Nietzsche on Pleasure as Subservient to Power

See Will to Power Reasonings I and II

Epicureans have devoted numerous writings in defense of pleasure as the end. One of the central ideas in Epicurean philosophy is that NATURE is the guide, and that when we fail to listen to nature, it is only to our detriment. Unlike the man-made abstractions that mortals have set up as the ultimate end and guide in other philosophical traditions, we observe that it is nature who has set up the pleasure and aversion principles as our ethical guideposts, as the green and red lights in helping us to determine our choices and avoidances.

But Nietzsche’s temperament and his fondness for seeking ulterior motives lead him to propose that there is another force, which he calls will to power. This force is not entirely conscious: it is organic, and therefore a force of nature. It is this force that makes Nietzsche perceive thirst for vengeance and power struggles in every nook and cranny of the human psyche. And it is from this standpoint that he rationalizes pleasure, and (from our perspective) misses the point when it comes to hedonism. Epicurus refused to argue and apply rhetoric to pleasure, saying that pleasure-aversion is a nature-given faculty and not subject to argumentation:

There is one key doctrine that both Epicureans and Cyrenaics share. To the Cyrenaics, pleasure is satisfying and ergo choice-worthy for its own sake, and pain is repellent and ergo avoidance-worthy. These truths, they argued, are directly experienced and self-evident, and require no arguments or logic. Epicurus also refused to argue about pleasure and pain, saying that these are faculties within our own nature that receive raw data from nature, and not subject to logical formulas or arguments. – Cyrenaic Reasonings

N does exactly this: he rationalizes pleasure. In WtP 669, he says:

Displeasure and pleasure are the most stupid means imaginable of expressing judgments, which … does not mean that judgments made audible in this manner must be stupid. The abandonment of all … logicality … this is pleasure and displeasure. It originates in the central sphere of the intellect; its presupposition is an infinitely speeded-up perception, ordering, subsumption, calculating, inferring.

He elsewhere (in WtP 657) rephrases key Epicurean teachings as power-based formulas by saying things like pleasure is power when we’ve had displeasure, that passivity is an act of resistance and reaction (and therefore an expression of power), and (in WtP 658) that pleasure is an excitation of the feeling of power produced by an obstacle. He reframes both passive and active pleasures as acts of power.

Other ends that have been established in other philosophies (like virtue) are also criticized for being arbitrary and artificial. In WtP 721, he calls Stoicism “self tyranny”, arguing that “virtues” like duty, obedience, sanctity, emancipation, embody an inability to acquire power and are therefore shrewd signs of hypocrisy. We Epicureans see ourselves as the best credible alternative to the “self tyranny” of Stoicism: we call mortals to reconcile themselves with nature, and also with their own beings: by clearly understanding the natural limits of our pleasures, pains, and desires, we learn to procure them easily and we befriend the self and extend a healthy natural dose of compassion and respect to the self.

unlimited-powerHaving established the basics above for the sake of clarity, we can now delve into an evaluation of what Nietzsche believed about pleasure. Like Star Wars’ Emperor Palpatine, Nietzsche cares only about one thing: “POWER! UNLIMITED POWER!”. In the Star Wars universe, this turns the ambitious senator into the evil Sith Lord Sidius. In Epicurean discourse, power as the ultimate value is merely a distortion of human values, which should be tied to the study of nature: our natures do not ultimately want power, except in a natural measure, as self-sufficiency. Our natures simply want to experience pleasure and abolish pain, and generally this is easily done.

But is this simply a theoretical framework within which we can understand what he came to say? And, does this have practical repercussions that are dangerous? By exemplifying this distortion in his own philosophy, Nietzsche then justifies ideas that are sometimes merely impractical and an annoyance … and at times can be deeply anti-social and insanely violent, like eugenics and constant expansion and growth for the sake of power. These ideas have had real historical repercussions that ended up producing great alarm and suffering. We concede that this was due to a misinterpretation of Nietzsche by the likes of Hitler, but since these were also founded upon Nietzsche’s own misinterpretations–of Darwinian theories, for instance–we must blame him, and also for his lack of clarity.

Let’s now look at the concrete ways in which N more or less equates power and pleasure, mainly by insinuating that pleasure is subservient to power:

How far psychologists have been corrupted by the moral idiosyncrasy:–not one of the ancient philosophers had the courage … to define the typical element in pleasure, every sort of pleasure (“happiness”) as the feeling of power: for to take pleasure in power was considered immoral…. – WtP 428

What do men want? One dared not say “Power”: that would have been “immoral”; consequently there is in all the actions of men the intention of attaining happiness. – WtP 434

Implicit in the subservience of pleasure to power is the insight that common mortals consider “power” as an end to be immoral, and ergo he believes that people use euphemisms for it (like happiness, virtue, and so on), which leads him to his constant suspicion of ulterior motives, particularly when people moralize while they repress and sublimate their wildest instincts. He’s also, in doing this, attempting to rescue aristocratic values that he feels have been lost.

What does not occur to Nietzsche, is that maybe people DO want to experience pleasure and happiness, that maybe THAT is their ulterior motive … even as he himself admits that power is experienced AS pleasure by mortals.

N also sublimates other values that are tied to pleasure in Epicurean discourse. For instance, autarchy is praised as freedom and equated with power in WtP 720, where N laments that the “unconscious instinct for education and breeding” holds in check the tyrannical individual by glorifying social welfare and patriotism (e.g. collectivism). The individual may be tyrannical, but Nietzsche seems to insinuate time and again that he has a right to full and uninhibited sovereignty, including the right to answer to no one, even if this ideal man is a criminal and a tyrant by his own admission.

This is an old moral problem in all of philosophy: the tension between the individual and the collective, and the trouble with deciding who sets the moral guidelines (Rousseau, Hobbes, and many others have tackled this question). Many men of great wisdom have observed that the rules that apply to the mobs do not, and should not, apply to them, sometimes rightfully so.

How Venus Redeems the World

Nietzsche does honor pleasure by praising the gifts of Venus (who makes life worth living) as redemption in a meaningless world.

Philosophy has little to do with virtue (WtP 420), he says. Art, on the other hand, helps to produce meaning, and the best of philosophers must therefore be artists. Since Nietzsche supposes that man will suffer through anything so long as he can find meaning for it, there exists therefore an aesthetic justification concept in Nietzschean ethics. He speaks of Aphrodisiac bliss (WtP 805) and of how art and inspiration require intoxication, sex, and Dionysian cruelty (WtP 801). He says that in beauty, all opposites are tamed and the will to power of the artist is delighted (WtP 803). In a way, Venus conquers all, just as she temporarily tamed the indomitable Ares–the archetype of Aggression–with her charms.

The power struggle between the individual and the collective finds expression even in Nietzsche’s art appreciation. Art is a counter-movement (WtP 794) to decadent religions and philosophies, and in fact the artist-philosopher is always a hermit, an individual (WtP 795). But the religion and philosophy of the mobs is also seen as an aesthetic product (WtP 796). It is interesting to consider each religion as an interactive art piece that has been produced collectively.

Nietzsche also uses sexual and fertility imagery to describe meaning-endowing art, which again places art within the realm of Venus. The (philosopher-)artist (who produces his own meaning) is male, giver, creator (WtP 811), whereas the layman or art critic is a receiver (of meaning), “susceptible to art”. The philosopher-artist shouldn’t “look” but give art (and meaning): he is not a consumer, but a creator.

About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014), 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and Epicurus of Samos – His Philosophy and Life: All the principal Classical texts Compiled and Introduced by Hiram Crespo (Ukemi Audiobooks, 2020). He's the founder of, and has written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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2 Responses to Nietzsche on Pleasure as Subservient to Power

  1. Pingback: Essays About Nietzsche’s Will to Power | Society of Friends of Epicurus

  2. Pingback: Essays About Nietzsche’s Will to Power – Epicurean Database

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