Monday, October 27, 2014

Taking a Break from Virtue

In Section Two of Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche takes to psychology to primarily explain, rather than justify, morality across a breathtaking variety of aspects and situations. Though there is some attitudinal consistency and there are a few mini-themes in this treatment, there is little in the way of broader themes. His approach is mostly cynical, consistent with his praise of Le Rouchefoucald early in the section. Each aphorism is mostly independent, though occasionally there is a sequence of related items.

It is therefore challenging to discuss this section as a whole, aside from the psychologistic method, so I have simply selected one very short aphorism to analyze. Aphorism 83 in our primary translation (Faber, 1996) is:

"When virtue has slept, it will arise refreshed."

The Zimmern translation (1914) states it as:

"When virtue has slept, it will arise again all the fresher."

And the Harvey translation (1908) has:

"If virtue goes to sleep, it will be more vigorous when it awakes."

The first question that arises with respect to this line is whether the intent is somewhat literal, indicating that a virtuous person will be even moreso after sleep. This interpretation cannot be simply rejected out of hand, even though the text exudes metaphor, since earlier, in aphorisms 12 and 13, sleeping and dreaming are addressed in some detail. In these, there is an emphasis on how the dream brings us back to an earlier phase of mankind, our cruder and more violent past. Thus it is possible that Nietzsche is here saying that when one sleeps and dreams and encounters those earlier stages of morality, one responds to that experience by a renewed enthusiasm for modern morality.

The more obvious metaphorical interpretation is that of taking a break from virtue, of releasing oneself from quotidian strictures and becoming more relaxed, perhaps more driven by the id than the superego, perhaps to sin, for a time. Subsequently we are more virtuous even than prior to our divagation. There are two primary reasons why this might be the case: first, because we feel guilty for our transgressions; second, because the repose simply enabled us to refresh those faculties that control our behavior and enable us to consistently exhibit virtue.

There is no suggestion in any of the translations as to whether Nietzsche has a preference for the cause of this effect - it appears to be merely an observation. This is slightly odd in the context of Section 2 since it is generally about the underlying psychology and motivations of our moral and immoral behavior. However, there do not seem to be other aphorisms in the section to which this one is attached, and that might further clarify the intent. He does elsewhere discuss how moral behavior progressively becomes custom or habit through repetition, and how virtues are usually judged relative to longstanding traditions. Though related, this gives us no insight into the present exegesis.

Probably less promising is to view the line as a statement about virtue in humanity in general. Through this lens it might be saying that virtuous behavior among mankind will need to pause - perhaps during a period of widespread nihilism - before it can achieve a successful revaluation of values. While this fits what we know of Nietzsche's views, his elaboration of the historical progress of morals, particularly his predictions for the future, seem relatively less mature in this work than in Beyond Good and Evil and Geneaology of Morals. More directly, since this section is mostly about moral psychology and less about historical progressions, an individual-related interpretation is probably better.

I favor the metaphorical, individual interpretation. The cultural interpretation seems farfetched for this work, and the literal interpretation would more likely have been stated differently, possibly with a mention of dreams. Finally, as a maxim, the notion that we sometimes need a break from virtue resonates well.

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