The Most Agreeable of All Vices: Nietzsche as Virtue Epistemologist

Here’s the penultimate draft of my paper, “The Most Agreeable of All Vices: Nietzsche as Virtue Epistemologist,” which is forthcoming in the British Journal for the History of Philosophy.  Comments and criticisms welcome and invited, as always.


The Most Agreeable of All Vices:

Nietzsche as Virtue Epistemologist

But a curiosity of my type remains after all the most agreeable of all vices

– sorry, I meant to say: the love of truth has its reward in heaven and even on earth.

Beyond Good and Evil 45


1. Nietzsche and virtue


Nietzsche’s corpus is an exotic concoction of irony, buffoonery, hyperbole, and ambivalence.  This is one of the reasons why reading him is so hard but also so interesting.  In this paper, I assemble an interpretation of Nietzsche as a virtue theorist – in particular, as a virtue epistemologist in the inquiry responsibilism school.

It might seem strange to attribute such a view to Nietzsche.  He says some nasty things about virtue.  In The Gay Science (21; see also 150), for instance, he claims that “virtues (like industriousness, obedience, chastity, filial piety, and justice) are usually harmful for those who possess them [….] When you have a virtue, a real, whole virtue,” he says, “you are its victim.”[1]  In The Anti-Christ (1), he objects to the “virtuous filth of the modern yes and no” and considers it “better to live on the ice than among modern virtues.”  And in Ecce Homo, he writes, “I negate the type of man that has so far been considered supreme: the good, the benevolent, the beneficent” (Destiny 4).  Such expressions of disdain and disgust have led Brian Leiter (1997), among others, to insist that Nietzsche shares at most in the negative, anti-consequentialist and anti-deontological project of virtue ethics, not its positive project of identifying the characterological components of a flourishing life.[2]  Notice, however, that these negations are directed not at virtue as such, but at particular virtues.  This leaves it open whether Nietzsche would recognize value in other traits of character, a supposition made more than plausible by the fact that chapters six, seven, and nine of Beyond Good and Evil are titled “We Scholars,” “Our Virtues,” and “What is Noble,” respectively.

The notion that Nietzsche is a virtue theorist was first popularized in Anglophone philosophy by Walter Kaufmann, in his classic (1968) study.  Kaufmann claims that “Nietzsche’s debt to Aristotle’s ethics” – especially to the Aristotelian conception of megalopsychia, which foreshadows Nietzsche’s overman – is “considerable” (p. 384).  Although Bernd Magnus (1980) has dismantled the superficial connection between the great-souled man and the overman, many commentators still think it’s plausible to construe Nietzsche as a virtue theorist of some stripe or other.[3]  It seems that, on balance, he’s best understood as deploring many of the traditional virtues while admiring “virtue in the style of the Renaissance, virtù, moraline-free virtue” (A 2).

But even if Nietzsche is some kind of virtue theorist, one might wonder, how could he possibly be a virtue epistemologist?  Nietzsche often seems to sneer at the will to truth.  In The Gay Science, he claims that the will to truth is “bad taste” which has “lost its charm” (P4), that it puts its adherents “on moral ground,” and that it “might be a concealed will to death” (344).  In Beyond Good and Evil (10), he says there’s no such thing as a will to truth, or at least that it’s quite rare.  In the Genealogy, he argues that the will to truth is the contemporary expression of the ascetic ideal (III: 24-27).  But again, these appearances are deceiving.  Even when he suggests that the will to truth might be a concealed will to death, Nietzsche cannot refrain from admitting that “we, too, are still pious” insofar as “even we seekers after knowledge today, we godless anti-metaphysicians still take our fire, too, from the flame lit by a faith that is thousands of years old, that Christian faith which was also the faith of Plato, that God is the truth, that truth is divine” (GS 344).

I think that attending to such positive evaluations of the intellectual virtues – evaluations made in the first-person singular and first-person plural – allows Nietzsche’s commitment to a peculiar brand of responsibilism to come into focus.  Responsibilists countenance a wide variety of intellectual virtues, from open-mindedness and intellectual sobriety to creativity and originality.  Nietzsche picks out a unique constellation of intellectual virtues, curiosity chief among them, appropriate to himself and those of his type.  In fact, I will argue that even when he praises seemingly moral virtues, such as honesty and courage, the praise is typically best understood in the light shed by his valuation of curiosity.

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