Nietzschean morality is too extreme for most people to countenance. They can’t conceive that throwing off all moral constraints won’t necessarily lead to: 1) general madness and anarchy, 2) the complete loss of dignity in life.
But even a thinker as consumed with the practical (i.e., the ethical) as Kant, throws out all moral formulas, declaring them to be forms of immaturity. Kant’s determination is always to act in a manner which reveals morality behind conventional morality. In each new situation we must take up responsibility for our actions and to no extent defer that responsibility to others. The only rule Kant offers is that we must, if we want to be moral, act in such a way that our actions could become universal law. This is to argue that our actions should be divine, for it’s only God whose singular actions yield truly universal results. Inevitably, we fail to be God. What matters for Kant, then, is that our intentions remain entirely good, that they proceed from a “holy will.” It is this concept of action as universal legislation, as writing a new order of reality into effect, which finds its way into Shelley’s “Defense of Poetry”. There, Shelley famously declares that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the universe. It is the poet’s responsibility to produce an image of the world so intellectually, morally and aesthetically compelling that anyone would be willing to accept it as his own creation.
Perhaps Nietzsche’s most notorious book, Beyond Good and Evil attacks Kant ferociously on almost every single page. Nevertheless, this book still owes a great deal to the little man with the dress sword and the powdered wig. Because Nietzsche’s notorious immorality, which is to say his “new morality,” could never have been articulated with sufficient clarity, distinctness and power had Kant not laid out the necessary prior conditions. Nietzsche is not just deducing and spouting his immorality out of nowhere. That would be far too narcissistic in the most banal sense. It would imply a belief that one could speak or think or will from a position entirely outside the world – something Nietzsche firmly denied. Rather, Nietzsche, in a way which should remind us of Oscar Wilde in “Criticism as Art,” powerfully rewrites all of philosophical history. In particular, Nietzsche rewrites Kant, according to his own Will.
This, again, does not mean simply knocking down the old idol. Rather, it requires strategically modifying the Kantian formulations from within, making them pronounce aloud – as might Mallarme – what the Will has discerned to be already darkly encrypted within the text. Instead of asking whether my individual action is one which can past the test of universality, I must ask myself, whether universality can pass the test of my individual Will. If I knew that the whole world had to suffer in order for my Will to realize itself, Nietzsche asks, would I still have the strength to act? This sounds outrageous, and it is. The point here, for Nietzsche, is that the universal is no longer posited as the ground of good and the whole with which I should seek harmony. Rather, the universal is instead precisely what I must be willing radically to disturb if I am ever to gain my freedom and joy. The philosophical term for such a possibility is sublation, or “overcoming” – the perfect coincidence of destruction and creation.
If we can be willing to endure the pain involved in acting in this manner, we will achieve, to Nietzsche’s mind, a form of godlike personal “sovereignty” which will make all our actions noble, because all actions performed in such a wholly affirmative manner will be free of the doubt, fear, guilt, shame and “ressentiment” which have clouded and misdirected all thought and conduct since the demise of the archaic Greeks about whom we read in Homer. To take or give, to punish or pardon, to kill or be killed; if these are done as wholly singular and spontaneous acts, free of all resentment and petty calculation; each of these possibilities will stand forth as radiant and beautiful, full of dignity for both the slayer and the slain.
It’s perhaps worth noting that one of the few moderns that Nietzsche admired was another writer who also got himself into trouble with the dull herd, the American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson.
If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.
Far or forgot to me is near,
Shadow and sunlight are the same,
The vanished gods to me appear,
And one to me are shame and fame.
They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
And I the hymn the Brahmin sings.
The strong gods pine for my abode,
And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
But thou, meek lover of the good!
Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.