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Nietzsche and the morality of constraint (by Georg Brandes)

Georg Brandes



An Essay On Aristocratic Radicalism


"(...) At the outset the essential and invaluable element of all morality is, in Nietzsche's view, simply this, that it is a prolonged constraint. As language gams in strength and freedom by the constraint of verse, and as all the freedom and delicacy to be found in plastic art, music and dancing is the result of arbitrary laws, so also does human nature only attain its development under constraint. No violence is thereby done to Nature; this is the very nature of things'.

The essential point is that there should be obedience, for a long time and in the same direction. Thou shalt obey, some one or something, and for a long time otherwise thou wilt come to grief; this seems to be the moral imperative of Nature, which is certainly neither categorical (as Kant thought), nor addressed to the individual (Nature does not trouble about the individual), but seems to be addressed to nations, classes, periods, races - in fact, to mankind.

On the other hand, all the morality that is addressed to the individual for his own good, for the sake of his own welfare, is reduced in this view to mere household remedies and counsels of prudence, recipes for curbing passions that might want to break out ; and all this morality is preposterous in form, because it addresses itself to all and generalises what does not admit of generalisation. Kant gave us a guiding rule with his categorical imperative. But this rule has failed us. It is of no use saying to us : Act as others ought to act in this case. For we know that there are not and cannot be such things as identical actions, but that every action is unique in its nature, so that any precept can only apply to the rough outside of actions.

But what of the voice and judgment of conscience ? The difficulty is that we have a conscience behind our conscience, an intellectual one behind the moral. We can tell that the judgment of So-and-So's conscience has a past history in his instincts, his original sympathies or antipathies, his experience or want of experience. We can see quite well that our opinions of what is noble and good, our moral valuations, are powerful levers where action is concerned ; but we must begin by refining these opinions and independently creating for ourselves new tables of values.

And as regards the ethical teachers' preaching of morality for all, this is every bit as empty as the gossip of individual society people about each other's morals. Nietzsche gives the moralists this good advice : that, instead of trying to educate the human race, they should imitate the pedagogues of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, who concentrated their efforts on the education of a single person. But as a rule the moral ranters are themselves quite uneducated persons, and their children seldom rise above moral mediocrity.

He who feels that in his inmost being he cannot be compared with others, will be his own lawgiver. For one thing is needful : to give style to one's character. This art is practised by him who, with an eye for the strong and weak sides of his nature, removes from it one quality and another, and then by daily practice and acquired habit replaces them by others which become second nature to him; in other words, he puts himself under restraint in order by degrees to bend his nature entirely to his own law.

Only thus does a man arrive at satisfaction with himself, and only thus does he become endurable to others. For the dissatisfied and the unsuccessful as a rule avenge themselves on others. They absorb poison from everything, from their own incompetence as well as from their poor circumstances, and they live in a constant craving for revenge on those in whose nature they suspect harmony. Such people ever have virtuous precepts on their lips ; the whole jingle of morality, seriousness, chastity, the claims of life; and their hearts ever burn with envy of those who have become well balanced and can therefore enjoy life.


The morality of pity is often preached in the formula, love thy neighbour. Nietzsche in the interests of his attack seizes upon the word neighbour. Not only does he demand, with Kierkegaard, a setting-aside of morality for the sake of the end in view, but he is exasperated that the true nature of morality should be held to consist in a consideration of the immediate results of our actions, to which we are to conform.

To what is narrow and pettifogging in this morality he opposes another, which looks beyond these immediate results and aspires, even by means that cause our neighbour pain, to more distant objects; such as the advancement of knowledge, although this will lead to sorrow and doubt and evil passions in our neighbour. We need not on this account be without pity, but we may hold our pity captive for the sake of the object.

And as it is now unreasonable to term pity unselfish and seek to consecrate it, it is equally so to hand over a series of actions to the evil conscience, merely because they have been maligned as egotistical. What has happened in recent times in this connection is that the instinct of self-denial and self-sacrifice, everything altruistic, has been glorified as if it were the supreme value of morality.



Brandes - Friedrich Nietzsche
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