Nietzsche: “The overcoming of morality, in a certain sense even the self-overcoming of morality: let this be the name for that protracted secret labor which has been reserved for the subtlest, most honest and also most malicious consciences as living touchstones of the soul.”
The terms “morality” and “moral” are rooted in the notion of “mores” (pronounced mor-ays), referring to the customs of behavior and interaction that coordinate our life together in society. According to its basic definition, to say that someone is “moral” simply means that his or her conduct validates or violates what society regards as proper, right and good. Moral behavior, in other words, can be either “good” or “bad” depending on how it lines up with accepted standards.
In popular discourse, however, we frequently use the term “moral” to classify exclusively good behavior and “morality” as the values that define “the good life.” It’s in light of this second, more popular definition that Nietzsche’s call to overcome morality has been interpreted as an attack on everything decent, noble, and good. Is he advocating for a society where theft and murder are permitted, even condoned? This would amount to a bad reading of Nietzsche. What does he really mean?
Remember that Nietzsche rejects metaphysical realism – the philosophy behind our beliefs in God and the soul as real things, “above” me and “inside” me. Religion has used these notions – these absolutes – to control the lives of believers with the promise of heaven or the threat of hell, persuading them to surrender their intelligence, creativity and freedom to a higher authority. Morality as the customs that shape and motivate human behavior in society substitutes for and renders unnecessary our capacity as individuals to face the challenges of our life together. If a rule prescribes how you should regard and act toward another person, it serves as a groove in the social landscape that pulls your behavior into alignment with what is considered right and proper.
We don’t like to admit this, but there are instances in our society where being kind to strangers or reaching out to “sinners” would be judged as contradicting the accepted customs – the morality – of the tribe. Even if there are deeper animal sympathies that naturally generate distress in us and motivate outreach when confronted with the suffering of another, these rules in many cases work to resolve the internal tension and justify our inaction. Precisely because morality controls our minds, prescribes our attitudes, and constrains our behavior it must be overcome.
Rare individuals have courageously – even maliciously, in the way they aggressively challenge and pull down the control system – accepted the guilt of breaking rules for the sake of living more spontaneously, more creatively and more responsibly in the world. They are what Nietzsche calls “the living touchstones of the soul.” Their conscientious guilt, rather than the guilty consciences of the rest of us living obediently inside the cattle tracks of morality, is the price of human redemption.
Think of them. Thank them. Join them.