Lecture Ten: Life 10.2

10.2 Will to Power

 

The idea of eternal recurrence is supposed to be a solution to the problem of how to support a fully active and creative form of willing. This problem arises from the recognition that willing is the fundamental constituent of human nature, and thus the dynamics of the will are also what shapes human evolution. Our first task is to offer a brief characterization of how Zarathustra introduces this topic. In fact, he does not simply talk about ‘willing’ but rather present human willing as a particular manifestation of a more encompassing force, the will to power, which is somehow equated with the very essence of life itself. This teaching is introduced in the second part, in one of the most important passages, reads as follows:

And this secret did Life herself tell to me. ‘Behold,’ she said, ‘I am that which must always overcome itself.

‘Indeed, you call it will to procreate or drive for a purpose, for what is higher, farther, more manifold: but all this is one and one secret.

‘I would rather go under than renounce this one thing: and verily, where there is going-under and falling of leaves, behold, there life sacrifices itself–for power!

‘That I must be struggle and Becoming and purpose and conflict of purposes: ah, whoever guesses my will also guesses along what crooked ways it has to walk!

‘Whatever I create and however much I love it–soon I must oppose both it and my love: thus my will wills it.

‘And even you, who understand, are only a path and footstep of my will: verily, my will to power even walks on the feet of your will to truth!

‘He surely missed the mark who shot at the truth with the words “will to existence:” this will–does not exist!

‘For what does not exist cannot will; yet what already exists, how could that then will to exist!

‘Only, where Life is, there too is will: though not will to life, but–thus I teach you–will to power!

‘Much is valued by the living more highly than life itself; but out of this very valuing there speaks–will to power!’–

Thus did Life once teach me: and with this, you who are wisest, I go on to solve the riddle of your hearts.

Verily, I say to you: good and evil that are not transitory–there is no such thing! From out of themselves they must overcome themselves again and again. (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, II.12, transl. Parkes 2005, 99-100)

In Nietzsche’s works, the notion of will to power receives growing attention and is expressed in various contexts, including a semi-biological one (like in this quote) to a cosmological principle extending to all sorts of forces that shape the whole of reality. For present purposes, we can focus on its more immediate biological instantiation. What Life herself is teaching us in the above passage is that being alive means becoming, and hence constantly overcoming the currently present life-form that has been established. This view rephrases the Heraclitean commitment that we already encountered since Nietzsche’s earlier writings. In fact, Life is (definition) ‘that which must always overcome itself.’ Overcoming oneself is the process through which whatever is posited at some point becomes the condition for the positing of something different later. No life-form can be considered definitive and final, but each life-form is only a provisional stepping-stone for reaching farther. In the expression ‘will to power,’ the term ‘will’ can be taken to denote this drive towards actively changing the current state of reality, and ‘power’ as the actual capacity or ability to bring this change about. The will to power is always creative, in the sense that it brings about something new, something different, at odds with what was already there. Insofar as Life is will to power, it must also be ‘struggle and Becoming and purpose and conflict of purposes.’ Alternative expressions, like ‘will to existence’ or ‘will to life’ (including ‘will to survive’) mispresent the fundamentally creative and tragic nature of the will to power, since they make it something tautological or redundant. Nietzsche’s point is that the will to power is much more than just a ‘will to exist’ (or survive), since the will to power does not just aim at establishing and preserving any given state or life-form, but rather at constantly seeking new forms of expression to increase, augment, expand, explore, and create further dimensions of life and experience. This does not mean that power does not entail survival or existence (they do), but rather that survival and existence can be fully achieved only insofar as they aim at the constant and indefinite increase of power.[1]

At the end of the passage quoted above, Zarathustra also connects this teaching of the will to power to moral values. He maintains that eternal and unchanging values about good and evil do not exist. Values themselves are products of the will to power, and hence are posited only for the sake of later being overcome. This point is the pivot around which Zarathustra defends the need for accomplishing a complete transvaluation off all received values. Before getting into that, though, it might be worth emphasizing how the idea of will to power can be seen as something close to Plato’s claim in the Sophist (247e) that being is nothing other than a capacity to act. Here is how one can move from Plato’s claim to Zarathustra’s teaching.

Assume that being is nothing but the capacity to act in some way (either passively being acted upon, or actively acting upon something). The notion of action necessarily entails the notion of change: to act means to bring about some sort of change. The notion of change necessarily presupposes both a degree of continuity (identity) and a degree of discontinuity (diversity). A change without any continuity at all cannot be experienced as a change, but only as the sudden juxtaposition of entirely unrelated states of affairs. However, even in the case of a change that brings something about ex nihilo, there is the minimal continuity provided by the very existence of the creator, who remains (to some extent at least) the same entity before and after the creation. On the other hand, change without some form of diversity would not appear as change at all. Even the repetition of the identical, insofar as it is a repetition, is different from the initial position of the same thing. Repetition is never exactly just repetition of the same. In the very act of repeating, this repeating itself is something new that was not posited before. Hence, we can at best conceptualize change as any sort of alteration that happens in a spectrum, which is defined between the two opposite extremes of rigid identity (no change) and absolute difference (again, no change). Notice that by conceptualizing change in this way (as a blending of the notions of identity, difference and being), we are following in Plato’s footsteps.

At this point, we can envision two main kinds of change: those that are more conservative (where change happens closer to the identity-end of the spectrum), and those that are more innovative (where change happens closer to the difference-end of the spectrum). The latter form of change is creative, and usually ‘creation’ is a term that emphasizes the bringing about of a novelty, something that was not previously part of experience. Giving birth is perhaps the most archetypical model of creation. In this context, Nietzsche’s claim that the will to power necessarily entails a drive towards creation can be seen as the logical consequence of having understood being as the capacity to act, and action as necessarily unfolding in a spectrum of becoming that can be more or less conservative, or more or less creative.

The reason why Life must always verge towards creation (towards the most innovative form of change) is because this is the only way it can genuinely sustain itself. Consider a case where a new life-form X emerges in the context Z (since no life-form can emerge outside of context—recall the enactivist view introduced in Lecture One). With the emergence of X, the context Z is necessarily transformed to some extent, if nothing else just because of the presence of X in it (which is assumed to be a novelty introduced in Z). However, if X emerges from Z and it has Z as its condition, the way X changes Z upon emerging also changes its own condition for survival. Since change cannot be entirely conservative, insofar as X changes Z in new and innovative ways, X also undermines its own condition for survival (because regardless the sort of change, X depended on Z as it was when X emerged, and not as it becomes once X has emerged and transformed Z).

Consider how the introduction of a certain species in a natural environment (like homo sapiens) can, with time, lead to the depletion of natural resources in that environment due to their exploitation by that species. In turn, this threatens the survival of that same species, which is now confronted with two options. The first is a conservative option, namely, to somehow defend itself and struggle against the adverse change occurring in the environment. The second is a creative option, namely, the overcoming of that life-form and the creation of a new life-form that could better cope with the new environment. The conservative option is ultimately doomed to fail, because no matter how conservative change is, it can never be exempt from innovation (since change entails difference). Innovation creates a mismatch between the environment and the life-form depending on it, which posits a threat for the survival of that life-form. The only long-term viable option is the creation of new life-forms that can adapt to new conditions, and the very-long-term option is that even these new life-forms will eventually have to be overcome in the same way.

This latter view is admittedly not present in Plato, and yet it follows from his principle that being is capacity to act, to bring about change, and change must be understood in a relational way in which both identity and difference are involved. Nietzsche’s will to power takes this view to its logical conclusions, especially when it is used to understand the nature of life processes. Hence, Life herself can teach Zarathustra that ‘where there is going-under and falling of leaves, behold, there life sacrifices itself–for power.’ Life can be what it is and can remain alive only if it remains loyal to becoming, only if it sustains its inexhaustible process of self-overcoming. In this process, the ‘going-under’ or the ‘falling of leaves’ is just part of a more complex process in which now outdated life-forms are replaced by new ones, in the promise that the latter will also be overcome in due course.

Should we conclude that this necessity for self-overcoming depends on the need for life to be, namely, the necessity to uphold some form of coherency? In a sense, the answer is ‘yes,’ but with an important qualification. In this case, life can only be construed as a consistent notion if it does not take any particular life-form as its paradigm. This processual understanding of life, then, is not just a way of providing a coherent account of what life is, but is a coherent way of representing the actually inherent dissonant and contrasting nature of life, in virtue of which life cannot be defined by any particular form, but the whole process of life is also the perpetual overcoming and re-invention of what life actually is and means. One might say that this sort of representation is precisely that tragic form of science that, far from masking the inherent contingency of reality, reveals and exposes it.

The will to power as the nature of life provides the background for Zarathustra’s prognosis of the current condition of mankind. As was noted at the very end of the passage quoted above, human beings have created certain moral values—namely, good and evil—and these values served a purpose in the establishing of humanity. They were, then, an important creative innovation at some point in time. However, values, like all other products of life, cannot be eternal and unchanging; they are doomed to be overcome. Zarathustra denounces the dominantly conservative attitude that seems widespread among contemporary human beings. On the verge of their own disappearance and decadence, they try to hold on to their values, to their notions of good and evil, as if they were eternal. The problem is that they are not and they could not be. As Zarathustra puts it:

Much that this people deemed good was for another a source of scorn and shame: thus have I found it. Many things I found called evil here, and there adorned with purple honours.

Never did one neighbour understand the other: ever was his soul amazed at his neighbour’s delusion and wickedness.

A tablet of things held to be good hangs over every people. Behold, it is the tablet of its overcomings; behold, it is the voice of its will to power.

Praiseworthy is what counts for a people as heavy and hard; what is indispensable and hard is called good; and whatever liberates from the highest need, what is rare, and hardest—that it glorifies as holy.

Whatever allows it to rule and conquer and shine, to the horror and envy of its neighbour: that counts as the lofty, the first, the measure, the meaning of all things.

Verily, my brother, once you have recognized a people’s need and land and sky and neighbour, you can surely guess the law of its overcomings, and why it climbs on this ladder up to its own hope. […]

Verily, human beings have given themselves all their good and evil. Verily, they did not take it, they did not find it, nor did it come down to them as a voice from Heaven.

The human being first put values into things, in order to preserve itself—it created a meaning for things, a human’s meaning! Therefore it calls itself ‘human’—that is: the evaluator.

Evaluating is creating: hear this, you creators! Evaluating is itself the treasure and jewel of all valued things.

Through evaluating alone is there value: and without evaluating the kernel of existence would be hollow. Hear this, you creators!

Change of values—that means change of creators. Whoever must be a creator always annihilates.

Creators were at first peoples and only later individuals; verily, the individual is itself just the most recent creation.

Peoples once hung a tablet of the good over themselves. Love that wants to rule, and love that wants to obey, these together created for themselves such tablets.

Pleasure in the herd is older than pleasure in the I: and as long as the good conscience is called herd, only the bad conscience says: I.

Verily, the cunning I, the loveless, which wants its own benefit in the benefit of the many: that is not the origin of the herd but its going-under. (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, I.15, transl. Parkes 2005, 51-52)

Zarathustra begins by observing that people in different periods have different standards of good and evil. This remark about the relativity of values is then used to derive the further point that what counts as good and evil is constructed by people through their deliberate effort of distinguishing what actually contributes to their strength and flourishing (good) or what contributes to the opposite (evil). Since people differ across times and places, they will have different ‘tablets’ of good and evil. Creating values and evaluating reality is a fundamental expression of the will to power. Suggesting a form of historical development, Zarathustra then adds that there is a progression from more community-based values (the values of the ‘herd’) to more individualistic-based values (the values of the ‘I’). This progression is an example of self-overcoming. At some time, human life is essentially community-life, group-life. But this life-form based on community needs to be overcome, and this gives rise to more individualistic life-forms, in which older ‘herd-values’ are annihilated, and new ‘individualistic-values’ are created (remember the paradox of mastery we discussed in previous lectures). The notions of good and evil are still upheld, but what counts as good or evil changes significantly. Notice that community-based life is not inherently better or worse than a more individualistic life-form. What matters is the fact that one needs to be overcome, and in this process something different will eventually be established. What matters is the process itself, rather than any of its provisional stops.[2]

The problem with values is that they impose a judgment upon reality that is inherently impermanent and unstable. What was deemed good will inevitably change and contradict the reasons why it was deemed good in the first place. Since the thriving of a certain life-form transforms its own environment, due to this transformation, what was good for the thriving of that life-form will eventually become outdated or obsolete as the same life-form begins to struggle with the new conditions created by its own thriving. A new good will have to be invented and the old goods will be devaluated. Life contradicts itself all the time. When this fact is taken into account, humanity is faced with the two options mentioned above: either take a conservative and defensive stance or embrace change and enact creativity once more. Zarathustra sees present humanity entangled in the conservative stance, which is best expressed in religious views that seek ultimate value in a transcendental reality beyond the world. As he speaks:

They have called God whatever contradicted and hurt them: and verily, there was much of the heroic in their adoration!

And they knew no other way to love their God than by nailing the human being to the Cross!

As corpses they meant to live, in black they decked out their corpse; in their speeches, too, I still smell the foul aroma of death-chambers.
(Thus Spoke Zarathustra, II.4, transl. Parkes 2005, 79)

Projecting good and evil into a world-beyond, a transcendental reality, is a way of savaging them from the harassment of becoming. It is also a way of dealing with the fact that life constantly urges us to change and innovate. Life radically challenges the validity of any established value. By trying to defend old values through the mask of eternity, religious views aimed at transcendence thus serve a conservative strategy, which is ultimately doomed to fail. This is the reason for the inevitable death of God, which defined the starting point of Zarathustra’s descent from his cave and his teaching among humans (Prologue, §2).


  1. This point is not dissimilar from what Spinoza also stated in his Ethics (especially part 3, propositions 4-7, in Spinoza 1985, 498-499), when he demonstrates that each thing is essentially determined to strive for preserving its being, and this conatus naturally aims at seeking all possible means and occasions for increasing its power of acting.
  2. This discussion entails that the establishment, defense, and challenge of moral values is surrounded by struggle and social conflict with different groups. This conflict is more explicitly thematized in Nietzsche’s works on morality and its genealogy (like The Genealogy of Morals or Beyond God and Evil). In this context, the will to power might be interpreted in more anthropological and even sociological terms as the will to dominate that a certain group exercises (more or less successfully) upon another. But this declension of the notion should not allow us to forget that its more fundamental meaning is broader and points to the self-overcoming nature of life itself, as explained in the Zarathustra.

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The Tragedy of the Self by Andrea Sangiacomo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.