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.