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Travis Denneson Power

Society and the Individual in

Nietzsche’s The Will to Power (1999)

Travis J. Denneson

I. Introduction

In The Will to Power, specifically the section entitled "The Will to Power as Society and Individual," Nietzsche’s ideas concerning how his doctrine of the will to power is manifested in both societies as a whole and in individuals within a society are presented. This particular selection from his posthumously collected notes provides insights into Nietzsche’s views on states, institutions, and individuals that cannot be found in his other works. At the same time, however, there are a number of ideas herein which an understanding of his other works can help illuminate. The purpose here is to examine the aphorisms contained within this section in an attempt to shed some light on Nietzsche’s ideas regarding society, the individual, and the will to power.

II. The Will to Power

Before we begin, however, it should prove helpful to explain what Nietzsche’s doctrine of ‘the will to power’ actually is. A psychological presupposition of Nietzsche’s is that humans are always attempting to inflict their wills upon others. Every action toward another individual stems from a deep-down desire to bring that person under one’s power in one way or another. Whether a person is giving gifts, claiming to be in love with someone, giving someone praise, or physically harming someone, the psychological motive is the same: to exert one’s will over others. This presupposition entails that all human beings are ultimately and exclusively egoistic by nature. Therefore, according to Nietzsche, there are no truly altruistic actions. The will to power is not, however, limited to the psychology of human beings. Rather, the it is the underlying noemenal reality of the universe, which manifests itself in various ways in everything and everyone. Growth, self-preservation, domination, and upward mobility are some of the basic elements of this will, which everything in the world exhibits, according to Nietzsche. This is not to be confused with Schopenhauer’s "Will," however, though one could argue that there are residual qualities of it in Nietzsche’s "will to power." The fundamental differences between the two are that the "Will" is not concerned with power; rather it is blind striving and unintelligent. Ideas and representations are the outward manifestations of the "Will," while the "Will" itself is the inner nature or essence of the universe. This "Will," according to Schopenhauer, is never satisfied. Taking the form of desires, aspirations, lusts, and cravings in human beings, the unsatiable nature of the "Will" makes a burden out of one’s existence. Once one desire is satisfied, it merely gives rise to another, and then another, and so on. The "Will" is thus the source of all of the evil and suffering in the world. These ideas lead Schopenhauer to adopt a life-denying view of the world, since it contains nothing but suffering and the burden of satisfying unrelenting desires. Nietzsche’s "will to power," on the other hand, is a life-affirming view, in that creatures affirm their instincts to acquire power and dominance, and suffering is not seen as evil, but as a necessary part of existence which is to be embraced. Lasting pleasure and satisfaction come about as a result of being able to live according to one’s instincts–the ability to exert one’s will to power. So, as Nietzsche concludes in the very last lines of The Will to Power:

. . . –do you want a name for this world? A solution for all its riddles? A light for you, too, you best-concealed, strongest, most intrepid, most midnightly men?–This world is the will to power–and nothing besides! And you yourselves are also this will to power–and nothing besides!1

We will now look at how Nietzsche sees this will to power as being manifested both in societies and in individuals.

III. The Will to Power in Society and State

Nietzsche begins,2 in §716-719, by arguing that in the modern world, societies as a whole tell us a great deal more about the nature of mankind (as will to power) than do individuals. States act in ways toward each other for which individuals do not have the strength or courage, because states do not feel responsible for their actions as do individuals. The external behavior of the state is that of conquest and war, acting in accordance with the will to power. The state is able to engage in this behavior by dividing up the labor and executive powers among its individuals, so that no one individual can feel as though one bears significant responsibility for the state’s actions. It instills in its people values such as obedience, duty, and patriotism, while it outwardly exudes values such as strength, pride, and revenge. The former values are instilled by the state’s overpowering of the individual, so that one is compelled to serve in its interests.

As I understand these passages, individuals do not have the courage or strength to act in violent ways toward one another because of the Judeo-Christian ethical/moral code that has become ingrained in them. In other words, they cannot exert their will to power in the violent ways which they otherwise would naturally. Instead, the will to power can be found in individuals in certain disguised forms, as we will see when the will to power as individual is explicated. Feelings of potential guilt and fear of punishment (whether institutional or in a life beyond) for breaking moral and legal rules prevent them from acting in such a manner. The state, however, is not bound by Judeo-Christian-type moral duties and imperatives, so it is therefore unrestrained in the exertion of its will to power, which comes in the natural forms of violence and conquest. Nietzsche writes in §716:

The whole of ‘altruism’ reveals itself as the prudence of the private man: societies are not ‘altruistic’ towards one another–The commandment to love one’s neighbor has never yet been extended to include one’s actual neighbor.3

By "actual neighbor," I take Nietzsche to be referring to bordering states or societies, as the context would indicate. It seems then, that Nietzsche is trying to say that the violence inherent in the way a society exerts its will to power is evidence that the true nature of man is one of violence also. What Nietzsche reveals about the nature of states in these passages is interestingly similar to some of the political views which Noam Chomsky has professed–that states are fundamentally violent institutions and a state’s internally espoused values have no bearing whatsoever on its external behavior.4 This is not to say, however, that Chomsky subscribes to Nietzsche’s doctrine of the will to power, but Nietzsche does seem to anticipate Chomsky and others who have said similar such things regarding the nature of states and societies. Other than that, however, their views differ considerably. Nietzsche seems to approve of the violent conquest of others while Noam Chomsky, of course, does not.

What Nietzsche certainly does not approve of, however, is the fact that the state suppresses the natural, violent instincts of the individual to acquire power in an effort to keep one at the level of the herd. This keeping-in-check of the individual is done through the aforementioned values which are instilled and enforced by the overwhelming power of the state (which represents the herd). The herd/state’s maintenance of its power over individuals is done out of fear of those who would attempt to act upon their most natural instincts to seek power and ‘freedom’, wherein freedom, to Nietzsche, means sovereignty–to be at the top of the heap, in other words (see §770, pp. 404). This instinct to fight one’s way to the top in search of power and freedom is thus kept in check by the herd through the machinery of the state. Those who do try to act upon these instincts are branded as criminals and are removed from society. Therefore, in this respect, all truly great men, according to Nietzsche, are criminals in some respect, in that they are individuals who are courageous enough to act in a way that goes against the conformity of the herd. Nietzsche expresses this sentiment in §740:

Crime belongs to the concept "revolt against the social order." One does not "punish" a rebel; one suppresses him. A rebel can be a miserable and contemptible man; but there is nothing contemptible in a revolt as such–and to be a rebel in view of contemporary society does not in itself lower the value of a man. There are even cases in which one might have to honor a rebel, because he finds something in our society against which war ought to be waged–he awakens us from our slumber.5

The criminal is thus someone to be valued by a society, as Nietzsche would have it, instead of looked upon with moral derision. The criminal points out something about society that is in need of change, helping to jolt the rest us out of our complacency. The concept of "punishment" for criminals then, simply amounts to the "suppression of a revolt,"6 in that it is nothing more than an attempt to maintain the mediocre status quo of the herd by imprisoning (or in some cases, executing) those who deviate from it.

That the society looks upon the punished in a derogatory manner is a terrible mistake to Nietzsche. Punishment, in ancient times, was meant as a way to purify someone; to make them feel as if their debt to society had been paid. The suffering of a punishment was something which was done willingly, in order to help one to feel a sense of relief and restored dignity. Today, however, punishment does not purify in this manner; rather it heaps more indignity upon the individual due to the derogatory aspects it has taken on in modern society. Instead of making one’s peace with society like criminals in the past were able to do, an individual now comes out of a punishment as an enemy of society. Nietzsche attributes this derogatory evaluation of punishment to a time when it "became associated with contemptible men."7 Since most of those who were seen enduring punishments were of the low classes, such as slaves, punishment itself began to take on an air of the derogatory. Nietzsche’s point here, as I understand it, is that once one is finished with his punishment, he should no longer be considered a criminal and looked upon with moral contempt. For doing so does not help the criminal to be less of a contemptible man:

One can enhance only those men whom one does not treat with contempt; moral contempt causes greater indignity and harm than any crime.8

In a nutshell, then, the moral contempt which modern society feels for those individuals who attempt to gain an advantage over their herdly counterparts is still felt long after the crime has been committed and even long after the punishment has been served. In this way, society (the herd) keeps its individuals strongly in check.

Nietzsche seems to touch on something which is rather true of modern society’s treatment of criminals. Specifically, those who are punished are looked upon with moral contempt even after they have served their sentences. Once one gets out of jail, he is simply referred to as an "ex-con," and carries around with him a police record of his past transgressions against society for the rest of his life. Every time such a person fills out a job application, he must answer the question: "have you ever been convicted of a felony?" It would seem that we do not regard those who have been punished for crimes as really having "paid their debt to society," as it were, to say nothing of being perceived as "purified" individuals.

Nietzsche argues further that finding a punishment which will cause as much suffering as the suffering inflicted by the criminal is impossible, since every criminal experiences different degrees of pain and pleasure. Being that it is not possible to measure these degrees, how are we supposed to determine a punishment for such a person which would be fitting for the nature of the crime? Nietzsche suggests here that the institution of punishment thus fails to do what it sets out to do, in that it cannot possibly provide punishments which offer the same amount of pain to the criminal as the crime did to its victim. All this seems to suggest to Nietzsche that punishment as a practice should be abolished, but at the same time, he laments that it would be a great loss. By this statement, it is likely that he means it would be a loss of the pleasure one gets in being able to inflict suffering on those who have wronged one, as he discusses in On The Genealogy of Morals, second essay, section five: in ancient Rome, creditors were able to inflict painful punishments on their dilatory debtors in the form of removing body parts. They were legally given free reign to cut off as much as they felt would satisfy their loss. In the case of a society’s penal code, the relationship between creditor and debtor can be put in terms in which the debtor is someone who owes a debt to society, and only the amount of suffering which seems "fitting" for the crime (debt) will suffice as payment.

Overall, however, Nietzsche sees the criminalization of those who go against the grain as simply the herd keeping people down to their level through the use of the state. As he states in §746, such people should not be locked up, but allowed to roam free, since they would help us break out of our shared mediocrity:

Schopenhauer wanted rascals to be castrated and silly geese to be shut up in convents: from what point of view would this be desirable? The rascal has this advantage over many other men, that he is not mediocre; and the fool has this advantage over us, that he does not suffer at the sight of mediocrity. It would be more desirable that the gulf should be made wider; so rascality and folly should increase. In this way human nature would be expanded–But, after all, this is dictated by necessity; it does not depend on whether we desire it or not. Folly, rascality increase: that is part of "progress."9

What helps to maintain such mediocrity among individuals is the present type of society or state in which most societies presently function. Nietzsche highly disapproves of any society which is operated on the premises of equal rights and/or universal suffrage, or in other words, any society in which the majority maintains power in one way or another. Socialism, democracy, and anarchism all rest on the idea that there are no great or superior individuals, and therefore Nietzsche rejects them all. These forms of society represent nothing more than the rule of the herd; the rule of mediocrity. Nietzsche rejects such forms of society in favor of the aristocratic ideal, which values a higher form of man; a model for society which does in fact demonstrate a belief in great and talented individuals and an elite class. For here the herd does not have any power, and therefore does not keep in check those who stand out among them who deserve rank and recognition, or in other words, individuals are free to act upon their will to power in the natural ways.

Nietzsche then goes on, in §765, to discuss what he calls the "innocence to becoming." He rejects the idea that the weak and weary are in such a condition because of the long period of domination and oppression that they have endured at the hands of the ruling classes. The blaming of others for the condition that one happens to be in is nothing more than the act of searching for a scapegoat. People feel this need to find others responsible for their miserable condition because they do not want to feel as though there is no reason that they are what they are. This attribution of responsibility to others for one’s condition creates a pleasurable feeling of "sweet" revenge. Nietzsche attributes this practice to the Christian instinct for revenge. This instinct has taken the innocence out of existence itself, in that it has attempted to find responsibility for everything in some past intentional act. A psychological presupposition thus arose that every action has a conscious origin, and that a punishment is thus appropriate. Nietzsche sees this idea as a product of the priestly class, who wanted to invent a right for themselves to take revenge upon those who were their oppressors. In other words, responsibility for one’s station in life and one’s actions (in that they are in accordance with one’s instincts) is a product of the revenge and ressentiment of those in a state of subjugation. The fact of the matter, as Nietzsche claims, is that no one is responsible for the situation into which a person finds oneself born, or the qualities that a person has:

We others, who desire to restore innocence to becoming, would like to be the missionaries of a cleaner idea: that no one has given man his qualities, neither God, nor society, nor his parents and ancestors, nor he himself–that no one is to blame for him. There is no being that could be held responsible for the fact that anyone exists at all, that anyone is thus and thus, that anyone was born in certain circumstances, in a certain environment.–It is a tremendous restorative that such a being is lacking.10

Thus, the innocence to becoming is the idea that all existence is innocent. To hold someone or something responsible for one’s happen-to-be condition is merely to make sour grapes out of those who find themselves in more favorable circumstances. Thus, actions which stem from a healthy (not revengeful or out of ressentiment) exertion of one’s will to power must be regarded as innocent, in that they are actions that are in accordance with one’s true instincts.

IV. The Will to Power as Individual within Society Nietzsche takes it to be a fundamental error to place the goal of society in the masses, and not in the individual, as democracy and socialism do. Rather, in Nietzsche’s opinion, the masses are the means to an end. He also considers it a mistake to treat sympathy as the most valuable trait in human beings, because, as he clearly states in section seven of The Antichrist, pity asks for the multiplication of suffering (I take Nietzsche to be using pity and sympathy interchangeably enough).11 Pity makes us weak as individuals, sapping us of our ability to exert our will to power in the natural, instinctive (violent) ways that we normally would. It helps foster the herd, by guilting us into helping to preserve those who would otherwise perish of their weakness and life-denying attitudes. The most redeeming quality of humans is, of course, their instinctive will to power. In §768, Nietzsche writes about this nature of humans in the form of its "ego":

The "ego" subdues and kills: it operates like an organic cell: it is a robber and it is violent. It wants to regenerate itself–pregnancy. It wants to give birth to its god and see all mankind at his feet.12

As he says in §769, however, simply using violent force to bring another under one’s power, though it is the most natural and instinctive method, is not always the most successful. Bringing other individuals under one’s power (subjugating them) is not the same thing as simply causing them physical harm. It takes much more than that:

Every living thing reaches out as far from itself with its force as it can, and overwhelms what is weaker: thus it takes pleasure in itself. The increasing "humanizing" of this tendency consists in this, that there is an ever subtler sense of how hard it is really to incorporate another: while a crude injury done him certainly demonstrates our power over him, it at the same time estranges his will from us even more–and thus makes him less easy to subjugate.13

As we have discussed, the Judeo-Christian-type moral imperatives of the herd in democratic and socialist societies prevent the individual from acting upon one’s will to power in the normal, instinctive ways. The individual also has this "subtler sense" that physical violence alone will most likely make others resentful and indignant toward us, and may actually drive them farther away from being truly under our power. This keeping of the individual’s more violent instincts in check through the state and the "subtler sense" described above does not, however, keep one’s will to power in check as a whole. Rather, the ego learns to find other ways to exert its will to power than through the violent or forceful domination of others. No matter what type of situation individuals find themselves in, their will to power comes through in some way or another. Nietzsche calls these different ways the disguised forms of the will to power, meaning that they appear to stem from something else, such as altruism or sympathy, when they really originate in one’s instinct to bring someone under one’s own power. The first of these disguised forms of the will to power is a desire for freedom, independence, and peace. What this is at bottom, according to Nietzsche, is simply the will toward self-preservation and existence in general. One wants peace and independence so that one is not at risk from the possibly violent actions of others. Also, one does not want to become enslaved or subjugated by others. The second disguised form is that which Nietzsche calls enrollment. This form involves submission to those in power in order acquire a certain aspect of control over them. To achieve this control, one makes oneself indispensable to one’s superiors in order to obligate them into gratitude. One simply does what his superior asks and does it to the best of his ability, so much that his superior begins to see him as vital and irreplaceable. This is the kind of power that one feels over one’s employer when one is highly skilled and experienced at a certain job position that few others are willing or capable to perform at all, to say nothing of performing as proficiently. Love is also a form of enrollment, according to Nietzsche, in that it is also a way in which one gains control over the other person, while at the same time appearing to be submissive. The way in which Nietzsche talks about love is also one of the many examples of his poor attitude toward women. We are already aware that Nietzsche sees sympathy and pity as weaknesses, but he also lumps love in with this assessment as well. He looks upon women as the epitome of these "weaknesses," and often refers to love and sympathy as "effeminate" virtues. Nietzsche attributes to women exclusively, it seems, this use of love as a cunning way to gain control of others. In §777, he expresses this idea that women have used love as a means to get control of their men:

Love.–Look into it; women’s love and sympathy–is there anything more egoistic?–And if they sacrifice themselves, their honor, their reputation, to whom do they sacrifice themselves? To the man? Or is it not rather to an unbridled urge?– These desires are just as selfish even if they please others and implant gratitude–To what extent this sort of hyperfetation of one valuation can sanctify everything else!!14

Nietzsche seems to display the attitude that women can find no other way to exert their will to power but by throwing themselves at men. It is strange that he does not attribute love to people in general; rather just women. Based on his conception of love as a way of attaining dominance over another, one might conclude that, in Nietzsche’s opinion, men do not love in this way, since they are dominant over women to begin with. Aside from these concerns, however, we could say that Nietzsche’s conception of love can be attributed to both men and women, seeing as Nietzsche’s attribution of it to women exclusively is merely the result of a bias of the time in which he is writing. Anyhow, a third disguised form of the will to power is that of a sense of duty and conscience in which one feels a type of superiority over those who are really in power. Here one, or rather a group, creates and abides by a new set of values to which they hold even those who are in power accountable. This sort of thing is exactly what Nietzsche claims the Jews did during the occupation of Palestine by Rome. Being the oppressed, they inverted the noble values to make a virtue out of their own condition and an evil out of the standing of their oppressors. In this way, even though they appeared to be subjugated, they got control of the Romans through shaming and guilting them. To understand this idea better, it would be necessary to read Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, specifically the second essay, in which he describes his theory of how the Jews accomplished this revaluation of the "noble" values. This particular disguised form of the will to power can also be interpreted as a way of mastering oneself, in that one forces oneself to adopt a new system of values and dutifully abide by them as well. In this way, one inflicts one’s will to power not only on others, but also on oneself, having a mastery over one’s instincts and passions. Yet another disguised form lies in the act of praising others. When a person praises another, he/she appears to be conceding the superiority of the other in the area of whatever has been accomplished by that person. However, as Nietzsche argues in §775, what the person is doing by praising is actually affirming his/her own power in having the aptitude and qualification to assess what the other has done:

What, then is praise? A sort of restoration of balance in respect of benefits received, a giving in return, a demonstration of our power–for those who praise, affirm, judge, evaluate, pass sentence: they claim the right of being able to affirm, of being able to dispense honors. A heightened feeling of happiness and life is also a heightened feeling of power: it is from this that man praises (–from this that he invents and seeks a doer, a "subject"–). Gratitude as virtuous revenge: most strenuously demanded and practiced where equality and pride must both be upheld, where revenge is practiced best.15

Therefore, praise seems to be a way of getting back at someone for doing something that makes one feel as though one has been put under another’s power by being obligated into gratitude. In effect, it restores one’s sense of lost power at the hands of another. To sum up, the aforementioned actions are not what they appear to be on the surface, but rather they are the will to power in disguised form. Individuals are fundamentally egoistic in their pursuits, whether those pursuits look as though they are in the interests of others or not. Altruism is not possible, according to Nietzsche, and therefore neither is morality. For to even have a theory of ethics at all, one must presuppose that a psychological egoism is not essential to human nature. As Nietzsche puts it, the idea of there being selfless actions is a psychological error, out of which the concepts "moral" and "immoral" have arisen. He attributes this error, of course, to the Judeo-Christian priestly type, who professed the sinfulness of man and the accompanying instinctual drives that govern his actions. Since man’s actions and drives are egoistic by nature, as Nietzsche believes, the priestly types were compelled to prescribe actions that were selfless and unegoistic, if one wanted to act in a way that would be free from sin. Thus it became moral to act in ways that are outside of one’s own interests, and immoral to act self-interestedly. In other words, a profound value had been placed on actions that are absolutely impossible for a human being to perform, vis-à-vis, altruistic actions. Nietzsche, in these passages, is trying to wake us up to the fact that these so-called "selfless" actions have always proceeded from egoistic motives; that is, from the will to power.

V. Conclusion

The purpose of this study has been to try and illuminate what I believe to be the central ideas and themes of Nietzsche’s in the section of The Will to Power entitled "The Will to Power as Society and Individual." It is plain to see that Nietzsche is quite concerned with the damaging effects of society and the Judeo-Christian moral tradition on individuals. These overpowering forces suppress a human being’s natural instincts toward the acquisition of power, thus keeping a person at the level of the herd, left to make peace with mediocrity. Nietzsche sees this keeping-in-check of the individual’s instincts as nothing less than a revolt against nature.


1 Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Will to Power. Vintage. New York. 1968. pp. 550.

2 I will refer to the work in this manner from here on out for the sake of simplicity, while we keep in mind that it is really the editors who have arranged the book in this way.

3 Ibid. pp. 382.

4 From an excerpted lecture in the documentary film Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media. Necessary Illusions Productions. 1992.

5 Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Will to Power. Vintage. New York. 1968. pp. 391.

6 Ibid. pp. 392.

7 Ibid. pp. 393.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid. pp. 394.

10 Ibid. pp. 402.

11 Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Antichrist. Reprinted in The Portable Nietzsche. Penguin. 1954. pp. 573.

12 Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Will to Power. Vintage. New York. 1968. pp. 403.

13 Ibid. pp. 403-404.

14 Ibid. pp. 407.

15 Ibid. pp. 406-407.

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