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How Nietzsche’s Will to Power Still Leads Us Astray

Whether or not God is dead, Nietzsche’s “will to power” holds sway in America’s halls of power. Consider a recent exchange [1] between former assistant attorney general Barbara Babcock and a 33-year-old female lawyer during a forum on women in the law at the New York City Bar Association. (Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was also on the panel.) A few excerpts from that Q&A demonstrate the degree to which Nietzsche has replaced classical understandings of work and life’s purpose:

Audience member: I am a 33-year-old single female attorney. That leaves a question I sadly get asked more often, if I am getting my eggs frozen, because I don’t have children and I’m supposed to apparently, at my age. At this place in my life I find myself at a crossroads in my career. Do I move on and become more powerful and advance my career, or do I stay where I am and try to develop that other side of my life? I’m finding myself stuck…. I don’t know which way to go.

Barbara Babcock: I would really say work on your career…. You can do other things at the same time, but your career is the important thing to get. Because you will get better at it the more that you do it. That is what I would say. Don’t give up on that. You might find other things. There are so many things you can do in the law. You may find other things to do, but concentrate on what you would call your career…. If you are a good lawyer and are getting better all the time, you’ll always have a meaningful, good life.

Perhaps most arresting in this exchange is how the audience member contextualizes her dilemma regarding career and family: to “become more powerful.” There is no ideal of self-sacrificial public service as with Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Babcock, herself a former public servant, does nothing to repudiate the questioner’s perspective, instead exhorting her to focus on her career as a means to personal fulfillment. And there are plenty of other flawed premises in this exchange: that one can only “get better” by prioritizing one’s profession; that a career is the only means to a “meaningful, good life”; that children are our possessions, notches on the belt of our self-actualization.

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Feminism and careerism, as with many other contemporary “isms”—materialism, utilitarianism, globalism—all embrace this Nietzschean paradigm that ranks power as the essential quality. As Nietzsche himself put it:

My idea is that every specific body strives to become master over all space and to extend its force (—its will to power:) and to thrust back all that resists its extension. But it continually encounters similar efforts on the part of other bodies and ends by coming to an arrangement (“union”) with those of them that are sufficiently related to it: thus they then conspire together for power. And the process goes on…

This thinking is inimical not only to the American political experiment as the Founders envisioned it—with their emphasis on virtue, sacrifice, and service [2]—but to our nature as human beings. There is a different vision of ourselves and our role in the republic that we should promote, one with ancient pedigree and the potential to engender meaningful and good lives that will also bless our communities. It is the paradigm of gift and self-gift.

Demonstrative of how little humans have changed in the past 2,500 years, Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics notes that many seek to find their ends by gaining renown, or sensual pleasure, or wealth and possessions. Yet all of these pursuits, Aristotle argues, are fleeting, even though all are pursued in order to achieve a greater good, that of happiness. Happiness, Aristotle argues, must be “something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action.” In contrast to Babcock, Aristotle argues this happiness is achieved through a pursuit of virtue:

For no function of man has so much permanence as virtuous activities…and of these themselves the most valuable are more durable because those who are happy spend their life most readily and most continuously in these; for this seems to be the reason why we do not forget them. The attribute in question, then, will belong to the happy man, and he will be happy throughout his life….

Even if misfortune attends such a person, virtue will enable him or her to persevere through trial: “Yet even in these nobility shines through, when a man bears with resignation many great misfortunes, not through insensibility to pain but through nobility and greatness of soul.” In his Politics, Aristotle connects this idea to the role of the citizen in society, who must exemplify virtues like prudence, temperance, and justice in order to fulfill his role for the good of the city.

For Aristotle, man must pursue the virtuous life of the good citizen to achieve his natural end. He sketches an inchoate concept of life as gift (i.e. with a supernatural origin and end) in his Metaphysics when he cites an “unmoved mover” from which all being originates. This idea acquires fuller form in Thomas Aquinas, who, drawing on both classical philosophy and biblical theology, presumes that life is gift. In his Summa Theologiae, Aquinas speaks of a “First Good” that diffuses itself to all things, and says that all goods “share the power of diffusion.” Whether one calls this being an “unmoved mover,” a “first good,” the “origin of the universe,” or God, life originates as gift from this external source.

Such a belief was widespread and influential among America’s Founders. Thomas Jefferson, for example, argued: “He [God] has taken care to impress its precepts so indelibly on our hearts that they shall not be effaced by the subtleties of our brain.” George Washington in turn begged that God “dispose us all to do justice, to love mercy.” This idea also appears in the Declaration of Independence and its reference to man being “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” The Pledge of Allegiance likewise declares “one nation under God.”

If our lives are indeed “not our own” but gifts from some external source, the appropriate response is certainly gratefulness, but also justice in the sense of giving to others what is their due. “To whom much is given, much is required.” Yet our obligation to pursue the good of society reaps manifold benefits—as Aristotle and Aquinas argue, the pursuit of virtue is the means by which we realize our own happiness. Indeed, in pursuing “the good life” (conceived classically), we create a society more just, more temperate, and more loving. In giving ourselves, we don’t lose anything, but become better, more capable men and women.

Alternatively, the unquenchable thirst for power makes us less men and more beasts, casting us into unending competition that exhausts our bodies and progressively warps our minds and intellects back onto ourselves. We stack up awards, trophies, and accolades in a cult of self-worship that barely outlasts our existence on this planet. If we pursue families and children as an extension of this cult of vanity, they too will disappoint; when we then choose to ignore or leave them, the damage inflicted will ripple throughout kin and society.

If instead we interpret our careers not as sociological experiments for personal actualization, but as gifts and the means to grow in virtue, we create something that blesses our families and communities. We make our professions, like our families, opportunities for self-gift, where we willingly offer up a part of ourselves in service to something greater. Similarly, when we seek spouses and children “to love and to serve,” rather than to use for our own purposes, we contribute to a good that transcends us and brings us deeper contentment.

Furthermore, defining life as gift and self-gift rather than the appropriation of power allows us to perceive many social and political issues through a different lens. A society should protect life in the womb because the embryo is a gift, and in the gift of self necessarily required by fatherhood and motherhood, we manifest our humanity. Similarly, a society should reject the euthanasia of the elderly, terminally ill, and depressed, because their lives, no matter painful, remain gifts and opportunities for self-gift, both for those who suffer and those who should love them. Nor should we repudiate our sexual biology—it too is an essential element of our gifted nature as human persons and the means by which we gift ourselves to others to create life.

When we understand life as randomly derived and defined by “survival of the fittest” and aimed at maximizing power, we inevitably hurt not only ourselves but our nation. We compete for an ephemeral glory that fades with our bodies and intellects only to be largely forgotten apart from a few paragraphs in the local newspaper. When we understand life as a gift that calls us to live in humility and thankfulness, eager to grow in virtue and serve our fellow man, we find a truer sense of fulfillment that fosters beautiful societies that cooperate in the common good. We build families and flesh-and-blood networks that stand the test of time.

Babcock and Ginsberg should not have told that young lawyer to press forward in her materialist enterprise for power and personal fulfillment. Nor should they have told her to quit her job, find a man, and start a family out of some societal obligation or biological necessity. Rather, Babcock and Ginsberg should have corrected the deeper problem with the attorney’s view of herself and the world. However that young professional determines to spend the rest of her life, she should spend it not on herself, but on others, for their good and that of the polis. Think of what a different America we’d have if more lawyers took that road “less traveled by.”

Casey Chalk is a student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College. He covers religion for TAC.

20 Comments (Open | Close)

20 Comments To "How Nietzsche’s Will to Power Still Leads Us Astray"

#1 Comment By Otto On July 17, 2018 @ 10:56 pm

The B-I-B-l-E, yes that’s the book for me.

#2 Comment By Craig Greenman On July 17, 2018 @ 11:37 pm

Dear Mr. Chalk,

Thank you for your well-written piece. Unfortunately, I think you have a number of misunderstandings, including of Nietzsche and Aristotle. (I am a philosophy professor at a small private college in New Hampshire.)

First, gosh, you’re reading an awful lot into the young attorney’s question! She strikes me as posing a perfectly reasonable query about the tension between the public and the private — in her case, between motherhood and work. Many women and men have struggled with that tension, and women, who have traditionally had less power in the public space, suffer from it especially. And because the attorney uses the word “power” to discuss her work, you assume she is deeply embedded in self-seeking, materialistic grandeur. All of which you trace back to ol’ Fred Nietzsche.

I’ve taught Nietzsche many times, and I would suggest that you’re painting him with too broad of a brush. Nietzsche, if nothing else, is a complex and paradoxical thinker — in the way that we are all complex and paradoxical beings. Therein lies his truth, when he has it (and he doesn’t always have it): He’s human, all too human. And he’s pretty honest — one might even say, self-sacrificial — about expressing it. In any case, his concept of “power” is far more complex than your interpretation suggests. It includes not just the nasty things you mention, and that many of us disdain, but things like helping people — which also gives us a sense of power: the power to make someone’s life better. And when I join with someone in an honest, intimate partnership — or with good colleagues in a public partnership — I may form a stronger, more powerful world, with better, more beautiful bonds. “Power” isn’t necessarily a dirty word, as you know from the Catholic tradition, where God has an awful lot of it. I would suggest you take a look at “The Gay Science” (also translated as “Joyful Wisdom”), which contains some of the best and worst examples of Nietzsche’s notion of power — which, again, is complex. He was a human being, after all.

Secondly, Aristotle, if we read him openly and not quite as weighted by Aquinas’ interpretation as you have, is far closer to Nietzsche — or rather, vice versa — than you claim. In fact, if you were going to go looking for an ancient Greek philosopher whose ethics is most like Nietzsche’s (who was, incidentally, rather interested in moderation in diet, action, and other things; he chastised Germans for drinking too much beer: “water is sufficient,” I believe he said), it would be Aristotle. Aristotle wants us to be “happy,” as you rightly point out; but that term, “eudaemonia,” can also be translated as “flourishing” — living well. And those who feel safe, strong, and free — who feel, let’s say, if we can dispense with only the pejorative sense of the term, “powerful” — are more likely to live well. Vice comes from being weak and petty, resentful and jealous, or lacking what we need. We get more grumpy when we’re sick. We lie to protect ourselves when we’re afraid. We steal when we covet, when we lack something. (For Descartes, God lacks nothing — he’s the most powerful — and that’s part of being most perfect, and a being who will never deceive you.) Very powerful beings, flourishing beings, don’t lie, cheat, or steal: They act with “virtue,” or for Aristotle, “arete” — also translated as “excellence.” This isn’t a moralistic conception of “virtue,” as per our more contemporary Christian tradition; it’s “being good at being human” — so that a “virtuous” knife, by analogy, is one that cuts well (see Terence Irwin’s translation of “Nichomachean Ethics” on Hackett).

My point: Being powerful in Nietzsche’s sense and being “happy” ( = “flourishing”) in Aristotle’s sense are not opposed; they’re very like one another. See, for example, Aristotle’s comments on the magnanimous person in the “Nichomachean Ethics”: It’s a person who knows her own worth, and her own power.

One final point on Aristotle: He doesn’t actually think, surprisingly, that the life of action — say, of self-sacrifice in the public space — is the most virtuous. He reserves that for the life of study, or theory. Aristotle says, yes, do virtuous actions if you want to live like a human being; but since we have a divine element in us — “nous,” or our “active intellect” — why not live like a god? Why not think? Aristotle says that one reason why study is so great is that it can be done without other people! So we’re a long way from self-sacrifice here; after all, the Greeks had slaves to do the nasty work while they did philosophy. (I am putting that facetiously, but there’s a good deal of truth in it.)

Finally! (And I’m sorry to go on so long.) If life is a gift, if all the things we have are a gift, then cancer is a gift, and mental illness, and toothaches, and . . . and for any of us who have been affected by these, directly or indirectly, we may have a hard time simply being thankful for them. Again, for an argument premised on a certain sort of humility, you’re asking a lot of folks whom you’ve never met to accept a lot of “gifts” that seem pretty darned stinky. I say that humorously because it’s a deadly serious topic, the whole problem of evil thing (which I’m sure you’re acquainted with). It doesn’t nullify the possibility of what you believe, but one should recognize that not all gifts are good gifts to the recipients.

All in all, I’d say, let’s let the attorney ask her question without inflicting on her a whole article (!) identifying her with the problems of the social universe. Let let her try to get some advice from other female lawmakers or judges who inhabit both the public and the private space. She may get good advice, she may get bad advice — that’s a question for another day and outside of my ken here — but gosh, let’s let her ask the question without launching into a discourse on her. That seems like the humble thing to do, no? If I may say so, it also seems like the gentlemanly thing to do. Women need space to ask questions and talk about these issues with other women, just like we boys need our spaces to do the same.

In any case, thanks again for your thought-provoking piece, and good luck with your studies. Take care.

#3 Comment By Craig Greenman On July 17, 2018 @ 11:50 pm

P.S.

I really do apologize for going on so long. it’s not terribly humble of me, either.

Craig

#4 Comment By Robert T Rockwell On July 18, 2018 @ 6:57 am

Your understanding of Nietzsche is extremely superficial and therefore extremely flawed.
If you had read literally any of his work the HE actually published, then you would know that the conclusions you’re drawing about his intent are erroneous.

Nice try though, dippy!

#5 Comment By Centralist On July 18, 2018 @ 7:36 am

I am not a good Christian by any meaning of the word. I though find your statements about Nietzsche to be correct. The reason his message resonates so much today is people feel they are in constant state of war. Few people form real long term friendships anymore. A society of aliens there is only war.

#6 Comment By Mel Profit On July 18, 2018 @ 7:46 am

No one has been as misinterpreted, or used by so many writers to sell so many different goods, as Nietzsche. Yes, our man espoused the ‘will to power’, but at the same time condemned most of its manifestations as lacking in nobility. He admired Caesar, Napoleon, Emerson and above all Goethe–I suspect he would have dismissed the feminist lawyers the author cites as mere ‘last men’ with skirts.

Nietzsche understood very well that the transvaluation of all values would complete the inversion of rank that was the focus of his indictment of the Christianized West. But Gordon Gekko or Ayn Rand’s heroes, much less ditzy girls playing Machiavel, were not at all what he had in mind as ‘supermen’.

#7 Comment By I Don’t Matter On July 18, 2018 @ 8:36 am

However that young professional determines to spend the rest of her life, she should spend it not on herself, but on others, for their good and that of the polis. Think of what a different America we’d have if more lawyers took that road “less traveled by.”, Casey says.

Yes Casey, always somebody else should be doing something virtuous, never me. I’m perfect, spending my life not on myself. If only other people were better, America would be a paradise.

Can’t be said often enough: don’t tell others what to do, and they won’t tell you where to go.

#8 Comment By Frank W On July 18, 2018 @ 9:52 am

I was expecting some poor Nietzsche scholarship here. But wow. Pull a quote out of context from an *unpublished* work, interpret it as saying something as boring as “Men are like beasts.” Call it a day’s work. Yikes. Leopold and Loeb want their Nietzsche cliffnotes back.

#9 Comment By Jon On July 18, 2018 @ 10:11 am

Another read of Nietzsche as indicated in your quote is that the will to power is equivalent to Spinoza’s conatus and what Hans Jonas defined as “the fact of life willing itself” and not necessarily the domination over others. It is neither the pursuit of pleasure as an end goal nor is it an inner urge to colonize the other for lebensraum. But rather, the will to power is no less than the urge to will one’s self. Conatus or the will to power must remain inherently ambiguous for it be a continual source of meaning. It is not limited to personal aggrandizement but something much larger in scope and implication that must remain amorphous.

If in Aristotle’s Nicomachian Ethics happiness must be situated on a permanent base, his conclusion that winning the approval and hence esteem of others as its ultimate purpose and thus highest good does not place it on a stable pedestal. We therefore must look to other texts for inspiration and perhaps find it in Nietzsche’s notion of the will to power.

And as in you quote from Nietzsche, this will to power leads to union with others. That would imply that society is nothing less than the collective and thus collaborative expression of this will to power. In other words, this agglomeration of individual conatus becomes a colossus, in short, humanity’s will to power.

In toto, this will to power is ultimately a gift, the gift of life. It is life giving onto life. And we can regard the divine if we so choose as the foundation for life which permeates life enabling it to give of itself to itself.

Such an understanding of the will to power can never be limited to a single ur text or myth but finds expression in multiple forms allowing for a vast divergence of viewpoints and opinions. Then the highest good as this particular read of Nietzsche considers is one that remains essentially open-ended and not constricted to one scripture and one religion and a rigorously defined but narrow ethos.

#10 Comment By Frank Healy On July 18, 2018 @ 11:39 am

I’m glad we can see that no one has ever grasped the Christian ethics of self-sacrifice to gain power and overcome resentment.

To reduce Nietzsche’s thought to materialism is another way of making him a straw man.

#11 Comment By Youknowho On July 18, 2018 @ 12:51 pm

How about leaving Nietzsche alone for a while, since he is read more in more rarified circles, and attacking his bar sinister disciple, Ayn Rand, who is far more widely known, read, and followed – to the point that nominally Catholics like Paul Ryan take her for a prophet? She is far more destructive than he is.

#12 Comment By Bartolomé de las Casas On July 18, 2018 @ 12:54 pm

According to the Christian New Testament, a person can live in a non-Nietzschean, non-“Will to Power” way ONLY if they have been Born Again and thus are possessed by and under the control of the Holy Spirit of Almighty God. (Galatians 5:17)

According to the Christian New Testament, this state of being will be present only in a tiny minority of the people of the earth, and never in the great majority of the people of any nation. (Matthew 7:13-14)

Catholicism has developed its “Natural Law” concept, which posits that people, without or without being Born Again, can live virtuous lives. But according to the New Testament, that’s false.

The Conservative Movement is based on the idea that there’s no need to be consciously Born Again and no need a member of Christ’s church. This is why the Conservative Movement always fails and will always fail.

No amount of philosophizing or theologizing is a substitute for being actually indwelt by the Holy Spirit of God.

#13 Comment By James Keye On July 18, 2018 @ 2:01 pm

As a Grad student 50+years ago studying Adler and thus Nietzsche, I was never comfortable (intellectually comfortable) with the will to power concept. There is obviously something like that idea functioning in human relations; I have replaced in my thinking with ‘will to advantage’, a more subtle form of the idea and, for me at least, more functionally descriptive of our behavior.

#14 Comment By Hunter C On July 18, 2018 @ 2:08 pm

The nobility and transcendent value of self-sacrifice are usually preached loudest by those who honor them the least.

If it is a civilization ending catastrophe for the lower classes to catch on to this and stop uncritically accepting this narrative, then bring on the catastrophe. It would be preferable to another thousand years of lies, hypocrisy and tyranny by kings and church fathers.

#15 Comment By Bartolomé de las Casas On July 18, 2018 @ 3:51 pm

So humorous (and sad) to see once again, in these Comments, all the insistent claims that Nietzsche promoted nothing but a kind humanitarianism, and that he is being grossly misinterpreted by those who say that he promoted principles that can rightly be deemed immoral, anti-social, brutal, cruel, or destructive.

#16 Comment By Carlo Cristofori On July 18, 2018 @ 8:45 pm

When Nietzsche-philes, who consider themselves “conservatives”, come out to defend or praise the master as they frequently do on TAC it is really quite astounding.

And so the learned commentators who pummeled poor Mr. Casey did not fail to disappoint. However, Bartolomé de las Casas gets it right:

“So humorous (and sad) to see once again, in these Comments, all the insistent claims that Nietzsche promoted nothing but a kind humanitarianism, and that he is being grossly misinterpreted by those who say that he promoted principles that can rightly be deemed immoral, anti-social, brutal, cruel, or destructive.”

#17 Comment By Wayne Lusvardi On July 19, 2018 @ 1:41 am

This is beautifully written but Christian scriptures don’t provide what to do when a person is a leader of a nation. Would opposing the “will to power” be best in all circumstances? Quite obviously no for political leaders. However, Christian virtues should apply in all other situations.

#18 Comment By Jon On July 19, 2018 @ 9:39 am

And the sheeple bleat out conformity to a single text by which their lives are circumscribed. And the sheeple take offense when a few individuals seek to live and thus think apart from the maddening crowd, from those who subscribe to a single work which is the redacted accumulation of tales put to the pen.

They decry certain failure to those who valiantly defy the odds knowing it is not adherence to a word deadened by strict adherence which guarantees life but life itself.

In existence one his humbled, thrust from the lofty heights of pride and the illusion of wielding power. As one ages, dignity is slowly lost. But it is the heroic nay courageous act of defiance against these odds which is the sole engine of value and of worth and thus of virtue (virtus).

Instead they argue for the enslavement of humanity to this so-called word, this adherence to a text that was once the collective imagination of a bronze age nation. And in their impotence will away through words the valiant struggle against life’s adversities. But when they become powerful, seize the instrument of the state to drive those who embrace this valiant struggle to the lions so to speak.

It was once asked of an old scholar on such matters about finding the Paraclete. He replied, “Over there in the shadow cast by that red maple tree. By nightfall the shadow disappears.”

We are lost in that shadow which has long disappeared leaving nothing but the twilight of humanity. A witness to this debacle has taken note as if he could ever leave to posterity his jottings whole and understood by a few. Alas, before his demise was felled by a mysterious illness and had remained silent under the care of his sister.

Perhaps that through his writing and then ten years of silence, he had embraced his fate (amor fati) as though he chose it. And by writing and by his involuntary silence fought the valiant fight against the vagaries wrought by this world upon the individual.

#19 Comment By Frank Healy On July 19, 2018 @ 12:07 pm

Well, at least we can all agree that the drop-off in belief, the empty churches, the hollow rhetoric, the numerous and disgusting church scandals, are all NOT evidence of the “highest values devaluing themselves” or, to put it another way, nihilism.

“Conservative Christians” might want to ask themselves where liberal secular humanism CAME from and if they were even able to restart the clock, why this nihilism wouldn’t reappear again, with its own inexorable logic.

I am always reminded of people who love kittens, but hate cats. Well, kittens grow up to be cats and Judeo-Christianity grows up to be liberal secular humanism. The egalitarianism and the social justice are “baked in.”

See Galatians 3:28, Acts 10:34, etc.

The Europeans who have studied Hegel grasp this.

“What is Christianity? It’s the holy spirit. What is the holy spirit? It’s an egalitarian community of believers who are linked by love for each other, and who only have their own freedom and responsibility to do it. In this sense, the holy spirit is here now.”

– Slavoj Žižek (at Occupy Wall Street)

“Universalistic egalitarianism, from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life in solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk.”

– Jürgen Habermas

#20 Comment By Tzx4 On July 20, 2018 @ 12:02 pm

“reject the euthanasia of the elderly, terminally ill, and depressed, because their lives, no matter painful, remain gifts”
??
Please, if at the end of my life I am in searing pain, allow me (via appropriate plans and documentation) to end my suffering. Imposing prolonging of my suffering on me is tantamount to torture, and illogically clinging to what is ultimately a impermanent existence.