Beyond Good and Evil

Friedrich Nietzsche

Cover of Beyond Good and Evil

Rank: B-
No. Times Read: 1
Last Read: Summer, 2009

Author Name: Friedrich Nietzsche

Review: In case you, like me before I read this, have only heard of Nietzsche, yes, he is the dude that wrote “God is dead”, but he didn’t write it here (though it’s probably implied).

Beyond Good and Evil is a philosophical text, and a unique one. It’s uniqueness can only be appreciated if you’ve read every philosophical text written prior to Beyond Good and Evil, as well as the rest of Nietzsche’s work. I can proudly claim that I…haven’t read any of that. At all. Like, ever.

So…

Before I can even get to the content, reading Beyond Good and Evil (and I’m guessing anything else by Nietzsche) is extremely challenging for a couple of extratextual reasons. Throughout Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche refers to a lot of philosophers’ works (Hume, Locke, Hobbes, Schopenhauer, Kant, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza…). The way he talks about them, it seems evident (I’d be delighted to be corrected) that he’s literally read everything these guys have written, and can call recall it all to memory with no more than a word or two. In order to fully understand what point it is he’s making at the time, then, a reader is pretty much required to have read what he has read.

As far as philosophy goes, this presents one with quite a task. Basically, you have to go back to Ancient Greece, starting with Socrates, and read your way up to whatever it is you want to read. I haven’t run that gauntlet yet (in fact, this was the first philosophical book I’ve ever read [unless you count Jonathan Livingston Seagull (and I don’t)]), so I suppose I’m not really qualified to write about this book—in fact, I’m probably less qualified to write about this book than someone who hasn’t read it, but who has read all those other books!

Nevertheless, I did read it, and I do have a few things to say about it, so I shall endeavor to write those down.

Philosophy aside, Nietzsche (and here, I’m assuming all Nietzsche, not just this book, as, based on anecdotes, I believe the writing style of this book is representative of his work as a whole) is a challenge because of the utterly bizarre and outlandish way he writes. Here’s a sample:

59. Whoever has seen deeply into the world has doubtless divined what wisdom there is in the fact that men are superficial. It is their preservative instinct which teaches them to be flighty, lightsome, and false. Here and there one finds a passionate and exaggerated adoration of “pure forms” in philosophers as well as in artists: it is not to be doubted that whoever has NEED of the cult of the superficial to that extent, has at one time or another made an unlucky dive BENEATH it.

I’ve preserved the capitalization. He writes in all caps for emphasis A LOT. He has to make sure that you UNDERSTAND that what he finds IMPORTANT is ACTUALLY IMPORTANT.

In addition, even though this book is written in chapters, it’s actually a series of numbered…journal entries, I’d call them. Sometimes they connect well, but other times, it’s like Nietzsche had an idea, so he wrote it down, and when the idea was done, he stopped. Some of these numbered sections (there are over three hundred in the book all told) are as short as one sentence, while the longest is probably five or six pages (a guess, since I read this via e-mail from DailyLit.com). The result can be a bit disorienting at times.

Finally, there are constant references to other ideas that are probably from other works. Does “pure forms” in the quoted material above simply mean non-superficial entities, or is it actually a reference to some other work where “pure form” is a term? Eh. What can I do? This was how I felt reading; just kind of had to power through it.

In addition, Nietzsche often slips into poetic form, and even stops at one point and writes a long series of aphorisms. This book, then, is not a philosophical tract the way that, say, The Communist Manifesto is. The goal of that book was to explicitly and accurately explain a philosophical, social and political stance. Nietzsche here is doing something different.

I think part of it might be explained by a section early on in the book where Nietzsche describes his problem with philosophers of the past. What I get out of that section (“Prejudices of Philosophers”, the first chapter) is that Nietzsche saw something false in the works of contemporary and pre-contemporary philosophers. See if you get that from something like this:

They all pose as though their real opinions had been discovered and attained through the self-evolving of a cold, pure, divinely indifferent dialectic (in contrast to all sorts of mystics, who, fairer and foolisher, talk of “inspiration”), whereas, in fact, a prejudiced proposition, idea, or “suggestion,” which is generally their heart’s desire abstracted and refined, is defended by them with arguments sought out after the event.

What he seems to object to is the presentation of a philosophy, and to what he sees as pretense. Perhaps this elaborate (and, now that I’ve read it and know it to be the original, oft-imitated) style is a reaction to the traditional philosophical text. In a way, it’s the only thing he could do, if he wished to remain internally consistent. Knowing that, though, doesn’t make the reader’s job any easier (or, at least, no easier than listening to that dude that yells and screams about stuff outside of Dwinelle at Berkeley).

All right, now that all that’s out of the way, let’s talk about the content.

I guess the thing you’re supposed to take away from Beyond Good and Evil is Nietzsche’s assertion that the primary driving force in humanity is its “Will to Power” (I hope that phrase makes more sense in the original German, because it doesn’t seem quite well-formed to my English ears…). I think it’s basically the idea that all humans have an instinct inside them, an unquenchable desire to be more powerful. He applies this metaphorically as well as literally; to individuals and to nations. It’s a Gordon Gekko type of “Greed Is Good” thing, except that instead of money, it’s power, and instead of a behavior, it’s the human condition.

It’s hard to talk about exactly what Nietzsche means, though, specifically because of his style. If this were a traditional philosophical book, what you’d get is, “Chapter 2: The Will to Power”, followed by, “The Will to Power is defined precisely as x, y and z. It is manifested in the real world in the following ways…” Not so with Nietzsche.

Instead, what you have to contend with are the hundreds of individual assertions Nietzsche makes throughout the text. It’s not as if when you get to the end, you can say, “Okay, now I see the whole thing. What do I think of this?” Rather (and let me switch to the first person here, so I’m not pretending like I speak for all readers), I found myself constantly trying to understand and evaluate every claim as it was made, asking myself, “What exactly is being said here? Do I agree with this? Does it have value?” It’s a daunting and difficult task simply because Nietzsche’s ideas are so hard to pin down.

What I have been able to take away from Nietzsche’s writing is this: He’s an unbelievable mysogynist, a crank, and big into generalizations. Nietzsche talks freely about “the German people”, “the Russian character”, “the European mindset”, and so forth. This is macro philosophy, and it seems he’s quite genuine. It’s hard to reconcile some of his highly individualistic claims with the way he seems to believe that all people who speak the same language, or come from the same place will all act and be the same way (well, except for women, who are apparently all alike, no matter their language or place of origin, and who are all inferior to men of every stripe).

In addition, he’s a bit of a futurist, and makes several bold claims, none of which were borne out. It is easy to understand how Nazis at the time might have taken his philosophy and misinterpreted it (either willfully or unintentionally), and then used it to justify their actions and claims. However, I think it’s important to note that they are misinterpretations. After reading this book, at least, I certainly don’t see him as being specifically anti-semitic, but, rather, as being one who buys into the whole “flock” mentality, whereby all individuals in a given group (race, gender, ethnicity, etc.) are more alike than they are different.

Every so often, Nietzsche hits on something quite profound. I’m still fond of this one:

153. What is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil.

And then he goes and says something like this (in all seriousness):

234. Stupidity in the kitchen; woman as cook; the terrible thoughtlessness with which the feeding of the family and the master of the house is managed! Woman does not understand what food means, and she insists on being cook! If woman had been a thinking creature, she should certainly, as cook for thousands of years, have discovered the most important physiological facts, and should likewise have got possession of the healing art! Through bad female cooks—through the entire lack of reason in the kitchen—the development of mankind has been longest retarded and most interfered with: even today matters are very little better. A word to High School girls.

Many Nietzsche apologists contend that you have to go beyond the text to figure out what he “really” means. I don’t know if his own opinions on the construction of a philosophical work support that. I think Nietzsche meant everything he said when he said it, and if he contradicted himself later, so be it: Will to Power!

The question, then, is of what value is this text? As I cautioned above, I suppose one really can’t hope to fully understand it without reading every philosophical tract written by every author Nietzsche refers to. That aside, there are still some gems in here. In addition, there is much, much that is offensive, ridiculous, irrelevant, and, to be honest, dated. I wouldn’t call this a must read. I’m not even going to say it’s worthwhile. I will say that its style, and what it represents, is unique and interesting. You may find more in it (as others have) than I did, which is probably the case with every philosophical text. If you feel like you should read it, though, don’t worry; you needn’t.

Leave a Reply