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Why Democracy is an Enemy of Virtue


Lester H. Hunt

"Virtue has all the instincts of the average man against it: it is unprofitable, imprudent, it isolates; it is related to passion and not very accessible to reason; it spoils the character, the head, the mind - according to the standards of mediocre men; it rouses to enmity toward order, toward the lies that are concealed in every order, institution, actuality - it is the worst of vices, if one judges by its harmful effects on others."

-- The Will to Power, 317 (1888)(1)

What follows is a comment on a single aphorism from one of Nietzsche's earlier works, number 34 of The Wanderer and His Shadow. I will eventually quote the entire passage (it is a mere five sentences long) interspersing quoted fragments with comments on what I take Nietzsche to be saying; I will conclude with a preliminary attempt to assess the cogency of the argument he presents there. My theme will be that he is wrestling with a problem that earlier occupied Tocqueville, the problem of the effects of democracy on character, and that he presents an interesting argument to the effect that Tocqueville's worst nightmare is in fact true: that democracy is making us smaller.

This is how he begins:

"The virtues that incur loss. - As members of society we believe we ought not to practice certain virtues from which as private persons we acquire the highest honor and a certain satisfaction, for example mercy and consideration for transgressors of all kinds - in general any action by which the interests of society would suffer through our virtue."(2)

Here Nietzsche distinguishes between two perspectives one can take when one attempts to practice virtue: that of a member of society, and that of a private person (Privat). His choice of words at first suggests that he thinks the standpoint of a private person is somehow outside of society, but we shall soon see that this is not at all true. For the time being, however, it is plain that it is in some way less social than the other one and that, moreover, the division between the two perspectives correspond to a distinction within the virtues. Some virtues are detrimental to the profit or advantage (der Vorteil) of society, while others presumably are not. He gives mercy and "consideration for transgressor" as examples of the former sort of trait, and later suggests that pride belongs in the same category. As members of society, we cannot permit ourselves to practice them.

He continues:

"No bench of judges may conscientiously practice mercy: this privilege is reserved to the king as an individual; one rejoices when he makes use of it, as proof that one would like to be merciful, even though as a society one absolutely cannot be. Society thus recognizes only those virtues that are advantageous, or at least not harmful to it (those that can be practiced without its incurring loss, for example justice)."

He is saying that, as members of society, we are, we might say, weakly utilitarian: we seek to increase the well-being of the entire group affected by our actions or (failing that) at least not decrease it. He also has made it evident, however, that he himself is not a utilitarian, not even in this weak sense. He seems to regard the virtues that incur net social loss as if they were more honorable than those that do not (a class which, we now know, includes justice). Indeed, he treats this as the natural attitude to take: we would all like to be merciful but, so long as we represent society, we are stuck with justice.

It is with the next sentence that he finally reveals what the real subject of the preceding comments has been:

"Those virtues that incur loss cannot, consequently, have come into existence within society, since even now there is opposition to them within every society, however circumscribed."

Nietzsche is developing one of the persistent themes of the early aphoristic works: the evolution of moral ideas. For him, moral ideas are human inventions and, because the perspective of the member of society is overwhelmingly biased against ideas that are incompatible with weak utilitarianism, no such idea could come into existence "within society." This would mean that, if it were ever true that everyone is trapped in the perspective of society, with no escape from it, the development of our moral ideas would be warped and impoverished.

This brings us back to the problem that, as I have suggested, it does not seem to be possible to get outside of society. Nietzsche responds to this problem in the final sentence of the aphorism, the one that delivers his political point:

"They [ie., the virtues that incur loss] are thus virtues belonging among non-equals, devised by the superior, the individual; they are the virtues of bearing the sense: 'I am sufficiently powerful to put up with a palpable loss, this is a proof of my power' - and are thus virtues related to pride."

The comments with which he concludes embody an idea that remains very important for Nietzsche. They are virtually repeated in a memorable passage he published a few years later, in the late 'eighties:

"It is not unthinkable that a society might attain such a consciousness of power that it could allow itself the noblest luxury possible to it - letting those who harm it go unpunished. 'What are my parasites to me?' it might say. 'May they live and prosper: I am strong enough for that!' ... This self-overcoming of justice: one knows the beautiful name it has given itself - mercy...."(3)

No doubt there are important clues here concerning the connection between Nietzsche's conception of virtue and his critique of punishment. More immediately relevant for the present, though, is the way last-quoted remark from The Wanderer sheds light on how these concepts are rooted in his politics. To be more precise, they indicate how it is possible to function as a non-member of society. The phrase that Hollingdale renders as "non-equals" (Nicht-Gleichgestellten) suggests that these people lack equal social position or rank (Stellung). And the alternative he has in mind to having equal rank is of course not a lack of rank but rather a superior one. It is the rank of the "rulers" the position that the king can occupy "as an individual."

On this view, to function as an individual, and not as a member of society, is itself a social position, a position that insulates one from others. The king often represents and is answerable to others but, unlike a bench of judges, his position enables him to turn away from others and become non-representative and non-answerable. Nietzsche's preferred form of social organization, which is aristocracy,(4) differs from monarchy in that it places a number of people (and not just one) in this position. There is, on the other hand, a system in which such privilege does not exist, in which everyone is answerable to others for promoting (or at least not damaging) the interest of the group: in the nineteenth century, this system was called "democracy."

In this sense, democracy is the rule of the demos, of the people. In its most thoroughgoing form, everyone is subjected to this rule, so that it is characterized by what Tocqueville called "equality of condition," meaning at bottom absence of superior social conditions or stellungen. Nietzsche is saying that democracy in this sense, as a system in which irresponsible or non-answerable privilege has been abolished, is inimical to exemplary virtue.(5)

Clearly, this line of reasoning goes against the grain of a great deal of contemporary culture. Is there any easy way to reply to what he is saying here? Actually, we can find an idea in Nietzsche's later work that clearly clashes with part of the argument of Wanderer 34, and it clearly offers hope, at least at first sight, to those who might wish to dodge its conclusion.

In this early aphorism he is saying that, so to speak, society is a good economist: in framing moral ideals it acts efficiently in its own interest. Later, in the familiar chapter in Zarathustra, "On the Thousand and One Goals," Nietzsche seems to drop this way of speaking of society in favor of a strongly contrasting one. There he depicts the process by which societies frame new values, in which "peoples are creators," as aimed, not at social efficiency, but at collective self-definition: "if they want to preserve themselves, then they must not esteem as the neighbor esteems." In effect, he is telling us that, when we pursue virtue as members of society, we seek to distinguish ourselves from our neighbors, and Nietzsche seems to think of this as a distinctly non-utilitarian state of mind: "Praiseworthy is whatever seems difficult to a people, and whatever seems indispensable and difficult is called good."(6)

Here Nietzsche is speaking much more respectfully of society as a source of values than he was in the earlier discussion. He seems to think that the social creation of values, as he describes it in this passage, is much more compatible with virtue than one he described in the earlier one. For most of us, what may be more important than this is the fact that we undeniably tend to agree. The principle by which Zarathustra says the Greeks defined themselves - "You shall always be the first and excel all others: your jealous soul shall love no one, unless it be the friend" - sounds not only quite different from the quest for collective advantage but superior to it.

Yet, even if we do agree that what Nietzsche says on this subject in Zarathustra is true, I would say that this would not entitle us to discard the earlier argument entirely. For one reason, these two conceptions of the social construction of values (as they might be called) are mutually compatible. It could be true that the moralities we develop as members of society are directed toward defining the group in ways that we can see as positive while it is also true that they are (perhaps through a different set of values) directed toward the advantage of the group.

Further, these two theories, when combined, are actually more plausible than either is alone. The latter theory, the group advantage view, can explain many of the norms that all cultures have in common. All known cultures have some norms that protect property against theft, marriage against adultery, and human life against willful homicide. Many of these norms obviously serve two ends that are very much in the interest of the group: their continued physical survival, and some level (perhaps minimal) of material prosperity.

The cultural difference view cannot explain phenomena like these, but it can explain a quite different array of facts that the group advantage view is not so well equipped to explain. These are the seemingly excessive valuations that vary sharply from one culture to the next, including the ones that Zarathustra mentions in "On the Thousand and One Goals," such as (according to Zarathustra's account) the Greek mania for excellence, the Jewish reverence for the father and mother (and for everything that is essentially parental and ancestral), and the Germans' high esteem for loyalty ("even for evil and dangerous things").(7)

Finally, Nietzsche might not mean, by Zarathustra's words, anything that is really incompatible with the earlier view. After all, what Zarathustra says is that peoples have called good what seemed to them both difficult and "indispensable" (unerlaesslich). Of course, what makes things indispensable very often is tribal necessity, in particular the physical survival or minimal well-being of the tribe. Later, Zarathustra says

"For today the little people lord it: they all preach surrender and resignation and prudence and industry and consideration and the long etcetera of the small virtues. ... You higher men, overcome the small virtues, the small prudences, the grain-of-sand consideration, ... the 'happiness of the greatest number'."(8)

Except for surrender and resignation, which are partly traceable to the influence of Christianity, these "small virtues" are all connected in one crucial way or another with the advantage of the group as conceived by utilitarianism, and the last one of course is utilitarianism itself. It seems to be perfectly consistent with what Nietzsche says in Zarathustra to say that one of the functions that society necessarily plays in the framing of values - namely, that of promoting group advantage - is biased in favor of virtues that, though real, fall far short of the heroic. It would follow that, to whatever extent this function is a prominent one, any political system that exposes everyone to social pressure, removing the insulation of privilege, will tend the replace great virtues with small ones. This is essentially the argument against democracy he presents in Wanderer 34, though in a somewhat moderate form.

As a matter of fact, however, a closer look at Zarathustra will indicate that it does not require that the earlier argument be moderated at all; it merely requires that it be made more complex. In "On Enjoying and Suffering the Passions" he says "If you have a virtue and she is your virtue, then you have her in common with nobody." For Nietzsche, what makes you the very best person you can be depends very much on exactly who you are, on features that make you unique. For this reason, even the activity of naming virtues, indispensable though it may be, always vulgarizes them:

"To be sure, you want to call [your virtue] by name and pet her. And behold, now you have her name in common with the people and have become one of the people and herd with your virtue."(9)

By giving generic name to your virtue, you collect it into a class with the traits of indefinitely many others and treat them as the same. But since the highest virtue is something you share in common nobody, the virtue you are now talking about is no longer the highest.

Of course, the same considerations would apply to framing new values that are meant to apply to classes containing indefinitely many people. Though such values might match the highest that some people can attain, they would, according to the position Nietzsche is taking here, fall away from the highest potential of other people, while still others might well be dragged down by them.

In "On the Thousand and One Goals" Nietzsche puts forth a sort of modified cultural relativism: the values that rightly apply to different cultures are different. In "On Enjoying and Suffering the Passions" he presses this sort of relativism down to the level of the individual. The former message, when read together with the latter one, has rather different implications than it seemed at first to have. The group-defining function of the social construction of values seemed heroically virtuous, but only because we were comparing it to the group selfishness of utilitarianism. When compared to the highest ideals, it appears crude and Procrustean. It, too, is biased against exemplary virtue.

When we take the ideas in Zarathustra with the parts of the position of Wanderer 34 that are compatible with them, we produce a revised version of the earlier position which, as far as I know, is perfectly compatible with everything Nietzsche says in Zarathustra and afterward. More importantly, it is also more complex and sophisticated than the earlier position and, it seems to me, worthy of a response from partisans of democracy who think that human excellence is supremely important.

What it says is this. When society passes from the aristocratic form of organization to the democratic one, it subjects everyone to the rule of society itself. No one is insulated any longer by politically institutionalized privilege. The ideas by which society exercises this control have the further effect of discouraging the highest sorts of excellence of character. This is true, in part, because many of these ideas function merely to serve the advantage of the group, and for that reason fall far short of the highest sorts of ideals. For the rest, even when they do not serve this function, they are inevitably applied to whole groups of people, and thus discourage the development of individual difference that is essential to exemplary virtue.

Again, what sort of reply might be forthcoming? In effect, what Nietzsche is doing is to combine a certain positive political theory about the nature of the difference between democracy and aristocracy with a partly normative ethical theory about what virtue is. Of course, both of these components are debatable.

Perhaps the quickest and most obvious response to the latter, ethical, component would be to take refuge in utilitarianism. If we allow ourselves the assumption that some sort of utilitarianism is true, it is easy to turn the tables on Nietzsche: the very fact that democracy tends to turn the character of the individual toward traits that are profitable for the group proves that it is (so far) a good thing.

We can add some complexity to the response by combining our utilitarianism with some limited form of consequentialist egoism. We could then say that the less socially efficient values of aristocratic social systems have some measure of legitimacy because at least they are good for the aristocrats. However, we might continue, when the world changes to a democratic regime these same sorts of consideration count in favor of democracy. In a world in which everyone is answerable to everyone, the proud and heroic values of aristocrats are actually bad for the individual who practices them: democratic qualities like an indiscriminate niceness toward one's fellows, and a willingness to compromise about almost everything, are much better for the individual who possesses them than are aristocratic traits like fierce courage, unbending loyalty, and scorn for bargaining and trade.

Such a defense against Nietzsche's challenge is of course bought at a price. For one thing, if we use consequentialist ideas in this way we are to some extent playing into Nietzsche's hand: these ideas sound somewhat small and shabby - exactly what he says they are. It would probably be advisable to take a critical look at the positive political theory he is using. It would be very desirable from the democratic point of view if its partisans could claim that democracy actually does not work as he says it does, that it is perfectly compatible with the highest virtue.

One such response would be to look at the characteristics of a system that combines democracy with liberalism, something that is not at all the same thing as democracy an sich. A persistent theme of liberalism is the idea that a part of the individual's life is immune from democratic control, from the pawing and nuzzling of the demos: there is a private part that is no one else's business. "A man's home is his castle": over this part of the individual's life, it is the individual that should be, as John Stuart Mill said, "sovereign." This idea is aptly summarized in phrase that one ultrademocratic character used for a rather different purpose: "every man a king." The idea is to provide everyone with some part of the insulation that aristocratic and autocratic systems give to a few or to only one person.

Here I suspect the challenge that Nietzsche would hurl back would be a practical one: to say that every individual ought to be sovereign over a circumscribed private sphere is not the same thing as making it so. Such ideals become enduring facts only if they are institutionalized somehow. The institutions of aristocracy are very powerful in this respect and create a very real invulnerability to popular pressure. What does liberal democracy have to offer that carries out the same function? It is not obvious that it has anything at all.

Another response to Nietzsche's challenge, perhaps the one I find most attractive, would also involve a different sort of critical look at the political theory he is using. It would begin by asking what the effect of an aristocratic system is on everyone who is affected by it. For most people, what the system entails is persistent grovelling before people who, for institutional reasons and quite independently of their actual conduct or achievements, are regarded as superior to oneself. Surely, this arrangement is not going to elicit the highest virtues of which they are capable. The ideal peasant - enduring everything, questioning nothing - is the opposite of the heroic type.

One clear problem with this response is that it does not clearly hit its target. What I have said would surely come as no surprise to Nietzsche. He would most likely say that, while it is true that the removal of aristocratic social conditions would take this sort of downward pressure off most people, it would also take away the chance that the few would otherwise have to really excel. While no one would be forced into the degrading position of perpetual grovelling, no one would be really autonomous and free from the pressure of the mob. For him, however, only the highest achievements count. The fact that the many are able to achieve a little (instead of nothing) would not impress him, if no one could achieve a great deal. He would accuse his opponents of assuming a sort of utilitarianism of virtue: that is, of assuming that a system can be justified by the fact that it increases the sum total of excellence, even if no element in the sum is very large. He would refuse to add the excellence of individuals together and weigh that sum: the only thing that matters is how high is the highest, not how great is the mass.


1. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power trans. by Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Random House, 1967). According to Nietzsche's editors, this note was written in 1887 and revised in 1888, at the end of his career.

2. Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, trans. by R. J. Hollingdale (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 318-19.

3. On the Genealogy of Morals, II 10. In Basic Writings of Nietzsche, trans. and ed. by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1968), pp. 508-09.

4. See section 57 of The Antichrist. See also my Nietzsche and the Origin of Virtue (New York: Routledge, 1991), pp. 98-100 and 137-40.

5. Lawrence Hatab has written an interesting defense of the notion that Nietzsche's ideas can actually be used to support democracy. But he uses "democracy" in quite a different sense than I do, so the collision between his view and mine, though real, is not frontal. See his A Nietzschean Defense of Democracy (Chicago and La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1995), esp. pp. 55-7. He uses "democracy" to refer to a system that has three characteristics: 1) the people control it by voting, 2) they have freedom of discussion (at least political discussion), and 3) no one faction is strong enough to control the process. I would ague that, although he has a right to define this word in his own way, his use of it in this context is unfair to Nietzsche. Given that, as Hatab admits, Nietzsche frequently denounces something he calls "democracy," using his ideas to defend something that Professor Hatab calls by the same name makes him sound much more confused than he is, since the two subjects are by no means identical: this use of the word after all does not match what Nietzsche and other writers of his time meant by it.

6. Thus Spoke Zarathustra in The Portable Nietzsche, trans. by Walter Kaufmann (New York: The Viking Press, 1954), pp. 170-71.

7. "On the Thousand and One Goals," pp. 170-71.

8. "On the Higher Man," in Zarathustra, pp. 399-400.

9. "On Enjoying and Suffering the Passions," in Zarathustra, p. 148.