“When the will to power is in charge,
the higher the ideals, the lower the results.
Try to make people happy,
and you lay the groundwork for misery.
Try to make people moral,
and you lay the groundwork for vice.”
~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.
The phrase “will to power” makes our modern minds run immediately to Nietzsche, yet Nietzsche would agree with the second and third assertions Lao-tzu makes here.
“Man does not pursue happiness,” Nietzsche quipped. “Only the Englishman does that.” For Nietzsche, “happiness” was the watchword and the value worshipped by modern materialistic liberal societies. He described modernity as the “religion of comfortableness,” preoccupied with health and the preservation and prolongation of life. The “death of God,” for him, was not just about the waning of Christian belief in a secular society, but of the absence of grounds for heroism and great sacrifice. For the ancients, a transcendent source of meaning was supplied to us; in the modern world, we have to create it. And that’s hard. So most of us settle for “happiness”—a little pleasure in the day, a little pleasure in the evening.
And that pursuit of “happiness,” Nietzsche thought, is what “morality” amounts to. Both were characterized by conformity and mindlessness. To be a moral person in the modern world didn’t require the cultivation of character and the acquisition of the virtues; it meant more being nice to people, tolerating moral and religious differences, following the law, and paying your taxes. To be happy is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.
But Nietzsche thought this recipe—the basic formula of classical liberalism—produced thin soup that would not satisfy the human soul. A politics bent merely on physical security and economic prosperity does much for the body, but little for the soul. It would produce “misery” in the form of loneliness and spiritual confusion, and “vice” in form of violent reaction of the animal spirits seeking expression and release from the dull conformity of bourgeois life. The problem is not that these ideals were “too high” but too low.
Indeed, this “Fight Club” interpretation of Nietzsche—if it feels good do it, rage against the machine, punk rock, fuck the system, be an iconoclastic nonconformist Nietzsche—merely reflects our impoverished modern understanding of power. Joe Biden likes to drop the line that we should lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example. For Lao-tzu, true power—and for Nietzsche, the most mature form of the will to power—is mastery over yourself, not over others. You lead others by leading yourself, and you lead yourself by following something greater than yourself. The man who dominates others is a slave to his desires; the man who serves others is free from them. The highest form of the will to power is the skillful harnessing and channeling of de—which gets translated, variously, as virtue, power, or virtuosity.
The true Nietzschean is not an “underman” rebelling against social conventions, but an “overman” who has mastered the rules of social grammar but knows how and when to break them.
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”