Moralism and Immoralism

In an effort to better understand the notion of the individual, often expressed in libertarian discourse, we give here a fresh translation of an essay by Georges Palante (1862—1925), the French philosopher and sociologist. In this essay, Palante articultes the notion of the individual in relation to morality and immorality. Palante was also the first to read Nietzsche outside the reactionary model often employed for the German philosopher. Palante’s work is little known in the English-speaking world, hence also the necessity of this essay.

The spread of Nietzscheanism has given rise to a new problem: that of Immoralism. By this word, we mean a reversal of the traditional scale of moral values; a disregard for the Christian, altruistic and gregarious virtues: obedience, benevolence, mercy, even-handed justice, circumspection in social relations, seeking the esteem of one’s neighbor, submission to the opinion of the herd; and on the contrary, a glorification of the instincts of rebellion and aggression, of combativeness and audacity, of conquest and prey, of harshness and cruelty; an affirmation of triumphant, brutal Human Energy, ruthless to oneself and to others.

At last, a new sound resounded; “the voice of the cicadas eternally singing their old song” fell silent in astonishment. Until now, the most daring moral innovators, including Schopenhauer and Guyau, have upset old principles and provoked many a hue and cry of horror. But after causing much turmoil and commotion, in the end they came to more or less the same practical conclusions as their predecessors: they always restored the Christian virtues: for Schopenhauer, Pity, and for Guyau, Altruism.

Christian morality basically inspired all the morality of the century that has just ended. Monsieur Rémy de Gourmont has finely noted this. The 19th century, despite its airs of freedom, was a religious century. “Wise as a wise child, it never withdrew its hand from the hand of its good mother: religion.” Tolstoy closed this cycle of Thought.

Opposite and antithesis: Nietzsche and Immoralism. The nature of immoralism in Nietzsche’s thought is complex. First and foremost, there is the anti-Christian feeling of a diminution of humanity caused by Christian moral culture. Second, Heine—a precursor of Immoralism—had already expressed this sentiment in almost Nietzschean terms. “We feel,” he says, “a great weakness in our limbs: the holy vampires of the Middle Ages have sucked so much precious blood from us!… We will have to offer matter great expiatory sacrifices so that it forgives us our old offenses. It would not even be a bad idea to institute sensualist festivals and compensate matter for its past sufferings; for Christian spiritualism, incapable of annihilating it, has withered it at every opportunity; it has belittled the noblest pleasures; the senses have been reduced to hypocrisy… We must clothe our women in new clothes and new feelings, and spend all our thoughts in the smoke of perfumes, as after the ravages of the plague” (Heine, De l’Allemagne, Volume I).

Nietzschean Immoralism, too, is precisely the rehabilitation of concern for “things to come,” instead of mystical daydreaming lost in the clouds. It is a horror of the hypocritical disregard for “things to come,” of the perpetual lie that makes us assign pretexts and distant reasons to all our actions: for example, the procreation of children to voluptuousness.

Nietzsche deserves to be called, like Goethe, “a great Pagan.” But Nietzsche’s Paganism is a special kind of Paganism. This Nietzschean paganism goes far back into the past, farther back than that Classical antiquity we perhaps appreciate for its already Christian aspects, for its Socratism and Platonism, precursors of the Church Fathers. Nietzsche’s paganism goes beyond, to the distant source of the initial energies of the Greek race, to that mysterious Dionysian spring where Nietzsche sees the triumphant affirmation of Nature and Life. “What is astonishing about the religiosity of the ancient Greeks,” says Nietzsche, “is the unbridled abundance of gratitude they exuded: they were a very noble species of men, who had such an altitude before nature, before life! Later, when the populace had the upper hand in Greece, terror emboldened religion: Christianity was in the making” (Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, § 49).

Today, fallen, we are so far removed from this primitive song of triumph of the instincts, that we can hardly picture it. And yet, who knows? Perhaps the law of eternal return is bringing us back to the threshold of renewed vitality. Let us face it, this renewal of vitality—at least those of us who are up to it!

Nietzsche’s immoralist Song, a reminiscence of the ancient Dionysian spirit, rises into the air with the pantheistic serenity of the Goethean song, the song of which Heinrich Heine said: “Spinoza’s doctrine has emerged from its mathematical chrysalis and is fluttering around us in the form of a Goethean song…. Hence the fury of the orthodox and pietists against this song. They try to grasp with their pious bear paws this butterfly that keeps escaping them… For nothing is so lightly winged, so ethereal, as a song by Goethe” (Heine, De l’Allemagne, Volume I.). Similarly, in the dry, fine air of the Midi, in the Italian limpidezza (recall Nietzsche’s love of the Midi, of Bizet, whom he calls the Midi of music), the philosopher’s fine pagan sensuality laughs at the moral heaviness of Kantian and post-Kantian clericalism.

For Immoralism sees in Kantism and its extensions no more than a disguise for the Religious Imperative and, willingly, imitating Swift’s irreverent manner in his The Tale of the Tub, it would show Kant once again re-tailoring the old Christian cloak, already trimmed by Peter of Rome, by John Calvin and by Martin Luther.

The moralist also rejects, and all the more so, the self-righteousness and moral pedantry of the zealots of bourgeois moralism. Indeed, nothing can match the platitude of this apotheosis of comfortable and convenient bourgeois virtues, which their followers have the effrontery to cover with the noble flag of the categorical imperative. This is the maximum debasement of Christianity. “Christianity,” says Nietzsche, “has left aside God, Freedom and Immortality; all it has retained is a precept of social benevolence and decent living…. This is the euthanasia of Christianity…”

But democratic and demagogic moralism finds no more favor with Immoralism than bourgeois moralism. Heinrich Heine had already noted the affinity between moral Kantism and authoritarian democracy. In De l’Allemagne, we recall the witty comparison he drew between Kant’s moralism (basically a shaggy, despotic clericalism) and Robespierre’s suspicious, guillotine-like moralism. There is, however, a difference to be noted on this point between Heine and Nietzsche. Heine believed in democracy as much as Atta Troll could believe in anything. Nietzsche, on the other hand, sees the democratic idea as nothing more than an extension of the Christian ideology, and therefore, like it, an impoverishment of human energy. He identifies democracy with the gregarious spirit.

[We do not insist on the intellectual and sentimental kinship between Heine and Nietzsche. This kinship exists to some degree. Both are passionate, restless, slightly sickly glorifiers of Life. Nietzsche would agree with Heine: “I am the most faithful son of Life” (Romanzero)].

This is where the radical individualism that lies at the heart of Nietzschean immoralism emerges. Basically, what Nietzsche hates in all Christian or Kantian moralism is Herd morality, the annihilation of the Individual, the Isolated, the Independent, the Original; it is the negation of individual egoism in favor of the hypocritical, preachy egoism of groups. “At present,” says a character in a German novel, an interpreter of Nietzsche’s immoralist theories, “at present those who rule are the least free men and the most incapable of freedom; and if there are a few vigorous intellects among them, they pretend to share Universal Slavery, so as not to risk otherwise setting a dangerous example to the herd. But the time is coming when it will truly be free men who rule.”

The teleologies that form the infrastructure of all Christian moralism, Kantian or otherwise, all have the more or less roundabout consequence of subordinating the individual to the social principle. In the past, this teleology was transcendent; in Kant, it still is, since it is basically God’s will that we fulfill by conforming to the Categorical Imperative. Since Kant, moralism has become naturalistic and scientific, but its fundamental purpose has not changed. For Jhering, for example, social conservation is the goal of law, the supreme law of the individual. Thus, Moralism may change its costume, but its essence remains the same: the subordination of the Individual to the ends of the social group, and through it to the ends of the Race and the Species. And yet what is the social group, if not an abstraction? What is the Species itself, from the point of view of a well-understood Darwinism, if not the result of an enormous accumulation of individual variations! More and more, in biology itself, the concept of Species is disappearing before the concept of Individual. Immoralism is therefore right to shake off the yoke of false teleologies and, in a revolution similar to that of Copernicus, put the Individual back where it belongs: at the center of things.

This is how we can identify these terms: Immoralism and Individualism. Immoralism is—and this is its true and profound moral and social meaning—the vindication of the rights of the Individual, of the freedom of the Individual, against the so-called rights and ends of society.

This is the starting point for judging Immoralism.

Basically, the problem lies in individual consciousness. It is a question of knowing which instincts in individual consciousness are truly profound, truly dominant, those that are destined to absorb the others.

For the philosopher, the problem of lmmoralism and morality is transformed, as Monsieur Fouillée strongly emphasized in his fine article in the Revue philosophique, into the ancient problem of the relationship between Egoism and Altruism A. Fouillée, “Les Jugements de Nietzsche sur Guyau,” December 1901). Nietzsche affirms the primacy and indestructibility of the instincts of struggle and prey, and their necessary role in the evolution of life; Guyau affirms the future gradual disappearance of egoism before altruism.

In our opinion, the question of which is primordial, egoism or altruism, is an indecipherable metaphysical enigma somewhat reminiscent of the question of whether the egg comes first or the chicken.

There is only one experimental way to solve this enigma. It would be to question individual consciences. But the answers would vary too widely. Napoleon and Francis of Assisi, Bakunin and Tolstoy would speak very different languages.

From a factual point of view, all that can be done is to observe the fundamental reducibility of certain types of human character. Despite transitions and nuances, they are found everywhere, and it is with good reason that Schopenhauer makes such a classification the foundation of his moral psychology. For Schopenhauer, egoism, malice and pity are the three fundamental human exemplars. In an admirable analysis, Schopenhauer emphasizes the difference between simple egoism and wickedness. The first principle,” concludes the philosopher, “is rather bestial; the second rather diabolical…. It is always one of these two that prevails, or the other, except where Mercy dominates… Hence the broad outlines of a moral classification of characters. Moreover, there is no man who does not fit into one of these three types” (Schopenhauer, Le Fondement de la Morale, p. 110).

The simple egoist, the wicked man who rejoices in the evil of others, and the helpful and generous man—these are the three types of humanity that each of us has encountered and experienced in life.

Monsieur Ribot, for his part, sets us on the path to a similar classification of human types, according to their moral dominance.

Going as far back into the problem of egoism and altruism as we can on the basis of facts, Monsieur Ribot points to two fundamental tendencies or directions within egoism itself: one destructive, the other constructive, one combative and aggressive, the other helpful and peaceful. Man can pour out the expenditure of his activity on things; he cuts, prunes, destroys, overturns; this is a destructive activity; he sows, plants, builds; this is a conservative or creative activity. It can be applied to animals or men; it insults, harms, mistreats, destroys; or it helps, heals, saves. Destructive activity is accompanied by pleasure, but pathological, because it is the cause of an evil; conservative or creative activity is accompanied by pure pleasure, which leaves no painful feeling after it” (Th. Ribot, Psychologie des sentiments, p. 287-238).

It seems to us that, on the basis of this psychological distinction, we could recognize two human types: one, where the aggressive and destructive tendency dominates; and one, where the opposite tendency dominates and asserts itself as the continuous fabric of individuality. Moreover, we find it difficult to regard the destructive type as pathological, if we give the word pathological its empirical meaning, which is synonymous with infrequent, uncommon; for in fact, this type seems to be very widespread in humanity, and probably about as widespread as the opposite type.

In our view, Schopenhauer’s classification of human traits into three types (simple egoism, malice, helpful kindness), or into two types (destructive and conservative or creative), must remain irreducible. If there are mixed, floating, inconsistent individualities, there are also, according to a remark by Monsieur Ribot, immutable types of character. “True character,” he says, “does not change” (Ibid., p. 39).

These characters, with their more vigorous expression, seem to personify in a particularly striking and symbolic way the various forces that stir in the depths of the will-to-live and introduce so much turmoil and tragic violence into the human drama.

We do not believe we can hope with Guyau that the day will come when wolves will become sheep, when moral unity will be achieved in humanity. Such moral unity would be neither possible nor even conceivable. It would be the very end of movement and life. Nietzsche, speaking of the sacrifice of lovers, one to the other, says that absolute renunciation on the part of both is impossible. “If the two lovers were to renounce themselves for love, the result would be I do not know what—perhaps the horror of emptiness” Nietzsche, The Gay Science, § 363). Perhaps the same applies to an ideal of absolute charity in humanity.

[It seems to us that the exact point on the Guyau-Nietzsche debate is given in the following passage by Mr. Jules de Gaultier: “Guyau found the equivalents of Duty in the need for expansion that results from an intense condensation of life, in a surfeit of strength eager to employ itself. Thus, in a noble way, he reconstituted the social virtues to which Christianity had assigned humble origins, rooted in feelings of weakness and resignation. Guyau can be criticized for remaining attached to an ideal too close to the one opened up by Christian perspectives and the culture developed by them. The future undoubtedly entails greater randomness, more risks and changes at sight, which will delight those who are no better satisfied than the old lethargic Eden, the humanitarian paradises of sociology. Nietzsche, in his hypotheses, has left more room for chance, by which he better satisfies our instinct to play (Jules de Gaultier, “État de la Philosophie en France,” Flegrea, Nov. 20, 1901)].

Faust left the question open: “I do not want to hear any more debates,” he said, “about whether in the world to come one still hates or loves, and whether in those distant spheres there is also an above and a below” (Faust, Part I).

The movement of life seems to indicate that these forces—egoism, wickedness, creative goodness—will eternally entangle their action; they will multiply their points of application; they will capitalize on their effects; they will widen to infinity the weft they weave on the noisy loom of time; but they will remain eternally immutable in their essence and also in the hearts and works of men.

The essay first appeared in Revue philosophique, September 1902.