Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche is not nearly as controversial as he ought to be. When Beyond Good and Evil appeared on the European scene in the late 1800s the work was a bombshell. On one hand, the Enlightenment counter-establishment regarded him as a prophet, while on the other conservative liberals and traditional Christians immediately branded him as a heretic. It does not take long to make up one’s mind about him even today, and yet commentary on his work is relatively sparse, while what does exist seems to either praise him or sand down some of his rougher edges. Part of what draws readers to him today – in an age where candor is often mistaken for truth – is his out-spoken rejection of virtually everything now held dear in the West, particularly those Westerners who began jumping off the liberal Enlightenment bandwagon somewhere around the turn of century—the nineteenth century.
While couched in philosophical terms and presented as a philosophical treatise, Beyond Good and Evil is therefore primarily a rhetorical and polemical attack on practically every previous thinker in Western history (though, as we will soon see, he too has his favorite villains), particularly those associated with Christianity, democracy, utilitarianism and socialism. Particularly blameworthy is that philosophers too often fall prey to their own prejudices and are therefore untrustworthy. He sees as particularly problematic the dominant Western view of truth and philosophy, and seeks to provide a more noble interpretation by reinterpreting the history of society’s development. The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate how Nietszche’s criticisms as well as his proposed course of action is in fact an early form of post-modernism that has rejected both pre- and post-Enlightenment philosophy and that has sought and failed to transcend the dichotomy of good and evil.
The strongest argument for identifying Nietzsche among the first post-modernists arises from his own explicit statements on the subject. As Kirkland points out, Nietzsche himself later describes Beyond Good and Evil as a “critique of modernity,” and demonstrates this throughout the work itself by employing rhetoric in a way that draws attention to other popular thinkers in his own day (578). Epistemology (how one comes to know) is fundamental to philosophy (how one comes to view the world). Nietzsche therefore directs his first assault on the modern project by striking at its view of truth. Modern thought, beginning with the Enlightenment, developed an ever-increasing trust in the abilities of the human mind for rational thought. Nietzsche, however, seeks to point out the inconsistencies with such thinking in order to establish a new way of viewing the world. The rhetorical purpose of Beyond Good and Evil, then, is to interact with his contemporaries in a way that provides his own “self-overcoming of modernity and the enlightenment prejudice in favor of truthfulness” as an example to which he may call others, and therefore to “provoke the experience of self-overcoming in its readers” (Kirkland 578).
He introduces this concept in the first line of his work by comparing Truth to a woman whom humanity has unsuccessfully courted (Preface). Three possible explanations arise concerning the illusive nature of truth: (a) we are simply bad lovers, (b) she is playing “hard to get” or (c) we are seeking an ideal that does not in fact exist. Nietzsche, however (a better rhetorician than philosopher), blends all three responses. His primary criticism of both his predecessors and his contemporaries is that while many purport to rely on reason alone as their guide, “the conscious thinking of a philosopher is secretly influenced by his instinct” (paragraph 3). So while reason is useful in many situations (in fact, human life could not continue without it) to employ such reasoning in establishing absolutes and moral imperatives is in its own way irrational.
Later in his work, he asks similarly, “‘Why knowledge at all?’ Every one will ask us about this. And thus pressed, we, who have asked ourselves the question a hundred times, have not found and cannot find any better answer” (230). So while granting tentative concurrence to those who refer to philosophy as ‘a search for truth’ he also asks, “why not rather untruth” (1)? This he views as an essential, but unasked question and therefore a perpetual blind spot in all modern thought. Thus even a seemingly objective field like natural philosophy is itself a fallible human endeavor “based on belief in the senses” and following the false canon of “eternal popular sensualism” (14). And thus Nietzsche asks: If one’s eyes cannot be trusted, how can his mind?
He couples his concern about feigned objectivity with the ubiquity of neo-Platonism, even amongst otherwise secular thinkers. In his preface he refers to “Plato’s invention of Pure Spirit and the Good in Itself” as “the most dangerous of errors,” while also stating that “Christianity is Platonism for the ‘People.’” Thus, while many Enlightenment thinkers no longer believe in God, their belief in the Good “is at the back of all their logical procedure” and therefore discloses their metaphysical prejudice and the resulting futility of their efforts, as “they exert themselves for their ‘knowledge,’ for something that is in the end solemnly christened ‘the Truth’” (Nietzsche 2).
Though Kant often receives the brunt of these attacks, Nietzsche generally laments that “for centuries European thinkers only thought to prove something” (188), and were therefore mistaken in their conclusions because of faulty assumptions. He later continues this attack on the Platonic Good as well as its connection to Christian morality:
Plato . . . without the craftiness of the plebeian, wished to prove to himself . . . that reason and instinct lead spontaneously to one goal, to the good, to “God”; and since Plato, all theologians and philosophers have followed the same path—which means that in matters of morality, instinct (or as Christians call it, “Faith,” or as I call it, “the herd”) has hitherto triumphed. (191)
Nietzsche therefore criticizes modernism for both its naïveté concerning the limits of human reasoning and its unquestioned acceptance of traditional philosophy’s purposes and assumptions. He instead asserts that the common conception of truth as objective and transcendent is “in fact, the worst proved supposition in the world” and that truth is not seen in black and white, but instead “lighter and darker shades and tones of semblance” (34). He therefore goes beyond merely outlining the limits of human reason and seeks to point out that in a world in which we are so severely limited, objective thought (however laudable a goal it may be) is simply impossible. As Kirkland points out: “His critique of objectivity not only raises questions about the possibility or desirability of truthfulness and demonstrates the self-contradiction of the enlightenment: it calls for a new responsibility for the effects of offering interpretations” (575; see Nietzsche 33).