Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Monday, June 08, 2009

NIETZSCHE: Beyond Good and Evil (Chapter 10: Beyond the Heights/Aftersong)

As Beyond Good and Evil comes to a close Nietzsche ends with the words “you, my old beloved – evil thoughts.” It’s been a wild ride and this sounds like the grand finale. But there’s actually one more little section left – a short poem. Why Nietzsche chose to end his book with a poem, I don’t know. Nietzsche is probably a better philosopher than he is a poet. It’s not just the translation from German into English. A big part of Nietzsche’s appeal as a philosopher is that he’s so contrarian. Whatever most people (aka “the herd”) are for, Nietzsche is against. It doesn’t much matter what it is. The main point for Nietzsche’s philosophy is to swim against the tide, wherever that tide happens to be flowing. Swimming against the tide of public opinion is difficult because liberals usually go against conservatives and conservatives against liberals. This presents a problem for Nietzsche. If he swims against the tide on one side then he’s probably swimming with the tide on the other. Nietzsche resolves this problem by offending both sides equally. Conservatives won’t be impressed with Nietzsche’s attempts to undermine traditional values. The idea that we can “create” a whole new set of values out of our own puny minds is hogwash to conservatives; the old values have been earned with much blood, sweat and tears. To think we’re wiser than our forefathers and can create better values is to fall victim once again to the ancient curse: “Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” And Nietzsche wants to go beyond good and evil. Conservatives will say that’s not a good idea. Last time we tried that we ended up in a whole lot of trouble. Liberals will likewise be horrified by Nietzsche’s notion that societies can be created solely for the purpose of creating the few, the proud, the super-men. And that’s super-MEN, not women. Oh, and maintaining racial purity will help preserve a people from degenerating into slave morality. Mixing races will produce mongrels and that weakens the bloodlines. Nietzsche offers up enough ideas like these to offend most everyone.

Still, a well-read person should be familiar with the ideas presented here. Why? Because one of the things Nietzsche does best is catch the unsuspecting reader off-guard. There will probably be one of two distinct reactions to picking up a book like Beyond Good and Evil: The first reaction is: this is great stuff! Tell it like it is, Nietzsche! I’m with you brother! Let’s rock this world! A second reaction is: are you serious? Does he really believe this stuff or is he just pulling my leg? Is this some kind of joke? Of course there’s a third reaction to Nietzsche (which may be most common): what the heck’s going on? What’s he talking about? Some readers may experience all three reactions.

Young people, especially bright young people who are socially withdrawn, will be drawn to this book like a magnet. It seems to explain why they feel so out of place and alone in the world. Most people live life as a member of the herd and are satisfied with the ordinary pursuits of life: good grades in school, then a good job, a nice home, maybe a family and a few good friends to share good times with. In short: the good life. Therefore, for most people some things in life are good, others evil. But Nietzsche claims this is a narrow view. He beckons a few brave souls to head out with him and follow a different path, beyond good and evil. This is to be a real adventure of the spirit. Nietzsche ends with an invitation for readers to join him on the quest: I wait for friends, ready day and night. You friends, where are you? Come! It's time! It's time!