Nietzsche, Friedrich (1844–1900)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC057-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 21, 2019, from

11. The will to power

Zarathustra teaches that life itself is will to power, and this is often thought to be Nietzsche’s central teaching as well. However, will to power first appears in Nietzsche’s work in Daybreak (1881), and there it is one human drive among others, the striving for competence or mastery. It is usefully thought of as a second-order drive or will: a need or desire for the effectiveness of one’s first-order will. In Daybreak, Nietzsche finds this drive at work in large areas of human life: in asceticism, revenge, the lust for money, the striving for distinction, cruelty, blaming others, blaming oneself. He explains the drive’s apparent omnipresence in human life by saying not that life is will to power (or that power is the only thing humans want), but that power has a special relation to human happiness. He calls love of power a ‘demon’ because human beings remain unhappy and low-spirited if it is not satisfied even if all their material needs are satisfied, whereas power can make them as happy as human beings can be, even if everything else is taken away ( Daybreak §262 [ Werke V.1: 211]). In Genealogy (1887) he expresses a similar idea in more positive terms when he calls the will to power ‘the most life-affirming drive’, that is, the one whose satisfaction contributes most to finding life worth living ( Genealogy III §18 [ Werke VI.2: 383]).

Zarathustra claims that this ‘will to be master’ is found in all that lives, and that this explains why life is ‘struggle and becoming’, always overcoming itself, always opposing what it has created and loved: ‘Verily, where there is perishing and a falling of leaves, behold, there life sacrifices itself - for power’ ( Zarathustra II §12 [ Werke VI.1: 144–5]). But this seems a clearly anthropomorphic conception of life, the projection of the human will to power onto nonhuman nature. Nietzsche rejects anthropomorphic conceptions of nature, insists that will is to be found only in beings with intellects, and complains that Schopenhauer’s idea of will ‘has been turned into a metaphor when it is asserted that all things in nature possess will’ ( Human II §5 [ Werke IV.3: 18]).

Yet Nietzsche does say that life, and even reality itself, is will to power. The idea seems to be that reality consists of fields of force or dynamic quanta, each of which is essentially a drive to expand and thus to increase its power relative to all other such quanta. However, almost all the passages to this effect are found in Nietzsche’s notebooks. He actually argues that reality is will to power in only one passage he chose to publish, and this passage gives us good reason to doubt that Nietzsche actually accepted the argument. He neither says nor implies that he accepts its conclusion, and he argues against its premises in earlier passages of the same book ( Beyond Good and Evil §36 [ Werke VI.2: 50–1]).

Why would Nietzsche construct a rather elaborate argument from premises he clearly rejects? Perhaps it was to illustrate the view of philosophy presented earlier in the same book. Philosophers’ ultimate aim, he claims, is not to obtain knowledge or truth, but to interpret the world in terms of their own values (see §6 of this entry) - to ‘create [in thought] a world before which [they] can kneel’ ( Zarathustra II §12 [ Werke VI.1: 143]). Yet they present their interpretations as true, and argue for them on the basis of amazingly ‘little’: ‘any old popular superstition from time immemorial’, a play on words, a seduction by grammar, or ‘an audacious generalization of very narrow, very personal, very human, all too human facts’ ( Beyond Good and Evil Preface [ Werke VI.2: 3–4]). This seems an apt diagnosis of Nietzsche’s own argument, since he elsewhere identifies its first premise as ‘Schopenhauer’s superstition’ and the exaggeration of a popular prejudice, and its second and third premises as part of the ‘primeval mythology’ Schopenhauer ‘enthroned’ ( Beyond Good and Evil §§16–19 [ Werke VI.2: 22–6]; Gay Science §127 [ Werke V.2: 160]). Furthermore, the effect of the argument is an ‘audacious generalization’ to the whole universe of the will to power, which Nietzsche originally understands as one human drive among others. In generalizing this drive, Nietzsche can be seen as generalizing and glorifying what he values, just as he claims philosophers have always done and must do. For Nietzsche’s own answer to ‘what is good?’ is ‘everything that heightens the feeling of power in human beings, the will to power, power itself’ ( Antichrist §2 [ Werke VI.3: 168]).

Why does Nietzsche value the will to power? He certainly came to recognize it as responsible for the violence and cruelty of human life and as the prime ingredient in what he had earlier called the ‘cauldron full of witches’ brew’ that threatens the modern world with ‘horrible apparitions’ ( Unfashionable Observations III §4 [ Werke III.1: 363]). But he also saw it as ‘the most life-affirming drive’ and as responsible for the great human accomplishments - political institutions, religion, art, morality and philosophy. His basic psychological claim is that human beings are subjected to intense experiences of powerlessness and that such experience leads to depression unless some means is found for restoring a feeling of power. What we call ‘barbarism’ is largely a set of direct and crude strategies for restoring the feeling of power by demonstrating the power to hurt others. What we call ‘culture’ is a set of institutions and strategies for achieving the same feeling in a sublimated or less direct fashion. The most important strategies have all involved directing the will to power back against the self. Such internalization is responsible for all the ethical achievements of human life, all the ways in which human beings have changed and perfected their original nature by taking on a new and improved nature. But the internalization of the will to power has been promoted by the ascetic ideal’s condemnation of our original nature, especially of the will to power. This is what Zarathustra attempts to overcome with his overhuman teaching, which directs the will to power back against the self to overcome the inclinations that led to the old ideal. He therefore does not condemn the will to power, but celebrates it.

Citing this article:
Clark, Maudemarie. The will to power. Nietzsche, Friedrich (1844–1900), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC057-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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