Nietzsche’s Mirror: The World as Will to Power
Linda Williams provides a valuable aid to the reader who wishes to explore the concept of "will to power" in Nietzsche. She hopes to "write the kind of book that I would have wanted to read when I first was taken with Nietzsche's famous phrase." Her book also takes a position in the continuing debates over this concept, and over some others as well. Williams traces the development of "will [End Page 66] to power" to Nietzsche's early discussions both of "will" and of various manifestations of power. For Schopenhauer, the ultimate nature of the world (Will) is chaotic, and Mind imposes order on it. Nietzsche agrees that the world is chaotic and that the mind imposes order. However, for Nietzsche, it is this imposing of order that really manifests will to power, not the underlying flux. In The Birth of Tragedy, the Dionysian corresponds to Schopenhauer's chaotic noumena and the Apollonian to the ordered phenomenal realm. In his middle period, Nietzsche increasingly refers to "power" (Macht) in a variety of contexts, although he mainly uses it to refer to government. By 1880, he is making references to "lust for power" as a psychological motivation. The second edition of The Gay Science and Thus Spoke Zarathustra see the first appearances of "Wille zur Macht." Williams thinks Nietzsche may have turned to this formulation partly because of his coming to question the effectiveness of psychological motivation.
Williams provisionally defines will to power as "striving for superiority." This applies especially to the appearance of will to power in humans, but it extends also to animals, and even to unconscious, nonhuman life. However, the theory that will to power is a metaphysical or cosmological principle assumes that it applies also to inorganic matter. Williams observes that, in the published writings, only Beyond Good and Evil §36 makes this extension explicit, for it claims that there is no matter, only will, and that the inorganic is only a preform of the organic. Yet, since this aphorism begins with the word "suppose," and seems to be offered only as an experiment, it is too problematic to determine whether Nietzsche extends will to power beyond the organic.
The Nachlass writings provide us with a distinctly different view of will to power. On the Nachlass view, things are actually quanta of fluctuating forces constantly struggling to maintain their natures (or not) amid surrounding forces. Williams rejects both the interpreters classically called "lumpers" and those "splitters" who favor the Nachlass over the published works. Yet, she argues, we need not entirely ignore the Nachlass. Bottom line: any interpretation of Nietzsche's "final position" requires "ample support" from his published materials.
Williams then reviews Nietzsche on truth. It is often said that Nietzsche's epistemological antifoundationalism engenders a self-referential problem, for his perspectivism could itself be only one interpretation, no better than any other. Nietzsche is aware of this, referring, for instance, to a group of statements about women in Beyond Good and Evil as "my truths." It matters less to Nietzsche whether he holds a correspondence or other theory of truth than that the truths are his. Nietzsche is a perspectivist, but he does not hold that all competing perspectives must be tolerated. Scientists mistakenly believe that they are not engaged in interpretation, and that there is such a thing as objective observation. By contrast, Nietzsche does not consider his "will to power" theory to be True (capital T). This is no problem for him since he does not consider it an objection to a judgment that it is not True.
Contra Kaufmann, Williams argues that, rather than thinking of the sentence "the world is will to power" as an empirical truth, we should think of it as getting us to say "Nietzsche believes the world is will to power. I wonder why he sees it this way?" The answer is: because he thinks doing so will engender healthier human beings and nourish greatness. In this, Nietzsche is basically a consequentialist (though not a utilitarian).
Williams thinks that, for Nietzsche, truth should be understood in terms of "will to truth," which, in turn, is a craving for Truth. Theories of truth are ultimately dependent on theories of morality. Hence a commitment to Truth simply empowers the slave in us. Nietzsche, rather, sees worldviews as psychological constructions, interpretations that tell us about ourselves. Moreover, interpreting the world as will to power gives us new and empowering ways to interpret the world. Nietzsche, therefore, recommends that we create our own worldviews.
In her last chapter, Williams focuses on an aspect of Nietzsche's style that she calls "mirror writing" (the source of the book's title). This style consists in using concepts to cause readers to reflect on, and reexamine, their own values. She then applies this idea to interpreting the doctrine of eternal recurrence and finds that the cosmological interpretation involves certain contradictions, and, [End Page 67] even if true, would have no practical consequences. Treating eternal recurrence as a normative principle, something like, "Do that act whereby you could will it again and again for all eternity," is no better. It fails to be an improvement over the moral principles of Kant and Mill, and since Nietzsche deliberately attacked these philosophers for presenting a supreme moral principle, it would be absurd to attribute one to him. Rather, Williams argues, the point of the concept of eternal recurrence is to act as a mirror that reveals a person's values.
This leads to a reading of "The Convalescent" in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Williams thinks that during his seven-day trance Zarathustra learns that the value of the greatest man, which happens to be himself, is not so great. His nausea comes from seeing himself and his own values in the mirror of the idea of eternal recurrence. Applying this to ourselves, we find that such a conceptual mirror tells us what we think of ourselves, and this in turn can goad us into action. To explain this, and indirectly to show Nietzsche's relevance to feminism, Williams recounts how she looks in a mirror and is nauseated by her less-than-perfect-by-today's-standards body. The mirror reveals that she has internalized a value standard she thought she had rejected, and this, presumably, goads her to reject it. Moral: if we wish to be great, we should love our ability to interpret and reinterpret our reality and values. Thus, the doctrine of eternal recurrence (like that of the will to power) is not cosmological or normative but heuristic.
Williams's discussion of Nietzsche on truth is the best I have ever read on the topic. Her interpretation of will to power is also impressive. I do, however, find a few problems in her account of eternal recurrence. First, although Williams quotes the passage "And the eternal recurrence even of the smallest—that was my disgust with all existence," she ignores it. Zarathustra's nausea is brought on most dramatically by the recurrence of the smallest man. What gags him the most is that life requires even the rabble ("On the Rabble"). In short, Williams's feminist/democratic-inspired reinterpretation of Nietzsche distorts his views somewhat since it fails to account for the main source of his nausea, and what he overcomes when Zarathustra/the shepherd bites the snake.
Also, if eternal recurrence just symbolizes reevaluating one's own values, what use is the reference to eternity? The last part of Book III of Thus Spoke Zarathustra (which Nietzsche originally considered the end of the work) consists of numerous prominent references to eternity. Zarathustra has achieved a redemption that replaces Christian eternal life with another sort of eternity. Williams speaks of us "eternally" revisiting our value systems. But the transvaluation of values Nietzsche advocates seems more a matter of creating entirely new interpreted worlds that are also suffused with this quality of eternity. I suggest that amor fati is not just loving the necessity of interpreting the events of my life, as Williams argues. Rather, it is experiencing everything in my life as charged with eternity.
In an Afterword, Williams reviews her findings and raises some new issues. To those who are worried that Nietzsche never really condemns "bad" actions, she replies that he only requires the capability for terrible acts. She notes the paradoxical nature of her approach to Nietzsche: if she accepts Nietzsche's perspectivism, she can never really "get Nietzsche right," since there is no one right interpretation of Nietzsche himself. She also observes the irony of herself as a "scholarly laborer," whom Nietzsche might well have criticized for not being playful enough. These last two points show an admirable sense of proportion. The only thing that worries me here is that Williams puts quotation marks around "bad" and seeks to redirect moral concerns about Nietzsche through stressing the idea of capability. I do not think that we can easily dismiss Nietzsche's attitude toward what we abhor—for example, his praise of acts of exploitation.
In the end, Williams has eminently fulfilled her goal: she has produced a successful introduction to the concept of will-to-power, one that would make an excellent supplement to any course on Nietzsche. She also accomplishes something further: providing a good and thought-provoking analysis that contributes significantly to the scholarship of the field.