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.


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