Wisdom of the Moderns: The Will to Power

Many philosophers have searched for a single motivating factor in humans, or one foundational attribute of human psychology that can explain all of humanity’s actions. One possibility put forward is rational self-interest. This theory claims that a person always acts in their own self-interest, and they discern their own self-interest through their use of reason and rationality. This is an especially common assumption in economics. The theory can explain some phenomena, but it ultimately fails. It is apparent from everyday experience that people do not act rationally. Even if they know a certain path of action will benefit them the most, such as studying for an exam, people sometimes choose to go to a party instead. Furthermore, in Notes from the Underground, Dostoyevsky observes that people have a deep need to feel that they have free will. If a person’s rationality proves to him that he has no free will, then rationality and self-interest will be in direct conflict. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche calls free will, “The hundred-times-refuted theory” (§18). Therefore, a person is forced to reject either rationality or self-interest. This conclusively proves that people cannot be motivated by rational self-interest, as it results in a contradiction.

Another theory is a will to self-preservation. This theory claims that everything that humans do is to ensure their own survival. An explanation of much of life can perhaps be extrapolated from this. For example, there are many stories of normal, virtuous people reverting to cannibalism when they are stranded on deserted islands. In addition, technology and medicine could be conceived of as a means to the end of self-preservation. However, if people primarily wanted to preserve themselves, then they would never be able to accept death, or be comfortable with the idea of death. It would always be an utterly agonizing concept, because it confounds a person’s deepest motivation. Since it is possible to feel that one’s life has been full and meaningful, and eventually feel ready to die, a will to self-preservation cannot be our fundamental impulse. Furthermore, this does not help explain the existence of art. If people only operated to protect their own life, then they would constantly be doing everything they could to make sure they survived. They would be constantly building bunkers and storing as much food as possible. They would have no time to engage in leisure, in culture-creation, and indeed would see no purpose to it. Since culture exists, and as Nietzsche thinks, is the goal of humanity, it cannot be that self-preservation is the essential instinct of mankind.

Nietzsche puts forward a different theory of psychology. In the sixth aphorism of The Antichrist, Nietzsche writes, “Life itself appears to me as an instinct for growth, for survival, for the accumulation of forces, for POWER.” In his analysis of human life, and indeed all life, he declares that the fundamental motivation is always the will to power. In Beyond Good and Evil, he writes, “Here one must think profoundly and to the very basis and resist all sentimental weakness: life is ESSENTIALLY appropriation, injury, conquest of the strange and weak, suppression, severity, obtrusion of peculiar forms, incorporation, and at the least, putting it mildest, exploitation” (§259). His view of life in general informs his view of human life in particular. He points out that in all of life, everything is constantly exerting its influence upon the world. When Nietzsche says power, he means the ability to cause effects and control something external to oneself. All living things are constantly attempting to grow their own ability to be forceful and exploit the resources around them, and people are no different.

This has more explanatory power than previous theories. It gives a suitable account for everything that the theory of rational self-interest is typically said to explain, as well as the will to self-preservation. Rational self-interest usually leads to an increase in power, and without life, one cannot have any power. It not only explains previous theories, it explains what the previous theories cannot. Rationality is not necessarily a part of a person’s ability to influence the world, and this explains why irrationality is a clear part of human nature. Art and culture are creative and innovative parts of human life. In other words, they capture part of the will to power, and can be made to enhance and increase a person’s feeling of power. This shows how the will to power could produce art and culture. Furthermore, the will to power explains how one could be willing to die. A feeling of danger and risk implies a testing of your will to power. If a dangerous attempt succeeds, then you will feel an increase in your will to power. Thus, danger is a good thing. A similar argument can be applied to suffering. In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche observes, “What does not destroy me, makes me stronger” (“Maxims and Arrows”, §8). A person grows in strength when he suffers. His ability to have power grows, so his suffering becomes enjoyable through a fulfillment of the will to power. A demonstration of this process can be seen throughout contemporary culture with mud runs, rock climbers, intense fitness programs, pain games of young men in high school such as “Bloody Knuckles” and “Slaps”, and similar phenomena of self-inflicted experiences of suffering. The will to power can also provide an explanation for seemingly opposite human actions, such as master and slave morality. It is clear that master morality flows directly and simply out of unhindered will to power. Upon a close examination, it can be seen that slave morality is also an example of will to power. The slaves were unable to enact their will to power through direct and obvious means, so they were “clever to the point of holiness” in order to force themselves into power (Antichrist, §59). Thus, even slave morality can be explained through the will to power.

This theory of psychology has large implications for Nietzsche’s thought. He writes, “I call an animal, a species, an individual corrupt, when it loses its instincts, when it chooses, when it PREFERS, what is injurious to it.” (Antichrist, §6). When he mentions its instincts, he is referring to the will to power. He values vigor and “life”, and the way towards these values is through uninterrupted will to power. When a creature tries to work against its own will to power, this is unhealthy. Therefore, the task of humanity is to finally realize this and act upon it. He says this clearly in the beginning of the Antichrist; “What is good? – Whatever augments the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself, in man. What is evil? – Whatever springs from weakness.” (§2). He does not say this will be easy to accept; indeed, he thinks that only an extremely select few will understand and follow him. However, if he is able to succeed, then he believes this will save humanity from the looming threat of nihilism. A major theme in his work is the “transvaluation of all values.” This is essentially an uprooting of the entire moral system that Christianity operated under, to be replaced with a new system. Nietzsche believes that he has found the foundation of a new system in the acceptance of the will to power.


Not my best, but eh, it’ll do.

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