Nietzsche’s Noble Spirit and the Value of Personal Fictions

In this essay I will outline the concept of the noble spirit as Nietzsche sees it operating in his master morality and why this concept is critically significant to philosophy; namely, because he establishes the concept of human beings as “value-creating” organisms and exposes the weakness of philosophic convictions built on a highly subjective ground of truth. The problem, Nietzsche so critically and appropriately proposes, is not that we have beliefs, but that we endorse and propagate them on unstable and false grounds—mainly, the idea that they are true. I will argue that Nietzsche succeeds in his description of a master morality mainly on the strength of an astute conception of human psychology as it manifests itself in social dynamics and the structures of power.

Nietzsche wrote, “the “work”… invents the man who created it…”great men” as they are venerated, are subsequent pieces of minor fiction; in the world of historical values, counterfeit rules” (Beyond Good and Evil 218). Nietzsche’s “noble spirit“ is part of a historicist view of human psychology and therefore is subject to change and flux as time asserts its altering power upon individuals and society, but it is also a product of the culture that created a thinker like Nietzsche himself. Richard Rorty might say that Nietzsche’s noble spirit is simply another created fiction, only important to the extent that it is useful. I would argue that despite its particular relevance to Nietzsche’s social and personal history, it does hold some value for modern day readers—the proposition of a morality of excellence.

Nietzsche first identifies the noble spirit as having roots in barbarism—those “still in possession of an unbroken sense of will and lust for power”. Nietzsche sees a certain aspect of nobility in the unapologetic drive to conquer and irrepressible spirit of barbarian peoples. Their “predominance did not lie mainly in physical strength, but in strength of the soul—they were more whole human beings” (Beyond Good and Evil 201-2).  He places them closer to nature, or at least possessing a “nature more natural” than the “weaker, more civilized” tribes they invaded and pillaged (202). Their proximity to the organic principles of nature made them seem more “whole” and less influenced by the corrupting force of civilization. Nietzsche wastes no time in setting up the jarring historical juxtaposition of master/slave or noble/contemptible morality, and without a doubt this is the effect—to jar the reader out of his or her modernist malaise based on deeply ingrained assumptions about democracy, equality and social justice.

We begin to see Nietzsche’s vision of the noble spirit as one characterized by these “barbarian” traits—self-glorification, honoring of age and tradition, severity and hardness of heart, and a conscientious abundance of personal power, agency and wealth. His admiration for the pre-Socratic Greeks is exemplified in the “noble” values pride, courage and “a fundamental hostility and irony against ‘selflessness’…a slight disdain and caution regarding compassionate feelings and a ‘warm heart’” (205). Although common among ancient Greeks, these values seem alien to modern readers because they are supporting the proposition of a kind of morality we seldom hear or see encouraged—a morality of excellence. Nietzsche proposes a noble or aristocratic spirit that is aware of itself, not as a function of society, but as the “highest meaning and justification” for society’s very existence. The noble spirit should view society “only as the foundation and scaffolding on which a choice type of being is able to raise itself to its higher task and to a higher state of being” (202). For Nietzsche, this “choice type of being” is the only vehicle by which humanity has any chance of progressing, of becoming better, and those who do not meet the stringent standards of excellence must become the support structure on which these higher beings climb upwards.  This is alien to us modern who have been spoon-fed a diet of equal opportunity and socialist democratic government policies for hundreds of years. We are not encouraged to be better simply because we have the opportunity—one must sacrifice for others, give freely of your own wealth, time and resources in the name of charity (whether Christian or otherwise.) We’ve also come to expect our public figures to embody these values to a degree of perfection that is unattainable, but this runs counter to Nietzsche’s proclamations about the real “noble” values.

Nietzsche goes further to posit that kindness, pity, charity and self-sacrifice are all part of a corrupting populist force (based on a morality of utility) that is actually a “will to the denial of life, a principle of disintegration and decay” when extended equally to all members in all stations of society (203).  These values are only endorsed in the noble spirit when practiced among equals; otherwise they serve only to bring all people down to the lowest common denominator, where all become “incurably mediocre” (212). The noble spirit is closer to nature in his acceptance of what Nietzsche sees as organic principles of appropriation, suppression and exploitation, and partakes in these activities as an affirmation of pure life force, or “will to power”.  There is no morality or immorality in these actions, Nietzsche is careful to point out—nature demands that certain actions be carried out for survival. If they are not carried out amongst equals, by necessity they are suffered by those “untold human beings who, for its sake, must be reduced and lowered to incomplete human beings, to slaves, to instruments” (202). It’s also not the case that pity and humane actions toward those in the slave morality have no place, they are simply values that reside, along with biological drives, “beyond good or evil” (206). They become part of the sphere of moral inconsequentiality. The noble spirit experiences himself as “good” but does not see those beneath him as “evil”, merely “contemptible”, or unworthy of the distinction of rank and the honor afforded enemies of one’s own rank. The contemptible masses, with their “narrow utility” are beneath the consideration of noble man (204). According to Nietzsche, this is the point “where the greater, more manifold, more comprehensive life transcends and lives beyond the old morality,” a necessary stage in development of the noble spirit in order to reach the realm of excellence (211).

As mentioned before, Nietzsche claims that anything with a history escapes definition, since it is the nature of history that it is constantly changing and in a state of becoming. History provides us with examples which are specifically relevant to time and place, and therefore cannot be eternally or universally true. To make a claim that is based on the philosophic ground of truth, it must be removed from the confines of history, and thus gain definition through universal applicability.  Of course, the social and cultural values we say define a particular spirit or people are all part of history and are founded in direct relation to their immediate frame of reference, which is bound to change over time and location. Therefore, the moral and ethical imperatives we author as a culture are so bound up in history that they cannot be grounded on any kind of objective truth.

The real philosophical significance of Nietzsche’s master morality comes with the justification for raising the noble spirit to such lofty heights—he views noble man as a “value-creating” organism, with the potential for self-determination:

The noble type of man experiences itself as determining values; it does not need approval; it judges “what is harmful to me is harmful in itself”; it knows itself to be that which first accords honor to things; it is value-creating. (205)

Rather than basing moral imperatives on the shaky claims of truth or universal absolutes, he presents the idea of man affirming his own existence, identity and morals through value creation—a direct, personal assertion of an instinctual drive or “will to power”. According to Nietzsche, no one has privileged access to define the “rules of the engagement” for living (to borrow an analogy from Ian Johnston,) however, at the same time “…we must commit ourselves to epistemological and moral rules which enable us to live our lives… while at the same time recognizing that these rules have no universal validity.” (Johnston).  All values become intrinsically personal, and conversely, we learn to refrain from the desire to universalize subjective values (such as Nietzsche accuses the greatest philosophical minds of doing).

Furthermore, the noble spirit engages in a practice of creating new language to author its own personal account of being. This poetic act of creation is the only means by which one transcends the flawed philosophic practice of “separating time from atemporal truth,” and “escapes from inherited descriptions of the contingencies of…existence and finds new descriptions. This is the difference between the will to truth and the will to self-overcoming” (Rorty 29). In Nietzsche’s account of a morality of excellence, we find a dramatically different approach to philosophy as has been encountered previously, namely in his creating the subservience of thought to life and being. In placing the will to self-overcoming above and beyond any claims to absolute truth, Nietzsche establishes what he sees as the primacy of personal fictions and challenges our understanding of what constitutes a shared reality.

It’s important to remember that although Nietzsche endorses the practice of value-creation, he also cautions us against the flaw that felled the greatest philosophers. “Human life, in its highest forms, must be lived in the full acceptance that the values we create for ourselves are fictions” (Johnston). Nietzsche draws our attention to the trivial nature of dogma and the temporary fictions that we as societies and cultures author, often for the express purpose of preserving the status quo (when it is beneficial to certain parties to do so). The real danger of trying to establish these fictions on the grounds of a claim to absolutes like truth or “objectivity” is that they bump up against other fictions authored by other peoples, which ultimately results in what Nietzsche so insightfully predicted of the 20th century—multiple bloody and horrendous wars waged in the defense and propagation of competing ideologies.

In this paper I have outlined Nietzsche’s picture of the noble spirit and how it is manifested in the master morality. The persuasive value of this idea is mainly found through an examination of Nietzsche’s psychological portrait of the noble spirit, and its effects on social dynamics and power. A morality of excellence is philosophically significant when the foundational aspects of value-creation and personal fictions are taken into account.  Nietzsche’s proposition is interesting because it challenges philosophic assumptions about the nature of subjectivity and the possibility of universal truth, while highlighting the social ramifications of such ideological practices.

Works Cited

Johnston, Ian. “There’s Nothing Nietzsche Couldn’t Teach Ya About the Raising of the Wrist”. Liberal Studies 401. Vancouver Island University. Nanaimo, 11 December 2000.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Random House, 1989.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. . The Birth of Tragedy and The Genealogy of Morals. trans. Francis Golffing. New York: Doubleday, 1956.

Rorty, Richard. “The Contingency of Selfhood”. Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.


One Response to “Nietzsche’s Noble Spirit and the Value of Personal Fictions”

  1. I refrain from imposing the stringent either/or construct, to borrow from Edward De Bono, where it’s unnecessary.

    I don’t think either Nietzsche or the Judeo-Christian Religion (or slave morality vs master morality) is right or wrong.

    To insist on the rightness or wrongness of the one or the other is akin to asking one’s neighbour’s child,”What time is your father?”

    Or some such nonsense arising out of a misapplication.

    Men are only capable of any number of fictions that approximate Truth in an asymptotic approach to it.

    All fictions are equal, only some become more equal than others as the conflicts between their various proponents, who lust to power, are played out.

    I realize that I must qualify my position, and say here that I’m closer to Kierkegaard in my convictions than to Nietzsche,

    but Nietzsche’s “extremes” were a reaction to the extreme religiosity and hypocrisy of his day,

    and we the beneficiaries of the equilibrium accreted on his inadvertently going off the cliff in the opposite direction to counterbalance should be less quick to condemn his “barbarian Noble Spirit.”

    A grasp of Truth and to its utmost degree the praxis of it are beyond Man.

    Truth requires that past, present and future are nonexistent and a knowledge of all things be a continuum without a beginning or an end.

    Surely, an entity bound in space-time(our Knowledge being in it’s very nature subject to Chronos) is incapable of this feat.

    Any claim to objectivity is flawed with the Narrative and Ludic fallacies.

    But having conceded our subjectivity and that at the foundations of all our constructs are unproven axioms or dogmas,

    Let us therefore continue in Love and Tolerance, which have a place in Nature as well,

    and actively seek to right wrongs, where the application of such judgment is applicable, wringing out whatever we can from our broken judicial systems.

    The problem, as I perceive it, is not so much as being unable to do good with our bad systems,

    but being unwilling to apologize for our fallibility and allow less bad alternatives replace older solutions as soon as those are shown to have become obsolete.

    Of course, the foregoing is my own fictitious construct, let’s see whether I’ll be able to impose it, or even discard it, if I come to power.

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