The Will to Power
- Reed Nelson
- 25 Sep, 2021
Friedrich Nietzsche was born 1844 in Prussia, and died 1900, at age 55. His father and younger brother died when he was a young boy, leaving him with a mother and sister1. As a child he was very serious, and didn’t make many friends. A bit older, he went to university to study philosophy and theology, then decided theology sucks, and transferred schools. Around this time, he got Syphilis from a prostitute, which left him physically weak and in pain for the rest of his life, and would also be the cause of his descent into madness. He got very into the music of the famous German composer Richard Wagner, who he eventually met and befriended. After a few years, Nietzsche’s philosophy would end their friendship. At age 24, Nietzsche became a professor at the University of Basel. He retired from this work in his 30’s, and lived off a small pension. Made a friend in a young Psychoanalyst called Lou Andreas-Salomé, who he proposed to three times, each time met with rejection. She later had some affair with Sigmund Freud. In 1889, Nietzsche had a breakdown in the street while watching a horse being whipped, and was diagnosed with paralytic dementia, which severely disabled him, so he was put in a mental hospital. He remained in this state until his death a decade later.
Nietzsche was kind of a gloomy character, but his philosophy is cheerful. Broadly speaking, he wants us to affirm this life rather than looking beyond to the next. A good life is a passionate one, embracing creativity, culture, self-discipline, and power. The TLDR for this post: life is good when it is strong, and bad when it is weak; and some people are better than others.
The Negative Account: God and Morality
The Importance of God’s Existence
To Nietzsche, the existence or non-existence of a higher power such as the Christian God is a very high stakes matter. God has a unified point of view over everything, and this creates order and stability:
- God’s point of view is the objective point of view, from which matters of fact arise.
- God defines the standards of morality.
- God and the afterlife provide us with meaning in this life.
So God tells us what to think (1), how to act (2), and gives us a reason to care about what he says (3). Nietzsche believed that in his day, the ideas and influence of Christianity were beginning to lose their hold on society, and nothing had emerged to take its place.
God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers
The Origin of Morality
Morality can arise from many sources, but for now we’ll pick on religion. Consider the following account of the origin of Christianity. What was initially given was a form of life occurring alongside other forms of life: a small group of people living out a modest existence in some dusty corner of the Roman Empire. Their practices subtly suggested a sense of what the world was about, but had no special significance to or validity to them or anybody. The religious belief system only begins to take shape when some figure comes along and bestows on them the sense that their way of life is of highest value. So basically Jesus came along and made this group feel noble and proud of their meekness and humility, this way of life which previously looked base and slavish. Over time this interpretation of the world was systematized, codified, and new generations were brought up on it as if it is The Truth, and always has been.
On this account, there is nothing validating a moral system beyond the agreement of some people. And this is as true of secular moralities and science as it is of religion. In all cases, despite making universal claims, their basis is in individual perceptions of the world, and any added nuance over time is just added individual perception.
The Problem with Morality
Morality is by the sick and weak, for the sick and weak. Christianity, for example, is detrimental to the strength of the will. Those who put their faith in God do so because they are weak, they seek someone to tell them what to think and how to act. They lack the strength to create their own meaning and exert their own will. Nietzsche thinks you should do away with your concern for what other people think about your moral behavior and what you think of theirs. Focus instead on becoming someone who doesn’t need affirmation to know they’re right.
The Positive Account: Power
Anti-essentialism is the doctrine that there is no fact-of-the-matter about a thing’s intrinsic nature.
Perspectivism is the doctrine that there are only various finite, historically and culturally determined perspectives on what exists and that there is no God’s eye point of view from which one can survey what exists. That is, there is no getting to the bottom of “reality”. This is especially significant when it comes to something like science, which makes claims about reality and objectivity.
Moral Particularism is the idea that General moral principles cannot be applied to particular moral situations because each moral situation is different. Thus, sweeping moral judgements hold no value. Nietzsche considers it selfish or cowardly to hold others to your own moral judgements.
You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.
The Will to Power
The Will to Power is a fundamental drive to overcome opposition, and this drive is at the core of all activity. Opposition both in other people, and inside ourselves. The greatest way to test one’s strength is to seek out a worthy adversary. The essence of life which imbues the strong with the aim of extending its power even at great risk to itself. “The essence of life as Will to Power is to seek its own glorious undoing, by pushing itself to, and beyond, its limits.” -Hank Southgate. The will to Power is a meta-drive which influences all of our particular drives, i.e. for knowledge, artistry, military exploits, sexual, social, or economic success, etc.
That which does not kill us makes us stronger.2
Contrary to the Darwinian idea that life is merely about survival, Nietzsche observes that in reality, this is rarely how organisms behave. An organism which is merely subsisting is one we take to be weak or sick—not how life should be. On the other hand, the organism which is strong, ever-growing, and ambitious is understood to be in good health, good at living. As we are all organisms, it follows that the best way to live is to do so vigorously, to grow, to expand our capabilities. This is the meaning of the positive Will to Power, it is “precisely the will of life”. Nietzsche thinks that the basis for the Will to Power is much stronger than the basis of morality. It is grounded in observable characteristics common to all living things. So power and values are on two different planes. Power is objectively good, it is expressed in the vitality, health, and strength of living things. Values are subjective and individualized. This is an important distinction, because rather than holding people to a certain set of actions, the Will to Power holds them to a more abstract idea, which may be expressed through many different sets of actions. Self-creation, and overcoming require different things from different people. Two people may act in total contradiction with the will of each other, and still be satisfying their Will to Power in their own way.
Nietzsche is not advocating a view like Aristotle on which you have some predetermined essence you have to realize. Rather, in a somewhat Sartrean spirit, everything you do (your successes, failures, desires, hates…) all play a part in defining who you are. The self is a changing thing, wish is not just something you possess, but something you achieve through discipline and control and self-mastery. The Will to Power is primarily self-directed rather than directed towards others.
No I’ll not renounce my views, do what others do. I’d rather drink the hemlock than be like you, to my soul untrue. It never gets easier so quit tryin’ pleasing her. Everything is a choice so let me hear your voice.3
The Artist; The Free Spirit; The Exemplary Individual
The life of the artist is filled with self-control, self-creation and interpretation, and active exploration and generativity. The artist is largely unbeholden to anyone, and when they are, they will still take control of their behavior and their work such that even a specifically requested piece of art serves as an expression of themself. These people are few and far between in Nietzsche’s eyes. On the contrary, most people are weak, characterized instead by subservience, mediocrity, and dispassion.
..we delight in all who, like us, love danger, war, adventure, who do not allow themselves to compromise, to be caught, placated, gelded…
More on the Positive Account
Nietzsche really doesn’t want to tell us how to act specifically, but he does believe we should adhere to a certain lifestyle:
- Self-discipline in the service of the Will to Power: foster drives which lead to achievement, and through this exercise of overcoming obstacles and expressing ourselves, we flourish and grow our power.
- Playing with values creatively: free spirits are free because they are not bound to any particular set of values or practices. Those are just different interpretations of existence, none of which are especially right or natural.
Live at war with your fellows and yourselves!
What is most important is satisfaction with oneself. If one is to hold themself together, a positive self-image is essential. Dissatisfaction with oneself is associated with a sick form of existence, in which one is weak and resents themselves and those better than them. This kind of person is the kind who lifts up religion, condemning those achievers who create their own values and exert their own wills.
Bonus Content: the Eternal Recurrence of the Same
What if you were forced to live this same life over and over, forever? This is essentially the idea of Eternal Recurrence of the Same. Nietzsche wants you to ask yourself: How would that make you feel? How would you live (differently)? Would your attitude change toward life?
This idea is meant to undermine the sense that we’re getting somewhere and achieving something. There is no culmination to give our actions a point. Nietzsche introduces this idea for us to test weather we live in a healthy or unhealthy way. If this thought makes you uncomfortable, you’re living wrong. This is partially a test to see if you’re living well, but also a sort of guide on the day-to-day scale to indicate to you what you could do better.
Nietzsche’s sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, was a bit of a Nazi. After his death, she took his very unfinished draft of The Will to Power, wrote a bunch of nazi-ish things in it, and then had it published in his name. Later she sent it over to Hitler, who appreciated it. This seems to be the main reason for the very mistaken association between Nietzsche and Nazism. To be clear, Nietzsche’s idea of the Will to Power did not originate in the book of the same name. It is present to varying degrees in many of his previous works. ↩