Santayana's Criticism Of Nietzsche

Reprinted here are chapters 12 and 13 of George Santayana's The German Mind: A Philosophical Diagnosis (Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1968), a work originally titled Egotism In German Philosophy and published in 1915. Chapter 12 is "The Ethics of Nietzsche," and Chapter 13 is "The Superman."

1. Brief Introduction

2. The Ethics of Nietzsche

3. The Superman

1. Brief Introduction

The philosophy of George Santayana (1863-1952) resists easy classification. On the one hand, he considered himself a "convinced materialist" with a healthy regard for the epistemological credentials of science. He freely acknowledged that no religion can be literally true. Though he spent his last years in a convent in Rome, inhabiting a single room with scant possessions, he refused to profess his faith in God -- this despite the entreaties of solicitous nuns.

On the other hand, he described himself as a "moral Platonist" with Catholic leanings who found the whole real world to be brutal, ugly, and vain. He preferred the flights of fancy that poetry offered him, and he approached religion not with hostility but with openness and gratitude. The life of the spirit was alive in him, and he believed, like Plato, that spirituality consists in the contemplation of ideal essences.

He reproached the whole German tradition, from Kant, Fichte and Hegel right up to Nietzsche, for embracing what he called egotism, "subjectivity in thought and wilfulness in morals."

What are the fatal weaknesses of this doctrine? According to Santayana, it "assumes, if it does not assert, that the source of one's being and power lies in oneself, that will and logic are by right omnipotent, and that nothing should control the mind or the conscience except the mind or the conscience itself." Egotism "denies that we are created beings owing reverence to immense forces beyond ourselves, which endow us with our limited faculties and powers, govern our fortunes, and shape our very loves without our permission."

Santayana thought Nietzsche was a "constitutional invalid," the belated prophet of romanticism who preferred "the bracing atmosphere of falsehood, passion, and subjective perspectives" to truth. The chapters below take up these and similar points, and offer wonderful insights into the inadequacies of a thinker who nowadays is too seldom criticized.

2. The Ethics of Nietzsche

"Nietzsche occasionally spoke disparagingly of morality, as if the word and the thing had got a little on his nerves; and some of his best-known phrases might give the impression that he wished to drop the distinction between good and evil and transcend ethics altogether. Such a thought would not have been absurd in itself or even unphilosophical. Many serious thinkers, Spinoza for instance, have believed that everything that happens is equally necessary and equally expressive of the will of God, be it favourable or unfavourable to our special interests and, therefore, called by us good or bad. A too reverent immersion in nature and history convinces them that to think any part of reality better or worse than the rest is impertinent or even impious. It is true that in the end these philosophers usually stultify themselves and declare enthusiastically that whatever is is right. This rapturous feeling can overcome anybody in certain moods, as it sometimes overcame Nietzsche; but in yielding to it, besides contradicting all other moral judgments, these mystics break their difficult resolution never to judge at all.

"Nietzsche, however, was entirely free from this divine impediment in morals. The courage to cling to what his soul loved -- and this courage is the essence of morality -- was conspicuous in him. He was a poet, a critic, a lover of form and of distinctions. Few persons have ever given such fierce importance to their personal taste. What he disliked to think of, say democracy, he condemned with the fulminations of a god; what he liked to think of, power, he seriously commanded man and nature to pursue for their single object.

"What Nietzsche disparaged, then, under the name of morality was not all morality, for he had an enthusiastic master-morality of his own to impose. He was thinking only of the Christian virtues and especially of a certain Protestant and Kantian moralism with which perhaps he had been surfeited. This moralism conceived that duty was something absolute and not a method of securing whatever goods of all sorts are attainable by action. The latter is the common and the sound opinion, maintained, for instance, by Aristotle; but Nietzsche, who was not humble enough to learn very much by study, thought he was propounding a revolutionary doctrine when he put goods and evils beyond and above right and wrong...Nietzsche, then, far from transcending ethics, re-established it on its true foundations, which is not to say that the sketchy edifice which he planned to raise on these foundations was in a beautiful style of architecture or could stand at all.

"The first principle of his ethics was that the good is power. But this word power seems to have had a great range of meanings in his mind. Sometimes it suggests animal strength and size, as in the big blonde beast; sometimes vitality, sometimes fortitude, sometimes contempt for the will of others, sometimes (and this is perhaps the meaning he chiefly intended) dominion over natural forces and over the people, that is to say, wealth and military power. It is characteristic of this whole school that it confuses the laws which are supposed to preside over the movement of things with the good results which they may involve; so Nietzsche confuses his biological insight, that all life is the assertion of some sort of power -- the power to breathe, for instance -- with the admiration he felt for a masterful egotism. But even if we identify life or any kind of existence with the exertion of strength, the kinds of strength exerted will be heterogeneous and not always compatible. The strength of Lucifer does not insure victory in war; it points rather to failure in a world peopled by millions of timid, pious, and democratic persons. Hence we find Nietzsche asking himself plaintively, 'Why are the feeble victorious?' The fact rankled in his bosom that in the ancient world martial aristocracies had succumbed before Christianity, and in the modern world before democracy. By strength, then, he could not mean the power to survive, by being as flexible as circumstances may require. He did not refer to the strength of majorities, nor to the strength of vermin. At the same time he did not refer to moral strength, for of moral strength he had no idea.

"The arts give power, but only in channels prescribed by their own principles, not by the will of untrained men. To be trained is to be tamed and harnessed, an accession of power detestable to Nietzsche. His Zarathustra had the power of dancing, also of charming serpents and eagles: no wonder that he missed the power, bestowed by goodness, of charming and guiding men; and a Terpsichorean autocrat would be hard to imagine. A man intent on algebra or on painting is not striving to rule anybody; his dominion over painting or algebra is chiefly a matter of concentration and self-forgetfulness. So dominion over the passions changes them from attempts to appropriate anything into sentiments of the mind, colouring a world which is no longer coveted. To attain such autumnal wisdom is, if you like, itself a power of feeling and a kind of strength; but it is not helpful in conquering the earth.

"Nietzsche was personally more philosophical than his philosophy. His talk about power, harshness, and superb immorality was the hobby of a harmless young scholar and constitutional invalid. He did not crave in the least either wealth or empire. What he loved was solitude, nature, music, books. But his imagination, like his judgment, was captious; it could not dwell on reality, but reacted furiously against it. Accordingly, when he speaks of the will to be powerful, power is merely an eloquent word on his lips. It symbolises the escape from mediocrity. What power would be when attained and exercised remains entirely beyond his horizon. What meets us everywhere is the sense of impotence and a passionate rebellion against it.

"The phrases in which Nietzsche condensed and felt his thought were brilliant, but they were seldom just. We may perhaps see the principle of his ethics better if we forget for a moment the will to be powerful and consider this: that he knew no sort of good except the beautiful, and no sort of beauty except romantic stress. He was a belated prophet of romanticism. He wrote its epitaph, in which he praised it more extravagantly than anybody, when it was alive, had had the courage to do.

"Consider, for example, what he said about truth. Since men were governed solely by the will to be powerful, the truth for its own sake must be moonshine to them. They would wish to cultivate such ideas, whether true or false, as might be useful to their ambition. Nietzsche (more candid in this than some other pragmatists) confessed that truth itself did not interest him; it was ugly; the bracing atmosphere of falsehood, passion, and subjective perspectives was the better thing. Sometimes, indeed, a more wistful mood overtook him, and he wondered whether the human mind would be able to endure the light of truth. That was the great question of the future. We may agree that a mind without poetry, fiction and subjective colouring would not be human, nor a mind at all; and that neither truth nor the knowledge of truth would have any intrinsic value if nobody cared about it for its own sake. But some men do care; and in ignoring this fact Nietzsche expresses the false and pitiful notion that we can be interested in nothing except in ourselves and our own future. I am solitary, says the romantic egotist, and sufficient unto myself. The world is my idea, new every day: what can I have to do with truth?

"This impulse to turn one's back on truth, whether in contempt or in despair, has a long history. Lessing had said that he preferred the pursuit of truth to the truth itself; but if we take this seriously (as possibly it was not meant) the pursuit of truth at once changes its character. It can no longer be the pursuit of truth, truth not being wanted, but only the pursuit of some fresh idea. Whether one of these ideas or another comes nearer to the truth would be unimportant and undiscoverable. Any idea will do, so long as it is pregnant with another idea that may presently take its place; and as presumably error will precipitate new ideas more readily than truth, we might almost find it implied in Lessing's maxim that, as Nietzsche maintained, what is really good is neither truth nor the pursuit of truth (for you might find it, and what would you do then?), but rather a perpetual flux of errors.

"This view is also implied in the very prevalent habit of regarding opinions as justified not by their object but by their date. The intellectual ignominy of believing what we believe simply because of the time and place of our birth, escapes many evolutionists. Far from trying to overcome this natural prejudice of position, they raise it into a point of pride. They declare all opinions ever held in the past to be superseded, and are apparently content that their own should be superseded to-morrow, but meantime they cover you with obloquy if you are so backward or so forward as not to agree with them to-day. They accept as inevitable the total dominion of the point of view. Each new date, even in the life of an individual thinker, is expected by them to mark a new phase of doctrine. Indeed, truth is an object which transcendental philosophy cannot envisage: the absolute ego must be satisfied with consistency. How should the truth, actual, natural, or divine, be an expression of the living will that attempts, or in their case despairs, to discover it? Yet that everything, even the truth, is an expression of the living will, is the corner-stone of this philosophy.

"Consider further the spirit which Nietzsche condemned Christianity and the Christian virtues. Many people have denounced Christianity on the ground that it was false or tyrannical, while perhaps admitting that it was comforting or had a good moral influence. Nietzsche denounced it -- and in unmeasured terms -- on the ground that (while, of course, as true as any other vital lie) it was mean, depressing, slavish, and plebian. How beastly was the precept of love! Actually to love all these grotesque bipeds was degrading. A lover of the beautiful must wish almost all his neighbours out of the way. Compassion, too, was a lamentable way of assimilating oneself to evil. That contagious misery spoiled one's joy, freedom, and courage. Disease should not be nursed but cauterised; the world must be made clean.

"Now there is a sort of love of mankind, a jealous love of what man might be, in this much decried maxim of unmercifulness. Nietzsche rebelled at the thought of endless wretchedness, pervasive mediocrity, crying children, domestic drudges, and pompous fools for ever. Die Erde war zu lange schon ein Irrenhaus! His heart was tender enough, but his imagination was impatient. When he praised cruelty, it was on the ground that art was cruel, that it made beauty out of suffering. Suffering, therefore, was good, and so was crime, which made life keener. Only crime, he said, raises a man high enough for the lightning to strike him. In the hope of sparing some obscure person a few groans or tears, would you deprive the romantic hero of so sublime a death?

"Christians, too, might say they had their heroes, their saints; but what sort of eminence was that? It was produced by stifling half the passions. A sister of charity could not be an Arminius; devotion to such remedial offices spoilt the glory of life. Holiness was immoral; it was a half-suicide. All experience, the ideal of Faust, was what a spirited man must desire. All experience would involve, I suppose, passing through all the sensations of a murderer, a maniac, and a toad; even through those of a saint or a sister of charity. But the romantic mind despises results; it is satisfied with poses...

"This egotism in morals is partly mystical. There is a luxurious joy in healing the smart of evil in one's mind, without needing to remove or diminish the evil in the world. The smart may be healed by nursing the conviction that evil after all is good, no matter how much of it there is or how much of it we do. In part, however, this egotism is romantic; it does not ask to be persuaded that evil, in the end, is good. It feels that evil is good in the present; it is so intense a thing to feel and so exciting a thing to do. Here we have what Nietzsche wished to bring about, a reversal of all values. To do evil is the true virtue, and to be good is the most hopeless vice. Milk is for babes; your strong man should be soaked in blood and in alcohol. We should live perilously; and as material life is the power to digest poisons, so true excellence is the power to commit all manner of crimes, and to survive.

"That there is no God is proved by Nietzsche pragmatically, on the ground that belief in the existence of God would have made him uncomfortable. Not at all for the reason that might first occur to us: to imagine himself a lost soul has always been a point of pride with the romantic genius. The reason was that if there had been any gods he would have found it intolerable not to be a god himself. Poor Nietzsche! The laurels of the Almighty would not let him sleep.

"It is hard to know if we should be more deceived in taking these sallies seriously or in not taking them so. On the one hand it all seems the swagger of an immature, half-playful mind, like a child that tells you he will cut your head off. The dreamy impulse, in its inception, is sincere enough, but there is no vestige of any understanding of what it proposes, of its conditions, or of its results. On the other hand these explosions are symptomatic; there stirs behind them unmistakably an elemental force. That an attitude is foolish, incoherent, disastrous, proves nothing against the depth of the instinct that inspires it. Who could be more intensely unintelligent than Luther or Rousseau? Yet the world followed them, not to turn back. The molecular forces of society, so to speak, had already undermined the systems which these men denounced. If the systems have survived it is only because the reformers, in their intellectual helplessness, could supply nothing to take their place. So Nietzsche, in his genial imbecility, betrays the shifting of great subterranean forces. What he said may be nothing, but the fact that he said it is all-important. Out of such wild intuitions, because the heart of the child was in them, the man of the future may have to build his philosophy. We should forgive Nietzsche his boyish blasphemies. He hated with clearness, if he did not know what to love."

3. 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 master-workman, 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 rather be 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 -- and 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 consistently 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 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 inner 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 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."