[Based on Arthur Danto’s general introduction to Nietzsche]
There is a justified way in which Friedrich Nietzsche’s ontology (if we can call it that, which, in this case, is roughly the same as ethics) can be read as the constitution of forces that struggle with each other (and with themselves) to ascend to power. Nietzsche, of course, questioned established conventions, the “absolute” status of realities (as truth), and the value of value. Zarathustra’s announcement that “God is dead” is but (as Danto transcribes it) a literary way of saying that there is “no truth, no objective order, nothing which we must acknowledge as higher than ourselves, as fixed, eternal, and unchanging” (173). Everything, Nietzsche claims, is done (e.g. philosophy, science, religion, art) and/or made (the way that it is) (e.g. concepts, beliefs, works of art) so as to allow us to continue to live. (Some are, of course, better ways of coping than others). The belief in truth but distracts from this and, worse–since all that falls outside of truth is forbidden–turns men into ascetics (172). In this way, Nietzsche can be read as a relativist and a nihilist. (Danto provides a systematic summation of this in chapters 1, 3, and 5 of his book.) Nonetheless, Nietzsche’s philosophy is not simply a negative critique (and thus, although perhaps the foundation of, it is different from postmodern relativism). After deploying critique, (and this is what Danto focuses on in chapters 5 to 8) Nietzsche creates an ontology oriented to something positive: the struggle of forces and the desire for power.
For Nietzsche, “each of us is a cluster of drives and appetites and passions, and whatever we do or think is to be explained with reference to these drives” (132). These clusters are not unlike Melanie Klein’s part-objects, Jacques Lacan’s autre objets, and Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s desiring-machines, especially since “of these [. . .] few are identified in language or come to consciousness at all” (132). We can thus think of these passions or drives (as Danto calls them) as clusters of unconscious desires (hence Nietzsche’s proximity to psychoanalysis), which, although “each individual is endowed with more or less the same set, [. . .] vary in intensity from individual to individual” (132). Nietzsche makes use of the (scientific) law of conservation when he asserts that “nothing, short of killing or maiming an individual, may be done to increase or decrease the strength of these passions,” such that were it to manifest more weakly in one activity (e.g. sex), it would be compensated by a more intense manifestation in another (e.g. artistic creation) (133). These passions are, I think (following Deleuze’s univocal ontology), miniscule versions of the wills that Nietzsche claims impose on one another (in their exercise of power). At the most general level, these passions and wills can be termed forces. Danto says the same when he explains that for Nietzsche, “the world [. . .] is in some sense composed of pulsations rather than [which are not distinct from it] things which pulse” (154).
The world for Nietzsche is thus but “a contest of wills with wills, [i.e. a struggle of force]. Simply by being alive, we are constantly involved in exercising our power over other persons and other things, and they over us. [. . .] There is thus [always] suffering, [. . .] in that sense of suffering which [. . .] means being acted upon rather than being active in one’s behalf. [. . .] For those with some awareness, to witness the suffering of others enhances, if but for a moment, their own sense of power” (155). “The imposition of form and order may [also] be broadly construed as a cause of suffering. [. . .] Where there is form brought into human affairs, there is subjective suffering, or pain” (156). Suffering is thus a part of life. “People [. . .] do not object to suffering [per se, but only to] meaningless suffering” that cannot be justified in some way (159). It is in this way that the “’beast of prey [. . .] is a generic human trait” (159).
Morality is one such imposition of form, an exercise of will (that brings about suffering, in Nietzsche’s definition). And in the struggle of force between master and slave morality, the two polar moralities we find in the world, Nietzsche claims that somehow (perhaps by virtue of number, by social pressure), the master becomes convinced of slave morality. “The ‘strong,’ [. . . who have the drives, the passions, to a higher intensity than the slaves], would, like the ‘weak,’ be obliged to contain them or effect their discharge covertly (illegally or immorally) or indirectly” (160). This means that from the “outer” struggle of force (i.e. the struggle between the master and the slave), there becomes attenuated an “inner” struggle within the master himself, i.e. between his passions (which are much more intense than the slave’s (this is, in fact, where his distinction consists)) and the prohibitions of slave morality (that somehow he internalizes). Since, according to Nietzsche (as read by Danto), a drive “simply is discharge [. . .] and not something which is the subject of the verb discharge,” “there will be discharging during the time the prohibition holds” since the drives (even more intense in the master, making his situation more difficult), by virtue of the law of conservation, are never decreased, only redirected (161). What happens then is the master turns the discharge to “an internal object”: i.e. to himself (161).
The drive/passion that gets activated in this inner struggle (so as to be consistent to the prohibition) is the drive towards aggression. Not losing any intensity, concentrating all the (different drives’) intensity towards this drive, the master (whose drives are the most intense) directs aggression towards himself–to make himself follow the prohibition. This is then (in more than one sense) what Nietzsche calls Verinnerlichung, internalization (161). Which is but another name for the “unprecedented struggle of the will with itself, the Will-to-Power [. . .] reflected against itself. [Here,] the Will-to-Power [. . . the] will to overcome, to defeat, to subdue whatever it is the drive is directed against, [. . .] is used to overcome itself, [i.e. wills against the drive,] in which the imposer of order imposes an order upon itself” (161).
(Like morality,) this is not necessarily bad. “The reflection of the will upon itself [. . . is] an indispensable first step toward a higher form of life” (162). What is bad, however, is when this–but a means–becomes an end in itself. “There is a derivative product of moral restraint of instinct, which is self-aggression carried to an extreme and made a point of honor, so that, in effect, a man may become ill through an overdose of the instrument of therapy and cure,” i.e. becomes ascetic (162). Nietzsche calls this line of thinking Schlechtes Gewissen, bad consciousness, preached by religion in its hatred of instincts (162). “The stronger the instincts in an individual, the greater his capacity for self-punition, and his magnified hatred of himself is the final form of revenge religion achieves for the weak” (162).
“The [master-turned-]ascetic is a barbarian [in mask] and self-chastising, the blond beast crushed in his own jaws, the ravager ravaged in a career of self-bestialization” (162). This does not mean that he is any less strong, however. As Nietzsche has asserted, the strong are strong; that is simply what they are; it cannot be changed. The master, now ascetic, “is no less strong, no less distinguished in his unedifying self-abasing, which is no less an act of power than if it were directed outward” (163). After all, the master-turned-ascetic is still exercising power, exerting force; only now it is directed toward himself. In Nietzsche’s own words, “the triumph of the ascetic over himself, his thereby inwardly directed gaze which beholds a man split asunder into a sufferer and a spectator, looking outward into the external world only to gather wood for his own pyre: this final tragedy of the drive toward distinction, in which one single person stands in self-consumption, is an end worthy of its beginning” (163). Scorn is only for those “who have triumphed over their enemies, [not by virtue of their own strength, but] by making [their enemies] enemies of themselves”: the slaves (163).
Moreover, rather than mere pure self-torment (in which, after all, there can be pleasure, if pleasure, which includes the pleasure that one feels in beholding suffering, is widened to include pleasure in seeing oneself suffer), there is something potentially good in turning into an ascetic (163). “Awakened [. . .] to the possibility of dominating himself, ‘mankind aroused an interest, a tension, a hope, nearly a conviction that with him something was being announced and prepared, as though man was not an end, but a way, an incident, a bridge, a great promise . . .’” (161-2). In other words, it is through this (intermediary) stage of asceticism (as a means rather than a goal in itself) that one can emerge as an Übermensch.
The Übermensch comes not from the herd, which “consists of the sick, the weak, and the impotents” (167). In contrast to the last man, “who is and wishes to be as much like everyone else as possible, and who would be happy just to be happy,” “complacent or resigned and [willing] to let well enough alone, taking the world as [he] find[s] it,” the Übermensch is an exceptional man, not merely “a statistical deviant but [. . .] a splendid instance in its kind” (179, 167).
The Übermensch emerges out of a process common (or at least can be found in the lives of, although in which, as it were, not all go for) in men. As Danto explains:
Man is at once an overgoing and an undergoing. We go beyond ourselves by overcoming something in ourselves, and it is that which goes under, and is put beneath us. We perish as merely human beings in order to become something higher. Human life is a sacrifice, or should be, not to something trans- and extrahuman, but to something attainable by us, providing we are able to overcome (parts of) ourselves. Unlike ideals of the ascetic, this ideal does not demoralize. It does not render us worthless, but defines our worth as transitional. We are more than we were, but less than what we might become, and the higher fulfillment of ourselves as humans is that which we should seek. [Similarly,] the Übermensch is not the blond beast. The blond beast remains behind, hopefully forever. The Übermensch lies ahead. (180)
Nietzsche does not prescribe how exactly one is to do this, i.e. how to become an Übermensch or how exactly one becomes once an Übermensch. As Danto explains, “as the ideal we are to pursue in our capacity as humans, [the Übermensch] is a goal of singular indefiniteness and unspecificity” (hence it is not as moralizing and it can be universalized) (179). What matters, Danto claims, is only that “we [. . .] seek to keep our passionate as well as our intellectual life in our command, not to deny one at the price of the other, and that we [. . .] not be petty and ‘merely’ human” (181). In other words, still the same prescription all the way from The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche’s first book.
“The Übermensch [. . .] is not the blond giant dominating his lesser fellows. He is merely a joyous, guiltless, free human being, in possession of instinctual drives which do not overpower him. [In other words,] he is the master and not the slave of his drives, and so is in a position to make something of himself rather than being the product of instinctual discharge and external obstacle” (181-2). The Übermensch, then, is simply the man who who has overcome the petty concerns of ordinary men, one who, in knowing how to deal with his passions/drives, has gone beyond himself. He has become something über than he is, i.e. he has sorted out the forces that he encounters (including those within him) and gone against those that are characteristic of the slave. In other words, like the master that he is, the Übermensch has gained power. This struggle, this overcoming, this becoming über–all this, of course, relies on a certain ontology: the struggle of force. In which the master wills against slavish forces to attain power.