The Good in the Teaching of Tolstoy and Nietzsche : Philosophy and Preaching


     Nietzsche also made a pilgrimage to the good, the good in Tolstoy's sense, and it may be that this was the most agonized page of his agonized history. As the reader will recall, Nietzsche wished to fill his existence with "love of neighbor" in order thus to hide from the terrible visions that visited him. And this is what came of it: the good said to him, "You flee from yourselves to your neighbor, and you would wish to make a virtue of this. But I see clearly through your ‘unselfishness.’" ["Neighbour-Love," Thus Spake Zarathustra].

     Thus spoke the good to a man for whom the doors of all the refuges where men ordinarily find rest had been closed. Nietzsche, who had not killed anyone, who had not injured anyone, who had not rendered himself guilty in any way, could only repeat after Macbeth the terrible words, "But wherefore could not I pronounce ‘Amen’? I had most need of blessing." He says of himself: "The worst enemy that you can meet will always be yourself; it is for yourself that you lie in wait in caverns and forests... You will be a heretic to yourself, and a wizard, and a diviner, and a fool, and a doubter, and a reprobate, and a scoundrel. You must be ready to be burned in your own flame; how could you be renewed, if you have not first been reduced to ashes!" ["The Way of the Creating One," Thus Spoke Zarathustra].

     Does the reader not recognize in the tone and character of these words the old familiar figure, the judge who, in our opinion, persecutes only the wicked and the guilty? If he does not recognize him, I shall quote still another passage in which appear with special sharpness all the characteristics of the "categorical imperative" which up until now, according to our conceptions and those of Kant, persecuted only those who broke the rules. I shall quote it in the original, for a translation will never preserve the energy or the passion of the original which has, in this case, a decisive importance for it testifies to the categorical weight of the imperative.
     "Will jemand ein wenig in das Geheimnis hinab - und hinuntersehen, wie man auf Erden Ideale fabriziert? Wer hat den Mut dazu?... Wohlan!
     "Hier ist der Blick offen in diese dunkel Werkstätte. Warten Sie noch einen Augenblick, mein Herr Vorwitz und Wagehals: Ihr Auge muss sich erst an dieses falsche, schillernde Licht gewöhnen... So! Genug! Reden Sie jetzt! Was geht da unten vor? Sprechen Sie aus, was Sie sehen, Mann der gefährlichsten Neugierde - jetzt bin ich der, welcher zuhört."
     " - Ich sehe nichts, ich höre um so mehr. Es ist ein vorsichtiges, tückisches, leises Munkeln und Zusammenflüstern aus allen Ecken und Winkeln. Es scheint mir, dass man lügt; eine zuckerige Milde klebt an jedem Klange. Die Schwäche soll zum Verdienste umgelogen werden, es ist kein Zweifel - es steht damit so, wie Sie es sagten."
     " - Weiter!"
     " - Und die Ohnmacht, die nicht vergilt, zur ‘Gute;’ die ängstliche Niedrigkeit zur ‘Demut;’ die Unterwerfung vor denen, die man hasst, zum ‘Gehorsam’ (nämlich gegen einen, von dem sie sagen, er befehle diese Unterwerfung - sie heissen ihn Gott). Das Unoffensive des Schwachen, die Feigheit selbst, an der er reich ist, sein An-der-Tür-stehen, sein unvermeidliches Warten-Müssen kommt hier zu gutem Namen, als ‘Geduld,’ es heisst wohl auch die Tugend; das Sich-nicht-rächen-können heisst Sich-nicht-rächen-wollen, vielleicht selbst Verzeihung (denn sie wissen nicht, was sic tun - wir allein wissen es, was sie tun! - ). Auch redet man von des ‘Liebe zu seinen Feinden’ - und schwitzt dabei."
     " - Weiter!"
     " - Sie sind elend, es ist kein Zweifel, alle diese Munkler und Winkel-Falschmünzer, ob sie schon warm beieinanderhocken - aber sie sagen mir, ihr Elend sei eine Auswahl und Auszeichnung Gottes, man prügele die Hunde, die man am liebsten habe; vielleicht sei dies Elend auch eine Vorbereitung, eine Prüfung, eine Schulung, vielleicht sei es noch mehr - etwas, das einst ausgeglichen und mit ungeheuren Zinsen in Gold, nein! in Glück ausgezahlt werde. Das heissen sic ‘die Seligkeit."’
     " - Weiter!"
     " - Jetzt geben sie mir zu verstehen, dass sie nicht nur besser seien als die Mächtigen, die Herren des Erde, deren Speichel sic lecken müssen (nicht aus Furcht, ganz und gar nicht aus Furcht! sondern weil es Gott gebietet, alle Obrigkeit zu ehren) - dass sie nicht nur besser seien, sondern es auch ‘besser hätten’, jedenfalls einmal besser haben würden. Aber genug! genug! Ich halte es nicht mehr aus. Schlechte Luft! Diese Werkstätte, wo man Ideale fabriziert - mich dünkt, sie stinkt vor lauter Lugen."

     "Will anyone look a little into - right into - the mystery of how ideals are manufactured in this world? Who has the courage to do this? Come!
     "Here a vista is opened into these dark workshops. Wait a moment, my dear Mr. Inquisitive and Foolhardy; your eye must first become accustomed to this false changing light - Yes! Enough! Now speak. What is happening down there? Tell what you see, man of the most dangerous curiosity - for now I am the one who listens."
     "I see nothing, I hear all the more. It is a cautious, spiteful, gentle whispering and muttering together in all the corners and nooks. It appears to me that they are lying; a sugary softness clings to every sound. Weakness is turned to merit, there is no doubt about it - it is just as you say.
     " - Further!"
     "And the impotence which does not requite is turned to ‘goodness,’ cowardly baseness to ‘meekness,’ submission to those whom one hates to ‘obedience’ (namely, obedience to one of whom they say that he commanded this submission - they call him God). The inoffensiveness of the weak, the very cowardice in which he is rich, his standing at the door, his forced necessity of waiting, here gain fine names such as ‘patience,’ which is also called ‘virtue’; the inability to avenge oneself is called unwillingness to avenge oneself, perhaps even forgiveness (for they know not what they do - we alone know what they do). They also talk about the ‘love of their enemies’ - and sweat thereby."
     " - Further!"
     "They are miserable, there is no doubt about it, all these whisperers and counterfeiters in the corners, though they try to get warm by huddling close to each other, but they tell me that their misery is a favor and distinction given them by God, as one beats the dogs he likes best; that perhaps this misery is also a preparation, a probation, a training; that perhaps it is still more - something which will one day be compensated and paid back with immense interest in gold, no, in happiness. This they call ‘blessedness.’"
     " - Further!"
     "They now give me to understand that not only are they better than the mighty, the lords of the earth, whose spittle they must lick (not out of fear - not at all out of fear! - but because God commands that one should honor all authority) - not only are they better but that they also have a ‘better time,’ at any rate, some day will have a ‘better time.’ But, enough! enough! I can stand it no longer. Bad air! These workshops where ideas are manufactured - it seems to me that they stink of the crassest lies."
     [The Genealogy of Morals, I, 14 ]
     Is it possible to doubt even for a moment who speaks thus? Where, if not in Shakespeare's Macbeth, does one feel such horror of oneself? Who does not recognize in these words the voice of conscience, of remorse? But this time the task that conscience has undertaken is not at all suitable to it. Instead of reproaching, of cursing, of hurling anathemas, of cutting one off from the communion of God and men because he has been "bad," it persecutes him because he has been "good." Instead of accusing him of being wicked, proud, vengeful, disrespectful, idle, it reproaches him for being submissive, good, docile, hard working, respectful! It turns out that conscience flogs a man not only because he has broken the rules but also because he has given them all the reverence of which Kant speaks. And the weight of the reproaches is not only not less but, on the contrary, greater yet. Nietzsche's agony is more terrible than Macbeth's. And yet he is free of any "sin." He only paid for his virtue, he added up what his "good name" cost him. Up until now conscience has never played such a role openly, unless it be in the first part of Crime and Punishment; but there it justifies its past in the second part and again takes up the defense of the "rules" which always remain so dear to it. But there is nothing of the kind in Nietzsche. Up to the end of his life his conscience speaks against all the "good" that is in him and leads him finally to the perception that everything "good" is "bad," and vice versa. This is the mood out of which his philosophy was born, and it is obvious that it is completely inappropriate to "refute" it, as the academic philosophers do, by showing that Nietzsche did not understand Kant "deeply" enough.

     It is not here a question of Kant. We have before us a fact of extraordinary and immense importance: the conscience of a man has risen against everything that was "good" in him. And this fact demands that we reexamine all our customary conceptions of good and evil, conceptions which up until now the psychology of men of Nietzsche's kind had hidden from our eyes. I repeat, it is an error to think that Nietzsche's experience was unique, new, unprecedented. On the contrary, it occurs perhaps much more frequently than is ordinarily assumed. But it is usually passed over in silence. Those who have it do not venture forth because of the general condemnation that threatens them. The merit of Nietzsche consists only in that he dared to raise his voice and speak aloud what others said only to themselves, what others, indeed, did not dare even to say to themselves because they were afraid of giving a name to what occurred in their souls. Perhaps Nietzsche himself would not have been so audacious if he had not been a man who had nothing more to lose, who no longer had any choice. "It is necessary to have seen the catastrophe at close range, better still, it is necessary to have experienced it oneself, it is necessary to have come almost to one's ruin because of it, to understand that there is no longer any joke here." [The Antichrist, 8] This is what he says, speaking of the theological instinct, about what morality had done to him.

     What kind of a danger was this that threatened almost to destroy Nietzsche? As always, the most important and significant thing in the life of a writer remains a mystery to us. To explain the passage quoted above we can only have recourse to other passages of his work, ‘but in these also we find only confessions of a general character. The concrete fact will apparently never be called by its true name. What innere Besudelung, inner defilement, hides behind Nietzsche's confessions? As the reader will recall, he tells many terrible things about the psychology of great men, but also only in general terms. Difficult as such confessions are to make, even if made in an indirect form, it is nevertheless easier to tear them out of one's soul than to speak of one's real inner experiences.

     Nietzsche asks, "Where lie your greatest dangers?" And he replies, "In compassion." Near this stands another question: "What to you is the most human?" And the answer is: Jemand Scham ersparen, "To spare someone shame." Obviously compassion and shame destroyed him. Later, whenever he recalled what compassion and shame, these zealous agents of virtue which embody inner compulsion, had done to him, he felt himself seized by a mystical horror and disgust.

     This horror finds its counterpart only in the despair of the most terrible criminals, which they experience at the recollection of the crimes they have committed. I say "the most terrible criminals" and mean thereby those for whom there is not and cannot be any salvation, those who are conscious of having lost their souls forever, those who know (to use the language of Macbeth) that they have to all eternity been handed over into the power of Satan. For ordinary remorse, as even deep and strong men feel it, cannot be compared to Nietzsche's experience. We know Tolstoy's confessions. We know out of what feeling of self-hatred The Kreutzer Sonata arose. But this is still not the same. In his peasant's garments and in his work in the fields, Count Tolstoy found not only repose, but even, if only for a time, joy. But in Nietzsche, behind every line of his writings, we sense the palpitation of a tortured, agonized soul which knows that for it no pity exists or can exist on earth.. And its entire "guilt" consists only in that compassion and shame have had too great power over it, that it saw in morality God, and that, against its deepest instincts, it believed in this. God.

     Tolstoy now tells us that "the good is God." But his past life, his personal experiences, were such that he had no possibility of testing the principle proclaimed by him. He had, it is true, sought the good all his life, but he always had the ability to stretch the good on the Procrustean bed of his own needs. Always as required, he sometimes stretched it and sometimes shortened it, so that he himself did not dare refuse his benediction to Levin even when the latter, having forgotten the compassion and shame that had once so tortured him, took on an attitude so modest and conventional that he could confidently have shown himself on the pages of Russki Vestnik. With Nietzsche, this was not the case. With the naïve heedlessness and ardent faith of a German idealist, he devoted himself, body and soul, to his divinity; nevertheless, remorse pursued him with all the power that Shakespeare describes in Macbeth. And not because he had not listened to the good but because honestly and faithfully, before others and before himself, he had done his "duty." If "the inner voice" is the supreme judge of our past, if "the spiritual tortures of penitence" can serve as testimony in questions of good and evil (as the philosophers and psychologists have affirmed until now), if the sentence of "the categorical imperative" is without appeal, then the biography of Nietzsche throws an entirely new light on all our ideas about morality. All the spiritual states which till now supported the sovereign rights of morality and with which one could threaten restless rebels against "the categorical imperative," turned out to be impersonal, ambiguous servants who execute with equal zeal their inquisitor's duties, no matter whether the order comes from the offended "good" or the despised "bad." Moreover, we do not find in Tolstoy in the face of his sinful past a horror as great as Nietzsche's in the recollection of his sinless life. The neglected "good" pardoned Tolstoy when he repented his past and rebelled against it, but the "bad" did not spare Nietzsche even though he renounced his sinlessness and glorified sin in such passionate hymns as the, in this respect, pampered good itself has rarely received. In everything that Nietzsche wrote up to the last moment of his intellectual activity, we feel a despair so deep and boundless, called forth by the consciousness that he could not wash away the shame of his past virtue, that anyone who surmises what kind of an experience is hidden behind the brilliant style of the unhappy writer cannot escape a shudder.

     It is true that Nietzsche speaks nowhere directly and openly of his past; such a past is not recounted. On the contrary, he strives with all his powers to conceal his inner experience, and nothing flatters his tortured soul so much as the hope of remaining not understood. When Brandes called Nietzsche's doctrine "aristocratic radicalism", i.e., when he applied to him two banal or banalized words (there is an inexhaustible stock of such words in the Danish critic) that do not even superficially characterize Nietzsche's philosophy, Nietzsche was charmed and declared that this was the cleverest thing he had ever heard said about himself. In reality Nietzsche saw in Brandes’ utterance proof of the fact that his goal had been attained, that men had been so blinded by his literary artistry that they did not even think of Nietzsche himself. This was precisely what he wished. He was afraid of being found out, and therefore disguised his confessions in such a way that they seemed to have no relationship at all to himself. Brandes who, for his part, always wrote of things that had no relationship to himself, really believed that "aristocratic radicalism" is all that we could find in Nietzsche. How little Nietzsche is explained by such words or, even more, how far away from Nietzsche they lead us, the following aphorism can show:
There are "gay men" who use gaiety because they are misunderstood on this account - they wish to be misunderstood. There are men of science" who use science because it gives a gay appearance and because "scientificalness" leads to the conclusion that a person is superficial - they wish to mislead to a false conclusion. There are free, insolent minds which would like to hide and deny that they are broken, proud, incurable hearts (Hamlet's cynicism - the case of Galiani); and sometimes folly itself is the mask of an unfortunate, over-assured knowledge. - From which it follows that it is the part of a more refined humanity to have respect "for the mask" and not to use psychology and curiosity in the wrong place. [Beyond Good and Evil, 270]
     Further on, Nietzsche remarks: "Are not books written precisely to hide what is in us?" [Ibid., 289] But if the "mask" hides much, it also unveils much. Nietzsche's story shows through in Nietzsche's works and, in one way or another, the attentive reader comes to understand the origin of his Begründung des Moral. Self-evidently it is not a question here of a logical or historical foundation; it is in this precisely that the whole originality and fascination of Nietzsche's philosophy consists and in this lies his claim to special attention on our part. Had he approached the problem of morality only with the antennae of cold reason (however sensitive these might be), in other words, had he only sought for morality a place in some philosophic system or other, he would certainly not have attained any new results. He would have preserved the inevitable categorical imperative, which distinguishes the phenomena of moral life from other psychic phenomena, and, following the school most to his taste, he would have spoken either of immediate intuition or of the natural origin of moral conceptions. There is no way of escaping this magic circle of logical thoughts through logical thinking. So as long as men saw in conscience only "the guardian of the good" - and until now all systems of morality based themselves absolutely on this assumption; only the term "the categorical imperative" was coined by Kant - Nietzsche's point of view was absolutely impossible. If only the "good" is protected by pangs of conscience, it must obviously be placed in a distinctive category, even though one could demonstrate a thousand times over the "natural" origin of moral conceptions.

     The investigations of the British philosophers and psychologists are the best illustration of this. If morality is only utility clothed, only the expression of social relations, it must obviously be stripped of all its sacred attributes and be reduced to the plane of purely political (likewise most useful, even necessary) prescriptions which protect order and security. But belief in the sacredness of morality was so deeply rooted, the conviction that a clean conscience is the most precious thing in the world, the last and strongest support of men, was so interwoven with the customary conceptions of men, that not for a moment could the English philosophers think that explained morality might lose the prestige that unexplained morality had had. They were convinced that no theory could destroy the magic of the sacredness of morality, and for this very reason they unhesitatingly raised utility to the position of ancestor of morality. Their investigations did not have as their object to attack in any way the claim of moral men to the exclusive privilege of spiritual tranquility, universal respect, etc. This would have meant for them rebelling against themselves, something that no one willingly does. If books were written on this matter, their goal was exclusively of a scientific, i.e., harmless, nature, out of innocent curiosity and with the certainty that serious sacrifice would not be involved. It was a question only of the victory of an insignificant, purely external philosophical principle that had no direct connection with the personal fate of the philosopher. Whether morality be the descendant of utility or the child of intuition, it remained, as before, respected, and the result of his investigations could not in any way make the philosopher himself pass from the category of good men into that of wicked nor occasion for him the tortures of Macbeth. Mill and Spencer did not even formally raise the question: must it really be that we shall enjoy peace while the criminal will be eaten up by remorse? They would have considered such a question "immoral," for it would have meant that one was in doubt as to whether the good or the bad is higher. But not only did they not have any doubt about this, they did not even know that doubt was possible here, that anyone could doubt this. They spoke only of why the good is higher than the bad, and this not in order to persuade themselves that they were right but only because of the habit they had of introducing a "why" wherever there was a possibility of introducing it. With all this they were deeply convinced that the sacred prerogatives of morality remained intact, no matter what the results to which their investigations led, and that the experiences of Macbeth would always remain Macbeth's and could in no way touch them, the philosophers.

     That is why Nietzsche was perfectly right when he declared that he was the first to raise the question of morality. He put it thus: "In every ‘science of morals’ until now - strange as this may seem - the problem of morality itself has been omitted; there has been no suspicion that there is anything problematic here. What the philosophers called ‘giving a foundation to morality’ and tried to realize has, seen in a true light, proved merely a learned form of good faith in the dominant morality, a new means of its expression, consequently only a matter-of-fact within the sphere of a definite morality - indeed, in the final ground, a kind of denial that this morality needs to be seen as a problem." [Beyond Good and Evil, 186]

     And - what is most important - the special attitude of Nietzsche toward morality was not the result of abstract considerations. The question of the meaning of morality found its solution not in Nietzsche's mind and not by way of logical arguments, but in the most secret depths of his soul and through the most painful experiences. Here, as almost always, a new Golgotha was necessary in order that a new truth appear. He alone could understand and estimate the value of morality who had sacrificed himself to it. Nietzsche had fulfilled all its demands, submitted to it completely, choked in himself all protests, made of it his God. And, like every true believer, he was faithful to the object of his worship not only in act but also in thought. He did not permit himself any doubt about its divine origin. He had tested in full measure in himself the formula that Tolstoy now proposes, "The good is God," and lived in the belief that there is nothing other than the good to be sought in life.

     One finds a terrible echo of this faith of his youth in Zarathustra’s words: "Suppressed truths become poisonous." He alone who, like Nietzsche, has devoted himself entirely to a single truth and kept silent about all others has the right to speak of poisoned truths. For other men truth is only a more or less successful, a more or less sagacious, hypothesis. Faith in the sovereign rights of divine morality poisoned Nietzsche's soul, and this poison burned in him to the last moments of his conscious life. His philosophy is not the audacious play of a polished mind seeking to overthrow the tranquility of his neighbors through mocking doubt concerning the sanctity of their ideals. The so deeply serious and so passionate tone of his works would alone exclude any such hypothesis. It is true that be tries at times to represent himself as a man playing with holy things. But this is only a pose, a "certain ostentatious boldness of taste," to which, as he says, men have recourse in order to appear superficial and to hide the true state of their soul. Behind this is hidden "his terrible certainty, with which he was thoroughly saturated and colored, that by reason of his sufferings it was given to him to know more than the cleverest and wisest could know."

     What did Nietzsche know? What was his secret? It is in fact a horrible secret and it can be expressed in a few words: "The tortures of Macbeth are not ordained only for those who have served ‘evil’ but also for those who have devoted themselves to the ‘good."’ Nietzsche was the first who said this. And "the first born are sacrificed," die Erstlinge werden geopfert. This Zarathustra experienced in himself.

Orphus system

   home    intro    texts    links    biblio ToC