Modernity developed a very acute historicist sense, which culminated with Darwinian evolutionism. According to that sense, everything has a cause in the past. This explanation leaves no place for teleology, one of the main categories of traditional thinking.
Thus, history is no longer thought of as moving toward a final goal (except, maybe, if we speak about the future contraction of the entire universe, the Big Crunch, that, from the point of view of the individual is as good as non-existent) but stays forever open, in endless progress, that is to say in endless transformation.
In this context, morality is confronted with a myriad of situations that are difficult to handle due to the lack of commonly accepted categories. What is left are – as MacIntyre maintained at the beginning of his book After Virtue – moral formulas emptied of their original content, something more like prejudices or thought reflexes than true moral maxims.
But this is not specific only to morality but also comprises the human being in general: we live in an age that is fully aware of the impossibility of having an ultimate definition of the human being, in an age of metaphysical relativism. We see present-day knowledge becoming tomorrow’s fairy tale.
Therefore, perhaps, our moral strength resides precisely in living without any given standards, in living dangerously, as Nietzsche put it for the first time. Or, in other words, in being ready to reconfigure our spiritual identity continuously.
MacIntyre opposes Nietzsche to Aristotle and considers that Nietzsche is mistaken in his critique of Aristotle or the tradition that Aristotle represented and opened (MacIntyre 2007, p. 257-258). In that tradition, morality involved virtues as practices, while for Nietzsche, as a consequence of the ‘historicist turn’ of his century which relativized everything, real morality can now be only a prerogative of individuality. MacIntyre thinks that Nietzsche intends to sketch a superior individual who despises the community and to elaborate a moral solipsism.
Here we must disagree with MacIntyre. In our view, for Nietzsche, the decline of morality was only a consequence of the decline of theory concerning truth. Nietzsche did not criticize morality only because he held that this morality was false and a parody, as if people had forgotten what real morality was, or, as MacIntyre writes (MacIntyre 2007, p. 258), that in Nietzsche’s view, the will to power is hidden behind morality.
His critique interpreted the decline of morality as a necessary historical event that takes place for several reasons, one of them being the depression into which the human being had already fallen in antiquity.
Humanity tried to overcome that depression through religion, but in fact, only increased it. Our tragedy stems not from the parody of morality but from the lack of truth. And if there is no truth, then social practices, traditions, and virtues cannot be genuine either.
The great man, the Übermensch, is not the one who wants to retreat from the community and to isolate himself in order to better dominate it and thus to exert his insatiable will to power. He is the one who knows: he is forced to separate himself because he is the one who understands that what grounded human community is no longer effective.
He sees that what historically was considered as truth cannot function any longer; that present ‘truth’ is an invention, a fable. This is why he sees that the content that grounds every human practice and every virtue is a fable, the result of the creation of people over time.
What was interpreted as knowledge is in Nietzsche’s eyes only a creation of some very gifted people of the past: only a creation and not real knowledge. Therefore, the great man has to take on the condition of those creators and create in his turn new theories and new communities.
However, he is aware that his attempt is no more than a fable, similar to those of the past. Yet he cannot confess this to others because they need fables, and, moreover, they cannot understand him.
A great man is like Zarathustra, who brings a new truth to the world, and therefore he first needs apprentices that he can teach. His teaching consists in forming them. A new truth cannot simply be presented as a lecture before a like-minded audience, precisely because it is a new truth that others cannot understand.
And they cannot understand it not because they lack the needed knowledge – as when you do not understand a mathematical equation because you are ignorant of some mathematical formula that someone else could teach you – but because they are not prepared to live it.
The new truth – which actually is not a truth in the usual meaning, but something more like a belief that appears as evident, like a ‘self-evidence’ that cannot be grounded in something else or explained – is something that cannot be clarified in a lecture by means of arguments. A new truth needs someone like a prophet who can impress people so much that they will adopt his way of seeing, thinking, feeling, and living.
According to Nietzsche, a prophet remains inevitably alone, however close he stays to his apprentices because the latter will never fully experience his message. Thus, he does not want to isolate himself, but he is forced to remain alone by the nature of his truth.
Nietzsche knows too well that truth is not for isolated people, being possible only in a community. He says, in this sense that ‘one is always wrong, but with two truth begins’ (Nietzsche 1974, p. 218). And, after a long solitude, Zarathustra, Nietzsche’s poetic alter ego, descends from the mountain, where only a serpent and an eagle have been his peers, into the city.
Even he needs time to understand humans again. At first, he thought that he could teach his new truth to all, but then he realizes that this is not possible and that, to do it, he first needs apprentices.
We must also remember that, in Nietzsche, the will to power is originally not a need to dominate other people. This will is an attribute of the impulses that constitute the human being, as well as any other living being.
There exists a most powerful impulse that strives to subdue other impulses and shape them into its own environment. Only because that fundamental impulse has ‘learned’ how to cope with the other impulses and control them can it also act then upon other people. There is no will to power as a separate instinct: this will is a feature that accompanies all our impulses more or less.
The subjected impulses always build the environment of the original impulse. That is to say, the latter always needs a ‘worldview’ that supports it and allows it to thrive.
This is why it was not the will to power that strove to rule others under the slave’ morality, but a certain interpretation of the world that grounded that morality, an interpretation originated in its turn in a certain morbid sensibility, which aimed to replace the sensibility of the masters and their worldview.
In other words, an existing morbid sensibility created first a worldview in which it embedded itself as in a protective shell and then strove to bring others to the same perspective.
Indeed, in Nietzsche, weakness and illness predispose to resentment, to hidden hatred towards the healthy. And this resentment poisons the soul. The feeling of weakness is so unbearable that a person affected by it tends to develop imaginary worlds in which they are saved from it and then persuade others to adopt them because such adoption is proof of their reality and the subduing impulse’s victory.
What the slaves aimed at and what the slave morality and values seem to have provided them with was to find an inner balance that could make their condition bearable. Slave morality, like any other morality, is originally, for Nietzsche, the result of an inner struggle between our impulses, and only secondarily of the drive to dominate others.
Nietzsche, Fr., The Gay Science, translated, with commentary, by Walter Kaufmann, New York, Vintage Book, 1974.
MacIntyre, A., After Virtue, University of Notre Dame Press, Indiana, 2007.