3

Early in The Gay Science, Nietzsche includes a curious sentence in parentheses: "The poets, for instance, were always the valets of some morality or other."

I'm curious what this means and how it relates to his philosophy.

3

(Die Poeten zum Beispiel waren immer die Kammerdiener irgend einer Moral.eKGWB)

Leo Strauss, The City and Man. p.135:

Nietzsche who said "The poets, for instance, were always the valets of some morality or other." But according to the French saying, for a valet there is no hero: are the poets (at least those that are not entirely stupid) not aware of the secret weaknesses of their heroes.

This suggestion fits perfectly Nietzsche's views: morality is not something great and noble to be admired - there are more down to earth motives behind it. Many people are fascinated or ensnared but the poets are among those who see through the pretenses.

Leo Strauss quotes Nietsche while discussing Plato's Republic where the suggestion is made that poets should be banned from the ideal Polis.

1
1

The purpose of a valet is to take a more-or-less normal human being — a typical example of Homo Sapiens — and make them resplendent. A valet dresses, grooms, and cleans; adjusts clothing to accentuate strengths and cover weakness; removes stains and blemishes while accentuating highlights and polished details. A valet takes a scruffy, disordered mess of a human body and works it into an outward appearance of ideal symmetry and harmony.

The analogy to poetry is straightforward. Poets — at least the romantics (and at least from Nietzsche's perspective) — take honest and authentic inner states and inflate them into towering ideals. Sexual attraction becomes enveloping romantic love; a desire to help others becomes boundless compassion or even martyrdom; friendship is an eternal, immutable bond, while hatred is an equally eternal and destructive flame... Poets hide the coarse and ambiguous nature of human motivations behind a facade of universal ideals and reified language, always with the goal of making those inner mental states more noble, powerful, alluring, and pure than they ever actually are in the mundane world.

Obviously this serves a social and personal (aka moral) purpose. The idea that we have fallen in 'true love' is far more appealing and self-serving than the biological correlate that we are being driven by biological imperatives to disseminate our genes, and it also helps society to structure and manage potentially problematic urges. But that is too dishonest for Nietzsche. He wants to strip away the pretense so that people can manage and structure their own urges according to a deeper, more essential sense of morality.

1
  • Great answer! Thank you for highlighting the role of valet and the analogy it serves. – Joshua Bone Oct 11 '20 at 0:27

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.