shrunken apple


Given the infamy of some of the events in the historical struggle between science and religion – stretching from Galileo through Darwin up to the latest intelligent design pseudo-controversy – one may be forgiven for assuming the science/religion conflict to be the most fundamental divide underlying the Western humanist tradition. For Hannah Arendt however, Western modernity is haunted by a deeper division still: that between science and the political. The article considers Arendt’s views on the relationship between science and the political in the light of renewed arguments in favour of grounding the values governing the human life-world in the empirical sciences, and argues that it is possible to see a certain component of radical scientism as a genuine threat to the autonomy of the political realm. Since Darwin first published The Origin of the Species in 1859, it has been accepted that the theological foundations of the West will never be the same again. From an Arendtian perspective however, the true risk lay in the potential of science to reduce man from the status of political animal to that of animal alone. For Arendt, modernity harbors ‘danger signs that man may be willing and, indeed, is on the point of developing into that animal species from which, since Darwin, he imagines he has come.[1] ’For the purposes of this article, ‘science’ is defined as the system of propositions, tested by rigorous method and committed to values like objectivity, precision, neutrality and coherence. Even among less conventional scientific thinkers like Thomas Kuhn, it is usually seen as a coherent and predictive force, which, even if not perfectly ‘neutral’, is valued for aiming for this state and whose socio-political and moral dimensions are generally considered irrelevant.

It would hardly have proven surprising had Arendt joined the long-standing Romantic strain in late modern thought or the Frankfurt School in lamenting how the modern subject has estranged itself from both Nature and its own traditions. However, Arendt’s approach is quite different: she focuses on the role that science and technology play in unifying the human self with nature, and how this leads to an existence as labouring animals rather than an authentic experience of liberty. Unlike Rousseau and the Romantics, she did not regard the embrace of Nature in modern thought as either innocent or an answer to world-alienation. On the contrary, the late modern attempt to find a substitute for God in Nature or History as all-encompassing explanatory substitute is precisely what made the determinist ideology of Nazism or communism possible. Whereas it was possible to admonish traditional Machiavellian tyranny in terms of a prideful denial of God, or at least some vaguely defined transcendental authority, totalitarianism’s radical evil is to be found precisely in its confidence in unlocking the ‘ultimate meaning of Nature’ and hence to unify it with its own policies. That is to say, they were able to ‘naturalize’ its policies as the inevitable outcome of an inevitable Grand Narrative, unfolding beyond individual lives, rendering challenge or disagreement virtually impossible. For Arendt, this amounted to an abdication of the uniquely human privilege of exercising freedom on the political stage.

The events of WWII – not only the Holocaust but the anonymizing power of mindless mechanized slaughter – have left the West in a stunned consensus over the dark side of the Enlightenment for a considerable time. The benchmark text in this respect is arguably Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), which found alongside the Kantian ideal of communicative rationality a darker, more instrumental version, which eventually contributed to the horrors of WWII. Heidegger’s Letter on Humanism comes to a similar conclusion. Like the Dialectic, it appeared in 1947 and traced the origins of the misfortunes of the twentieth century to an even longer history of Seinsvergessenheit. For Heidegger, the forces unleashed by modernity – capitalism and its handmaidens science and technology – have rendered the late modern human ‘homeless’, a stranger in his own lifeworld.

To some extent, Jürgen Habermas’s philosophical project may be seen as retrieving the emancipatory dimension of the Enlightenment. Disturbed by the nonchalant way in which Heidegger ‘had stepped on stage, like a phoenix rising from the ashes’ in a ‘felicitous de-Nazified form’, Habermas’ ultimate conclusion has much in common with that of Horkheimer and Adorno, but at the same time he refused to give up on the ideal of communicative reason. He continued to maintain this position in the face of Peter Sloterdijk’s controversial challenge to humanism delivered at the Exodus from Being: Philosophy after Heidegger conference held in Bavaria in 2002. In his provocatively titled paper ‘Rules for the Human Zoo’ Sloterdijk stated that the classic humanist project of ‘civilizing through literature’ has, if not exactly failed, been eclipsed by the leaps made in communication technologies and more recently, biotechnology. For Sloterdijk, the task of shaping of human beings into civilized citizens no longer belonged to the humanities alone: henceforth the natural sciences will play a constitutive role.[2]

Given that the debate occurred in Germany, and sprang from a paper on Heidegger no less, controversy was only to be expected. Aside from Habermas’ dismissal of this ‘amusing ghost story’, Die Zeit’s Thomas Assheuer was alarmed by what he saw as ‘elitist’ and ‘facistoid’ elements in Sloterdijk’s vision of the ‘artificial selection’ that might in future determine the identity of at least the ruling classes.[3] However, in the Anglo-Saxon world the ideal of a world shaped by science rather than the humanities has also been around for a considerable time. This notion has become part of the public sphere again as part of renewed hostilities between science and religion prompted by widely-publicized calls for a ‘New’ Enlightenment in the face of rising religious fundamentalism.


Forgoing for the sake of brevity the important early antecedents in the form of Darwin-inspired thinkers like T. H. Huxley, Herbert Spencer and even Virginia Woolf, the key text in the ‘biological turn’ is arguably E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology: The New Synthesis in which he argued that certain forms of human behaviour can best be explained in genetic terms. Published in the late 1970’s, it caused such a furore that the American Anthropological Association considered censure and leading scientists (including Richard Lewontin and Steven Jay Gould formed ‘The Sociobiology Study Group’, stating in the New York Review of Books that ‘theories that attempted to establish a biological foundation for social behaviour provided an important basis… for the eugenic policies which led to the establishment of the gas chambers in Nazi Germany.’[4] More than thirty years after the publication of Sociobiology it has become so acceptable to discuss human conduct in fundamentally biological terms that Wilson was able to embrace full-blown reductionism in his 1998 book Consilience, and it has since then become part of standard philosophical vocabulary. With respect to the biopolitical, one has to go as least as far as Peter Singer’s justification of the euthanasia of severely incapacitated infants to create genuine controversy.[5] The central idea of Wilson’s book is the now widely-accepted thesis that everything in the human life-world could in principle be explained at the hand of a small number of irreducible laws and that consequently, rock-solid theoretical foundations were within our reach.

Updated versions of this ideal are reiterated with increasing frequency in both academic and popular intellectual spheres. Philosophy in the so-called ‘analytical’ tradition has for quite some time begun to exhibit impatience at what was often perceived as wilful obscurantism, promotion of relativism and obsession with language in the Continental tradition. This impatience was amplified by unprecedented leaps made in the biological sciences. From the initial discovery of DNA in 1958 by Crick and Watson, to the more recent mapping of the human genome, natural science appears to be able to provide concrete answers to questions over which philosophers needlessly struggled for centuries. Of particular importance for our purposes is the growing attempt to equate ‘morality’ with altruism and the concomitant tendency to ground it in pure biology.

Whereas physics was the field that dominated as the public ‘face’ of science during the Cold War, the biological sciences came into their own during the final quarter of the twentieth century. With the explosion of communication technology from the late 1990’s, the relationship between the human being and the tools that he uses to make sense of the world underwent a significant change: science was more intimately interwoven with the life-world than ever before. Prima facie, its most important recent accomplishments seem largely benign: Smartphones are infinitely preferable to nuclear arms. Arendt’s famous description of Sputnik I with which she opens The Human Condition may well seem slightly dated in the light of the turn towards the less abstract life sciences and the immediacy of recent advances made in these fields: [It was] ‘an event second in importance to no other, not even the splitting of the atom. One is struck by the sense of relief apparently experienced by the onlookers at the thought that the first step towards escape from men’s imprisonment to the earth’.[6]

Today, humans seem to be less interested in escaping the earth than in ‘connecting’ with each other and redefining their ‘nature’. In fact, there is a growing trend (intellectual as well as popular) towards a stance that appears to be as critical towards the desire for any supraterrestial existence as Nietzsche and Arendt had been. The attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001 and the wars that followed in its wake led to a renewed awareness of the dangers of religious fundamentalism, and a number of prominent analytical thinkers and scientists like Daniel Dennett, Paul and Patricia Churchland, Victor Stenger, Derek Parfit, Peter Singer, Steven Pinker and the Nobel-Prizewinning scientist Lawrence Krauss appear to make a case for the necessity of a ‘new Enlightenment’, firmly based upon the rejection of any form of ‘superstition’ and with a particular emphasis on the accomplishments of the empirical sciences. Krauss goes as far as to say that science has usurped the role of philosophy: ‘[P]hilosophy and theology are ultimately incapable of addressing by themselves the truly fundamental questions that perplex us about our existence. Until we open our eyes and let nature call the shots, we are bound to wallow in myopia’.[7] A. C. Grayling appears to agree, and even Daniel Dennett points to the extraordinary features of the universe we as late moderns can teach Aristotle.[8] Thinkers like Krauss (perhaps Dennett to a lesser extent) may well be horrified to find themselves included in a long tradition of Platonic anti-worldliness and is likely to respond with a sharp insistence upon their empiricist and materialist credentials. As the late Victor Stenger for example saw it, nothing could be further removed from Platonic otherworldliness than commonsensical materialism: he defined matter – the object of study for the physical sciences – as ‘the stuff that kicks back when you kick it’.[9] However, for political purposes, the hard-nosed materialist and the otherworldly Platonist share a number of crucial traits: In the first instance, it depends upon a strong distinction between the real and illusional, the true and the false, often viewing the ‘real’ and the ‘true’ as under perpetual threat by the ‘illusional’ and the false’. Concomitant with this fundamental trait is a deep-seated suspicion towards the world of opinion. Importantly, science is committed to the transcendental subject in the form of the disinterested contemplation of scientific observer. Despite Hume (and more recently Daniel Dennett’s) attempts to resolve the self into a stream of impressions or mental content, the possibility of practicing science depends upon the existence of a subject prior to experience, stable and rational enough to make sense of the series of data that flows into it. Its actions of observation and reflection detach it from the world and establish it into a subject/object relationship. Furthermore, despite attempts at refining the scientific endeavor, it ultimately remains committed to finding fundamental truths and grand explanatory narratives. It must be emphasized, however, that many within said narrative eschew a blunt materialist approach and reject the role of ‘scientist as ‘heir to God.’ Important examples stretch from Alexander Koyre, Paul Feyerabend and Thomas Kuhn to contemporary thinkers like Paul Davies and Freeman Dyson.

It is particularly significant to note though, that a fellow refugee from a totalitarian regime, Karl Popper, shared many of Arendt’s concerns. However, even in joining her rejection of ‘historicism’ he appears to fail to grasp the full implications of his scientific optimism. Like many scientists, Popper easily overlooked the natural sciences’ tendency to fall into a narrative structure. In 1972, he wrote that ‘science is perhaps the most powerful tool for biological adaptation that has ever emerged in the course of organic evolution’.[10] In other words, science is a better tool, better than the natural tools hitherto available to ‘nature’. Science appears to be not only self-correcting, but as Mary Midgley has demonstrated in the aptly titled Science As Salvation, it ultimately falls into a progressive metanarrative: new discoveries are legitimized by their factual improvement upon the existing pool of knowledge. Although scientific practice is extremely broad and appears open-ended, it remains haunted by the ideal of absolute health, a state of perfection that is in principle achievable by the human body. It is difficult to avoid reading a messianic pattern in this success story: Descartes’ dream of finding a cure for death, lives on in every groundbreaking latter-day discovery.

In other words, rather than to render the religious experience completely irrelevant with an entirely new vocabulary, science appears to have usurped many of the traditional ideals of religion, in particular the Christian religion. The most disturbing aspect of the rise of evolutionary biology was perhaps not that it challenged the religious ideal of immortality but that it became a competitor as to the best means of achieving immortality. Robert Jay Lifton suggests that the question of death had been central to the quest of science ever since the advance of modernity. It translated the old Christian dream of personal immortality into the ideal of the immortality of the species and, in a certain sense, the immortality of science as an infinitely growing field. Lifton writes:

The biological mode of (conceiving immortality) in no way began with Darwinism – it is perhaps the most fundamental of all images of immortality… But, as the images took hold, man’s sense of biological continuity was extended back into the infinite past and therefore into the infinite future…it was a coming of age of the scientific endeavor to assert its version of the mode of immortality via man’s works.[11]

The belief that it could make a difference to humanity’s status as mortal beings, either by improving the physical health of individuals, or by offering at least the theoretical immortality of the species, makes science in effect one of the most optimistic metanarratives of the modern era. Indeed, Daniel Dennett describes science itself as essentially optimistic, emphasizing its self-corrective and progressive character. He writes: ‘[T]here is a built-in tradition—across the spectrum of human activity—of reflection and criticism, a habit of re-evaluation that is designed to look for flaws and problems, opportunities to improve, signs that a midcourse correction is called for. Science sets the gold standard for this, with its layers and layers of review, evaluation, testing, and policing.’[12]

However, optimism is far from the one-dimensional virtue for which it is often taken. Optimism implies a change for the positive in the future. This however, means that there is something wrong with the status quo. This, among others, why Nietzsche was skeptical about the value of optimism.[13] Furthermore, the very optimism of science easily lends itself to growth into a narrative of totality. C. H. Waddington writes that

Science by itself is able to provide mankind with a way of life which is firstly, self-consistent and harmonious, and, secondly, free for the exercise of that objective reason on which our material progress depends. So far as I can see, the scientific attitude of mind is the only one which is, at the present day, adequate in both these respects. There are many other worthy ideals which might supplement it, but I cannot see that any of them could take its place as a basis for progressing and enriching society.[14]


Arendt’s disowning of the epithet ‘philosopher’ goes back to the traditional gulf between philosophy and politics, a division that she traces back to Plato. Unlike Hegel and Nietzsche, Arendt makes a sharp distinction between Socrates and Plato. For Socrates, philosophy was as much about world-creation than finding truth. In ‘Philosophy and Politics’ Arendt writes: ‘Socrates seems to have believed that the political function of the philosopher was to establish a kind of common world, built on the understanding of friendship, in which no ruler is needed’.[15] For Socrates, philosophy had a maieutic character: rather than engaging in dialogue with the aim of eliminating falsehood or to discover shared purposes through critical deliberation, he drew out the element of truth in in every opinion and instead of correcting his interlocutors, challenged them to refine their viewpoints. In other words, Socrates found epistēmē (knowledge) in doxa (opinion). What set Socrates apart from the Sophists – although during his life he was often taken for one of them – is that he distinguished between limitless falsehoods – falsa infinita – and the limited view of a single perspective. In contrast to Plato’s belief in pure, apodictic and absolute knowledge that cannot be altered by any further reflection or experience, Socrates acknowledged that knowledge is determined by context and therefore subject to transformation. Through his dialegesthai, the ‘talking through’ of something with someone, Socrates discovered the limitations of his own perspectives, leading to his famous conclusion that his one certainty was that he knew nothing. Arendt describes it as follows:

Every man has his own doxa, his own opening to the world, and Socrates must therefore always begin with questions; he cannot know beforehand what kind of dokei moi, of it-appears-to-me, the other possesses. He must make sure of the other’s position in the common world. Yet, just as nobody can know beforehand the other’s doxa, so nobody can know by himself and without effort the inherent truth of his own opinion. Socrates wanted to bring out this truth which everyone potentially possesses.[16]

It is precisely doxa, opinion, which Arendt identifies as ‘the stuff of political life’. It is our plural existence ‘the presence of others that see what we see and hear what we hear’ that makes the experience of reality possible, and saves us from the prison of solipsism: ‘only where things can be seen by many and in a variety of aspects without changing their identity . . . can worldly reality truly and reliably appear’.[17] Without perspective, one may say that the human being would simply be engaging in ‘brain power’, the engagement in logical processes for the aim of mere survival. That is not to say that Arendt is a relativist or apologist for subjectivism. Opinion in this instance does not indicate the arbitrary, but rather point towards the politically significant fact that the world appears differently to each person according to her or his position in it. It is through speech that gaps in such positions may be overcome.

In contrast to Plato, Socrates and Aristotle saw friendship, and not justice (dikē) as the true glue that held communities together. As Arendt points out, ‘[f]or Aristotle, friendship is higher than justice, because justice is no longer necessary between friends’.[18] It is only necessary to appeal to justice where no common ground can otherwise be found between sparring individuals. One of the most significant elements of friendship, political as well as otherwise, is trust. By engaging in conversation with his various interlocutors – Athenian nobles, slaves, strangers, even a midwife – Socrates implicitly trusted the other to overcome his or her prejudices and to share an aspect of their lives with him. This made Athens’ betrayal of Socrates all the worse.

For Arendt, the traditional division between philosophy and politics can be traced to the death of Socrates. This traumatic event transformed Plato forever: that Athens could condemn her wisest, noblest and most just citizen to death by hemlock, was enough to make him despair of worldly justice. Henceforth he would describe the domain of worldly virtue in terms of shadow, darkness and confusion and advise those looking for Truth to find it in the pure, painless world of the Eternal Forms.

As a result – with a few noteworthy exceptions such as Machiavelli – Western thought would be characterized by a strict hierarchical distinction between episteme and doxa, knowledge and opinion, with a firm bias in favour of the former and exhibiting at times downright contempt for the latter. Arendt identifies a distinct ‘revaluation of values’ with the advent of Platonism concomitant with the privileging of knowledge over opinion. As action occurs among a plurality of participants and is thus subject to what Arendt calls its ‘futility, boundlessness and uncertainty of outcome’,[19] it has generated the need to develop a greater degree of control over politics. Plato managed to achieve the neutering of the domain of plurality and contingency by redrafting politics or acting in the language of making.

Through this ‘re-valuation of all values’ Plato took truth out of the realm of contingency and turned it into a single, elusive hypokeimenon behind the world of ordinary experience, something that requires the expertise of a well-trained elite to access. For Arendt, this means that the philosophical endeavour is unpolitical in essence. She writes: ‘Since philosophical truth concerns man in his singularity, it is unpolitical by nature’.[20] Truth belonged to the domain of cognition, the realm of mathematics, logic and the strict sciences, it always carried with it the whiff of coercion, since it demanded acceptance by every rational subject in control of his or her faculties. Despite its professed commitment to value-neutrality, it is possible to detect occasional emotional blackmail in the popular defence of science: either you agree with the experts, or you are backwards and a general problem. After the fall of communism in the late twentieth century, the tendency to wed the notion of scientific progress to a particular political ideology seems dated, even absurd. However, in 1939, a skilled polymath like J.D. Bernal could easily make the case that nothing short of objective science gives credibility to the inevitable fate of mankind:

Already we have in the practice of science the prototype for all common human action…The methods by which this task is attempted, however imperfectly they are realized, are the methods by which humanity are most likely to secure its own future. In its endeavour, science is communism.[21]

Communism as economic theory may be buried, but the ideal that there is a common humanity, and that this collective identity needs to be ‘redeemed’ and ‘united’ appear to be as alive as ever. Science is often roped in to fulfill this role. As the popular science educator Bill Nye bluntly phrases it: ‘Science is the key to our future, and if you don’t believe in science, then you’re holding everybody back’.[22] The strong emphasis on ‘progress’ is also tends to be one of the most salient features of conversations on morality, particularly in the popular sphere. Recent bestsellers addressing the nature and character of morality consistently emphasizes the progressive nature of morality. In his bestselling The Better Angels of Our Nature cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, for example, claims that violence has dropped both in the short and long run, and attributes this to the rise of the ‘right’ factors’, such as the emergence of the nation state, the growth of commerce, feminization of Western culture and the ‘escalation’ of reason. He attributes the decline of violence to the ‘intensifying application of knowledge and rationality to human affairs’, which he alleges ‘can force people to recognize the futility of cycles of violence, to ramp down the privileging of their own interests over others’.[23] Bestselling author Sam Harris in The Moral Landscape is likewise committed to achieving ‘moral progress’ – a progress which appears to be conceived in purely utilitarian terms. To reduce morality to a simple utilitarian ethic is problematic enough, but to place it within a single teleological narrative with only one satisfactory outcome, amounts to toying with the suicide of the political itself. Although Arendt would not take it as far as Jacques Derrida’s diagnoses of the ‘logocentricism’ of Western philosophy, she too held that Truth had an undeniable despotic character. It demanded universal assent, eliminated diverse opinion, and in so doing, reduced the richness and complexity of human discourse. In other words, philosophy kills politics.

Although it is Plato that first managed to direct the substitution of making for acting,[24] it is Aristotle that formally distinguished between ποίησις (poiēsis) and πρᾶξις (praxis). For him, there were three basic human activities: theoria (thinking), poiēsis (making), and praxis (doing). Each activity had its own distinct form of knowledge: theoretical, with the ultimate aim of reaching knowledge; ‘poietical’ (the word would later become ‘poetical’), with the end goal being production or ‘forming something into being’; and practical, the end goal being action. Important for our purpose, Aristotle divided the knowledge derived from praxis into ethics, economics and politics. Politics was thus a practical matter. In The Nicomachean Ethics (1140b 3-8) Aristotle distinguished between poiēsis and praxis as follows: ‘doing and making are generically different … since making (ποίησις, poiēsis) aims at an end distinct from the act of making, whereas in doing the end cannot be other than the act itself’.[25] In other words, Aristotle is talking about an activity whose end or telos (τέλος) is distinct from the activity, and contrasting it with an activity where the telos is the activity itself, namely praxis (πρᾶξις).

Aristotle further distinguished between three activities of which the ‘human condition’ consists. In the most basic sense basic level they designate the fundamental human activities to be found in the active life, the vita activa, and each of them corresponds to one of the basic conditions which allow for a human life to be led. The human condition of labor is life itself. Essentially the activity of the oikos or household, labor concerns the bodily processes of production and re-production. It is necessary and as unavoidable as explanatory notes in a student edition of Shakespeare. It involves the production of consumer goods of ephemeral value such as food, that is consumed as soon as it is produced, and then the process, by necessity, repeats itself, leaving nothing of a more permanent nature behind. Labour sees man at his most animal-like, because as the youthful Marx held, labour is the metabolism man shares with nature. As such, animal laborans is characterized by behaviour, not action, as his actions are not free, but inculcated as responses to need and bodily stimuli. Although animal laborans is capable of rational thought, if his capacities for inference and deduction are used merely for purposes of survival or comfort, he or she does not rise above animal status, and performs merely what may be called ‘brain work’.[26]

This is ultimately the object of study for the biological sciences. Although labour is seldom performed alone, it is the one activity that does not need the presence of others to be practiced: it is not subject to evaluation and is, therefore, man at his most one-dimensional. That Marx chose to essentialize this dimension is something for which Arendt could never forgive him.[27]

As soon as man began to erect permanent structures between himself and nature however, he became homo faber, fabricating man. While labour conforms to the unceasing natural rhythms of growth and decay, the activity of work offers a limited degree of mastership over the world and a measure of stability over nature’s ceaseless flux. Work is artificial: by surrounding himself with a large number of fabricated goods, man is able to create a world if not exactly immortal, at any rate less mortal than himself. Without homo faber, no space for the unfolding of the drama that is human life would be available. Politics demands a degree of permanence, and a stage for the performance of the play of the political.


Although making or manufacturing man is involved in creating a stabilized unity of potentially immortal objects (or objects at least less mortal than himself), he is still not entirely free in the fully political sense of the word. Whereas the Sisyphusian futility of labor robs it of meaning, the hegemony of the telos of work denies this activity of independent value: ‘is only a means to produce this end’. Note that Arendt is not saying that works of art themselves are without meaning, but that its value lies in the finished object, not the activity, making it strictly speaking irrelevant for the political realm.

The privilege of complete freedom is only to be found in action. Aristotle, the ancient sage, read a unified hierarchy unto the relationship between the polis and the oikos. The post-WWII thinker, by contrast, saw a radical discontinuity between the two realms. Where Aristotle saw politics as the final realization of the good life and an end in itself, Arendt takes it a step further: the political community is the arena for the realization of freedom, the very reason for the existence of political life. ‘Freedom, moreover, is not only one among the many problems and phenomena of the political realm properly speaking, such as justice, or power, or equality; freedom is actually the reason that men live in political organization at all. Without it, political life as such would be meaningless. The raison d’être of politics is freedom, and its field of experience is action.’[28] Politics, where speech and action meet, is ultimately the realization of the potential contained in human plurality, the very place where different opinions escape the tyranny of a singular episteme. ‘the fact that men and not Man live on earth and inhabit the world’. It makes possible a freedom that is at once worldly, limited and non-sovereign.[29] Worldly, because it occurs between people, it is the domain of a plural ‘We’ engaging in changing a common world through an agonistic interplay of viewpoints. It is the very antithesis of a Sartrean inner freedom, a freedom into which one could seemingly escape from external coercion and think oneself into freedom. Limited, because action of the self is restricted by the actions of others, the limits of the political stage, and the limits of language itself. Non-sovereign, because like her ‘postmodern’ contemporaries, she opposes the unity and self-sufficiency of the Cartesian conception of self, claiming instead that the ego’s experience of itself is frail and that self-certainty is ultimately dependent on ‘fellow creatures to assure us that what was perceived by us was perceived by them too’, without which ‘we would not even be able to put faith in the way we appear to each other’.[30] The plurality and differences experienced in the public realm are the very opposite of the uniformity of biological bodies, whose very similitude allows it to be expressed in terms of the universal scientific laws of biology and medicine. Referring to the private workings of the human body, Arendt writes: ‘If this inside were to appear, we would all look alike’.[31]

Under conditions of plurality, one always acts in a pre-established network of human relationships, with the accompanying contingencies that cannot be mastered by the sujet-maître. This is why entry into the public realm inevitably opens up possibilities for tragedy. Arendt writes: ‘It requires courage even to leave the protective security of our four walls and enter the public realm, not because of particular dangers which may lie in wait for us, but because we have arrived in a realm where the concern for life has lost its validity’.[32] Aside from the danger involved in stepping into the limelight, engaging in action has the distinct feature of bringing something new into the world, something that did not exist before. Arendt locates freedom in the feature of natality, the fact that man is born into an already existing web of relationships, but is capable of saving it from a state of reification by enacting change upon it, initializing something new in a world which has hitherto existed without experiencing such an act. Arendt also differs from Aristotle in firmly associating action with its performative dimension. There is a distinctly Platonic strain left in Aristotle’s concern with distinguishing genuine political action with those only appearing to be virtuous. He therefore insists that every good action must be rooted in good character; otherwise, it would be ‘false’ and no longer qualify as good. This is a concern that would haunt Rousseau and the Romantics, and has had a debilitating effect upon late modern political life. By framing freedom in terms of virtuosity, Arendt locates freedom firmly in the realm of appearance. She grants freedom an autonomy from morality unknown even to the Greeks and places politics beyond all forms of teleology.

Taking her cue from the Greeks, Arendt manages this by upon a ‘second self’ beyond the control of the intending or willing ‘I’ as well as his or her biological constituents – the ‘what’ of a person. By contrast, the ‘who’ of a person is not an essential self but rather a ‘revealed’ persona – a ‘who’ revealed through a lifetime of deeds and action, and a ‘who’ who is known better by others than through itself. Shakespeare depicts this in Julius Caesar where he has Cassius say to Brutus that ‘[s]ince you cannot see yourself/ I, your glass, will modestly discover to yourself/that of yourself you know not of (I.ii.50). For this reason, the Greeks established such a strong link between friendship, ethics, and politics: friends existed to draw out what is best in each other. This ‘political’ friendship’ was regarded as indispensable to the good life, and a phenomenon that has become almost alien to those living in the age of intimacy. For the Greeks, the capacity for political life (bios politikos) allowed for the existence of a nobler, second life beyond the restrictions of necessity and the baseness of biology. The emergence of the polis as political unit was preceded by the disintegration of units based on familial kinship, favoring the larger, impersonal space of freedom. In other words, the polis (for Arendt the human world of civilization and politics) emerged through a pushing back of the intimate natural realm of bodily cohabitation, a notion that many of Arendt’s feminist critics have found decidedly problematic, as many feminist concerns emerge precisely within the private realm.

Modernity is in many respects the opposite of antiquity. It is significant to note that the speculative model of history emerged only within well-developed industrial societies – itself a latecomer to the history it seeks to narrate. Speculative history shares with empirical science a commitment to a linear model of history and faith in human ability to shape humanity’s destiny as a whole. For Arendt, this approach to history has had a significant impact on the Western understanding of human agency. When a deed or an act is reduced to a manifestation of abstract laws or movements, the raison d’être of the world – the public space that unites thousands of ‘appearing individuals’ – withers away and we are left with a mass of anonymous subjects that no longer exercise any claim on one another. The result is a general, though far from shared experience of loneliness. Life in modernity is characterized by a withdrawal into the private, and a decided acceleration of the process of interiorization that characterized Western life at least since the birth of Christianity. In this respect, Nietzsche’s grand hopes for a more worldly existence after the death of God were severely disappointed. Unlike the popular reading that reads secularization as a continuation of Christianity by worldly means (the reading by Karl Löwith and Wolfhart Pannenberg attacked by Hans Blumenberg), Arendt holds that secularism did not imply a more worldly existence.

Whatever the world ‘secular’ is meant to signify in current usage, historically it cannot possibly be equated with worldliness; modern man at any rate did not gain this world when he lost the other world; and he did not gain life strictly speaking, either; he was thrust back upon it, thrown into the closed inwardness of introspection, where the highest it could experience were the empty processes of reckoning of mind, its play with itself.[33]

Arendt recognized the hubris belonging to its limitless humanization of the world in Heisenberg’s claim that, to look at the world through the optics of modern science is to encounter only oneself.[34] In her view, the most disastrous consequences of the loss of the shared world of speech and action have been the rise of totalitarianism. Totalitarianism is the ultimate manifestation of the abdication from exercising judgment, as it is bound up in a movement from a general premise to an inevitable conclusion, which reduces all thought-processes to a pre-determined result. Race-based ideologies have proven particularly susceptible to this pattern of thought. The notion that ‘there is motion inherent in the very idea of race’[35] and that this motion ‘has a determined direction and goal and that whatever hinders the achievements of this end ought to be corrected or destroyed’ has proven to be the monstrous result of developmental thinking in the realm of politics. The ‘best’ tool for realizing this ‘inevitable’ goal of history has proven to be terror, which seeks to stabilize men in order to liberate the forces of nature or history’.[36] In order to achieve this stabilization, action – the interruption of the domain of logical necessity by the spontaneous interruption of the unexpected – has to be pressed into obeying the laws of a suprahuman process, whose ultimate aim is ‘not the welfare of men or the interests of one man (as one might have said of traditional tyranny) but the fabrication of mankind.’[37]

As Nietzsche has also shown, the West has been suspicious of contingency ever since Plato and has since then either been trying to find another realm in the great beyond, or to create an artificial realm between himself and ‘Nature’. As the epistemological tipping point shifted from theology to the natural sciences in early modernity, the identity of this elite and the content of ‘real’ knowledge underwent considerable changes. Gradually, this pursuit would be modified by acknowledging the empirical and the scientific as legitimate means to this Supreme Goal. The key figure in this regard is of course Francis Bacon, who, despite his Aristotelian vocabulary, was as committed to the search for the elusive ‘real’ world as any of his predecessors. In his case, he put a greater emphasis on method than on contemplation.

While this may seem like the defining act of distancing humanity from Nature, it is important to note that instrumentalization does not imply humanization. Modernity began by privileging only one kind of human, or the human in only one mode of existence: homo faber. The scientific discoveries of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had ultimately redefined worldly existence. Rather than to challenge the literal-mindedness of religious believers, it confirmed the ancient Platonic prejudice against the senses: ‘the most significant invention of the modern was the age was the invention of the telescope, which provided demonstrable proof of the inadequacy of our sensory experience as a basis for certain, or even adequate knowledge about the world’.[38]

The only way to respond to this sensual failure was to shift the locus of certainty from the transcendent to the interior in the form of the rational subject. Repeating Plato’s move, Descartes sought to overcome the despair experienced at being thrown into a radically contingent world by fixing the rational subject as an interior Archimedean point, which gradually widened the subject-object division and set inhumane standards for rational thought. Thinking about the world within such a radical subject-object division had an inevitable effect on the West’s approach to history, which first became evident in the thought of Giambattista Vico. In his La Nuova Scienza of 1725 he approaches history as a fabricated object, susceptible to rigorous scientific analysis. During the Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, fabricating and laboring man increasingly converged, leading to the occlusion of the political actor. The open political stage of the eighteenth century increasingly gave way to a national identity and the notion of history as fabricated construct and the scientific metanarrative we have encountered above.

According to Arendt, the appeal of this approach was to be found in the degree of control it appeared to present. Unlike the things of the natural world – indeed even unlike the individual lives that formed the long stream of history, this formalized history was seen as being entirely under human control, a very product of our handiwork and therefore capable of offering certain knowledge. In other words, history ‘was no longer composed of the deeds and sufferings of men, and no longer told the story of events affecting the lives of men; it became a man-made process which owed its existence exclusively to the human race’.[39] In what may arguably be described as the ultimate revolt against their status as beings subject to Geworfenheit – thrown into a pre-existing network of relations with a history that long pre-dates the existence of the new arrival – Western humanity appears to have come to believe that they can only trust what they have made themselves, and that sustainable living-together is possible only in world that is the product of deliberate prefabrication. In other words, a pre-fabricated world populated by isolated rational subjects, each believing that they are in control of their own destinies.

This set the preconditions for the rise of the social. The ‘social,’ ultimately for Arendt the defining characteristic of the modern, occurred when the public world of politics was subsumed under the private world of the oikos during the revolutions of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. However, the roots of the social go back much further, and are intimately intertwined with the rise of capitalism. The first assault upon the public realm came in the form of ‘an organisation of property-owners who, instead of claiming access to the public realm because of their wealth, demanded protection from it for the accumulation of more wealth’[40] This was significant, because in addition to the re-conception of history as fabrication, the stasis of traditional landed wealth was replaced by the semi-biological process of endless growth and expansion. What permanence remains, was not the stable structures erected by the traditional work of homo faber, but the omnipresence of biology: capitalism fundamentally exists for the satisfaction and cultivation of bodily needs by products of ephemeral nature. The Greeks had no equivalent to this state of affairs: distinguishing only between the public world of the polis and the private realm of individual households, having no notion of a realm devoted to collectively fulfilling the private needs of body and life. ‘Privacy’ originally had a negative connotation: the Latin private esse essentially translates to ‘deprived’ (of public recognition), a life lived in the darkness (megaron) and subject to the pain and dullness of what the Buddhists call the ‘meatwheel’: consuming in order to survive in order to consume yet again.

Whereas equality in the Greek sense was understood as a formal construct that allowed the participants in the agon to engage on a fair footing with each other, equality forms the essence of the social realm. It is an equality derived from bodily existence and it is an end rather than a means towards achieving distinction.

The social realm, where the life process has established its own public domain, has let loose an unnatural growth, so to speak, of the natural; and it is against this growth, not merely against society but against a constantly growing social realm, that the private and intimate, on the one hand, and the political (in the narrower sense of the word), have proved incapable of defending themselves[41]

As it is predicated upon the relationships of the household, society is inclined to prefer regularized behaviour over the unpredictability of action. Action is by definition unpredictable, and it interrupts the ordinary with the extraordinary, and is therefore experienced as a destabilizing element in the social realm. The members of society expect from each other certain kinds of behaviour and impose rules in order to normalize its members and control how they behave. – a theme that forms the backbone of Foucault’s archaeological and genealogical explorations. Above all, society depends on sameness and changelessness in to function. For Nietzsche, there is a link between the value society placed on changelessness, predictability and ultimately, utility, which we should remember, are also the central values of the empirical sciences. Picking up on strikingly similar themes to Arendt, Nietzsche writes:

Society is pleased to feel that the virtue of this person, the ambition of that one, and the thoughtfulness and passion of the third provide it with a dependable instrument.

That is always at hand; society honours this instrumental nature, this way of remaining faithful to oneself, this unchangeability of views, aspirations and even faults, and lavishes its highest honours upon it.[42]

Science flourishes in ‘society.’ For all the comforts and knowledge it brings, it is an instrument of normalization: it derives its legitimacy by enquiring after the rule, not the exception. The exceptional scientist, the Curies, Einsteins or Bohrs, derive their fame by discovering rules, not legislating them. Because of the absolute uniformity of scientific facts and the ease of their demonstrability, science makes for an authority to which it is easy to appeal to in the age of society. Consumer society is reluctant to consider abstract ideals, preferring the concrete as well as instant satisfaction. Combined with the powers of capitalism through consumer technology, science today enjoys unprecedented power. The benevolence of the order that renders this possible is for Arendt irrelevant for political purposes. For her, one of the defining characteristics of life in late modern society is the incessant demand for ‘happiness’:

The universal demand for happiness and the widespread unhappiness in or society (and these are but two sides of the same coin) are among the most persuasive signs that we have begun to live in a labor society which lacks enough labouring to keep it contented. For only the animal laborans and neither the craftsman nor the man of action has ever demanded to be ‘happy’ or thought that mortal men could be happy.[43]

It should be clear that what Arendt describes here as ‘happiness’ does not refer to classic notion of eudaimonia, a state achieved when a life is ‘lived well’, but the entirely private notion of physical comfort which is measured by a utilitarian index. Life in late modern society is characterized by an unprecedented emphasis on physical well-being and an equally unprecedented fear of pain and discomfort. Much of contemporary science, whether through medicine or the comforts of late modern technology is directed towards the elimination of pain and discomfort, the value of which in turn tends to be measured purely in economic terms. In different terms: the ‘happy human’ may be said to be the ‘behaved’ or ‘pacified’ human being no longer capable of action. As a rule-governed activity, behaviour is inimitable and thus never truly innovative. Arendt writes:

Unlike human behaviour – which the Greeks like all civilized people judged according to ‘moral standards’ taking into account motives and intentions on the one hand and aims and consequences on the other – action can be judged only by the criterion of greatness, because it is its nature to break through the commonly accepted and reach through the extraordinary where whatever is true in common, and everyday life no longer applies because everything that exists is unique and sui generis.

Science as activity is committed to subsuming all that is sui generis under general rules and categories. As such, it leaves little room for action and still less for freedom. As the history of totalitarianism proves, where there is no room for the sui generis, the attempt to identify and eliminate the para physin – the unnatural, the unsuitable and the unwelcome too easily follows.

[1] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1958), p. 322.

[2] Peter Sloterdijk, Nicht Gerettet: Versuche Nach Heidegger (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2001).

[3] See Mark Peacock: ‘Philosophical Rumblings in the German Republic’ Philosophy Now.

[4] Julian Baggini and Jeremy Stangroom, What Philosophers Think (London: Continuum, 2003), p. 67.

[5] Peter Singer, Practical Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 152. See also,

[6] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1958), p. 1.

[7] Lawrence Krauss, A Universe From Nothing (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013), p. 176.

[8] In his endorsement of Krauss’ A Universe From Nothing, Grayling writes that ‘How could the universe’s existence arise from nothing? It is a question that philosophy and theology get themselves into a muddle over, but that science can offer real answers to, as Krauss ‘  lucid explanation shows.’ In an interview with Julian Baggini in the Guardian of 22 May 2013 Daniel Dennett describes his enthusiasm for science in terms that confirm the justification of Nietzsche’s critique of those that consider themselves superior to the Greeks simply because they happen to appear later on the historical stage.

[9] Victor Stenger, The New Atheism: Taking A Stand For Science And Reason (New York: Prometheus Books, 2009), p. 162.

[10] Karl Popper, Objective Knowledge (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), p.237.

[11] Robert J. Lifton and Eric Olson, ‘Symbolic Immortality’ in Living and Dying (London: Wildwood House, 1974), p. 32.

[12] Daniel Dennett, Preface to What Are You Optimistic About? Edited by John Brockman (New York: Harper-Collins, 2007), p. II.

[13] Indeed, Nietzsche finds something inherently nihilistic about Socrates’ hope to unravel the mysteries of the universe.

[14] C. H. Waddington, The Scientific Attitude (West Drayton, Penguin, 1941), p.170.

[15] Hannah Arendt, ‘Philosophy and Politics,’ in Social Research 57 (1990), p.73.

[16] Hannah Arendt, ‘Philosophy and Politics’, Social Research 57 (1990), p. 81.

[17] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1958), p. 57.

[18] “Philosophy and Politics,” Social Research 57 (1990), p. 83. Without explaining further, Arendt writes that ‘great parts of Aristotle’s political philosophy, especially those in which he is in explicit opposition to Plato, go back to Socrates’, p.82.

[19] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1958), p. 175.

[20] Hannah Arendt, Hannah. Between Past And Future: Eight Exercises In Political Thought. (New York: Penguin, 1978), p. 244.

[21] J.D. Bernal, The Social Function of Science (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1939), p.3.

[22] While used in the context of the admirable endeavour of defending the correct teaching of evolutionary theory, the choice of phraseology should indicate the speaker’s propounding of the common notion of science as a narrative that could potentially leave some behind.

[23] Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature (New York: Penguin, 2011), p. 13.

[24] See for example Diotima’s use of ποίησις in the context of overcoming the natural cycle of birth and decay in the Symposium where she describes human striving in terms of a variety of ‘making’: ‘Such a movement can occur in three kinds of poiēsis: (1) Natural poiēsis through sexual procreation, poiēsis in the city through the attainment of heroic fame, and, finally, poiēsis in the soul through the cultivation of virtue and knowledge.

[25] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics Translated by Roger Crisp (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 207.

[26] See for example Nietzsche on the status of the animal: ‘It is truly a harsh punishment to live in the manner of an animal, subject to hunger and desires, and yet without arriving at any insight into the nature of this life, and we can conceive of no harsher fate than that of the beast of prey, who is driven through the desert by its gnawing torment, is seldom satisfied, and this only in such a way that this satisfaction turns into agony in the flesh-tearing struggle with other beasts, or from nauseating greediness and oversatiation. To cling so blindly and madly to life, for no higher reward, far from knowing that one is punished or why one is  punished in this way, but instead to thirst with the inanity of a horrible desire for precisely this punishment as though it were happiness – that is what it means to be an animal.’ Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘Schopenhauer as Educator’ in Untimely Meditations section V. Edited by Daniel Breazeale. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 157,

[27] Arendt does not deny the significance of animal laborans. As a refugee she was fully aware of the vulnerability of the human body. She would most likely have shared her Marxist contemporary Bertold Brecht’s view on the priorities engendered by bodily existence in Der Dreigroschenoper: ‘Erst kommt das Fressen und dann die Moral’. One has to eat before one begins to philosophize. Or act. What she objected to was the tendency – rife among Marxists – to define the human purely in materialist, and therefore rigid deterministic and ultimately unpolitical terms.

[28] Hannah Arendt, Between Past And Future: Eight Exercises In Political Thought (New York: Penguin, 1978, p.146

[29] Dana Villa Arendt and Heidegger: The Fate of the Political (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), p.227.

[30] Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind: Thinking (London: Harcourt Brace 1978), p.46.

[31] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1958), p. 152.

[32] Hannah Arendt, Between Past And Future: Eight Exercises In Political Thought (New York: Penguin, 1977), p156.

[33] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), p. 45.

[34] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1958) p, 261. See also Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought (London: Penguin Books, 1977), p. 277.

[35] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Meridian) p. 479.

[36] Ibid, p. 465.

[37] Ibid, p. 457.

[38] Arendt, Hannah, The Human Condition p. 26. See also p. 273.

[39] Hannah Arendt, Beyond Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought (New York: Penguin, 1977), p. 58.

[40] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, p.68.

[41] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, p.47.

[42] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, section 296.

[43] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1958), p.134.



Francis Bacon would have redeemed himself in Nietzsche’s eyes if he had turned out to be Shakespeare. We can see from Ecce Homo ‘Why I am so Clever’ section four, that he indeed entertained the idea: ‘I am instinctively certain that Lord Bacon is the originator of this uncanniest species of literature’. A man who has dealt with truth to the extent that Bacon did, must have been an artist too. What makes Bacon particularly disappointing in Nietzsche’s view, was his failure to live up to this status: instead of fathering English tragedy, he merely chose to inaugurate a scientific method that took man out of the world and even set him up in opposition to it. This, however, still makes him an artist, only a much lesser one.

Nietzsche mentions Bacon exactly seven times. While he obviously did not obsess about him to the extent that he did over a figure like Wagner, a few significant references make it clear that Bacon represents important aspects of the philosophical tradition against which Nietzsche defines himself. Since Bacon wrote at the beginning of modernity, he played a key role in shaping the direction modernity was to take, particularly its evaluation of the truth question. It is possible to argue that the problems one encounters over Nietzsche’s conception of truth is largely due to a readership that, for all its postmodernist protestations to the contrary, is still firmly steeped in the Baconian tradition. This tradition sees truth as a fundamental underlying condition or state of affairs to be discovered, and the language used in getting there as mere unavoidable baggage: as Samuel Johnson had said about footnotes elucidating obscure parts in Shakespeare, a necessary evil. ‘Truth’, in other words, is that which happens when we read the world well, and if we do not find it, it is due to our faulty methods, not to the structural limitations placed upon us due to our situatedness in time, space, body or linguistic community.

In Nietzsche’s view, modern philosophy took off on a wild goose chase after truth, while simply taking its attainment for granted, and without inquiring even once whether that earnestly sought truth indeed serves life. What makes Bacon so objectionable, is his delusion that his scientific investigation will automatically improve the conditions of life not only for his countrymen, but for the entire world.

It is interesting, however, to note the similarities between Nietzsche and the philosopher whose thoughts contain the germ of what would become positivism: both saw the works of their predecessors as being vitiated by an unjustifiable reverence of authority, and a consequent neglect of actual experience. To remedy this, both thinkers invented a new method that would transform the philosophical discourse to follow in their wake, and in doing this, both of them made a point of explicitly ‘sounding out idols’. What set Bacon’s inductive method and Nietzsche’s genealogy apart however, are their respective motivations. For Bacon, the task of the philosopher is a simple one, the amelioration of human life through the achievement of power over nature, using the combined forces of philosophical speculation and the craft-skills employed by the practical arts. Bacon’s method is an ‘innocent’ one – at this early stage in the march of modernity, there is no question about the role of human perspective and motive in the shaping of method. The world would naturally yield to his advances. Knowledge is power, and when embodied in the form of new technical inventions and mechanical discoveries it is the force that drives history.

The distinguishing feature of Bacon’s epistemology is of course his faith in the method of induction. This method implies that the world can be read like a book; his method smells of Protestantism and the printing press. Nietzsche lists Bacon under the great philosophers for whom philosophy was a question of method, that is, a kind of treasure hunt for knowledge under the right conditions. In aphorism 11394, written between autumn 1887 and March 1888 (KSA 12. 368) he made the following remark: ‘The great methodologists: Aristotle, Bacon, Descartes, A. Comte’. Although the case of Aristotle is much more complex – that the ancients did not pay enough attention to method is one of Bacon’s main objections against them – they all share one idea in particular, namely the notion that the right method would liberate man from his situatedness and prejudices and grant him real knowledge. Bacon’s method is of course so famous, and by now so basic that it hardly needs explication. Unlike Descartes, whose revolutionary method involved a priori reasoning to indubitable truths, Bacon advocated a purely empirical method which, starting from observations and particular events, would move towards wider and wider generalization. He improved upon existing conceptions of scientific method by expounding a method that was more than mere simple enumeration. From the viewpoint of a demonstrable natural science, all particulars were suspect, since all instances of induction no matter how lengthy or carefully done, could guarantee their conclusions but provisionally. Anomalous particulars, for whose clarification empirical science really existed, were particularly problematic. From an ontological perspective, they were the result of variability and coincidence, and could not serve as a foundation for a philosophy based upon universals or regularities. Furthermore, such exceptions provided psychological fodder for superstition and scepticism, two pitfalls Bacon was eager to avoid. He therefore insisted upon the need for checking generalizations by a ‘search for negative instances’. With this, he initiated the concern with the nature of inductive or probable reasoning so prominent in the British tradition, which made an important appearance in John Stuart Mill’s System of Logic, (published a year before Nietzsche’s birth) and would be taken to logical conclusion in Karl Popper’s notion of falsification.

According to Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil section 252, Francis Bacon’s neat distinctions ‘signify an attack on the philosophical spirit’. For Bacon, first of all, it is possible to draw a rigid distinction between physics and metaphysics. The former investigates variable and particular causes, the latter reflects on general and constant ones, for which the term form is used. Forms are more general than the four Aristotelian causes and that is why Bacon’s discussion of the forms of substances as the most general properties of matter is the last step for the human mind when investigating nature. Metaphysics is distinct from philosophia prima. The latter marks the position in the system where general categories of a general theory of science are treated firstly as universal categories of thought, and secondly, as relevant for all disciplines. To his credit, however, final causes are discredited, since they lead to difficulties in science and tempt us to amalgamate theological and teleological points of doctrine. At the summit of Bacon’s pyramid of knowledge are the laws of nature (the most general principles). At its base the pyramid starts with observations, which, if properly done, are value-free and objective, moves on to invariant relations and then to more inclusive correlations until it reaches the stage of forms. The process of generalization ascends from natural history via physics towards metaphysics, whereas accidental correlations and relations are eliminated by the method of exclusion. It must be emphasized that metaphysics has a special meaning for Bacon. This concept first excludes the infinity of individual experience by generalization with a teleological focus and second, opens our mind to generate more possibilities for the efficient application of general laws.

Bacon is remembered in particular for giving this method a name, and raising what was hitherto mere common sense to the status of scientific method and giving it an entirely new importance. The word ‘induction’ itself is not used too frequently, but in the Novum Organum it is used in particular to qualify an intellectual behaviour and logical procedure that are supposed to be entirely new.

From a hermeneutical perspective there is, strictly speaking, no such thing as a genuine break with the past. Even the idea that one has to break with the past in order to find a legitimate basis for one’s thought, has a history, and the history of this idea is closely intertwined with the history of the ‘break’ between antiquity and the new order of Christianity. Bacon’s thought is to a certain extent already the product of history, rather than its originator. The Novum Organum has a distinctly religious flavour: Bacon was relying on ‘divine assistance’ and he held that natural histories should be collected with ‘religious care’.

In contrast to John Donne, who in true Hesiodian fashion wrote in a poem published six years after The Advancement of Learning, ‘Our age is iron, and rusty too’ (Donne, J. 1986:45)  Bacon advanced the notion that history may in fact be progressive, that is, moving in an onward and even upward ascent, and not merely in a cyclical fashion as Aristotle – and in a strangely transformed way, Nietzsche too – held. In the Advancement of Learning, the idea is offered hesitantly, more like a kind of hopeful hypothesis. But in later works such as the New Organon, it becomes a very real theory, so much so that it can almost be regarded as a promised destiny: Enlightenment and a better world, Bacon insists, lie within our power; they require only the cooperation of learned citizens and the active development of the arts and sciences. In this work, Bacon writes: ‘Now the true and lawful goal of the sciences is none other than this: that human life be endowed with new discoveries and powers’ (Bacon 1960: 18). The key concept here is efficiency, Bacon is no mere innocent defender of induction. For one, he refuses to acknowledge limits. In one of his soaring flights of fancy he writes:

Above all, if a man could succeed, not in striking out some particular invention, however useful, but in kindling a light in nature – a light which should by its very rising touch and illuminate all border regions that confine upon the circle of our present state of knowledge, and so spreading further and further should presently disclose all that is hidden and most secret in the world (Bacon 1980: 62).

Enlightenment thinking, that epitome of human self-assertion, is essentially optimistic: where faith failed, reason will succeed. Or rather, if faith provided the way back to innocence, reason would restore man’s dominion over nature. As he states toward the end of The New Atlantis: ‘the end of our foundation is the knowledge of causes and the secret motions of things and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible’. For Bacon, science had a collaborative, and above all, democratic character, with individual achievements contributing to it overall success. The extension of man’s power over nature is not the work of a private investigator who keeps his findings secret, but the fruit of an organized community funded (hopefully) by the state. For Bacon, the ideal scientist forms part of an enlightened community of Platonic rulers, willing to share knowledge – among themselves. In the Redargutio philosophiarum he portrays such a community, a theme that would grow to it utopian extreme in The New Atlantis:


Then he told me in Paris that a friend had taken him along and introduced him to a gathering, ‘the sight of which’, he said, ‘would rejoice your eyes. It was the happiest experience of my life’. There were some fifty men there, all of mature year, not a young man among them, all bearing the stamp of dignity and probity… At his entry, they were chatting easily among themselves but sitting in rows as if expecting somebody. Not long after, there entered a man of peaceful and serene air, save that his face had become habituated to the expression of pity… he took his seat, not on a platform or pulpit, but on a level with the rest and delivered the following address…(Bacon 1968: III, 559).


Bacon propounded this article of secular faith with evangelical force and a sense of mission that would put many a clergyman to shame. With the Fall, Bacon held, Man had renounced his original power. But all was not lost, the true end of knowledge was nothing less than ‘a restitution and reinvesting… of man to the sovereignty and power… which he had in his first state of creation’(Bacon 1968: III, 222). Not that this would surprise Nietzsche in the slightest. Scientific reason, for all its protests to the contrary, has its roots in the Christian faith in a beneficent order, perhaps even an agent, behind the apparent chaos of the world. Even Christian virtues like humility and charity play a role in Bacon’s method: a lack of vanity was taken to be a measure of the truth of a scientific work, and scientific work was seen as a form of charity towards one’s fellow man. The doctrine of ‘sounding out idols’ suggested too, that opposition to this new method was a kind of heresy, to be smashed by Baconian induction. From a Nietzschean perspective, the underlying assumption that man and nature will of necessity be on the same page, is far less radical than Bacon’s biographers usually assume. For all his scientific interest in the world, Bacon too exhibits the anti-worldly ethos that Nietzsche considered to be the defining characteristic of Christianity in general and the Protestant tradition in particular. Bacon complains for example, that men – although possessing a ‘natural inclination to know’ too seldom push that capacity into the service of all mankind:


As if there were sought in knowledge a couch, whereupon to rest a searching and a restless spirit; for a wandering and varying mind to walk up and down with a fair prospect; or a tower of state, for a proud mind to raise itself upon; or a fort or a commanding ground, for strife and contention; or a shop, for profit and sale; and not a rich storehouse, for the glory of the Creator and the relief of man’s estate (my emphasis) (Bacon 1873: 259).


What strikes one at once in this paragraph is the fact that man’s estate, the human condition, requires relief or redemption. For a man who was almost credited with writing the works of Shakespeare, Bacon has the distinctly anti-tragic attitude of Christianity itself. Whether or not his protestations against atheism were done in a spirit of authenticity or not, Bacon sees human vulnerability, be it physiological pain, socio-political conditions or the fundamental character of existence in itself, as something to be redressed by knowledge. And at this stage, this is a very real possibility. In The Advancement of Learning he states: ‘Learning conquers or mitigates the fear of death and adverse fortune’.[1]

For all the protests to the contrary, there is a distinctly utopian element in Bacon’s writing. In the Cogitata et visa he writes explicitly:


It may be that there are some on whose ear my frequent and honourable mention of practical activities makes a harsh and unpleasing sound because they are wholly given over in love and reverence to contemplation. Let them bethink themselves that they are the enemies of their own desires. For in Nature, practical results are not only the means to improve their well-being, but the guarantee of truth. The rule of religion, that a man should show his faith by his works, holds good in natural philosophy too. Science also must be known by works. It is by the witness of works, rather than by logic or even observation, that truth is revealed and established. Whence it follows that the improvement of man’s mind, and the improvement of his lot is one and the same thing (My emphasis, Bacon 1973: 612).


Nietzsche, the lover of masks and the defender of illusion, could never forgive Christianity for introducing one illusion in particular to the world: the illusion that the source of ‘all our woe’, namely the world itself, and the subject that suffers in it, can be rendered transparent and brought under rational control. Simply put, Bacon argued that error and uncertainty arose because the wrong method was employed; in particular, experience and observation were not correctly used. Bacon reveals his alchemistic origins in his philosophical acts of subtraction. Like an alchemist who, through a process of careful distillation, hopes to reveal the essential ore of a precious metal, so Bacon, in early enlightenment fashion, hopes to remove the unnecessary elements that prevent our direct access to the things themselves. Drawing on standard Christian metaphor, Bacon calls these obscuring elements ‘idols of the mind’ that stand in the way of our worshipping of the true ‘God’ namely pure, unadulterated sense experience. He writes: ‘The human understanding is of its own nature prone to suppose the existence of more order and regularity in the world than it finds (Bacon 1960: Aphorism XIV). Once we have become attached to some habit of reading regularity into the world where it does not really belong, we tend to discount any experience which does not fit our preconceptions.


The human understanding, when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects or despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate (Bacon 1960: Aphorism XIV).


For Bacon this is an enormous problem. One almost detects a conspiracy theory of error and uncertainty, that the valiant rationalist must attack and defeat, using the right method. Revealing his immersion in the Christian framework again, he draws upon the famous image of Christian rebirth as a precondition for inheriting eternal life, this time, however, the reward is not heaven, but true knowledge. We ‘are to become as little children’, who observe the world with an innocent eye undistorted by prejudice.


The understanding must be completely cleared and freed [of prejudice] so that access to the kingdom of man, which I founded upon the sciences, may resemble that of the Kingdom of Heaven, where no admission is conceded except to children (Bacon 1960: Aphorism LXVIII).

One idol to be sounded out, is the rhetorical ‘decorations’ that ‘pollute’ pure rational discourse. To see how pervasive this prejudice against the ‘superfluous’ stretches, it is necessary to refer to the droll Johnson again: ‘A dictionary of the English language might be compiled from Bacon’s works alone’ (Johnson 1978:112). This implies that Bacon used a ‘neutral’ or ‘plain’, if elegant, language that directly corresponds to reality. As early as Bacon’s Instauratio, there is a clear distinction between ‘essential’ knowledge, which refers basically to empirical knowledge, and the ‘superfluous’ or merely ‘decoratory’ forms of knowledge. Like the genuine Renaissance man that he was, Bacon considered not only science, but also the entire scope of his contemporary culture. Within this scope, he finds a variety of forms of knowledge and puts them into three distinct categories. First are the Empirics (who include magicians, alchemists, dyers, chemists and artisans in general; in short everyone that transforms materials and creates something else from them). Then there are the Philosophers or Reasoners, who identify all knowledge with dispute and dialectic, and finally the Humanists who associate knowledge with mere affectations and tend to identify knowledge with rhetoric, words and graceful oratory style.(Bacon 1973: 282). While this tripartite of sophistry is replaced in the Novum Organum by new examples of false learning, it is significant that Bacon separates knowledge from the language within which it is conceived, thereby inaugurating the long philosophical tradition of the suppression of metaphor that would be turned upon its head by Nietzsche.

There is something distinctly soteriological about the ideal of objectivity itself. Soteriology can take many forms, but be it religious, psychoanalytical, philosophical or economical, such narratives usually begin with a grand claim that humanity (or in some cases, only part of it, as the obvious case of Marxism suggests) has become estranged or alienated from something of fundamental importance and then proceed to describe the remedy by which this estrangement is to be overcome. Bacon practices a kind of epistemological soteriology by searching for an original experience of direct objectivity before the inevitable pollution by human perspective.

Throughout his work, Nietzsche opposes this spectatorial paradigm of rationalism which emphasizes clarity and certitude over passion and will. Rather than critiquing the primacy of sight, however, he suggests that men should use a new mode of productive, poetic vision to enrich their lives. The distinterested spectator tends to think of Truth almost in quantifiable terms: the truth, which must be hunted down and captured at all costs. This is precisely his problem with Bacon: instead of rejoicing in man’s capacity to be a player on life’s stage, Bacon turned him into a mere spectator. Wherever man posits ‘non-contradictory ideals’ (unwidersprechlichen Ideale) there is in a truth a spectacle: ‘eine Schauspeilerei (wie bei Bacon)’ as Nietzsche writes in a note from the Nachlass, (Aphorism 5860, Spring 1881-Summer 1882, KSA 9.476). Coming from the Latin spectaculum ‘to look’, the modern word has connotations of something put on display, deliberately turned into an object for viewing, and put at a distance fom the viewer himself. As always when writing on Bacon, Nietzsche allows for associations with the stage to creep in: what is so problematic for Nietzsche is that Bacon allowed for a gap to develop between viewer and viewed, instead of exploiting the dramatic possibilities implied by spectatorship.

Nietzsche denies that the quest for objectivity arises from a desire to do justice to the facts because modern man lacks the stern will required for just action. Instead, an evaluative notion of truth is required. As we shall see, truth is created, not discovered, and it should be done based on the needs of the present. For Nietzsche, objectivity is a mere ruse, a refuge for those who refuse to enact their judgments upon the world. This is a typical attitude of the latecomers upon the historical scene. They are not objective, only impotent. In the second Untimely Meditation he states that historical education and the bourgeois coat tend to go together, prompting him to ask: ‘Is a race of eunuchs needed to watch over the great historical world-harem? Pure objectivity would certainly characterize such a race’ (UM II, 5).

Central to Nietzsche’s diagnosis of nihilism is his account of modernity. The description of the loss in modernity of a centre of gravity recalls other critics’ examinations of modernity, most notably that of Karl Marx, who famously described his age as one where all ‘fixed fast-frozen relationships are swept away… all that is solid melts into air’. Authors like Marx, Max Weber, Georg Simmel and even Charles Baudelaire located these changes in the deteriorating material conditions of the contemporary urban society, but Nietzsche insists that the crisis of modernity was largely one of values, specifically of the internal logic of Western cultural values. This logic is one of a persistent belief in metaphysical certitude. Much of Western thought pace Bacon is consequently devoted to the problem of establishing a grounding for cultural values when the time for such a thing was clearly over and the age of what Hannah Arendt has called ‘thinking without a banister’ had arrived. Trying to impart this message to his audience, Nietzsche adopts a genealogical strategy and returns again and again to the origins of the epistemolophilia so prominent in Western philosophy since the seventeenth century. In the case of the erroneous claims metaphysics makes to ‘knowledge’, the motivating force is the ‘pathos of truth’. This pathos demands fixity, static conceptual points of reference around which a network of beliefs can be nurtured. This ‘truth’ comes to be stabilized and eventually fixed by means of concepts, and as such, becomes capable of being owned. ‘Philosophy and religion [are] a longing for property…’ (PHT, 60). So much for pure objectivity.

This ‘English’ morality (which is not of course limited to the English) is the apotheosis of a long developed anti-worldly and anti-tragic ethos that bluntly refuses to acknowledge the gap between human experience and the independent operation of the world, the world as a realm distinct from and indifferent to the human subject, which realm Nietzsche re-thinks as the eternal recurrence. There is a certain small-mindedness, characteristic of the humanist subject at his most petty, to the notion that the world was made to fit man and that it is merely a question of bringing man into harmony with a given worldly order.

Until genealogy arrived on the philosophical scene, philosophers have secretly regarded themselves as code-breakers rather than creators, and their task as uncovering the elusive rational order beneath all chaos. Finding the blueprint to life would naturally enable us to finally control the uncontrollable, and that, of course, is bourgeois or slave heaven:


In all seriousness: the innocence of our thinkers is somehow touching and evokes reverence, when today they still step before consciousness with the request that it should please give them honest answers; for example, whether it is ‘real’, and why it so resolutely keeps the external world at a distance, and other questions of that kind. The faith in ‘immediate certainties’ is a moral naiveté that reflects honor on us philosophers; but – after all we should not be ‘merely moral’ men. Apart from morality, this faith is a stupidity that reflects little honor on us (BGE 34).

Modernity would have it that depth is the dimension of truth. However, depth is a deceptive dimension in Nietzsche: there is such a thing as going too deep. The subject itself was born in response to the need to find something stable, something beyond change. In Aristotle’s Physics and Metaphysics the term subjectum refers to that upon which all other entities are predicated without itself being a predicate of something else. The search for this fountainhead became the aim of nearly all of modern philosophy in one way or another, with the noteworthy exception of David Hume. According to Michel Foucault, depth is not an essential quality of either selves or the world. It is a dimension that comes into being as a correlate of a variety of technologies that operates upon the self, and structures its relationship with the world. Philosophical ‘divers’, who venture deep into the folds of subjectivity in the hope of finding a ‘real’ self, are however bound to come up with nothing, or even worse, lose themselves entirely in the labyrinth of language. For Nietzsche, with his healthy proto-Hellenic outlook, there is such a thing as descending so far that depth becomes counterproductive:


Order of rank. There are, first of all, superficial thinkers; secondly, deep thinkers – those who go down into the depth of a thing; thirdly, thorough thinkers, who thoroughly explore the grounds of a thing – which is worth very much more than merely going down into depths! – finally those who stick their heads into the swamp: which ought not to be a sign either of depth or of thoroughness! They are the dear departed underground. (Daybreak 446).


There is no better way to escape the world than to go underground. And no better place for the artist who refuses his vocation in order to flee than into the depths of finite rules and absolute facts. Bacon is a case of the artist refusing his vocation – for Bacon was an artist – and thereby abandoning that which makes him most human. Given the enormity of the tradition that sprang up in his footsteps, one can say that Bacon was an artist and he did legislate, only in such a way as to make the end of creation and artistic legislation an end in itself.

We know, however, from Bacon’s own hand that he was by no means indifferent to the aesthetic domain. Bacon’s style is as integral to his project as is Nietzsche’s to his, and it is particularly interesting to note the extent to which both thinkers made use of the aphorism. Despite Zarathustra’s protestations, great minds sometimes do think alike. In his work L’Entretien Infini, Maurice Blanchot indicates that no trope disturbs the apparently snug sense of full textual presence quite as much as an aphorism — the short terse, incisive remark that responds to the genius and inspiration of a critical mind, but it resists all forms of catechism and formalization. It is a turn of phrase and thought that directs itself beyond a fixed idea, a fixed place-holder in a system of rules or beliefs. Nietzsche’s relationship to the aphorism is decidedly more complex than that of Bacon, whose easily remembered aphorisms are aimed at bolstering foundations, not to subvert them. Nietzsche provides an interesting reason for writing in aphorism. By employing this mode, Nietzsche goes against the grain of traditional philosophical literature. His style requires expansive rather than abbreviated techniques of interpretation that leaves much more room for play and margin for error than traditional philosophy. He writes: ‘I am brief, my readers must become long and comprehensive in order to bring up and together all that I have thought and thought deep down’ (EH, 340). Bacon, for all his attempts at clarity and certainty, is not really that different. Bacon’s mother famously describes her son’s writing as ‘enigmatic, folded writing’ and Stanley Fish demonstrates how Bacon’s Essays exemplifies his attitude by breaking the mind’s passivity, and aiding the resistance to its natural propensity to remain in the comfort zone of common opinions. Fish goes as far as to describe the Essays as ‘unfinished’ – a very Nietzschean compliment – and likens the reading of a Baconian essay to the reading of two essays: the Bacon’s original text, and the text that develops between the reader and the original text. Because of their richness, the promise they hold, they force the reader to become active in his engagement with the text. The reader has to ‘fill in’ the text, allow it to become part of his referential framework, so that—as Gadamer might have said, a process of exchange between the text and the reader can take place.

What is more, importantly, is that the text is only the most obvious form of exchange between self and world, or as a cynical anti-postmodernist might have said, the most analyzable. According to Nietzsche, what can be said about the text, is also true of mere observation. Everything that happens consists of a group of phenomena that are gathered and selected by an interpretative being.

Despite Nietzsche’s appeal to a more natural man (GM I, 6), there is no physis without nomos. Nietzsche does not simply unite the two; he has re-thought their relationship entirely, suggesting that what we call physis, nature or the world, is nothing more than an illusion that we create through the nomos, because we forget that the law, or metaphysical framework within which we operate, is itself merely a human convention. Nomos creates physis through generality: we become so accustomed to our rules and habits that they begin to pass for nature. What Baconian humanists tend to forget, is that it is their own participation in the world that makes experience of a world possible,  (See for example, aphorism no 11393, NL 85-88 KSA 12.366). Even mere perception is a selective, world-constitutive operation in the manner of that ultimate impersonal ‘artist’, the will to power. This means that there is an aesthetic dimension even to man’s simplest judgments.


You sober people who feel well-armed against passion and fantasies and would like to turn your emptiness into a matter of pride and an ornament: you call yourselves realists and hint that the world really is the way it appears to you. As if reality stood unveiled before you only, and you yourselves were perhaps the best part of it. […] You are still burdened with those estimates which have their origins in the passions of loves of former centuries. Your sobriety still contains a secret and inextinguishable drunkenness. Your love of ‘reality’ for example – oh that is a primeval ‘love’. Every feeling and sensation contains a piece of this old love; and some fantasy, some prejudice, some fear and so much else has contributed to it, and worked on it. That mountain there! That cloud there! What is ‘real’ in that? Subtract the phantasm and every human contribution from it, my sober friends! If you can! If you can forget your descent, your past, your training – all of your humanity and animality. There is no reality for us – not for you either, my sober friends. We are not nearly so different as you think, and perhaps our good will to transcend intoxication is as respectable as your faith that you are incapable of intoxication (GS 57).


Note however, that Nietzsche takes it for granted that there is a cloud, that there is a mountain. He is not engaging in juvenile hypotheses about the existence of the material objects in question. For Bacon, knowledge ended with its collection and its categorization. For Nietzsche, this is merely the beginning. How one employs a particular notion, what it means in one’s context, and what it says about the knower, is far more important than its being verified as ‘correct’. For Bacon, method is a way to liberate man from his necessary perspectival existence; for Nietzsche, it is perspective that makes method possible in the first place. It makes everything, including thinking itself possible, and is therefore a fact to be celebrated, not to be denied or wished away. Perspective makes man by necessity an artist; it is perhaps Nature at her most democratic.

I interpret therefore I am. Like Moliere’s bourgeois gentleman, who had been speaking prose for forty years without realizing it, we have been artists all along, this despite our most earnest efforts to be metaphysicians or ‘scientists’ and discover the thing-in-itself, the final truth beyond any interpretation. For Nietzsche, all interpretation is creation inasmuch as it is engaged in the re-interpretation and re-configuration of the world. As will be demonstrated throughout this book, every intellectual construction or category imposed upon the world, notwithstanding its claims to ‘objectivity’, has an artistic and therefore subjective dimension to it. Art carries out a selective, world-constitutive operation in the manner of that ultimate impersonal ‘artist’, the will to power.

To interpret is to see in a particular way, at the expense of other possibilities of interpretation. We ourselves are the source of this interpretative injustice, or more correctly, our need for a world in which it is possible to live, is the source. To a certain extent, then, man is the measure of the world, but only his world. In a note from the Nachlass he writes: ‘Is the world for us not merely a construction under a measure? As son as this arbitrary measure disappears, dies the world!’ (Aphorism 5797, NL 82-84, KSA 9.454). Man is thus a contingent measure and our measurements do not refer to an original, underlying reality. What we call reality is the result not only of our limited perspectives upon the world, but the interplay of those perspectives themselves.


In another note, written about four years later, Nietzsche writes:


The history of philosophy is a secret raging against the preconditions of life, against the value feeling of life, against partisanship in favour of life. Philosophers have never hesitated to affirm a world, provided that contradicted this world and furnished them with a pretext for speaking ill of the world. It has hitherto been the grand school of slander, and it has imposed itself to such an extent today that our science, which proclaims itself the advocate of life, has accepted the basic slanderous position, and treated this world as apparent, this chain of causes as mere phenomenal. What is it that really hates here? (WP 461, Mar-June 1888).


This is good, no great, news. Creativity, which since Euripides, Socrates and Plato has been treated with such contempt, is in Nietzsche’s eyes not only the last remedy against nihilism but also man’s greatest gift. It is impossible to think of value itself without some form of perspectivism. As Nietzsche writes in WP 244 (Nov 1887- Mar 1888):


Knowledge and wisdom have in themselves no value; no more than goodness: one must first be in possession of the goal from which these qualities derive their value or non-value – there could be a goal in the light of which great knowledge might represent a great disvalue, if for instance, a high degree of deception were one of the prerequisites for the enhancement of life; likewise if goodness were perhaps able to paralyze and discourage the springs of great longing.


Had we access to true objectivity, nearly every question a human being can ask would be superfluous: every answer would be known. No one would ever need to give his version of how he understood the world. The job would already have been done. Despite the obvious impossibility of ever attaining this state, modern philosophy, in particular transcendental philosophy, has aimed explicitly for a telos of absolute, self-identical truth, whether in terms of the great beyond or in the ideal state. Consequently, the unavoidable activity of judgement has been treated as something provisional, a question to be suspended once the perfect goal has been reached.

‘The death of God’, mentioned by Zarathustra after his encounter with the hermit, and explicitly announced by the madman in the GS 25, is in fact the death of Bacon’s God. It is the death of omniscience itself. Omniscience is not limited to divinity, but is one of humanism’s most characteristic hopes: the positing of a transcendental subject that is capable of knowing it all.

From perspectival limitations, however, springs the potential for creation, the supreme justification for human existence. As we shall see later, Nietzsche evaluates human ‘types’ according to their ability to face their inevitably perspectival existence and make the most of it. This is of crucial importance for understanding the master/slave dichotomy, the task of genealogy, and the operation of the will to power. The immediate consequence of affirming the plurality of perspectives is a re-evaluation of the concept of objectivity. The myth of objectivity, whether understood aesthetically, as the ideal of objects that paint or photograph themselves by their own activity on a purely passive medium, or epistemologically, as ‘truth’, is summarily dealt with: ‘this is a myth’ (UM II, KSA 1.290). Nietzsche is adamant that the ‘will to be objective’ is ‘a modern misunderstanding’. Objective truth implies an implausible selective affinity between the knower and the known. The ideal of objectivity is ridiculous in aesthetics, and shallow and decadent in the domain of epistemology.    The myth of objectivity is also unfruitful, because it makes us forget that the moment of apprehension is a creative moment, the moment when human beings are at their best. The goal of disinterested contemplation presupposes conceptual fictions and requires the positing of a disembodied disinterested knower, ‘an eye turned in no particular direction’. This is one of modernity’s strangest characteristics: the tendency to take man out of nature in order to observe it. As Hans-Georg Gadamer has shown, within Western metaphysics, the ‘objectivist’ conception of nature simply as a collection of ‘things’ is the complement to a ‘subjectivistic’ notion of the self as isolated and disembodied.[2]

For Nietzsche, the price demanded by the spectatorial tradition of rationalism that posits the thinker as a judge who masters reality through his disinterested reflections, was too high: ‘Ah, reason, seriousness, mastery over the affects, the whole somber thing called reflection, all the prerogatives of man: how dearly they have been bought!’ (GM II 3). There are two reasons for this: man has sacrificed his creativity for it, and as we shall see in our subsequent references to The Genealogy of Morals, man has tortured himself into a radically reduced form of humanity in order to attain a goal that is unattainable.

Nietzsche tries to account for the affective components and influencing factors discounted by traditional epistemology. His re-constituted version of ‘objectivity’, usually indicated by quotation marks, acknowledges that knowledge is a function of the embodied expression of affective investment in the world. This, however, should under no circumstances be equated with relativism. Instead, his ‘panoptics’ is an attempt to salvage the possibility of knowledge in the light of the failure of traditional epistemology to provide a usable body of knowledge based on disaffected, disinterested contemplation:


But, as people who seek knowledge, the last thing we should do is to be ungrateful for such determined reversals of customary perspectives and evaluations with which the spirit has for so long raged against itself, with such apparent wickedness and futility. To use this for once to see differently, the will to see things differently, is no small discipline and preparation of the intellect for its coming ‘objectivity,’ and not in the sense of ‘disinterested contemplation’ (which is conceptual nonsense), but as the capability of having power over one’s positive and negative arguments and to raise them and dispose of them so that one knows how to make the various perspectives and interpretations of emotions useful for knowledge (GM III 12, KSA 5.365).


Perspectives, for Nietzsche, are not disembodied points of view hovering disinterestedly over the world. Instead of trying to do away with the notion of perspective, which Nietzsche describes as an act of self-directed castration; we should appropriate the multiplicity of perspectives for a more complete vision of the world. Nietzsche is no minimalist. When it comes to perspectivism, less (or fewer) is not more; more is more. Rather than to see Nietzsche as having no theory of truth, as Maudemarie Clark thinks, it would perhaps be better to describe Nietzsche’s theory of truth as the transformation of the traditional picture of truth as an object to be re- or uncovered into a theory of truth as an event: the truth is not out there, waiting to be found, but happens between observer and observed. Since our conceptual apparatus is so similar, there is never really a problem of absolute relativism. We simply have to agree on certain basic facts about the world. All the same, Nietzsche recommends a plurality of perspectives as guarantee for truth.


The only seeing we have is seeing from a perspective; the only knowledge we have is knowledge from a perspective. The more emotional affects we allow to be expressed in words concerning something, the more eyes, different eyes, we know how to train on the same thing, the more complete our ‘idea’ of this thing, our ‘objectivity,’ will be. But to eliminate the will in general, to suspend all our emotions without exception — even if we were capable of that—what would that be? Wouldn’t we call that castrating the intellect? (GM III, 12, KSA 5.365).


Perspectivism thus implies that knowledge is only really possible once our affective engagement with the world is acknowledged. Until this happens, we can at best speak of a desiccated, anaemic simulacrum of knowledge. Nietzsche’s rehabilitation of the metaphoric of vision in pluralist form returns the knower to his body, suffused with affect, inextricably situated in the world and inscribed by the torment and pain inflicted by moralizing mores and disciplining institutions. The task of the Wissenschaftler is to compile as exhaustive an aggregation of radically different perspectives as possible, a chorus of situated voices. In most cases, an overlapping consensus ensures that we have enough of a world in common to make a meaningful conversation about reality possible. The insistence upon locating a single ‘correct’ perspective leads, paradoxically, to an endangerment of truth, for even a rich perspective is and remains but that: a perspective steeped in a unique set of prejudices. Any absolute perspective, no matter how rich and how ‘correct’, leads inevitably to a diminution of knowledge and an impoverished, ascetic existence. By insisting upon a model of nature as merely an object to be analyzed according to the correct method, Bacon has not really conquered Nature. It implies that man still plays according to her rules, her problems and her puzzles. This is a perfect example of negative freedom: the capacity to react only to external stimuli instead of being a legislator to that outside world. In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche associates freedom with those that are capable of showing initiative, and to truly act, as opposed to those who are capable of reacting only to external stimuli. Those who remain only scholars are particularly guilty of this: ‘The scholar, who really does nothing except ‘trundle’ with books finally loses the ability to think for himself. If he does not trundle, he does not think. He replies to a stimulus – a thought he has read – finally, he does nothing but react’ (EH II 8). According to Nietzsche, this is particularly true of those who followed in Bacon’s footsteps. In the following chapters, we shall see that there is a marked difference between those who merely reacted upon Nature – also a text in her own right – and those who were truly able to legislate.

If Bacon disguised his scientific ambition and embraced his role as artist, the ultimately nihilistic division between poet/artist and philosopher might never have occurred. But to deny one’s status as artist-legislator is one of the most nihilistic acts possible. From his earliest unpublished manuscripts to his last writings, Nietzsche consistently presents legislation, or the declaration of the highest values, as the real function of the philosopher. There is a comprehensive kind of thought that gathers together, assigns value to and orders all existing knowledge of the world. Genuine philosophers, however, are commanders and legislators. Nietzsche adds the following: philosophers alone determine the ‘whither’ and ‘wherefore’, what is useful and what constitutes utility for men. Plato was such a philosopher. He did not merely dissimulate; he ‘deceived’ himself when he convinced himself that ‘the good’ as he desired it was ‘what a man named Plato had chanced to discover on his way’ (Aphorism 10490, NL 84-85, KSA 11.611).

It would however, be a misconception to think that just because Nietzsche sees truth in constructivist terms, that any old fantasy would do. Contrary to readers who see him purely as a mortal Hermes, defender of tale-spinners, liars and illusionists, Nietzsche despises those who cannot face the facticity that accompanies authentic existence. It is precisely those who are unable to live in the real world that engage in fictitious flights and imagined realities in which they do not suffer. Nietzsche writes in this regard:


Who alone has grounds to lie himself out of actuality? He who suffers from it. But to suffer from actuality is to be a misfortunate actuality… The preponderance of unpleasurable feelings over pleasurable feelings is the cause of fictitious morality and religion: such a preponderance however, provides the formulae for decadence (A 15).


A hint for utilitarians! If one is to lie, lie well: be feminine, and don a mask. A badly told lie has a nasty habit of becoming Truth, as we shall see in our discussion on language. Bacon made a big mistake when he suggested that Nature be treated as valuable spouse, not as courtesan or slave. Quite aside from the morality of objectifying woman/Nature as subject matter for the penetrating glance of the philosopher/scientist, it is folly even to try. One of Nietzsche’s most famous openings for a book reads as follows:


Supposing truth to be a woman – what? Is he suspicion not well-founded that all philosophers, when they have been dogmatists, have had little understanding of woman? That the gruesome earnestness, the clumsy importunity with which they have been in the habit of approaching truth has been inept and improper means for winning a wench. Certainly, she has not let herself be won – and today every kind of dogmatism stands sad and discouraged. If it continues to stand at all! (BGE, Pr).

Nietzsche’s wild woman cannot be domesticated, only be played with, and she loves only warriors. In the chapters that follow, we shall see what happens when the arch-domesticator, the Englishman, tries his hand at Nietzsche’s Woman-Truth, and in our chapter on George Eliot, what a betrayed femininity can do.




[1] Bacon is fond of quoting Virgil’s famous Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causus

                                                                                Quique metus omnes, et inorabile fatum

                                                                                Subjecit pedibus, strepitumque Acherontis avari –

‘Happy is the man who has learned the causes of things’.

[2] Gadamer, H-G. (1967) ‘On the Problem of Self-Understanding’. In Philosophical Hermeneutics (ed) D. E. Linge. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 48-49.



Utilitarianism is, from the Nietzschean perspective no philosophy, but imperial bureaucracy put into theory. Like many philosophical forms that appear late in history, it is ultimately, primitive. That is to say, it exhibits an abominable lack of style, as if no human standards were set at all, but only a slavish copying of ‘Nature’ occurred. This is probably why Nietzsche refers to Mill in Twilight of the Idols as one of his ‘impossible’ ones: ‘John Stuart Mill: or insulting clarity’. He clearly had no appreciation for Mill’s style – a serious charge.

‘Consider, for example, the indefatigable, inevitable English utilitarians and with what clumsy and worthy feet they walk, stalk (a Homeric metaphor says it more plainly) along in the footsteps of Bentham. No new idea, no subtle expression or turn of an old idea, not even a real history of what had been thought before: an impossible literature altogether, unless one knows how to leaven it with a little malice. (BGE 228).

The utilitarian tradition demonstrates a great contempt for man by needlessly relegating him to the animal domain by referring to the immediate sensations of pain and pleasure as the ultimate standards of good and evil. It is hard to think of any philosophical action more basic than this: ‘Initially, we organic beings have no interest in a thing, other than in its relationship to us with regard to pleasure and pain’ (HAH 18). With his famous identification of the good with pleasure, Mill joins a long line of philosophical abdicators who lacked the strength to give style to their existence.

John Stuart Mill in many ways embodies everything Nietzsche targeted: not only his specific utilitarian principles with their benign aim of collective happiness, but the plebeian nature of morality itself. What Nietzsche tries to do is to show what has hitherto passed for morality as such, is only a particular version of it, and not the best one man is capable of, either. Nietzsche’s confrontation with Mill, even if the latter is seldom explicitly named, is where his philosophy is at its most explicit and its most untimely. For Nietzsche, there is a far greater form of justice to aspire to than mere equality or happiness for all, and that is to cultivate a form of humanity that reaches the zenith of its potential. Nietzsche even goes as far as to proclaim the dominant philosophical tradition of his age’s strongest imperial power, England, in fact to be shallow, plebeian and other to Europe’s grander traditions: ‘Man does not strive for happiness, only the Englishman does’ (TI, ‘Maxims and Arrows, 12).

What makes Mill particularly naïve, is that he employs an economic model in order to relieve the angst-ridden subject of his age of his burdens, while that very subject has already been formed by just such a process. This is why Nietzsche condemns Mill so harshly in WP 926:

Against John Stuart Mill. I abhor the man’s vulgarity, which says: ‘What is right for the one is fair for another’; ‘what you would not, etc. do not unto others’, which wants to establish all human intercourse on the basis of mutual services, so that every action appears as a kind of payment for something done to us. The supposition here is ignoble in the lowest sense: here is an equivalence of value between my actions and yours is presupposed; here the most personal value of an action is simply annulled – that which cannot be balanced or paid in any way.

(WP  926)

Mill shares something with Nietzsche in his passionate defense of the individual and his liberty, but failed to reflect upon what the concept of ‘individual’ really means. The model of individualism he upholds is hopelessly derivative and determined by language and history. Besides, a subject born in pain can hardly hope to live according to an ethic based upon its avoidance. The individual is an effect, and not a cause of human thought and action, and can for this reason not be taken as an axis for developing a philosophy of freedom. That said, Nietzsche, as well as the tradition that followed in his wake after his posthumous migration to France, sometimes fail to acknowledge Mill’s sensitivity to history and the correspondences between liberal self-determination and Nietzsche’s enigmatic Übermensch. Both thinkers value personal self-development for its own sake very highly, but where Mill expresses this in terms of a limited platform, Nietzsche presents us with a wide aesthetic stage.

What makes Nietzsche such a remarkable – and even today still controversial – thinker is that he cuts through the Gordian knot of moralism that has plagued modernity ever since its inception. He is the only thinker to reverse the relationship between morality and life: instead of deriding life from the perspective of an eternally dissatisfied moral ideal, he began to observe morality from the perspective of an eternally unimprovable life, bringing all utopian ideals to a drastic halt.

Mill is the apotheosis of a long-standing anti-tragic tradition that developed in the West with Christianity, but reached particular strength in England. This tradition departs from a position that takes pain – its mere existence as well as unfair distribution – as the ultimate philosophical problem. Pain is seen as something other to ‘real’ or ‘normal’ existence. This moralistic position, which is especially fierce in its secular form, recognizes in all forms of pain a variation of injustice and derives from it a program for its redress. This tendency would eventually become the basis for every grand narrative that graces, or as the Nietzschean might say, disgraces – the history of modern political philosophy.

From Plato’s idea of the best regime as the one that frees humans from the pain of longing after those earthly goods whose possession can never be guaranteed absolutely and for all, to Locke’s insistence upon the orderly satisfaction of those needs and Marx’s prophecy of socialist revolution as the revolution through which the entire history of human suffering will finally be redeemed, suffering has been posed as a problem to which philosophy and politics must offer some kind of solution. Or at least some kind of meaning. Nietzsche reminds us that suffering itself was not man’s problem per se, but the sheer meaninglessness that surrounded it was unbearable. As history’s long list of martyrs proved, with a clear goal in mind, man could reconcile himself to suffering surprisingly well, provided that it had a clear purpose.

The suffering itself was not his problem, but rather the fact that he lacked an answer to the question he screamed out, ‘Why this suffering?’ Man, the bravest animal, the one most accustomed to suffering, does not deny suffering in itself. He desires it, he seeks it out in person, provided that people show him a meaning for it, the purpose of suffering (GM III, 28)

According to Nietzsche, morality itself is an interpretation of human vulnerability, be it physiological pain, socio-political conditions or the fundamental character of existence in itself. With the advent of morality, he argues, suffering was given an ‘interpretation’ (GM III, 28). The most popular response hitherto – and despite Nietzsche’s valiant efforts, the shadow of this idea is still going strong – has been some or other form of soteriology. As we have seen in the introduction, soteriology is the tale of man’s estrangement from the world as well as the model for his return to immanence. In the case of utilitarianism, soteriology manifests itself in the form of a precarious balancing act, where pain has to be constantly sidestepped. A radically improved life is possible, according to this doctrine, as long as the correct recipe is followed. There is a ‘truer’ or a more ‘real’ condition which is the inheritance of those who follow the ‘truth’. Utilitarianism is, from a Nietzschean perspective, a particularly unimaginative variation of soteriology, and what is even more problematic, Mill provides but a single standard of the good. John Locke’s most important philosophical legacy is in the empiricist tradition, that is, the doctrine that holds that both human knowledge – epistemologically speaking – and behaviour – psychologically speaking – can be explained through the senses and in which the rules of conduct claim the validity of generalizations from experience. It soon became obvious, however, that natural rights, that is, the indefeasible claims to liberty of action inherent in human beings without reference to their social relationships, could not be verified in this way. Nor could they pass unchallenged as axioms after his refutation of innate ideas. This is why Locke’s successors in the nineteenth century, following his suggestions in the Essay, were bound to develop theories of behaviour in terms of pleasure and pain. It echoed the foundational mechanistic tradition: pleasure operated in terms of attraction, and pain as repulsion. The result was a theory in which the greatest net sum, after deducting the pain as negative quantities, was set up as the socially valuable end of conduct. The classic definition of utilitarianism states that the human good basically consists of the experience of happiness or pleasure, and that pleasure is the greatest good itself. Mill in particular famously holds that the principle of utility is the highest, or the most foundational principle of morality. It plays the role of justifying all moral obligations, and all other moral principles are predicated upon it. He writes that

The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or The Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they promote the reverse of happiness (Mill1963: CW 10 ‘Utilitarianism’: 257).[1]

The principle of utility is clearly advanced as a principle of the good, and it forms the basis for all practical reasoning: ‘The utilitarian doctrine is that happiness is desirable, and the only thing desirable as an end; all other things being only desirable as a means to that end’ (Mill 1963: CWUtilitarianism’: 210).

Just as the nineteenth century only began in the 1830s, it only truly came to an end in 1945. Victorian metanarratives can best be described by turning to the terminology not of a philosopher – it is, after all, England that we are talking about – but to a man of industry, William Lovett, cabinet maker, publisher and radical political activist, the Lyotard of the nineteenth century. The title of his book describes it neatly: The Pursuit of Bread, Knowledge and Freedom were the broad cultural narratives that legitimized the fin de siècle pursuit of individuation and the maximisation of individual choice through a free market economy. The pursuit of ‘Bread’ indicates the attempt to gain freedom from nature and scarcity through the acquisition of material well-being. The theme of establishing security through wealth has been a constant one in English political life since its inception in the seventeenth century, and continues to animate British politics today. Mill, like Bentham, links the increase of general welfare, and its chief ingredient, security, with the extension of basic rights and the reduction of economic inequality.

We hold with Bentham, that equality, although not the sole end, is one of the ends of good social arrangements, and that a system of institutions which does not make the scale tip in favour of equality, whenever this can be done without impairing the security of the property which is the product of personal exertion, is essentially a bad government – a government for the few, to the injury of the many (Mill: 1963: CW XX, ‘Vindication of the French Revolution of 1848: 354).

So much for Bread. The second element of the Victorian holy trinity, the discourse of ‘Knowledge’, was no less paradoxical and deeply intertwined with the first. Taking the bourgeois economical practice into account, it makes sense that the individual subject came to occupy centre stage from the Romantic era onwards. However, the more the panoptic subject takes the world under its sway (it is no accident that a power strategy like Bentham’s Panopticon should make its appearance in this era) the more it begins to cut the world to suit its own needs. This line of thought can be described as an ‘optimistic’ or ‘democratic’ form of empiricism, a concept that can be fruitfully elucidated by referring to the third element of the Victorian master discourse, ‘Freedom’, is firmly aligned with the second. There can be no freedom without knowledge – an idea, as we have seen, that goes back to the Renaissance and thinkers like Bacon. Mill describes freedom obtained through the cultivation of knowledge in terms typical of the tradition of negative freedom: an escape from limiting ‘moulds, ‘patterns’ ‘restrictions’ and ‘restraint’ (Mill 1963: CW XVIII ‘On Liberty’: 265-267). And: ‘Let any man call to mind what he himself felt on emerging from boyhood and entering upon the responsibilities of manhood. Was it not like the physical effect of taking off a heavy weight, or releasing him from obstructive, even if not otherwise painful bonds?’ (Mill 1963: CW XXI ‘On the Subjection of Women’: 337) The project of emancipation that can be described as the defining characteristic of modernity, entails viewing philosophy as a science of reality in its truth and totality. The totality of reality is nature, and this can be known only through sense-perception, meaning there is no ‘privileged’, innate access to truth. As Foucault later emphasized, however, as knowledge has increased, so have the opportunities to dominate and exercise power multiplied. This is why the search for ‘knowledge’ is by no means clearly a noble endeavour, but could be seen as the enterprise of a resentful slave. In the second Untimely Meditation, Nietzsche demonstrates that the mere acquisition of facts is not in itself automatically an inspiring activity, but could be the action of a life-denying ascetic. The mere search for knowledge is not valuable in itself, but can become the substitute activity for those afraid to live, act and legislate in the world. ‘Knowledge can allow as motives only pleasure and pain, utility and injury’ (HAH 1340). It is up to the truly free to use acquired knowledge in order to give style to their existence.

The bias towards simplicity in theory is a very English tradition, one that stretches as far back as Ockham’s nominalism, and it meshes well with success of the bourgeois, who by the 1830’s were firmly established and thoroughly aware of their power and, for the first half of the nineteenth century at least, firmly upheld Shaftesbury’s vision of the liberal polity, of sensus communis and an ethos of ‘judging for yourself’. For this class, abstract rationalism of the type to be found on the Continent served as justification for some of the worst excesses of the commonwealth; a robust empiricism went well with the bourgeois contempt for metaphysical abstraction as did utilitarianism with an increasing domestic sensibility. Seeing that intuitionist views like those of Whewell, then Master of Trinity College, could be used to justify both repression in politics and superstition in religion, Mill emphasized the importance of the demonstrability of truth. According to the utilitarians, following in Locke’s footsteps, any truth, be it ethical or logical or theological, should be verifiable or else be consigned to the flames. For Mill, there was also an important social dimension to empiricism: any person’s experience is as good as the next person’s, so it is possible for every individual to rely on his own sense experience, instead of on some external authority. So far, Nietzsche would not necessarily have a problem. Although the model for virtuous and civilized conduct was still the spontaneous virtue of gentility, there was an increasing awareness of the importance of the freedom and circulation of opinion, which Mill famously summarized in his On Liberty of 1859:

We have now recognized the necessity of the mental well-being of mankind (on which all their other well-being depends) of freedom of opinion on four distinct grounds…

First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.

Secondly, even though the suppressed opinion be an error, it may, and commonly does, contain a portion of truth, and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.

Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true but the whole truth, unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. And not only this, but fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience (Mill 1975: 65).

Although Mill appears to exhibit an important Nietzschean insight in his fourth ground, there is a fundamental difference between the two thinkers in that the exercise of freedom of speech is for Mill a means to protect Truth, whereas for Nietzsche, a glorious agonal play is an aim in its own right. Furthermore, for Mill, the subject, with its accompanying rights, comes readily formed with a concomitant obligation on the part of the state to protect it. Historically, liberal theories have conceived the self in strong metaphysical terms. The human subject, as ‘anchor’ of liberalism, was seen as possessing an underlying and determinate nature – a deep core of being – that is describable either in terms of materialism or idealism. Whether as the transcendental subject of Kantian idealism, or as we shall see, the materialistic homo economicus of utilitarian versions, the liberal self has been seen as ontologically prior to both the forms of life and practices of the community to which it belongs, as well as its own autonomously chosen ends. Liberal justice is thus logically wedded to conceptions of subjectivity and virtue that are untenable in the Nietzschean framework. Or, in its classic version, simply untenable. Michael J. Sandel puts the point as follows: ‘For justice to be the first virtue, certain things must be true of us. We must be creatures of a certain kind, related to human circumstance in a particular way. We must stand at a distance from our circumstances, whether as a transcendental subject in the case of Kant, or as the essentially unencumbered subject of possession in the case of Mill. Either way, we must regard ourselves as independent: independent from the interest and attachments we may have at any moment, never identified by our aims, but always capable of standing back to survey and assess and possibly to revise them’ (Sandel 1982: 175). Even a form of liberalism that is prepared to ‘revise’ itself, however, would for Nietzsche still belong in the realm of reactive values. The form of subjectivity associated with modernity and concomitantly, liberal justice, is sufficiently problematical to justify a philosophical annihilation. The substantiality and ‘unity’ of this supposed entity presupposes that it is essentially immutable and thus ahistorical. Despite paying lip-service to ‘change’ and ‘progress’ an entity is implied that does not become what it is through some contingent developmental process; in other words, the human subject is viewed as a given entity incapable of growth, change and development. This is the kind of imaginative fiction that bespeaks a deep-set resentment against the world, its change and all its contradictions, and a moral world in which justice can only be thought of in the narrow terms of bourgeois rights. There are two basic rights that form the basis of Millian justice: the right to security, and the right to liberty (including the liberty of self-development). Mill describes rights as claims that are socially guaranteed by institutions collectively set up and maintained to carry out these claims most effectively (Mill 1963: CW X, ‘Utilitarianism’: 251). These are not in conflict with utilitarian principles, for like utilitarianism itself, the rules of justice must be based upon well-being.

While I dispute the claims of any theory which sets up an imaginary standard of justice not grounded in utility, I account the justice which is grounded on utility to be the chief part, and incomparably the most sacred and binding part, of all morality. Justice is a name for certain classes of moral rules which concern the essentials of human well-being more nearly, and are therefore of more absolute obligation, then any other rules for the guidance of life (Mill 1963: CW X, ‘Utilitarianism’: 255).

Any form of social contract thus depends upon a shared belief in the similarity of the powers of the participants in the power sphere. This goes for the rights and duties of nations as well as individual human agents. While this conception of justice is inexorable in the modern liberal state (it can perhaps be termed a necessary evil) it is important to realize that our conception of justice does not have to end here. Whereas basic equality is for liberals (and Englishmen, shopkeepers etc.) a final end, it represents for Nietzsche but one moment, or one element in the play of worldly justice, and can therefore not be taken as a final ideal or the embodiment of virtue. An important part of Nietzsche’s deconstructive strategy avant la lettre is the hunting down of reductionisms. All metaphysical forms are reductions, a violation of unacknowledged elements and changes that occur over time. What makes apparent positions of ‘equality’ in the legal and political spheres interesting from a Nietzschean perspective, is that they are results of a long, usually unacknowledged struggle, the will to power that now finds itself at rest. Or to put it in more Nietzschean idiom, these temporary stable ‘platforms’ that occur from time to time is the will to power donning a calm and peaceful mask instead of presenting itself in its usual violent form. This means that the rule of law is the exception rather than the rule.

We must acknowledge something even more alarming—the fact that from the highest biological standpoint, conditions of law must always be exceptional conditions, partial restrictions on the basic will to live, which is set on power—they are subordinate to the total purpose of this will as its individual means, that is, as means to create a larger unit of power (GM II, 11).

What is important to note here, is that while rights and duties exist only between equals, positions or situations in which genuine equality exists are comparatively rare. It should also be noted that in these cases, justice is simply a characteristic of the relationships involved that manifests itself in the interactions of the parties involved; it is already there as an aesthetic dimension; justice cannot be strived for. Instead, those who demand equality commit violence against the complexity of the world, and the operation of a greater cosmic justice, the will to power. The rest of WP 925, ‘Against John Stuart Mill’ reads:

‘Reciprocity’ is a piece of gross vulgarity; precisely that something I do may not and could not be done by another, that no balance is possible (– except in the most select sphere of ‘my equals’, inter pares –), that in a deeper sense one never gives back, because one is something unique and does only unique things – this fundamental conviction contains the cause of aristocratic segregation from the masses, because the masses believe in ‘equality’ and consequently in equivalence and ‘reciprocity’.

Only rarely is it possible to speak of a genuine justice inter pares (GM II 11), that rare Homeric virtue that existed largely upon the agonal stage or the ancient battlefield. To speak of ‘equality’ as an ideal is to deny at the same time the perspectival nature of our judgements, because the terms according to which ‘equality’ is determined is not only a slavish perspective, but set in terms of only a select number of individuals. Not even all slaves necessarily demand equality. Little wonder then, that Zarathustra distances himself so violently from this conception of justice:


Thus do I speak unto you in parable, ye who make the soul giddy, ye preachers of equality Tarantulas are ye unto me, and secretly revengeful ones!

Therefore do I tear at your web, that your rage may lure you out of your den of lies, and that your revenge may leap forth from behind your word ‘justice’.

Because, for man to be redeemed from revenge–that is for me the bridge to the highest hope, and a rainbow after long storms.

Otherwise, however, would the tarantulas have it. ‘Let it be very justice for the world to become full of the storms of our vengeance’–thus do they talk to one another.

‘Vengeance will we use, and insult, against all who are not like us’—thus do the tarantula-hearts pledge themselves.

And ‘Will to Equality’–that itself shall henceforth be the name of virtue; and against all that hath power will we raise an outcry!’

Ye preachers of equality, the tyrant-frenzy of impotence crieth thus in you for ‘equality’: your most secret tyrant-longings disguise themselves thus in virtue-words!

In all their lamentations soundeth vengeance, in all their eulogies is maleficence; and being judge seemeth to them bliss.

(Z II, ‘Of the Tarantulas’).

To take equality as the telos for a just society, is strictly speaking, a contradiction in terms. The need for justice arose precisely because there is no such thing as ‘natural’ justice. ‘Nature’ is a complex network of radically unequal relationships that are for the most part maintained through violence. It cannot survive without violence and inequality – equality would entail stasis and eventually death. This is why it makes no sense to hold certain parties accountable for the circle of violence that is life. For Nietzsche, it makes no sense to condemn immorality in the name of morality, because the moral flows from the immoral – it is unavoidable.

Life is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of what is alien and weaker, suppression, hardness, imposition of one’s own forms, incorporation, and at its mildest, exploitation – but why should one always use those words in which a slanderous intent has been imprinted for ages? ‘Exploitation’ belongs to the essence of what lives, as a basic organic function; it is the consequence of what lives as a basic organic function; it is the consequence of the will to power, which is after all the will to live (BGE, 259).

Mill appears to be oblivious to the need for violence in order to maintain life. In expanding upon his Great Happiness Principle, he states explicitly: ‘By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, the absence of pain and the privation of pleasure’. Mill’s theory of life is founded upon a theory of life that holds that

Pleasure and freedom from pain are the only things desirable as ends; and that all desirable things are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain (Mill 1963 CW X ‘Utilitarianism’: 210).

Mill exhibits the old English flaw of philosophical synecdoche: part of the problem is mistaken for the problem in its entirety. In his case in particular, he mistakes the problem of pain as the total of all philosophical problems. And because it is an English problem, it must be the world’s. Utilitarianism is also a philosophy of the Empire: ‘Ultimately they all want English morality to prevail: inasmuch as mankind, or the ‘general utility’, or ‘the happiness of the greatest number’, no! the happiness of England would best be served’ (BGE 228).

Consider too, WP 925:

Marginal note on a naisserie anglaise. ‘Do not unto others what you would not have them do unto you’. That counts as wisdom; that counts as prudence; that counts as the basis for morality – as the ‘golden rule’. John Stuart Mill believes in it (and what Englishman does not?). But this rule does not brook the slightest attack. The calculation ‘do nothing that ought not to be done to you’ prohibited actions on account of their harmful circumstances; the concealed premise is that an action will always be requited. But what if someone holding the Principe[2] in his hand were to say: ‘It is precisely such actions that one must perform, to prevent others from performing them first – to deprive others of the opportunity to perform them on us? (WP 925).

As the quote demonstrates, whoever defines the moral good purely in terms of pain and pleasure, has only scratched the surface of the human being. Had Mill – who died a mere fifteen years before Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror in the East End – scratched a little deeper, he may have found, like Dostoyevsky in his own age, and Freud a little later – that pleasure, like truth, is never pure, and rarely simple. Neither is the subject that is the bearer of the desire for pleasure or pain: as we have seen in our Locke chapter, the subject is made, not born. And pain plays a decisive role in this. Before man could become the subject that Mill writes about, he had to become calculable, and how this occurred, is anything but a bedtime story. First of all, while Hobbes had perhaps an inkling as to the violent economy that constitutes subjectivity, Locke and Mill seem to forget that man did not appear ready-made in nature with the ability to understand time and to honour contracts. For Nietzsche, the proper analysis of morality requires that it be articulated within a temporal framework of past and current costs and future benefits. The value of any kind of good concerns its effect on human futurity. And futurity is not simply given to humanity. Futurity does not simply flow from an objective temporal order. It must be earned, or conquered; it does not precede humanity. Its attainment is linked in crucial ways to the development of human nature ‘before history’, before the ancient conflict between masters and slaves delineated in the First Essay.

The most disquieting notion of all Nietzsche’s subversive techniques is his account of how man’s relationship with time is earned, namely through cruelty. ‘Man is the cruelest animal’ Nietzsche infamously states through Zarathustra: ‘Whatever is most evil is his best power and the hardest stone for the highest creator’ (Z ‘On the Higher Men’). Moreover, on the crux of the second essay of the Genealogy in Ecce Homo: ‘Cruelty is here exposed for the first time as one of the most ancient and basic substrata of culture that simply cannot be reasoned away’. This conviction takes shape gradually through Nietzsche’s work and grew from the conviction that the purity and beauty of ancient Greece emerged only after a long ‘comfortless period of dark crudity and cruelty’. He adds: ‘One can speak of spring only when there has been a winter that preceded it’ Nietzsche thus proposes that we should not regard the infliction of pain simply as evil. When pleasure accompanies the infliction of evil – when one strongly feels the joy of stretching one’s power to the limits – ‘it occurs for the well-being of the individual…Without pleasure no life, the struggle for pleasure is the struggle for life. Whether an individual pursues this struggle in such a way that people call him good, or in such a way that people call him evil, is determined by the degree and quality of his intellect’ (GM II, 5). Furthermore: ‘love and cruelty are not opposites: in the noblest natures they are deeply intertwined’ (Aphorism 5866, NL Spring to Autumn 1881). This is a recurring theme in Nietzsche: ‘Happiness and unhappiness are sisters’ (GS 390). It is either both, or neither.

Nietzsche sees the intertwined folie à deux of pleasure and pain as essential to the exercise of the will to power. To exercise this will inevitably imply the courting of cruelty, but even more, the positive enjoyment of the pain and agony that suffering causes. ‘To practice cruelty is to enjoy the highest’ (Daybreak 30), that is to say, ‘the spontaneous, aggressive, expansive, re-interpreting, re-directing, and formative powers’ (GM II, 12) that are the essence of life.

Nietzsche contends that at first, these pleasures were public. Cruelty is one of the oldest festive joys of mankind. ‘It is not long since princely weddings and public festivals of the more magnificent types were unthinkable without executions, torturing, and perhaps an auto da fe, [3] and no noble household was complete without a creature upon whom one could heedlessly vent one’s malice and cruel jokes’[4] (Daybreak 18). For millennia, societies have been organized hierarchically and allowed the man with prestige to enjoy the cruel pleasure of exciting envy and permitting him to ‘vent his power freely upon the powerless, the voluptuous pleasure ‘de faire mal pour la plaisir de le faire’ (GM II, 11). It was through these displays that memory was created, and with it, the spheres of legal obligation and morality were first brought into existence. ‘A thing must be burnt in so that it stays in the memory: only something that continues to hurt stays in the memory – that is a proposition from the oldest, and unfortunately, the longest-lived psychology on earth’ (GM II, 15).

This psychology by far predates, and implies the apparently mild commercial ethic of Mill’s bourgeois subject. The very existence of his commercial vocabulary – the ‘reciprocity’ that Nietzsche hates so much – is a remainder from the days of bloodsport. Indeed, Mill’s subject of reciprocal obligations would not be possible without the mnemotechnics identified by Nietzsche. There is nothing ‘natural’ about any of Mill’s presuppositions, but his gentlemanly subject in particular is what Aristotle called a para physin, something unnatural, (though he was speaking of nature’s tendency to produce monsters something beyond or in excess of nature).

Nietzsche locates the primordial or mythical origins of culture in this ability to keep one’s word, to propel into the future an avowal made in the past or present. This ability is an achievement, the result of considerable long-term pre-historic investment. Pre-historic in this context refers to the long period of ‘pre-history, when the real work on man was done: ‘the essential work of a man on his own self in the longest-lasting age of the human race, his entire pre-historical work, derives its meaning, its grand justification, from the following point, no matter how much hardship, tyranny, monotony and idiocy it also manifested: with the help of the morality of custom and the social strait jacket, the human being was rendered truly predictable’ (GM II 1). For a long time forgetfulness has wrongly been regarded as mere inactivity or mental passivity. However, it is much more – a positive forming force and a power of inhibition or repression (positives Hemmungsvermögen) which is responsible for the fact that what is experienced and absorbed enters consciousness (Bewusstsein) to such a small extent while we are digesting it. Forgetting is not simply a matter of wish repression as Freud supposed, it is the inhibition of consciousness, its arrested development. Forgetting consists, as the cow-observer from the opening of UM II will testify, in the immediate consummation of pleasure and the instantaneous gratification of desire. In this respect, forgetting resembles Freud’s pleasure principle. Forgetting is what happens when bodily drives discharge themselves freely, directly and without delay in response to excitations received from the outside. Forgetting is so essential to shaping ideas and thoughts that it is indispensable to any writer: ‘Good memory. — Many a man fails as an original thinker simply because his memory is too good’ (HAH 140).

Unrelenting suffering and pain were among the tools used to create the first economic relationship. In GM II section 5, the reader is told that it was in the debtor-creditor relationship that promises were first made, where a memory had to be created for those who promised. To inspire trust in his promise to repay, and to impress the duty of repayment upon his conscience as a very real duty, the debtor made a pact with his creditor and pledged something in the stead of his debt, should he forfeit upon his payment. It had to be something he had control over, such as his body, often his freedom – slavery or debtor’s prison –and sometimes his life. The duty of repayment thus operates as a kind of regulative principle between different units of power. In time, this violent form of exchange, which includes the utilitarian logic of measuring happiness against happiness or pleasure against absence of pain, became a collective unconscious, a common symbolic logic. Mill is simply skimming the surface, as any latecomer in history would do, unless he is prepared to engage in a thorough genealogical analysis.

Like all the values created within it, society itself had its birth in an economy of violence. Members of the first communities, as they do in contemporary societies, learned to observe imperatives based on costs and benefits. The benefit is obviously security, the cost the possibility of merciless violence being turned upon the individual who is perceived as a threat to their security. Nietzsche holds this violence to be justifiable, for out of this autochthonous violence comes the possibility for human futurity. The ability to make promises implies nothing less than having control over the future.

In time, the obvious violent exchanges became meek economic exchanges, but not without man having to pay the price for becoming ‘civilized’. Taming, ‘civilizing’, for Nietzsche, implies what he calls ‘internalization’, an idea that in a post-Freudian age, seems deceptively obvious: ‘all instincts that do not discharge themselves outwardly turn inward’. Nietzsche states: ‘Thus it was that man first developed what was later called his ‘soul’ (GM II, 15). The invention of the soul, as we have seen, divides the human animal, pushes back its instinct for freedom, and finally able to discharge and vent itself only on itself, the organism declares war on itself. Nietzsche describes the inner agon as follows:

…the man who, from lack of external enemies and resistances and forcibly confined to the oppressive narrowness and punctiliousness of custom impatiently lacerated, persecuted, gnawed at, assaulted and maltreated himself… This yearning and desperate prisoner became the inventor of bad conscience. (GM II, 15).

In time, the human being, suing for peace, comes to swear allegiance to a new kind of psychological ‘oligarchy’ ‘with regulation, foresight and pre-meditation’ keeping at bay our ‘underworld of utility organs working with and against one another’ (GM II 16). With the aid of the morality of mores and the social straitjacket that accompanies it, the organism’s oligarchy is kept in power, and man learns to be ‘ashamed of his instincts’. Stifling his cruel and murderous impulses, he becomes ‘calculable, regular, automatic [notwendig] even in his own self-image’ (GM II, 16) – a subject of civilized reason and morality, Mill’s subject.

            However, the now more developed organism did not lose his impulses for cruelty. What might otherwise be inexplicable – the pleasure men have apparently taken in the pains that accompanied the process of learning to rule themselves – Nietzsche explains through the survival of internalized cruelty and the paradoxical mixture of pain and pleasure that characterizes it. The horrific oxymoron of self-torture becomes the key to interpret a number of intertwined phenomena in The Genealogy of Morals: the bad conscience, guilt, and above all, the asceticism of Christianity. The process of internalization cripples man’s animal instincts, shared taboos make the exercise of the will to power difficult and sometimes even impossible. At the same time, in some rare souls, the masochistic pleasures of self-rule somehow strengthen the will to power in all its cruel splendour – the old animal instincts cultivated with foresight and transfigured through the use of memory, imagination and reason erupt in new forms of mastery:

[T]his secret self-ravishment, this artist’s cruelty, this delight in imposing a form upon oneself as a hard, recalcitrant suffering material, and in burning a will, a critique, a contradiction, a contempt, a No into it, this uncanny, dreadfully joyous labour of a soul voluntarily at odds with itself that makes it suffer, out of joy in making suffer – eventually the entire active bad conscience – you will have guessed it – as the womb of all ideal and imaginative phenomena, also brought to life an abundance of strange new beauty and affirmation, and perhaps beauty itself (GM II, 18).


Almost everything we call `higher culture’ is based on the spiritualization and intensification of cruelty ‑this is my proposition; the `wild beast’ has not been laid to rest at all, it lives, it flourishes, it has merely become ‑ deified. That which constitutes the painful voluptuousness of tragedy is cruelty; that which produces a pleasing effect in so‑called tragic pity, indeed fundamentally in everything sublime up to the highest and most refined thrills of metaphysics, derives its sweetness solely from the ingredient of cruelty mixed in with it (BGE 229).

Nietzsche agrees with Mill that our needs determine our values. For him, needs simply stretch further than the need for pleasure or the fear of pain.

It is our needs that interpret the world; our drives and their For and Against. Every drive is a kind of lust to rule; each one has its perspective that would like to compel all the other drives to accept as norm (WP, 481).

As we have seen however, it might be better to sometimes refrain from asking what exactly these needs demand. We are determined to such an extent by our needs, that to suggest that they should form the basis of our morals, is nothing short of a tautology. They already do.

There is a great irony to be found in the fact that pain is exacerbated in the very attempt to eliminate it. The Judeo-Christian slave interpretation of morality is but one interpretation of suffering – more precisely, a misinterpretation. It is a misinterpretation of the weak, who, unable to leave their mark upon the world, believe that their weaknesses are actually virtues, the results of rational choice rather than shortcomings on their part. Unable to distinguish themselves, they turn uniformity into a virtue and insist upon imposing it on everyone: this is how the slave mentality creates the herd. The values of the herd are created by reversing the values of the master, who favours values like strength and distinction over meekness and uniformity.

It appears to make suffering and injustice more meaningful and hence tolerable, but at the same time, moral interpretations of suffering compounds suffering in that it occasions the suffering associated with ressentiment, guilt, asceticism, and eventually nihilism. After the advent of the latter, pain is so much harder to bear. This moral code, Nietzsche writes, ‘combats only the suffering, the discomfiture of the sufferer, not the real sickness’ (GM III, 17). Besides, there is hardly anything more inhumane than having to live in a world almost completely determined by economic rules, where everything can and must be paid for.

While the avoidance of pain may have its merits as an ideal for thinkers who live after Auschwitz, it is insufficient as an ideal. For the weak, the avoidance of pain is the means for protecting life; both pain and pleasure are however, such a part of life that to use either as the justification for life would amount to a fallacy: the sum cannot be justified by its parts. Pleasure cannot be used to justify life: that would make it party to the suit and judge in one.

Mill does not give us any reason as to why the human creature should be free from pain. Just because he experiences pain, is still no reason why he should not simply bear it, as Hume’s is/ought distinction reminds us. For Nietzsche, comfort is not an aim worthy of man: ‘Well-being as you understand it, that is no goal, that seems to us an end, a state that soon makes man ridiculous and contemptible’ (BGE 225). For all his defense of the body and the earthly, Nietzsche is no vulgar hedonist; as shown in our chapter on the Romantics, he was far too classical to stand for crude excess.

 Nietzschean cruelty is not ‘bestial’ or merely sadistic; the Nietzschean ‘sadist’ is not a psychopath or by any means a ‘pathological’ creature. Cruelty is instead a form of release from pain, a way in which the human being copes with suffering. Nietzsche’s real objection to cruelty is its abuse in the moralizing context. Cruelty, as a form of violent differentiation, an artist’s weapon of form-giving, has a certain limited legitimacy. Without it, man may never reach what he is truly capable of, and in the Nietzschean framework, there is nothing more terrible than this.

What if a symptom of regression were inherent in the ‘good’’, likewise a danger, a seduction, a poison, a narcotic, through which the present was possibly living at the expense of the future? Perhaps more comfortably, less dangerously, but at the same time in a meaner style, more basely? – so that precisely morality would be to blame if the highest power and splendor possible to man was in fact never attained? So that precisely morality was in the danger of dangers? (BT, ‘Attempt at a Self-Criticism’, 5)

For Nietzsche, if pain is a prerequisite for greatness, it is a price he is willing to pay: ‘Terribleness is part of greatness, let us not deceive ourselves’ (WP, 1028). In his world, the infliction of pain is assigned a positive and productive power; it is a tool or plastic force that gives shape to reality and therefore sets the creative drives free. For Nietzsche, suffering is not merely an emotional experience, but conflicting plastic forces, the will to power, or life itself that goes through all individuals like a common current. Cruelty serves suffering like an artistic instrument which emancipates its forces into images and deeds, values, virtues and laws. It is man’s most primitive instrument of interpretation, the most elemental artistic aid used to construct definite points of value and desire, e.g. social values. It is during the spectacle of cruelty that measuring happens, through watching the event of suffering, equivalences are contrived, values established, and man’s future is determined. Utility pales as an evaluative criterion when put into the company of Nietzschean standards.

… they would like with all their might to prove to themselves that to strive after English happiness, I mean after comfort and fashion (and, as the supreme goal, a seat in Parliament), is at the same time the true path of virtue, indeed that all virtue there has ever been on earth has consisted in just such a striving. Not one of all these ponderous herd animals with their uneasy conscience (who undertake to advocate the cause of egoism as the cause of the general welfare ‑ ) wants to know or scent that the `general welfare’ is not an ideal, or a goal, or a concept that can be grasped at all, but only an emetic ‑ that what is right for one cannot by any means therefore be right for another, that the demand for one morality for all is detrimental to precisely the higher men, in short that there exists an order of rank between man and man, consequently also between morality and morality. They are a modest and thoroughly mediocre species of man, these English utilitarians, and, as aforesaid, in so far as they are boring one cannot think sufficiently highly of their utility. One ought even to encourage them: which is in part the objective of the following rhymes:

Hail, continual plodders, hail! `Lengthen out the tedious tale’, Pedant still in head and knee, Dull, of humour not a trace, Permanently commonplace, sans génie et sans esprit! (BGE 228).

Indeed, not only does Nietzsche believe pain to play an important part in the life of both a healthy individual and a healthy culture, but at times he suggests that sickness, too, is a necessary prerequisite for genuine health. Traditionally, health is defined negatively and simply as the absence of sickness: the individual is well if nothing is wrong with him. Health is thus understood in the sense of Lockean freedom: the absence of obstacles is the ‘neutral’ or ‘natural’ position. Health according to this position is thus a neutral condition, a golden mean achieved by moderation and the absence of excess. In contrast to this view, Sickness can (although it might not necessarily be the case) act as a stimulant to great health, providing both a target to overcome to an even healthier end and something against which the condition of health can be measured and identified. Writing in the preface to the second edition of The Gay Science Nietzsche says:


Noble and common. Common natures consider all noble, magnanimous feelings inexpedient and therefore first of all incredible. They blink when they hear of such things and seem to feel like saying: ‘Surely there must be some advantage involved; one cannot see through everything’. They are suspicious of the noble person as if he surreptitiously sought his advantage (GS, Preface, 3).

It is here where Nietzsche’s radical otherness to the tradition shines through. Despite all the attempts at politically correct ‘rehabilitations – there is a Nietzsche for almost everything these days: a feminist Nietzsche, a pluralist Nietzsche, a harmless aesthete, the ubiquitous ‘Nietzsche for the Other’ – Nietzsche is an unabashed elitist, possibly the only thinker to consider fully the implications of modernity’s hysterical drive to egalitarianism. Nietzsche’s notion of justice is an aesthetic one: for him, justice is served when man reaches the full extent of his potential. If there is to be a single theme to his works – a position that no Nietzsche scholar would defend these days – it is that he is a robust defender of quality, and a bitter opponent of mediocrity in any form. This is not up for debate; this was the one great purpose of Nietzsche’s lifelong endeavour. In every Nietzschean text there is a joyful admiration of the strong, the stylish and the courageous, and a healthy enjoyment of the joys of an energizing conflict. In BGE 62, he chastises the ‘Christian’ ethos of his time for its apparent purpose to ‘smash the strong, contaminate great hopes, cast suspicion on joy in beauty, break down everything autocratic, manly, conquering, tyrannical, all the instincts proper to the highest and most successful of the type ‘man’, into uncertainty, remorse of conscience, self‑destruction’. The same passage states unambiguously that it ‘worsens the European race’. In a note from 1888, he says ‘Whoever reflects upon the way in which the type man can be raised to his greatest splendor will grasp first of all that he must place himself outside morality, for morality itself has been essentially directed to the opposite end, to obstruct, or destroy that splendid evolution wherever it has been going on’ (WP 897).[5]

To give Mill his due – which is something Nietzsche never does – he did regard the aesthetic self-development of man in a serious light.


Intellectual education, and moral education: knowledge and the training of the knowing faculty, conscience and the moral faculty. These are the two main ingredients of human culture; but they do not exhaust the whole of it. There is a third division, which, if subordinate and owing allegiance to the two others, is barely inferior to them, and not less needful to the completeness of the human being; I mean the aesthetic branch; the culture that comes through poetry and art, and may be described as the education of the feelings, and the cultivation of the beautiful (Mill 1963 CW 21 ‘Inaugural Address at Saint Andrews’: 251).


Nietzsche’s first problem would be with the subordination of the aesthetic to the moral, as if the aesthetic is only an afterthought – albeit a very important afterthought in Mill’s case – to a fully formed rational subject with his ‘own’ idea of the good that only needs a space free from interference in order to develop that idea. This is of course the essence of liberalism. Mill is committed to the most basic tenets of liberalism, namely to the notion that every individual is a free and sovereign being with the right to pursue his or her notion of the good in his or her particular way with the minimum of state interference. Liberalism is of course also committed to pluralism and the idea that every individual is unique and has his or her own conception of what makes life worth the effort. As Herman Siemens points out (Siemens 2007: 2), pluralism is likewise important for Nietzsche, who celebrates the plurality and richness of life-forms, and diverse expressions of style. So much so that he has Zarathustra refusing disciples: ‘This is now my way – where is yours?’ Thus did I answer those who asked me ‘the way’. For the way–it doth not exist!’ (Z III, ‘On the Spirit of Gravity’ 2).

However, no idea of the good ever comes into being in isolation. As Bonnie Honig points out, ‘even the Overman is not as self-sufficient, apart and complete as he is often taken to be. How can the Overman be a fait accompli? He must renegotiate his relationship with himself and his past, daily. Constituted by language and other human, all-too human practices and institutions, the overman is forever faced with the challenge of self-overcoming, continually confronted with new opportunities for ressentiment and rage. (Honig 1993: 64). It is,as Chantal Mouffe also points out debatable if one can even speak of plurality when liberalism commits the individual to an isolated private space where the individual never gets the chance to test and shape his opinions in agonal conflict. At best one can speak here of an impotent pluralism. As Kant also emphasized, the question of taste is essentially public, and aesthetics a matter of disinterstedness. In a private zone anything is allowed, and matters of art and quality easily fall into the quagmire of private entertainment. Liberalism, taking a ready-minted self for granted, tends to produce a crude, unshaped, decadent subject that clings to its ‘moral worth’, ignoring the socio-physiological factors necessary for having a self at all. In note 11 [182] NL Spring 1881-Autumn 1882 (KSA 9, 509), Nietzsche states that the human being develops through complex self-regulatory processes of internal self-organization and reciprocal exchanges with its environment. These processes include metabolic processes, secretion and excretion, metabolic powers, the power of regeneration and various forms of conflict. The human being cannot exist without adopting and rejecting, assimilating and transforming elements from the outer world. Without this, there is mere stasis and death. Giving style to one’s existence consists of an artful selection of the elements one deems best. In order to achieve any kind of ‘grand style’ sacrifices have to be made. Style itself, is not all, the experience of sheer power in the process of achieving that style provides greater satisfaction than any utilitarian can understand. Eventually, a world measured only by utilitarian standards will become unbearable: ‘You utilitarians, you too love everything useful only as a vehicle of your inclinations ‑ you too really find the noise of its wheels intolerable? ‘(BGE 174). This is why Mill, despite his honest appreciation for the Greeks, fails to live up to their standards.


No utilitarians.— ‘Power against which much ill is done and meditated is worth more than impotence which encounters only good’—thus the Greeks felt. That is to say: they valued the feeling of power more highly than any sort of utility or good reputation (Daybreak 360).

Nietzsche’s individualism is a rich one, forever straining against its boundaries, like an overflowing cup spilling its contents. Nietzsche’s self by far exceeds Mill’s: it demands a playground beyond liberalism – a playground as large as life itself; one that only Shakespeare could match.






[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all references are to the Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, edited by Robson, J. M. Toronto: Toronto University Press. Henceforth indicated in the text according to the following example: (Mill 1963 CW ‘Utilitarianism’: 201).

[2] Machivelli’s The Prince.

[3]  The public announcement and execution of the sentence of the Inquisition, with the attendant ceremonies, such as the burning at the stake. Literally translated from the Spanish it means ‘act of faith’.

[4] René Girard confirms this thesis by pointing out the importance of the scapegoat in constructing communal unity.

[5] See also Daybreak163, BGE 212, GM III, 14, Ecce Homo IV, 4, WP 274, 345, 957.

Netzsche and Eliot


For the cynic it may appear that George Eliot could never put a foot right. For her countrymen, Mary Ann Evans was not man enough; for her harshest Teutonic critic, she was not Woman enough. As is the case with most of the English names that appear in the Nietzschean oeuvre, Eliot stands as a symbol of what Nietzsche detested: rational morality, scientific truth as a guide for life and realism in art. Ironically, it is not her gender that is the main issue here – although that hardly helps – but the fact that she exhibits the same flaws as the men of her age, namely the tendency to see Truth as something to capture and unmask, instead of a challenging playmate.

 George Eliot

I fear that women who have grown old are more skeptical in the secret recesses of their hearts than any of the men; they believe in the superficiality of existence as its essences, and all virtue and profundity is to them only the disguise of this ‘truth’, the very desirable disguising of a paedelum, an affair therefore of decency and modesty, and nothing more! (GS, 64).

Eliot was apparently not one of them. As a woman, she should have known better than to find truth in science and morality in rationalistic rules. If God is dead, he should have been done away with completely, not chased after in quaint little notions like ‘duty’. For Nietzsche, there is nothing more desperate than an atheist who wants to be a believer.

In many ways, Eliot is even more representative of Victorian ideas than Dickens – the latter captured Victorian sentiment, Eliot Victorian ideas. As the first shadow of doubt began to creep into Western consciousness, it was hoped that if the world was no longer God’s, perhaps it could be more properly man’s. At first sight, this opened up hitherto inconceivable possibilities for freedom: Hans Blumenberg for example views modern ‘self-assertion’ as an active, reconstructive engagement with the world as a fruitful response to the deus absconditus. The idea that mankind had been squandering all their treasures on God, so that now by unbelief they are released for human self-affirmation had its origins in Renaissance secularism, but only became fully explicit in the nineteenth century. Feuerbach personifies this development:

The purpose of my writings is to turn men from theologians into anthropologists, from theophilists into philanthropists, from candidates for the hereafter into students for the here and now, from religious and political lackeys of the heavenly and earthly monarchies into free, self-confident citizens of the world (Solomon 1988: 107)

Feuerbach’s naturalistic humanism, which greatly influenced George Eliot, represents a line of thought more easily reconcilable with the aspirations of the English bourgeois than those of the still mainly feudal Germany, where Hegel’s speculative phenomenology dominated more or less until the Second World War.

Nietzsche’s great complaint against Eliot – and the realists in general – is their attachment to truth. Realists are far too Hegelian for their own good: ‘The Rational is Real, and the Real is Rational’. The problem of knowledge, and how to overcome the problem of relativism, occupied Eliot from her first works to the last. She was no cynical skeptic: although fully aware of Kant’s limitations on the possibility of knowledge, she was wise enough to realize that one cannot live one’s life as a skeptic.’ [S]kepticism as we know, can never be thoroughly applied, else life would come to a standstill’ she writes in Book 23 of Middlemarch. As we have seen in our Hume chapter, this is precisely Bertrand Russell’s complaint, and as we show in our Emerson chapter, also the problem that Nietzsche tried to solve through other means.

Eliot was certainly aware of the problem of relativism. Even before she began to write fiction, she recognized that language was not a perfect instrument to make the world transparent. Writing in 1856, even while still under the influence of the ultra positivist Cours de la philosophie positive, Eliot comments upon the imperfections of language:

It must be admitted that the language of cultivated nations is in anything but a rational state; the great sections of the civilized world are only approximately intelligible to each; and even that, only at the cost of a long study; one word stands for many things, and many words for one thing. The subtle shades of meaning, and still subtler shades echoes of association, make language an instrument which scarcely anything short of genius can wield with definiteness and certainty (Pinney: 1963: 114).

This is an Eliot that Nietzsche might have respected, except for the fact that the genius too – perhaps especially a genius – would fail at making the world transparent. Nietzsche, as we have seen, would have rejoiced in this. Though Eliot admitted to the limits of language, she was very far from adopting an anti-realist position. She claimed that ‘different groups of human beings, though in the very beginning of their existence sundered from each other, most inevitably fall upon the same devices for communication and analogical representation’ (Collins 1980: 385). Rather than to support an absolute subjectivism, she insisted on limitations to human thought, but upholding the ideal of a common truth, an ideal she shared with Ludwig Feuerbach.

Feuerbach’s main claim in The Essence of Christianity is that God is fiction, a projection of human needs, and Christianity is not literally true. Feuerbach’s own aim is indeed the ‘uncovering of unveiled, naked truth’ (Feuerbach 1957: xxxiv). One could hardly hope for a more unNietzschean sentiment! Feuerbach is generally taken to be a weak relativist in the sense that he thinks that although we do not have access to a view outside of the human experience, we are nevertheless not bereft of truth: ‘It is true that I may have a merely subjective con ception, that is, one which does not arise out of the general constitution of my species, but if my conception is determined by the constitution of my species, the distinction between what an object is in itself, and what it is for me ceases; for this conception is itself an absolute one’ (Feuerbach 1967: 16). This is what George Eliot ultimately aimed for, and her admiration for August Comte is reflected in her realist style. However, it is the later Comte, the author of The System of Positive Polity, that allows more room for feeling (the ‘affective’) whose influence is clearly to be seen in Eliot’s work. Writing in a time where the function of the novel and its role was still being debated, Eliot saw a strong ethical dimension to the novel. She and George Lewes frequently contributed to the debate: Lewes wrote for example that ‘a novel is an exhortation… not a demonstration, but it does not the less appeal to our moral sense’ (Lewes 1853:475, quoted by Levine, G, 2001:20). Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch develops as a character because she moves from a subjective picture of the world to a more ‘objective’ one. ‘she was no longer struggling against the perception of facts, but adjusted herself to their clearest perception’ (Middlemarch, chapter 37). The idea that the novel is a vehicle for our ethical enrichment is making a comeback again today in the thought of Martha Nussbaum, who argues persuasively that ethical truths are presentable only in the form of narrative, that can illustrate the particularities, complexities and nuance that accompanies our situatedness. For George Eliot, this went without saying. For her, the capacity for sympathy was essential for the possibility of human agency, because morality consisted in one’s ability to transcend solipsism and share another’s state of mind. The emphasis on ‘sympathy’ is clearly derived from Feuerbach, who argues that the qualities traditionally ascribed to God – sympathy, love and benevolence – are qualities innate to humans.

It appears that, for all her artistic complexity, George Eliot is fundamentally an objectivist in ethics. It is not difficult to imagine Nietzschean ire rising at this idea. For Eliot, there are ‘independent’ moral facts that exist ‘objectively’ beyond any human perspective. To be moral, behaviour required what Eliot regards as form of independence, an ability to maintain a sensitivity for ‘that sense of others’ claims’ (The Mill on the Floss, VI: 13). Being a nineteenth century moral theoretician, it should come as no surprise that the justification of morality is for her a central problem. Taking her cue from Spencer and Mill, she was open to the goal of founding ethics on science, and altruism is a key concept in her work: both Dorothea Brooke’s and Maggie Tulliver’s dilemmas derive from a fervent desire not to hurt others. This is then one of the central objections Nietzsche could raise to the ‘little moralistic female’, namely that she took the goodness of sympathy and the virtue of pity for granted, leaving her no other option but to defend it upon intuitive grounds.

It makes quite a difference as to which German philosopher one follows. Despite the obvious differences, there is often a marked agreement between Nietzsche and Kant. Both thinkers agree that to look into our hearts is impossible, and both present self-knowledge as a task at the same time obligatory and beyond our ability to complete. Both heap contempt upon romantic ideas of easy nobility, of ‘beautiful souls’ who think that they can do without anything as harsh as duty or struggle. Kant’s later thought, with its more profound psychological insight, sees self-deception as the ‘foul spot’ upon ‘human nature’ (Kant: 1963: 205). Nietzsche, who elevates intellectual honesty to the most supreme intellectual virtue, is in this respect at least, not very far from Kant. Both are contemptuous of pity: Kant of the ‘melting compassion’ and Nietzsche, in his most Stoic vein, abhors pity.Nietzsche

Importantly for our purpose, Nietzsche locates a certain hermeneutic hubris in the act of pity. Most pitiers claim to ‘put themselves in the shoes of the pitied’ – as we have seen, Eliot seemed to have aimed for this – and in doing so, commits the violence of the ‘penetrating gaze’, and fail to respect the inaccessibility to another’s experience. In doing so, the pitier robs the pitied of the last scraps of dignity still left to him. ‘To offer pity is to offer contempt’, writes Nietzsche in Daybreak 135. As Nussbaum (Schacht 1994: 153) points out, Nietzsche focuses on a specific type of pity, the Christian variety, that he associates closely with a depreciation of the world and of the body. Pity that flows from these impulses is therefore associated with a secret fear, best expressed by the famous exclamation of John Bradford on seeing some criminals led to execution: ‘But for the grace of God, there goes I’ (Sutherland 1978: 217). Pity is therefore not always altruistic, but most of the time egoistic. Nussbaum reminds us that our act serves to reassure us that we have ‘defenses lined up against the world’s assaults’ (Nussbaum in Schacht 1994: 154). She also points to the link that Nietzsche makes between pity and cruelty: For once we ascribe significance to certain events in life, we make ourselves vulnerable to an endless list of possibilities for others to harm us.

The death of God did not, of course bring about the death of ‘mercy, pity, peace and love’. Quite the contrary. The moral hope engendered by the Christian myth proved stronger than the myth itself. From the mid-nineteenth century, the Christian tradition itself was taken to task for ‘not being Christian enough’, and attacked by a plethora of proto-socialist ‘improvers of mankind’ – from the meliorists to the Fabian society. George Eliot is the textbook example: Remembering a conversation held with Eliot shortly before her death, F.W.H. Meyers writes: ‘Taking as her text the three words which have been used so often as the inspiring trumpet-call of men – the words God, Immortality, Duty – she pronounced with terrible earnestness, how inconceivable was the first, how unbelievable the second, and yet how peremptory and absolute the third. Never, perhaps, have sterner accents affirmed the sovereignty of impersonal and unrecompensing Law’.[1] This kind of metaphysical thinking is of course precisely Nietzsche’s problem. It is only an illusion that after the death of God his moral law remains untouched and solid, ready to serve as transcendental foundation in his place. For a long time of course, the shadow of God was to be happily embraced in the form of moral remnants:

  1. G. Eliot. — They are rid of the Christian God and now believe all the more firmly that they must cling to Christian morality. That is an English consistency; we do not wish to hold it against little moralistic females à la Eliot. In England one must rehabilitate oneself after every little emancipation from theology by showing in a veritably awe-inspiring manner what a moral fanatic one is. That is the penance they pay there.

We others hold otherwise. When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet. This morality is by no means self-evident: this point has to be exhibited again and again, despite the English flatheads. Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands. Christianity presupposes that man does not know, cannot know, what is good for him, what evil: he believes in God, who alone knows it. Christian morality is a command; its origin is transcendent; it is beyond all criticism, all right to criticism; it has truth only if God is the truth — it stands and falls with faith in God.

When the English actually believe that they know ‘intuitively’ what is good and evil, when they therefore suppose that they no longer require Christianity as the guarantee of morality, we merely witness the effects of the dominion of the Christian value judgment and an expression of the strength and depth of this dominion: such that the origin of English morality has been forgotten, such that the very conditional character of its right to existence is no longer felt. For the English, morality is not yet a problem.

For Nietzsche, it was the problem. If there is an unconditional standard at work in Nietzsche’s writings – an ethic of self-realization is clearly present right through his oeuvre – he certainly does not appear to think that it will be easily communicable in the simple fixity of a universal law. A wiser attempt would be to take a course of life as it is led among others as the summary of a person’s attempt to realize or find that unconditional standard. Even in the unlikelihood of anyone ever finding that standard, it would be a life led closer to the reality of moral learning than Kant’s catechisms. Mere conceptual interpretation will never convey the creativity open to an exemplary course of life, especially in the light of Nietzsche’s account of the fragility of conscious ratiocination, with its persistent simplification of the complex reality of deeds, not to mention the ineluctable tendency to be pressed into the service of self-deception. Furthermore, the Categorical Imperative, as highest criterion of reasonableness, invites us to ensure that our course of action would be appropriate for any similar agent in similar circumstances – the old Sidgwickian line of ‘a reason in one case is a reason in all cases, or it is not a reason at all’. A crucial thrust in Nietzsche’s objection to Kant lies in his characteristic assertion that we should not be asked to consider ourselves in such a position of sameness. Instead, he demands that we explicitly distinguish ourselves. He does not simply dismiss our ‘shared humanity’ but acts as a corrective to Kant’s elimination of plurality that forms part of his over-simple universalizing procedures. Rather than to object to the entire enterprise of morality – as most people still think he does – he simply rejects the claim of any morality to universal scope and application. Such a morality is not only inhumane in the obvious economical sense– creating laws that forbid the rich and the poor alike to sleep under bridges and to steal bread – but also inhumane in that it denies difference in potential, and in particular, refuses to allow scope for the genuine individual, he who has to create his own world and cannot bear to be fettered to one set of rules. Such a monolithic ideal is responsible for the greatest injustice hitherto known to man: the reduction of a plurality of human kinds and types to the lowest common denominator. This is a crime against humanity if ever there was one. Naturally, ethical laws bind – and should bind collectively, but only across a limited number of individuals, such as a race or community. In Zarathustra’s words: ‘I am a law only for my kind’ (Z, IV: 12). The liberal dream of a universal ethical community that comprises all human beings is in reality a nightmare. The laws of such an omni-ethical community expresses only the commonalities and banalities of the individuals involved in the project, rather than their unique strengths and virtues and viewpoints. The function of morality is to enhance the life of a particular people, rather than the other way around.


Morality – no longer the expression of the conditions for the life and growth of a people, no longer its most basic instinct of life, but become abstract, become the antithesis of life – morality as the systematic degradation of the imagination – as the ‘evil eye’ for all things. (GM, II).


Nietzsche’s infamous crusade against Christianity should be read in this context.

Nietzsche has it against the moral monism, what I believe can rightly be called the leftovers of Christianity: George Eliot’s morality. It is often forgotten that Nietzsche takes issue not with Christian morality in its ‘pure’ forms, which he readily admits has value in that it serves the ‘inwardly destroyed’ (BGE, 62). He objects to Christian morality only where it serves to render political and moral pluralism impossible. In a strange way, he even helps to highlight the particularity – and therefore its unique form it gives to life, by alerting his readers to the fact that this particular form of morality is not co-extensive to morality itself: ‘I negate a form of morality that has become prevalent as morality itself, the morality of decadence, or more concretely, Christian morality (EH, XIV: 4). He goes on to explain that his self-awarded title, the ‘immoralist’ designates an opposition specifically to the secularized Christian morality which had in Nietzsche’s day (and still up to this day in the form of human rights) a virtual monopoly over ethical life. As an alternative, Nietzsche supports the idea of moral pluralism that reflects the rich diversity of human types on the planet. At the same time, Nietzsche the artist seeks to remind us that these different moralities vary in worth as widely as the individuals whose needs, styles and perfections they express.

Moralities must be forced to bow first of all before the order of rank; their presumption must be brought home to their conscience – until they finally

reach agreement that it is immoral to say ‘what is right for one is fair for the other’ (BGE 221).

Even the morality of the nobles – ‘their good manners’ cannot be adopted as a ‘fundamental principle of society’ because it defeats the purpose and it immediately becomes a principle of ‘disintegration and decay’ (BGE, 259). It loses its aesthetic dimension and becomes yet another moralism. Instead, no single principle should ever become absolute, so for Nietzsche no single aspect of human existence should be denied or disowned.

Christianity was never in danger of being practised until the nineteenth century. Then it was taken to task for not being Christian enough. This is because its major interpreters have stripped it of its mythopoetic values and turned it into a mere moral framework. This is one of the reasons why Nietzsche never formally proclaimed himself to be an atheist: there is only one thing primmer than a reformed whore and that is an atheist trying to set the world to rights.

Morality, of course, makes the dreadful demand of finding true origins – one cannot base a moral system that forbids lying upon a lie. It was the awareness of of the deceptive nature of language that led the Greeks, the last truly aesthetic race in Nietzsche’s opinion, to admire Odysseus for his ability to tell lies. ‘the most remarkable thing about it is that the antithesis of being and appearance is not felt at all, and is thus of no significance morally. Have there ever been such consummate actors!’ (GS 306). For our purposes, precisely the erasure between being and appearance is of cardinal importance: for Nietzsche the work of art should not seek to reveal any higher truth behind superficial appearance. It is not that art is mendacious because of some lack, or Platonic failure, it is just that there is no reality to portray.

It should be noted that even in his middle works, where he is supposed to be more sympathetic to the positivist sciences, Nietzsche remains critical of the realist movement in art, which functions as artistic analogue to the scientific positivism of its age. Although speaking specifically of Flaubert in KSA 11(25) note 164 from 1884, it can be taken to cover realism as genre: ‘The will to be objective’ e.g. Flaubert is a modern misunderstanding… Gentlemen [and ladies], there is no ‘thing in itself’! What they achieve is a kind of scientism of photography, i.e. description without perspective, a kind of Chinese painting, pure foreground and everything full to bursting’.

In the introductory section of verse that opens The Gay Science, Nietzsche says:


            The realist painter

“Nature is true and complete!”

when would Nature ever be represented in his picture?

Infinite is the smallest portion of the world!—

In the end he paints of it what he likes.

And what does he like? Whatever he can paint!

(GS, ‘Jest, Cunning and Revenge’, 55)



The English realists, could of course not resist.

‑ It is characteristic of such an unphilosophical race that they should cling firmly to Christianity: they need its discipline if they are to become `moral’ and humane. The Englishman, gloomier, more sensual, stronger of will and more brutal than the German ‑ is for just that reason, as the more vulgar of the two, also more pious than the German: he is in greater need of Christianity. To finer nostrils even this English Christianity possesses a true English by‑scent of the spleen and alcoholic excess against which it is with good reason employed as an antidote ‑ the subtler poison against the coarser: and indeed a subtle poisoning is in the case of coarse peoples already a certain progress, a step towards spiritualization. English coarseness and peasant seriousness still finds its most tolerable disguise in Christian gestures and in praying and psalm‑singing: more correctly, it is best interpreted and given a new meaning by those things; and as for those drunken and dissolute cattle who formerly learned to grunt morally under the constraint of Methodism and more recently as the `Salvation Army’, a spasm of penitence may really be the highest achievement of `humanity’ to which they can be raised: that much may fairly be conceded. But what offends in even the most humane Englishman is, to speak metaphorically (and not only metaphorically), his lack of music: he has in the movements of his soul and body no rhythm and dance, indeed not even the desire for rhythm and dance, for `music’. Listen to him speak; watch the most beautiful Englishwomen walk ‑ in no land on earth are there more beautiful doves and swans ‑ finally: listen to them sing! But I ask too much … (BGE 252).

The problem becomes obvious when one turns towards Nietzsche’s own treatment in the first Untimely Meditation, where it manifested itself in the form of David Strauss. David Strauss was a nineteenth-century ‘mythbuster’, a theologian who sought to explain the miracles of the Gospel narratives as a series of myths. However, giving up on Christianity is something entirely different from giving up on Truth, and for Nietzsche, Strauss remained in the same metaphysical matrix as before.

Eliot should have known better than to follow German philosophers. As Nietzsche writes, ‘German philosophy as a whole – Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, to name but the greatest – is the most fundamental form of romanticism and homesickness there has ever been’ (WP 419).

And realism is the ugly twin of Romanticism. As Oscar Wilde said in his introduction to The Picture of Dorian Gray: ‘The nineteenth century dislike of Realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass. The nineteenth century dislike of Romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his face in a glass’.

As the reader would have gathered by now, they stem from the same root. Much as Bacon has done centuries before, Eliot appears to have forgotten Art’s true function. That is, as Nietzsche says right at the beginning of his career in The Birth of Tragedy and again in HAH 146 ‘Art renders the sight of life bearable by laying over it the veil of impure thinking’. Art does not simply disclose truth; instead it practices to deceive, teaching us to look upon life in every shape and form with interest and desire, to carry our feelings so far that we finally exclaim: ‘however it is, life is good’.

Christianity required its founder to die again, this time so that its morality can live. Karl Löwith, for example, sees modernity as the secularization of the Christian view on world history. For Löwith, the Christian notion of a divine intervention that would bring an end to mundane history becomes translated into the modernist ideology of progress, according to which at some time in the future humanity will have reached some kind of perfection, and history will effectively come to a halt. There is a strong Nietzschean parallel to this: morality in the Nietzschean sense is a form of ideology, and like all forms of ideology it tends toward the absolute. In the name of absolute justice, the moral, secular ideology of Christianity – as opposed to the faith itself – has one particular ‘taboo’ that sustains it, namely any form of ‘discrimination’ or exclusion. Often, the faith itself that gave birth to these values is regarded as one of the main obstacles to a universally just state, because of its capacity to engender difference and dissensus.[2] There are other examples that embody this vice as well: all moralities of good and evil that take themselves to be the embodiment of an ultimate principle – the Law of laws, the will of God, the ethical principle at the heart of being – are ultimately doomed to commit injustice. Concomitantly, so is any idealization of justice as a state or condition ontologically prior to the human lifeworld. Every absolute or universal moral framework, precisely because it sets itself up in such a way as to exclude the negative, creates the possibility of being disrupted by it. The fixed parameters that define the limits of every universe of meaning are put in place to prevent ingress or egress, to separate outside from inside, above all, to seal the safe off from the dangerous. Such separation, however, sets up the very possibility it was developed to prevent, namely the invasion of human life by pain, disaster and injustice. Those who have reconciled themselves to the inevitability of tragedy are of course much wiser.

The only referential framework that could achieve the purpose for which such frameworks are designed, would be one that would include the outside within itself, an all-encompassing structure that would leave nothing outside itself. This is what Emmanuel Levinas refers to as a ‘totality’ (Levinas 1969: 72). A totality is the dream-structure that would be immune to deconstruction, the center that would not only hold, but be immovable, the irrefragable archē against which anarchy does not stand a chance. This is the ascetic ideal at its most destructive.

Christianity in the end became self-defeating: it was the awe-inspiring catastrophe of two-thousand years of training in truth-telling that finally forbids itself the lie involved in the belief in God. The result is that


Christianity as a dogma was destroyed by its own morality; in the same way Christianity as a morality must now perish too: we stand on the threshold of this event. After Christianity truthfulness has drawn one inference after another, it must end by drawing its most striking inference against itself; this would happen, however, when it poses the question ‘what is the meaning of the will to truth? (GM III 27)




[1] Brooks, F. L. Essays on the thought of George Eliot. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956, p. 31.

[2] See for example A. C. Grayling’s Against All Gods. London: Oberon 2007. It is highly ironic that much of the criticism against religion from the contemporary atheist movement sees Christianity as too ‘Nietzschean’, i.e. a source of passion and conflict.

What Locke Lacked

Karl Jaspers once expressed his frustration when reading Nietzsche with the exclamation that nowhere did Nietzsche express an opinion without contradicting himself somewhere else. In the case of John Locke however, Nietzsche leaves very little doubt as to his true feelings about the father of modern liberalism. ‘Je méprise Locke’. It is clear that Nietzsche did not exactly harbour feelings of generosity towards the cornerstone of modern liberal thought.Upon reading further however, it transpires that even in this case, Nietzsche is not making a simple statement.


For one, Nietzsche is not saying, but quoting – the full sentence reads: ‘[I]t was Locke of whom Schelling said, understandably, ‘Je méprise Locke, in their fight against the English-mechanistic doltification of the world, Hegel and Schopenhauer were of one mind (with Goethe) – these two hostile brother geniuses in philosophy who strove apart toward opposite poles of the German spirit and in the process wrong each other as only brothers can’ (BGE 252). By quoting, rather than making an original statement, Nietzsche made a sly, rhetorical thrust towards the philosophical tradition that willingly sacrificed its artistic birthright for the pottage of empiricism. The decreasing interest in rhetorical thinking during the Enlightenment can be traced to a fundamental epistemological break that began in Europe from the seventeenth century onwards. Philosophy began to lose its intellectual status as the most fundamental discipline within the order of knowledge, and was replaced, in Germany, with historicist paradigms – especially from the 1800s – but in England, this replacement occurred even earlier and by the specialist discourses of the scientific disciplines, such as physics, physiology and biology, that introduced a new conception of progress and the empirical. The tension between rhetoric and philosophy in Locke’s work is a resurrection of an ancient conflict that can be traced to what Nietzsche viewed as Plato’s unGreek rejection of eloquence in favour of dialectical argument. With this comes the rejection of politics in its agonal form; as Hannah Arendt has also shown, the rise of epistēmē is in effect the death of doxa. And the exchange of the pre-subjective world of the public sphere for the determined world of interiorized subject inevitably leads to the sacrifice of genuine political freedom.

What is truly at stake in finding Lockean traces in Nietzsche’s oeuvre is the question as to why rhetoric and trope should be so problematic. After all, Locke’s political subject is nothing but the product of metaphor. Locke, however, denounces the art of rhetoric as the ‘perfect cheat’: ‘if we speak of things as they are, we must allow that all the Art of Rhetorick, besides Order and Clearance, all the artificial and figurative application of Words Eloquence hath invented, are for nothing else but to insinuate wrong Ideas move the Passions, and thereby mislead the Judgement, and so indeed are the perfect cheat…’ (Locke 1975: III 10) As the cynical postmodernist might expect, Locke then goes ahead to slander rhetoric further in gender terms: ‘Eloquence, like the fair sex, has too prevailing beauties in it to suffer itself ever to be spoken against. And it is in vain to find fault with those arts of deceiving, wherein men find pleasure to be deceived’ (Locke 1975: III 10).

Martha Nussbaum writes in this regard that ‘Locke writes that the rhetorical and emotive elements of style are rather like a woman: amusing and even delightful when kept in their place, dangerous and corrupting if permitted to take control’. (Nussbaum 1986: 16).

Nietzsche, too, realized this, but famously, took it in his stride:

Language and the prejudices upon which language is based very often act as obstacles in our path when we proceed to explore inner phenomena and impulses… Wrath, hatred, pity, desire, recognition, joy, pain: all these are names indicating extreme conditions; the milder and the middle stages, and even more particularly the ever active lower stages, escape our attention, and yet it is they which weave the warp and woof of our character and destiny (Daybreak, 115).

As was the case with Hobbes and Bacon, Locke’s call for a re-assessment of knowledge is aimed at the Scholastic obscurity that he detects in theologically inspired philosophy. Like Hobbes, he rejects rhetoric’s ability to ‘rouse the mind’ as ‘practically useless’ and sided with the Royal Society’s famously misleading motto of nullius in verba and the search for a universal language of clear and accurate terms that would allow for philosophical reasoning free from linguistic pollution. Or better still, a wordless discourse (Condillac 1967: 114). Even if he does leave room for rhetoric, it is as something extra, something external to ‘true’ discourse, the pretty icing on the cake of ‘real’ thinking. Already at the outset of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke picks up upon the Baconian understanding of language and holds that linguistic obscuration is the root cause of most philosophical misunderstanding: ‘The greatest part of the Questions and Controversies that perplex Mankind depend on the doubtful and uncertain use of Words, or which is the same, indetermined Ideas, which they are made to stand for’ (Locke 1975: 13).

There is, however, a John Locke that at times sounds almost like Nietzsche, a topological Locke whose subtle ideas are more forcefully restated in Nietzsche. In more eloquent language, of course. This is a Locke that had to be repressed so that empiricism could live. As the Foucauldian would be able to confirm, this was no innocent epistemological move, but a deliberate power strategy: with the successes of the natural sciences, it no longer paid as well to invest in rhetoric. Today, however, Nietzsche’s influence has been so pervasive, so all-encompassing, that contemporary interpreters of canonical figures tend to present them as having really been postmodern figures avant la lettre. It is today almost as hard to find genuine transcendental and foundational thinkers in the history of philosophy as it was to find Nazis in Germany after the defeat of the Axis powers in 1945. After Nietzsche, everyone is embarrassed, and as a result, the world of criticism is today littered with ironists.[1] From a Nietzschean perspective however, there is something downright slavish about such denials: denying one’s flaws is but a single step away from denying one’s virtues. This is why Locke is despised: for Nietzsche, quality, strength and courage are far more important than its exactitude. Nowhere does Nietzsche denounce anyone for simply not getting his facts correct. On the contrary: ‘The falseness of a judgment is for us not necessarily an objection to a judgment; in this respect our new language may sound strangest. The question is to what extent it is life-promoting, life-serving, species-preserving, perhaps even species-cultivating (BGE 4). Consider too, for example, the almost complete absence of a denouncement of scholasticism in particular, on Nietzsche’s ‘hit list’: Christianity itself is of course well presented, but either in its totality, or else in its modern form, as the case of Luther proves. What matters is not the correctness of proposition, but its potency. What makes Locke so contemptible in Nietzsche’s view, is that he extolled the least important aspects of human existence, namely what we all have in common, and turned it into a doctrine. He continued Bacon and Hobbes’s attempts to be the final legislators, the lawmakers that would end the human capacity for lawmaking altogether.

Although Locke, even after the postmodern revolution, remains very much the liberal and metaphysician that he always was, there is a suppressed Other to the familiar thinker of the tabula rasa and the Social Contract that makes an appearance in Nietzsche. It is unclear whether Nietzsche specifically studied any Locke beyond his undergraduate years, but he goes so far as to say in the Will to Power section 101 that Germany had to be prepared for the scientific clarity of thinkers like Locke and Hume; for the heavy-handed metaphysical tradition they were too ‘superficial’. In the context of lamenting the belatedness of the German philosophical tradition in general, Nietzsche praises the brightness, scepticism and Voltairean clarity that Nietzsche took as representing the best of eighteenth century Western thinking. In the UM II: 9, chastising the Germans, he writes that ‘A worthy Englishman finds them lacking in delicacy and perception’. However, it was the implicit rhetorical critique of calcified metaphysical concepts that inspired Nietzsche’s positive appraisal of the British empiricists. Central metaphysical concepts, such as substance, cause and subject, simply vanish in the face of empiricist critique, where such concepts are construed as ‘ideas’. Nevertheless, the empiricist tradition is at a loss to explain why the mind mistakenly assumes that it possesses such concepts, and after a strong ideational annihilation, empiricism tends to slip into a psychological dead end, merely lamenting the limitations of the ‘mind’. After a while, the empiricist tradition simply stopped thinking. For Locke, sounding suspiciously like Nietzsche, the insistence upon an underlying substratum is an example of the inability to use the mind well: ‘not imagining how these simple Ideas can subsist by themselves, we accustom ourselves to suppose some Substratum; the Idea to which we give the name. Substance is nothing but the supposed, but unknown support of those Qualities, we find existing, which we imagine can not subsist sine re sustante. [B]ecause we cannot conceive how these qualities can subsist alone, we conceive of them existing in, and supported by, some common subject’ (Locke 1975: 196). For Locke, the mind’s ability to exceed what is implanted upon it by the senses is an impediment to knowledge: Locke envisages the ideal operation of the rational mind in strictly passive terms. Out of its weaknesses, habits, incapacities and chance, the mind ascribes characteristics to itself and to the world it, in fact does not possess. Nietzsche likewise acknowledges the violence done to the world, for example in the act of nomenclature, but it is not an obstacle to truth, but a precondition for it. The act of naming is articulated by limits, not substances. Although he is sometimes inclined to describe the constitution of concepts in terms of a physiological necessity, in The Book of the Philosopher he describes it as a mode of artistic creation:

There is a force in us, which allows the main traits of the reflected image to be perceived with more intensity and a force which emphasizes the same rhythm over the actual imprecision. This must be an artistic force, because it creates. Its principle means is to overlook, to omit, to ignore, hence, anti-scientific, for it does not have the same regard for all that is observed (BP, 70-72).

English philosophy’s greatest tragedy is not that it lacked Nietzsche’s fundamental insight as to man’s freedom in creating his world, rather than to be mere students of it, but that they were once in full possession of these insights. Not only have they failed to act upon them, but they positively saw them as a burden to be liberated from as soon as possible. For Nietzsche by contrast, it is the unartistic life that is hardly worth living. He was indeed the one figure in the history of philosophy that harboured no illusions as to our ability to escape our entanglement in language. ‘The intellect unfolds its principle powers in dissimulation’ (HAH 6). Truth, whatever it may ultimately be, refuses to yield to the prosaic advances of the ideal language. Truth manifests itself only in game-playing, cycles of concealment and exposure and demands persuasion, passion and style. As a result, rhetoric is by no means a hindrance to the pursuit of truth, if anything, it is the only way in which she can be apprehended. Like Molière’s bourgeois gentleman, who discovers that he has been speaking prose for 40 years without realizing it, we human beings are artists despite our most earnest efforts to be truth-tellers. As we shall see below, any effort to escape from our metaphysical prisons into the clear transparency of unhindered truth, will be thwarted by our very embodied and linguistic existence. Artists are the only ones who at least appear to be honest about these matters:

Artists have here perhaps a finer intuition; they who know only too well that precisely when they no longer do anything ‘arbitrarily’, and everything of necessity, their feeling of freedom, of subtlety, of power, of creatively fixing, disposing, and shaping, reaches its climax–in short, that necessity and ‘freedom of will’ are then the same thing with them (BGE, 213).

Empricists in particular are but artists in denial of their status. The rise of empiricism signifies the replacement of an obvious rhetorical language game with the calcified vocabulary of the modern sciences. Games are still being played, the only difference now is that the rules have become much stricter, and the game-like character of discourse of knowledge in the West has become hidden. But even artists in denial have their particular uses: at least the Associatives – Locke, Hume, Berkeley, Hartley – have dealt with the Rationalist delusions of the Platonic-Augustinian-Cartesian variety. Locke’s immediate achievement was to unseat the broadly NeoPlatonic notion that the mind and world share a common divinely imposed structure, in favour of a more modest naturalistic conception of human capacities, according to which experience of the world is seen as the origin of knowledge insofar as it provides – more or less – direct access to sensible objects as a source for mental images and ideas.

Locke is famous for placing the source of knowledge in the senses. He is a ‘concept’ empiricist rather than a crude ‘knowledge’ empiricist. He is, however, not consistently empiricist, and held that our concepts are drawn from experience, not simply that all our knowledge is based upon experience. Before commencing with the attack on innate ideas proper, he prepares the metaphorical ground. For Locke, the mind is some kind of space within which objects are to be had and observed, as a piece of furniture is to be owned and perceived in a room. Having defined ‘Idea’ as that ‘which is the Object of Understanding when a Man thinks’, he proposes to find the solution as to how ideas enter the mind. For the innatists, the question is simply never a problem, since the mind is not conceived as some kind of room into which ideas enter, but as a substance upon which ideas are written, stamped or engraved. Locke redescribes the innatist’s position in terms of a bipartite figurative representation of mind: the mind is now an engraved substance and an eye which sees, reads and decodes the message written there. The eye, at least, is now part of the thinking thing. He then proceeds to rebut the dogmatist argument from universal assent or assent by all who have come to the use of reason. Ideas, after all, are what exists before the mind in thought, and propositions are ideas in relation. For Locke, to take either knowledge or ideas to be innately imprinted upon the mind in a merely dispositional sense – and they are clearly not even actual from birth – would be contrary to any intelligible notion of ‘being in the mind’. ‘Whatever idea was never perceived by the mind, was never in the mind’ (Locke 1975: 116). Locke conceded dispositional knowledge and ideas, retained by memory, and capable of being revived, but he understands both intentionality and knowledge in terms of perception, and finds nonsensical the notion of perception which has never been conscious and actual. This strongly intuitionist model rules out innatism as an intelligible possibility. Book II of the Essay is devoted to establishing that all our ideas are derived from experience, that is, the way in which we conceive of the world (and ourselves) is ultimately determined by the way in which we experience the world, and (and ourselves). ‘Experience’ in this context includes not only ‘sense’, but also reflexive awareness of our own mental operations. For Descartes, the innateness of such ideas as ‘substance’, ‘thought’ and even ‘God’ consists in the potentiality of the mind’s reflecting on itself, and human reason is only accidentally involved with the senses. What is truly revolutionary in Locke’s thought is that, for the first time in modern philosophy, there are no purely intellectual ideas. Man is no more just a brain in a vat; he has come to his senses, or at least come to acknowledge them. The task traditionally assigned to intellect, namely universal thought, Locke now assigns to ‘abstraction’, or the basic classification of ‘ideas’. There are ideas of ‘sensations’ derived from our outer senses, and ideas of reflection, which are those ideas of which we become aware through introspection, for example, thinking, believing and willing. Ideas in the Lockean sense can refer to a variety of antecedents. Like Descartes, he uses it both for representative states or acts of the mind, and frequently for the represented objects in the mind, the so-called immediate objects of perception and mind. There is however, also a more classical sense of sensations as signs of their unknown causes in the motion of atoms or ‘corpuscules’ – a sense that Locke employed to point away from the Cartesian and scholastic presumption of intrinsically representative elements in thought, towards a purely causal understanding of representation, treating ideas as blank sensory effects in the mind. Book II also confronts the indeterminacy of language in its distinction between simple and complex ideas. The former, directly experienced through the senses, have no other ideas contained within them, and are qualities like red, cold and sweet. Like atoms, they can neither be created, nor destroyed. Complex ideas are compounded out of simple ideas, and the mind is capable of imagining complex arrangements of simple ideas that have no counterpart in the real world, such as a unicorn. Although he admits – again with a faint Nietzschean flavour – that ‘the free usage of ordinary language’ is constrained by various pragmatic considerations and linguistic conventions, he makes it clear throughout Book III of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding that the conglomeration of the properties of an object is not entirely haphazard or arbitrary nor entirely dependent upon authority, but on observation: ‘the mind combines those ideas it observes to constantly go together’ (Locke 1975: 116). However, even at the stage of simple ideas, Locke already runs into Nietzschean problems. He explicitly refers to sensory experiences such as sights, smells and sounds as the products of a clear and direct form of perception. Such simple ideas represent an unmediated access to reality, and to external objects to be precise. One such example might be ‘the smell of a Rose.’ (Locke 1975: 119). However, as Walker 1994: 169) points out, given the complexity of the botanical world, it may not be that easy to distinguish the smell of a rose specifically from other flowers. Simple ideas thus tend to be vague and dependent upon specific circumstances, an idea that Nietzsche developed to a more sophisticated level in his notion of perspectivism. Furthermore, already at this level the problem of metaphoricity asserts itself. In order to distinguish the smell of a rose at all, one needs a complex referential framework for purposes of differentiation. The smell of a rose only makes sense because it differs from the smell of cut grass, lemons or manure. Difference is already present at the olfactory level. Thus, any attempt to determine simple ideas proves that simple ideas are never truly simple or determined. Humans survive only through illusions: ‘Their senses nowhere lead to truth; on the contrary, they are content to receive stimuli and, as it were, to engage in a groping game on the backs of things’ (TL 1). Smells, colours, sounds, and all other impressions are strictly speaking signs and therefore require interpretation.

Despite the persistent attacks on Descartes, that which Locke shares with him is perhaps more significant from a Nietzschean point of view than their technical differences. For one, they both hoped to provide a neutral, universal account of knowledge, although they located its fundamental basis in different places. Regardless of Locke’s sensitivity towards the limitations of the empirical sciences – they can never hope for the absolute degree of certainty to be found in the mathematical sciences – Locke still treated the ‘senses’ as a kind of universal ‘organ’ implying that the experience of at least the ‘simple’ ideas must be accompanied by a universal similitude. Locke proposed not only the mind as a tabula rasa, but strictly speaking, a uniformity of sense experience which would mean that the senses played no role in the construction of simple experiences – in other words, sensa rasa, or ‘clean senses’. Locke regarded the question of identity as first and foremost an epistemological question. To know is a foundational activity, the human being’s first and foremost raison d’être is to establish a condition of certainty about the world in which he finds himself. To admit to the fundamental differences in sense experience would amount to a crisis of early subjectivity. Thus, if the role of the body had to be admitted to link man to the world again, it could only have been in a highly rudimentary, constricted fashion. If the greatest scandal in philosophy is the failed attempt to prove the existence of the outside world, then the fact that Locke, who appeared to have such a firm grip on the body – as empiricists and proud extollers of common sense the English were more ‘sensual’ than the Germans (BGE 252) – allowed the body to slip from his fingers, is a close second.

In one respect at least, Locke is quite right: ideas are first in our perceptions. But it does not end there: Locke’s final conclusions simply elucidated the first stage in our complex relationship with the world. Reflection does not set in so long after sensation as Locke claims: ‘It is pretty late, before most Children get Ideas of the Operations of their own Minds’ (Locke 1975: 117). Experience and thought, though, is not a step by step experience, nor do they preclude each other, but imply each other: the body begins to think before the mind does. And it proves Nietzsche’s point that the primary purpose, not only of thinking, but of human existence as such, is not to know, but to evaluate, to judge and to measure. As much as man’s mind tried for a neutral rationalism, his body made him into an artist. Sense perception is not neutral, but evaluative:


Our perceptions, as we understand them: i. e., the sum of all those perceptions the becoming- conscious of which was useful and essential to us and to the entire organic process–therefore not all perceptions in general (e. g., not the electric); this means: we have senses for only a selection of perceptions–those with which we have to concern ourselves in order to preserve ourselves. Consciousness is present only to the extent that consciousness is useful. It cannot be doubted that all sense perceptions are permeated with value judgments (useful and harmful–consequently, pleasant or unpleasant). Each individual colour is also for us an expression of value (although we seldom admit it, or do so only after a protracted impression of exclusively the same colour; e. g., a prisoner in prison, or a lunatic). Thus insects also react differently to different colours: some like this colour, some that; e. g., ants (WP 505, NL 1885-1886).


Empiricism is not truly a theory of the outside world; it is merely a prison of language that employs other guards. Decidedly better guards, if the persistence of the doctrine of realism is anything to go by. It has achieved what even Bentham’s Panopticon never could: it created a prison whose ultimate nature goes completely undetected by those who work and live within its walls.

My eyes, however weak or strong they may be, can only see a certain distance, and it is within the space encompassed by this distance that I live and move, the line of this horizon constitutes my immediate fate, in great things and small, from which I cannot escape. Around every being there is described a similar concentric circle, which has a mid-point and is peculiar to him. Our ears enclose us within a comparable circle and so does our sense of touch. Now it is by these horizons within which each of us encloses his senses as if behind prison walls, that we measure the world, we say this is near and this is far, this is big and this is soft: this measuring we call sensation—and it is all of it an error! According to the average quantity of experiences and excitations possible to us at any particular point in time one measures one’s life as being short or long, poor or rich, full or empty: And according to the average human life one measures that of all other creatures—all of it an error! If our eyes were a hundredfold sharper, man would appear to us tremendously tall; it is possible indeed, to imagine organs by virtue of which he would be felt as immeasurable. On the other hand, organs could be so constituted that whole solar systems were viewed contracted and packed together like a single cell: and to all beings of an opposite constitution a cell of the human body could present itself, in motion, construction and harmony, as a solar system. The habits of our senses have woven us into lies and deception of sensation: these again are the basis of all our judgements and ‘knowledge’—there is absolutely no escape, no back way or bypath into the real world! We sit within our net, we spiders, and whatever we may catch in it, we can catch nothing at all except that which allows itself to be caught in precisely our net (Daybreak, 117).

Our ideas are connected to such an extent to the medium through which they entered the mind that anything but a perspectival existence is impossible. Because our physiological and sensory capabilities restrict our apprehension of the world, we cannot but have a very limited perspective on the world. Therefore, what we experience through our senses are impressions, not objective knowledge. The German word for perception, Wahrnehmen, means ‘taking-as-true’. Our physical existence acts as a kind of ‘filter’ through which perception is possible. Philosophy tends to treat this as a problem to overcome; at least since the Enlightenment the body has become alien, a strange barrier to the pure knowledge that can be accessed through the mind. Nothing, however, undermines metaphysical dualism as effectively as genuine awareness of physical existence. In its peculiarly enigmatic fashion – Nietzsche might have called it ‘feminine’ – the body refuses to be separated from its secrets. In contrast with the standard dualist assumption that the mind directs the body, Nietzsche claims that the body creates while the soul is merely one of its products: ‘the awakened one, the knowing one, saith:  ‘Body am I entirely, and nothing more; and soul is only the name of something in the body’ (Z I, ‘The Despisers of the Body’) The body does not stand alone either, but appears to be deeply intertwined with language.


It is on tropes, not unconscious reasonings that our sensory perceptions rest. Identifying like with like – discovering some similarity between one thing and another is the fundamental process. Memory lives by this activity and continually exerts itself. Confusion is the originary phenomenon – This presupposes the act of seeing forms. The image in the eye regulates our recognition, rhythm our sense of hearing. We would never achieve representation of time by means of the eye alone, nor a representation of space by means of the ear alone. The sense of causality corresponds to the tactile sense.

At first we see images of the eye only in us, we hear sound only in us, from there the admission to an outer world is a big step. Plants, for example, have no sense of an outer world. The tactile sense and the visual image simultaneously give two sensations side by side; because they always appear together; they awaken the representation of a connection through metaphor – for not all the things which appear together are connected. (BP, 134).


Language and the body thus seem to be in a conspiracy against the mind in their refusal to let pure ideas enter consciousness untainted. This is why Locke’s attempt at a sanitized correspondence theory of truth ultimately fails. Even Locke himself alludes to an implicit tropological element in his work. In a passage from ‘On Perception’ which introduces the Molyneux problem, Locke writes:


the mental agent and its objects of knowledge. All the knowing thus gets done by the eye or person that observes, and then interacts with the received material.

The mind is indeed so active that it keeps on positing the idea of substance. Admitting to the usefulness of the ‘Idea of Substance’ in Book II, Locke nevertheless writes that he who chooses to examine himself on the content of substance will find that ‘he has no Idea of it all, but only a Supposition of he knows not what support of such Qualities, which are c

We are farther to consider concerning Perception, that Ideas that we receive in sensation, are often in grown People altered by Judgements, without our taking notice of it. When we set before our Eyes a round Globe, with any uniform Colour, e.g. Gold, Alabaster, or Jet, ‘tis certain, that the Idea thereby imprinted on our Mind, is of a flat circle, variously shadow’d, with several degrees of Brightness and Light coming to our Eyes. But we having by use been accustomed to perceive, what kind of appearance convex Bodies are wont to make in us; what Alterations are made in the reflections of Light, by the difference of the sensible Figures of Bodies, the Judgement presently, by an habitual custom, alters the Appearances into their Causes: So that from that, which truly is a variety of shadow or colour, collecting the figure, and frames to Itself the perception of a convex Figure, and a Uniform Colour, when the Idea we receive from thence, is only a Plain variously coloured, as is evident from Painting (Locke 1975: 145).

It is clear from this paragraph that Locke admits to that very Nietzschean – and Kantian – notion that judgement alters ideas received by the sensation, and importantly for anti-metaphysical purposes, turns appearances into causes. In Locke’s example, the sensations the mind has imprinted upon it is that of ‘a flat circle variously shadowed’ or a Plain variously Coloured’ and the Idea that follows from this is of a convex Figure of a uniform Colour’.

What happens here is no longer pure sensation, but a metonymic event. Although no linguistic substitution takes place, ideas of sensation are ultimately replaced by ideas of judgement, and some sensual mutation occurs.

Locke specifically designates this process of taking and displacement as a habitual contiguity of ideas – of colour, two-dimensional shape and then a three-dimensional figure – and sees it as a causal relationship. The coloured sphere in question causes the appearance or idea of the coloured plain, and the idea of the sphere is the sum of physical impressions that entered the mind plus the mind’s own addition of the third dimension – judgement. As William Walker points out, the substitution of ideas of sensation by ideas of judgement is thus the replacement of ideas of cause by an ideational effect. (Walker 1994: 177). In rhetoric, the name of a cause, for example a discoverer, can be substituted for the name of an effect, namely the discovery itself (e.g. joule after James Prescott Joule). In this case, the idea of a cause (the agent, Joule) takes the place of another idea (the numerical relation between heat and mechanical energy) which is an effect of that cause, in the Kantian sense that Joule interpreted aspects of reality according to certain categories – just as the mind interprets reality according to mental categories. This is a case of mental rhetoric: the substitution of images operates on a similar basis as linguistic tropes.

A further example of how the mind intervenes in perception is with abstract idea like infinity. Infinity cannot make its appearance through the senses, nor can the temporal mind itself truly have an idea of infinity. It is the classic problem of the sublime. For Locke, the idea of infinity is ‘nothing but a supposed endless Progression of the Mind over what repeated Ideas of Space it pleases’. (Locke 1975: 213). The Boylean Locke explains infinity in terms of the sum of its parts: the idea of finite lengths and the ability of the mind to replicate. This is a perfect example of synecdoche: the mind never has a complete picture of the whole of eternity, but pictures it by envisaging a part of it. Synecdoche is the substitution of a word used to designate the part of a thing for a word that designates the whole of that thing. As Walker emphasizes, from a deconstructive point of view, all mathematical concepts stand in a synecdochal relationship to the idea of infinity, as all time-related concepts represent a part of eternity (Walker 1994: 176).However, these synecdochal examples stand in a relationship with something that can never be pictured in total, as a leaf may stand for a plant, or a sail for a ship.

Locke is clearly inconsistent in deciding what the mental agent must do in order to engage in the activity of knowing. He usually claims that knowing is simply the mind’s perception of the ideas and relations between them it contains, but sometimes also claims that it involves mental acts of negation and affirmation (Locke 1975: 494). Furthermore, the mind also answers for acts of separating or joining signs, and assenting and judging (Locke 1974: 591). There is however no major contradiction here, because Locke’s figurative language unambiguously posits a mental agent that exists independently of the mental site represented as an enclosed space which interacts in a variety of ways with the mental space. Metaphors that underline this include those of possession (the mental content that the agent has when conscious), force and impact which suggest the interaction between

apable of producing simple Ideas in us’ (Locke 1975: 295). He continues to claim that ‘we have no clear, or distinct Idea of the Thing we suppose a Support’ (Locke 1975: 296), but still seems hesitant to dismiss the obscure notion of ‘support’ altogether.

One of the reasons why the mind keeps thinking that substance does exist, is that it is incapable of conceiving otherwise.

The Mind being, as I have declared, furnished with a great number of simple Ideas, conveyed in by the Senses, as they are found in exterior things, or by reflection upon its own Operations, takes notice also, that a certain number of these simple Ideas go constantly together; which being presumed to belong to one thing, and words being suited to common Apprehensions, and made use of for quick dispatch, are called so united in one subject, by one Name; which by inadvertency we are apt afterward to talk of and consider as one simple Idea, when indeed it is a Complication of many Ideas together; Because as I have said, not imaging how these simple Ideas can subsist by themselves, we accustom themselves, to suppose some Substratum, wherein they do subsist, and from which they do result, which therefore we call Substance. (Locke 1975: 295).

Nietzsche would seem to agree. He too understood the metaphysical concept of substance as an unchanging substrate:

Fundamental Question of Metaphysics. When one day the history of the genesis of thought comes to be written, the following sentence by a distinguished logician will stand revealed in a new light: ‘The primary universal law of the knowing subject consists in the inner necessity of recognizing every object in itself as being in its own essence something identical with itself, thus self-existent and at bottom always the same and unchanging, in short, as a substance’ (HAH 18).

But Nietzsche does not shrink from dismissing the notion of substance outright. Metaphysics a symptom of a particularly decadent view of the world. At the root of dual-world nihilism, suppose a ‘real’ world behind the world of appearance. For all his claims to empirical precision, Locke is yet another dualist metaphysician who resents the world as it is. Locke ropes in substance again in order to provide a solid foundation for his liberal politics. Again, it must be emphasized that this is the reason for Nietzsche’s contemptuous dismissal of Locke: he was so busy being a philosopher that he forgot to be a human. There is a distinct flavour of what Sartre would call ‘bad faith’ or inauthenticity in Locke’s politics. As was the case with his epistemology, Locke’s politics is built upon the suppression of trope, and in this case upon the confusion of origin. Locke’s liberal subject is a textbook example of the substitution of cause and effect: the subject is an effect of linguistic illusion, not the cause or foundation of the state.

Like Hobbes, Locke disdains the advice that Lewis Caroll would later lay into the mouth of the Red King (‘Begin at the beginning’, the King said gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end, then stop’) and started his account of politics and human nature somewhere in the middle with the subject of free will. To do justice to Nietzsche though, any assumption of a ‘truer’ beginning would make the same errors traditional metaphysics was founded upon. Nietzsche describes these errors as the


Congenital defect of philosophers. All philosophers suffer from the same defect, in that they start with present‑day man and think they can arrive at their goal by analyzing him. Instinctively they let ‘man’ hover before them as an aeterna veritas, something unchanging in all turmoil, a secure measure of things. But everything the philosopher asserts about man is basically no more than a statement about man within a very limited time span. A lack of historical sense is the congenital defect of all philosophers. Some unwittingly even take the most recent form of man, as it developed under the imprint of certain religions or even certain political events, as the fixed form from which one must proceed. They will not understand that man has evolved, that the faculty of knowledge has also evolved, while some of them even permit themselves to spin the whole world from out of this faculty of knowledge. (HAH, 2)

Locke is indeed a Colossus of modernity, but one whose twin projects of providing a concept of human understanding and political foundation undermine each other. The specificity of the experience of perception alone undermines the universality and uniformity necessary to create the subject required for a justifiable liberalism. Since mere physical perspective can generate so much difference, it is only to be expected that political differences would be even more glaring. However, no political order would ever come to pass without obliterating essential differences. The birth of liberalism was as violent as the Empire that would later be justified in its name, even if its political traces are not so obvious. To interpret is to see in a particular way, at the expense of all other possibilities of interpretation. Perspectives that do not fit are simply ignored, or as that other great resurrectionist of modernity, Freud, would concur, simply driven underground. We ourselves are the source of this interpretative injustice, or more correctly, our need for a world in which it is possible to live, is. To a certain extent, then, man is the measure of the world, but only his world. Man is thus a contingent measure and our measurements do not refer to an original, underlying reality. What we call reality is the result not only of our limited perspectives upon the world, but the interplay of those perspectives themselves. The liberal subject is thus a result of, and not a foundation for, the experience of reality. The subject is identified as origin of meaning only through a process of differentiation and reduction, a course through which the will is designated as a psychological property.

Locke takes the existence of the subject of free will – free to exercise political choice such as rising against a tyrant, choosing representatives, or deciding upon political direction – simply for granted. Furthermore, he seems to think that everyone should agree as to what the rules are according to which these events should happen. For him, the liberal subject underlying these choices is clearly fundamental and universal.

Locke’s philosophy of individualism posits the existence of a discreet and isolated individual, with private interests and rights, independent of his linguistic or socio-historical context. C. B. MacPhearson identifies a distinctly possessive quality to Locke’s individualist ethic, notably in the way in which the individual is conceived as proprietor of his own personhood, possessing capacities such as self-reflection and free will. Freedom becomes associated with possession, which the Greeks would associate with slavery, and society conceived in terms of a collection of free and equal individuals who are related to each through their means of achieving material success – which Nietzsche, too, would associate with slave morality. Though Locke has unjustly been tainted, notably by Marxists, with holding that there are no natural rights, save the right to private property, there is no denial that he sees man as emerging from the state of nature into political subjectivity with the advent of commercial activity. Man becomes man by demarcating a piece of nature as his own:

Though the water running in the fountain be everyone’s, yet who can doubt that in the pitcher is his only who drew it out? His labour has taken it out of the hands of nature, where it was common and belonged equally to all her children, and hath thereby appropriated it to himself’ (Locke 1960: 29).

Instead of describing a public good, Locke set up a body of innate, indefeasible rights which limit the power of a community, and stand as bars to prevent interference with the liberty and property of private individuals. Thomas Jefferson held the endowment of all individuals with the equal right to life, liberty and property as axiomatic. Social and moral theorems could be deduced from it, but the rights of the sovereign individual and the importance of his freedom was more obvious than any other ethical principle.

There is a central tenet to John Locke’s thinking that, as conventional as it has become, remains a strange strategy. Like Thomas Hobbes, he justifies modern society by contrasting it with an original state of nature. For Hobbes, as we have seen, the state of nature is but a hypothesis, a conceptual tool in order to elucidate a point. For Locke, however, the state of nature is a very real historical event, although not a condition of a state of war. Man was social by nature, rational and free. Locke drew this inspiration from Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, notably from his idea that church government should be based upon human nature, and not the Bible, which, according to Hooker, told us nothing about human nature. The social contract is a means to escape from nature, friendlier though it be on the Lockean account. For Nietzsche, however, we have never made the escape: we are still holus-bolus in it: ‘being conscious is in no decisive sense the opposite of the instinctive – most of the philosopher’s conscious thinking is secretly directed and compelled into definite channels by his instincts. Behind all logic too, and its apparent autonomy there stand evaluations’ (BGE, 3). Locke makes a singular mistake in thinking the state of nature a distant event. In fact, Nietzsche tells us, we have never left it. We now only wield more sophisticated weapons, such as the guilty conscience, as we shall see in our next chapters. H. G. Wells’ opinions on the Social Contract is much closer to the mark. Writing in Love and Mr Lewisham he opines: ‘The Social Contract is nothing more or less than a vast conspiracy of human beings to lie to and humbug themselves and one another for the general Good. Lies are the mortar that binds the savage individual man into social masonry’ (Wells 1963: 29).

More than three hundred years after Locke, and after being subject to the Nietzschean era that followed after Walter Kaufman’s rehabilitation of Nietzsche, we know that things are not this simple. If Locke were to dismiss rhetoric, he should have written off his rights-possessing subject right after it, for this subject follows from the grammar that produced it. Much happens before the subject sets himself apart from the state of nature. Grammatical concepts such as ‘subject’ and ‘predicate’ structures our thinking to an unavoidable extent, so much so that language contains a hidden philosophical mythology (WS II: ii). Subjects, objects and predicates are in fact anthropologically necessary constructions that help us to order our world and give meaning to our experiences. By insisting upon a picture of language that gives us direct access to the world, we only fool ourselves. And a self-deceived subject is hardly a foundation for politics. Nietzsche writes:

That which separate me most thoroughly from the metaphysicians is: I do not agree to their view that it is the ‘I’ which thinks, rather, I take the ‘I’ itself to be a mental construction, which is of the same category as ‘matter’, ‘thing’, ‘substance’, ‘individual’, ‘purpose’, ‘number’, therefore as a merely regulative fiction according to which we project some kind of permanence… unto a world of becoming. The belief in grammar, in the linguistic subject, object, in verbs, has thus far, subjugated the metaphysicians (KGW VIII, 3 [35]).

For Nietzsche, language is sum of concepts, themselves but the imposition of an artistic sign upon other signs. It is quite literally born ex nihilo; out of the differences that separate the respective signs from each other. There is no originary presence at the birth of language, and any attempt to use it as a foundation is doomed to fail. On Truth and Lies in An Extra-Moral Sense makes it clear: the constraints of meaning are both epistemological and phenomenological. The formally political can only begin at conceptual level, and the larger part of the history of language happens long before that.

Metaphor has no autonomy or epistemological stability in the Nietzschean context. For Nietzsche, to use metaphor means to treat something as identical which has been recognized as similar at one point. This ‘lumping together’ of dissimilar things is the definition of metaphor that appears most frequently in Nietzsche’s work, but he does make use of another, i.e. Aristotle’s classic conception of metaphor, ‘a metaphor is a carrying over of a word whose usual meaning is something else, either from the genus to the species, from the species to the genus, or from species to species or according to proportion’ (Aristotle:1970: 317). Nietzsche takes this notion of a linguistic carrying-over and, finding it too limited, extends it to include any transference from one domain to another, be it literal to figurative, concrete to abstract, physical to spiritual or subject to object. He famously distinguishes three stages of metaphor: ‘To begin with, a nerve stimulus is transferred into an image: first metaphor. The image, in turn, is imitated in a sound: second metaphor. And each time there is a complete overleaping of one sphere, right into the middle of an entirely new and different one’ (TL 1). From the sound, the concept is derived: third metaphor.

The process begins with the first metaphor, the transfer of stimuli from unconscious physiological processes to mental images. In this most primal stage, the process uses synecdoche, which allows for ‘inexactitude of sight’, the power within us that allows us to privilege certain features at the cost of others. The operation of synecdoche selects according to its own ‘persuasion’, according to its own relationship with things. It bars certain stimuli so as to create space for other stimuli, those that allow the individual to have a manageable perspective on the world. Thus the individual begins his own contest of power and domination. In other words, in the chaos of stimuli a space of contest is created where certain species can thrive. Deception plays an important role here, so without the ability to lead astray, language would not exist. Metaphor begins with ostracism or exclusion (Nietzsche uses words such as übersehen, weglassen, überhören) and is followed by activities of displacement, transposition and commutation (umdeuten, übertragen, vertauschen). Language only emerges as a result of an intense agonistic game. Like everything new, it has its origins in its own particular form of violence.

Language is thus the result of a series of metaphorical translations that begins with a nerve impulse and becomes an image, then a sound or word, and only then a concept. This involves transfer through four different spheres, namely the physiological, intellectual, acoustic and abstract spheres. There is no question of a ‘perfect’ translation between the spheres, since the transfer is at best an aesthetic relation, which is of course a relationship that is far from simple. This ‘translation’ is characterized by the move from passive to active. For example, light enters the eye purely passively. It allows us, however, to identify the sensation with the sense and impute causality. The result is the active notion of ‘I saw a light’, which does not really represent what happened. Out of this transposition of cause and effect are born the active subject and the object, from whom all grammatical relations follow. The first two spheres of metaphor exist as the world of pure nerve stimulation and ‘vivid first impressions’ (TL 1). These two spheres operate interactively; the nerve stimulation is purely physiological, but allows the sphere of images, which is psychological, to come into being. The next transformation returns to the physiological, in the creation of sound and other material signifiers that make communication possible. The final construction, the concept, is a linguistically created metaphysical sphere, and it is in this sphere that man’s capacity for artistic legislation really begins, because it is only now that he becomes vaguely aware of his capacity to create. The concept is testimony to man’s capacity to generalize, to fit countless other possible cases.

For between two absolutely different spheres, as between subject and object, there is no causality, no correctness, and no expression; there is, at most, an aesthetic relation: I mean, a suggestive transference, a stammering translation into a completely foreign tongue — for which there is required, in any case, a freely inventive intermediate sphere and mediating force. Appearance is a word that contains many temptations, which is why I avoid it as much as possible. For it is not true that the essence of things appears in the empirical world (TL 1).

In this ‘freely intermediate sphere’ the human capacity for metaphor formation functions, and in this space the interpreted world that we know is born. Our primal relationship with the world is thus aesthetic. Sarah Kofman goes as far as to associate Nietzsche’s use of metaphor with his defence of an aristocratic ethos: ‘Metaphoric style is ‘aristocratic’; it allows people of the same kind [type] to recognize each other; it exclude members of the herd as inappropriate, foul smelling; to speak commonly is to become vulgar’ (Kofman 1972: 163-164).

Truth originates when humans forget that they are ‘artistically creating subjects’ or products of law or stasis and begin to attach ‘invincible faith’ to their perceptions, thereby creating truth itself. For Nietzsche, the key to understanding the ethic of the concept, the ethic of representation, is conviction:

Conviction is the belief that in some point of knowledge one possesses absolute truth. Such a belief presumes, then, that absolute truths exist; likewise, that the perfect methods for arriving at them have been found; finally, that every man who has convictions makes use of these perfect methods. All three assertions prove at once that the man of convictions is not the man of scientific thinking; he stands before us still in the age of theoretical innocence, a child, however grownup he might be otherwise. But throughout thousands of years, people have lived in such childlike assumptions, and from out of them mankind’s mightiest sources of power have flowed (HAH, 630).

Few convictions have proven to be as strong as the conviction of the existence of a fundamental subjectivity. For Nietzsche, it is an illusion, a bundle of drives loosely collected under the name of ‘subject’ —indeed, it is nothing but these drives, willing, and actions in themselves—and it cannot appear as anything else except through the seduction of language (and the fundamental errors of reason petrified in it), which understands and misunderstands all action as conditioned by something which causes actions, by a ‘Subject’ (GM I 13). Subjectivity is a form of linguistic reductionism, and when using language, ‘[w]e enter a realm of crude fetishism when we summon before consciousness the basic presuppositions of the metaphysics of language — in plain talk, the presuppositions of reason. Everywhere reason sees a doer and doing; it believes in will as the cause; it believes in the ego, in the ego as being, in the ego as substance, and it projects this faith in the ego-substance upon all things — only thereby does it first create the concept of ‘thing’ (TI, ‘Reason in Philosophy’ 5). As Nietzsche also states in WP 484, the habit of adding a doer to a deed is a Cartesian leftover that begs more questions than it solves. It is indeed nothing more than an inference according to habit: ‘There is activity, every activity requires an agent, consequently – (BGE, 17). Locke himself found the continuous existence of the self problematic, but did not go as far as Hume’s dissolution of the self into a number of ‘bundles’. After all, even if identity shifts occurred behind the scenes, he required a subject with enough unity to be able to enter into the Social Contract. This subject had to be something more than merely an ‘eternal grammatical blunder’ (D, 120), and willing had to be understood as something simple. For Nietzsche, it is ‘above all complicated, something that is a unit only as a word, a word in which the popular prejudice lurks, which has defeated the always inadequate caution of philosophers’ (BGE, 19).

As Foucault would later demonstrate, it is folly to take the social contract as a measure against violence, for the subject that participated in its formulation, has already been subject to linguistic, social, as well as political violence. Even a brief genealogical probe reveals that no stable concept, not even in its simplest linguistic form, is ever innocent. Behind all apparently clearly circumscribed concepts are the metaphysician’s belief in the principle of identity. This belief is the reason why Michel Haar describes a ‘concept’ as ‘a unit of meaning which comprises and contains, in an identical and total manner, the content it assumes’ Haar 1977: 7). A concept can thus be understood as a single petrified unit of meaning which is distinguishable from other such units. It is, in other words, an attempt to order our understanding of the world into easily manageable units of meaning. Not only death, but language is the great equalizer; silencing unruly differences that would otherwise render neat metaphysical constructions impossible.

            Since conceptually, metaphor preempts contingency, Nietzsche attempts to undermine this assumption of the solidity of the concepts that make up our world by tracing and analyzing the lines of demarcation between the apparently mutually exclusive concepts that form the traditional moral vocabulary of the West. In this way, he traces the operation of the will to power. The most important aspect of this genealogical tracing is the exposition of how a moral community establishes its boundaries by way of its mode of evaluation and differentiation. This enterprise subjects the history of conceptualization to the volatilizing effect of genealogical analysis, and disconnects such treasured metaphysical constructions as good and evil, true and untrue, just and unjust, from any fixed point or reference. From this perspective, the history of language becomes the history of the will to power. The most indispensable concepts that help to order the world are revealed as products of human desire, the more valuable because they are so. After Nietzsche these concepts simply cannot be seen as testifying to an underlying metaphysical reality that determines the ways in which we speak of it.



[1] Paul de Man especially, is inclined to read the entirety of philosophy as an exercise in rhetoric. See  for example de Man’s essay on Locke in ‘The Epistemology of Metaphor’ in S. Sachs, ed. (1979). On Metaphor. Chicago: Chicago University Press.



As much as Nietzsche engaged with Darwin, he is for him not much more than a footnote to Hegel. He is the biological symptom of an age sick with its own history. Indeed, he goes as far as to say that ‘without Hegel, there would have been no Darwin’ (GS 357). Both Hegel and Darwin are ‘deifiers of success’ who see human history in terms of a single narrative, driven by a single mechanism, lending a stifling inevitability to it. Before anything else, Darwin added to the contemporary problem of seeing history as a process. One of the most dangerous responses to nihilism – which without a doubt exacerbated it – is the insistence upon rational explanations that master the vagaries of human existence in its totality. Science appears to offer a respite from the shakiness of worldly existence by including all events and actions under abstract laws of development. In this way a false sense of optimism is created: transitory existence is redeemed by participating in the progressive unfolding of higher aims of history. But why stop at the human species? This narrative could include the totality of biological life!

Besides Darwin’s failure to deliver on creative potential, Nietzsche found it very disappointing that the eschatology implied by his discoveries did not materialize. It was not the fact that Darwin killed God that raised the Nietzschean ire, but the fact that God was still very much alive after the reception of The Origin of the Species. All that Darwin in truth provided was a succinct history of the species. And Nietzsche makes clear in the second Untimely Meditation that the deification of history, particularly in the form of a Hegelian-styled Reason that pervades history and suggests that there is a progressive, rational movement immanent to history is especially problematic. This historical ‘illness’ leads to debilitation, whether in the form of idealism, or more commonly the case in England, materialism.

Nietzsche Darwin

Nietzsche is often grouped together with a number of ‘hermeneuticians of suspicion’, thinkers who undermined the easy and certain subjectivity that flowed from Descartes. This conception of subjectivity, which as we have seen in our Locke chapter, takes an established subject sub specie aeternitates for granted. That is to say, philosophy departs from an immutable subject beyond time that serves as the foundation for the entire philosophical edifice that developed during the Enlightenment. The hermeneuticians of suspicion in question usually refer to Marx and Freud, but Darwin is often included, too. Nietzsche, being Nietzsche, takes suspicion one step further, and subjected Darwin (or Darwinism, to be precise) to a perspectivist critique. One can be suspicious even of the hermeneutician of suspicion that failed to take his own times into account. Nietzsche returned Darwin to the nineteenth century.

Many of Nietzsche’s insights can be traced to scientific materialist origins and much of his vocabulary is derived from biological origins. This does not mean, however, that they can after all, be fit into the uncomfortable metanarratives of biological perfection. It would be more correct to say that scientific materialism served as a fount of inspiration, much as he drew upon literary muses like Goethe and Shakespeare; he did not simply follow in the wake of science’s success. His true critique concerns the residues of theologically derived moralism still present in natural science, not the ‘petty details’. As we have seen in our Bacon chapter, Nietzsche did not automatically regard the triumph of a scientific theory to be valuable in itself. ‘Correctness’ is not a criterion for strength. As a matter of fact, the success of natural science far too easily makes it a seat of power that lays down rigid new rules that breed a new kind of conformity. Because its ‘truths’ are easily ‘proven’, they are less easily challenged. To challenge arbitrary power is hard enough, but to go against the obviously ‘legitimate’ power of the scientist is simply beyond the energy of most people. Biological ‘truth’ gives slaves a reason to conform. And they hardly need any encouragement. Consider Nietzsche’s words from Schopenhauer As Educator:


A traveller who had seen many countries, peoples and several of the earth’s continents was asked what attribute he had found in men everywhere. He said: ‘They have a propensity for laziness.’ To others, it seems that he should have said: ‘They are all fearful. They hide themselves behind customs and opinions.’ In his heart every man knows quite well that, being unique, he will be in the world only once and that there will be no second chance for his oneness to coalesce from the strangely variegated assortment that he is: he knows it but hides it like a bad conscience—why? SE, opening lines).

The mere fact that a debate over the alleged ‘independence’ of the theory of evolution continues to crop up in Darwinist circles proves the need for a Nietzschean reminder of the importance of non-biological criteria for strength. In ‘Independence, history and natural selection’ in (Hodge and Radick 2006: 144) Gregory Radick reminds his readers that ‘Darwin’s theory of natural selection was no gift of sheer, solitary genius, but in several key aspects a product of Victorian culture’. This can be seen as an example of the inseparability thesis. This conclusion may be obvious to readers used to the death of the author, but even today Darwin is seen as a kind of deus ex machine (sic) that spontaneously brought enlightenment upon those still captured in the dark ages of religious belief. This is known as the independence thesis. According to this thesis, particular Victorian elements aided Darwin to identify a timeless truth about Nature. The identification of this thesis, however, was inevitable, if Darwin did not do so, someone else would have come along.

Thinkers like these fail to understand what the term inevitable really means in the context of human life: no discovery of anything in the world of contingency is ever inevitable. It is just as easy to conceive of a world where the theory of natural selection – despite its correctness or use value – were simply never discovered. There are thousands of paths that history could have taken. Furthermore, there are thousands of scientific facts that will simply never be discovered, and more still whose true significance and value will never be appreciated. Yet the human race will continue as it always has: with the ability to create either a rich, strong life, or a poor, mediocre one, out of the material available to it at a particular point in time. As can be seen in the work of John Stuart Mill, Victorian England, with its Empire to run, strongly emphasized use. It was a world with a strong contempt for the ‘superfluous’ (think eugenics and the disregard for the lives of the natives colonized during Empire-building) with a strong pragmatic touch, all sprinkled liberally with the economics of Adam Smith. Darwinism was, if not exactly inevitable, at least a typical product of Victorian England. According to the historian Robert Young, the creation myth as seen in the book of genesis was a myth that suited the agrarian, pastoral world ruled by aristocrats before the Industrial Revolution. Similarly, the theory of natural selection with its Malthusian undertones, obviously ‘reflects a competitive, urban, industrial world’ (Young 1985: 240). This means that Darwinism basically consists of a reactive vocabulary, shot through with herd sentiments. None other than Karl Marx, in a letter to his collaborator Friedrich Engels, wrote: ‘It is remarkable how Darwin recognizes among beasts and plants his English society with its division of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, “inventions”, and the Malthusian struggle for existence. It is Hobbes’ bellum ominum contra omnes’ [war of all against all]. (Marx quoted in Schmidt 1971: 46). This is already a case of one hermeneutician of suspicion suspecting another. It was of course Engels who famously put Darwin’s Malthusianism in its classic political context:


The whole Darwinist teaching of the struggle for existence is simply a transference from society to living nature of Hobbes’ bellum ominum contra omnes, and of the bourgeois-economic doctrine of competition together with Malthus’ theory of population. When this conjuror’s trick has been performed, the same theories are transferred back again from organic nature into history, and it is now claimed that their validity as eternal laws of human society has been proved.

It is not clear how much Nietzsche derived directly from Darwin; most of his sources are second-hand, from sources like the Darwinians Ernst Haeckel, and Walter Bagehot, quoted twice in UM III, Schopenhauer as Educator. It is clear, however, that Nietzsche was familiar with Herbert Spencer’s Data of Ethics, translated into German in 1879.[1] Whereas Darwin occupied himself more or less with pure science – inasmuch as science can be pure – Spencer developed a social theory around the theory of natural selection which is every bit as teleological as Hegel. Spencer upholds a model of human development that sees egoism and altruism eventually reconciled. Hegel’s influence is obvious in Spenserian remarks like ‘Truth generally lies in the co-ordination of antagonistic opinions’ (Spencer 1904: 16). This is mainly why Nietzsche regards him as a decadent.


Even the ideals of science can be deeply, even unconsciously, influenced by decadence: our entire sociology is proof of that. The objection to it is that from experience it knows only the form of decay of society, and inevitably it takes its own instincts of decay for the norms of sociological judgement.

In these norms, the life that is declining in present-day Europe formulates its social ideals: one cannot tell them from the ideals of out races that have outlived themselves –

The herd instinct – a power that has now become sovereign – is something totally different from the instinct of an aristocratic society: and the value of the units determines the significance of the sum. Our entire sociology simply does not know any other instinct than that of the herd, i.e, that of the sum of zeroes – where every zero has equal rights; where it is virtuous to be zero. –

The valuation that is today applied to the different forms of society is entirely identical with that which assigns a higher value to peace than to war: but this judgement is antibiological, itself a fruit of the decadence of life. – Life is a consequence of war, society itself a means to war. – As a biologist, Mr. Herbert Spencer[2] is a decadent; as a moralist too (he considers the triumph of altruism a desideratum!!! (WP 53).


Darwin may have been a genius, but he was a timely one. That is, unlike Nietzsche himself, he fitted the values of his age, even if, superficially, he appeared to be in conflict with its key institutions. As we will see in our Mill chapter, his was an age that lacked ambition – mere survival and the search for pleasure was considered sufficient to serve as a sign of strength. However, survival is no measure for the value of life: it generates the same paradox as seeing the avoidance of pain and the hunt for pleasure as goals for existence. Natural selection gives us an account of how life came to be in its present form – not why the human phenomenon is worth having in the first place. Nietzsche gives us an answer to that question early in his oeuvre: it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that life is ultimately justified. That is, life becomes meaningful only through human evaluation. Although Nietzsche persistently asks that man be ‘translated back into nature’, he has something very different from Darwin in mind. Darwin certainly translates man back into nature. After The Origin of the Species there could no longer be a question of man as directly formed by a divine hand. However, there are better and worse translations. Edward Fitzgerald’s translation The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam is a work of art in itself. Reading crude determinism into Nature is not.Before the publication of The Origin of the Species, the young German philologist took it for granted that the most important part of man’s history was a natural history. As early as Homer’s Contest, Nietzsche describes man as a creature immersed in nature:


When we speak of humanity, the idea is fundamental that this is something that separates and distinguishes man from nature. In reality, there is no such separation: ‘natural’ qualities and those we call truly ‘human’ are inseparably grown together. Man in his highest and noblest capacities, is wholly nature and embodies its uncanny dual nature (HC).

 What Nietzsche objected to, is that modernity failed to seize upon the advantages that the new Darwinian theory offered. Rather than to recognize Nature as ‘red in tooth and claw’, nineteenth century moralists like sought to place Christian morality on an even more secure basis than Christian myth ever did. At least the latter had a Machiavelli to show for it. Instead of freeing up space for mastership, the ‘rules’ that the likes of Spencer read into ‘Nature’ threatened to secure man more tightly than ever before in a position of slavery. Where the priest in the black cassock was, there the one in the white coat shall be. Call an ascetic by any other name…

For Nietzsche, as was the case for Marx and Engels, the theory of natural selection only succeeds in lending support to the worst aspects of the reigning ideology. Nietzsche sees these as the reactive forces that triumphs in the form of modern culture. Giles Deleuze names these forces explicitly as ‘adaptation, evolution, progress, happiness for all, and the good of the community’ (Deleuze 1983: 151). Although Nietzsche obviously accepts the thesis that existence is struggle, he is far less optimistic that natural selection truly favours the strongest and the best. If anything, natural selection has only the welfare of the species in mind, not the quality of the individual. It appears to destroy the ill-adapted in a purely indifferent fashion, and forces species and individual alike to aim for a position of equilibrium and stability. Darwin himself made it clear in the third edition of The Origin of the Species that natural selection should not be understood as automatically bringing about variability; it is concerned only with the bringing about and preservation of variations that prove beneficial to a particular species and the environment in which it finds itself. As Ansell-Pearson points out, natural selection, with its emphasis on the preservation of the species, is actually a highly conservative strategy. (Ansell-Pearson 2000: 89). Perhaps Marx and Engels were right: natural selection does appear to favour, if not the bourgeois in person, then at least their values. It should come as no surprise that John Stuart Mill, as hesitant as he was to grant natural selection the status of a fully-fledged scientific hypothesis, he was willing to acknowledge it as a real, and not fictional causal process, a vera causa. (Hull 1998: 327).

At the beginning of ‘history’, it is of course an entirely different story. There the strong warrior class conquers openly. Gradually, however, the bad consciousness pushed man into decadent over-refinement, not a goal for which Nietzsche considers worth striving. Writing about Paul Rée in the Preface to The Genealogy of Morals


But he had read Darwin, so that to some extent in his hypotheses the Darwinian beast and the most modern modest and tender moral sensibility, which ‘no longer bites’, politely extend their hands to each other in a way that is at least entertaining—with the latter bearing a facial expression revealing a certain good-natured and refined indolence, in which is mixed a grain of pessimism and exhaustion, as if it is really not worth taking all these things, the problems of morality, so seriously (GM, Preface).

It is perhaps for this reason that Nietzsche avoids a Darwinian vocabulary in The Genealogy of Morals, and his Will to Power thesis. ‘Adaptation’ belongs to slaves; it is the yielding to external circumstances. It is an influence that shows itself only after the active, shaping powers have had their day on the worldly playing field. It is these forces that are of true importance in the world. The ‘English psychologist’ and scientist display their slavishness by depicting life in terms that bespeak poverty rather than richness. As we have seen in our Hobbes chapter, this is a sign of a fundamental mistrust in life, or the ‘musty air of English overpopulation’ (GS 349) and the ‘Salvation Army’ (BGE 252). Like all the Englishmen hitherto discussed, Darwin, for all his interest in it, is secretly anti-life: for him, the will to self-preservation operates as an excuse for the struggles that accompany life in all its forms. It is thus, just like human laws formed under the delusion that it promotes ‘justice’ as a ‘means against fighting in general’ (GM II, 12). This attitude is in fact an assassination of the future of man, ‘a secret path to nothingness’ (GM II, 12) of an unambitious thinker.


Anti-Darwin. — As for the famous ‘struggle for existence’, so far it seems to me to be asserted rather than proved. It occurs, but as an exception; the total appearance of life is not the extremity, not starvation, but rather riches, profusion, even absurd squandering — and where there is struggle, it is a struggle for power. One should not mistake Malthus for nature.

Assuming, however, that there is such a struggle for existence — and, indeed, it occurs — its result is unfortunately the opposite of what Darwin’s school desires, and of what one might perhaps desire with them — namely, in favor of the strong, the privileged, the fortunate exceptions. The species do not grow in perfection: the weak prevail over the strong again and again, for they are the great majority — and they are also more intelligent. Darwin forgot the spirit (that is English!); the weak have more spirit. One must need spirit to acquire spirit; one loses it when one no longer needs it. Whoever has strength dispenses with the spirit (‘Let it go!’ they think in Germany today; ‘the Reich must still remain to us’). It will be noted that by ‘spirit’ I mean care, patience, cunning, simulation, great self-control, and everything that is mimicry (the latter includes a great deal of so-called virtue). (TI, Skirmishes Of An Untimely Man 14).


Nietzsche prefers the less scientifically sound Lamarck, because he identified a truly active, plastic force prior in relation to adaptation – a force of metamorphosis. Strictly speaking, a revaluation of values would imply an overhaul of Darwinian values as well. This is perhaps why he distances himself from Darwin with such fierceness in Ecce Homo III I, where he expresses surprise at the naïve misunderstandings with which his Zarathustra was received ‘Other scholarly oxen have suspected me of Darwinism’.

A richer approach than the narrow notion of the ‘survival instinct’ is the idea of the Will to Power.


The wish to preserve oneself is the symptom of a condition of distress, of a limitation of the really fundamental instinct of life which aims at the expansion of power and wishing for that, frequently risks and even sacrifices self-preservation.


… that our modern natural sciences have become so thoroughly entangled in this Spinozaist dogma, most recently and worst of all, Darwinism with its incomprehensibly one-sided doctrine of the struggle for existence, is probably due to the origins of most natural scientists: In this respect they belong to the ‘common people’; their ancestors were poor and undistinguished people who knew the difficulties of survival only too well at first hand. The whole of English Darwinism breathes something like the musty air of English overpopulation, like the smell of the distress of and overcrowding of small people (GS 349).


Rather than to simply react to external forces, the Will to Power is part and parcel of them, creating forms from within; utilizing and exploiting external circumstances as the arena of its own agonal actions. To be true to Nietzsche though, the Will to Power is arena and actor all in one. With the will to Power, Nietzsche rehabilitates the active dimension to life, as well as the playful side to evolution. The development of an organism is no single story, there is no genuine link between origin and telos. Instead of speaking of evolution at all, one should rather speak of a series of successive life-forms subject to an immanent, open-ended dynamics. Understood in this way, every life-form is fluid and never final, nor are the aims or directions open to it. The world is indeed the Will to Power –

and nothing else besides. Darwinian evolution is but a moment in the operation of the Will to Power – its bourgeois face. As an approach to life, the Will to Power has much more to offer, it applies to all life forms, not merely the biological. It also includes the physiological, psychological, technological and cultural domains.


[T]he ‘development’ of a thing, a practice, or an organ has nothing to do with its progress towards a single goal, even less is it the logical and shortest progress reached with the least expenditure of power and resources, but rather the sequence of more or less profound, more or less mutually independent processes of overpowering which take place on that thing, together with the resistance which arises against that overpowering each time, the transformations of form which have been attempted for the purpose of defence and reaction, the results of successful countermeasures. Form is fluid—the ‘meaning’, however, is even more so . . . Even within each individual organism things are no different: with every essential growth in the totality, the ‘meaning’ of an individual organ also shifts—in certain circumstances its partial destruction, a reduction of its numbers (for example, through the destruction of intermediate structures) can be a sign of growing power and perfection (GM II, 12).


Importantly, as both Paul Patton and Keith Ansell-Pearson have pointed out, what matters for Nietzsche is the experience of power, not its actual exercise. That is to say, power is evaluated in terms of its intensity, not its extensity. It is the battle itself, and one’s display of power in it, that matters, not some abstract teleological goal. Nietzsche was fast to distance himself from the utilitarian vocabulary of Charles Darwin:


‘Useful’ in the sense of Darwinian biology means: proved advantageous in the struggle with others. But it seems to me that the feeling of increase, the feeling of becoming stronger, is itself, quite apart from any usefulness in the struggle, the real progress: only from this feeling arises the will to struggle – (WP 648).


Feeling powerful does not depend upon one’s comparative power over someone else, as is the case with undiluted Darwinism. This puts the value of self-preservation into an entirely new perspective. Nietzsche warns that we should not automatically assume that the mere continuance of life is life’s supreme goal:


Physiologists should think again before positing the ‘instinct of preservation’ as the cardinal drive in an organic creature. A living thing wants above all to discharge its force: ‘preservation’ is only a consequence of this. Beware of superfluous teleological principles! The entire concept ‘instinct of preservation’ is one of them (WP 650).


As much as Nietzsche argued for a return to Nature, he did not want to have man dictated to by her. If, as we have seen in our Hume chapter, man was ultimately determined by the operations of nature, there was no need to emphasize this fact. Instead, man’s freedom as a creator had to be celebrated. Because Nietzsche frequently emphasizes Becoming over Being, it does not follow automatically that he is positing becoming as the essence of existence. What this means is that the nature of power precludes thinking of it as in terms of the termination of a process, a mere end. Instead, it is always transitive or intentional, it is potential. That is, power never simply brings about a sense of completeness and finality, rather, where there is life, there is struggle. Martin Heidegger has of course, famously declared Nietzsche to be the culmination of the metaphysical tradition, reading both the Eternal Recurrence and the Will to Power as reversed expressions of a traditional ontology. Johan Figl, too, also describes Nietzsche’s use of becoming as a process of substitution (Figl 1982: 73). Read this way, however, change becomes a new, stable ‘permanent’. If anything, the world is simply too mysterious, too feminine (that is, it always dons a mask) to allow for narrow metaphysical categories.

As German as it is to find rules in Reason (e.g. the Categorical Imperative), as English is it to find rules in Nature. If there is a moral to be derived from Nature, it is one that celebrates generosity. Only an Englishman, or to be fair, a nineteenth century Englishman, would argue that it is scarcity and lack that propels man forward.


But a natural scientist should come out of his human nook; and in nature it is not conditions of distress that are dominant, but overflow and squandering, even to the point of absurdity. The struggle for existence is only an exception, a temporary restriction of the will to life. The great and small struggle always revolves around superiority, around growth and expansion, around power – in accordance with the will to power which is the will to life (GS 349).

This is a key difference between Nietzsche and Darwin. Nietzsche, for all his sharp words, do not evaluate Nature in harsh terms. Nature is more generous than harsh in the Nietzschean book. Furthermore, Nietzsche – who, after all, grew up in nineteenth century Germany, where history dominated everything – simply did not see evolution as such an earth-shattering fact, but simply one more episode in the history of metaphysics.


There are truths which are recognized best by mediocre minds because they are most suited to them, there are truths which possess charm and seductive powers only for mediocre spirits one is brought up against this perhaps disagreeable proposition just at the moment because the spirit of respectable but mediocre Englishmen ‑ I name Darwin, John Stuart Mill and Herbert ‑is starting to gain ascendancy in the midregion of European taste. BGE 257).


Nature is as rich, generous and self-contradictory as Nietzsche’s texts, and therefore renders ethical naturalism a virtual impossibility. After all, an ethical naturalist needs an end or some standard in terms of which value can be measured. Lest any residual utilitarianism raises its ugly head, Nietzsche assures us that ‘well-being as you understand it – that seems to us no goal, that is an end, a state which soon makes man ridiculous and contemptible – which makes it desirable that he should perish (BGE 225). Endless becoming means that value is immeasurable, and that nature gives us no ethics. Instead, ‘becoming should be explained without recourse to final intention, becoming must appear justified at every moment or incapable of being evaluated; which amounts to the same thing (WP 708). This makes ethical naturalism, particularly the Darwinian version espoused by Richard Dawkins, difficult to maintain. Even if altruism should be proven to have Darwinian origins (Dawkins (2007: 251), there is no reason why we should follow the ‘rule of nature’. In addition, Nietzsche speculates upon the ‘order of rank’ (BGE 228) among human values, holding that legislation values is what ultimately makes us human.


[1] See Ansell-Pearson, K. Viroid Life (..) for more.

[2] See also Twilight of the Idols section 37.

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