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


     Of morality the same can be said that Nietzsche said of religion. The vast majority of men do not even suspect that so many hopes and expectations can be bound up with morality. Those whom the conditions and events of their existence have not brought near to all these "final" questions of our life will not even understand what troubled Nietzsche so. They will believe that it is a question here of simple curiosity and, furthermore, of a curiosity such that it can never be completely satisfied, for with even the greatest efforts it is impossible here to arrive at anything definite and to go beyond more or less shrewd hypotheses. The passion with which Nietzsche threw himself on these and similar questions only calls forth astonishment on the part of many people, for they absolutely cannot understand what all the alarm is about. "We know nothing certain either about God or about morality, and we shall never know anything certain about them. Why then agitate oneself and spoil one's own life and that of others?" So they say.

     It cannot be doubted that one who thinks thus need not agitate himself, and the best thing for him to do is to push aside these questions that are alien to him and this philosophy that is superfluous and incomprehensible to him. In this lies an answer to Tolstoy's fundamental principle concerning the popularization of knowledge and art. To interest everyone in what men like Tolstoy and Nietzsche thought about is not only impossible but also unnecessary. Even more, the conviction need not at all prevail that the faculty of concerning oneself exclusively with the higher questions of knowledge and art gives a man any superiority. Because of this prejudice, which is as widespread as it is false, a great number of men who devote themselves against their will to matters which are quite useless to them have unfortunately been led to read tedious writers and philosophers and to say highly indifferent things about them. They thus pay their tribute to the opinion of society which esteems purely "intellectual" interests so highly. But the value of this tribute is very different for those who pay it than for those who accept it. These slaves of philosophy waste time and effort, while society gains nothing but a number of babblers. And - what is the essential point - these men could be employed in another task, something useful and good, perhaps better than pursuing regular philosophical studies, but, because of a prejudice, they kill their time in discussions which are of no use to them or to anyone else. The last thing, then, to do is concern oneself with rendering knowledge and art accessible to "all." What "some" need, "all" do not need. And, I repeat, these "some" are no better or higher than "all"; it may be that "all" are better than "some." Such a question can hardly be raised, much less resolved. But it is certain that up until our time there can be no talk of a philosophy and poetry equally necessary to all. To force Nietzsche, as Tolstoy demands, to write stories for children or for the masses on the theme, "Black bread is the grandfather of cake," when, for long years, Macbeth's visions had troubled the rest of his nights as if he had himself "murdered sleep," would be more immoral and unjust than to force children to read Thus Spake Zarathustra. If Nietzsche speaks of God, morality and knowledge, and if he speaks of them as he under-. stood and felt them but as others cannot and have no need either to understand or feel them, if his poetry is inaccessible and appears senseless to many people who "have never dared to touch ghosts" because they have never been visited by such - is this a reason for forcing Nietzsche, through setting up the demand that poetry must be made accessible to all, to silence?

     It is clearly the opposite. For the majority, who maintain their youthful naïveté up to old age, another poetry and another philosophy are necessary; and they also have their poets and philosophers. But to make of this majority's needs, as Tolstoy would wish, the criterion of the value of all the creations of the human spirit is unjust, deeply unjust, for there are those to whom the consolation that philosophy and poetry grant is most necessary. And then, I repeat, it is also futile, for Tolstoy's poetic obviously will not silence a Nietzsche.

     Nietzsche also knows this very well: "For men are not equal! So speaks justice! And what I will they must not will." To be sure, it is from this that there later arose the preaching of Nietzsche concerning the Übermensch, the aristocratic doctrine that had as little inner connection with the real needs of his soul as Tolstoy's "good" had with the experience of the philosopher of Yasnaya Polyana. Both men, Tolstoy as well as Nietzsche, propose as preachers a doctrine which only hides from our eyes their own conception of the world. Anyone who would serve the "good" according to Tolstoy's program would be as strange to Tolstoy as one who would sacrifice himself to the Übermensch would be strange to Nietzsche, even if he thereby only fulfilled Zarathustra’s demand.

     We have already seen how far removed Tolstoy is from the inhabitants of Liapine, from the insulted choristers and from the exploited people in whose name he demands of us that we submit to the "good." We will see later on how alien to Nietzsche is the ideal of the Übermensch, which plays for him the role that the "good" does for Tolstoy, for he likewise imposes upon us through it and in its name oppresses and annihilates men as Tolstoy does through his "good." We find in Nietzsche the following words: "This Nature, who gave to the steer its horn, to the lion its chasm' odontôn, for what purpose did Nature give me my foot? - To kick, by St. Anacreon, and not merely to flee." [Genealogy of Morals, III, 26]

     The preacher cannot forgo this, even if he is an immoralist who stands beyond "good" and "evil." But all this is only appearance, façade, ordained for others. Of much greater interest for us are Nietzsche's real experiences, his true "whys," which, despite all his caution, show through his works. "Men are not equal, and what I will they must not will" - this is beyond doubt. Moreover, these "they" must not dare to live through what Nietzsche lived through. Perhaps - who can say this? - Nietzsche himself, even though he realized very well the relationship between his philosophy and his misfortune would nevertheless have renounced his "knowledge" in order to avoid those dreams and enigmas which seem so terrible even to us who know them only through his own report. Nietzsche was a thousand times right when he declared that the same books that encourage and strengthen certain people can be dangerous and harmful to others.[Beyond Good and Evil, 30] His own works and the widespread errors about his doctrine are the best proof of this. It is imagined by many that his doctrine consisted in the glorification of "pleasure" which, set up as the highest goal of our life, led him to the denial of the "good." One hears everywhere the opinion that Oscar Wilde is to be considered as the justification, indeed, as the ideal of Nietzsche. Many people who let themselves be impressed by Wilde’s trifles now devote themselves to his cause, convinced that they are precursors of the Übermensch and consequently the pioneers of human progress. Nietzsche had a presentiment of the possibility of such an alteration of his doctrine and said: "But I will have hedges around my thoughts, and even around my words, lest swine and libertines should break into my gardens!" ["The Three Evil Things," Thus Spake Zarathustra] But the swine penetrated everywhere; they did not even need particularly to climb over hedges. It came to their ears that someone very famous had, for one reason or another, revolted against morality, and they immediately imagined that he had set out to fight for their cause. Certainly Nietzsche and his theories are highly indifferent matters to them; with him or without him, they will live, in any case, as befits their kind. Nevertheless, it is clear that for a great majority of men Nietzsche's books are superfluous and even harmful, so that it must only be regretted that the magazines and newspapers exert themselves so zealously to acquaint the wide public "in general terms," i.e., in accessible or, what is the same thing, quite distorted, form with the physiognomy of this philosopher. Almost everything about which Nietzsche wrote is absolutely removed from the ordinary ideas of human thought and from the experience of the majority of men; consequently, a superficial knowledge of his works can only yield a false and incorrect judgment. This is especially the case with that part of his doctrine which deals with God and the good. Most people see nothing in it but an ordinary attack on church-going and the carrying out of certain unpleasant duties. But the passion in Nietzsche's tone should alone have excluded the possibility of such an interpretation of his doctrine. Because already before Nietzsche our time had been taught by even so weak a thinker as Tolstoy's Stiva not to take too seriously the practices of religion or the rules of morality. Vous professez d’être un libre-penseur, Karenin said to him, and perhaps the best proof that Tolstoy has accused Nietzsche wrongly in making him responsible for the sins of society is the widespread opinion that Nietzsche was also only a libre-penseur who fought for "freedom of enjoyment." Ordinary free-thinkers would not have endured for a single day Nietzsche's trials, which he calls his "fortune." In his situation, they would have accepted as God the first idol that came along, made a duty of the most absurd rules, in order only somehow to justify their existence. And less than anything else would they have attacked the "good," which for many unlucky persons is their only support. And they certainly would not have rejected compassion, which those who suffer need so urgently.

     With Nietzsche all this was completely otherwise. Too clearsighted and inwardly honest to deceive himself or others, he was finally constrained to remain alone face to face with all the horrors of his existence. Neither science nor religion nor the good could give him anything. And we can only repeat here what we have said about Tolstoy: Nietzsche rebelled against the good not because he was a hard, insensible, pitiless man. To believe this would be a mistake. He was, as far as his humanity is concerned, in no way behind Turgenev, Dickens, and Victor Hugo. His heart knew compassion, and knew it well. He says: "Who can attain anything great if he does not feel in himself the strength and the will to inflict great pain? The ability to suffer is the least of things; weak women and even slaves often attain mastery in this. But not to perish from inner distress and doubt when one causes great suffering and must listen to the cry of it - that is great, that belongs to greatness." [The Gay Science, 325]

     As the reader can see, Nietzsche, contrary to the generally accepted opinion, did not listen to the immediate feelings of vindictiveness, bitterness, or petty egoism. All these sentiments were as alien to him as to Tolstoy. He pursued only the greathearted design of saving and redeeming man through the word. If he gave up this design, if he renounced teaching men love and compassion, it was only because he learned through hard experience that love and compassion cannot help at all and that the task of the philosopher is different: not to propagandize for love of neighbor or compassion, but to be finished with these sentiments, to find an answer to the questions they pose. "Woe to all who love and have no elevation that is higher than their compassion," ["The Compassionate," Thus Spake Zarathustra] cries Zarathustra, and it is through this that we must explain the alleged "cruelty" of Nietzsche. Nietzsche addresses himself to men who are as he is, to those for whom compassion is no longer a virtue or an ideal, to those who, in his words, "have passed beyond this ideal because they have already attained it." He addresses himself to men who are no longer content to be virtuous in having compassion for their neighbors. On the contrary, such men, who are so naïve in questions of good and evil, disgust him. "In truth, I do not like them, the compassionate ones, who are happy in their compassion; too lacking are they in bashfulness. If I must be compassionate, I do not wish to be called so; and if I be so, it is preferably at a distance." [Ibid.] "I do not even say," he explains, "that virtue is its own reward." On the contrary, he "chokes before compassion." And the consciousness of his virtue cannot give him any joy. "That however - namely, compassion - is called today by all petty people virtue itself : - they have no reverence for great misfortune, great ugliness, great failure." ["The Ugliest Man," Thus Spake Zarathustra]. Nietzsche knew only too well how little can be done by means of compassion, even if it is not limited to platonic sighs and beautiful phrases about one's neighbor’s misery. That is why he says: "You warned - the first to do so - against compassion - not everyone, not none, but yourself and your type." [Ibid.] Are further quotations needed to protect Nietzsche's philosophy from the customary interpretations? Nietzsche sought exactly what Tolstoy sought, he wished to find something higher than compassion, and he aspired with his philosophy to the same thing as Tolstoy who, in the name of that higher "something" and to the horror of all virtuous men, was constrained to regard calmly the misery of Anna Karenina, the agony of Ivan Ilych, and to seek, with attentive and scrutinizing gaze, for something in their sufferings that could provide an answer to the questions aroused by the feeling of compassion. Zarathustra also strives above all to understand the world and to fill with some meaning the horrors of earth - "great misfortune, great ugliness, great failure." "Stand fast," he says to his disciples, in order that you may be able to bear the terrible face of life which destroys every compassionate man. Love, even the limitless and deep love of which a woman is capable when it is a question of the fate of one loved by her, is impotent before "great misfortune." Nietzsche knew:
What a torment these great artists are and the so-called higher men in general, to him who has once found them out! It is thus conceivable that it is precisely from woman - who is clairvoyant in the world of suffering, and also unfortunately eager to help and save far beyond her powers to do so - that they have learned so easily those outbreaks of boundless devoted sympathy, which the mob, above all the reverent mob, does not understand, and overwhelms with prying and self-gratifying interpretations. This sympathy invariably deceives itself as to its power; woman would like to believe that love can do everything - it is her peculiar superstition. Alas, one who knows the heart discovers how poor, impotent, pretentious, blundering, more likely to destroy than to save, even the best and deepest love is. [Beyond Good and Evil, 269]
     This throws light on Nietzsche's "immoralism." If even the best and deepest love does not save but hastens destruction, if pity is impotent and helpless, then what remains to him who can neither love nor pity? Where is that to be found which is above pity, above love of neighbor? Tolstoy replies that neither he nor anyone else has any need of such an "above." Whoever so desires is free to believe that Tolstoy said this not for his disciples but to himself, that he did not know Nietzsche's doubt, that the formula "the good = fraternal love = God" satisfied him completely. But Nietzsche, according to all the evidence, could not think thus, for this would have meant depriving God of his sacred attributes, omnipotence, omniscience, etc., and exalting to divinity a poor, weak human feeling, which can be of help only where one can do without its help and which turns out to be impotent when the need for its help is most urgent. Nietzsche, in his misfortune, was obliged to reject the help and concern of men and withdraw into solitude, there to await his Zarathustra who would explain to him that there is and must be in the world something above compassion, that the "good" is fine and necessary for "all" but useless for some, that compassion consoles "many" but offends some, especially when it is brought to anyone as the gift of morality and as the result of the search for "blessedness.

     He clearly had the right to consider himself "beyond good and evil," irrespective of the fact that he knew how necessary and useful the conceptions of good and evil are to men for their common life. Utilitarian considerations did not interest him and they could, generally speaking, have only secondary significance in moral questions, so long as morality claims a special, higher role among the goals set up by man. Whether moral rules are useful or harmful, whether they protect or destroy the solidity of the social organism - these questions do not and cannot belong to Nietzsche's moral philosophy. He came to morality, like Tolstoy, in the hope that it would be all-powerful, that it would replace God for him, and that mankind would gain by such a replacement. How could he be satisfied with the fact that morality brings certain advantages by guaranteeing to society order and security (without forcing it to the expense of a police and judicial organization), with the fact that morality is nothing other than police and justice, introduced by a clever maneuver into the souls of men, obliging us even where the juristic norm no longer dares to raise its voice? All this interested Nietzsche as little as all the public institutions that exist in the world. He sought in morality divine traces and he did not find them. Morality showed itself impotent precisely where men would have been justified in expecting of it the greatest manifestation of its power.

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