Varieties of Moral Aestheticism

Was heute vollends als Philosophie des Nationalsozialismus herumgeboten wird, aber mit der inneren Wahrheit und Größe dieser Bewegung (nämlich mit der Begegnung der planetarisch bestimmten Technik und des neuzeitlichen Menschen) nicht das Geringste zu tun hat, das macht seine Fischzüge in diesen trüben Gewässern der »Werte« und der »Ganzheiten«.

The works that are being peddled about nowadays as the philosophy of National Socialism but have nothing whatever to do with the inner truth and greatness of this movement (namely the encounter between global technology and modern man) -- have all been written by men fishing in the troubled waters of "values" and "totalities."

Martin Heidegger, An Introduction to Metaphysics, p. 166, Anchor Books, 1961; color added.

Considerate la vostra semenza:
fatti non foste a viver come bruti,
ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza.
Consider your origin:
you were not made to live as brutes,
but to pursue virtue and knowledge.

Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Inferno, XXVI:118-120 [Charles S. Singleton, Princeton, Bollingen, 1989, p.279]

While moral aestheticism essentially discards the value and independence of morality, there are in practice degrees to which this is done. Morality can be subordinated to the aesthetic, but still discussed (Rorty, Grassian), or removed as a matter of discourse as well (Taoism, Zen, Pirsig), before it is removed altogether (Nietzsche). Or it can be removed altogether but more or less be observed in practice (Nietzsche, Suzuki), or one can practice immorality as well as talking about it (Heidegger, Herrigel).

A) Victor Grassian (in the ethics textbook Moral Reasoning):

  1. Grassian says that morality is a matter of choosing a "way of life," so that morality depends on one's "ideals." This is generally a morally aesthetistic and relativistic view of things.
  2. But, he seems to have a strong moral sense, makes moral judgments, and believes in a rational discipline of morality -- he has actually written a book about it.

B) Robert Pirsig (in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance):

  1. Pirsig has a strong moral sense and makes moral judgments.
  2. But, he rejects rational moral principles or a rational discipline of morality. He likes the relativistic Sophists better than Socrates or Plato. Quality cannot be Truth.
  3. He is consistent with the morally aesthetic stand of Zen Buddhism, which borrows its principles in this area from the Chinese philosophical school of Taoism. In Taoism, "He who knows, does not speak; and he who speaks, does not know": anyone who talks about something, or intentionally tries to do something, ruins it. The principle is "not-doing," which means not to think, try, intend, or will. Things left alone will work out of themselves, even our own actions. Morality, therefore, is maintained precisely by ignoring any kind of moral discourse or claims. Pirsig says, "Peace of mind produces right values, right values produce right thoughts. Right thoughts produce right actions...." [p. 267]. Right thoughts and moral action thus follow directly from the proper meditative calmness, not from any kind of inquiry into the truth.
  4. Pirsig, Zen, and Taoism thus believe there is morality, but it is best served by acting as though there isn't. The outcome of this for Taoism in China was that Confucianism picked up the slack and handled the discourse about ethics and politics, while Taoism mostly concerned itself with art, nature, and beauty. Where these Taoist principles were seriously adopted for a system of morality, as in the code of the Samurai (called bushido) in Japan, the result was an aesthetic glorification of violence ("martial arts") and death, with great historical consequences (kamikaze pilots, etc.), which would have been appalling both to Confucius and to old Taoism -- and to Pirsig. Nevertheless, all that Pirsig could say to someone who does not engage in "right actions" would be that they do not have the requisite "peace of mind." To dispute ad rem the merits of the case would be to admit that there is discursive truth in the matter.

C) Friedrich Nietzsche (e.g. in Thus Spoke Zarathustra):

  1. Nietzsche, the self-described "Immoralist" and "Anti-Christ," rejects moral discourse, rational moral principles, and indeed morality altogether. Thus, in the 1886 preface to the early Birth of Tragedy (1872), Nietzsche says that "it already prefigured that spirit of deep distrust and defiance which, later on, was to resist to the bitter end any moral interpretation of existence whatsoever" [Golffing translation, Anchor edition, 1956, p.10]. He continued, "Morality, on this view, became a mere fabrication for purposes of gulling:  at best, an artistic fiction; at worse, and outrageous imposture" [ibid., see discussion of problems with this translation here]. There we get the denial and dismissal of morality, here we get the aestheticism:  "I claimed that art, rather than ethics, constituted the essential metaphysical activity of man, while in the body of the book I made several suggestive statements to the effect that existence could be justified only in esthetic terms" [p.9]. Traditional morality, a conspiracy of the Jews (yes, he says that), is for "slaves" who are unable or unwilling to seize the power that they want. The (aesthetic) ideal is the Übermensch (Superman or Overman), who is beyond good and evil, who acts on his Will to Power, and who is completely indifferent to the needs, rights, and claims, or existence, of other persons. Grassian presents this as a disagreement over the nature of morality, but it is really a disagreement over whether morality, in any recognizable sense, even exists. An imaginative conception of beings who are morally rather like Nietzsche's Übermenschen may be found in the horror fiction of H.P. Lovecraft:

    The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and reveling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom. ["The Call of Cthulhu," boldface added]

    Since Lovecraft believed in an amoral universe, and knew Nietzsche, it is not hard to see where this came from. Although "The Call of Cthulhu" was written in 1926, and Lovecraft's use of "holocaust" is in its etymological sense of burning, his use of the term does frighteningly foreshadow the true later Holocaust, a genuine event of killing, "beyond good and evil," with "laws and morals thrown aside" -- an ecstasy of freedom for the Nazis.

  2. On the other hand, Nietzsche personally does not seem morally culpable. He disliked German nationalism and anti-Semitism (though mainly because of their compromises with Christianity) and so perhaps would not have been pleased with the use to which the Nazis (and his own sister, who seems to have told Adolf Hitler that he was the Übermensch) put his ideas. Nietzsche's sympathizers use this to defend him and explain how he would never have endorsed the crimes of the Nazis; but is creating a retroactive morality for Nietzsche really something that is conformable with his own thought? Clearly not. Nietzsche would have had nothing but contempt for such a project and for anyone who would think it necessary. Nietzsche perhaps would not have liked Hitler, and certainly would not have thought of him as an Übermensch, but he could not have made any moral judgments about him. On the other hand, Nietzsche did admire Napoleon, had no sympathy for democracy or liberal cutlure, and I am no longer so certain that Hitler's ruthlessness or cynicism would have been unwelcome.

D) Martin Heidegger (e.g. in An Introduction to Metaphysics):

  1. Heidegger is much like Nietzsche, except that Nietzsche's emphasis on the will and on the individual strikes Heidegger as too "subjective" [now called "metaphysical humanism" by deconstructionists like Jacques Derrida, who has said that he has not said anything that was not already in Heidegger]. For Heidegger, value comes from cosmic dispensations of Being into the Dasein, or manner of existence, experienced by us.
  2. But, Heidegger cannot be defended as Nietzsche can, for he actually joined the Nazi Party, never repented of it, and always despised liberal democracy and modern, commercial society. Heidegger's defenders (e.g. Richard Rorty) must instead claim that his philosophy has nothing to do with his politics. That doesn't work, since Heidegger actually says that man is "terrible" (Gk. deinós) because new "uncoverings" of Being involve a violent "shattering" of "justice" (Gk. díkê). Since that is precisely what the Nazis were doing, and Heidegger could look out his window and see Brown Shirts "shattering justice" by beating and murdering Jews and others, it is not surprising that he found what he was looking for in them. Heidegger, until his death, always believed that the Nazis had been the last, best hope for "Being" in the modern world; and he never seemed much aware or concerned that they had started the War or slaughtered the innocent. Instead, the defeat of the Nazis resulted in a withdrawl of Being, leaving the present state of impoverished meaning.
  3. Note the coincidence of German and Japanese moral aestheticism in Eugen Herrigel's Zen in the Art of Archery, a classic of Zen and martial arts by a philosophy professor who would shortly return to Germany and become a supporter of Hitler. Thus, R.J. Zwi Werblowsky points out:

    And the man who wrote one of the best-sellers on Zen (Zen in the Art of Archery) which was eagerly gobbled up all Zen-enthusiasts, Eugen Herrigel, was a convinced Nazi and follower of Hitler. Can you be a genuine Zen disciple, or claim to have experienced enlightenment, and at the same time follow a "leader" who murdered millions of human beings in gas chambers? [The Center Magazine, March/April 1975]

    The answer to Werblowsky's question is definitely "yes," as D.T. Suzuki himself wrote in 1938:

    Zen has no special doctrine or philosophy, no set of concepts or intellectual formulas, except that it tries to release one from the bondage of birth and death, by means of certain intuitive modes of understanding peculiar to itself. It is, therefore, extremely flexible in adapting itself to almost any philosophy and moral doctrine as long as its intuitive teaching is not interfered with. It may be found wedded to anarchism or fascism, communism or democracy, atheism or idealism, or any political or economic dogmatism. It is, however, generally animated with a certain revolutionary spirit, and when things come to a deadlock -- as they do when we are overloaded with conventionalism, formalism, or other cognate isms -- Zen asserts itself and proves to be a destructive force. [Zen and Japanese Culture, Princeton, 1973, p. 63]

    In this description, Heidegger's moral aestheticism meets that of bushido, and there is absolutely nothing to suggest that Eugen Herrigel should not find an approrpriate "destructive force" in the "revolutionary spirit" of Hitler's National Socialism.

Zen and the Art of Divebombing, or The Dark Side of the Tao

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

Aestheticism and Moral Aestheticism in Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music

On Heidegger's Nazism and Philosophy, by Tom Rockmore, University of California Press, 1992


Value Theory

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Copyright (c) 1996, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2018 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

Aestheticism and Moral Aestheticism
in Nietzsche's
The Birth of Tragedy
from the Spirit of Music

In Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (1872) we get quite clear and explicit statements of both aestheticism and moral aestheticism. The aestheticism is a sensible position. The other is not. It is thus very important to trace the difference between these and pinpoint just where Nietzsche goes wrong. This usefully illuminates the difference between the two, and corrects the false impression one would get from Nietzsche that they are the same thing.

In the 1886 preface we find Nietzsche asserting an aestheticism, as a denial of moralism, with a characterization and condemnation of Christian anaesthetic moralism:

In Wahrheit, es gibt zu der rein ästhetischen Weltauslegung und Welt-Rechtfertigung, wie sie in diesem Buche gelehrt wird, keinen größeren Gegensatz als die christliche Lehre, welche nur moralisch ist und sein will und mit ihren absoluten Maßen, zum Beispiel schon mit ihrer Wahrhaftigkeit Gottes, die Kunst, jede Kunst ins Reich der Lüge verweist, -- das heißt verneint, verdammt, verurteilt. Hinter einer derartigen Denik- und Wertungsweise, welche kunstfeindlich sein muß, solange sie irgendwie echt ist, empfand ich von jeher auch das Lebensfeindliche, den ingrimmigen rachsüchtigen Widerwillen gegen das Leben selbst...

In truth, nothing could be more opposed to the purely aesthetic interpretation and justification of the world which are taught in this book than the Christian teaching, which is, and wants to be only moral, with its absolute standards, beginning with the truthfulness of God, and which relegates art, every art, to the realm of lies -- it negates, damns and condemns it. Behind this mode of thought and valuation, which must be hostile to art if it is at all genuine, I never failed to sense a hostility to life -- a furious, vengeful antipathy to life itself... [The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner, translated by Walter Kaufmann, Vintage Books, 1967, p.23; Die Geburt der Tagödie, aus dem Geiste der Musik, Insel Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 1987, 2000, p.17; color added]

The thesis that Christianity abominates art is not going to fit in very well with Camille Paglia's argument that much of Christian, or at least Catholic, art is implicitly pornographic. Nevertheless, the point may be well taken. There is definitely an anaesthetic streak in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam -- although it looks the strongest in Protestantism (formerly, perhaps now in Islâm instead) and the weakest in Catholicism. All are fiercely moralistic, whose tendency will always be to anaesthesia.

Nietzsche may well accuse Christianity of "hatred of life," since that is how a world-denying attitude arguably might be interpreted, but this clearly has no necessary connection to full anaesthesia. The accusation cannot be made with anything like the same force against Judaism or Islam, whose attitude towards the world is rather different; and, most strikingly, it is unrelated to 20th century political ideologies, secular, nihilistic, and even atheistic -- Naziism and Communism -- whose moralism and anaesthesia are entirely of a political and world-affirming character. As examined elsewhere, Nietzsche will later rail against Judaism and Christianity for simply conceiving of morality at all, regardless of any possible moralism or anaesthesia. Despite the ominous dynamic of the French Revolution, Nietzsche has no sensitivity and in his day little precedent for a totalitarian political, rather than religious, moralism and anaesthesia. Recent examples are now abundant.

Nietzsche elaborates on the "hatred of life" accusation:

Christentum war von Anfang an, wesenlich und gründlich, Ekel und Überdruß des Lebens am Leben, welcher sich unter dem Glauben an ein »anderes« oder »besseres« Leben nur verkleidete, nur versteckte, nur aufputzte. Der Haß auf die »Welt«, der Fluch auf die Affekte, die Furcht vor der Schönheit und Sinnlichkeit, ein Jenseits, erfunden, um das Diesseits besser zu verleumden, im Grunde ein Verlangen ins Nichts, ans Ende, ins Ausruhen, hin zum »Sabbat der Sabbate« -- dies alles dünkte mich, ebenso wie der unbedingte Wille des Christentums, nur moralische Werte gelten zu lassen, immer wie die gefährlichste und unheimlichste Form aller möglichen Formen eines »Willens zum Untergang«, zum mindesten ein Zeichen tiefster Erkrankung, Müdigkeit, Mißmutigkeit, Erschöpfung, Verarmung an Leben, -- denn vor der Moral (in Sonderheit christlichen, das heißt unbedingten Moral) muß das Leben beständig und unvermeidlich Unrecht bekommen, weil Leben etwas essentiell Unmoralisches ist...

Christianity was from the beginning, essentially and fundamentally, nausea and disgust of life with life, which as faith in "another" or "better" life, was only concealed, masked, and dressed up. Hatred of the "world," condemnations of the passions, fear of beauty and sensuality, a beyond invented the better to slander this life, at bottom a craving for nothingness, for the end, for respite, for the "sabbath of sabbaths" -- all this always struck me, no less than the unconditional Will of Christianity to recognize only moral values, as the most dangerous and uncanny form of all possible forms of a "will to collapse" -- at the very least a sign of abysmal sickness, weariness, discouragement, exhaustion, and the impoverishment of life. For, confronted with morality (especially Christian, or unconditional, morality), life must continually and inevitably be in the wrong, because life is something essentially amoral... [op.cit., Walter Kaufmann, p.23; op.cit., German text, p.17; Untergang otherwise "downfall" or "decline"; color added]

Since the denial of the world is historically rare in Western religions, but rather common in India, one wonders why Nietzsche exhibits nothing like the vehemence he directs at Christianity towards Hinduism, Buddhism, or Jainism as well. In India there is no lack of condemnation of sensuality, and of a yearning for extinction -- the very meaning of the word Nirvâṇa, -- in degrees that equal or surpass anything in Christianity, whose asceticism is a pale shadow beside the Jain Digambara, , monks. Thus, the Buddha asked Kassapa why he had forsaken the fire sacrifice of the Brahmanic religion and become a Buddhist monk; and Kassapa answered:

It is visible things and sounds, and so tastes, pleasures and woman that the sacrifices speak of; because I understood that whatever belongs to existence is filth, therefore I took no more delight in sacrifices and offerings. [Vinaya Pit.aka 1:36, quoted by Patrick Olivelle, The Âśrama System, Oxford, 1993, p.22]

Indeed, orthodox Christianity would not say that "whatever belongs to existence is filth," especially because Christians look forward to bodily resurrection -- something otherwise repugnant to the currently more politically correct Gnostics.

Nietzsche's vehement antipathy is present in the 1886 Preface, and in his later works, but otherwise seems to be missing in the 1872 text, which discusses Brahmanism and Buddhism with some complacency, with much more complaint about Socrates than Christianity. The Eastern religions never become the targets of the bitterness and fury that Nietzsche directs at Christianity and Judaism. He truly seems to have some personal animus that is not justified by any theory -- whether of aesthetics or morality. Indeed, The Birth of Tragedy contains the altogether sensible thesis, perhaps the most sensible of Nietzsche's career, that philosophy, religion, and art seek to protect us from the naked horrors of existence -- Nietzsche always is, after all, a pessimist.

The curious selectivity of Nietzsche's hostility is evident by comparison to Schopenhauer, whose metaphysics and theory of the Will are all but assumed by Nietzsche. To Schopenhauer, good religions are world-denying, manifest especially through monastic institutions. Bad religions are world-affirming and eschew monasticism. Among the former are Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Orthodox and Catholic Christianity. Among the latter are Protestant Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. If Nietzsche's concern was simply "hatred of life" by denying the world, he could easily take over Schopenhauer's classification and simply do his "reversal of values," good for bad and bad for good. But he doesn't do that. Instead, his full fury descends on Christianity and Judaism, while India is contemplated without rancor and the Buddha is even cited as part of Nietzsche's explanation of why a proper philosopher (like himself) doesn't marry (isn't this deliberate sterility something like "hatred of life"?).

Nevertheless, the statement that "nothing counts except moral values" is an excellent definition of moralism, though it could be as equally true of Buddhism (dharma) or Confucianism () as of Christianity or Judaism. What the reader may then miss is that the denial of "nothing counts except moral values" is "something counts besides moral values" and not the stronger statement "moral values do not count at all." The first is the correct inference of aestheticism, while the latter is moral aestheticism, in which morality has simply been eliminated in favor of aesthetic value.

Nietzsche's moral aestheticism is stated together with the aestheticism as though they are simply the same thing. In the 1886 Preface again, he says of The Birth of Tragedy that:

...das Wesentliche daran ist, daß sie bereits einen Geist verrät, der sich einmal auf jede Gefahr hin gegen die moralische Ausdeutung und Bedeutsamkeit des Daseins zur Wehre setzen wird. [op.cit., German text, p.16]

...what matters is that it betrays a spirit who will one day fight at any risk whatever the moral interpretation and significance of existence. [op.cit., Walter Kaufmann, p.22]

Yet in its essential traits it already prefigured that spirit of deep distrust and defiance which, later on, was to resist to the bitter end any moral interpretation of existence whatsoever. [the Birth of Tragedy and The Geneology of Morals, translated by Francis Golffing, Anchor Books, 1956, p.10].

The independence or reality of morality itself is dismissed as he says, "Morality, on this view, became a mere fabrication for purposes of gulling:  at best, an artistic fiction; at worse, and outrageous imposture" [Golffing]. To "gull," i.e. "dupe," is not a common word now except in its derivative, "gullible." Morality as a "mere fabrication" is the most dismissive characterization I am aware of in Nietzsche. The notion that it is simply a means of deception, as the instrument of vindictive Jewish (but apparently not Buddhist or Confucian) revenge, is developed at length in the Genealogy of Morals. The Golffing translation, although a striking statement, does not match the German text very well, and this problem is discussed elsewhere, with the German text and an alternative translation.

We meet the twin elements of Nietzsche's view of tragic art, the Apollonian and Dionysian, by the way of the dream or illusion of the Apollonian and the intoxication of the Dionysian. Both of these protect us from the hideous realities of life, reluctantly exposed by Silenus:

»Elendes Eintagsgeschlecht, des Zufalls Kinder und der Mühsal, was zwingst du mich dir zu sagen, was nicht zu hören für dich das Erspreißlichste ist? Das Allerbeste ist für dich gänzlich unerreichbar: nicht geboren zu sein, nicht zu sein, nichts zu sein. Das Zeweitbeste aber ist für dich -- bald zu sterben.«

"Oh, wretched ephemeral race, children of chance and misery, why do you compel me to tell you what it be most expedient for you not to hear? What is best of all is utterly beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best for you is -- to die soon." [op.cit., Walter Kaufmann, 1967, p.42]

"Ephemeral wretch, begotten by accident and toil, why do you force me to tell you what it would be your greatest boon not to hear? What would be best for you is quite beyond your reach:  not to have been born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best is to die soon." [Golffing, p.29]

Why this does not constitute "hatred of life" confuses me a little, but there is no doubt that the evils it addresses are redeemed for Nietzsche by an artistic apotheosis:

Bereits im Vorwort an Richard Wagner wird die Kunst -- und nicht die Moral -- als die eigentlich metaphysische Tätigkeit des Menschen hingestellt; im Buche selbst kehrt der anzügliche Satz mehrfach wieder, daß nut als ästhetisches Phänomen das Dasein der Welt gerechtfertigt ist.

In the foreword to Richard Wagner I claimed that art -- and not morality -- constituted the essential metaphysical activity of man, while in the body of the book I made several suggestive statements to the effect that the existence of the world is justified only as an aesthetic phenomenon. [Golffing, p.9; translation modified; German, op.cit., p.16; for the umlauts in ästhetisches Phänomen, i.e. ἀισθητικὸν φαινόμενον, see here]

This being the case, it is odd that Nietzsche is not a bit more sympathetic to morality. After all, whatever art does, it does nothing to change the substantive character, with its evils, of life. On the other hand, by way of moral action the agent prevents or alleviates the occurrence of suffering. This could mean that it is not better for us that we should "die soon." Both world-denying and world-affirming religions can agree that allowing or inflicting harm or suffering on others is wrong. This is what is so bizarre and ahistorical about Nietzsche's animus for Judaism. There is nothing unique, or even unusual, about its moral teaching. Sympathy and respect for the weak is enjoined by all conscientious moral teachers, all the way back to Ptahhotep. In world-denying religions, we simply get the sense that it is hopeless to completely eradicate suffering from the world, and that something better should be possible. Why is this "hatred of life" unless somehow loving life means loving inevitable suffering? Indeed, the later Nietzsche says something of the sort:  "To behold suffering gives pleasure, but to cause another to suffer affords an even greater pleasure" [pp.197-198, in the Genealogy of Morals]. If Nietzsche really believes this, then he certainly would reject "any moral interpretation of existence whatsoever" -- though there will be nothing specifically Jewish or Christian about the morality he rejects. He must find Confucius equally objectionable.

The rejection of morality is moral astheticism, but the rejection of moralism is simply aestheticism. Morality and aestheticism can both be true, as discussed below. If we take Nietzsche's phrase, that existence can be justified only in aesthetic terms, and add a strategic negation, we get "existence can be justified not only in aesthetic terms." This is not some Christian moralistic anaesthesia. It implies that "existence can be justified" in both aesthetic terms and something else, e.g. moral terms -- just as in Greek we see the expression καλὸς κἀγαθός, kalòs kagathós, which can be used even as one word, καλὸκἀγαθός, kalokagathós, "beautiful and good," which conjoins both forms of value (with moral overtones even for καλὸς, kalós, in Greek). The difference is that aesthetic meaning leaves the world as it is, merely representing it, while moral meaning is an agency that seeks to change it. Nietzsche himself is not immune to this call to action, since he would rather defeat the forces of the mob (Jews, Christians, etc.), breed a new ruling class for Europe, and restore the rule of a racial nobility. How is this not a moral project? It certainly is, and Nietzsche speaks of it with a vehemence that is far beyond the merely aesthetic. The paradox discovered by Socrates against Thrasymachus in The Republic would seem to come into play, that the advocate of power, when the powerful few are defeated by the collective power of the weak, becomes morally indignant -- sinning a great sin, in Nietzsche's words, "that cheapest of propaganda tricks, a moral attitude." It is hard to see his fury against the Jews as anything else. What they have done is "to damage the powerful and great of this earth." This morally offensive to Nietzsche, in a world supposedly without "any moral interpretation of existence whatsoever."

What Nietzsche has done, in effect, is take Schopenhauer's World as Will and Representation and leave off the Book IV, which contains the theory of the denial of the will in both morality and holiness. The third book, about art and beauty, is good enough for Nietzsche, especially its culmination in the theory of music, which to Schopenhauer represents the Will itself. This is all music to Nietzsche's ears, where for him Greek Tragedy is born "from the Spirit of Music." To Schopenhauer art was good, just not good enough. Thus, art removes us from ourselves, and from our troubles in the world, to something timeless, which is why Schopenhauer identified art with the embodiment of something like Plato's eternal Ideas. That is a great achievement, but only a temporary reprieve for us individually from the evils of life. In Schopenhauer we do have the paradox of why it is not all good enough to provide meaningful purpose in life. He persists in regarding life as purposeless even when he describes all kinds of purposes. With Nietzsche, however, where life is good enough, we have corresponding paradox of why it is good even when it does not ameliorate the evils of individual lives in any substantial way -- and when Nietzsche's own Silenus is approvingly quoted that we are better off dead. By Dionysian intoxication we forget our troubles, indeed all our individuality. By Apollonian dream and illusion we conceal them. Anyone trying to really make life better, however, seems to earn only Nietzsche's contempt.

What we have in Nietzsche is really a kind of Utopian Golden Age:  The Tragedy, the "hard pessimism," that combines Dionysian and Apollonian into a unique and unequalled achievement. This is then ruined by Euripides, with his "bourgeois mediocrity" [p.71], and Socrates, with "his corrosive influence upon instinctual life" [p.85]. Indeed, the progress and comfort of bourgeois existence and our emergence from instinctual life, where no animal ever worried about death, are all wrong for Nietzsche. If Nietzsche allows for progress in human life, it can only be through art. Otherwise, the search for knowledge that begins with Socrates results in "the illusion that thought, guided by the thread of causation, might plumb the farthest abysses of being and even correct it" [p.93]. Nietzsche rightly invokes the "courage and wisdom of Kant and Schopenhauer," who have "won the most difficult victory, that over the optimistic foundations of logic," or use "the arsenal of science to demonstrate the limitations of science and of the cognitive faculty itself" [p.111]. The limitations of knowledge, yes; but no one would ever think that either Kant or Schopenhauer believed that we could "correct" the world, or ourselves. Neither philosopher was a utopian or an optimist, in the sense that either individual or the world could be perfected. Nevertheless, Kant certainly believed that morality contained the duty to struggle for moral perfection, even if this could not be achieved short of eternity; and both Kant and Schopenhauer believed that life could be made better through moral action -- if not also through the material progress of science, whose full benefits for the amelioration of life were barely becoming evident.

Nietzsche himself really seems to have a similar notion:

...we cannot help viewing Socrates as the vortex and turning point of Western civilization. For if we imagine that immense store of energy used, not for the purpose of knowledge, but for the practical, egotistical ends of individuals and nations, we may readily see the consequence:  universal wars of extermination and constant migrations of peoples would have weakened man's instinctive zest for life to such an extent that, suicide having become a matter of course, duty might have commanded the son to kill his parents, the friend his friend, as among the Fiji islanders. We know that such wholesale slaughter prevails wherever art in some form or other -- especially as religion or science -- has not served as antidote to barbarism. [Golffing, p.94]

Here we have something that sounds bad, "universal wars of extermination" brought about by "egotistical ends of individuals and nations," where some moral principle would seem to be involved:  action that limits self-interest, of individuals or nations, and prevents mass murder. Since mass murder was rather characteristic of the 20th century, this is a striking and vivid assertion. But where everyone from Confucius to Kant might say that the limitation of self-interest out of consideration for others is the essence of morality, Nietzsche puts it that "art in some form or other," expansively encompasing both religion and science, will serve as the antidote to the barbarism of "wholesale slaughter."

Nietzsche's turn here looks a bit like a version of the saying by Horace, Naturam expelles furca tamen usque recurret, "You expel nature with a pitchfork, but it just comes back." Thus, having rejected any "any moral interpretation of existence whatsoever," Nietzsche reassures us of the wholesome moral effect, as previous philosophers would have understood it, of art. Religion or philosophy as art can create an ethos for a culture, but why should using this to avoid "universal wars of extermination" be morally laudable, if there is no moral purpose to existence? Exactly what is the objection to the univeral wars unless it is that they would endanger the continuation of life itself? That this is the imperative of Nietzsche we see from here all the way through to his later thought. But it is only a Darwinian imperative, without sympathy or concern for the life of any individual. The individuality that is lost in Dionysian intoxication, or in external Apollonian artiface, is of no concern for Nietzsche. Life may be suffering, but then it is enjoyable when we can inflict it on others.

If both art and morality, καλὸς κἀγαθός, give meaning to life, then Nietzsche is guilty of a reductionism. The closest he comes to avoiding this is in a kind of typology, where he says that cultures are of three kinds, (1) the Socratic or Alexandrian, (2) the artistic, or Hellenic, and (3) the tragic, or Brahmanic. Each involves "special beguilements" that "answer only to noble natures, who resent the burden of existence more deeply" [p.109]. Now, perhaps, a Socratic pursuit of knowledge is not that worse than full Hellenic art -- merely another strategy. The characterization of "Brahmanic," however, is a little peculiar. He says that it is "buoyed up by the metaphysical solace that life flows on, indestructible, beneath the whirlpool of appearances" [p.108]. While this may have some resonance with the early Vedic religion of the Brahmins, it doesn't sound at all right in terms of Classical Hinduism or the picture of things in the Upanishads. There, salvation is to be free of the world and of rebirth and to achieve just the kind of "true" existence, in Brahman, for which Nietzsche has nothing but whithering contempt when it comes to the Christian version of such a thing.

Nietzsche's typology ends up with an affinity to that of Kant in his Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime (1764). Kant's principle is of sensitivity to the beautiful and the sublime (sb). A positive sense of any of these only results in three types, since the fourth -- association with the phlegmatic humor -- is without much response to either (sb). In Nietzsche's terms, we would certainly say that the phlegmatic is not one of the "noble natures." Otherwise, Kant would say that those sensitive to beauty but not the sublime are the sanguine (sb), to the sublime but not to beauty the choleric (sb), and to both, the melancholic (sb). Nietzsche does not use "Apollonian" and "Dionysian" for his typology. If he did, they would not cover the cases. In the diagram, the usage, with the addition of "Promethean" and "Epimethean," is derived from the considerations of others. Their suitability for Nietzsche's view is arguable. If Nietzsche were to pursue his typological approach, however, and not end up condemning Socrates or Christianity for betraying the instinctive sources and continuation of life itself, something of the sort would be appropriate, especially as Kant's typology displays an affinity for key Chinese virtues, as shown (why Nietzsche called Kant the "Chinaman of Königsberg"?). This is revealing of much in the way of traditional views of morality, East and West. Kant's melancholic character is the most sensitive to moral principle. Nietzsche, who certainly seems melancholic in every other way as a person, nevertheless is the least sensitive to it himself. Indeed, Nietzsche doesn't have much interest in any of the applicable Chinese virtues here, except perhaps for propriety, , where honor would be an appropriate virtue for a Nietzschean nobility. But this simply serves to reinforce our impression of the narrowness of Nietzsche's vision. In the end Nietzsche's exhortations betray his theory, for his philosophy does have a moral project:  to revive Hellenic art, to breed the new Master Race (Herren Rasse), and to defeat the Jews (with their unconscious instruments, the Christians). The moral fervor of the project is unmistakable, and Nietzsche, and his followers, at least match in affect the moralistic relativism of Marxists. These days, indeed, they are often the same people, as the Left embraces both Nietzsche and Marx.

Varieties of Moral Aestheticism

Logical Relationships of Moralism and Moral Aestheticism

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)


Value Theory

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Copyright (c) 2006, 2007, 2011, 2014, 2018 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

Logical Relationships of
Moralism and Moral Aestheticism

In traditional logic the Square of Opposition displays the relationships between particular or universal and affirmative or negative propositions. The same thing can be done to show the relationships that can occur with the affirmation or the denial of polynomic value. In the Square of Opposition, items on the diagonals from each other are contradictories, which means that if one is true, the other must be false. The two upper members are contraries, which in traditional logic cannot both be true; and the two lower members are sub-contraries, which cannot both be false. If one of the contraries is true, the subcontrary immediately below it, called the subaltern, is true. If the polynomic nature of value is accepted, then both moralism, which holds that all value, or all ethical value, is moral value, and moral aestheticism, which holds that all value is aesthetic value, are false. The contradictories of those, namely, morality, that not all value is aesthetic value (some value is moral value), and aestheticism, that not all value is moral value (some value is aesthetic), are true. If the polynomic theory of value is wrong, then one of the contraries must be true. This occurs with either Moralism or Moral Aestheticism. Note that moralism does imply the existence of moral value (the subaltern); but, of course, the existence of moral value does not imply moralism. Similarly, moral aestheticism does imply aestheticism, the existence of aesthetic value; but aestheticism does not imply moral aestheticism. Seeing these relationships in the Square of Opposition should help keep them straight.

Although in traditional logic contraries cannot both be true, in modern logic there is an interpretation of the nature of meaning that erases all the traditional rules except the one for contradictories. With the Square of Opposition for value there is a modern case that in effect makes both moralism and moral aestheticism true. This occurs with the previously discussed cases of heteronomous relativism and historicism that insensibly shift back and forth between moralism and moral aestheticism. When a moralistic religious orthodoxy or moralistic "political correctness" is based on a cultural relativism that posits objective, relativistic, and heteronomous value, then one can end up with a morally aesthetic and relativistic source for value but a politically moralistic application of value.

In this interpretation, "moralistic relativism," there is really neither morality nor art (aestheticism), so both subcontraries are false; but the pluralism of aesthetic value has been moralized into a political absolutism, making both moralism and moral aestheticism true. This is definitely the paradox of our time, since it is only possible given cultural relativism and the political moralism of "political correctness." This is the "worst of possible worlds" again, as when relativism, objectivism, and heteronomy are connected: an external (objective, heteronomous) and essentially arbitrary (relativistic) standard is enforced against the individual without any rational grounds for disobedience or objection. It is a hopeless paradox to have a moralism that somehow negates morality, but this is an attitude that is identifiable in those who repudiate morality as such (mainly the strictures of traditional morality) but then condemn in the morally harshest terms those who disagree with them politically. It is less paradoxical to deny the independence of art and subordinate it to politics -- that is simply political moralism -- but moralistic relativism simultaneously detaches art from any sense of beauty and meaning, even political meaning, and then harshly condemns those who cannot appreciate the value of such art or who object to its irrationality or immorality. In other words, the irrationality becomes the political meaning, and what starts as a moral aestheticism is politicized into a shibboleth of political moralism.

Varieties of Moral Aestheticism

Aestheticism and Moral Aestheticism in Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music


Value Theory

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Copyright (c) 1996, 1997, 1999 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved