Genealogy and the Will to Power, Nietzsche and Foucault – Lecture 5

August 11, 2016

panopticonFrom one so dismissive and critical of much of philosophy, Nietzsche is unhesitating in his admiration of Spinoza. He writes in a postcard to this friend Overbeck:

I am utterly amazed, utterly enchanted. I have a precursor, and what a precursor! I hardly knew Spinoza: that I should have turned to him just now, was inspired by ‘instinct.’ Not only is his over-all tendency like mine – making all knowledge the most powerful affect – but in five main points of his doctrine I recognize myself: this most unusual and loneliest thinker is closest to me precisely in these matters: he denies the freedom of the will, teleology, the moral world-order, the unegoistic, and evil.[1]

What does the death of God mean in Nietzsche? It isn’t merely a matter of demonstrating once and for all that God does not exist, since in some sense Kant had already achieved this, but that with the death of God Man also ceases to exist. We forget, in the famous scene of the madman in the Gay Science, the crowd who are laughing at the man searching for God and who declares we have all killed God, are themselves atheists. No one believes in God anymore, at least not serious people, and no-one is the least worried about whether God exists or not. What is really disturbing is what happens after God dies, for it there is no longer any transcendent order to the universe. ‘Are we not straying,’ the madman cries, ‘as through an infinite nothing’ (Nietzsche, 1974, p. 181).

God is a symptom not a cause. It is the sign of a desire to uncover an ultimate purpose or goal of the universe, as though all of this meant something more than the fact that it exists. This purpose or goal is a reflection of human interests and desires projected upon the universe. As though the universe only existed for the sake of human beings. God is just a sign of the ridiculous over weaning pride of a highly evolved chimpanzee who imagines that the universe is a reflection of itself.

In the preface to the third part of the Ethics, Spinoza argues that human beings are not a special being separate from the rest of nature, but a part of nature like anything else. Human beings are no more sinful or evil than any other being. The right way of living is not to be referred to some mysterious human power that takes us outside of nature, but to active and passive affects and how the mind can moderate them that are immanent to nature. It is not enough to curse and laugh at our affects and actions, rather it is important to understand them, just as we understand any other animal behaviour. What is good and best for us. Just as it would be absurd to morally judge the actions of lion or a volcano, then it is ridiculous to morally judge our affects. Anger, for example, is a natural affect of human beings. It would be wrong to label it therefore as a defect or evil. We might come to see that in certain circumstances anger is a not beneficial, and then we might come to moderate it, but we do so because we understand and rationalise it, not because we have given it a moral label. Nature operates by rules, and if human nature is part of nature, then it too must operate by rules. To understand our behaviour means to understand what causes us to act or respond in a certain way and what would be most beneficial to our lives (in the same way that we understand what benefits a plant or animal, too much water and sun it will die, or it if it is not fed the right kind of food). This means that we treat human actions ‘just as it were a question of line, planes and bodies’ (de lineis, planis aut de corporibus) (Ethics 3 pref.).

This is not to argue that values, morals and religions do not exist, because we can look around the world and see that they do, but that the origin of values, morals and religion cannot not itself be moral or religious. Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals is about the non-moral or non-religious origin of morality or religion. This origin is power. Thus, although morality and religion present themselves as the opposite of power, as though they were objective rather than subjective, they are disguised forms of power, or the way in which power organises and distributes affects. What better way to control and dominate others than to cause them to control and subjugate themselves? Religion, before it is a metaphysical doctrine of the origin of the universe, is a legitimisation of political authority. God the King is a justification of the King as God.

Value judgements, like ‘good’ or ‘bad’ are immanent to a form of life. What is good for me is bad for you or vice versa, just as the gazelles are good for lions, but lions are bad for gazelles. That the gazelles construct a universe in which lions are intrinsically evil is retrospective justification of their hatred of lions. The universe, of course, is indifferent to them both. The language we use to justify ourselves has its origin in history. It is just that we have forgotten this history. For Nietzsche morality has it origin as the expression of power. Those who have power see themselves as good against those they see as different from themselves. Morality is the expression of a rank society. If we were equal, then there would be no moral judgements. The antithesis of this aristocratic instinct is herd morality. How do the weak impose their own values? ‘By inverting, disfiguring the meaning attributed to the strong’ (Kofman and Large, 1993, p. 87). Our values, rather than expressing a separate hidden order of the universe, are nothing but the forgotten etymological transformations of the result of the historical changes in power and the social logic that maintained them.

In the past, what was called good was the expression of the power of those who had aristocratic values. The was still the case when priests took power, since divine authority (the pure and the impure) was there to maintain aristocratic values. The emergence of kingdoms in human history was the result of military conquest. The function of religion subsequently was to legitimate social stratification. We are the pure, they are the impure. We are pure because we are powerful. They are impure, because they are weak. The emergence of a kingdom from a rank society always follows the same logic:

Eventually the aggressive leader of one rank society (often a highly motivated usurper) gained an unforeseen advantage over his neighbours. He pressed his advantage relentlessly until he had subdued all his rivals. He turned their chiefdoms into the provinces of a society larger than any previously seen in the region. To consolidate power, he broke down the old loyalties of each province and replaced them with an ideology stressing loyalty to him. He rewarded priests who were willing to verify his genealogical credentials and revise his group’s cosmology, ensuring his divine right to rule. (Flannery and Marcus, 2012, p. 347).

It is not morality and religion that explain social stratification, but the other way around; social stratification explains the origin of different moralities and religions. This is the major and perhaps only lesson of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, even if you disagree with the details of his argument.

The final social logic we observe is the internalisation of the priestly type. Here the priest does not exist for the sake of the power of the king, but for himself. This is the history of Judeo-Christianity and the domination of a slave morality and the inversion of the moral order. What had hitherto been seen as worthy and good, the aristocracy, is now seen as a base and evil. All that is powerful is evil and all that is weak is good. But not only do we get a reverse of the terms of the relation but the type of relation. The first form is active, whereas the second is reactive. The noble morality first of all experiences itself as good and then judges what is different from it as bad, whereas the second form of power, slave morality, has to judge first what is bad to be able to feel good about itself. Thus the noble spirit cannot take its enemies seriously for long. It does not have the spirit for revenge. It forgets. And for this very reason it loves its enemies for how else is it to prove itself. For the slave, on the contrary, the enemy, the noble spirit, is the wicked and evil one. The thought of evil is the first thought, and only secondarily does it come up with the idea of the good.

It is in the triumph of slave morality that Nietzsche believes morality as ideals and thereby judgement is born. Weakness is turned into an ideal, as though it were something that one had to choose to be rather than what one is. Thus patience and obedience to a higher power (God) is seen as a virtue. Be submissive! They are no doubt miserable and hate life, but they believe that they will be rewarded in the future, in heaven. They see themselves better than the noble, even though they have to obey them, and obey all authority, because their God has told them to do so. But they comfort themselves that they, the nobles, will punished in the future, whereas, the slaves they will see their reward. Or own morality is a residuum of this triumph of reactive will to power. The only difference is that there no nobles, but only the values of the slave, and thus we do not even see ourselves as slaves anymore.

Even though Foucault’s story will be very different from Nietzsche’s, there are many things, in terms of methodology, that they share in common, and Foucault himself is transparent about this.[2] History is not made up of a necessary evolution that somehow ends up with us, as though the whole of history had this intention in mind from the beginning, or that there was an internal logic to its development like ripening of a fruit. On the contrary, history is contingent and we only discover its meaning after the fact. Thus Nietzsche’s story of the origin of our morality is not necessary. Things could have happened differently and our morality could be totally different. There is no necessity that slave morality would have triumphed or that slave morality had taken the form of Judeo-Christianity, and thus we could be living totally different lives with totally different values, as there is no necessity that the universe itself came into existence.

Rather than human history being made up of chain of historical events that are linked together necessarily, it is made up of singular contingent events that are rare and exceptional. What we discover, in the archaeological and anthropological evidence, is changes in social logic are sporadic and intermittent, and nothing changes for 1,000 of years or hundreds of generations, if not at all. What is interesting about human history is not how many things happen, but how little different kinds of things happen, and thus is because of course power is essentially conservative. Why change something when things have always worked.[3] If revolutions in social logic are rare, then they are also discontinuous. Thus a society that works with one logic that stresses equality and sharing, for example, in which hoarding and wealth is seen as shameful and dishonourable, like the Hadza, will be completely different from a society in which inequality is hereditary and stratified, like the Tongans. They will speak a completely different social logic, and their religions and moral values will therefore be completely different. Societies with different social logics are discontinuous and incommensurate and there is no universal language that can translate one into the other. There is no such thing as truth, but only truths (the Hadza truth, the Tongan truth and so on).

It is for this reason that we have to understand power historically rather than metaphysically. There is no essence of power, only different social forms of power that are expressed historically. If we look to our most recent past, rather than the long stretch of our human history from 200,000 years ago, then we can say that Europe has undergone a transformation of political power. In the first instance, power is justified, as in most kingdoms, through divine right. Sovereignty is the authority of the king justified through religion as is the case in all kingdoms. From the 16th century, Foucault discerned a new kind of power, which he called disciplinary power, and which was latter transformed into new form in the 18th and 19th centuries, which he called biopolitics. In the first case, power has as it object individuals, in the second, the population as a whole.

The justification of society is no longer transcendent, in the sense of sovereign power, but immanent, in the sense of a contract. The key distinction is no longer between the people and the sovereign, as it is in an aristocratic kingdom, but between the people and the multitude. The question of power is how can we transform the multitude, which represents chaos and disorder, into the people, which represents stability and order. Disciplinary societies do so through controlling individuals through institutions (prisons, barracks, schools and hospitals), biopolitical societies through the production of populations through norms and standardisation. Each society would require its own discourse and moralities, which would be very different in their meanings and effects, even if they were to use the same language and terms. This new form of power is the power of the market:

The market determines that good government is no longer simply government that functions according to justice. The market determines that a good government is no longer quite simply one that is just. The market now means that to be good government, government has to function according to truth. (Foucault et al., 2008, p. 32).

Thus it is the change in the nature of power that determines the rise of utilitarianism as the dominant form of moral rationality, because utilitarianism can now be expressed in language of the market, cost-benefit analysis and rational choice theory, rather than whether utilitarianism is the best expression of an objective universal ethics, as opposed, for example, to deontology. Morality is not external to power relations. It is just one more discourse amongst many used to justify and legitimate them.

If power is the explanation of morality and not morality power, then how do we explain power? Power names actions or practices. Promising, judging, loving, and governing are all practices. History is nothing less than the history of changing practices and the social logic that underpins them. When it comes to practices there is always a relation between forces, one which is active and one which is passive or reactive. So there is the loving and the being loved, the judging and the being judged, governing and the being governed. A practice is the encounter between these two forces. This encounter Is not causal. In other words, the active force does not cause the passive one, rather there is an encounter between an active and passive force. Nor is the difference between the passive and active force one of quantity. It is not necessarily the case the active force is stronger or tougher than the passive force.

When Deleuze explains Foucault’s work he distinguishes between pure matter and pure functions (Deleuze, 2006). The pure matter of force is power to be affected, and the pure function of power is the power to affect. It is important not to confuse this with the actualisation of power, which is formed matter and formed function. The actualisation of power are actual historical institutions and practices. Foucault’s genealogy is the description of virtual relations of power and not actual relations. These virtual relations of power are diagrams. The example of a diagram that Deleuze gives is the Panopticon. Foucault is not interested in actual Panopticon nor the fact that Bentham’s plan was never actually built, but rather what the idealisation of Bentham’s plan says about how power has been changed or transformed.

There is always a relation between power and knowledge. Power always attracts knowledge, but that does not mean that knowledge and power are the same. Knowledge has to do with formed matter and formed functions rather than pure matters or functions. Knowledge concerns the actualisation of virtual relations of power in institutions. When we come to think about morality, then, it concerns knowledge. How virtual relations of power are actualised. These actualisations are always subsequent to the practices themselves. Knowledge is always the attempt to fix and stratify relations of power so they repeat invariantly through techniques of power and the human sciences (what Deleuze calls ‘dispositif’, but is variously translated as ‘device’, ‘apparatus’, ‘construction’, ‘machinery’, and so on). On the other side, however, because power and knowledge are not the same, even though power attracts knowledge, and knowledge falls back onto power and ‘miraculates’ it, as though it were the origin of power, the virtual relations of power are always escaping their stratification. The virtual relations of love are infinite, even within a given field, whereas actual relations of love are finite (only these relations of love are permitted and none other).

There are two possible confusions. First of all, we can think that the relation between active and reactive forces is dialectical and that the one causes the other. In this sense, we might think that power is transcendent and sovereign. There is never a substance or essence to power (we cannot define outside of situation in which we find power operating). This means that wherever there is power there is always resistance because there cannot be an active power without resistance. Secondly, we should not confuse actual relations of power with virtual relations of power. Rather than thinking of power as homogenous and regularised, outside forces are constantly escaping it. In one of the last papers Deleuze wrote, ‘Postscript of the Societies of Control’, he speaks of the new form of power as permanent training and perpetual audit, but he also imagines, even now, in ways that we have never visualised, the young are conceiving of new ways of escaping and new lines of flight.

Many young people strangely boast of being ‘motivated’; they re-request apprenticeships and permanent training. It’s up to them to discover what they’re being made to serve, just as their elders discovered, not without difficulty, the telos of the disciplines. The coils of a serpent are even more complex that the burrows of a molehill. (Deleuze, 1992).

Works Cited

Deleuze, G., 2006. Foucault. Continuum, London.

Deleuze, G., 1992. Postscript on the Societies of Control. October 59, 3–7.

Flannery, K.V., Marcus, J., 2012. The creation of inequality: how our prehistoric ancestors set the stage for monarchy, slavery, and empire. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.; London.

Foucault, M., Bouchard, D.F., Simon, S., 1977. Language, counter-memory, practice: selected essays and interviews. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, N.Y.

Foucault, M., Senellart, M., Collège de France, 2008. The birth of biopolitics: lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-79. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke [England]; New York.

Kofman, S., Large, D., 1993. Nietzsche and Metaphor. Stanford University Press.

Nietzsche, F.W., 1974. The Gay Science : with a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. Vintage Books, New York.

Yovel, Y., 1991. Spinoza and Other Heretics: The Adventures of Immanence. Princeton University Press.


[1] As quoted by Yovel in ‘Spinoza and Nietzsche: Amor Dei and Amor fati’ (1991, p. 105).

[2] See his essay, ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’ (Foucault et al., 1977).

[3] It is usually external contingent events that causes revolutions in social logic, like climate change, agriculture and domestication, or the Europeans turning up on your doorstep.

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The True World – Lecture 2

February 1, 2013

Just as was the case with Kierkegaard, Nietzsche pervades the pages of Being and Time, but if you were to try and prove this by the amount of times that Heidegger refers to his work, then you would equally fail.[1] Just as we said in our lecture on Kierkegaard, however, weighing up citations does not really prove anything at all. Indeed, you might argue their absence proves more than their presence. For if Heidegger had signalled the importance of Nietzsche in Being and Time, then he would have had to litter the text with footnotes. Yet perhaps this importance is more than just scholarly. If Nietzsche is present everywhere in the pages of Being and Time, it is not because this work is an interpretation of Nietzsche, or just follows on from the work of Nietzsche, as though Heidegger’s own philosophy were just a new version of one of Nietzsche’s famous thesis on the eternal return or the will to power. To understand the importance of Nietzsche to Being and Time, you have to interpret it from this vantage point and not impose it from the outside, as though you were just hunting for citations and reference. Such an activity, anyway, is strange way of doing philosophy. It transformation the creativity of thought into a hobby of collecting numbers.

Being and Time opens with the question of being. Not only do we not know the answer to this question but we do not even know what it means to ask it. If Heidegger is going to convince us that it is even worth doing so then he has to have a method. This method is twofold. First of all he has to show us why it is that we have forgotten it and secondly what it is that we have forgotten otherwise we would not know that we had forgotten it. The first method is historical and the second is phenomenological and it is in the first that we might discern the influence of Nietzsche.

To think is not to think in isolation. We might think that there is a simple agreement with what we say about the world and what the world is. Either we think this agreement as its source in the world, so that the aim of knowledge is to discover the truth that is in the world itself. Or we might think its origin is in the subject, such that it is we who have to agree with the world, but the world that has to agree with us. We can see in these two forms the oppositions that have characterised Western philosophy itself throughout its long history through various forms of idealism and materialism. What is common across this opposition, however, is the idea that truth is a representation. One says that the true image of reality is to be found in the world and we simply have to see it there, and the other, in the self, so we simply have to look at ourselves. What is lacking in this account of truth is any sense of history. It either asserts that the world is atemporal and eternal, or the self is atemporal and eternal. Error is not a property of either the universal world or the self, but the individual who has mistaken truth for its opposite. Science, then, is nothing but the progress to an ultimate truth that has been there from the very beginning and which, one supposes, if we ever reach it, will mean that science itself will come to an end. Each individual scientist has been seeking for the same truth from the very beginning, and if they made mistakes, then this was because they were ignorant or biased. Now from our vantage point, because we know that we our closer to the truth than they, we can see this even though they cannot. They thought they were speaking the truth but they were not.

What does it mean to think truth historically? It means that one understands that the representation of the world is not first but second. The source of our image of the world has its origin in a tradition that is itself not an image. Take for example Nietzsche’s argument in his essay ‘On Truth and Lie in an Extra-moral Sense’(Nietzsche 1990).[2] Truth is something that has to appear on this planet. It is an accomplishment, not a given. In other words, there have to forces that produce and create truth. It is only because we have forgotten that truth has a history that we think the agreement between the self and the world, whether from the side of the world or the self, is natural and universal to the human species. It is in this social existence that the first urge for truth arises. It is society that fixes the truth of terms. The liar is excluded because he misuses words and meanings. So it is not deception that bothers us but what harm comes to us from deception and we want truth because it is agreeable and preserves our existence. Truth is first of all normative. It’s basis is that we experience the world in the same way and this can only be brought about through social force. We have to be made to feel the world in the same way. Only then can we claim that truth is in us or outside of us as a representation.

Truth is imposed upon us by society. We use the same metaphors as everyone else. Lie like everyone else. We forget that we are lying so no-one knows that they are lying. Because we forget, we think the lies are the truth. This commitment to truth is moral, for one’s attachment to it means that you judge as the liar the one who does not speak conventionally. You also judge yourself. You think only in abstractions and universals, and you ignore every subtle impression or sensation. Thus everything is reduced to schemata and diagrams that turn the perceptual and visual world into a grid. This how we humanise the world so that it does not threaten and disturb us. You have to understand that this is first of all a moral order. We force the world to conform to our concepts and then only subsequently say that it is true.

Does this mean, then, that Nietzsche himself is telling us lies. Does he not fall for the paradox of claiming that everything is lie apart from the statement ‘everything is lie’? That would be so if the only account of truth that we could give is representational. If the only truth were the agreement of the world with the self, either from the side of the world or from the viewpoint of the self, then Nietzsche would be the relativist that people confuse him with, because they think that when he says that everything is an interpretation he means that every truth is just what you say it is. Yet this truth, as we have seen, is not first but second. It is the result of certain history that prioritises representational thought, but it itself cannot be representational. There must, therefore, be another kind of truth, a ‘higher’ then this kind.

First of all there must be a truth about the history of truth. We must be able to examine how this truth came about, and also that there could be other truths, other ways of conceiving the world than agreement. This method Nietzsche calls genealogy. So his Genealogy of Morals, for example, is not about the definition of morality, as one might find in Kant and Bentham, but this history of this morality, which has a common source, even though at the level of representation they appear as opposites. The history of morality is the study of how something like morality came about in the first place and how different moralities are expressed in different civilisations and through time. Yet the past is not just for the sake of the past, for Nietzsche. It is not about collecting facts like an entomologist butterflies, but how the past means something for us in the future. Why does it matter to us, what does it have to say to us, and how will it change us. Nietzsche interest in the Ancient Greeks, for instance in The Birth of Tragedy, was not merely a matter of historical curiosity about the past, but that they could say something to us about our future.

Why the ancient Greeks were so important is that they had not fallen under the thrall of representational truth, though there philosophy, to some extent, in the thought of Plato and Aristotle, set in train its eventual triumph. What the ancient Greeks knew, and what they could still teach us, is that the world is not first of all represented but created. Even the world as representation had to be created. Creation, then is the other meaning of truth, as well as history. For what we see when we look at history of truth is its creation. It is these creations that are the original source for the paradigms of truth that over time forget their own origins so that they confuse themselves for the truth.

Creativity requires freedom otherwise how could there be other possibilities than the reality that faces us? When we think about freedom, however, we think about in terms of freedom of choice. We think freedom is simply a matter of choosing between one thing and another, or between one life and another. We have already seen with Kierkegaard that this is not the only way of interpreting freedom. What freedom means for Nietzsche is self-determination and self-determination is nothing like choosing, and indeed from its perspective self-determination will look very much like un-freedom.

When we come to think of the difference ourselves and nature, we think of nature as being determined and ourselves as being free. We think of nature made up of atoms which are causally tied together by the chain of necessity. We however, are more than just atoms (though they make up our physical nature) because we have reason. Freedom is not a natural property of something. Freedom does not exist in this way. Rather freedom is an idea. It has no reality about from people asserting it. Yet this difference between freedom and necessity mirrors the very opposition between idealism and materialism that is the basis of representational truth, and which we have seen Nietzsche rejects. This is why some readers of Nietzsche can get confused and think he’s a determinist and cannot understand how at the same time he will speak of genius and creativity. If you think you are free because you have reason, then Nietzsche is a determinist, because he would claim that this idea is a fiction. But that the same time the causal universe of science is also only an idea. Reality goes deeper than both reason and matter. It is the lived body.

What Nietzsche means by the livid body is not the physiological body of science, since that body too is thought in terms of causes and effects, but existence. Existence here is not a category of thought, but a way of being. When we speak of a physical body, then we are thinking of body that is common to many, but existence is not. Existence is individual. The body that Nietzsche speaks of is my body. The body I live in and which expresses my being concretely and not abstractly. It is my body which first of all says who I am and not thought. Thought has its source in the unthought and the unthought is the body with feelings, instincts and drives. It is the body which is the vehicle of history (it is the body that both resists and is formed by power) and not thought that only catches up with history retrospectively.

I am where my body already is shaped by history and projected into the future. The real opposition is not between the self and the world, which is an opposition of thought and not the body, but between thought and the unthought. Thought want to say that it is it that battles against thought, but in fact thought has its origin in the unthought, and without it thought would be sterile and lack creativity. We do not first exist as individuals because we think, since the thinking self is the universal self that is common to everyone. I exist first of all as the lived self that is my body. Only retrospectively does this body think. Reason has its origin in the historical being of the concrete individual, and not the other way around as it likes to imagine.

The ontological freedom of self-determination is to become who you already are. To become what your body, in its historical being, has already fated you to be. The choice I have is affirmation. Can I affirm my individual existence or not, and not whether I can choose between one action or not. The authentic individual is not someone who makes choices, but who seizes their own existence as their own. Outwardly nothing has changed at all. I am still the person I have always been and would have been. Yet this time I accept fully the person that I am. To do so, for both Heidegger and Nietzsche, means to live in the truth. It cannot be understood, of course, in terms of representational truth, for that would mean an agreement between the self and the world, an acceptance of reality, and a passivity in relation to its image, whether that image was  internal or external. To live in the truth is to be revealed to oneself as one is out of one’s past and forward into the future.

Works Cited

Haase, U.M., 2008. Starting with Nietzsche, London; New York: Continuum.

Heidegger, M., 1981. Nietzsche: The Will to Power as Art, Taylor & Francis.

Nietzsche, F.W., 1990. Philosophy and Truth: Selections from Nietzsche’s Notebooks of the Early 1870’s, Humanity Books.


[1] There are only three references to Nietzsche, as David Farrell Krell remarks in his analysis of Heidegger’s later lectures on the same philosopher, in Being and Time (Heidegger 1981, p.247)

[2] Ulrich Haase provides an excellent guide to this text and to Nietzsche thought as a whole in his introduction, which is more than just an introduction since it is a philosophical interpretation, Starting with Nietzsche (2008, pp.22–23). Much that is written here is inspired by it.


Nietzsche and Moral Nihilism – Lecture 3

October 17, 2012

In popular culture, the philosopher Nietzsche is usually associated with moral nihilism. We might define nihilism as the absence of the highest values. Associated with moral nihilism is moral relativism. Moral relativism is the belief that all values, precisely because there are no higher values, are merely the expression of personal preference. Ironically, however, is it exactly this kind of moral viewpoint that Nietzsche is criticising. Rather than being a nihilist he is an anti-nihilist. Nihilism is a diagnosis of the decadence of Western culture, rather than a position that Nietzsche wants, and still less, wants us to aspire to.

What is the cause and origin of nihilism in contemporary society? It is the continued destruction of all meaning and signification. It is the belief that nothing really matters any more, because nothing really has any meaning. We have no system of beliefs or values which could orientate us. The old systems of belief, like religion and morality, still exist, but at best we only follow them half-heartedly, and at worst, think that they have no meaning whatsoever. They exist only at the edges of our lives and consciousnesses. But it isn’t just the world that doesn’t have any meaning anymore. We ourselves don’t have any meaning for ourselves. Why should we choose one course of action over any other? What does it really matter anymore, since no-one’s individual life really has any significance in the grand scheme of things? As Michel Haar describes:

Nothing is worth much anymore, everything comes down to the same thing, everything is equalized. Everything is the same and equivalent: the true and the false, the good and the bad. Everything is outdated, used up, old dilapidated, dying: an undefined agony of meaning, an unending twilight: not a definite annihilation of significations, but their indefinite collapse. (Allison 1985, p.13)

It would be quite absurd, therefore, to claim that this is what Nietzsche actually desires. On the contrary, he wants to diagnose how we got there. Our culture is like the character God in Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy: old and worn out, barely alive, and certainly nothing to really believe in anymore.

The most dangerous side of this nihilism, however, is that in the end it becomes happy and satisfied with itself. Once we used to feel horror and terror at the fact that religion, morality and philosophy don’t really have any meaning, but now we’re quite happy to live in a world without meaning. One example of this satisfaction is the death of God. Again we have to remind ourselves of the passage in the Gay Science, where Nietzsche writes of the madman who rushes into the marketplace and declares that God is dead. Many people read this as Nietzsche is simply celebrating atheism, but if we read this passage more carefully we can see that what it really describes is how the ordinary people don’t really care at all whether God is dead or not. This is what is truly terrifying. Not that God is dead, but that no-one even noticed that he had died:

Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: ‘I seek God! I seek God!’ – As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, the provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? Emigrated? – Thus they yelled and laughed. (Nietzsche 1974, p.181)

How can this famous scene be a declaration of atheism, when the people that the madman announces the death of god to are in fact already atheists? No, this is not what Nietzsche thinks is significant for us understand. The truth of this passage comes a little later, when the madman tells them that it us who have killed God: ‘We have killed him – you and I.’(Nietzsche 1974, p.181) And yet, even though we are the murderers of God we still have no idea of what a universe without God, without any values really means, because as such we still cling to the ideal world even though it is absent. It is not enough to negate values, because then all you are left with is negativity, and negation is dependent on the very thing that it negates. I say that I don’t believe in God, but paradoxically this non-belief is just as much dependent on the idea of God, as the belief in God is, for without the idea of God how would it be possible to be an atheist. We have to get beyond both the belief and non belief. We have to get, to use a title to one of Nietzsche’s books, beyond good and evil.

The real source of nihilism is negation, and therefore to understand nihilism we have to understand negation, or what Nietzsche will call negative will to power. There two sources of values for Nietzsche in the world: reactive and active. Nihilism in all its forms is reactive, and this is precisely the reason why Nietzsche’s philosophy cannot be nihilism, for it is against reactive will to power that it is written.

Nietzsche’s critique of morality is that in fact it is secondary. Morality presents itself as a disinterested objective valuation of the world, but underneath it is just another form of will to power: the desire for self preservation, even if that means dominating others by stealth and cunning. All morality is hypocritical, not because it is false or wrong, which would be too simplistic, since all human beings live by values, even if the supreme value in our age might be to value nothing, but because it presents itself as though it were not of this world, above petty politics and striving, objective and absolutely true.

Nietzsche is not criticising values in general, but reactive values, and it is these values that have led to the nihilism of the West. Having negated the world, and seen nothing positive in it, it has ended up with the ultimate negation of destroying itself. Active will to power, on the contrary, can be vanquished by another active will, but it does not seek its own auto-destruction.

Active and reactive values describe the relations of dominance and subordination. What is reactive is always a response to what is active. It subordinates itself to more dominating forces. But it is important to realise that this subordination is not an absence of power. It is just as much an expression of power, Nietzsche believes, to dominate as subordinate oneself. In the second case, one obtains power by accommodating and regulating oneself to the status quo. This is exactly how the power of modern societies operates. It is the power of adaptation and utility, and those who are better adapted have more power, and those who refuse to adapt, conform and fall into line, have little or no power. Be like everyone else, or else! This is the motto of our societies, and our schools and universities are nothing but machines to produce this submission.

Because our societies, or perhaps society itself, is essentially reactive, it is much harder to describe what active forces are. One thing that we do know is that they must be first, because without active forces, there would not be any reactive ones, for what would they be reacting against? This is the first step away from nihilism. For nihilism says that what is first is negation. But this is precisely how reactive forces speak: negate! What is active, on the contrary, is what is creative, what imposes forms and dominates. Its first word is not ‘no’, but ‘yes’, and what one must first create is oneself beyond the reactive forces of society. Again simply to negate society, and the values implicit within it, is not enough, for this is to be dependent on the values of the very society one despises, and have negated it all that one is left with is a black hole. The point is to create new values that leap beyond the negative values of society. This is what Nietzsche calls, as described by Deleuze, the ‘Dionysian power’ (Allison 1985, p.83).

Perhaps the best way to understand this power is through the distinction Nietzsche makes between Dionysus and Jesus. The life of Jesus, as those who have seen Gibson’s film The Passion know, is a life that is the justification of suffering and which makes of life itself something that causes suffering and which must be justified and legitimated as suffering. This must be distinguished from Dionysus, or at least what this Greek god represents for Nietzsche. Here life does not need to be justified, and even if there is pain, then this is a justified part of life. It does not have to be paid for somewhere else, as in the suffering of Jesus does, for example. Life does not need to be redeemed, for this is nothing to be redeemed. Rather life is to be affirmed as it is. This is what Nietzsche means by the Eternal Return, which is perhaps one of his most difficult ideas:

What if some night or night a demon were to steal into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life that you now live it and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again.” […] How well disposed would you have become to yourself and to life to long for nothing more fervently than for this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal? (Nietzsche 1974, p.343)

Why then is Nietzsche not a nihilist? Because the nihilist is the one who reduces life to nothing. In this sense it is the Christian or the moralist who is the nihilist. For without Jesus, or morality, life would be exactly nothing. It is because they experience life as nothing in itself that they need the extra moral or religious order above life. The modern nihilist is merely the believer without God, the Christian without Jesus, the moraliser without morals. They are left with the negation of the world, but simply have no belief system to replace religion, morality and philosophy. Without God life is meaningless. But this means that Christianity has to prove that life without God is meaningless. Now that God is dead, all we are left with in the meaningless of life. All that could happen in the future is that we would get new beliefs (capitalism, nationalism) that would simple cover over this the death of God. Nihilism is merely the last symptom of belief, its last stages and final development. It is not the opposite of belief, but merely its final form, as Deleuze so eloquently describes it:

Previously life was depreciated from the height of higher values. Here on the contrary, only life remains, but it is still a depreciated life which now continues in a world without values, stripped of meaning and purpose, sliding every further towards its nothingness. (Deleuze 1983, p.148)

One cannot be a nihilist and affirm life, and Nietzsche’s philosophy is nothing but the affirmation of life as what it is. This is why he is so critical of religion, morality and philosophy. For they all begin with the same presupposition that life doesn’t amount to much, and must be supplemented by a religious, moral, and essentially metaphysical ‘other world’. Yes the nihilist gets rid of this ‘other world’, but she is still left with the hatred of the world that all these beliefs first began with as their original impetus. In one sense, nihilism is worse than morality, religion and philosophy, for it denies life, but has no recompense at all for the life which has been destroyed. What we need then is a new faith, a Dionysian one, which affirms all of life, even suffering that is just as much part of life as joy.

Work Cited

Allison, D.B. ed., 1985. The New Nietzsche : contemporary styles of interpretation, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Deleuze, G., 1983. Nietzsche and philosophy, New York: Columbia University Press.

Nietzsche, F.W., 1974. The Gay Science : with a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs, New York: Vintage Books.