I have been hiding from the news. The barrage of horror stories told from across the soft fireside glow of the electronic screen was just too much for me handle in the seemingly endless and chilly night of U.S. culture and politics right now. So, I retreated from current events to the warmth of my tent and zipped myself into my sleeping bag of ignorance. But, as I was eating my beans and rice for dinner tonight, I hazily stumbled out of my tent and tripped over this video where CBS Atlanta’s Sharon Reed responds to a white viewer’s email regarding Reed’s mayoral election coverage:
The fall jolted me awake.
I want to address white people from my white person’s perspective. White people, I imagine that you don’t like being called a racist. I imagine that you probably think of yourself as a good person. You have existed in a world created by white people for white people. Media, education, and politics, in all forms for thousands of years throughout Western-European culture, has overwhelmingly been designed by white people for white people. This has created the white perspective, a perspective that has been magnified and amplified throughout history so as to appear as absolute truth – as absolute reality. The thing is though, there are other perspectives. Black men and women, latinx men and women, and other people from other racial and ethnic backgrounds, have different perspectives. They don’t experience the world as white people do.
Now more than ever these different perspectives are given a seat at the table and the opportunity to be heard in the media, education, and politics. And, I imagine this challenges the way you see yourself, white people. I imagine that it feels like reality has become tenuous and precarious. I imagine that you feel threatened at the very core of who you are and how you conceive of yourself. The first step of mourning is denial, the next step is anger. White people, your response to the death of your white perspective largely oscillates between denial and anger.
I hope that you can take the next step in the mourning process to acceptance. Accept that the white perspective is not absolute truth – it is not absolute reality. If you see yourself as a good person, then I imagine that you don’t want to hurt anyone, right? And, if a good person does unintentionally hurt someone, then they take responsibility for it, apologize, and try to make it right, right? Here’s your time white people. Step up, take responsibility, apologize, and try to make it right. No, you are not responsible for the entire system of racism and oppression. But, white peoples’ sensitivity to talking about racism makes white people willfully ignorant of what they do to perpetuate and justify racism.
Try to make it right. Seek out other perspectives. Intellectuals, professionals, activists, and every day people from a diversity of backgrounds have been writing and speaking about these issues for decades. Seek out those peoples’ voices, listen fairly and try to understand their perspectives.
I am going back into my sleeping bag now.
I wanted to yell, but I couldn’t
I froze – Why did I freeze?
When he called me simplistic
This is what happens when little girls are bad
When he said, “I think what she is trying to say”
This is what happens when little girls are bad
When he called me hysterical
This is what happens when little girls are bad
When he said that one has to smell
Wine to see if it is good
Just like pussy
And then made a loud sniffing noise
When he walked by me
This is what happens when little girls are bad
When he drove me out
Beyond the city lights and headlights
Into the desolation and silence of night
Pushed me down, laying heavy on top of me
When he pushed himself into me
This is what happens when little girls are bad
When he pulled me out of a chair
Pushed me toward my bedroom
And threw me against a wall
My body bouncing back into his hands
To be thrown again, again, again
This is what happens when little girls are bad
When he called me a manipulative little bitch
A stuck-up, spoiled cunt
Because I made cinnamon toast
without asking his permission
This is what happens when little girls are bad
When he was choking the voice out of my mother
This is what happens…
I wanted to yell at him –
At the guy sitting across the classroom
At the other guy sitting across another classroom
At the guy working next to me
At the guy who married my sister
At the guy who doesn’t believe
That I am his daughter
Because he believes
That my mother was a “whore”
I wanted to yell,
“Hey, understand this you asshole,
I get it that this world was made by people like you
For people like you,
But you were never justified
In claiming my mind and body as yours to dominate
And this world is changing, right now.”
But I froze – cold, distant, solid, voiceless
Only to thaw out later in moments of self-destruction
Scars on my body scream
Of inaccessible, inexpressible, pain and anger
With nowhere else to go,
My suffering turns back on myself
Why did I freeze?
I hear his voice calling us
Our little bodies push through the haze of nighttime
Into their unlit room
Her naked body lays over his lap
“Look girls, this is what happens when little girls are bad”
He raises his hand, bringing it down
On her bare butt, thighs, and lower back
Raising his hand and bringing it down
Again – hearing it meet her skin –
And again – smack, smack, smack…
He pushes her off of him
We follow her out of the room
And help her put band-aids
On the bruises that had turned to blood blisters
And burst open
This is what happens…
From “Baker Farm” –
“Meanwhile my host told me his story, how hard he worked “bogging” for a neighboring farmer, turning up a meadow with a spade or bog hoe at the rate of ten dollars an acre and the use of the land with manure for one year, and his little broad-faced son worked cheerfully at his father’s side the while, not knowing how poor a bargain the latter had made. I tried to help him with my experience, telling him that he was one of my nearest neighbors, and that I too, who came a-fishing here, and looked like a loafer, was getting my living like himself; that I lived in a tight, light, and clean house, which hardly cost more than the annual rent of such a ruin as his commonly amounts to; and how, if he chose, he might in a month or two build himself a palace of his own; that I did not use tea, nor coffee, nor butter, nor milk, nor fresh meat, and so did not have to work to get them; again, as I did not work hard, I did not have to eat hard, and it cost me but a trifle for my food; but as he began with tea, and coffee, and butter, and milk, and beef, he had to work hard to pay for them, and when he had worked hard he had to eat hard again to repair the waste of his system—and so it was as broad as it was long, indeed it was broader than it was long, for he was discontented and wasted his life into the bargain; and yet he had rated it as a gain in coming to America, that here you could get tea, and coffee, and meat every day. But the only true America is that country where you are at liberty to pursue such a mode of life as may enable you to do without these, and where the state does not endeavor to compel you to sustain the slavery and war and other superfluous expenses which directly or indirectly result from the use of such things. For I purposely talked to him as if he were a philosopher, or desired to be one. I should be glad if all the meadows on the earth were left in a wild state, if that were the consequence of men’s beginning to redeem themselves.”
From “Higher Laws” –
“I have found repeatedly, of late years, that I cannot fish without falling a little in self-respect. I have tried it again and again. I have skill at it, and, like many of my fellows, a certain instinct for it, which revives from time to time, but always when I have done I feel that it would have been better if I had not fished. I think that I do not mistake. It is a faint intimation, yet so are the first streaks of morning. There is unquestionably this instinct in me which belongs to the lower orders of creation; yet with every year I am less a fisherman, though without more humanity or even wisdom; at present I am no fisherman at all. But I see that if I were to live in a wilderness I should again be tempted to become a fisher and hunter in earnest. Beside, there is something essentially unclean about this diet and all flesh, and I began to see where housework commences, and whence the endeavor, which costs so much, to wear a tidy and respectable appearance each day, to keep the house sweet and free from all ill odors and sights. Having been my own butcher and scullion and cook, as well as the gentleman for whom the dishes were served up, I can speak from an unusually complete experience. The practical objection to animal food in my case was its uncleanness; and besides, when I had caught and cleaned and cooked and eaten my fish, they seemed not to have fed me essentially. It was insignificant and unnecessary, and cost more than it came to. A little bread or a few potatoes would have done as well, with less trouble and filth. Like many of my contemporaries, I had rarely for many years used animal food, or tea, or coffee, etc.; not so much because of any ill effects which I had traced to them, as because they were not agreeable to my imagination. The repugnance to animal food is not the effect of experience, but is an instinct. It appeared more beautiful to live low and fare hard in many respects; and though I never did so, I went far enough to please my imagination. I believe that every man who has ever been earnest to preserve his higher or poetic faculties in the best condition has been particularly inclined to abstain from animal food, and from much food of any kind. It is a significant fact, stated by entomologists—I find it in Kirby and Spence—that “some insects in their perfect state, though furnished with organs of feeding, make no use of them”; and they lay it down as “a general rule, that almost all insects in this state eat much less than in that of larvæ. The voracious caterpillar when transformed into a butterfly… and the gluttonous maggot when become a fly” content themselves with a drop or two of honey or some other sweet liquid. The abdomen under the wings of the butterfly still represents the larva. This is the tidbit which tempts his insectivorous fate. The gross feeder is a man in the larva state; and there are whole nations in that condition, nations without fancy or imagination, whose vast abdomens betray them.
It is hard to provide and cook so simple and clean a diet as will not offend the imagination; but this, I think, is to be fed when we feed the body; they should both sit down at the same table. Yet perhaps this may be done. The fruits eaten temperately need not make us ashamed of our appetites, nor interrupt the worthiest pursuits. But put an extra condiment into your dish, and it will poison you. It is not worth the while to live by rich cookery. Most men would feel shame if caught preparing with their own hands precisely such a dinner, whether of animal or vegetable food, as is every day prepared for them by others. Yet till this is otherwise we are not civilized, and, if gentlemen and ladies, are not true men and women. This certainly suggests what change is to be made. It may be vain to ask why the imagination will not be reconciled to flesh and fat. I am satisfied that it is not. Is it not a reproach that man is a carnivorous animal? True, he can and does live, in a great measure, by preying on other animals; but this is a miserable way—as any one who will go to snaring rabbits, or slaughtering lambs, may learn—and he will be regarded as a benefactor of his [human] race who shall teach man to confine himself to a more innocent and wholesome diet.”
It is a surprising and memorable, as well as valuable experience, to be lost in the woods any time. Often in a snow-storm, even by day, one will come out upon a well-known road and yet find it impossible to tell which way leads to the village. Though he knows that he has travelled it a thousand times, he cannot recognize a feature in it, but it is as strange to him as if it were a road in Siberia. By night, of course, the perplexity is infinitely greater. In our most trivial walks, we are constantly, though unconsciously, steering like pilots by certain well-known beacons and headlands, and if we go beyond our usual course we still carry in our minds the bearing of some neighboring cape; and not till we are completely lost, or turned round—for a man needs only to be turned round once with his eyes shut in this world to be lost—do we appreciate the vastness and strangeness of nature. Every man has to learn the points of compass again as often as he awakes, whether from sleep or any abstraction. Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.
One afternoon, near the end of the first summer, when I went to the village to get a shoe from the cobbler’s, I was seized and put into jail, because, as I have elsewhere related, I did not pay a tax to, or recognize the authority of, the State which buys and sells men, women, and children, like cattle, at the door of its senate-house. I had gone down to the woods for other purposes. But, wherever a man goes, men will pursue and paw him with their dirty institutions, and, if they can, constrain him to belong to their desperate odd-fellow society. It is true, I might have resisted forcibly with more or less effect, might have run “amok” against society; but I preferred that society should run “amok” against me, it being the desperate party. However, I was released the next day, obtained my mended shoe, and returned to the woods in season to get my dinner of huckleberries on Fair Haven Hill. I was never molested by any person but those who represented the State. I had no lock nor bolt but for the desk which held my papers, not even a nail to put over my latch or windows. I never fastened my door night or day, though I was to be absent several days; not even when the next fall I spent a fortnight in the woods of Maine. And yet my house was more respected than if it had been surrounded by a file of soldiers. The tired rambler could rest and warm himself by my fire, the literary amuse himself with the few books on my table, or the curious, by opening my closet door, see what was left of my dinner, and what prospect I had of a supper. Yet, though many people of every class came this way to the pond, I suffered no serious inconvenience from these sources, and I never missed anything but one small book, a volume of Homer, which perhaps was improperly gilded, and this I trust a soldier of our camp has found by this time. I am convinced, that if all men were to live as simply as I then did, thieving and robbery would be unknown. These take place only in communities where some have got more than is sufficient while others have not enough. The Pope’s Homers would soon get properly distributed.
"Nec bella fuerunt, Faginus astabat dum scyphus ante dapes." "Nor wars did men molest, When only beechen bowls were in request."
“You who govern public affairs, what need have you to employ punishments? Love virtue, and the people will be virtuous. The virtues of a superior man are like the wind; the virtues of a common man are like the grass—the grass, when the wind passes over it, bends.”
It is difficult to formulate an indisputable definition for the political and the ideological. However, if we understand the political as the organizing, sustaining, and ruling principles for the governance of peoples, and understand the ideological as the socio-political ideals that have become mythologized, naturalized, and habitually adhered to, then we have a basic starting point to understand the socio-political myths of freedom and power in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche and Simone de Beauvoir. In On the Genealogy of Morals (1887), Nietzsche offers us a critique of the moral values that evolved to become a ubiquitous socio-political myth in Western societies as well as seeks to establish a new socio-political myth based on freedom and power as a replacement. Beauvoir, in The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947) and The Second Sex (1949), offers us an expanded conception of socio-political myth as well as a critique of Nietzsche’s replacement socio-political myth.
For this paper, I examine Nietzsche and Beauvoir’s conceptions of the socio-political myths of freedom and power. I begin by offering a reading of Nietzsche’s critique of “slave morality” and “bad conscience” as well as his establishment of the “will to power”. Next, I offer a reading of Beauvoir’s conceptions of myth through her examination of freedom as well as through her explicit references to Nietzsche as exemplifying her socio-political type termed “the adventurer.” I then, in the spirit of re-interpretation, offer a Nietzschean inspired response to Beauvoir’s critique in which I argue, through a careful delineation between the descriptive and the normative in his work, that Nietzsche could be re-interpreted as what I call a “motivator” as opposed to an adventurer. I conclude with a Beauvoirian inspired counter response in which I argue that, even granting a reading of Nietzsche as a motivator, he nonetheless promotes the facilitation of a socio-political myth in which strength is given absolute value. Such a socio-political myth, I ultimately argue, is the work of Beauvoir’s “serious” person. It is the work of the serious person who seeks to reduce the freedom in the ambiguity of existence to the idol of strength.
Nietzsche’s Critique and Establishment of Socio-Political Myth: “Slave Morality,” “Bad Conscience,” and “The Will to Power”
While Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals is undoubtedly a text concerned with ethics, it is also a text concerned with socio-political myth naturalized into ideology. Nietzsche seeks to examine both the socio-political conditions from which the normative value judgments of “good” and “evil” emerged as well as the socio-political consequences of these value judgments. He seeks to critique these values’ efficacy for the prosperity of humanity, for the future advancement and progression of humanity, and for the betterment of humanity as a whole. If, as noted above, we understand the political as that which is concerned with the organization, ruling, and sustaining of peoples bound under a shared governing system, then Nietzsche’s critique, while targeting ethical values, deeply involves the political.
His critique begins with an examination of the socio-political conditions from which normative value judgments regarding good and evil emerged. He argues that “good” and “evil” emerged from conceptions of “good” and “bad” prominent in ancient aristocratic societies. In ancient aristocratic societies, “the noble, powerful, high-stationed and high-minded” “felt and established themselves and their actions as good, that is, of the first rank, in contradistinction to all the low, low-minded, common and plebeian”. The noble, situated in a higher socio-political position, looked to themselves and found themselves as “good”. Nietzsche describes a “pathos of distance” as “the protracted and domineering fundamental total feeling on the part of a higher ruling order in relation to a lower order”.
It is from this cognitive-emotive distance, this looking down from a height constructed of socio-political and economic privilege, that the aristocratic conceived of themselves firstly as “good” and then only subsequently conceived of those beneath them as “bad”. The higher, aristocratic, caste, saw themselves as inherently happy, beautiful, rich, noble, truthful, powerful, and only as an afterthought looked down to the lower caste and projected in them what the higher caste felt that they were not, namely, pitiful, ugly, poor, plebian, lying, and impotent. The aristocratic, endowed with the socio-political and economic privilege associated with their higher rank, saw themselves as characteristically and inherently good, and used their power to “seal” and “take possession” of their status in language. “Good” in this sense denoted the character traits of privilege and power, whereas “bad” denoted lack of privilege and power, i.e. any person not “good”.
Nietzsche argues that the “conceptual transformation” of “good” and “bad” to “good” and “evil” involved a “slave revolt in morality” resulting in a “radical revaluation” of values. Those of the lower, priestly, caste, lacking privilege and power, were denied the ability to act. The lower caste, kept in socio-political and economic subservience, inhabited a situation of suffering and impotence. They were powerless to act via any social, political, or economic mechanism to better their situation. It is this frustration born of complete powerless over one’s situation and suffering, and the anger and hatred that emerges as a result, that Nietzsche calls “ressentiment”. He states, “The slave morality begins when ressentiment itself become creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of natures that are denied the true reaction, that of deeds, and compensate themselves with an imaginary revenge”. Powerless to affect socio-political and economic change, powerless to act substantially to relieve their suffering, the lower caste imagines a revenge. Such imagined revenge mitigates their suffering. It makes their powerlessness more bearable because it gives them an imaginary power over their oppressors. In short, it is a psychological coping mechanism in response to a suffering they are otherwise unable to do anything about.
This imagined revenge is the revaluation of values. Where the aristocratic posited “good” as noble, powerful, beautiful, happy, and “beloved of God,” the priestly caste inverted these values so that “‘the wretched alone are the good; the poor, impotent, lowly alone are the good; the suffering, deprived, sick, ugly alone are the pious, alone are blessed by God, blessedness is for them alone – and you, the powerful and noble, are on the contrary the evil, the cruel, the lustful, the insatiable, the accursed, and damned!’” Whereas the creation of “good” in the noble value system originated with the nobles themselves, and “bad” was merely an afterthought, in the priestly value system “evil” becomes the primary value designation given toward the higher caste and “good” denotes the lower caste merely as an afterthought.
Nietzsche calls this the “inversion of the value-positing eye – this need to direct one’s view outward instead of back to oneself” and states that this “is the essence of ressentiment: in order to exist, slave morality always first needs a hostile external world; its action is fundamentally a reaction”. The socio-politically and economically powerless reacted to their oppression in the only way they could, by inverting the values of their oppressors. Denied the ability to act socio-politically or economically, they looked to their oppressors, deemed their oppressors “evil,” and then consequently, deemed themselves as “good”. The lower caste, denied control to act within the world, to have control in and shape the world, took control in the only way they could, by creating a new socio-political myth.
The lower caste created a new socio-political myth with “a history of two thousand years behind it and which we no longer see because it – has been victorious”. Nietzsche argues this myth has become naturalized and embedded in Western societies to the extent that privilege and power is equated with “evil” and lack of privilege and power is equated with “good”. It is an ideology that Nietzsche conceives of as having detrimental consequences for Western societies. He argues that this value inversion is a lie against humanity, that it represents the taming of humanity’s natural instincts, a weakening and passivity of humanity, a sickness that stunts humankind’s flourishing, and a distortion of happiness.
For Nietzsche, this lie tells humans that it is better, it is a merit, to be weak and passive rather than strong and active, that one must subdue and restrain one’s instincts for freedom and the will to power, and that one must adapt (react) instead of act. The result is the “internalization” of human instincts, where human instincts “turn inward” against oneself, where the “instinct for freedom pushed back and repressed, incarcerated within and finally able to discharge and vent itself only on itself” results in self-abuse. This is a movement where the instinct for activity, the need to be able to act within an on the world, to have control in and shape the world, is repressed to such an extent that it turns against oneself causing oneself to act against oneself, to punish and abuse oneself. These instincts for acting do not dissipate, they have to be released and go somewhere. If one cannot direct their instincts outward into the external world, then these instincts can only be directed inward. He calls this movement “bad conscience”.
Having argued that the dominant socio-political myth is harmful for humanity, Nietzsche compliments his critique with a proposal for a new socio-political myth. In both “erecting an ideal” and “knocking one down,” he argues against passivity and weakness, ideals that are “all hostile to life” and “slander the world,” in favor of strength and activity, ideals in line with “sense, instinct, nature, animal”. In other words, he argues for what he calls the “instinct for freedom” or the “will to power”. He equates the instinct for freedom with the will to power, that is, consequently, to have freedom is one in the same thing as to have power. Drives for freedom and power, for Nietzsche, reside inherently in humanity as instinctual, natural, and animalistic beings. Life’s “fundamental concept, [is] that of activity”. Will to power, he states, is “the essence of life” which entails “spontaneous, aggressive, expansive, form-giving forces that give new interpretations and directions”. He links freedom with the “wild” and “prowling man” in which the instincts of “hostility, cruelty, joy in persecuting, in attacking, in change, in destruction” reside. There is no “neutral substratum,” “there is no ‘being’ behind doing, effecting, becoming; ‘the doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed – the deed is everything”. There is no subject, essence, or soul, that exists apart from action within nature.
In other words, there is only instinct and action. For Nietzsche, there is no such thing as a subject who can choose to act completely contrary to their nature. Freedom is not absolute. In an essentialist move, he posits that we are constituted by nature to act in accord with our instincts. Life, by nature, is active. The ability to be active, that is the ability to act in accord with our instincts, for him, is freedom and power. All of life seeks instinctually to be active, it seeks to have control in and shape the world. In controlling and shaping the world, which entails for Nietzsche change, destruction, aggression, cruelty and hostility, one finds pleasure and happiness.
Significantly, Nietzsche’s interpretation of the conceptual transformation of values from the nobles to the priestly, is itself a part of him setting up his own socio-political myth. His concepts of slave morality, revaluation of values, and bad conscience are all his own attempts at a will to power, that is, an attempt at controlling and shaping the external world through a new interpretation, i.e. setting up a socio-political myth. Nietzsche’s new socio-political myth ultimately culminates in his advocacy for a stronger and more active future for humanity through his conceptions of freedom and the will to power.
Beauvoir’s Critique of Nietzsche’s Socio-Political Myth: Freedom and Active Creation of Meaning and Value
Although Beauvoir does not offer an explicit and detailed reading of Nietzsche in The Ethics of Ambiguity, the reading offered above does seem to align with her reading of his conception of freedom and power. She appears to agree with his critique in so far as within his critique individuals set up absolute values by which they define themselves and limit their actions, thereby limiting their freedom. Like Nietzsche, there are no absolute values for Beauvoir. Values are created when “freedom makes itself a lack […] It is desire which creates the desirable, and the project which sets up the end”. Nietzsche, she states, “also railed at the deceitful stupidity of the serious [person] and [their] universe” of absolute values. We can even read her agreement that the priestly occupy the serious personality type due to their lack of socio-political and economic ability to act when she states that “The less economic and social circumstances allow an individual to act upon the world, the more this world appears to him as given”, that is to say, as natural or as an unalterable fact, as is the case of “those who are called ‘the humble’”.
However, she argues, nonetheless, that Nietzsche posits a form of solipsism, in that he mistakenly “exalt[s] the bare will to power”. In his advocacy of his conception of freedom and power, he rightly recognizes that the individual must choose and create their own values, however, he is mistaken in that he then seeks to impose those values on others. “The result,” she states, “would be a conflict of opposed wills enclosed in their solitude,” a conflict that leads to tyranny.
Beauvoir’s critique of Nietzsche’s socio-political myth emerges from her conception of freedom. Her conception of freedom, like Nietzsche’s, begins in a conception of what a human is, i.e. it begins in ontology. Beauvoir, like Nietzsche, denies that humans have a substratum, a solidified being as a subject, essence, or soul. Unlike Nietzsche who conceives of humanity as only a lack of being, she conceives of humanity as inhabiting an ambiguous condition in that humans are both a lack of being and “a way of being”. There is an ambiguity between lack of being and being. That is to say, humans are immanently placed within nature and the world, they cannot free themselves from their facticity. However, they are also rational subjectivities, as in existents that have the cognitive ability to conceive of themselves as distinct and unique individuals existing temporally, and thus, they have the ability transcend beyond their facticity.
Humans exist temporally. The past becomes unalterable facts, the future remains open to transformative and creative transcendence, all the while, in the present moment, humans are nothing. While there are facts of human existence, such as instincts, humans are not locked into a solidified being that determines them to act in any particular way. Humans are not free to alter their immanent facticity, but they are free in how they transcend their facticity. That is to say, and in agreement with Nietzsche, there are no absolute values, nor is there meaning apart from the meaning imbued into life and the world by humans. However, contra Nietzsche, humans are not locked into the facticity of their instincts.
To elaborate, humans at first exist as a nothingness, as a lack of being, as a negativity. As a rational subjectivity, humans spontaneously transcend beyond themselves, that is to say they “cast [themselves] into the world,” “always project[ing] [themselves] toward something” in the world. In projecting oneself into the world, one moves to the positive aspect of existence. One projects themselves into the world as an existent, transcending beyond the immanence of their facticity, and endowed with the active capacities to create and give meaning to one’s life and world. However, this movement must be constant and continuous, in that one must return constantly in each moment to the negative in order to actively reaffirm the positive.
Beauvoir states, this movement “does not suppress my instincts, desires, plans, and passions. It merely prevents any possibility of failure by refusing to set up as absolutes the ends toward which my transcendence thrusts itself, and by considering them in their connection with the freedom which projects them”. Existence is a spontaneous projection into the world toward something in the world within the ambiguity of immanence and transcendence. Freedom is the constant movement within existence of creating and giving meaning and value to one’s life and world. Instincts are our immanent facticity. However, these instincts do not lock us into solidified being. We are also subjectivities that transcend beyond the immanent, and in doing so, we are free to choose to give these instincts value and meaning. One can say that while Nietzsche conceived of humans’ lack of being as a restriction on freedom, because a lack of being means that one could not choose to act contrary to one’s instincts, Beauvoir conceives of humans’ lack of being as the very foundation of freedom, because a lack of being means that one is not locked into being.
Interestingly, freedom for both Nietzsche and Beauvoir entails active creation. For Nietzsche, freedom is the ability to act, and moreover, this ability to act takes on a creative aspect in that one is most free when one has the most ability to shape the world, giving the world new interpretations and directions. For Beauvoir, freedom is active creation. As noted above, freedom entails the active creation and giving of meaning and value to one’s life and world. Moreover, this creation is never complete. In concrete terms, whatever end one sets for oneself, one must constantly act toward endowing that end with meaning and value by constantly reaffirming one’s choice in pursuing that end. Each act serves as a departure point for a new act of transcendence, that is, each act is a creation serving as a point of departure for new acts of creation. However, each act occurs within the immanence of a world we did not create, an oppositional world that presents us with obstacles we are unable to overcome and control.
Nietzsche’s mythical conception of this oppositional world is that of a struggle over power and control, and he ties freedom to the ability to be able to overcome obstacles through control of the external world. For him, passive resignation is a failure of freedom, and Beauvoir would seem to agree stating that “there is hardly a sadder virtue than resignation”. However, she argues, that in stubbornly attempting to control what cannot be controlled, “freedom exhausts itself in this useless gesture without succeeding in giving itself a content”. Thus, for her, freedom must make the continuous “free movement of existence” its ultimate end. She states, “My freedom must not seek to trap being but to disclose it. The disclosure is the transition from being to existence. The goal which my freedom aims at is conquering existence across the always inadequate density of being”.
That is to say, while both Nietzsche and Beauvoir link freedom to active creation, Nietzsche conceives of freedom as the active conquering of the world, while Beauvoir conceives of freedom as the active movement to transcend beyond the immanent uncontrollable facts of the world in order to conquer existence. For him, active creation is the conquest of the external world, and conquest of the world is controlling the world through creative active reinterpretation. For her, active creation is the conquest of existence, that is to say it is a fluid movement between the internal subjectivity and the external world whereby one never retreats into or reduces existence to solidified being.
Herein we find Beauvoir’s ultimate critique of Nietzsche’s socio-political myth. She likens Nietzsche to an “adventurer”. The adventurer, having recognized the lack of being and that there are no absolute values in the world, recognizes their independence and active ability to create and give meaning to the world. However, they are “indifferent to the content, that is, to the human meaning of [their] action,” they think they “can assert [their] own existence without taking into account that of others”. The adventurer cares “only for their pleasure and glory,” they are “indifferent to the ends they set up for themselves” and “still more indifferent to the means of attaining” their ends. The adventurer harbors a deep contempt for humanity, and it is through “this very contempt” that they conceive of themselves as breaking “away from the contemptible condition in which those who do not imitate [their] pride are stagnating”.
“Thus,” she continues, “nothing prevents [them] from sacrificing these insignificant beings to [the adventurer’s] own will for power,” in that these insignificant beings are nothing but disposable instruments for the adventurer’s pleasure and glory. The adventurer “appears as an enemy in the eyes of others. His undertaking is not only an individual wager; it is a combat”. The adventurer may find a sort of happiness in this combat. However, once this activity has solidified into a fact of the past “it must, in order to remain alive, be animated anew by a human intention which must transcend it toward the future into recognition or admiration”. When the adventurer dies, “the only meaning [their life] will have will be the one [others] confer upon it”. The adventurer willed their life “to be an affirmation, an example to all mankind,” but, without the free recognition of others their life “falls back upon itself, it becomes futile and unjustified”.
We read in these quotes Nietzsche’s socio-political myth’s contempt for the “humble” and “meek,” as well as his assertion that happiness and pleasure reside in the power to control and shape the world, even to the extent of destruction and cruelty. Nietzsche’s will to power is an active striving to create and give meaning to the world. However, it strives to do so through conquest of the external world, through the conquest of others. He creates and gives meaning to the world through his own socio-political myth and then seeks to impose that meaning and value on others. In this conquest, he denies others the freedom to create and give meaning to the world.
Nietzsche’s advocacy of the myth of the will to power is a tyrannical solipsism because he takes the strong individual “as a transcendence” while reducing others to “pure immanences,” “he thus arrogates to himself the right to treat” others like instruments for his own pleasure and glory. Beauvoir states “We see the sophism on which his conduct is based: of the ambiguous condition which is that of all men, he retains for himself the only aspect of a transcendence which is capable of justifying itself; for the others, the contingent and unjustified aspect of immanence”. The will to power is a socio-political myth that posits that oneself, as an individual transcendence, has the right to act on others as immanent objects because oneself alone can justify one’s own existence by giving meaning and value to the world. It posits that individual transcendences alone give meaning and value to the world by acting on it and controlling it.
Beauvoir states “Freedom is the source from which all significations and all values spring. It is the original condition of all justification of existence. The man who seeks to justify his life must want freedom itself absolutely and above everything else”. Nietzsche subordinates universal freedom to the will to power because he conceives of freedom as the will to power whereas Beauvoir distinguishes between the two concepts. For Beauvoir, freedom to create and give meaning to the world requires a reciprocal recognition of that freedom. One’s existence is justified through the free recognition of others. The conquered cannot justify, as in give meaning and value, to the conqueror’s acts because they have been denied the ability to freely do so.
It is analogous to a conqueror forcing the conquered at gunpoint to proclaim how powerful, intelligent, beautiful, and altogether awesome the conqueror is. The conquered may say the words, but without being able to say the words freely, the words fail to have meaning and value. Yet, the conqueror desires such justification, requires the recognition and admiration, because the conqueror’s acts can only have meaning and value with this justification. Put another way, in order for the conqueror’s acts of conquest to have meaning and value they must be justified by free recognition, but this free recognition is immediately nullified by the conqueror’s very acts of conquest. Herein is the problem with Nietzsche’s myth of the will to power, namely, it is unable to be justified freely through reciprocal recognition, and thus, it nullifies itself, never obtaining meaning and value.
A Nietzschean Inspired Response to Beauvoir: A Reinterpretation of Nietzsche’s Socio-Political Myth
Beauvoir’s critique of Nietzsche’s socio-political myth is that it posits a form of combative solipsism. She conceives of his myth as isolating individuals in their own pursuits for conquest, and as such, as completely devaluing the need for reciprocal recognition between free existents. In response to Beauvoir, Nietzsche’s concept of will to power entails a creative act of reinterpretation and redirection. Given that there is no absolute meaning nor are there absolute values in the world, whatever it is that exists in the world has been given an interpretation through a will to power, and it is continually reinterpreted through competing wills to power.
The meaning and value given to whatever exists in the world “is again and again reinterpreted to new ends, taken over, transformed, and redirected by some power superior to it; all events in the organic world are a subduing, a becoming master, and all subduing and becoming master involves a fresh interpretation, an adaptation through which any previous ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’ are necessarily obscured or even obliterated”. He states, “The ‘evolution’ of a thing, a custom, an organ is thus by no means its progressus toward a goal, even less a logical progressus by the shortest route and with the smallest expenditure of force – but a succession of more or less profound, more or less mutually independent processes of subduing, plus the resistances they encounter, the attempts at transformation for the purpose of defense and reaction, and the results of successful counteractions”. I argue, through my own creative act of Nietzschean inspired reinterpretation and redirection, that Nietzsche’s myth does not necessarily fall into solipsism.
His socio-political myth does not necessarily fall into solipsism because, firstly, he conceives of the advancement of humankind as the progression toward strength, toward “greater power,” toward life as activity, and correlatively, a greater freedom to create and give meaning to the world. Secondly, he does indeed posit a conception of the adage “what does not kill you makes you stronger.” In enduring all kinds of suffering, “born as one is to a subterranean life of struggle,” “one emerges again and again into the light, one experiences again and again one’s golden hour of victory – and then one stands forth as one was born, unbreakable, tensed, ready for new, even harder, remoter things, like a bow that distress only serves to draw tauter”. Thirdly, and finally, he asserts that it is others, as one’s enemies and combatants, that serve as the impetus to one’s advancement and motivate one to become stronger. A genuine love of one’s enemies is possible, for Nietzsche, as reverence and honor for the enemy who pushes one to become stronger, that is, for a strong enemy whose having been overcome serves as one’s “mark of distinction”.
Nietzsche does have a conception of reciprocity between others through his conception of enemies making each other stronger and his adulation of progressive strength. This progress is continuous, so one must always need others and others must always need oneself. Even more, if a continuous progression of strength is what he ultimately values, and if one achieves this progression through one’s enemies, then one would not want one’s enemies to be weak and degenerate. One would not want to destroy one’s enemies but to instead push them to be stronger so that they can reciprocally push oneself to be stronger. Otherwise, if one destroys all of one’s enemies or if all of one’s enemies are too weak and degenerate, then the continuous progression of strength would be halted.
Nietzsche’s socio-political myth’s contempt for the priestly value system is because he sees it as a regression of humankind. The priestly value system is a regression of humankind, for him, because it seeks to remove humans from strength-building combat by disengaging them from their enemies, and thus, it destines humankind to stagnation and atrophy. The priestly myth, in other words, advocates allowing oneself to be acted on instead of acting. The priestly still harbor the instincts for will to power, as evidenced by their creation of myth. They are just not honest about their instincts; “While the noble man lives in trust and openness with himself […] the man of ressentiment is neither upright nor naïve nor honest and straightforward with himself”. The priestly myth celebrates an afterlife in which those who have harmed them suffer eternally and where they are the blessed whom, Nietzsche quoting Thomas Aquinas, “in the kingdom of heaven will see the punishments of the damned, in order that their bliss be more delightful for them”. Justice, according to this myth, will be served in the afterlife. The priestly repress their instincts for freedom and will to power, and repress their delight in exerting their freedom and will to power.
It is here that we have to be careful to delineate the descriptive from the normative in Nietzsche’s myth. Nietzsche, I suggest, is primarily providing us with a psychological socio-political description of how the world works. Consider his analogy of the birds of prey and the lambs. The weak lambs may chastise and curse the strong birds of prey who carry them off to eat them, but birds of prey are by nature strong, there is no “neutral substratum” from which they can choose to not be strong and not love eating lambs, and they are not free to be anything other than what they are. To demand that the bird of prey not be strong is tantamount to demanding that the lamb not be weak.
One may read this analogy as an analogy that equates the noble with the birds of prey and the priestly with the lambs. I argue that this is an incorrect reading because it is inconsistent with the rest of what Nietzsche has argued. He has argued that all humans have an instinct for will to power and freedom, it is just that the priestly have repressed this instinct. They have repressed this instinct to the extent that their will to power has turned against themselves. Their will to power turning against themselves, because it has nowhere else to be released, demonstrates that they by nature have this instinct. A more consistent reading would be to equate all humans with the birds of prey. All humans have the instinct for will to power, to be strong, to actively create and give meaning, that is, to control this world. The problem with the priestly myth is that it lies to the priestly, it tells them they are lambs when actually they are birds of prey. This is not a normative claim. This is a descriptive claim, which is at bottom a political claim.
The priestly myth lived and enacted socio-politically tells people to do nothing now to overcome their struggles, because they are too weak and, moreover, this weakness makes them blessed. It tells people to be patient and that their suffering in life makes them blessed. It tells people that justice will be achieved in the afterlife, that those who have oppressed them will be punished and that they will be rewarded for their suffering. This myth teaches people to patiently, humbly, and quietly endure their suffering, not to overcome their suffering, not to become stronger, and not to fight against those who oppress them. Socially and politically, this myth teaches people to succumb and to endure their oppression. In succumbing and enduring, they are not overcoming and becoming stronger, and moreover, they are not pushing others to overcome and become stronger either.
Nietzsche’s writing style itself is an expression of his will to power. He mocks the priestly myth and the values extolled by it. He taunts the priestly people who live according to this myth, who conceive of themselves as passive, weak, humble, patient, powerless, who give in to a quiet resignation and consider themselves meritorious for it. In other words, Nietzsche makes himself an enemy of the priestly. He is the enemy trying to make the priestly stronger. In one sense, his comments could be considered as a cruel attempt to conquer and control. However, in another sense, I read him as trying to motivate these people. Instead of an adventurer, he could be read as a “motivator.” He is trying to get these people to be honest about their situation; honest about the way socio-political power works, about their hate, and about their own strength. He is also trying to get them to take action to overcome their suffering and oppression.
Adherence to the priestly myth really only justifies and perpetuates their oppression. The strong in positions of power are not going to give up their power, and they are not going to bow down to displays of weakness. Another way to reinterpret the birds of prey and lambs analogy is exactly in this regard, that those who take up positions of weakness are only going to be consumed, or exploited, by those who take up positions of strength. Those in positions of strength love others to be in positions of weakness, they are “tasty,” because then they can easily exploit them for their own ends. Adherence to the belief that the weak, oppressed, and downtrodden are really the blessed and good only keeps the oppressed and downtrodden weak, and it makes them complacent in their oppression.
Nietzsche does indeed assert that these priestly values have won the ideological battle. However, I would offer the qualification that they have won in the sense that the mass of humanity in the Western world ascribes to and submits to these values under the guise of civilization while the few strong continue to oppress them. The two sides, the priestly and the noble, have been at ideological war for centuries, a struggle over political control fueled by a will to power. But where the noble openly and actively displays its will to power, the priestly represses and hides its own will to power. The priestly, thus, is only able to react and adapt to the noble’s active creation and giving of meaning to the world. In only reacting and adapting, the priestly removes themselves from the battle, and thus are prevented from overcoming their oppression while at the same time stunting humanity’s continuous progression.
Interestingly, Beauvoir could be read as in agreement with this Nietzschean inspired reinterpretation when she states that revolt “is fulfilled as freedom only by returning to the positive, that is, by giving itself a content through action, escape, political struggle, revolution. Human transcendence then seeks, with the destruction of the given situation, the whole future which will flow from its victory. It resumes its indefinite rapport with itself”. If it is indeed the case, for Beauvoir, that human progression is a continuous active movement toward the end of freedom, a project continually given meaning and value freely by humans, then the continuous active movement of enemies pushing each other to transcend beyond their situations would be in accord with Beauvoir’s conceptions of freedom. However, even if this is so, there is still the question of how Beauvoir would respond to the value Nietzsche assigns to strength.
A Beauvoirian Counter Response: Nietzsche as the “Serious” Person
One could argue that this Nietzschean inspired reinterpretation commits the naturalistic fallacy. Beauvoir’s critique of Nietzsche certainly seems to lean in this direction in that she does argue that while our natural instincts are a part of our facticity, we can nonetheless choose a multiplicity of ways to transcend our facticity. In other words, just because we have these instincts does not mean that we ought to make them the foundation of any socio-political myth. Nietzsche’s response, of course, is that we are not free to choose not to be what is so deeply imbued in our nature. We can try to not act in accord with our instincts, but repression only leads to self-maltreatment. However, Beauvoir could certainly respond that we would not be repressing our instincts if we were to direct them toward something other than brute displays of strength that seek to act on and control others and the world. The instinct to act on and control the world is at bottom the spontaneous subjective transcendence beyond the immanent, that is, the need to create and give meaning to one’s life and the world. This need to create and give meaning to the world need not necessarily entail an instinct to control others and the world through brute strength. She could respond that Nietzsche’s socio-political myth sets up strength as an absolute value, that is, as an idol.
In The Second Sex, Beauvoir states,
There are different kinds of myths. This one, sublimating an immutable aspect of the human condition—that is, the “division” of humanity into two categories of individuals—is a static myth; it projects into a Platonic heaven a reality grasped through experience or conceptualized from experience; for fact, value, significance, notion, and empirical law, it substitutes a transcendent Idea, timeless, immutable, and necessary. This idea escapes all contention because it is situated beyond the given; it is endowed with an absolute truth.
Beauvoir here is speaking of the myth of the “Eternal Feminine,” however, we can also read here a response to Nietzsche’s advocacy and adulation of strength. Nietzsche, based on his observations of the way the world is, divides humanity into the categories of those who take up positions of power and those who take up positions of weakness. He reduces all of existence to the activity of strength, strength as that instinct that we cannot choose to not be and as what we ultimately must be. In doing so, he is setting up strength as a transcendent Idea that is timeless, immutable, and necessary, even if it is not attached to a neutral substratum as a subject. Thus, he gives strength absolute value and truth. In setting up an absolute value and truth, Nietzsche is doing exactly what he denounces. He becomes a serious person who denies his own freedom. Beauvoir states, “There is the serious from the moment that freedom denies itself to the advantage of ends which one claims are absolute”.
In setting up strength as an absolute value, Nietzsche “denies the subjective tension of freedom” because he is “forbidding himself universally to will freedom in an indefinite movement”. He begins in immanency, in the negative, as a nothingness and spontaneous freedom, then transcends beyond the immanent to the positive by creating and giving meaning to his life and the world through the myth of the will to power, but then he halts the movement. He does not return to the negative, and then subsequently back to the positive, in order to continue the indefinite movement of freedom. He does not return to continually endow the myth with meaning and value. He halts at the transcendent idol of strength, failing to recognize that strength is not timeless, immutable, and necessary, but something that he has endowed freely with meaning and value. Beauvoir continues, “By virtue of the fact that he refuses to recognize that he is freely establishing the value of the end he sets up, the serious man makes himself the slave of that end”.
The fact that Nietzsche himself first identifies the serious person does not preclude him from falling into the same existential trap, thereby contradicting himself. As Beauvoir states, “the serious man readily takes refuge in disputing the serious, but it is the serious of others which he disputes, not his own”. Nietzsche’s movement beyond the negative to the positive takes him to a critique of the external world, but because he never returns to the negative, he never returns to reflect upon the internal aspects of existence and the fluid movement of freedom between the internal subjectivity and the external world.
Furthermore, Beauvoir attributing to Nietzsche the adventurer personality type, does not preclude him from also inhabiting the serious personality type as well. She states “the adventurer’s attitude is not always pure,” in that the adventurer, underneath their capricious façade, may “pursue a secret goal in utter seriousness”, such as glory. The adventurer-serious person may very well “proclaim their skepticism in regard to recognized values” all the while harboring their own “attachment to the values of the serious”.
Nietzsche’s attachment to the idol of strength seeks to not only limit his own movement of freedom, but that of others. His social-political myth attempts to naturalize strength and the performance of strength as the only legitimate means of actively creating and giving meaning to one’s life and world, as the only legitimate means of achieving freedom. His myth tells those who occupy positions of weakness that they must become like those who take up positions of strength in order to overcome their oppression. He seeks to impose his values of strength onto others as absolute values.
This imposition is another form of oppression because it seeks to limit in others the free movement between the negative, or internal, and positive, or external, aspects of existence in regard to the value of strength, and correlatively, because it seeks to severely limit the multiplicity of ways in which others transcend beyond the immanent facticity of their situations. In other words, it seeks to impose on others the naturalized belief that strength unquestioningly has ultimate value and if one were to adhere to such a belief, then one becomes unable to fathom the multiplicity of possibilities open to them to create and give meaning to their life and world, as well as to overcome their oppression.
Nietzsche and Beauvoir’s work directs our attention to the socio-political myths that have become naturalized into political ideology. I have sought in this paper to put these two thinkers into conversation with each other. I have sought to draw attention to how, despite their agreement on the lack of being that actively creates and gives meaning and value to one’s life and world, they come to divergent conceptions of freedom and power. I argued that Nietzsche equates freedom with power and in doing so ultimately advocates for strength as an absolute value. Beauvoir, on the other hand, draws a distinction between freedom and power, and thus, ultimately advocates for freedom as above all else that which must be preserved. In reading Nietzsche as conceiving of strength as an absolute value, I offered a Nietzschean inspired reinterpretation as a response to Beauvoir’s claims that his will to power results in a tyrannical solipsism. This reinterpretation refutes the claim that Nietzsche’s socio-political myth necessarily falls into solipsism. However, ultimately, via a Beauvoirian inspired counter response, Nietzsche’s socio-political myth nonetheless falls into the spirit of seriousness, which, if naturalized and adhered to, becomes oppressive. I argued Nietzsche’s socio-political myth becomes an oppressive ideology, naturalized and adhered to, because it limits the continuous movement of freedom, the movement between the immanent, negative, internal, and the transcendent, positive, and external aspects of existence.
 Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. by Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale (New York City: Vintage Books, 1989).
 Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity, trans. Bernard Frechtman (New York City: Citadel Press, 1976).
 Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier (New York City: Vintage Books, 2011).
 Nietzsche, p. 17
 Ibid. pp. 17; 20
 Ibid. pp. 25-26
 Ibid. p. 25
 Ibid. pp. 36-37
 Ibid. pp. 30-31; 33-34; 36-37
 Ibid. pp. 25-26; 28; 30-31; 36-37
 Ibid. pp. 28; 33-34
 Ibid. pp. 33-34; 36
 Ibid. p. 36
 Ibid. pp. 33-34
 Ibid. pp. 36-37; 39
 Ibid. p. 34
 Ibid. pp. 33-34; 38; 42-43
 Ibid. pp. 38; 46; 79
 Ibid. pp. 84-85; 87
 Ibid. p. 95
 Ibid. pp. 87-88
 Ibid. p. 78
 Ibid. p. 79
 Ibid. pp. 84-85
 Ibid. p. 45
 Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity, pp. 14-15
 Ibid. p. 46
 Ibid. pp 47-48
 Ibid. p. 75
 Ibid. p. 13
 Ibid. p. 7
 Ibid. pp. 14-15
 Ibid. pp. 24-25
 Ibid. pp. 13-14
 Ibid. pp. 14-15; 24-25
 Ibid. pp. 26-28
 Ibid. p. 28
 Ibid. pp. 28-29
 Ibid. p. 28
 Ibid. p. 29
 Ibid. p. 30
 Ibid. pp. 71-72
 Ibid. p. 59
 Ibid. p. 61
 Ibid. pp. 62-63
 Ibid. p. 63
 Ibid. p. 102
 Ibid. p. 24
 Nietzsche, p. 77
 Ibid. p. 78
 Ibid. pp. 78-79
 Ibid. p. 44
 Ibid. p. 39
 Ibid. p. 44
 Ibid. p. 38
 Ibid. p. 49
 Ibid. p. 48
 Ibid. pp. 44-45
 Ibid. p. 46
 Ibid. pp. 34; 53
 Ibid. p. 32
 Beauvoir, The Second Sex, p. 266
 Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity, p. 46
 Ibid. p. 48
 Ibid. p. 50
 Ibid. p. 59