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The Democratic Impulse of the Scholars in Nietzsche’s “Beyond Good and Evil”

Since the Enlightenment, it has been a cliché to portray science as an unquestionable good, and perhaps even as the panacea to all human problems. René Descartes praised science for preparing man to become a “master and possessor of nature,” and, in the same vein, Francis Bacon rejoiced that science offered hope for “the relief of man’s estate.”[1] Deploring the otherworldly character of the Christian social order, Bacon, Descartes, and other devotees of the Enlightenment believed that science offered moderns the chance to build a more comfortable, secure society. Today, scientific advances such as modern medicine have improved the quality of life for millions of people, seemingly vindicating the early modern apostles of science. Yet, for all of the tangible benefits that scientific progress has produced, some astute commentators noted that the new authority of science poses urgent challenges for both philosophy and human excellence.

Among the critics of the Enlightenment faith in science, Friedrich Nietzsche stands out as among the most profound. While Nietzsche’s attacks on Christianity and classical moral virtue have heretofore received great attention, his equally critical attitude towards the dogmatism of modern science has often been neglected. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche argues that the enthronement of science has created a new class of elites known as the scholars. The scholars are not limited to a single academic field, such as mathematics or the natural sciences. Rather, the scholars include those in every department of academia who seek to impose the assiduous, calculating, and “objective” spirit of science on every aspect of human life. Nietzsche suggests that this scholarly desire for objectivity imperils real philosophy, which should seek above all to create new value systems. The scholars, devoted to the pursuit of objective truth under the scientific method, deny that the creation of values is even possible. For humanity to be saved from the nihilism of the scholars, a new class of “philosophers of the future” must arise and displace them. The heart of the conflict between the scholars and the philosophers of the future is political. The scholars are fundamentally democratic people who pander to bourgeois society, whereas the philosophers of the future will be aristocrats who demonstrate humanity’s capacity for creative excellence.

The Democratic Mediocrity of the Scholars

Nietzsche implies that there is a kinship between the Christians, the democrats, and the scholars. “The democratic movement,” he complains, “is the heir of the Christian movement.”[2] Yet, Nietzsche is no less emphatic that the scholars are themselves a “more refined effect of the democratic order.”[3] The scholars pride themselves on their skepticism, atheism, and supposed objectivity but they are—at bottom—only the latest manifestation of the will to truth that characterized the Platonic and Christian era. As Nietzsche explained in The Gay Science:

“One will have gathered what I am driving at, namely, that it always remains a metaphysical faith upon which our faith in science rests—that even we devotees of knowledge today, we godless ones and anti-metaphysicians, still take our fire too from the flame which a faith thousands of years old has kindled; that Christian faith, which was also Plato’s faith, that God is truth, that truth is divine.”[4]

Nietzsche here observes that, notwithstanding their professed anti-Christianity, the scholarly confidence in science is itself only a secularized religious longing. As much as the Christians and Platonists, the scholars assume that objective truth is knowable, valuable, and good. For Nietzsche, however, this assumption is fundamentally erroneous. It fails to recognize that the objective pursuit of truth is impossible, not only in the realm of moral philosophy, but also in the natural sciences. Scholars feign objectivity, but it is doubtless the case that “most of their conscious thinking… is secretly guided and forced into certain channels by instincts.”[5] Humanity is motivated not by reason, but by the instinct, drive, and passion of the will to power. “A living thing,” Nietzsche insists, “seeks above all to discharge its strength—life itself is will to power.”[6] Scholars claim to be disinterested, rational, and objective calculators of truth, but this is only an insidious ruse for them to enthrone themselves as new authorities.

The scholars utilize their authority to promote the sordid ideals of democracy and egalitarianism. When the scholars emancipated themselves from the authority of the theologians and the philosophers, they were merely participating in the democratic revolt against authority more generally. The political philosophy of the scholars, Nietzsche elucidates, is not one of mastery, but one of “Freedom from all masters.”[7] Yet, while the scholars preach with “the rabble” the value of “the democratic order,” they also endeavor to neutralize all potential rivals to keep themselves in positions of power. “The self-glorification and self-exaltation of scholars now stand in full bloom,” Nietzsche contends.[8] The scholars feign to “lay down laws for philosophy and to play the ‘master’ herself.”[9] The scholars declare themselves independent of and superior to the authority of the philosophers, not so they can promote human greatness, but so they can sustain their rule under the hollow pretense of “democracy.”

To sustain and promote the democratic order, the scholars redefined philosophy. Contemplative philosophy, they argued, is an impractical pursuit that “does nobody any good.”[10] Rather than pursue it, they would make philosophy more conducive to the mediocre values of democratic “utility men.”[11] Therefore, pseudo-philosophers, including positivists, utilitarians, and pragmatists, inevitably arise under the rule of the scholars. These “hodgepodge philosophers” concern themselves only with scientific calculations, objective rules, and mathematical forms.[12] As such, they are deeply impatient with the philosopher’s tendency to reflect on abstract and open-ended questions about values. Instead, the scholars fabricate the idea of “objectivity” and promote a “philosophy of reality” built around the scientific method.[13] This provides them with the excuse they need to banish higher-order questions from philosophy and abscond their duty to create life-serving value systems. Because the scientific method cannot answer deep questions about human life, the scholars simply ignore these questions. To Nietzsche, however, this is appalling, for it ensures that philosophy “never gets beyond the threshold and takes the pains to deny itself the right to enter.”[14] The positivistic “philosophers of reality” are not philosophers at all. Rather, they are “scholars and specialists” who hide behind the “hegemony of science” to demote philosophy to the level of an empirical science.[15] No positivist will create any meaningful value-systems, as a true philosopher would.

To make philosophy more empirical and utilitarian, scholars have narrowed its focus and transformed it into a specialized profession. As Nietzsche observes, “the scope and the tower-building of the sciences has grown to be enormous, and with this the probability that the philosopher grows weary while still learning or allows himself to be detained somewhere to become a ‘specialist.’”[16] Under the scholars, the pursuit of knowledge becomes strictly compartmentalized. One does not become a philosopher, but instead becomes an epistemologist, a metaphysician, a sociologist, a political scientist, or an economist. The problem for scholarly partisans of specialization, however, is that philosophy is necessarily concerned with man’s “range and multiplicity… his wholeness in manifoldness.”[17] Nietzsche emphasizes that a specialized philosopher will never “attain his proper level, the height for a comprehensive look, for looking around, for looking down.”[18] By compartmentalizing knowledge, the scholars reject the philosopher’s need for wholeness and stymy his potential for greatness. To Nietzsche, specialization represents a principal method by which democratic scholars can revolt against the potential for human excellence.

Not only do the scholars deplore the holistic character of real philosophy, but they also fear that its pursuit would make them unpopular with the democratic masses. Real philosophers, Nietzsche insists, would not be popular and would not care to be. Great philosophers would rarely ever feel like “friends of wisdom but rather like disagreeable fools and dangerous question markers.”[19] Great philosophers cannot be conformists because they need to possess the strength of will to reflect on the highest questions and overturn commonly held, popular assumptions. Scholars, in contrast, not only have no interest in overturning common assumptions, but they pander to them and give them philosophical legitimacy. For instance, Nietzsche contends that Kant and Hegel were “philosophical laborers” who entrenched ideas that the democratic rabble already favored.[20] Kant and Hegel condensed logic, politics, morals, and aesthetic into simplistic “formulas” that were already “dominant and [were] for a time called ‘truths.’”[21] Far from being radical, Kant’s categorical imperative simply offered an elaborate philosophical excuse for people to live according to the democratic herd morality. Similarly, Hegel’s progressive historicism appealed to the jejune optimism of democrats who, believing that they lived at the apex of history, possessed no desire to challenge modern decadence. Rather than offer a path forward towards creative philosophical systems and human excellence, the scholars have simply sustained the most mediocre prevailing assumptions.

Because the scholars possess no interest in challenging old value systems, they are perfectly “respectable” to the democratic masses.[22] To Nietzsche, their democratic respectability reveals their abhorrent and mediocre character. A true genius “begets” new values and “gives birth” to novel ideas.[23] A scholar, in contrast, resembles a barren “old maid” who has long since ceased to give birth to anything.[24] Passive and uncreative, the scholar’s conformity to bourgeois values is impeccable: He “has industriousness, patient acceptance of his place in rank and file, evenness and moderation in his abilities and needs, an instinct for his equals, and for what they need.”[25] Yet, while the scholar tepidly conforms to the nihilistic routine of the herd, he also wants to feel like his life has meaning. He seeks out false honors that appeal to his vanity. The scholar seeks the “sunshine of a good name, that constant attestation of his value and utility which is needed to overcome again and again the internal mistrust which is sediment in the hearts of all dependent men and herd animals.”[26] Sensing the “mediocrity of their own type,” the scholars have no choice other than to make virtues out of their bourgeois industriousness.[27] However revolutionary the scholars claim to be in theory, Nietzsche suggests that they are simply bourgeois democrats in their everyday practice.

The scholars wield the dogma of skepticism to ensconce human mediocrity. Skepticism, ostensibly a philosophy that rejects dogmatic truth claims, has itself become an unquestionable dogma among scholars. “When a philosopher suggests these days that he is not a skeptic,” Nietzsche muses, “everybody is annoyed.”[28] The popularity of skepticism among scholars is altogether fitting and natural, for it appeals to their democratic passion for equality. By denying the possibility of value judgments, skepticism suggests that all moralities are fundamentally equal in worth. Skepticism thus provides scholars with another excuse to abandon the creation of values. If all moral values are equal, then it is impossible to create superior ones. Adhering to a philosophy of unbelief, skeptical scholars are timid people who refuse to take an affirmative stand for anything. “The skeptic,” Nietzsche writes, “being a delicate creature, is frightened all too easily; his conscience is trained to quiver at every No, indeed, even at a Yes that is decisive and hard, and to feel as if it had been bitten. Yes and No—that goes against his morality.”[29] To take a firm stand for certain values over others, a scholar would necessarily have to abandon his democratic preference for tolerance, equality, and open-mindedness. Such scholarly “values” are only tools for scholars to distract themselves from their nihilistic existences: “There is today,” Nietzsche caustically remarks, “no better soporific and sedative than skepticism.”[30]

The Philosophers of the Future

Guided by a misplaced faith in objectivity and science, the scholars have proven unable to create life-affirming value systems. Scholars are partisans of democracy who encourage only the “diminution of man, making him mediocre and lowering his value.”[31] Unfortunately, many of these scholars masquerade as philosophers, so the profession of philosophy has itself become corrupted. Nietzsche indicates that, for philosophy to create meaningful new values, the “philosophical laborers” and “scientific men” will need to be banished completely.[32] In their place, Nietzsche anticipates the rise of a new class of leaders whom he calls “philosophers of the future.” In contrast to the scholars, the philosophers of the future will reject the notion that truth can be pursued in an indifferent, disinterested, and objective way. Understanding that personal perspectives are the “basic condition of all life,” the philosophers of the future would apply their personal experiences to inquiry and destroy truths that no longer serve humanity.[33] No truth would be too sacred for the philosophers of the future to unravel. They would possess the sheer force of will to “provide for the stimuli for opposite valuations and to revalue and invert ‘eternal values.’”[34] Thus, these philosophers have no patience with settled sciences and orthodoxies. Their creativity is so profound that they are willing to “overcome the entire past” if doing so would promote human greatness.[35]

Being a “man of tomorrow” with strong opposition to the “ideal of today,” a philosopher of the future would necessarily possess a critical attitude towards accepted standards and values.[36] Nevertheless, Nietzsche insists that—in contrast to the scholars—criticism is simply a means for them and not an end in itself.[37] Not only will they be critical, but they will be “men of experiments” who take it upon themselves to create values that improve the world.[38] The task is not simply criticism, but construction. “Genuine philosophers,” Nietzsche observes, “are commanders and legislators: they say, ‘thus it shall be!’” The scholars who reduce philosophy to mere criticism neglect this crucial fact.[39] By devoting all of their time to criticism, the scholars are not helping humanity move forwards. The philosophers of the future, on the other hand, possess a “creative hand” that can “reach for the future.”[40] “All that is and has been,” Nietzsche adds, “becomes a means for them, an instrument, a hammer.”[41] Liberated from the scholars’ error that man is a rational being who can pursue absolute standards of truth, the philosophers of the future embrace the fact that philosophy is just another exercise of the will to power: “Their ‘knowing,’” Nietzsche remarks, “is creating, their creating is legislation, their will to truth is—will to power.”[42]

The philosopher of the future would revel in the non-existence of absolute standards of truth, for it would allow him to be a “Caesarian cultivator and cultural dynamo” who provides meaning to an otherwise meaningless world.[43] As such, Nietzsche blasphemously suggests that the philosophers of the future are essentially gods in the making. This philosopher would be a “conclusion and sunrise”; through him, “the rest of existence is justified”; and by him, mankind is given a “beginning, a begetting, and first cause.”[44] Nietzsche believes that, by demonstrating the human potential for creative excellence in a world where God is dead, the philosophers of the future serve as the ultimate repudiation of weak, democratic ideals. “Their passion for knowledge,” Nietzsche explains, forces “them to go further with audacious and painful experiments than the softhearted and effeminate taste of a democratic century could approve.”[45] Scholars and the other “warmblooded and superficial humanitarians” who populate democracies will abhor the divine power of the philosophers of the future.[46] The timid scholars try to “break every bow or, preferably, to unbend it” because they cannot cope with the chaos in man’s soul.[47] The philosopher of the future, however, sees pandemonium as an opportunity. Rather than unbend his bow, he possesses “so tense a bow” that he can “shoot for the most distant goals.”[48] He does not see the “magnificent tension in his soul” as a source of weakness, but utilizes it to exert his will, overcome the past, and create a new world in his own image.[49]

Nietzsche recognizes the paradox that, for a philosopher of the future to arise, he will necessarily have to make use of his democratic, mediocre, and egalitarian context. This will be extraordinarily difficult, for democracies are suited only for a “dumb, renunciatory, humble, selfless, humanity.”[50] Nevertheless, this democratic context will not stop a real philosopher. Nietzsche, noting that some of the philosophers of the future may come out of a democratic and scholarly background, explains the matter thusly:

Perhaps he himself must have been critic and skeptic and dogmatist and historian and also poet and collector and traveler and solver of riddles and moralist and seer and “free spirit” and almost everything in order to pass through the whole range of human values and value feelings and to be able to see with many different eyes and consciences, from a height and into every distance, from the depths into every height, from a nook into every expanse. But all these are merely preconditions of his task: this task itself demands something different-—it demands that he create values.[51]

Thus, to the philosopher of the future, a sordid background should be seen as an opportunity to utilize to demonstrate his greatness, not as a baleful disadvantage. In some ways, it may be advantageous for the philosopher to meet with the skeptics, critics, dogmatists, historians, and other democratic peoples. By mingling with them, he can perceive their radically inferior character and see life through “many different eyes and consciences.”[52] The philosopher of the future may live in the world, but he will not be of the world.

While it is possible for philosophers of the future to arise in democracies, Nietzsche insists that this will happen only very rarely. This is because philosophy cannot simply be taught, as it could if man were a rational animal. Rather, humans “must be cultivated for it.”[53] For philosophers of the future to appear on a large scale, a society requires favorable biological and genetic conditions that can only be received over a long period of time. “A right to philosophy,” Nietzsche emphasizes, “one has only by virtue of one’s origins; one’s ancestors, one’s ‘blood.’”[54] Because so much of one’s capacity for philosophy depends upon ancestry, “many generations must have labored to prepare the origin of the philosopher.”[55] The problem for modern man is that democratic countries cultivate conditions of weakness that hinder the rise of the new philosophers. Democracies have amalgamated the different classes and races in such a way that genetic weakness is the prevailing human type. “Nervous exhaustion and sickliness,” Nietzsche observes, “always develops when races or classes that have long been separated are crossed suddenly and decisively.”[56] Because the new generation of Europeans has “inherited in its blood diverse standards and values,” it is only natural that “everything is unrest, disturbance, doubt, attempt.”[57] This amalgamation of the different groups of society has gradually eroded each group’s will to power. Ceasing to recognize the qualities that make them unique and the values that they stand for as a people, they become skeptics: “Our Europe of today, being of an absurdly sudden attempt at a radical mixture of classes, and hence races, is therefore skeptical in all its heights and depths.”[58] To foster the conditions for the large-scale arrival of the philosophers of the future, the democratic assumptions about the equality of the classes and the races need to be overthrown.

Conclusion

The crucial division between the philosophers of the future and scholars is that they represent divergent political impulses. The scholars are democratic, whereas the philosophers of the future are aristocratic. By pursuing objective truth, the scholars persist in the Christian and classical delusion that human nature is reasonable rather than impassioned and creative. Scholars seized the mantle of the scientific method because it allowed them to enthrone themselves as a new authority structure. They did not use their new authority to promote human excellence, but instead entrenched democratic mediocrity in every way possible. Ultimately, the supposed objectivity and skepticism of the scholars were merely intellectual justifications for democracy. Democratic ideals, Nietzsche believes, must be overthrown by the philosopher of the future. This philosopher will recognize that objectivity is a myth and that his own personal perspective should be utilized to create new value systems. Rather than promote weak and timid value systems, the philosopher will construct new ones that favor life and strength. By creating new tables of values, the philosopher of the future asserts his will to power and liberates humanity from the vestiges of reason that the scholars were unwilling to abandon. The creation of these new philosophers will not, however, be easy. In the short-term, philosophers will need to work within the confines of their mediocre, democratic society to improve the world. In the long term, they will need to institute illiberal changes, such as selective breeding, that cultivate the genetic conditions necessary for the philosophers of the future to arise. By giving man meaning where no meaning exists by nature, the philosopher of the future vindicates the highest ambitions of aristocratic human excellence and serves as an ultimate repudiation of democratic mediocrity.

 

References

Bacon, Francis. The Advancement of Learning. New York: Macmillan Company, 1898.

Descartes, René. Discourse on Method and Meditations. Translated by Elizabeth S. Haldane and G.R.T. Ross. New York: Dover, 1980.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to the Philosophy of the Future.” In Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Random House, 2000.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “The Gay Science.” In The Portable Nietzsche. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Penguin Books, 1976.

 

Notes

[1] René Descartes, Discourse on Method and Meditations, trans. Elizabeth S. Haldane and G.R.T. Ross (New York: Dover, 1980), 41; Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning (New York: Macmillan Company, 1898), 1:39.

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, “Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to the Philosophy of the Future,” in Basic Writings of Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 2000), Aph. 202, 306.

[3] Ibid., Aph. 204, 311.

[4] Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Gay Science,” The Portable Nietzsche, ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Penguin Books, 1976), 450.

[5] Nietzsche, “Beyond Good and Evil,” in Basic Writings, Aph. 3, 201.

[6] Ibid., Aph. 13, 211.

[7] Ibid., Aph. 204, 311.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., Aph. 204, 313.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Nietzsche, “Beyond Good and Evil,” in Basic Writings, Aph. 204, 313.

[16] Ibid., Aph. 205, 314.

[17] Ibid., Aph. 212, 327.

[18] Ibid., Aph. 205, 314.

[19] Ibid., Aph. 212, 327.

[20] Ibid., Aph. 211, 311.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., Aph. 206, 316.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., Aph. 206, 316.

[25] Ibid., Aph. 206, 315.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid., Aph. 208, 318.

[29] Ibid., Aph. 208, 319.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid., Aph. 203, 307.

[32] Ibid., Aph. 211, 325.

[33] Ibid., Preface, 193.

[34] Ibid., Aph. 203, 307.

[35] Ibid., Aph. 211, 326.

[36] Ibid., Aph. 212, 327.

[37] Ibid., Aph. 210, 324.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid., Aph. 210, 324.

[40] Ibid., Aph. 211, 326.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid., Aph. 207, 318.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid., Aph. 210, 324.

[46] Ibid., Aph. 209, 323.

[47] Ibid., Aph. 206, 316.

[48] Ibid., Preface, 193.

[49] Ibid., Preface, 193.

[50] Ibid., Aph. 212, 327.

[51] Ibid., Aph. 211, 325-326.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid., Aph. 213, 330.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ibid.

[56] Ibid., Aph. 208, 320.

[57] Ibid., Aph. 208, 320.

[58] Ibid.

Gordon Dakota ArnoldGordon Dakota Arnold

Gordon Dakota Arnold

Gordon Dakota Arnold is a doctoral student at Hillsdale College’s Van Andel School of Politics and Statesmanship. He is a graduate of Regent University, where he studied government, and served as a Fellow at the John Jay Institute.

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