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The Revaluation of All Values, Part 4
An introduction to the will to power
And life itself confided this secret to me: “Behold,” it said, “I am that which must always overcome itself. Indeed, you call it a will to procreate or a drive to an end, to something higher, farther, more manifold: but all this is one, and one secret.
“Rather would I perish than forswear this; and verily, where there is perishing and a falling of leaves, behold, there life sacrifices itself—for power. That I must be struggle and a becoming and an end and an opposition to ends—alas, whoever guesses what is my will should also guess on what crooked paths it must proceed.
“Whatever I create and however much I love it—soon I must oppose it and my love; thus my will wills it. And you too, lover of knowledge, are only a path and footprint of my will; verily, my will to power walks also on the heels of your will to truth.
“Indeed, the truth was not hit by him who shot at it with the word of the ‘will to existence’: that will does not exist. For, what does not exist cannot will; but what is in existence, how could that still want existence? Only where there is life is there also will: not will to life but—thus I teach you—will to power.
— Nietzsche, Zarathustra, II. 12
Does Nietzsche believe in the existence of objective values? He certainly doesn’t believe in objective values in the same way that others before him had. Unlike the utilitarians, he doesn’t believe that pleasure and pain (or whatever other terms you want to use, e.g., well-being) are objectively valuable. Unlike the rationalists, he doesn’t believe that values can be derived through a chain of logical deductions. Unlike the adherents of Abrahamic religions he doesn’t believe that values are objective because they conform to the standards of a transcendent God. And yet in an unpublished note he clearly articulates his belief in objective value:
To measure whether existence has value according to the pleasant or unpleasant feelings aroused in this consciousness: can one think of a madder extravagance of vanity? For it is only a means—and pleasant or unpleasant feelings are also only means! What is the objective measure of value? Solely the quantum of enhanced and organized power. (Will to Power 674)
The objective measure of value is solely the quantum of enhanced and organized power. I suspect that people will be very skeptical about this statement. When we think of power, we often think about it in terms of political power or interpersonal dominance, i.e., in terms of one person or group imposing their will (through force or manipulation) onto another person or group. This is not what Nietzsche means by power, although that kind of dominance is certainly one manifestation of power. Another passage from Nietzsche’s notes may help to overcome some initial misinterpretations:
The will to power appears:
a. among the oppressed, among slaves of all kinds, as will to “freedom”: merely getting free seems to be the goal…
b. among a stronger kind of man, getting ready for power, as will to overpower; if it is at first unsuccessful, then it limits itself to the will to “justice,” i.e., to the same measure of rights as the ruling type possesses;
c. among the strongest, richest, most independent, most courageous, as “love of mankind,” of “the people,” of the gospel, of truth, God; as sympathy; “self-sacrifice,” etc… as instinctive self-involvement with a great quantum of power to which one is able to give direction: the hero, the prophet, the Caesar, the savior, the shepherd… (Will to Power 776)
Nietzsche claims that the highest manifestation of the will to power, as it appears among the strongest and most courageous types, appears as love of mankind, love of truth or God, as self-sacrifice, as involvement in a project that is larger than one’s self, as hero, prophet, shepherd, etc. Let’s not be too romantic about this. Caesar, for example, is not somebody who would be considered heroic by modern standards. Although no character will perfectly embody these traits, perhaps the best cinematic example of what Nietzsche had in mind is represented by William Wallace in Braveheart.
Wallace is not somebody who is purely motivated by altruism. He is motivated by revenge, resentment, self-interest, the interests of his clan, etc., but he has nevertheless harnessed these disparate motivations in the service of single aim, i.e., the unification of Scotland. He is both differentiated and integrated. Although Wallace is concerned with freedom, as all oppressed peoples must be, he is not content with “merely getting free”, and in fact his own life and freedom are less important to him than the project that unifies him. His own internal unification (which brings his warring motivations together in the service of a single project) consequently unifies those around him. In other words, he puts himself together, which consequently puts his people together. He is not an exemplar of either slave or master morality. He plays the role of both oppressed victim and powerful leader, conquered and conqueror, common and noble. William Wallace is the synthesis of master and slave.
As we progress through this series of essays, we will see that Nietzsche’s pronouncement about the highest manifestation of power is not arbitrary. He does not think of it as his mere opinion. There is a principled reason for why the highest manifestation of power should appear as hero, prophet, self-sacrifice, etc. Similarly, there is a principled reason as to why those whom Nietzsche despises, those whom he calls “the good and the just”, are the object of his disdain.
Although Nietzsche is often described as a relativist, my contention (along with some modern interpreters like John Richardson, Tsarina Doyle, and Paul Curtis) is that Nietzsche’s will to power thesis was the basis for making principled (even objective) value judgements without the need for a two worlds mythology. The will to power is therefore the basis for making objective value judgements within a continuous cosmos (see part 3 of this series for an explanation of what that means). By the time this series is over, my goal is to describe this argument and update it by integrating it with modern scientific advancements. I believe that modern scientific findings have largely vindicated Nietzsche’s position.
In this introductory post I want to give a basic outline of my strategy for the remaining parts in this series. The argument I’m going to make is pretty complicated and I think it will benefit readers to get a sense of the whole before trying to digest the parts. Here is a summary of the remaining parts in this series and how they will fit together:
Part 5: The will to power as a process of complexification
In part 5 I will make the case, mainly drawing on the work of John Richardson and Paul Curtis, that Nietzsche’s will to power is a metaphysical thesis which parallels claims from modern complexity science (e.g., as described in Bobby Azarian’s recent book The Romance of Reality) that there is an underlying general process by which the world is continually being created and complexified. The contours of this process as described by Nietzsche parallel the descriptions given to us by modern scientific theories.
Part 6: The will to power as relevance realization
In part 6 I will make the case, mainly drawing on the work of John Richardson and some concepts from the predictive processing framework, that Nietzsche’s will to power is a more generalized version of John Vervaeke’s concept of relevance realization. I suspect that some readers will think this is too good to be true. Nevertheless, the parallels between the will to power and relevance realization are uncanny. Both the will to power and relevance realization involve a process of complexification by which we simultaneously become more internally coherent and attuned to the world around us.
Part 7: The metaphysical continuity between mind and reality
In part 7 I will summarize Tsarina Doyle’s argument that Nietzsche’s case for objective value relies on making a case for metaphysical continuity between mind (what we would call consciousness, though Nietzsche uses that term differently) and reality. I will then show how modern consciousness science can provide support for this metaphysical continuity.
Part 8: Reconciling Nietzsche’s perspectivism with objective values
Nietzsche is a perspectivist about truth and value, meaning that he believes all truth/value claims rely on having a particular perspective. At first glance, this seems to circumvent any possibility of there being objective truth or value. Here I will defend Nietzsche’s perspectivism as being in accordance with Michael Tomasello’s theory of how the concept of objectivity among humans evolved. I will then show, in concert with the work of John Richardson, that Nietzsche’s perspectivism does not preclude making objective value judgements. The will to power represents a kind of all-encompassing perspective by which objective value judgements (but not necessarily moral value judgements) can be made.
Part 9: Going beyond good and evil with evolutionary psychology
If morality as we have previously understood it is based on an error, does this mean we are all now compelled to be self-serving sociopaths? When Nietzsche encouraged us to go “beyond good and evil” he was not encouraging us to become ego-driven sociopaths. Rather, he wanted to us to change how we think and feel about morality so that we could be more realistic about it. Some concepts from modern evolutionary psychology can help us in this endeavor by providing tools for understanding morality and wisdom from a naturalistic perspective.
Part 10: A process morality
Here I will argue that Nietzsche’s “war on morality” was, in fact, a war on a particular way of understanding morality. Implicit in Nietzsche’s writing is a call for us to move from viewing morality as a static set of rules or principles (especially if these are imposed from a transcendent/supernatural realm) to understanding morality in terms of an ongoing process. There is no final set of moral norms which will be relevant for all time. What is objectively valuable is not a particular set of moral norms, but rather the process by which “good” and “evil” must continually overcome themselves. The scientific study of cultural evolution can help us to understand why this must be the case. Nietzsche’s process morality parallels his process metaphysics, where he also wants us to move from understanding reality in terms of ‘being’ (a world made of objects) to understanding reality in terms of ‘becoming’ (a world of dynamic processes).
Part 11: Break, break the good and the just.
Part 11 will be a demonstration of how the will to power thesis can be used to make value judgements. Nietzsche recognized the existence of an eternal pattern by which morality is continually being updated. This same pattern was recognized and described by Jordan Peterson in his first book Maps of Meaning. The figure that Nietzsche calls the “overman” is, for all intents and purposes, equivalent to the figure that Peterson calls the “revolutionary hero”. I will show why Nietzsche values the overman/revolutionary hero and why this figure represents the highest manifestation of the will to power. I will also show why Nietzsche’s contempt for those he calls the “good and the just”, who necessarily oppose the overman/revolutionary hero, is a straight-forward consequence of his will to power thesis and how this parallels Peterson’s description of those who have “sold their soul to the group”.
Part 12: The chaos crisis; a new worldview for a new world
The world is becoming more complex. That much should be obvious. But what’s more, the rate at which the world is becoming more complex is also increasing. The future is more unpredictable now than it ever has been before. My contention is that Nietzsche’s process ontology and process understanding of morality is particularly apt for the rapidly changing world we now find ourselves in.
I can’t guarantee that I will stick to this plan. Things may change as I try to put these ideas on paper (e.g., perhaps a part may need to be split in two, perhaps I will decide that something here is unimportant, or perhaps two parts will be combined or rearranged), but this is a basic overview of how I plan to complete the series. In order to get a sense of how Nietzsche developed his will to power thesis, I will now review some of the intellectual influences that led to his formulation of the will to power.
For the world forever needs the truth, hence the world forever needs Heraclitus… each word of Heraclitus expresses the pride and the majesty of truth, but of truth grasped in intuitions rather than attained by the rope ladder of logic… (Nietzsche, Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, 8-9)
Heraclitus was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher whose writing is only known to us in the form of obscure fragments. Some of these fragments have made their way into popular culture. Phrases like “nobody ever steps into the same river twice” or “the only constant is change” can be traced back to Heraclitus. His most influential idea, however (largely because of its downstream influence on Christianity), was his conception of the Logos. There are multiple competing interpretations of what exactly Heraclitus meant by “Logos”. As best I can tell, he meant something like this: The universe behaves in accordance with a singular principle that runs uniformly throughout the whole of nature called the Logos. This Logos can be likened to a flame because, like a flame, it represents a marriage of stability and flux. The material basis of the flame is always changing even though the overall pattern remains stable.
The Logos, then, fills the cosmos with an order that marries stability and flux. It is this order which makes the world intelligible to us despite the fact that everything is in constant motion. Freeman (1946) described Heraclitus’ Logos as such:
This Logos is not merely the process of change; it is the orderly process of change. The Everlasting Fire is kindled in measure and quenched in measure, and it is this Measure, by which the process and its material are ruled, that makes our world intelligible. This is the true One in Heraclitus’ system; it is the only thing that persists in change, and it is everywhere . . . The Logos is not an arbitrary creator, but a Law, the source of all that is intelligible. (p. 116)
Similarly, Graham (1997) described the Logos as the universal pattern of transformation:
If there is an orderly world—and that there is is a fact—there must be some universal pattern of transformation, some law of change . . . The world is, in its broad outlines, stable, though it is built upon a process of transformations. There must then be a constancy in the pattern of transformations… [Heraclitus] needs a term to express this law of transformations. He hits on one delightful in its ambiguity, but which expresses both structural order and mathematical ratio: Logos. Everything happens in accordance with Logos. (p. 36)
These commentators argue that for Heraclitus, everything is constantly changing, but this does not mean that the universe is pure chaos. There is stability within the flux. Despite the fact that everything is constantly transforming, the process by which that change occurs remains stable.
Heraclitus was the philosopher with whom Nietzsche felt the most kinship throughout his career. Although Nietzsche expressed some slight disagreements with Heraclitus, e.g., about the reliability of the senses, he always couched his disagreements inside his praise of Heraclitus’ overall philosophy. For Nietzsche, Heraclitus was nearly alone among the ancients in seeing through the illusion of “being”, i.e., the idea that there exist stable substances, things, beings, etc. For Nietzsche and Heraclitus, the ideas of “being”, substance, thinghood, and permanence are all predicated on an error (this sentiment is echoed in Iain McGilchrist’s recent book The Matter with Things). Concepts like substance and permanence, Nietzsche suggests, may serve as useful fictions, but when taken literally they can delude us about the true nature of reality.
Although Nietzsche never explicitly linked his will to power thesis to Heraclitus’ idea of the Logos, my suspicion (which I cannot prove) is that this was largely because Nietzsche wanted to avoid giving his principle any Christian connotations. My contention is that the will to power plays much the same role for Nietzsche as the Logos did for Heraclitus. That is, the will to power is a singular principle that runs throughout the whole of nature which explains why and how the world changes over time.
In his early manuscript Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, Nietzsche discusses the “metaphysical conviction which had its origin in a mystic intuition. We meet it in every philosophy, together with the ever-renewed attempts at a more suitable expression, this proposition that ‘all things are one.’” For Heraclitus, this ‘one’ was the Logos. And in Nietzsche’s later writing we find the similar idea that, at bottom, all is will to power:
Suppose, finally, we succeeded in explaining our entire instinctive life as the development and ramification of one basic form of the will — namely, of the will to power, as my proposition has it; suppose all organic functions could be traced back to this will to power and one could also find in it the solution of the problem of procreation and nourishment — it is one problem — then one would have gained the right to determine all efficient force univocally as — will to power. The world viewed from inside, the world defined and determined according to its "intelligible character" — it would be "will to power" and nothing else. (Beyond Good and Evil 36)1
Thus, there is a ‘one’ in both Heraclitus’ and Nietzsche’s philosophy. For Heraclitus, this ‘one’ is the Logos and for Nietzsche it is the will to power. Given how highly Nietzsche regarded Heraclitus, we can surmise that Nietzsche’s ideas about the will to power were influenced by Heraclitus’ conception of the Logos. We may then find it useful to use Heraclitus’ notion of the Logos to help interpret some of Nietzsche’s more obscure or ambiguous passages about the will to power.
The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer only published one book in his life, but this book exerted a tremendous influence on the thought of young Nietzsche. Some time between 1865 and 1867 Nietzsche happened to pick up Schopenhauer’s opus, The World as Will and Representation, in a bookshop. Nietzsche was immediately enamored with both the book and the man who wrote it:
I belong to those readers of Schopenhauer who know perfectly well, after they have turned the first page, that they will read all the others, and listen to every word that he has spoken. My trust in him sprang to life at once, and has been the same for nine years. I understood him as though he had written for me… (Nietzsche, Schopenhauer as Educator)
Nietzsche’s first published book The Birth of Tragedy famously contains the dichotomy between Dionysian and Apollonian, which was clearly influenced by Schopenhauer’s concepts of ‘Will’ (Dionysian) and ‘Representation’ (Apollonian). At the time The Birth of Tragedy was published, Nietzsche expressed nearly full agreement with Schopenhauer’s metaphysical scheme in his unpublished notes. Over time, however, Nietzsche’s own system of thought began to take shape and he cast aside his allegiance to Schopenhauer. In Nietzsche’s later work all we find is scorn for Schopenhauer. In the end, Nietzsche saw Schopenhauer’s philosophy as a problem to be overcome. Schopenhauer had cast judgement on the world and had declared it to be no good. For Schopenhauer, the very existence of evil and suffering was enough to declare that the world ought not exist at all:
For that a thousand had lived in happiness and pleasure would never do away with the anguish and death-agony of a single one; and just as little does my present well-being undo my past suffering. If, therefore, the evils in the world were a hundred times less than is the case, yet their mere existence would be sufficient to establish a truth which may be expressed in different ways, though always somewhat indirectly, the truth that we have not to rejoice but rather to mourn at the existence of the world; that its non-existence would be preferable to its existence; that it is something which at bottom ought not to be. (Schopenhauer, World as Will and Representation, IV. 46)
This kind of nihilistic conclusion, Nietzsche believed, was not “true” or “false” but was simply a reflection of the kind of person Schopenhauer was: a decadent. The meaning of ‘decadence’ is complicated but in short it is used to describe someone who represents a declining form of life, i.e., a degenerate (though not a moral degenerate in the way that term is used in our own culture). For Nietzsche, Schopenhauer became the philosopher of pity because pity gave him an excuse to be hostile towards life:
Pity is the practice of nihilism. To repeat: this depressive and contagious instinct crosses those instincts which aim at the preservation of life and at the enhancement of its value. It multiplies misery and conserves all that is miserable, and is thus a prime instrument of the advancement of decadence: pity persuades men to nothingness!… Schopenhauer was hostile to life; therefore pity became a virtue for him. (Nietzsche, The Antichrist 7)
Although Nietzsche eventually distanced himself from Schopenhauer’s philosophy, the influence of Schopenhauer can be clearly seen in Nietzsche’s later writings through his will to power thesis:
The notion of the primal nature of the will is the connecting link between Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. In Nietzsche's later writings, although he abandoned the distinctively Schopenhauerian form of the theory, he still gave the will the foremost position, emphasizing in fact more and more the secondary importance of the intellect. To be sure, the will to live has with him become the will for power, but it is still the will. (Dolson, 1901 p. 244)
Nietzsche’s will to power thesis was clearly influenced by Schopenhauer’s thesis about the primacy of the “will to live” (this is another reason why the non-metaphysical reading of the will to power is unconvincing). The resemblance between their philosophies, however, almost ends there. Schopenhauer would continue to exert influence over Nietzsche in his later work, but only in the sense that Nietzsche opposed him at every step. While Schopenhauer’s conclusion was that it would be better to never have been born, for Nietzsche this is just another expression of the nihilistic “will to nothingness”, i.e., an expression of decadence.
Nietzsche’s will to power thesis was in part a reaction to and repudiation of the pessimistic conclusions inherent to Schopenhauer’s philosophy. While Schopenhauer’s philosophy was explicitly anti-life, Nietzsche was on the side of life. Nietzsche’s philosophical project is aimed at promoting and justifying the flourishing of life. Nietzsche believed that this promotion of life was simply a reflection of the type of person he was. Despite his physical ailments, Nietzsche was “healthy at bottom” and it is this underlying health that, in his own words, “forbade me a philosophy of poverty and discouragement” (in reference to Schopenhauer).
In order to promote and justify the flourishing of life, Nietzsche would need to repudiate the morality of pity which has so often led to the pessimistic conclusion that life is no good. Schopenhauer is just one prominent example of this conclusion, but modern thinkers have made almost identical arguments. Philosopher David Benatar, for example, has recently argued that bringing more people into the world is morally wrong because the suffering inherent to life is so terrible that it would be better to never have been born (Benatar’s argument was explicitly influenced by Schopenhauer). Nietzsche does not refute this kind of pessimism by denying the reality of suffering. Life is characterized by tremendous suffering (including the tremendous suffering of the innocent) and Nietzsche doesn’t deny this. Instead, Nietzsche affirms a “tragic” view of life, in which “existence is considered sacred enough to justify even a monstrous amount of suffering.” (Will to Power 1052).
In sum, Schopenhauer’s influence on the will to power thesis is important because a) Nietzsche’s metaphysics bears some resemblance to Schopenhauer’s and b) Nietzsche’s will to power thesis is a repudiation of Schopenhauer’s pessimistic conclusion.
Nietzsche was well read in the scientific work taking place during his life. In the first essay of this series I discussed Nietzsche’s relation to Darwin. In short, Nietzsche often criticized Darwin out of ignorance of what Darwin actually believed. It seems that Nietzsche got most of his ideas about Darwin from the social Darwinists of his time (who often bastardized Darwin’s insights) rather than Darwin himself. Nevertheless, John Richardson (2004) convincingly demonstrates that Nietzsche was thoroughly Darwinian in his overall thought. Besides Darwin, Nietzsche was influenced by a number of scientific literatures. Brian Leiter summarized Nietzsche’s scientific influences in a 2015 book review of Nietzsche’s Naturalism:
… Nietzsche was remarkably widely read in the nineteenth-century life sciences in particular. He was, for example, "an avid reader of the Textbook of Physiology by the Cambridge physiologist Michael Foster, published in German translation in 1881" but also of such diverse figures and publications as the Jena physiologist William T. Preyer and the German zoologist Karl Semper, Georg Heinrich Schneider's 1880 "book on volition among animals", the journal Kosmos, with articles "on heredity, on the reproductive cycles of algae and the evolution of sense organs as well as a long account of German Naturphilosophie and Lamarck as precursors to Darwin", and the anatomist Wilhelm His's work on the development of embryos.
This knowledge of development, anatomy, and physiology clearly influenced Nietzsche’s will to power thesis. In Beyond Good and Evil 23 he refers to “morphology and the doctrine of the development of the will to power” as an instance of his “physio-psychology”. Elsewhere he refers to the will to power as being in contradiction to the “physiologists” who believe that “self-preservation” is the cardinal instinct (BGE 13).
What’s important to note here is that Nietzsche’s will to power thesis is not disconnected from the empirical world. To the contrary, Nietzsche seems to think of the will to power as a generalization of empirical findings in the sciences. Not only does the will to power underlie all of biology, it can help us to understand psychological truths that have previously been masked by “moral prejudices and timidities” (BGE 23). In other words, empirical findings in biology and psychology reveal the primacy of the will to power. Of course, my claim, along with commentators such as Paul Curtis and Tsarina Doyle, is that Nietzsche’s will to power thesis goes farther than biology and psychology because it attempts to explain everything in terms of the will to power (an idea that Nietzsche scholar Brian Leiter described as a “crackpot metaphysics”).
In the next part of this series I will make the case for this metaphysical thesis in relation to modern complexity science and you can decide for yourself if it is “crackpot”.
There were clearly more influences on the will to power thesis than just those I’ve talked about here, but these were among the most important and highlight some aspects of the will to power that will be important throughout this series of essays:
The will to power is a metaphysical doctrine along the lines of Heraclitus’ Logos and Schopenhauer’s primacy of the will.
In contrast to Schopenhauer and other pessimistic philosophies, the will to power is meant to promote and justify the flourishing of life rather than cast moral judgement on life and the world.
The will to power is a generalization of empirical findings in the sciences.
In this introductory post I wanted to give a basic outline of my strategy for making objective value judgements using Nietzsche’s will to power thesis. I spent the first three posts in this series setting up the problem. I argued that moral value judgements in Western culture were predicated on a two worlds mythology that is no longer viable to many of us. Although there were many attempts in the last 400 years of Western philosophy to provide a basis for moral value judgements that does not rely on a two worlds mythology (e.g., Kant, Bentham), none of these attempts have been particularly convincing. Because the meaning and value of the world have traditionally been predicated on a moral interpretation of the world, the world appears (at least initially) to have lost meaning and value for those of us who can no longer believe in the two worlds mythology. The scientific revolution has returned us to an older conception of the world (i.e., the continuous cosmos) and we must find a way to understand value from within this continuous cosmos. Nietzsche’s will to power thesis can be thought of as an initial attempt at doing this and I will argue that modern scientific findings have vindicated that project. This is the revaluation of all values.
Note that some commentators (e.g., Maudemarie Clark, Brian Leiter) believe that Nietzsche is being “ironic” in this passage and that he doesn’t really mean to put forward the will to power as a metaphysical doctrine. In my opinion these commentators are being very silly. When viewed in the context of his other comments on the subject, Nietzsche obviously means what he says here. These commentators justify their position by downplaying anything Nietzsche said about the subject in his unpublished notes. But I don’t see any good reason why we shouldn’t take Nietzsche’s notes seriously, especially when they can help us to decipher his published works. I think that these commentators have a very high opinion of Nietzsche and don’t want to believe that Nietzsche could have subscribed to such a “crackpot metaphysics” (as Leiter put it). Since I don’t think Nietzsche’s metaphysical view was crackpot I don’t have the same worry.