Daybreak is Nietzsche’s first “real” book, where Nietzsche settles on a unique style of writing. He no longer writes essays, ordering his thoughts on a line, but peppers the whole book with aphorisms. It may frustrate the reader who is new to Nietzsche since he won’t find any main thesis. Instead, Nietzsche puts together his ideas into a web, helping you connect more ideas together to create a range of thought with more dimensions.
Yet there is a main spirit in Daybreak. Nietzsche explores human moral life in new ways; he opts out old ideas of the soul, free will, and categorical imperatives for naturalistic explanations of the body, climate, diet, and the instincts. He does not show any crude materialism, as you might think, but deals with subtle and spiritual things. The human species is dynamic, constantly changing throughout the ages, as does all nature. Nietzsche rejects the dichotomy between “matter” and “spirit” present since at least Plato’s time; instead, the “lower” world of the body and the land creates the “higher” world of the mind, art, and culture.
But what is most important is this; Nietzsche wishes to open a new chapter in human history by “reevaluating all values” as he might later put it, and he takes his first steps in Daybreak. Nietzsche is no nihilist; if anything, he is excited and hopeful. He goes on a new adventure and invites you to join him. I certainly had fun reading Daybreak, though it was a hard book to read, because I learned many new ways of looking at the world.
Nietzsche spins a yarn of human history to explore how morals came about. Nietzsche is fond of writing this kind of speculative history, where he writes a fairy tale of sorts to describe some deeper process unfolding through the ages. He did in the tale of Greek Tragedy and he will do it again in the tale of Master and Slave morals. I am not fond of this kind of history, and maybe you are not either, but remember! Ancient humans told their history in myths and parables, and judging by Nietzsche’s approach, we still think of our history this way, whether we like it or not.
Nietzsche posits that primitive humans developed habits and customs depending on the best way to live off the land. Morals came about in this way. We may roll our eyes; such a theory is typical today, but Nietzsche takes us through a few twists and turns. There is more to this story, since morals greatly evolved alongside the humans they came from.
Early humans based their morals on community and tradition – what everybody else did before them – and anyone who rejected that tradition was evil. Then, something radical happened: Socrates and Christianity. Socrates determined morals by using logic and a set of universal principles meant to improve the individual. If a custom or tradition was wrong – well, it was wrong, no matter how sacred. Early Christians jettisoned the old Roman and Jewish traditions of their ancestors. Instead, they devoted their time to saving their souls .
Ancient Athens condemned Socrates a corrupter of youth and the Ancient Romans saw the early Christians as evil. I find it ironic how, two thousand years later, Christians base so much of their morals on communities and traditions that have little to the with Gospel. And now they condemn rebels as evil, as they were once rebels themselves. American conservative Christians are easy to pick on; their morals come from a sense of national identity that often has a deep racial history. Using the Bible to condemn abortion or gay marriage is the afterthought.
Well, what about life today? Nietzsche takes several issues with modern morals. In general, he seems to regard them as stale and causing a malaise in the mind of Europe’s people. Yes, you can easily point to how Nietzsche blames Christianity for giving us a “bad conscience”, which he does. But he describes how great Christians developed more subtle and profound morals. For example, the French thinkers of the Enlightenment refined their character, thought, and manners to create a sublime culture .
Spirit From Matter
Sigmund Freud was famous for describing how human thoughts and actions, even our loftiest aspects, come from a dark subconscious world of primitive passions. He was not the first. Nietzsche did it before Freud and Schopenhauer did it before Nietzsche. The word (or leitmotif) Nietzsche uses throughout the book is arriere pensee, or hidden thoughts. Even beyond our instincts, our volition determines what we think and see, and just as important, what we do not think and see . We do not really know what we want.
His most striking writings concern kindness, self sacrifice, and human rights. At first, great nobles feigned kindness and honesty as a tactic; it gave them more safety and increased their power by gaining allies. Yet over time, hypocrisy slowly transformed into genuine kindness . On the other end, a disciple who eagerly immolates and sacrifices himself for his god is far from humble. He gains a euphoric feeling of power and becomes exalted by being associated with his god . The ideas of duty and rights we revere today were created when people of greater power and rank formed a relationship with people of lesser power .
Nietzsche diagnoses the illness of the soul much like a doctor diagnoses an illness of the body. He examines a person to find cancerous thoughts and emotions lurking beneath the reasoned arguments, and beyond that, Nietzsche traces the cancer’s origin in the body and environment. And much like a doctor, Nietzsche advises small steady doses for even the worst of illnesses; a change in diet, habit, and exercise .
If we have illnesses, and most of us do, fear not. Nietzsche rejects the belief in a soul, and with it the belief that people are “complete and perfect facts”, that we have one essential thing that defines us and that we can never change. Instead, Nietzsche describes our minds like gardens, full of different kinds of growing plants. We have some control as gardeners, and we are even responsible in cultivating our feelings and impulses. And we must change, as a snake sheds its skin. If we do not grow and learn new things, if we do not change our minds, we cease to have minds .
In general, we have some grasp of our different powers: our talents, our skills, our knowledge, our health, and so on. But we do not know our full capabilities. Our environment is so important, Nietzsche says, because it can conceal, weaken, or develop out powers. Nietzsche urges us to study our environment very carefully, which includes everything I mentioned above from circumstances to the land to diet, so we can cultivate our powers to reach the greatest possible heights .
What is Feminine
Nietzsche has relations with women and the female gender role that are – complicated. The stereotypical Nietzsche fan is quick to shun women and all that is feminine, but Nietzsche thinks differently. As early humans became more “feminine”, such as becoming more beautiful, frail, timid, sensitive, and discerning, they also became more intelligent and civilized .
I find Nietzsche very striking at this point because he subverts assumptions we hold to this day. Even now, we see building civilization as something “masculine”, a task accomplished by Mr. Fix-It and Bob the Builder. We imagine the beginning of civilization as a big manly thing, where a king whips slaves into building a monument. Even liberal minded people, who do not like to put men above women, assume men rule over culture and women rule over nature. But Nietzsche paints a different and more arresting picture.
And Nietzsche even questions gender itself in the first page, describing it as transient as morals. I paraphrase; when we gave a sex to all things, we thought not we were playing but believed we gained a profound insight. Only later did we admit, just a bit, that we made a huge error. We gave a moral character to everything in the world in the same way. One day, declaring something good or evil will be as relevant as describing the sun as male or female .
Late in Daybreak, Nietzsche arrives at the end of the world. He reaches the limits of human intellect and even of truth itself. These ideas are difficult for us to hear, since our advancing science and technology tends to make us optimists. Indeed, we assume no knowledge is beyond us. Sooner or later, if only we try hard enough, our leading physicists will discover the Theory of Everything and we will find a way to travel faster than light. But our limits to knowledge are deeper than whether we can make spaceships. Humankind has a limit.
Language itself is a problem. It helps us create all sorts of new ideas, yes, but words box our thoughts into the discreet concepts. Our thinking only goes as far as our language lets us. And when we do discover something, when we wish to expand our language, we have to deal with all the old state concepts our language has, concepts that prevent us from thinking in new ways . What is logic but a word game? Is truth itself just a word?
As much as we think we like science, we have a problematic relation to it, and it has a lot to do with old habits in how we think of ourselves. Long ago, we assumed ourselves to be the highest creature on earth; nature’s final goal was to create us. We assumed nature existed to serve us and all the knowledge we could find would only benefit us. To this day, we seek answers with science to solve our many problems from global warming to why we feel depressed. But science does not care about how we feel or what we feel entitled to, and people resent science for that fact. Many people who claim to love science treat it lightly and would hate science if it ever saw through them .
Knowledge can also be dangerous and harmful to us. Learning something new is not always a good thing, as Oedipus shows us. Nietzsche expresses this idea most clearly in his famous Don Juan aphorism. What is our destiny, a people who put the pursuit of knowledge above everything else? We will seek all knowledge, no matter how trifling, until we become so bored we seek knowledge that will hurt us. We will yearn for “hell”, a final terrible answer, but we will not find it, and will forever be frustrated .
How can we overcome our morals and limits in knowledge? Nietzsche has a couple of ideas, but we need to take small doses to get such a radical change in values. The change may be so slow we may not even realize it when we get there. There is no fast and easy way; “great revolutions” are a farce caused by malicious and impatient political invalids .
Let us slowly supplant moral feelings and judgments, Nietzsche says. Let us follow the duties imposed by reason, and re-establish the laws of life. Maybe we can borrow the foundation stones for new ideals yet to be born. Let us then rule ourselves as if lords of an estate, our small experimental state .
Nietzsche ends Daybreak with his most uplifting prose. As birds fly to the horizon, we may fly as far as we possibly can to realize our potential, but even the greatest of us will find a perch. Our greatest ancestors did the same. Yet new birds will fly farther, far above our heads and our failures. Where are we all flying? We do not know .
- Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. The Dawn of Day. Translated by John McFarland Kennedy, Anodos Books, 2017. Pgs. 10-16.
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