Nietzsche understood that true individual freedom could only be achieved in a realm beyond good and evil – an amoral world free from convention, cant, and bourgeois rectitude. His Superman – a Tamburlaine or Genghis Khan – realized that the only validation of existence was the expression of Will. There was no inherent or even comparative value in social mores – expressions of the ‘herd’ – for we die alone. Our death is unique, personal, individual and devoid of any social constructs or considerations of others.
Shakespeare, living in the age of Machiavelli and influenced by Christopher Marlowe, his competitor, created pre-Nietzschean villains.
Goneril, Regan, Richard III, Macbeth, Tamora, Dionyza, Edmund, and Iago are but the most well-known. Iago disassembled and destroyed Othello for no other reason than out of pure, selfish ego and will. The fact that he was passed over by his superior, Othello, was hardly reason enough to explain his devilish plan of psychological torment and complete degradation. Richard III understood that as a physical cripple existing outside the margins of social acceptance he had no choice but to revel in his equally twisted and deformed character. No act was too evil, not even the murder of the innocent princes. His rise to power was Machiavellian in its realpolitik, but Richard’s actions were as much validations of his being. “I am Richard!”.
Reading Shakespeare, Nietzsche, Machiavelli, and Marlowe one is tempted to dismiss the works’ amorality as an intellectual, academic and philosophical exercise. In real life there are no Goth queens like Tamora who urges her sons to rape Titus Andronicus’ daughter, Lavinia, and to cut out her tongue and dismember her. Or Dionyza who simply because Marina, the daughter of Pericles so outshone her own daughter, that she arranged to have her murdered. Or Goneril and Regan who without a whit of decency, morality, or kindness conspire to ruin their father and any of his allies. “Out, vile jelly”, Regan’s cruel husband Cornwall shouts as he gouges out the second eye of Gloucester.
Tamburlaine existed, but Marlowe must have exaggerated his power, will, and absolute cruelty. The historical record of Genghis Khan is clear. He did indeed sweep down from the Central Asian steppes and leave a trail of rape, desecration, massacre, and defilement behind him; but such a superman could have only existed once or rarely. Pol Pot, Mao, Stalin, and Hitler were as bloody and bloodthirsty, but there was at least a scintilla of reasonable political justification in their actions. Not so Supermen who need no justification at all.
Dostoyevsky, however, felt that such an amoral, willful attitude is not only possible for all but desirable. It is not enough, he said, to be defiant or antagonistic – to challenge received wisdom and commonly accepted social mores. Like Nietzsche he felt that to be fully human one must invert social and moral norms.
Man everywhere and at all times, whoever he may be, has preferred to act as he chose and not in the least as his reason and advantage dictated. And one may choose what is contrary to one's own interests, and sometimes one positively ought (that is my idea). One's own free unfettered choice, one's own caprice, however wild it may be, one's own fancy worked up at times to frenzy--is that very "most advantageous advantage" which we have overlooked, which comes under no classification and against which all systems and theories are continually being shattered to atoms. And how do these wiseacres know that man wants a normal, a virtuous choice? What has made them conceive that man must want a rationally advantageous choice? What man wants is simply independent choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead. And choice, of course, the devil only knows what choice. (Notes from the Underground, Ch. VII)
The normal man is stupid, he says:
I’ve already said so before, but let me repeat, and repeat most earnestly: all plain men and men of action are active only because they are dull-witted and mentally undeveloped…
The ‘man of acute sensibility’, on the other hand is not afraid to ignore common demands for productivity, progress, practicality, and logic. It takes a highly sharpened consciousness to appreciate “all the twists and turns of this sort of voluptuous pleasure” – the pleasure in pain, perversity, and inversion,.
At the very moments when I am most capable of feeling every refinement of all that is "sublime and beautiful," as they used to say at one time, it would, as though of design, happen to me not only to feel but to do such ugly things, such that ... Well, in short, actions that all, perhaps, commit; but which, as though purposely, occurred to me at the very time when I was most conscious that they ought not to be committed. The more conscious I was of goodness and of all that was "sublime and beautiful," the more deeply I sank into my mire and the more ready I was to sink in it altogether. But the chief point was that all this was, as it were, not accidental in me, but as though it were bound to be so. It was as though it were my most normal condition, and not in the least disease or depravity, so that at last all desire in me to struggle against this depravity passed. It ended by my almost believing (perhaps actually believing) that this was perhaps my normal condition (op.cit. Ch. II)
Dostoyevsky expands further on the theme of morality and free will in this short story and much more completely in The Brothers Karamazov. In the Grand Inquisitor chapter Ivan challenges Christ and says that His bestowing free will on Man was a cruel joke. Dostoyevsky was also influenced by Milton whose Paradise Lost was a celebration of free will. Eve is seduced by the Devil to eat of the Tree of Knowledge and to become like God, and she chooses her free will in defiance; but because of her action Man became Human. The Devil is the hero of the epic, of course, because he chose to reign in Hell and to corrupt man. Free will characterizes God, the Devil, and Man.
We all know the right thing to do, the correct course of action to take in our own self-interest. We know how to navigate the waters of social opprobrium and chart our own willful course logically; but we rarely do. We choose imperfectly, often randomly; but these deliberately illogical choices are what define the best of us.
We all know that not one man can, consciously, act against his own interests, consequently, so to say, through necessity, he would begin doing good? Oh, the babe! Oh, the pure, innocent child! Why, in the first place, when in all these thousands of years has there been a time when man has acted only from his own interest? What is to be done with the millions of facts that bear witness that men, consciously, that is fully understanding their real interests, have left them in the background and have rushed headlong on another path, to meet peril and danger, compelled to this course by nobody and by nothing, but, as it were, simply disliking the beaten track, and have obstinately, willfully, struck out another difficult, absurd way, seeking it almost in the darkness. So, I suppose, this obstinacy and perversity were pleasanter to them than any advantage....(op.cit. Ch. VII)
“Obstinacy and perversity were pleasanter to them than any advantage”, says Dostoyevsky, and in so doing follows in the path of Shakespeare and Marlowe and like them was a forefather of Nietzsche.
How can any one of us disagree? Who doesn’t realize that his actions have been predetermined by genes, parentage, upbringing, education, and environment? Who truly believes that free choice really exists or that there is such a thing as an absolute morality? Even a cursory glance at history shows just the opposite. History is a perpetual motion machine of amorality within which men assume free choice but exert nothing of the kind.
Tolstoy was another believer in historical determinism. His ‘accretive’ view of history belied the Great Man Theory. Napoleon’s defeat at Borodino was because of his foggy brain caused by a cold which came about because his valet gave him the wrong boots which leaked in the cold mud and water of the camp. The valet was distracted because of the licentiousness of his wife, etc. etc. Yet, to Tolstoy Napoleon was a Superman, a hero because despite the insistence of the past, he acted uniquely, individually, and heroically. There are always two ways to judge an action.
The willful act regardless of its consequences is by definition a great act. In its defiance of not only contemporary mores but of historical moral imperatives, it is as human and validating as Satan’s rejection of God’s law and kingdom. Iago at the end of Othello stands tall and unrepentant before his judges. I will not speak, he says, refusing to dignify their inquisition into what he knows has been a heroic act.
Villains will always be our heroes for they represent what we all want but seemingly cannot have – the will, the power, the determination, and the freedom from moral and ethical considerations to do anything.
People do bad things all the time, and neither Dostoyevsky nor Shakespeare are glorifying evil. They are only glorifying those few individuals who are aware of the implications of their actions and who know that the expression of pure will is the only validation of the individual.