Nietzsche's unwitting case for equality

Nietzsche has been held up as the arch-philosopher of an aristocratic politics. Nietzsche claimed a lineage with Plato and his theory of an authoritarian state. Donovan Miyasaki disagrees, arguing Nietzsche fails to follow the platonic model. Nietzsche and Plato both placed their ideas of the state as reflections on the souls of individuals. Nietzsche’s’ theory of a state is based on the idea of a manifold soul, leading to a society which cultivates harmony and freedom.

I’d like to contrast Plato’s picture of the self or soul to Nietzsche’s account of what he calls a “manifold” soul. While Plato’s moral ideal is a rigidly hierarchical soul subordinated to reason, Nietzsche’s manifold soul is a dynamic balance of powers, a contentious unity of diverse personas. And although Plato’s just soul serves as the model of his authoritarian, aristocratic politics, Nietzsche’s manifold soul is deeply incompatible with his aristocratic politics. This provides us, very much against his intentions, with the foundation for a novel theory of egalitarian social harmony.

In The Republic, Plato compares the moral perfection of individuals and society to musical harmony: a just individual or city is a beautiful unity of distinct elements and voices. Of course, most of us live in a state of disharmony: our soul is an orchestra that is out of time and out of tune, producing cacophony rather than music. Although moral improvement requires bringing the three parts of our souls into an agreement, the perfected self is not a community of equals. Instead, Plato compares the just soul to a chariot driver guiding a horse or a farmer tending animals. Reason is the authority over and caretaker of our emotions and appetites, constraining their recklessness and guiding them with knowledge of their true good.


Our soul is an orchestra which is out of time and out of tune, producing cacophony rather than music.


This picture of the soul in turn serves as Plato’s model of the ideal city. A social order has three elements corresponding to the parts of the soul: wise “guardians” create just laws, a “warrior” class protects the laws from internal and external enemies, and a “producer” class creates the goods necessary for society’s material prosperity. Just as emotions and appetites should be governed entirely by reason, only the guardian class should have political power. For Plato, we can make beautiful music together only through an aristocratic social order, the political subordination of the majority to a small group of (hopefully, if improbably!) wise rulers.

This might seem contradictory: how can harmony consist of such a radical imbalance of powers? True, an orchestra requires a leader to play well. But surely an orchestra in which everyone is entirely obedient to a single individual, showing no individual spontaneity and making any creative contribution, cannot produce great music?

But this objection overlooks Plato’s secret: he doesn’t believe the soul has three parts after all. In reality, the soul is singular, for the mind survives the death of the body. Our emotions and appetites are just accidents of our attachment to a body, not part of our real selves. They don’t play an equal role in governance because they are not separate agencies but mere instruments of reason.

So, the correct analogy for Plato’s just society is not an orchestra, but an individual musician’s mastery of her instrument, played like an extension of herself. And that’s why Plato’s analogy of self and society is so dangerous. The Platonic soul is a unity of person and thing, but society is a unity of persons. To force distinct, living and breathing individuals—each with their own body, mind, values, and aspirations—into a single organism, is to reduce them to instruments of a political elite, destroying their individuality: their desire to live in their way, making their unique music.

It’s tempting to conclude that any attempt to model society on the self is hopelessly anti-democratic, but that would be a mistake. The source of Plato’s authoritarianism isn’t his analogy of society and soul, but his view of the soul. Instead of abandoning the analogy, we should abandon his atomistic, simple, and a-social picture of the self. We need an alternative picture of the self as a true community, consisting of irreducibly multiple, independent, and distinct agencies.

Nietzsche has provided just such an alternative. We might expect Nietzsche would prove our initial suspicion right: the analogy of society to self is doomed to authoritarianism. After all, he was a vehement critic of egalitarian morality and democratic politics. Like Plato, he solves the dilemma of how to create harmony from diversity through coercive power, celebrating the political subordination of the majority to an aristocratic, spiritual and cultural elite.

However, Nietzsche endorses Plato’s politics despite having an opposite understanding of the soul. So I argue, Nietzsche’s mistake is precisely his failure to model his vision of society on his theory of the self. There’s a deep contradiction between his view of human nature (how we are) and his politics (how we ought to be). Consequently, if Nietzsche’s right about the self, then his politics are wrong.


If Nietzsche’s right about the self, then his politics are wrong.

To understand Nietzsche’s alternative view, we’ll have to avoid the two most common misconceptions. The first is that humans are beastly, driven by the will to power understood as a drive to dominate others. On this view, Nietzsche’s moral views mirror the conscienceless and brutal so-called “master morality” that he vividly depicts in On the Genealogy of Morals. However, Nietzsche believes the unique circumstances of civilization transforms humans into an animal with interiority; in turn channelling the will to power away from the domination of one’s environment into a drive to creatively shape one’s, own soul. Although he admires master morality’s affirmative nature and lack of any conception of blame, he insists that it’s the proto-morality of a proto-humanity, and so neither possible nor desirable to replicate.

The second common misconception is that in his discussion of the so-called “sovereign individual,” Nietzsche endorses a naturalized version of Kantian autonomy. In this view, the internalization of the will to power produces a higher kind of freedom in the form of self-mastery. But unlike Kant, self-mastery is not the rule of reason over passion, but of some passions over others. The highest humans achieve a strong, rigidly-ordered soul in which their strongest motivations completely dominate their weaker desires and interests.

However, Nietzsche does not think that this simple, rigidly ordered form of strength is appropriate to the unique nature of the human soul. He rejects the sovereign individual for the same reason he rejects the Platonic soul: it makes a narrow part of the self so much stronger than the rest that it creates unfreedom, sacrificing the majority of our needs and desires to the ruling drives at the top. Like Plato’s own depiction of the tyrannical personality, sovereign individuals are self-tyrannizing: they mistakenly think they’re free because they identify with only one passion while starving the rest.

Because our decisive difference from other animals is our interiority, the depth and complexity of the soul, Nietzsche describes our highest form of health as the “manifold soul”: a self that achieves unity in plurality rather than against it. He challenges us to think of an individual as a literal society: not a single organism of many parts, but many organisms living together, a “social structure” consisting of what he calls “under-souls.” With the language of under-souls, he’s underlining the point that our drives are agencies closer to little selves, each with its own needs and desires, each seeking its unique form of flourishing: in our earlier analogy, an orchestra rather than a musician mastering her instrument.

Consequently, Nietzsche’s understanding of harmony includes irreducible diversity: I am many individuals in one, a diverse collection of distinct, often opposed talents, purposes, and interests. I am my family, my teachers, my language, my culture, my influences, even my enemies and opponents and my reactions to them. I have numerous personas that I develop or abandon at different aspects of my life: a family self, a work self, a friend self, and so on. And I perfect my soul by bringing it into a harmony that organizes but does not stifle these little selves, personae, or under-souls.


Nietzsche childishly fantasizes about an improbably spiritual and cultivated leisure class that will create great artistic, philosophical, and cultural works


So, against Plato’s “tyranny of reason,” against the historical master’s shallow strength without interiority, as well as against the sovereign individual’s tyranny of one passion over others, Nietzsche challenges us to create a self in which each of our components personas is strong enough to express themselves in our lives, but not so strong that one dominates or destroys the others. The manifold soul is a harmony that includes, as great music often does, elements of discord and dissonance—a self that allows for diversity, variety, and deep transformation, just as any living, breathing, natural organism must.

Why is the ideal of the manifold soul so antithetical to the popular conception of Nietzsche as a champion of egoism and domination? That myth is rooted in the so-called will to power, a phrase he uses only rarely. He usually emphasizes the language not of power but of resistance. We are driven, he tells us, toward the feeling of power—a feeling heightened by obstacles, constraint, and opposition. “The highest type of freedom,” he tells us, is found “where the greatest resistance is constantly being overcome…five steps from tyranny.” So, the best illustration of the will to power is not warfare but the activity of play, the delight we take in being equal to an obstacle that is almost too much for us: the mountain almost too big to climb, the race that’s almost but not quite too long, or the partner in a game who we might defeat this time, but who will probably win soon, maybe even in the very next game.

In this way, Nietzsche’s notion of the harmonious self is essentially interwoven with disharmony—what he calls agonism or contestation. The healthy soul is not an autocracy but a continuing contest in which the competitors—our varied abilities, needs, and passions—are trained, nourished, and cultivated to a degree of relative equality, allowing every drive to sometimes win the game, ensuring every under-soul finds a degree of its unique happiness over the long run. Manifold souls are multidimensional human beings, realizing all of their capacities to some degree, never entirely sacrificing one part of themselves to another in pursuit of a one-dimensional version of greatness.

If Nietzsche had followed Plato’s example and drawn a picture of society on the model of his idea of the manifold soul, his political philosophy would have been radically different. Instead, he abandons his insights into the complex harmony of our nature, calling for simplistic social unity through domination. Like Plato’s utopian dreams of philosopher kings, Nietzsche childishly fantasizes about an improbably spiritual and cultivated leisure class that will create great artistic, philosophical, and cultural works to provide vicarious meaning for the rest of us.

So, while Nietzsche may have been unequal to one of his greatest moral-psychological insights, we can correct his error by drawing from the manifold soul an alternative vision of society, one that is irreducibly plural and diverse in values, interests, and talents, creating unity not from the exclusion of differences but a balance of powers. What’s most insightful about Nietzsche’s view is that it makes disharmony essential to harmony: not only does each individual contain multitudes, those distinct selves often make incompatible demands upon us. So, Nietzsche pushes us to change the way we think about harmony. True harmony depends not on shared identity but on shared material conditions of flourishing. If every part of the self is roughly equal in power and in its opportunities to express itself, if we don’t cultivate one interest, personality, or path by suppressing others, if we develop every one of our talents, we create an equality of power that allows all of our various selves to preserve their independence.


The goal isn’t to win but to continue the game.


The manifold soul achieves the kind of harmony found in a well-designed game played by worthy competitors. A well-designed game is constructed to be continually replayed rather than to sort us into winners and losers. The goal isn’t to win but to continue the game. As Nietzsche notes, ancient Greek contests often excluded precisely the most skilled competitors, since their capacity for definitive conquest was incompatible with continued competition. Over the long run, a great game preserves the interests of all players. It’s one we want to play again even when we lose: winners don’t gain an insurmountable lead; losing doesn’t destroy our ability to play again; and we’ll win as often as we lose.

In this way, what is most important about Nietzsche’s ideal of the manifold soul is that it’s not a utopian ideal, but a real social possibility grounded in a sophisticated account of human psychology. It’s not a wishful picture of what it would be better for human beings to be, but a description of what we already are and want and do to a degree, and what we can better be under the right social conditions. Because those conditions are the production of real abilities and opportunities, it’s not so much a moral theory as a materially-grounded moral psychology of what kinds of social relationships improve us.

Now let’s imagine a vision of society based on this unique model of manifold harmony. This society would not be unified by a shared identity or a set of values but by a shared commitment to the value of the well-designed social games it materially supports. It would be grounded, above all, in the promotion and preservation of the fundamental equality of power and opportunity of all of its members, the equal chance and ability of every member to join and effectively participate in any of the many social games we play: professional, religious, cultural, political, and so on.

In this image of social harmony, the primary obligation of society to its members is to help each individual, from the moment of their birth until the end of their lives, cultivate not just one talent, skill, profession or identity, but the demands of the all of the under-souls that compose them. Such a society might not produce Nietzsche’s childish fantasy of an elite community of one-dimensional superstars, geniuses, and Olympians demi-gods, but it would produce something infinitely more admirable, beautiful, and happy: real, perhaps even ordinary, but deeply multi-dimensional human beings who are rich enough in their powers and pleasures do not need to seek their worth in comparative greatness to others.

To imagine such a society requires also imagining an economic, political, and cultural world liberated from every form of social domination and persistent inequality. In short, this social ideal would require the very political conditions Nietzsche most vehemently opposed: a deep, lasting, politically secured equality of individuals’ political, economic, and cultural power, a radical egalitarianism that ensures today’s winners of our various social games cannot rig future games in their favour. Against his intentions, Nietzsche’s psychological model of harmony leads us away from nostalgic aristocratic fantasies toward a novel ideal of social harmony grounded not in the eradication of dissonance and difference but in their continued support and protection.

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