Saturday, October 15, 2016

285. Nietzsche and Aristotle

Nietzsche did not and Aristotle would not have adopted Christian ethics, utility ethics, and duty ethics. Notoriously, Nietzsche demolished Christian morality as a mask for the exercise of a universal will to power. Morals of humility, pity, modesty and self-sacrifice have arisen as the revenge or pre-emption on the strong by the weak, their victims. Being pre-empted in the exercise of their will to power on others, the strong then turn against themselves in guilt and self-sacrifice.

Here, Nietzsche went back not to Aristotelian virtues of the citizen in society, the polis, but to the Homeric virtues of the single hero, the man of action who wins and dominates.   

But then Nietzsche ended up in a phantasy of the strong-willed, autonomous Overman, beyond good and evil, who creates his own values, independently from others, in what Alasdair MacIntyre called ‘moral solipsism’.

Earlier in this blog, in item 60, I called this ‘Nietzsche’s mistake’. My argument was as follows. Will to power becomes acceptable, even a virtue, in a joy of overcoming obstacles, when it is not aimed at suppressing or dominating others, but is sublimated in overcoming obstacles in oneself in the effort to transcend oneself, in an Aristotelian striving after the good life. Nietzschean solipsism is self-defeating because one needs openness to the opposition from others to escape from one’s own prejudices and blindness, which is the highest degree of freedom.

On the other hand, according to Alasdair MacIntyre, Aristotle, here in agreement with Plato, thought that in spite of the multiplicity and apparent conflict between multiple virtues harmony between them existed, and conflict between them was evil.[i]

There seems to be some tension between this and the acknowledgment, by Aristotle, of the difficulty of phronesis, practical wisdom, in finding a good balance between rival virtues, depending on the specific conditions at hand. What if in the exercise of his genius someone neglected his duties as a father? Or betraying a friend to save a country? Aristotle acknowledged that there are no universal rules for this, and that proficiency in phronesis is rare.

Nietzsche, by contrast, relished conflict as a source of renewal, in ‘creative destruction’ (a term from the economist Schumpeter, not Nietzsche). Pain is part of transformation and transcendence of a limited self. Here I side with Nietzsche.

Here there is a problem with Aristotle’s view of virtues as needed to perform well in socially established and accepted ‘practices’, or language games, as discussed in preceding items in this blog. What if the practice is evil, or unduly constrains liberty?

Consider, for example, the present difficulty of getting away from the socially perverse practices of bankers and leaders of businesses more widely, in maximising their personal gain rather than the interest of society, indeed in damaging that interest, in avoiding taxes, destroying the environment, fooling customers, dodging rules, hiving risks off onto citizens. Some of them relish the virtue of being excellent in playing the game well, cleverly tricking customers to buy harmful financial products, and thereby violating the virtue of serving customers. 

How to transform such practices, or escape from them? What are the implications for virtue? What are the virtues of rebellion? Where lies the boundary between having to accept and respect the rigours and virtues of how to perform a practice well, and the virtue of resisting and changing any perverse practice? That has been a major theme in this blog (see items 266 and 267). I still value that transformative, rebellious feature of Nietzsche.              

[i] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, Notre Dame University Press, 2015 (first published in 1981).