Nietzsche and “Herd Values”

Here is another set of responses to a question about Nietzsche’s influence, taken from an article in Eurozine (Previous excerpts were posted here on July 12.) The question asked of experts this time is in reference to Nietzsche’s concept of “herd values.” Jan Sokol and Leslie Paul Thiele have different takes on this oft-discussed aspect of Nietzsche’s writings, and both are certainly worthy of further thought and discussion.

How do you understand Nietzsche’s project of the revaluation of all values? Do you think that it commits him to moral and cultural nihilism? In particular, what do you make of Nietzsche’s critique of “herd values”?

Jan Sokol:

To regard Nietzsche as a nihilist is a mistake, an unobservant reading. He was rather an excessively sensitive person horrified by a world where nothing has rules and stands for nothing. Indeed, a “nihilist” is a curse word thrown at others. Nietzsche occasionally calls even himself a nihilist, but for an entirely different reason: everybody has a mouth full of values, but in reality they all behave like cattle, like a well-fed “herd”. What they call “values” are only wooden idols which overthrow themselves. People do not seek any “values”; rather they follow the others like the herd. It is also true today that only what is rare, difficult, risky and demanding has value, and we all avoid these things. We prefer to wait for how things turn out.

In one matter Nietzsche, like Heidegger, may be mistaken. It is, in fact, extremely difficult for us today to step courageously out of the “herd” (Heidegger’s das Man, or in present-day terms “the mainstream”). For a person to dare to do this, he needs at least the hope that failure will not mean personal catastrophe. The economy is well equipped for this: it has “limited liability companies”, insurance and bankruptcy regulations. But in the realms of morality and of personal evaluation, the person has lost, together with Christianity, such concepts as repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. Without them, it is difficult to risk losing – especially when, as Pascal says, we do not lack much.

Leslie Paul Thiele:

Nietzsche wrote: “My philosophy aims at an ordering of rank: not at an individualistic morality. The ideas of the herd should rule in the herd – but not reach out beyond it.” Revaluing all values is not rejecting all values. When Nietzsche re-evaluates our moral habits, he underlines how they become obstacles to freedom when they serve as final destinations. But that is not to reject their uses and benefits. They can be well exploited as stepping stones.

The highest in rank give evidence of a constant striving for excellence. This striving produces endemic change in the individual who is involved in the project of overcoming himself. Just as there is a role for personal habits, and for a need to go beyond them in all self-overcoming, so there is a need for herd values, and a need to go beyond them. Herd values, which I understand to be moral habits conducive to a common life, are precious achievements that contribute to our personal and social constitutions. Though Nietzsche is often read as advocating their wholesale abandonment, I believe he understood the need to build upon them.

“Let us live above ourselves,” Nietzsche advocated in a letter, “in order that we may be able to live with ourselves.” To live above oneself is to rise above the habitual and herd-like. But, in the end, the goal is to live with oneself, including all those personal and social habits that make one a unique individual and human being. The purpose of human life is not the establishment of a utopia in which the victorious forces of radical individualism and free spiritedness have eliminated all herd values and personal habits. Life has no purpose but itself. The battle between individual spirit and herd-like habits is not a prelude to some future state of tensionless existence. The good life is a life of daily struggle with the habitual and herd-like in each of us, a struggle that does not deprecate what it seeks to surpass. Such deprecation would constitute a defamation of life.

I’ve written about Nietzsche in terms of the politics of the soul. The basic assumption is that anything Nietzsche says about external, worldly politics is a reflection of his hopes and fears concerning his own internal constitution. Likewise, the psycho-spiritual self-overcoming that he charts with such acuity in his writings, find their models in worldly power struggles. So, my claim here is that the order of rank that Nietzsche celebrates is meant to be achieved first and foremost within ones own soul. In this internal constitution, Nietzsche acknowledges, herd values have their place. Like personal habits, they serve as stable foundations that allow for the flight of free spirit. Take away the tarmac, and you never get off the ground.

8 Replies to “Nietzsche and “Herd Values””

  1. EuropeanDoGgGg says:

    Very interessting, and one of the topics u wil not see very quck on the net ! I always thought that we have to need the herd value’s, cause there are always a certain number who havent reach it yet, so there is always a constant elevating line, wich is completly filled, with everyone on a different step/rank.( im dutch so i hope i uderstand it )

  2. […] herd values. I referenced a memorable passage about Nietzsche on this topic in an earlier post which seems particularly relevant […]

  3. Nietzsche…..!!!
    Ich bewundere dich, jede deine Titel, jede deine Buchstabe, jede deine
    Gedanke! Weil Du ein geistige und intellektuelle Gigant bist und bleibst.
    Koerperlich bist Du nicht mehr da, aber geistig bist Du im meinem Herz!
    Du hattest fur wenige geschrieben, und so einer bin ich!

    Mark! Atheist 100

  4. Vielen Dank für Ihre Bemerkung.

  5. the re evaluation of all values is constant requirement in the quest for truth and honesty to relate with the human herd through the spirit which is a spiritual need

  6. Bob the Chef says:

    Hmm, not sure I agree completely with your assessment of Nietzsche. Besides, reading the original manuscripts is a problem in and of itself. His language is not always easily understood, and contradictions appear to arise. Hiedegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche is given considerable criticism by Kaufmann who appears to be the most cited interpreter today.

    In his “Geneology of Morals” Nietzsche outlines what he sees, regardless of its historical merit, as the purpose and development of morals. He rejects Schopenhauer’s assertion that the fundamental force of the universe is the will to life, and instead pronounces, the will to power, der Wille zur Macht, as the ultimate force. Morality thus is an invention used by masters to bind the herd into slavery. Nietzsche at the same time accuses Christianity of being an expression of a slave morality, a Platonism for the people. He emphasizes that philosophers are a metaphorical dynamite, meant to demolish in some respect and expose the nothingness of morality and at least a certain formulation of value.

    Furthermore, Nietzsche finds Buddhism admirable, although because of his apparent horror in the face of what he calls nihilism, he accuses Buddhism of nihilism. However, Nietzsche was, like many in the West, not very familiar with Buddhism and in fact Buddhists have levied criticisms against Nietzsche not so much for the recognition, of at least some things, of the nothingness at the bottom of it all, but for his supposed solution (the Ubermensch) which is seen as committing the same error as the one he sought to correct. It’s also not clear to me how nihilism is possible to anyone who isn’t a closet Platonist. Nihilism in the Buddhist sense is freedom, and their philosophy of negation is a means of clearing the mind so that it can experience existence without being clouded by the lies of symbols and ideas. In the western sense, it is often used to describe, almost foolishly, and tacitly, a despair that arises when the Platonic swindlery is exposed to someone who bought it hook, line and sinker. It’s the contrast or dualism between expectation and reality, that sneaky Platonism, that arguably sets the stage for nihilism.

    So yes, there is an individualism to Nietzsche. To deny it is to deny the will to power and to descend into nihilism.

  7. Thanks for this very detailed and thoughtful response. Since I posted this about 2 years ago, I need to get back into that mindset to fully evaluate your points. But I will, as soon as I return from 10 days in the wilds of Canada…Hope to hear from you again.

  8. Paul Adkin says:

    I disagree with both Sokol and Thiele (or at least with their arguments in the excerpts you’ve published here). The first’s surrendering conclusion that stepping out of the herd is too difficult these days, sounds like pure cowardly cinicism. “The system is bad, but who are we to try and break out of its clutches.”
    Nevertheless Sokol is right that society needs to find or recuperate some basic concepts in order to do this. My gripe with Sokol would be that he seems to indicate that this shift is impossible. I think the “real” substance of this question resides in precisely just that. Sokol is right that Nietzche was wrong in proposing his radical Will to Power which in fact is a totally conservative concept that has, if anything, bolstered up the Consumerist/surplus Herd that has been growing since the Industrial revolution and whose roots are in Cartesianism. We need to now find and inculcate a different kind of Will, one that is the almost absolute opposite of the now dominant Will to Power.
    As for Thiele’s contribution. I think he intuitively senses Nietzsche’s conservativism. The herd is now no longer a flock of sheep but a gaggle of thousands of millions of noisy geese. Each one a proud individual and a member of the flock at the same time. His argument that the individual needs the herd to rise up from is also, in the Capitalist Will to Power /Will to-want-more world, an absolutely conservative one. But the main issue at stake in our shrinking world is that of the effects of our consumer/surplus culture expansion. The Will to Power / Will to Want More is eating up our planet. What we need now is a change of will. The Will to Power will only throw us over the cliff.

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