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Why must Nietzsche’s virtue be ineffable?

For quite a long time now I have been struggling with the Nietzschean notion of the pri­vate, ineffable virtue. Here I want to go some way toward explaining why Nietzsche’s virtue really must be private, and toward elucidating what implications this has for how we should read Nietzsche more generally.

The passage I will focus on comes from Thus Spoke Zarathustra, part one, in the section titled “On the Passions of Pleasure and Pain”. (I am using the Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy edition, translated by Adrian del Caro.) The section begins (p. 24):

My brother, if you have one virtue, and it is your virtue, then you have it in common with no one.

To be sure, you want to call her by name and caress her; you want to tug at her ear and have fun with her.

And behold! Now you have her name in common with the people and have become the people and the herd with your virtue!

You would do better to say: “Unspeakable and nameless is that which causes my soul agony and sweetness and is even the hunger of my entrails.”

Let your virtue be too high for the familiarity of names, and if you must speak of it, then do not be ashamed to stammer about it.

It is clear that Nietzsche has a deep skepticism of attaching names to virtues. Why? The argument seems to be that if a virtue is truly one’s own, then it is not shared. Language, however, is of necessity public—words are shared between members of a linguistic community. To give the virtue a name is thus to make it public, to forgo one’s ownership of it. To understand this argument, I want to think about Nietzsche as a moral perfectionist, and relate this to some points made, in an altogether different context, by the sociologist Steven Shapin, reflecting on the state of his own discipline.

In calling Nietzsche a moral perfectionist, I mean that he takes a position where the moral good (in this case, his private virtue) is in every case an overriding good: there is never cause to sacrifice adherence to one’s virtue for the sake of any other aim or good. Of course, Nietzsche considers himself an amoralist, which seems to complicate my calling him a moral perfectionist. However, Nietzsche’s amoralism amounts (as I understand it) primarily to a rejection of public morality and named virtues. It is not a rejection of the broader project aimed at addressing the broader question, “how should I live,” which I think is a clearly moral project in another perfectly good sense of the word ‘moral’. In any event, with respect to one’s private virtue, Nietzsche is a perfectionist, whether we call his brand of perfectionism ‘moral’ or not.

The crucial point is that Nietzsche cannot tolerate compromise. This comes out later in the same section, when Nietzsche has Zarathustra say, “My brother, if you are lucky then you have one virtue and no more: thus will you go more easily over the bridge” (p. 25). Why is this? Because “now nothing evil grows anymore out of you, unless it is the evil that grows from the struggle among your virtues” (p. 25). In the case where someone has multiple virtues, these may conflict, and then one or the other must be sacrificed, and this sacrifice is what, for Nietzsche, amounts to evil. This conflict arises because “each of your virtues is greedy for the highest. It wants your entire spirit, to be its herald; it wants your entire strength in rage, hatred, and love” (p. 25). The person with one virtue is lucky, because such a person can avoid evil of the Nietzschean sort.

It is this perfectionism that drives Nietzsche’s praise of the virtue that has no name. This connection can be illustrated by considering Steven Shapin’s concluding discussion in “Discipline and Bounding: The History and Sociology of Science as Seen through the Externalism-Internalism Debate” (published 1992 in History of Science 30). At the end of the paper, he discusses the move toward “purity” within the discipline—purity that divorced the study of the field from particular political aspirations. One aspect of this purity is that the concepts of the sociology of science have moved further and further away from the entrenched divisions in public discourse. (Shapin is considering Latour’s notorious actor-network theory, which rejects distinctions between e.g. ‘human being’ and ‘scallop’ in favor of categories such as ‘stronger and weaker heterogeneous associations.’ I take no stand on the worthwhileness of Latour’s project.)

Shapin does not decry, at a broad level, the move toward purity. He accepts that “our current understandings of science are arguably much better just because the older conventions and classifications have been so severely criticized. That process is irreversible, and I am sure, rightly so.” Nevertheless, moving forward, he wishes to stress the risk this poses: that the discipline might become so pure that it becomes “irrelevant to anything outside the disciplinary we have constructed.” Why? “The price of purity is privacy. As we reject distinctions… we find ourselves puzzled what to say to [people] whose understandings of the world may trade in these categories and whose practical activities in the world manipulate them.”

The worry Shapin is expounding is that, in developing a pure sociology with its own “private” concepts, there is a risk of cutting off communication with those parts of the world where the concepts rejected by sociologists still hold sway. Shapin, on this basis, urges compromise, moving back and forth between perspectives, in order to allow for such communication. He puts it pithily: “Communication imposes compromise.” Specifically, Shapin suggests that sociologists have a choice between purity and communication.

Shapin is talking about groups of people with distinct “languages” rather than solo individuals, but the tension between purity and communication is precisely the same one that Nietzsche touches upon in the passage I’ve been considering. Here it’s useful to think of Nietzsche’s account of concept-formation in “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense”. (I’m using the version published in the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, translated by Ronald Speirs.) It’s an earlier work in the Nietzsche corpus, and he never published it, so we should be wary of taking too much from it. Nevertheless, I think the discussion of concept-formation illustrates precisely the tension between communication and purity that drives the ineffability of Nietzschean virtue. In the essay, he writes:

Let us consider in particular how concepts are formed; each word immediately becomes a concept, not by virtue of the fact that it is intended to serve as a memory (say) of the unique, utterly individualized, primary experience to which it owes its existence, but because at the same time it must fit countless other, more or less similar cases, i.e. cases which, strictly speaking, are never equivalent, and thus nothing other than non-equivalent cases. Every concept comes into being by making equivalent that which is non-equivalent. […]

Like form, a concept is produced by overlooking what is individual and real, whereas nature knows neither forms nor concepts and hence no species, but only an ‘X’ which is inaccessible to us and indefinable by us.

Nietzsche’s concern here is to undermine the thought that concepts capture reality. (He goes on to call truth “a mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms, in short a sum of human relations which have been subjected to poetic and rhetorical intensification, translation, and decoration…”) Concepts all involve falsification, by treating as the same cases that are, in fact, non-equivalent. Every concept excludes features of the individual, and thus makes generalization possible. No concept captures the individual in its full individuality. (Nietzsche is right about this; it’s another matter whether it supports his strong conclusions about truth.) Conceptualization sacrifices the purity of the individual for the sake of generality. To name a virtue, then, must necessarily be to compromise it, for Nietzsche, and his perfectionism will not allow that.

This I think shows why Nietzsche’s virtue must be private and ineffable, but it raises a question Nietzsche’s larger project that I want to consider briefly. If communication is such a threat to purity, why does Nietzsche write at all? How are we to take Nietzsche’s writings? (It raises many other questions, as well, but I won’t consider them here.)

There are two fairly straightforward reasons why Nietzsche writes, and one more esoteric reason. First, a great deal of Nietzsche’s project aims at undermining the apparent hold established, public virtues have upon us. This is the point of Nietzsche’s genealogical method: it shows us that these virtues arose historically, by contingent processes that could have gone quite differently. There is no necessity to our having the virtues we have. This is a form of ground clearing: it makes room for the individualistic vision he has to come into view in the first place. Second, I think there is a positive project that accompanies this negative project. Nietzsche has to say something about the upkeep of one’s private virtue. While the virtue is one’s own, there can be generally better or worse ways of finding and cultivating one’s private virtue. Nietzsche’s works are filled with what looks like praise of various attributes (honesty, cruelty, cheerfulness)—what looks like praise of particular virtues. I think these passages should be read as passages indicating the sorts of qualities needed in order to cultivate the ineffable virtue. These two projects, positive and negative, I think make fairly good sense on the surface.

There is a third reason that Nietzsche writes, however, and it is, I think, the most puzzling and most interesting. Nietzsche writes to seduce and elevate, and deploys innumerable rhetorical tricks to these ends. For instance, he often writes to shock. Why? Because Nietzsche’s goal is ultimately to change how you live your life, and he is skeptical of the ability of passionless reason to do so. Lives are changed because they are poked, prodded, and provoked until they wake. As this sort of writer, Nietzsche is not hoping to impart truths, and the last thing he wants is followers and disciples. “You are my believers, but what matter all believers!” (Zarathustra, p. 59).

Wittgenstein, in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, famously compares his book to a ladder that brings someone to a new point of view. Once someone has climbed the ladder, they no longer need it and can kick it away. (In the Tractatus, this happens because the conclusions of the Tractatus reveal its propositions to be meaningless from the new vantage point.) Something similar goes on in Nietzsche: the person who takes Zarathustra’s message to heart is the one who rejects Zarathustra. Nietzsche captures this powerfully at the very end of part one: “You had not yet sought yourselves, then you found me. All believers do this; that’s why all faith amounts to so little. Now I bid you lose me and find yourselves; and only when you have all denied me will I return to you” (p. 59). Zarathustra’s speeches function as a prod for one to search for oneself—and such searching means not following Zarathustra, but turning away.

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