Nietzsche and Morality
Friedrich Nietzsche developed a morality based in the earth and life in an attempt to overcome the devaluation of life by religious belief. As a grounding for his new morality, he advocates emphasizing the value of the senses of immediacy and eternalization which he associated with Dionysianism.
Nietzsche is well known for his critique of religiously based morality; however, it is less well known that he also produced a naturalistic morality grounded within life and which is completely affirmative of life. As the grounding of his affirmative morality, he identifies a “shuddering” or “shivering” moment of intoxication which he calls a “Dionysian” event, occurring as an overwhelmingly powerful compulsion originating outside consciousness to acknowledge the priority of articulate otherness. He chooses the name of the Greek god of intoxication, symposia, and festivals as a figurehead for his morality due to the overpowering nature of the event. In doing so he joins a line of philosophical thought which has recognized the importance of “Dionysian” or divine “madness” (ASC 4 reference to Plato, Phaedrus, 244a–d), referring to a powerful affective event considered as an obsession or possession. This event is found to be the limit and ground of thinking and to give consciousness its dynamic force, and as such it is considered to be of the highest value for humanity. Plato described the event as beginning with an engagement with another person, considered in terms friendship, with its ultimate goal being a capacity for the love of wisdom, but understood as a consolation for the finitude of life. The intoxicating engagement is taken by Plato to signify the possibility of the “soul” encountering a supersensible essence beyond the flux of earth and life, but accessible to reason within life, similar to later philosophical descriptions of the experience of the sublime.
Unlike Plato and others, Nietzsche argues that an interpretation of the event as signifying a transcendent or immanent principle or essence – and on this basis attributing the highest value to gods, metaphysical substances, essential human qualities, or essential qualities in nature – is a denial of the value of life. In particular, he argues against attributing any negative moral quality to natural existence as a whole, especially that of “evil” and also argues against those who consider that abandoning transcendent or immanent truth will leave nothingness as the only alternative grounding for thinking. He proposes a complete revaluation of all European values in terms of the “Dionysian” event considered as a rejection of the grounding of philosophy in the thought of death. Instead, he turns to the preeminence of articulate otherness and sees the value of this moment of engagement as an expression of a form of life that affirms both the finite present and the infinite future of the earth and life. In doing so, he rejects the argument that moral values could be derived from an intuition of a transcendence of life and instead grounds moral values in the interactions of finite human beings. The necessary preeminence of otherness in the Dionysian event is found to occur as the articulate resistance that another person presents to our interpretation of their own unique interpreted world.
The requirement for those who would like to take up this morality is that the empirical and theoretical aspects of the event become instinctively felt and thought at the highest level possible at the time. In this way, the affirmation of the resistance that others pose to our interpretation of existence, considered as underlying all aspects of each person’s unique interpreted world, can be developed into a personalized ethos or practice of life considered as an affirmative engagement with life. In developing this ethos, Nietzsche is guided by two fundamental imperatives: to “be true to the earth,” which is to restrict interpretational responses to the sensible world and to “create beyond oneself,” which is to create for others beyond our own lives (Nietzsche 2006a 1, Prologue, 3). In addition, Nietzsche advocates a number of virtues, especially straightforwardness (or honesty) (Redlichkeit), truthfulness (Wahrhaftigkeit), and the love of wisdom (Liebe der Weisheit), each associated with a sense of the need to develop the courage and consistency required for generosity or “gift giving” in any thinking (Nietzsche 2008a, p. 295). On the basis of this dynamic ethical force, Nietzsche claims to provide a “healthy morality” which is “governed by an instinct of life” (Nietzsche 2006b, “Morality as Anti-Nature,” 4). He argues that his morality thinks through an “optics of life” (Nietzsche 2006b), with the naturalistic life-affirming ethos particularly concerned with the creative expression of one’s unique ethical perspective on friendship and community.
In relation to ethical generosity, Nietzsche requires a broadly inclusive ethics, which affirms all humanity and is true to the materiality of the earth and life. The trials undergone by Nietzsche’s character Zarathustra provide an extreme example of someone who dedicates their life to the advocacy of such a morality, believing in the universal worth of living and dying well on earth, struggling and suffering from himself and others in order to achieve ethical integrity, and undertaken as the practice of one’s own life as an ethical educator. This is an extremely difficult role to take on, and Zarathustra has problems developing the courage and the coherence required to communicate a teaching which undermines the logic and sense of truth associated with both the scientific and religious values of modernity. In this context, he uses the analogy of the sun as an example of the selfless giving of a being which must also one day pass away. In another example in his early work, he discusses the “heat death” of the sun as a future limit for human life itself, but argues that apocalyptic theories only have logical force in the context of particular cosmological interpretations projected over incredible time spans which could lose their sense of certainty with any new discovery (Nietzsche 1997). He decides that such theories predicting destruction harbor a religiously based pessimism and nihilism concerning human existence and need to be reevaluated using the optics of life to determine the underlying moral choices in play. He ultimately adopts the cosmology of eternal recurrence as a model best suited for the affirmation of an eternity of life and material existence. In this way, he argues for an expansive ethico-critical view of scientific materialism and an ethically based naturalism for our interpreted worlds in order to overcome the belief in scientific or religious grounds for human certainty.
Despite using many naturalistic metaphors associated with the earth, sea, sky, and life to evoke a sense of the resistance to interpretation occurring in the Dionysian event, Nietzsche warns against projecting our capacity for articulate resistance onto other life or material forms or locating a connatural essence or principle in life or matter which we share and which could be articulated by us as a first principle in moral theory. He differentiates humanity from nature on the basis of the capacity for articulate resistance using gestures and language. In relation to human beings, he finds powerful examples of the Dionysian event in aesthetic experience, especially in performances of drama and music. However, these aesthetic performances are found to imitate or draw upon the gestures and language that occur preeminently in compelling articulate engagements with other human beings. In such engagements the other person is found to resist the interpretation which has been presented to them, whether on the grounds of its content, intention and/or logical coherence. The experience of the resistance to one’s interpretation is followed by an attempt to broaden the interpretation to compensate for its lack of inclusiveness. This expansive attempt at inclusion is found to be the fundamental dynamic force of thinking behind the development of consciousness, understood as each person’s interpreted world (Nietzsche 2007, p. 354).
Such interaction – the articulation of resistances to interpreted worlds – is considered to mark all human engagements, but with differing degrees of straightforwardness and acceptance. In any case, an interruptive force exerts constant pressure on the interpretation, occurring most simply as the articulation of a combination of “yes” and “no” by the other person – an articulation which can range from shared laughter with friends to harsh censure and which can be ambiguous or crystal clear (Nietzsche 2006c, p. 6). In other words, the articulation of resistance can be felt by the self as an affect of pleasure and/or displeasure. For Nietzsche, these are fundamental and simultaneous forms of compulsion experienced in the shuddering event. In all cases, the resistance can be attributed to the incommensurability in time and space of the self “present” as interpretation and the other person, who withdraws from this presence into their necessarily unique space of difference. Nietzsche thus refers to the recognition of a “pathos of distance” and a “great separation” between people which cannot be overcome by a reductive interpretation.
We cannot establish precisely what is unique about the other person, and there are also problems with our capacity to accurately communicate our response in words. However, reflecting on this inability to comprehend the other leads to the consideration in general terms the conceivable extremes in perspectives within the ethical or moral context. It is possible to describe our response as an instance of the affirmation of “alterity” – insofar as this is an attempt to do justice to the other person as necessarily different and unique – at a fundamental level of immediacy and, at the same time, involving an affirmative sense of naturalistic eternity. The other person questions our capacity to provide an ethically sound interpretation of their existence, or in other words, asks that in our response we do justice to their unique existence within our interpreted world.
As well as the separation from others and their resistance to our interpretation, the event can be interpreted in general terms as our response to the impossibility of being indifferent to the other person, who thus also offers irresistible resistance to our interpretation. It is possible to reject or try to ignore the event, but only after the fact. For Nietzsche, this irresistibility is central to the identity of Dionysus. The unavoidable affective undergoing of resistance can be affirmed as a sense of a shared undergoing of life, including its senseless suffering, and a working in the present (of immediacy) and, at the same time, for eternity, considered not as a promise of an afterlife in which I participate, but as an indeterminable future of humanity after one’s death. As such, the Dionysian event can be considered as a compulsion to ethics (opposed to and rather than a desire for metaphysical truth), which is found to remain operative even when one is faced with life’s sternest problems, but which favors the affirmation of the existence of others despite any suffering this might entail, for the sake of a future for humanity.
There is a compulsion to acknowledge that, beyond the uniqueness of another person, incommensurable differences in space, time, and interpretation are also communicated by all others. In relation to the legislator, creator, and educator, the consideration that in one’s engagement with an actual other person one is apprehending a universalized sense of human otherness forces the creative self to remain aware of the necessary injustice of all interpretation and communication. In this way, one is led to question how it is possible to be just to all others without an all-encompassing concept of justice and, on that basis, how it is possible to be ethical or just at all. Once again, such a thought is found to be similar to the notion of reason’s capacity to engage with the sublime, precisely that which exceeds it, in this case, to remain open to the infinite possibilities of human identity. Thus, if this event is to be used as a basis for the legislation of ethical laws, one’s own uniqueness as an ethical creator who can endeavor to assume responsibility before this infinite becomes the basis for acting justly. Nietzsche uses the mythological figure of Atlas holding up the universe (Nietzsche 2008a 9) to indicate that responsibility to create a just future must be able to accommodate such an infinity of otherness. On this basis, the work of philosophy for the future is found to encompass, as a goal, the capacity to envisage these extremes of justice and the extent to which one is responsible for one’s interpreted world.
For Nietzsche, there is a need to be true to the dynamic play of resistance and response and to give it the highest value in terms of the earth and life. It has been argued that responsibility for creating beyond oneself extends to the temporal extreme of eternity. In addition, in examining to the fullest extent the significance communicated by the other person through their resistance to our interpretation, we can assume that they ask for justice to be done to an integrated sense of existence at the immediate and eternal extremes of the earth and life, which includes reflective consciousness, pre-reflective consciousness (which could be called “psyche” or “soul”) and, in addition, every aspect of their bodily existence. The latter can be extended in accordance with modern science to deeper levels at which interpretive engagement may be effective. Nietzsche’s term for existence at this extended bodily level of self in its resistance to others is called “will to power,” which can be extended to neuronal levels of the body, where language first forms (Nietzsche 2008c, p. 144), but also to one’s interpretation of external forces, such as gravity, which are thought to affect the body at subatomic levels but exist in the broadest scope. On this basis, other people can be said to evoke, exhibit, and articulate, in each moment, the empirical immediacy of the earth and life.
The parameters of one’s responsibility to the other person are stretched to a breaking point in this expansive spatiotemporal model of human signification, while also fully applied to the unique historical existence of the other person. One’s theoretical guarantee of respect for the uniqueness of the other person and sense of a need to articulate a perspective with the broadest temporal framework are insufficient as an ethics if it is not also possible to guarantee the well-being of others in relation to one’s projection of a future for humanity in general on earth beyond one’s own unique physical life.
The Dionysian event transmits an underlying veracity concerning the worth of life that can be called an “ethical sensibility.” This demands a thinking that has evaluative strength and questions from the outset the truths associated with objective knowledge. It is also possible to translate the requirements for ethics presented by the other person into a responsibility to act for nature. The Dionysian event can be seen as an affirmative thread running through relational human existence and, as will to power (occurring as justice), substantiating the net of consciousness (Nietzsche 2007, p. 354) with respect to both earthly and eternal justice. The request for justice made by the other person is a dynamic force in thinking – like a thread or a trace of meaning that guides responsibility – to which Nietzsche gives the highest value. As such, the other person can be seen to be speaking for the infinite otherness of the immediacy of the natural earth and life and at the same time requiring that the highest level of practical empirical justice are incorporated in ethical decision-making with a sense of working for a future beyond our era. In relation to all fields of knowledge, there is a need to consider which logical and scientific hypotheses best suit an ethics which is affirmative of life in the context of such a future.
Since Nietzsche, the recognition of the problems associated with European-Christian ethical thinking in modernity has continued through the generations, with a process of secularization combined with eco-ethical concerns, along with various calls for the rethinking of the neoliberal economic model, which advocates a dynamism arising principally from first-world consumption. The priority of an ethical mode of thinking found in Nietzsche’s work can be utilized to achieve greater levels of justice for others, the earth and life. Rather than seek to limit or even annihilate the encroaching-expanding difference which is faced, it is possible to begin to seek in others this irresistible resistance – as what is valuable in any attempt to expand our own historicizing interpretation – and which, in resisting domination, offers the promise of higher levels of self-reflection and creation for the sake of others. It has been argued that the affect undergone by the self is for the other, considered in terms of both aspects of the Dionysian scale of affectedness, and that, on this basis, the other person, through their resistant questioning of one’s right to be a creator of meaning, lifts one out of an ambivalence felt toward justice, into ethical and political activity.
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