As secularized accounts of morality’s social origins, the theories of Italian Renaissance political thinker Niccolo Machiavelli and the 19th century German continental philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche call for a transvaluation of morality.
If we analyze their systems of thought through the distorting, reductive lens of conventional modern connotations, we see the repugnancy of Nietzsche’s sexism or anti-Semitism or the cold, calculating, seemingly self-interested tactics of Machiavelli; as a consequence, we fail to delve deeper into the complexity of these works.
This dismissive approach needs to be unlearned and replaced with a more detailed examination of how these figures redefine the notions of good and evil as the foundations of their philosophy and political theory, respectively.
Over the course of describing their ethical theories and the ways in which they transvalue the moral standards of their times and attempt to show that vice can legitimately constitute virtue, I would like to explore the question: to what degree can Nietzsche and Machiavelli be defined as consequentialists? Finally, I will touch on the relationship between transvaluation and consequentialism.
One of the reasons that Nietzsche and Machiavelli have been studied for so long is the sense of theoretical novelty and innovation stemming from their transvaluations; both thinkers seem particularly sensitive to the importance of re-evaluating standards and social mores which facilitates philosophical progress.
The concept of “transvaluation” is usually attributed to Nietzsche, rather than Machiavelli; however, the term aptly applies to both. In On the Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche explicitly states the project of such a genealogy, or history of morals, and writes about the “need” for a transvaluation, which he defines as a “critique of moral values, the value of these values themselves must first be called in question… (20) Nietzsche’s project involves seeing value from the perspective of a meta-cultural stance.
The process of transvaluation is essentially a re-assessment of concepts; one takes a step back from the internal, socially constructed systems of value to look at the larger picture, even if this means tearing down their foundation. There is also a shift from a view of morality as something that has objective, intrinsic worth to a view of it as having a subjective, socially and extrinsically determined worth.
Transvaluation: What is being “Transvalued”?
Nietzsche and Machiavelli, in their renunciation of traditional “popular morality”, criticize the Christian ethics which permeated their respective time periods in order to make way for new secular modes of thinking (On the Genealogy of Morals 45). Christian values are precisely what the two aim to attack and transvalue.
Machiavelli draws on his own transvaluation of values for the purposes of providing a blueprint for the success of the state. Just as Nietzsche describes a moral dichotomy (slave morality and noble morality), Machiavelli explores two sets of morality: traditional Christian ethics and a political morality. He rejects the former in lieu of acceptance of the latter.
Bernard Crick acknowledges that there are two seemingly incompatible spheres of morality, which he divides into the Christian and the Pagan worlds. There exists a conflict between Christian ethics, or “morality of the soul”, and political Pagan morality, or “morality of the city”, and one is forced to operate within one sphere or the other (Crick 67). Machiavelli points out the often mutually exclusive natures of both spheres and is emphatically anti-Christian. A political thinker more than a systematic philosopher, he never undertakes the task of attempting to reconcile the two spheres. This negative view of Christianity is further promoted in The Discourses, in particular sections 11-15. In these sections, Machiavelli makes an important distinction: he is not anti-religion, although he is opposed to Christian dogma. What makes Christianity so distasteful to him is the underlying element of passivity. Such a biblical command as “Turn the other cheek” is completely at odds with Machiavellian principles.
Machiavelli’s play La Mandragola delineates the importance of action with the protagonist Callimaco, who says, “I’ve got to try something, be it great, dangerous, harmful, scandalous” (17). It is of further interest that Machiavelli’s works are grounded in unflinching secular realism. Focusing on the present world, he rejects the Christian view that life on earth functions as a spiritual test for soul-making and developing morally significant characters in order to ultimately gain entry to Paradise in the afterlife.
As Mansfield states, Machiavelli is interested in establishing prosperity in the world of the here and now (Machiavelli’s Virtue 48). Let us act, he seems to be saying, as if there is no “next world”, and do our best to work with the present conditions. However, on a more general level, Machiavelli recognizes the social utility of religion; it inspires the armies, gives them courage, and unites the people under a common ideological bond. Religion for Machiavelli is a positive thing if it acts a catalyst for the people to political action, but deleterious if it leads to stasis (as Christianity does, according to Machiavelli’s interpretation).
Nietzsche’s obsession with the flaws of Christianity is concisely and elegantly formulated in the “In Attempt at a Self-Criticism” in The Birth of Tragedy:
Christianity was from the beginning, essentially and fundamentally, life’s nausea and disgust with life… Hatred of ‘the world,’ condemnation of the passions, fear of beauty and sensuality… For, confronted with morality (especially Christian, or unconditional, morality), life must continually and inevitable be in the wrong, because life is something essentially amoral. (23)
For Nietzsche, Christianity is so destructive to the interests of man because it is rooted in a denial of life, and, moreover, constitutes a kind of perversion in that it restrains the instincts of human nature.
The Christian religion teaches that natural sexual impulses and human evil are things of which we should be ashamed, and as such, it is necessarily life-negating; life, Nietzsche points out, encapsulates more than simply what human moral constructs deem “good.” To truly be considered life-affirming, we have to recognize that life is intrinsically supramoral, and we must embrace both halves of the whole, the light and the dark.
Nietzsche attempts to critique morality; if the so-called purpose of morality is to label and prescribe what is beneficial as good, he advises that we critique the value of values to determine if the good is actually beneficial. Nietzsche tries to tear down the Christian traditional ethical concepts of self-sacrificing, self-denying moral goodness. Nevertheless, there are positive ethical assertions being posited.
Transvaluation: The Ethical Theories of Nietzsche and Machiavelli Explained
The Genealogy of Morals is a historical, psychological, etymological account of the origins of the meaning of morality. Nietzsche’s approach leads him to a documentation of control conflicts between socio-economic classes, a power-fueled process of assertion and retaliation, or competitive desires for supremacy.
Moral valuation, according to Nietzsche, actually splits into a dichotomy relative to two social groups: the aristocracy, or the highest order in the social hierarchy, and the lowest rank, which is that of the slave. The aristocratic sense of the good is synonymous with power and centralized in self-affirmation. Using language as an instrument or expression of power, the aristocracy proves their supremacy by identifying and labeling as good the very actions the ruling class takes, notably making no distinction between the action and the executor of the action.
From the noble’s self-justifying perspective, he is inherently good, and thus his behavior is but a perceptible manifestation of his good nature, rendered good by the mere fact that it originates from him, the source of goodness. In master “Roman” morality, power equates to goodness. Occupying the opposite end of aristocratic ethical values is “badness”, which is more or less all that is not the aristocracy, namely the lowest social class.
The plebian is deemed bad automatically on the grounds that he is by definition deprived of power, and therefore indisputably separate from the aristocracy and their concept of goodness. The noble regards the commoner with indifference, seeing him as being of no consequence. He is actually incapable of feeling enmity towards the lower class, as he is not considered worthy of his attentions.
Slave morality consists of the polarities of “good and evil”, rather than the aristocratic valuations of “good and bad.” Under this reactionary ethical system, the slave despises the aristocrat, who in his eyes possesses the ability to choose weakness, yet remains in power. The weak, resenting the powerful, delude themselves into believing that their weakness is virtue, while the seemingly unattainable power is renamed vice, and thus gain superiority in the only sense they are capable: the transvalution of the pre-existing aristocratic morality.
By redefining the aristocratic good as “evil”, the slave himself secures a degree of control over the nobles, the self-validating social tyrants. He linguistically transforms his impotence and subjection into his very sense of worth (On the Genealogy of Morals 56). This moral value generates from hatred, and the slave’s joy consists in the suffering of the nobles. Slave morality is, in contrast with self-affirming aristocratic morality, spiteful, vindictive, and actively negating.
Furthermore, the slave’s good is in fact his evil; it is rooted in hate and malicious delight in diminishing the authority of and even inflicting pain upon the oppressive nobles, exemplifying our traditional concept of vice. In Nietzsche’s phrase “beyond good and evil” we see his desire for philosophy to move beyond a slave conception of morality (Ibid., 55).
While Nietzsche criticizes conventional morality and even morality in general by boldly claiming that “every morality is, as opposed to laisser aller, a bit of tyranny against ‘nature’ also against ‘reason’”, he never successfully escapes from the very oppositional thinking which he so adamantly detests (Beyond Good and Evil 100). Nietzsche, although he claims to despise morality, is clearly making a positive moral assertion of his own. The “life-affirming versus life-negating” opposition that is so salient in his writing forms a kind of new morality in its own right. Leila Haaparanta, in her article A Note on Nietzsche’s Argument, attempts to reconstruct Nietzsche’s critique of moral philosophy in strictly logical terms and also offers insight on his positive ethical theory and supports the interpretation that Nietzsche is asserting a life-affirming morality (494).
Nietzsche observes that the polytheistic religions of antiquity are superior to Christian monotheism because in that epoch “There was only one norm, man” (The Gay Science 191). Nietzche’s morality, then, may be reduced to a simple and noble calculation: a true morality justifies man as perhaps an intrinsically moral being. It is his very natural instincts which Nietzsche labels as morally good, and the conscious repression of them as amoral. His moral prescription is essentially that vitality and natural impulses are the only ethical standards by which we should live. We have to accept the chaos and the dissonance, i.e. not only what is deemed by Christian values to be “good”, but also the “evil”.
In Book I of The Discourses, Machiavelli promotes his own view of the origins of morality. Like Nietzsche, he identifies the establishment of moral terms with power conflicts and social classes. In the earliest days of human history, people lived in primitive independence of social structure, organization, and law (106).
As populations began to increase, so did interactions between people, until eventually more or less isolated individuals or small groups of individuals banded together in the name of the utility-steeped purpose of increasing the chances of survival. They chose a leader, a man of mental and physical distinction, to augment a sense of social cohesiveness and guide them as an early stages executive figure.
This figure, not doubt, was a paradigm of the Machiavellian idea of virtu1; he exemplifies the political role in Machiavellian thought which Pitkin identifies as the Founder, “a male figure of superhuman or mythical proportions, who introduces among men something new, good, and sufficiently powerful so that it continues beyond his lifetime on the course he has set” (The Founder 52). As such, the people felt a sense of obligation and indebtedness to their leader, or Founder, for the prosperity of the collective.
After the establishment of governments, Machiavelli explains, people formed a notion of justice based on the way their leader was treated. Thus original concepts of good and evil were rooted in other individuals’ exhibitions of gratitude or ingratitude towards the Founder; when instances of ingratitude arose, men were filled with resentment for the ungrateful, and came to associate ingratitude with evilness and vice, while instances of gratitude shown to their leader induced valuations of goodness and virtue (The Discourses 107).
Laws were created to accommodate these vicarious feelings, i.e. to punish the ungrateful and reward the grateful. Justice for Machiavelli is a purely subjective term revolving around the well-being of the leaders of the state. Moral judgments were formulated by the appropriation of gratitude towards the Founder, who had made social success possible, not because of inherent goodness or badness, and it is these relativist foundations of traditional morality which Machiavelli seeks to expose but also manipulate to the advantage of the whole.
Machiavelli’s transvaluation of values is most apparent in the infamous work The Prince. Espousing the ideals of civic duty and the common good, Machiavelli’s notion of virtue is inextricably bound up with classical republicanism.
Good and evil are transvalued according to ends, i.e. the noble republican goal of liberty, preservation and expansion of the state, and the overall well-being of the people within the state are re-defined as the good. What society traditionally deems to be “evil” is even, at times, a necessary means to achieve the good. Evil in Machiavellian terms constitutes what is harmful to the republic.
…[A] ruler, and especially a new ruler, cannot always act in ways that are considered good because, in order to maintain his power, he is often forced to act treacherously, ruthlessly or inhumanely, and disregard the precepts of religion. Hence he must be… capable of entering upon the path of wrongdoing when this becomes necessary. ( The Prince 62)
Machiavelli’s concept of good actions and moral behavior is tied to social and political action and a sense of necessity. “Wrongdoing” for Machiavelli should be a term in quotations, since it so-called evil actions are justified and made good by the positive outcomes his actions produce.
Bernard Crick articulates this sentiment rather bluntly, but accurately, with his recognition in the introduction to The Discourses that the impetus behind the action of Machiavellian figures is the understanding that “[s]omeone has to take up the dirty work” (64). For example, the people may despise a ruler for raising taxes and call him miserly, but when the state later needs these funds, the stability of the country which his prudence and foresight maintained will outweigh the initial financial inconveniences.
Machiavellian virtue utilizes acts that would be classified as Christian evil as instruments to achieving higher goals. Methods of cultivating the collective good vary with one’s position in society; the task of redefining morality falls upon the ruler of a principality or republic. He must exercise virtu and the willingness to take part in such ethical transvaluations as the circumstances demand, while the citizen must demonstrate civic virtue and carry out the deeds which his government requires of him for the betterment of the state. It could even be argued that if there are two spheres are morality, the political and the Christian, the former requires evil and transvaluation, while the latter is concerned solely with goodness in the deontological sense.