Nietzsche on Evil, Kolakowski on Change

Jacques-Louis David,  Le Sacre de Napoléon [Coronation of Napoleon] (1805-1808), oil on canvas, 6.21 m x 9.79 m.

Jacques-Louis David, Le Sacre de Napoléon [Coronation of Napoleon] (1805-1808)

In section 4 (“What preserves the species”) of The Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche brings up the way in which the categories of good and evil function for the sake of encountering the new:

The strongest and most evil spirits have so far done the most to advance humanity: again and again they relumed the passions that were going to sleep—all ordered society puts the passions to sleep—and they reawakened again and again in the sense of comparison, of contradiction, of the pleasure in what is new, daring, untried; they compelled men to pit opinion against opinion, model against model. […] What is new, however, is always evil, being that which wants to conquer and overthrow the old boundary markers and the old pieties; and only what is old is good.1

Before bourgeois society, the opportunism coinciding with the status quo has no wish to see novelty arise, nor would novelty be seen as the work of subjects, but rather as aberration. With the affirmation of the status quo delivered by God himself, any change appears as heretical. History up till then is understood, and retold, as inevitably leading up to the present: “The good men are in all ages those who dig the old thoughts, digging deep and getting them to bear fruit—the farmers of the spirit”.2 Nietzsche confronts utilitarianism as a phenomenon of ethics rejecting improvement, by putting forward the idea that maintaining the world, as utilitarianism implies, could be just as dangerous as its change.

The idea of progress as improvement in the world will no doubt remind one of politics, of the distinction of the Left and the Right. Here, Leszek Kolakowski’s essay “The Concept of the Left” (1968) is helpful in defining progress: “The Left is free of sacred feelings; it has no sense of sanctity toward any existing historical situation. It takes a position of permanent revisionism toward reality, just as the Right assumes an attitude of opportunism in respect to the world as it is. The Right is the embodiment of the inertia of historical reality—that is why it is as eternal as the Left.”3

1 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1974 [1887]), 79.
2 Ibid.
3 Leszek Kolakowski, “The Concept of the Left”, in The New Left Reader, ed. Carl Oglesby (New York: Grove Press, 1969), 152-53.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *