The Maxim of Strength

One of the prevailing ideologies from our past comes to us in the form of the slogan “Might is right”. It is the ideology of the strong taking what they can, what they deem to be rightfully theirs and attaining from those that have. It separates the haves and the have-nots. More poetically, Jack London would have called it the law of Club and Fang. Another form, although slightly different, comes to us from one of the greatest sophists of the 19th century.

Nietzsche writes in Beyond Good and Evil:

Physiologists should think twice before positioning the drive for self-preservation as the cardinal drive of an organic being. Above all, a living thing wants to discharge its strength — life itself is will to power -: self-preservation is only one of the indirect and most frequent consequences of this.

Besides being wholly unscientific and poetic garbage this sort of outlook as had a tremendous effect on our modern philosophy. For instance in schools in the U.S. history is still taught as the history of the great man, just as Carlyle would have had it. Not as the history of a people or a culture, but as the story of the those who rose to power. And just the same microeconomics is taught as the science of self-interest, still upholding the spirit of Adam Smith’s vile maxim of the masters of mankind “All for ourselves and nothing for other people”. While predating Nietzsche and Carlyle, Smith’s maxim is directly supported by the “discharge of strength” so idolized by Nietzsche.

But “Might is right” is the easy answer. For anyone that accepts that the chief role of man is to “discharge” his strength, although I don’t know why you would accept that, I have a simple question for you: In which scenario is the use of power most effective, the strongman taking food from the weak, or the strongman defending the weak from the other strongmen? If the strongman is truly stronger than the weak man then it shouldn’t take any power at all to take the food, but for the strongman to defend the weak would take a considerable more amount of power.

Let’s put this in another way. You are on a schoolyard and you see a bully beat up a younger boy and take the money from his wallet. Well perhaps you don’t care too much for the money but you noticed the bully left the boy’s lunch box and you are hungry. You could easily go over and take the lunch box from the boy because he’s weaker than usual from the beating. But where is the test in that? You may feel some small boost in confidence levels but that will be superficial and short lived. But, let’s say you go challenge the other bully and take the money from him to give back to the original boy. That is the true test. Of course you could keep the money for yourself but I would argue that you would most likely receive the more pleasure from giving the money back.

Here we have specific scenarios in which case altruistic actions are motivated by self-interest. This can also be contorted to fit a financial scenario. Let’s say you have a thousand dollars you are wishing to spend. Now you have two options, go spend it on a new T.V. or donate it to charity. Which would be the more effective discharge of your financial strength. The latter option very much. Most people can buy a simple commodity like a T.V. but it takes more security to simply give the money away to somebody else. It makes more of a statement. This is why we see vulture capitalists suddenly become so concerned with donating money to charity, it makes a statement. That millionaire could easily take that money and buy some luxury but instead they say “Look at me give all this money to charity. I don’t need the money it’s useless to me.” That is the true discharge of strength in this scenario.

In fact we can really see all exchanging of money as a discharge of strength. I earned this dollar, and by spending it I am using the power and influence it brings to purchase a commodity. You may notice that some people get a sort of thrill when spending money. People will stand in line for hours just to buy the newest gadget and yet it really never brings true pleasure. Whereas quite the opposite case, some of the most pleasure I’ve seen received from an object were photos sent by charities showcasing the kids that any particular donor’s money helped save.

Now for a moment let me be very specific about the purpose of these brief arguments. I’m not advocating a ethics based on the discharge of strength. Quite the opposite actually. I’m saying that with this notion so firmly embedded into our society, it can actually be reversed into advocating a sort of twisted hedonistic altruism where those with the power give to those without simply for the feeling of it. It’s not where we need to be, but it’s a start.

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22 thoughts on “The Maxim of Strength

  1. It’s definitely true, though it would be interesting to see you consider cases when it doesn’t apply. I even think that it affects the kind of bodies that people strive to have. Being rich is a proxy for being strong. If the rich are thin, like today – everyone tries to be thin so as to signal their strength (a kind of mimicry). When they are pale, like back in the day – everyone went around with an umbrella to stay out of the sun.

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  2. Hello,

    I think that you showed a perspective relatable to high ideals, though I think that your terminology is self-defeating. If your no is no, then your argument would probably benefit from our yes being yes. In particular, calling your conclusion that I assume that you accept as right “twisted” result implies Nietzhe’s view, or that of the Sophists, as an original one. Thanks for your time.

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  3. Hello,

    I think that you showed a perspective relatable to high ideals, though I think that your terminology is self-defeating. If your no is no, then your argument would probably benefit from your yes being yes. In particular, calling your conclusion that I assume that you accept as right “twisted” result implies Nietzsche’s view, or that of the Sophists, as an original one. Thanks for your time.

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  4. Yes, it’s a start. And with four, maybe eight years ahead, using the maxim to achieve a different goal may be all that’s possible right now…
    Thanks for your thought provoking posts during this year, I have enjoyed them, Best wishes for 2017, Lisa in Australia

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  5. You have radically misinterpreted Nietzsche. What is being described here is not concerning his desires about reality, but his description about what he feels the fundamental action of life to be (Altering the world to a state to its ‘liking). Whether or not this is correct is beside the point – Nietzsche himself is not against morals exactly. To him, kindness, or duty, or preserving a group are all a form of expending strength.

    Nietzsche’s conception of the ‘herd’ is, contrary to how he’s popularly taken, actually a very dangerous entity more composed of bulls than sheep. The preservation of the herd, or the efforts of the great individual to determine their own morality (not to have no morality) are all expenditures of strength in line with the concept of will-to-power.

    Nietzsche’s own ethics are quite clear when one actually reads his writing. He wants people to strive for their own self-improvement, for the human race to thrive, and for the forces which he considered so dangerous to true individual dangerous to be curbed.

    ‘As in the sea hast thou lived in solitude, and it hath borne thee up. Alas, wilt thou now go ashore? Alas, wilt thou again drag thy body thyself?”
    Zarathustra answered: “I love mankind.”‘

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    • I am quite aware of Nietzsche’s ethics, I have read most (although not all) of his works. I wasn’t trying to give a true interpretation of him, instead I was using his aphorism more as an example so I could better get my message across.

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      • You made several direct claims about the content of Nietzsche’s thought, even calling the process ‘idolized’ by Nietzsche. If this was intentional, then you’ve built a strawman, and you are the sophist who is misrepresenting the work of others to make your own points.

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        • Idolized is quite the appropriate word for this. “[Anything which] is a living and not a dying body… will have to be an incarnate will to power, it will strive to grow, spread, seize, become predominant – not from any morality or immorality but because it is living and because life simply is will to power… ‘Exploitation’… belongs to the essence of what lives, as a basic organic function; it is a consequence of the will to power, which is after all the will to life.” (Beyond Good and Evil, section 259). To live is to strive for power and exploitation is merely a byproduct not to be worried about. You can’t claim that Nietzsche doesn’t idolize this concept of strength.

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          • Nietzsche *specifically* says, right in what you just linked, that this isn’t about any sort of morality or immorality. And insofar as it isn’t, he is quite correct. The strong win, and sometimes morality aids in strength (such as promoting cooperation and trust), and sometimes immorality does. Insofar as the moral want to win, they need to be strong.

            Nietzsche did praise strength, but not, as you make out, as ‘morality’ – but because he valued life, and life invariably alters the world. Even acts of morality are in accordance with this definition.

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            • Nietzsche is probably the most misinterpreted philosopher of all time. I could argue that it is done by design, because it counters other schools of thought, or more exactly schools of obeying and following. The will to power is not being a bully or taking advantage of those weaker. In fact it is the opposite. I will paraphrase but the strong shall protect that which belongs to him, it could be people or things, and belonging less in the sense of properly but in belonging. My family, my friends, that kind of my.
              Also there is a line in Beyond Good and Evil that has stuck with me. The 1 is only as powerful as the 0s that follow it. That is strength, and will that becomes leadership. Not all will lead, not all are strong, not all are 1.
              Altruism is another matter, that perhaps Plato covers best. A good deed is truly good when we are not aware of it at all. When there is no feeling of good or accomplishment. That is the ultimate good. Nietzsche recognizes this feeling, either of doing good or bad and puts morality aside, calling it will to power. Will in general is something only attributed to the strong. Actually, not attributed, taken because will is not given by an abstract entity, it is taken. It is the nature of this universe.
              We do cooperate in society and hence we have morality of good and bad, in a sense of legal vs illegal. But going above the level of religion, morality, at a cosmic level, there is no good or evil. Black holes aren’t evil, stars aren’t good. They just are, and they exert their “will” by transforming potential energy into other forms, kinetic, magnetic, thermic. Or in plain english, forms of power.

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  6. I tried to read Thus Spake several times hoping that he gets to something and he just doesn’t. Oh, it all sound good (apparently his sister did some of the editing and some speculate that the philosophy is as much hers as his, oops!). Some of the ideas are certainly worth considering. However, the religion, the ultimate correctness, that has grown up around this isn’t justifiable.

    The thing is he makes his major logical error in the first couple of paragraphs and fails to correct it. The rest then follows the path of “this is the way I want to see the world, so there!”

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  7. Poor Nietzsche, it seems he is always getting a bum rap from amature philosophers. One of the lessons of philosophy, it one pays sufficient attention, is that it is a reflection of reality. That is, it attempts to describe the human condition and parse its way through the argument of living. Is the doctrine “Might is Right” an ideal of society or a description of that society? You have not bothered to inform us whether Nietzsche is drawing on his observations of current society or a historical perspective or both. You simply jump right in and make a number of value judgments and deliver an answer based on your on bias.

    You know, the Greeks used to speculate about the first cause or causes and how it related to society and the world at large. Later Christian theology and philosophy would argue about first causes (the existence of God) to the point of sheer boredom. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? I think the answer was 648 although I was never sure as to anyone was able to arrive at that answer. We can fast forward Mao Tse Tung and learn that political power comes from the barrel of a gun. I guess when one uses weapons might is right enough, political and otherwise.

    Of course almost all philosophical systems tend to start from the top down. The first cause, if you like. My god is better than your god and can kick your god’s ass. Might is right theology. So as the ages pass and all manner of philosophers put in their two cents, vying to be judged right, we read more and more of this top down approach and never question whether such an approach even works. We want to study mankind and not man himself, alone, in his natural state. We seldom ask just what is the natural state on man (this includes woman for all those of you who want PC). One might as well ask if we may study the cow in solo, without the herd. The individual cow is an individual but its existence is within the herd. The same can be said on man, no man is an island but exists within a multitude of groups. Of course the heroic literature and art is about the individual rising above the tyranny of the group, individual freedom is the ultimate expression of “Mankind”. If you believe that I have a couple of bridges I can sell you real cheap.

    Altruism will not set us free. As much as such a doctrine sounds wonderful, it is not practical and rarely practiced. The other problem is that it tends to suffer from unintended consequences. A random act of kindness can have unintended consequences that lead to disaster for the recipient. But back to groups, which are far more important than most of us realize and whom most philosophers seem to ignore. Our dependence on groups really validates the “Great Man Theory” of history far more than you might suspect. And until you understand groups, their construct, their importance, and their workings in society, you will never under human behavior. Hence, your arguments are only dust in the wind. The proper study of man is not his ideas but himself in relation to others. Philosophy is a fascinating study of ideas but the limitations of its observations on human behavior is obvious.

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  8. Might is never right in my book but then I’m trying to be a pacifist … and what I like about Nietzsche is that he’s essentially poetic/creative and therefore can be read different ways

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