Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Thursday, May 07, 2009

NIETZSCHE: Beyond Good and Evil (Chapter 7: Our Virtues)

One of the worst things you can do to young Americans today is to call them “judgmental.” They agree with Nietzsche’s observation that “The practice of judging and condemning morally is the favorite revenge of the intellectually shallow…” Intellectually shallow. This is an interesting point of view. Many traditional philosophers such as Aristotle claim that moral behavior is an activity, not a thought process. Morality is more about doing something or not doing it on a habitual basis. It’s not thinking but doing that makes us act like we do, either well or badly. Kant goes even further and says that in establishing moral worth it’s our actions that are most important. Our feelings don’t really matter. For example, if I give money to the poor and needy that’s a good action. Even if I grumble and complain about it – I still give. Giving is the important part. How I feel about giving is less important. God loves a cheerful giver but He loves grumpy ones too. Giving to the poor is an objective act that stays constant: philanthropy is good. It was good in ancient Israel and Greece, it was good in Victorian England, it’s good in modern America.

What Nietzsche is attempting to do is to put the very idea of doing good on trial. He wants to go “Beyond Good and Evil.” But it seems dishonest of him to accuse the other side of being “intellectually shallow.” Nietzsche probably has the German middle-class in mind here. He thinks they haven’t thought deeply enough about their moral values. They just accept the values that have been handed down to them by their forefathers. And he’s probably right. But these are also the values that have been handed down by forefathers like Plato and Thomas Aquinas and Immanuel Kant. These guys are hardly “intellectually shallow.” By picking on the German middle-class Nietzsche is really attacking a cardboard cartoon character. He’s a good writer and has a lot of rhetorical tricks up his sleeve. Here’s one: If any one were to say to (a merely moral middle-class German) that ‘A lofty spirituality is beyond all comparison with the honesty and respectability of a merely moral man’—it would make them furious, I shall take care not to say so. But he says he’ll take care not to say so after he’s already said so. Neat trick, but it seems “intellectually shallow” to pull those kinds of rhetorical tricks on some poor middle-class schmuck who has to work for a living; especially when you’ve got a PhD in Philology or whatever and spent your life teaching in universities.

And it’s not just the German middle-class that irks Nietzsche. Here’s what he has to say about England: In the end, they want English morality to be recognized as authoritative, inasmuch as mankind, or the ‘general utility,’ or ‘the happiness of the greatest number’—no! the happiness of ENGLAND, will be best served thereby…They would like, by all means, to convince themselves that the striving after English happiness, I mean after COMFORT and FASHION (and in the highest instance, a seat in Parliament), is at the same time the true path of virtue… Does it seem so strange to Nietzsche that the English would think that their virtues are good? Of course they do. Otherwise, why would they use them as a guide for living the good life? These virtues are firmly embedded in the Western mind. Having material wealth can be useful for happiness and being elected to political office is nothing to be ashamed of – it’s something to be proud of. Nietzsche wouldn’t be happy in England - or anywhere else for that matter.


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