view of a subject class an almost universal ethic; the “world” and the “flesh” became synonyms of evil, and poverty a proof of virtue.

Here then were two contradictory valuations of human behavior—a morality of masters and a morality of the herd. Under this herd-morality, love of danger and power gave way to love of security and peace. This almost became the universal ethic. The “world” and the “flesh” became synonyms of evil, and poverty a proof of virtue.

This valuation was brought to a peak by Jesus: with him every man was of equal worth, and had equal rights; out of his doctrine came democracy, utilitarianism, socialism; progress was now defined in terms of these plebeian philosophies, in terms of progressive equalization and vulgarization, in terms of decadence and descending life. The final stage in this decay is the exaltation of pity and self-sacrifice, the sentimental comforting of criminals, “the inability of a society to excrete.” Sympathy is legitimate if it is active; but pity is a paralyzing mental luxury, a waste of feeling for the irremediably botched, the incompetent, the defective, the vicious, the culpably diseased and the irrevocably criminal. There is a certain indelicacy and intrusiveness in pity; “visiting the sick” is an orgasm of superiority in the contemplation of our neighbor’s helplessness.

Progress was now defined in terms of democracy, utilitarianism, socialism, which led to decadence and descending life. There was a waste of feeling for the irremediably botched, the incompetent, the defective, the vicious, the culpably diseased and the irrevocably criminal.

Behind all this “morality” is a secret will to power. Love itself is only a desire for possession; courtship is combat and mating is mastery:  kills Carmen to prevent her from becoming the property of another. “People imagine that they are unselfish in love because they seek the advantage of another being, often in opposition to their own. But for so doing they want to possess the other being. … L’amour est de tous les sentiments le plus egoiste, et, par consequent, lorsqu’il est blesse, le moins genereux.” * Even in the love of truth is the desire to possess it, perhaps to be its first possessor, to find it virginal. Humility is the protective coloration of the will to power.

* quoting Benjamin Constant: “Love is of all feelings the most egoistic; and in consequence it is, when crossed, the least generous.” But Nietzsche can speak more gently of love. “Whence arises the sudden passion of a man for a woman? … Least of all from sensuality only: but when a man finds weakness, need of help, and high spirits, all united in the same creature, he suffers a sort of over-flowing of soul, and is touched and offended at the same moment. At this point arises the source of great love” And he quotes from the French “the chastest utterance I ever heard: Dans Ie veritable amour c’est l’ame qui evnveloppe le corps“—“in true love It is the soul that embraces the body.”

Love is not unselfish. Underlying love is a desire to possess the object of love.

Against this passion for power, reason and morality are helpless; they are but weapons in its hands, dupes of its game. “Philosophical systems are shining mirages”; what we see is not the long-sought truth, but the reflection of our own desires. “The philosophers all pose as though their real opinions had been discovered through the self-evolving of a cold, pure, divinely indifferent dialectic; … whereas in fact a prejudicial proposition, idea or ‘suggestion,’ which is generally their heart’s desire abstracted and refined, is defended by them with arguments sought out after the event.” 

Against this passion for power, reason and morality are helpless. What we see in philosophy is not the long-sought truth, but the reflection of our own desires.

It is these underground desires, these pulsations of the will to power, that determine our thoughts. “The greater part of our intellectual activity goes on unconsciously, and unfelt by us; … conscious thinking … is the weakest.” Because instinct is the direct operation of the will to power, undisturbed by consciousness, “instinct is the most intelligent of all kinds of intelligence which have hitherto been discovered.” Indeed, the role of consciousness has been senselessly over-estimated; “consciousness may be regarded as secondary, almost as indifferent and superfluous, probably destined to disappear and to be superseded by perfect automatism.”

Instinct is the direct operation of the will to power, undisturbed by consciousness. The role of consciousness has been senselessly over-estimated.

In strong men there is very little attempt to conceal desire under the cover of reason; their simple argument is, “I wilI.” In the uncorrupted vigor of the master soul, desire is its own justification; and conscience, pity or remorse can find no entrance. But so far has the Judaeo-Christian-democratic point-of-view prevailed in modern times, that even the strong are now ashamed of their strength and their health, and begin to seek “reasons.” The aristocratic virtues and valuations are dying out. “Europe is threatened with a new Buddhism”; even Schopenhauer and Wagner become pity-ful Buddhists. “The whole of the morality of Europe is based upon the values which are useful to the herd.” The strong are no longer permitted to exercise their strength; they must become as far as possible like the weak; “goodness is to do nothing for which we are not strong enough.” Has not Kant, that “great Chinaman of Koenigsberg,” proved that men must never be used as means? Consequently the instIncts of the strong—to hunt, to fight, to conquer and to rule—are introverted into self-laceration for lack of outlet; they beget asceticism and the “bad conscience”; “all instincts which do not find a vent turn inward—this is what I mean by the growing ‘internalization’ of man: here we have the first form of what came to be called the soul.” *

* The student of psychology may be interested to follow up psychoanalytic sources in … (theory of dreams); … (Adler’s theory of the neurotic constitution); and … (“overcorrection”). Those who are interested in pragmatism will find a fairly complete anticipation of it in …

For Nietzsche, the source of strength are the instincts and desires, and the Judaeo-Christian-democratic point-of-view is the aberration. However, he is ignoring that there can be conflicting and self-destructive instincts in a person that can drive him insane.

The formula for decay is that the virtues proper to the herd infect the leaders, and break them into common clay. “Moral systems must be compelled first of all to bow before the gradations of rank; their presumption must be driven home to their conscience—until they thoroughly understand at last that it is immoral to say that ‘what is right for one is proper for another.'” Different functions require different qualities; and the “evil” virtues of the strong are as necessary in a society as the “good” virtues of the weak. Severity, violence, danger, war, are as valuable as kindliness and peace; great individuals appear only in times of danger and violence and merciless necessity. The best thing in man is strength of will, power and permanence of passion; without passion one is mere milk, incapable of deeds. Greed, envy, even hatred, are indispensable items in the process of struggle, selection and survival. Evil is to good as variation to heredity, as innovation and experiment to custom; there is no development without an almost-criminal violation of precedents and “order.” If evil were not good it would have disappeared. We must beware of being too good; “man must become better and more evil.” 

The leaders need not follow the “morality“ of the herd; instead, they must follow the instincts demanded by their role. The best thing in man is strength of will, power and permanence of passion; without passion one is mere milk, incapable of deeds. 

Nietzsche is consoled to find so much evil and cruelty in the world; he takes a sadistic pleasure in reflecting on the extent to which, he thinks, “cruelty constituted the great joy and delight of ancient man”; and he believes that our pleasure in the tragic drama, or in anything sublime, is a refined and vicarious cruelty. “Man is the cruelest animal,” says Zarathustra. “When gazing at tragedies, bull-fights and crucifixions he hath hitherto felt happier than at any other time on earth. And when he invented hell … lo, hell was his heaven on earth”; he could put up with suffering now, by contemplating the eternal punishment of his oppressors in the other world.

For Nietzsche, instinct is uppermost regardless of it being good or evil. 

The ultimate ethic is biological; we must judge things according to their value for life; we need a physiological “transvaluation of all values.” The real test of a man, or a group, or a species, is energy, capacity, power. We may be partly reconciled to the nineteenth century—otherwise so destructive of all the higher virtues—by its emphasis on the physical. The soul is a function of an organism. One drop of blood too much or too little in the brain may make a man suffer more than Prometheus suffered from the vulture. Varying foods have varying mental effects: rice makes for Buddhism, and German metaphysics is the result of beer. A philosophy therefore is true or false according as it is the expression and exaltation of ascending or of descending life. The decadent says, “Life is worth nothing”; let him rather say; “I am worth nothing.” Why should life be worth living when all the heroic values in it have been permitted to decay, and democracy—that is, disbelief in all great men—ruins, with every decade, another people?

The gregarious European man nowadays assumes an air as if he were the only kind of man that is allowable; he glorifies his qualities, such as public spirit, kindness, deference, industry, temperance, modesty, indulgence, sympathy,—by virtue of which he is gentle, endurable, and useful to the herd,—as the peculiarly human virtues. In cases, however, where it is believed that the leader and bellwether cannot be dispensed with, attempt after attempt is made nowadays to replace commanders by the summoning together of clever gregarious men; all representative constitutions, for example, are of this origin. In spite of all, what a blessing, what a deliverance from a weight becoming unendurable, is the appearance of an absolute ruler for these gregarious Europeans—of this fact the effect of the appearance of Napoleon was the last great proof; the history of the influence of Napoleon is almost the history of the higher happiness to which the entire century has attained in its worthiest individuals and periods.

Napoleon is the ideal for Nietzsche, because the real test of a man, or a group, or a species, is energy, capacity, power. He looks at the ultimate ethic to be biological; the soul as a function of an organism; and varying foods having varying mental effects.


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