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What does Nietzsche mean by this in his polemic novella BGE?

To me, I interpret it as:

The higher the virtues one aims at, the greater these virtues act as a judge on one's behavior, resulting in both greater reward but also greater punishment for ones action. It is therefore in the interest of the man who aims the highest to align his behavior to such virtues or else suffer a punishment proportional to the magnitude of his virtues.

However, taking in the context of the book and of Nietzsche's views - who by the way was anti-Christian, this verse could be a criticism of the Christian virtues as a form of slavery.

It is therefore hard how to contextualize such a short verse.

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    Just a personal perspective: I'd say it means that if you hold fast to your principles, you will often find that people are hostile when those principles are contrary to their interests. For example, an honest man can't get along with a gang of crooks and liars.
    – causative
    Commented Sep 18, 2022 at 4:37

4 Answers 4

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I have always thought Nietzsche was being deliberately obscure and ambiguous in his aphorisms so that in trying to figure out what he could possibly have meant, the reader breaks the chains of conventional thinking. As such, while he might have had a specific meaning in mind himself, it's more important what it triggers you to stop thinking; what assumptions it challenges. Like a koan, it's a tool towards your own enlightenment.

In this case, the conventional thinking I think it is supposed to challenge is the idea that only sins should be punished with suffering, that we should seek to avoid or prevent suffering, that the purpose of punishment is so that people seeking to avoid suffering will thus be motivated to avoid sin.

Nietzsche turns this around in multiple ways. He argues that suffering is necessary for greatness, that we should not let fear of suffering prevent us from acting according to our virtues, that the idea of 'punishment' has it backwards.

The greatest virtue is commonly seen in tales of martyrdom. Although the Christian metaphor would probably not be to Nietzsche's taste, we know that in Christian canon Jesus and the saints were punished specifically for their virtues, knowing the consequences in advance, and it is precisely this that makes their virtue so great. On the other side of the argument, Galileo was so lionised in the story because he expected to be punished for sticking to his beliefs. Soldiers are admired for self-sacrifice for the cause - again, suffering for their virtue.

The Free Spirit has to live life to the full, take risks, accept suffering as a price worth paying, and if you're going to be punished, best you be punished for standing tall and doing the right thing.

In 225 of Beyond Good and Evil, the chapter 'Our Virtues' we find:

You want, if possible—and there is not a more foolish "if possible"—TO DO AWAY WITH SUFFERING; and we?—it really seems that WE would rather have it increased and made worse than it has ever been! Well-being, as you understand it—is certainly not a goal; it seems to us an END; a condition which at once renders man ludicrous and contemptible—and makes his destruction DESIRABLE! The discipline of suffering, of GREAT suffering—know ye not that it is only THIS discipline that has produced all the elevations of humanity hitherto? The tension of soul in misfortune which communicates to it its energy, its shuddering in view of rack and ruin, its inventiveness and bravery in undergoing, enduring, interpreting, and exploiting misfortune, and whatever depth, mystery, disguise, spirit, artifice, or greatness has been bestowed upon the soul—has it not been bestowed through suffering, through the discipline of great suffering?

It's one possible interpretation. But don't get too hung up on whether you have identified the right one. I don't think you're meant to figure out 'the answer' and then just stop thinking about it. That's why they're so obscure.

[Except for exams, of course, where your aim has to be to find out how your lecturer interprets it...]

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  • I would doubt Nietzsche endorses suffering as in a plethora of his texts, he explicitly condemns conventional (esp christian) morality of suffering as being against nature. Especially the nature of the UberMan.
    – Nikos M.
    Commented Jan 16, 2023 at 17:39
  • The meaning that the UberMan should not run away from suffering, should it come his way, is more plausible, since to the Uber Man, his will is all that matters, regardless if it is opposed through imposed suffering. Rather than seeking to suffer as a path to some salvation or purification.
    – Nikos M.
    Commented Jan 16, 2023 at 17:45
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While it may be tempting, I'm not sure that asking what fragments mean is a great way to use SE, because it will depend so much on whose interpretive side you take and how there is likely to be no discussion of the individual fragment.

  1. If you think of him as a virtue ethicist: that the ubermensch will be persecuted by the herd.

  2. If not: that virtue is weakness, and we are "punished" for them by immoralists.

There can surely be other interpretations (it could be a remark on hypocrisy: it's easy to read Nietzsche, in the main, as satirical of fools who think that they do possess certain virtues).

I lean toward the latter, because "best" is the word, not "most". It would be unlike him to say there is anything good at all in punishing the overman. And the first interpretation strikes me as too prophetic of his madness (that could just be an effect of the English translation).

Could be though, because he did seem to want to possess - i.e. recognise and learn from - his own suffering as a part of overcoming man.

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  • Thank you @return. So is my interpretation completely wrong?
    – user62232
    Commented Aug 18, 2022 at 11:25
  • @user62232 wow I don't know you could call it "completely wrong". at all. I'm just a guy on a screen, and no more of an expert than you are. The previous aphorism suggests he's saying that virtue is worth being punished for. My answer is just more about the emphasis I put on his philosophy (that there are two types)
    – user62233
    Commented Aug 18, 2022 at 11:26
  • Indeed, I should probably not have answered it. I've just been trying to understand for a long time how anyone can claim that morality is a trick, if they have learnt anything from life. Perhaps it's easier to think of it as beneath one, rather than unhelpful.
    – user62233
    Commented Aug 18, 2022 at 11:54
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As far as I can find it's an aphorism so, apparently there is no context and it should stand on it's own. Also the German original apparently lists it as "Man wird am besten für seine Tugenden bestraft." so using "best" rather than "most", but which could also have been used synonymous in that context like "the best punishment" in the sense of the "(top) most punishment" rather than the "most appropriate".

Also it could just be a remark of sarcasm that you'll receive the harshest punishment not for your vices but for acting virtuous.

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I offer a personal perspective, correct or not I leave it to the reader to decide.

Though Nietzsche, as per reliable reports, was critiquing Christianity, it isn't too much of a stretch to say that his attack is pan-religious.

As far as I can tell, there are obvious reasons to expect some kinda moral laws, like the physical laws in nature, to be in force (we tend to behave fairly consistently towards good and bad folks). However take note of the word "fairly" - it means there are exceptions and morality is governed by not laws but flexible rules. If one attempts to tighten the rules into laws, one finds oneself doing metaphysics - stuff like the afterlife, reincarnation, and so on and our difficulties multiply in proportion.

Ergo, "enough of this nonsense!" Nietzsche must have exclaimed (imagine him throwing his hands up in frustration). We must realize that a coherent/consistent account of morality is unlikely and so morality is not the destination, but only a waystation we have to pass i.e. we must look/go beyond good and evil (Übermensch).

Where does the quote "one is punished most for one's virtue" fit in? Somewhere in third paragraph (vide supra).

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