Generosity as a central virtue in Nietzsche's ethics

  • M Schoeman


Nietzsche's ethics is basically an ethics of virtue. In his own unique way, and in accordance with his extra-moral view of life, Nietzsche recovers and re-appropriates certain virtues – notably pagan, aristocratic virtues – as part of his project to reconceptualise (‘rehabilitate') the virtues in terms of virtù (virtuosity and vitality), to which he also refers as his ‘moraline-free' conception of the virtues. The virtue of generosity (in the sense of magnanimity) plays a central role in Nietzschean ethics. According to Nietzsche, the truly noble or virtuous person is one who lives beyond resentment and feelings of remorse and guilt. He lives his life from the fullness and plenitude of his own being and what he is able to bestow on others. Nietzsche seeks to rekindle and rehabilitate the aristocratic ‘pathos of distance' as the true origin of ethical life. This pathos of distance basically emanates from self-respect: ‘The noble soul has reverence for itself' (1974b: §287). For Nietzsche, this means that one should realize the greatest multiplicity of drives and form-giving forces in oneself, in the most tension-fraught but ‘controlled' manner. This control, this imposing a form on oneself without neglecting the multiplicity in oneself, is a creative, artistic activity. Nietzsche also refers to this as a process of transforming the self into a work of art, of giving style to one's own existence. Thus we free ourselves from guilt, resentment and the rage against contingency. It is of the utmost importance for Nietzsche that one should attain satisfaction with oneself, for ‘only then is a human being at all tolerable to behold. Whoever is dissatisfied with himself is continually ready for revenge, and we others will be his victims, if only by having to endure his ugly sight.' (1974a: §290). To attain satisfaction with oneself ultimately means to affirm life in its totality. This implies a life beyond resentment, i.e. a life that is characterised by generosity or magnanimity (megalopsychia, magnanimitas), which is for Nietzsche the ‘crown' of all the virtues.

South African Journal of Philosophy Vol. 26 (1) 2007: pp. 17-30

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