Egotism in German Philosophy/Chapter XIII

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Egotism in German Philosophy
by George Santayana
Chapter XIII
The Superman
the superman

In his views on matters of fact Nietzsche, as becomes the naive egotist, was quite irresponsible. If he said the course of history repeated itself in cycles, it was because the idea pleased him; it seemed a symbol of self-approval on the world’s part. If he hailed the advent of a race of men superior to ourselves and of stronger fibre, it was because human life as it is, and especially his own life, repelled him. He was sensitive and, therefore, censorious. He gazed about him, he gazed at himself, he remembered the disappointing frailties and pomposity of the great man, Wagner, whom he had once idolised. His optimism for the moment yielded to his sincerity. He would sooner abolish than condone such a world, and he fled to some solitary hillside by the sea, saying to himself that man was a creature to be superseded.

Dissatisfaction with the actual is what usually leads people to frame ideals at all, or at least to hold them fast; but such a negative motive leaves the ideal vague and without consistency. If we could suddenly have our will, we should very likely find the result trivial or horrible. So the superman of Nietzsche might prove, if by magic he could be realised. To frame solid ideals, which would, in fact, be better than actual things, is not granted to the merely irritable poet; it is granted only to the masterworkman, to the modeller of some given substance to some given use — things which define his aspiration, and separate what is relevant and glorious in his dreams from that large part of them which is merely ignorant and peevish. It was not for Nietzsche to be an artist in morals and to institute anything coherent, even in idea.

The superman of Nietzsche is rendered the more chimerical by the fact that he must contradict not only the common man of the present but also the superior men, the half-superhuman men, of the past. To transcend humanity is no new ambition; that has always been the effort of Indian and Christian religious discipline and of Stoic philosophy. But this spiritual superiority, like that of artists and poets, has come of abstraction; a superiority to life, in that these minds were engrossed in the picture or lesson of life rather than in living; and if they powerfully affected the world, as they sometimes did, it was by bringing down into it something supermundane, the arresting touch of an ulterior wisdom. Nietzsche, on the contrary, even more than most modern philosophers, loved mere life with the pathetic intensity of the wounded beast; his superman must not rise above our common condition by his purely spiritual resources, or by laying up his treasure in any sort of heaven. He must be not a superior man but a kind of physiological superman, a griffin in soul, if not in body, who instead of labouring hands and religious faith should have eagle’s wings and the claws of a lion. His powers should be superior to ours by resembling those of fiercer and wilder animals. The things that make a man tame — Nietzsche was a retired professor living in a boarding-house — must be changed into their opposites. But man has been tamed by agriculture, material arts, children, experience; therefore these things are to be far from the superman. If he must resemble somebody, it will be rather the condottieri of the renaissance or the princes and courtiers of the seventeenth century; Caesar Borgia is the supreme instance. He must have a splendid presence and address, gallantry, contempt for convention, loyalty to no country, no woman, and no idea, but always a buoyant and lordly assertion of instinct and of self. In the helter-skelter of his irritable genius, Nietzsche jumbled together the ferocity of solitary beasts, the indifference and hauteur of patricians, and the antics of revellers, and out of that mixture he hoped to evoke the rulers of the coming age.

How could so fantastic an ideal impose on a keen satirist like Nietzsche and a sincere lover of excellence? Because true human excellence seemed to him hostile to life, and he felt — this was his strong and sane side, his lien on the future — that life must be accepted as it is or may become, and false beliefs, hollow demands, and hypocritical, forced virtues must be abandoned. This new wisdom was that which Goethe, too, had felt and practised; and of all masters of life Goethe was the one whom Nietzsche could best understand. But a master of life, without being in the least hostile to life, since he fulfils it, nevertheless uses life for ends which transcend it. Even Goethe, omnivorous and bland as he was, transcended life in depicting and judging and blessing it. The saints and the true philosophers have naturally emphasised more this renunciation of egotism: they have seen all things in the light of eternity — that is, as they are in truth — and have consequently felt a reasonable contempt for mere living and mere dying; and in that precisely lies moral greatness. Here Nietzsche could not follow; rationality chilled him; he craved vehemence.

How life can be fulfilled and made beautiful by reason was never better shown than by the Greeks, both by precept and example. Nietzsche in his youth was a professor of Greek literature: one would have expected his superman to be a sort of Greek hero. Something of the Dorian harshness in beauty, something of the Pindaric high-born and silent victor may have been fused into Nietzsche’s ideal; certainly Bacchic freedom and ardour were to enter in. But on the whole it is remarkable how little he learned from the Greeks, no modesty or reverence, no joy in order and in loveliness, no sense for friendship, none for the sanctity of places and institutions. He repeated the paradoxes of some of their sophists, without remembering how their wise men had refuted them. For example, he gave a new name and a new prominence to the distinction between what he called the Dionysiac and the Apollonian elements in Greek genius. He saw how false was that white-washed notion of the Greek mind which young ladies derived from sketching a plaster cast of the Apollo Belvidere.[1] He saw that a demonic force, as the generation of Goethe called it, underlay everything; what he did not see was that this demonic force was under control, which is the secret of the whole matter. The point had been thoroughly elucidated by Plato, in the contrast he drew between inspiration and art. But Plato was rather ironical about inspiration, and had a high opinion of art; and Nietzsche, with his contrary instinct, rushes away without understanding the mind of the master or the truth of the situation. He thinks he alone has discovered the divinity of Dionysus and of the Muses, which Plato took as a matter of course but would not venerate superstitiously. Inspiration, like will, is a force without which reason can do nothing. Inspiration must be presupposed; but in itself it can do nothing good unless it is in harmony with reason, or is brought into harmony with it. This two-edged wisdom that makes impulse the stuff of life and reason its criterion, is, of course, lost on Nietzsche, and with it the whole marvel of Greek genius. There is nothing exceptional in being alive and impulsive; any savage can run wild and be frenzied and enact histrionic passions: the virtue of the Greeks lay in the exquisite firmness with which they banked their fires without extinguishing them, so that their life remained human (indeed, remained infra-human, like that of Nietzsche’s superman) and yet became beautiful: they were severe and fond of maxims, on a basis of universal tolerance; they governed themselves rationally, with a careful freedom, while well aware that nature and their own bosoms were full of gods, all of whom must be reverenced.

After all, this defect in appreciation is inseparable from the transcendental pose. The ancients, like everything else, never seem to the egotist a reality co-ordinate with himself, from which he might still have something to learn. They are only so much “content” for his self-consciousness, so much matter for his thought to transcend. They can contain nothing for him but the part of his outgrown self which he deigns to identify with them. His mind must always envelop them and be the larger thing. No wonder that in this school learning is wasted for the purposes of moral education. Whoever has seen the learned egotist flies at his approach. History in his hands is a demonstration of his philosophy. Science is a quarry of proofs for his hobbies. If we do not agree with him we are not merely mistaken (every philosopher tells us that), but we are false to ourselves and ignorant of our ideal significance. His ego gives us our place in the world. He informs us of what we mean, whatever we may say; and he raises our opinions, as he might his food, to a higher unity in his own person. He is priest in every temple. He approaches a picture-gallery or a foreign religion in a dictatorial spirit, with his a priori categories ready on his lips; pedantry and vanity speak in his every gesture, and the lesson of nothing can reach his heart.

No, neither the philosophy inherited by Nietzsche nor his wayward imagination was fit to suggest to him a nobler race of men. On the contrary, they shut him off from comprehension of the best men that have existed. Like the Utopias or ideals of many other satirists and minor philosophers, the superman is not a possibility, it is only a protest. Our society is outworn, but hard to renew; the emancipated individual needs to master himself. In what spirit or to what end he will do so, we do not know, and Nietzsche cannot tell us. He is the jester, to whom all incoherences are forgiven, because all indiscretions are allowed. His mind is undisciplined, and his tongue outrageous, but he is at bottom the friend of our conscience, and full of shrewd wit and tender wisps of intuition. Behind his “gay wisdom” and trivial rhymes lies a great anguish. His intellect is lost in a chaos. His heart denies itself the relief of tears and can vent itself only in forced laughter and mock hopes that gladden nobody, least of all himself.


  1. I was about to say: How false was the notion of Winkelmann about the grandeur and repose of the Greek spirit. But Winkelmann, if his sense for the chained monsters in the Greek soul was inadequate, was at least in real sympathy with what had inspired Greek sculpture, love and knowledge of the human body in the life, made gentle by discipline and kept strong by training. For that reason Winkelmann seems hardly a German: his learning was deficient and his heart was humble. He did not patronise the ancients, he believed in them.