THE WILL TO POWER REVISITED
Friedrich Nietzsche is perhaps the most fascinating, and at the same time, baffling, perverse and contrarian philosopher to have ever left his mark on the western philosophical canon. In fact, I am sure he has taken a few leaves out of the Zen handbook, because he obviously knows what the sound of one hand clapping is like. He loves paradoxes, and the idea of erecting a system to imprison his own thought is clearly anathema to him. If you are looking for dialectical methods of thought whereby ideas are neatly packaged and labelled in terms of Theses, Antitheses and Syntheses then perhaps you should look elsewhere than in any book written by Nietzsche. Nietzsche surely believes in contradictions, but he doesn’t believe in ever resolving them in the manner of Hegel or Marx. He is undeniably possessed of genius, but, at the same time, of madness as well. His thought is a hodgepodge of the brilliantly insightful and the batty and absurd, and the attempt to unravel these particular strands of his thought seems an almost impossible task. In fact, he seems to take delight in running rings round his readers. However, I think the effort is worth it, if only to sort out the wheat from the chaff and get him into a clearer perspective - of course based on our own practical priorities and way of looking at things. Nietzsche was an admirer of Ralph Waldo Emerson and did not believe in consistency – a phenomenon he would no doubt say with Emerson was “the hobgoblin of little minds”. But at the same time he should not be taken as some kind of oracle delivering infallible truths from on high. Sometimes he got it right and sometimes he didn’t and we ourselves have to exercise our own critical judgement concerning which bits he got right and which bits he didn’t.
Here is an example from The Will To Power of something I think he did get right. It comes from his Critique of the Moral Ideal (P. 196). “Very few of us are clearly aware of the fact that when we adopt the standpoint of aspiration, when we say ‘it should be thus’, we commit ourselves to a condemnation of the whole course of events. For nothing is entirely isolated; the least thing has a bearing on the whole; ...When the least thing is met with a critique, the whole is condemned.” For Nietzsche this raises the question of how the whole can be judged by the part, for clearly in all our moral systems, the part is judging the whole. Later he writes, "In the real world, where utterly everything is intertwined and conditioned, to condemn or to think away anything is to condemn or think away everything." You cannot stand above the world. However, this doesn't prevent you from choosing between alternatives or different value-systems, but your choice will not be based on abstract considerations of right or wrong – a la Kant’s Categorical Imperative – but your own subjective and partial orientation. For Nietzsche himself, the choice was between a ‘Slave-Morality’ and a ‘Master Morality’ and the Will to Power is what is ultimately in question.
It is this insight of Nietzsche’s which I think is quite brilliant. It leads, of course, to moral relativism. One doesn’t have to adopt the same point of view regarding plebeian (or slave) morality versus his own preferred aristocratic (or master) morality, which for all his psychological acumen, are hardly realistic alternatives in the world we actually inhabit. Nietzsche abhorred all sorts of egalitarianism – from Christianity to its – for Nietzsche – modern equivalents like socialism, democracy, anarchism, utilitarianism and so on. His were the ‘noble ideals’, though whether these ideals were those of a world anyone but Nietzsche inhabited is another matter entirely. As I said, he was possessed of genius, and for that we should salute him, but that doesn’t mean he was not possessed of madness as well. And the two, though not identical, are perhaps interconnected. Indeed, the one might have led directly to the other - given the choices that he believed were open to him at the time.
I personally believe that we should not judge Nietzsche’s accomplishment on his positive (synthetic?) ideas, but on his negative (analytical?) ones. His own preferred kind of morality is not really the issue. Rather, it is the deconstruction of morality per se and his placing it in a relativistic context – as an expression of the 'will to power’, which predisposes individuals and groups to choose this particular moral system over that particular moral system. (Nietzsche’s main gripe was that the one that is chosen becomes the universal form of morality, set in stone and usually reinforced by religion.)
I am sure Marx would have had his own particular take on this subject. I think he would, at least in terms of deconstructing abstract morality, have agreed with Nietzsche regarding the importance of the Will To Power, which he would have transposed to the class-struggle – i.e., two dogs fighting over the same bone – as I put it elsewhere. Indeed, this was part of his own critique of Max Stirner’s ‘egoistic anarchism’ in German Ideology, namely that egoism has a collective dimension which, for Marx, was expressed in the class-struggle. Of course, Nietzsche would probably recoil from this implication, but it certainly follows from his premises.
Personally, I think that neither Marx nor Nietzsche is an oracle delivering truths from on high. I would no more trust Marx’s dialectical scenario delivering final victory to the proletariat than I would Nietzsche’s fantasy of an aristocratic master morality. But there you are. The future is another country, as they say, and is certainly not a closed book. Furthermore, I suspect the random plays a much bigger part in historical events than they're given credit for. As Louis MacNeice put it, "World is crazier and more of it than you think." If either Nietzsche or Marx is to continue to have relevance to us, it has to be an ‘us’ that has felt under the surface of their thought for its deconstructive elements and focused on them, rather than their own synthetic solutions. Nietzsche is still very relevant, but only for the questions he asked and not for the answers he thought he had found.
Further into THE WILL TO POWER, one becomes much more aware of Nietzsche's actual philosophical acumen and how radical his rejection of the whole western philosophical canon since Plato was. All those concepts like Substance, Subjectivity, Objectivity, Mind, Matter, Consciousness, Free Will, Truth, Identity (The identical case uniting disparate phenomena - like "canine" for "Fido" and "Rover".) Kant's opposition between Appearance and the Thing-In-Itself, Dialectics, Reason, Logic, Scientific Method, "the Cult of Objectivity", et cetera. All these things can be subsumed under the term Morality for Nietzsche - saying what you think, speaking your mind, honesty, truthfulness, sincerity, factuality and so forth. Nietzsche deconstructs everything philosophers have ever believed in. Indeed, it's as if philosophers were not human beings serving an agenda, but something like God, raised above everything and impartially seeing everything from the point of view of the whole. Underlying this quest for truth is the Will To Power and the imposition of points of view on the world which are considered 'appropriate' to it.
For this reason, Nietzsche prefers the Sophists to Socrates. Personally, I always had a soft spot for good old Thrasymachus when he contradicted Socrates pontificating about Justice, saying that Justice was what was in the interest of the stronger party or the powerful. Marx would probably have agreed. Hadn't he said, even earlier than Nietzsche that the ruling ideas were the ideas of the ruling-class of their time. And, though Nietzsche was no Marxist, he would probably have agreed with him. For this reason. Nietzsche asks the very pertinent question, namely "Who do ideas serve?" He wanted them to serve aristocratic interests, to end the slave-morality which was so intent on tearing down all notions of a higher culture for the sake of ideas like equality, ideas which were rooted in resentment and the lowest instincts of 'the mob'. Hence his diatribes against socialism, anarchism, democracy, utilitarianism and so forth, all deriving from the slave-mentality which Christianity had earlier pandered to.
He was, of course, not looking at the same world that Marx had looked at, and the distorting mirror is clear in both cases. Marx also saw the instincts involved, but he saw them in purely class-terms, whereby two classes faced one another across the unbridgeable divide of Capital and the Capitalist system of exploitation. Nietzsche was right from the psychological point of view, but perhaps not from the wider point of view of history itself, which has rendered aristocracies pretty irrelevant to the central struggle of class.
Nevertheless, though Marx was more in tune with the broader historical currents than Nietzsche, Marxists themselves are much more prone to idealising the working-class than Nietzscheans might be, and this is surely something in Nietzsche's favour. For, compared to Marx, Nietzsche saw concrete human beings - warts and all, as it were - whereas Marx, the dialectician, saw only abstract classes facing each other across a historic divide. (He was right, of course, but at what cost in terms of actual concrete phenomena - outwith his dialectic, which, after all, is a schema imposed on, rather than derived from, reality?) That Nietzsche was disgusted with most of what he saw does not invalidate what he says. He was a lot more of a realist regarding actual people as opposed to broad swathes of people or populations than Marx was. And that should surely be made part of the final equation.
But coming back in a more critical vein to Nietzsche's actual thought, one is given to wonder how Nietzsche might have seen things if he himself had been one of the slaves he despised. After all, being a slave was a pure accident of fate; nothing else. He did have a tendency to dichotomise things and paint them in black and white. One doesn't have to idealise slaves (or peasants or workers) to see them as products of a master/slave system which engenders a slave-morality in the slaves as opposed to a master-morality in the masters. And who knows but that if that system came to an end, the slave-morality of the slaves would also come to an end along with the master-morality of the masters. Of course, the slave-morality is destructive, vindictive, iconoclastic, resentful of privilege and all forms of 'higher culture', but what Nietzsche proposes is its perpetuation not its solution. It's as if. for him, slaves were biologically preprogrammed to be nothing but slaves and not full human beings. His concept of "The Will To Power" translated into political and socio-economic terms leaves out of account power as an enabling phenomenon as opposed to power as a disabling phenomenon directed at others – which is basically what state-power is. In Spanish, the term for power is "poder", but it is used both as a noun and a verb. As a noun, it may imply power over others. As a verb it means "to be able" - which has different connotations entirely. Which of these interpretations of the term "power" is Nietzsche employing when he uses it in phrases like "the Will to Power"? It's something, I feel, that we ought to be told.