THE IMPOSSIBLE JOHN STUART MILL

 

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).

And

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.

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