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A History for Life and Affirmation: An Adoption of Nietzsche’s Extra-Morality in History

I want to teach men the meaning of their existence: which is the Superman, the lightening from the dark cloud man. But I am still distant from them, and my meaning does not speak to their minds. To men, I am still a cross between a fool and a corpse…To lure many away form the herd—that is why I have come. The people and the herd shall be angry with me: the herdsmen shall call Zarathustra a robber…Whom do they hate most? Him who smashed their tables of virtues, the breaker, the last-breaker—but he is the creator. 1

Based on Nietzsche’s account of uses and misuses of history, genealogy of morals, and the act of creation and destruction; the various conventions that seek to re-constitute and formulate subjectivity, “tables of virtues”, morality, and history—become a set of practices that are put under question by Nietzsche himself. In the attempt to contextualize ones actions through these moral and historic conventions, a particular method of understanding and apprehension is assumed and pursued. Through these conventions however, Nietzsche proclaims that what these practices instigate, is an extinguishment of action, curbing of error and creativity, curtailment of solitude, and the perpetuation of ‘false consciousness’, ‘herd mentality’, and ‘false values’. If the theme of Zarathustra is precisely to overcome these pillars on which society stands, which perpetuate these assaults on life, can there be an account of morality that does not perpetuate such assaults? What are the dangers that Nietzsche puts at stake when it comes to presupposing that one’s motivations can be understood through some moral presuppositions and conventions? Based of these practices and conventions, which attempt to understand deeds and intentions according to some overarching moral principles, a connection may be tied with the uses and misuses of history, in which the multiplicity of actions that constitute a historical event, are either apprehended as a monumental moral exemplary, or accounted through an chronological account the supposes an understanding of intention behind acts. Based on this setup, this essay will explicate how the moralization of subjectivity plays an inherent role in the constitution of history, which extinguishes the metaphysical ground on which affirmation and action become a possibility.

Before proceeding in explicating the forms of morality, which serve as a crucial component in the constitution of history, a preliminary elaboration on a rather crucial question could be pursued. Since an inherent aspect of moralizing an act of the will presupposes an understanding about not only the actions and intentions behind an act committed by a given individual, but also a claim to understanding one’s own intentions; the very idea of understating the will can be immediately put into question. The question that arises can be posed as follows: why must understanding have priority over misunderstanding when it comes to evaluating acts of the will? What follies follow when claims about understanding of the will behind an act are made? In Nietzsche’s account, this fundamental question will be explicated and and how if remains overlooked throughout the genealogy of morality and constitution of history. In a passage from Zarathustra, Nietzsche expresses this problematic, which arises when motivations of a deed are evaluated and claimed to be understood:

[T]he thought is one thing, the deed is another, and another yet is the image of the deed. The wheel of causality does not roll between them…Listen, you judges! There is another madness as well; and it comes before the deed. Ah, you have not crept deep enough into this soul! 2

The deconstruction of a deed into its thought, the deed itself, and the appearance of the deed; is a brief but yet a profound demonstration. On one hand, this demonstrates the intricacy that morality must account in order to evaluate an action in its complete totality, on the other, this precisely points to what can remain misunderstood in a moral evaluation of action. Here, the “madness” that comes before the deed is another component that is worthy of an elaboration. In a moral account, there is usually an act or a deed, and an origin or motivation of the deed. These two distinct components are one of the most crucial constituents in any kind of judicial, ethical, moral, and even religious convention. During the longest part of history, value and disvalue of an action was based on an evaluation of the consequences and not the origin of actions, to which Nietzsche refers to as the “pre-moral3. Here, the result of actions are judged based on a moral code that defines what is good and what is evil based on a moral evaluation that is mostly consequentialist. At a certain point, the values transitioned to a “moral” stage, where the priority of human action transitioned from a judgment not based merely on the results of the action, but on its origin. The “moral” can be attributed to deontological morality which includes Kant’s conception of the categorical imperative in his Metaphysics, where the evaluation of actions based on their consequences would be merely merely hypothetical and not categorical. However, Nietzsche remains unmoved by this evolution of a morality based from consequentialism and virtues to a deontological account based on the origin of action, as is the case in Kant’s moral philosophy. Nietzsche maintains that the value of a judgment based on an evaluation of its intention and origin, pre-assumes self-knowledge and understating—the very same presupposition that was put in question above.

In order to question the two stages pre-moral and the moral, Nietzsche gives a third account of morality—the “extra-moral”.3 This third account of the extra-moral, on one hand resonates with the mention of “madness” above, but implies an account of a deed the goes beneath what is affirmed to be “intentional” and “conscious”. As stated, “the intention is merely a sign and symptom that still requires interpretation”4 This evaluation, echoing, but not necessarily assimilating to Freud’s unconsciousness, necessitates a re-examination of human motivations which would yield a conclusion entailing that there is not just the intentional, but also the unintentional. It is precisely under this conception of a moral act does Nietzsche’s conception of affirmation and creation has its grounding. Under the extras-moral account of action, the very idea that an act escapes full understanding is explicated, while also questioning the convections and presuppositions under which an act meets its verdict. As Nietzsche proclaims by describing the extra-moral—a morality that requires an overcoming of the traditional pre-moral consequentialist account of morality and the moral deontological one:

After all, today at least we immoralist have the suspicion that the decisive value of an action lies precisely in what is unintentional in it, while everything about it that is intentional is merely a sign and symptom that still requires interpretation.5

Based on this ground within which the extra-moral is explicated, a rather extreme rhetorical passage can be drawn out of “Of the Pale Criminal” from Zarathustra:

Thus says the scarlet judge: ‘Why did this criminal murder? He wanted to steal.’ But I tell you: his soul wanted blood not booty: he thirsted for the joy of the knife! 6

This passage serves as a demonstration of what remains unaccounted in the evaluation of an act and bringing about its verdict. On one hand, a criminal’s action can be evaluated purely on a consequentialist basis, which through testimony and empirical evidence attempts to reconstruct an account of a crime, and carry out a verdict grounded based on the utility of the act, or according to a law based on virtue. A rather more elaborate account of the act that the criminal committed, would attempt to understand the motivations and origin of the act based on an acknowledgment of the subject’s moral autonomy, which puts into consideration their own perspective in regards to how they conceived their committed act as right or wrong. Ultimately, this moral account of action would evaluate the deed based on an overarching “table of virtues”, moral codes, etc. and carry out a verdict based on these overarching moral principles, which are nonetheless external to the subjectivity of the criminal. This constitutes the distinction between exoteric and esoteric approaches to evaluating actions. The exoteric approach seeks to evaluate actions based on the outside through measurement and estimation, whereas the esoteric approach is an evaluation based from the inside, it “looks down form above” as apposed to seing things “from below”.7 And here is where the extra-moral can be put into consideration by Nietzsche: the “want for blood” and “joy of the knife” are precisely acts of affirmation that escape pre-moral and moral evaluation and understanding due to the fact that they are internal to the subjectivity of the criminal. If a morality has a claim to understanding a deed of a criminal, then it must also lay claim to an understanding of their subjectivity, which is precisely what Nietzsche casts into doubt. This problematic ties to the underlying question of what it means to claim that one’s actions can be understood, and when the possibility for misunderstanding becomes unquestioned and not subject to consideration.

By putting an emphasis on the unintentional as an origin of action, and the intentional as something that can only be interpreted insufficiently by morality; constitutes a reversal of the very presuppositions that history makes. On one hand, history can be considered as an empirical recollection of past events pursued in the most ‘objective’ manner as possible; on the other hand, it is also an account of deeds and actions that had been committed by historical figures. A historical account of a past act therefore presupposes the same claim to understanding that moral evaluation does, as was exemplified above. However, an unique historical event which would be manifested by a figure like Zarathustra, constitutes an act that entails a conventional, moral, and even a metaphysical breakpoint: manifested as an act of affirmation that goes beyond “their tables of virtues, the breaker, the last-breaker—but he is the creator”8.

The question then arises, as it did in the cases of the criminal with the knife, in regards to the presupposition that an act can be historicized. In “Uses and Disadvantages of History of Life” from Untimely Meditations, Nietzsche proposes a consideration of a “suprahistorical outlook” and employing “history for the purpose of life”.9 Within this account of history, Nietzsche categorizes two main forms of history that are predominately employed: the ‘Monumental’ and the ‘Antiquarian’, while also envisioning a room for a third form of history, similar to the way in which he envisioned a third form of morality—the extra moral. The first form of history, the ‘Monumental’, is a historical account summarized as that in which “the dead bury the living”10, where ancestral values are subsumed in the values and practices of a contemporary culture. The second convention of history, the ‘Antiquarian history’, consists of a sedimented account of past acts and occurrences, in which the very quality of any given act—that once, perhaps, entailed a conventional and metaphysical breakpoint—becomes broken up and solidified within a chronology of other uniform past occurrences. As Nietzsche states, “Antiquarian history itself degenerates from the moment it is no longer animated and inspired by the fresh life of the present.”11 Given these two accounts of history, Nietzsche provides “a third mode, the critical: and this…in the service of life”12. Under this form of history, history becomes an instrument of self-reflection for life and humanity.

Given that Nietzsche provides and account of history that attempts to escape the solidification of both, past values of ancestral values in contemporary cultures, and where past events are reduced to uniform chronological data and dates; the third mode of history attempts to employ a more critical approach towards history, seeking to employ it in a way that “services life”, while nurturing the potential for acts of affirmation. However, this third form of history nevertheless does not necessarily address the problem of historicity and its inherent tendency to act as a disservice to life, since it nevertheless makes a presumptive moral ground on which intentions behind committed actions can be understood and historicized. Since an account of actions carried out by historical figures presupposes that the moral substance of these acts can be understood, it also entails a form of moralizing the action, which supposes that it is evaluated according to the “table of virtues” and their genealogical origin in a society. In this sense, history evolves hand in hand with morality, which forces a conclusion entailing that a disservice perpetuated by history also necessitates a disservice perpetuated by morality. A question being begged therefore consists of whether a form of history is possible that would not be bound to the lack in pre-moral and moral morality. In this regard, Nietzsche mostly envisions a fatalistic outcome for history—the banishment of history altogether, and a return to a life of a animal, a life that is unhistorical, moral-less, and only bound to the present moment:

[T]he past has to be forgotten if it is not to become the gravedigger of the present…The unhistorical is like an atmosphere within which alone life can germinate and with the destruction it must vanish…with an excess of history man again ceases to exist, and without the envelope of the unhistorical he would never have begun or dared to begin13.

However, given that humanity is nevertheless a life capable of making history, what would it entail to create a form of history that is humanistic and accounts beginnings, affirmation, and moral acts—without reserving to a fatalistic dissolution of history altogether? Given Nietzsche’s account of a extra-moral morality, what would it entail if history were to be constructed in a manner that is affirmative and does not act as a disservice to life, but also which accounts the fact that intentions of historical figures can remain unintentional and misunderstood? If history consists of an account of past occurrences, as well as an attempt to reconstruct and historicize the intentions and origin of past committed acts; then before such a history becomes a possibility, morality must first elevate itself to a extra-moral stage. Perhaps, it precisely under this reading of Nietzsche’s extra-moral morality against his own polemic towards history, can history become an account of the past and does not act as a disservice to life itself.

  1. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (London: Penguin Books, 2003), §7, 9 (p. 49, 51) 

  2. Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “Of the Pale Criminal”, pp. 65-6 

  3. Friedrich Nietzsche, Trans. Walter Kauffman; Basic Writing of Nietzsche, “Beyond Good and Evil” (New York: Modern Library, 2000), §32, p. 234  2

  4. Ibid 

  5. Kauffman, Beyond Good and Evil, §32, (p. 236) 

  6. Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “Of the Pale Criminal”, p. 66 

  7. Kauffman, Beyond Good and Evil, §30, (p. 232) 

  8. Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, §9 (p. 51) 

  9. Friedrich Nietzsche, Trans. R.J. Hollingdale; Untimely Meditations, “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History of Life” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), §1 (p. 66) 

  10. Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History of Life”, §2 (p. 72) 

  11. Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History of Life”, §3 (p. 75) 

  12. Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History of Life”, §3 (p. 75) 

  13. Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History of Life”, §1 (p. 62)