Nietzsche, solid ground, stormy seas

Land! Land! Enough and more than enough of the wild and erring voyage over strange dark seas! At last a coast appears in sight: we must land on it whatever it may be like, and the worst of harbours is better than to go reeling back into a hopeless infinity of scepticism. [UM II: 10, p. 116]

The good taught you false shores and false securities […] Now you shall be seafarers, brave, patient, seafarers! […] The sea is stormy: everything is at sea. Well then! Come on, you old seaman-hearts! What of fatherland! Our helm wants to fare away. [Z, Of Old and New Law-Tables 28]

The contrast between these two opening quotations illustrates two poles between which Nietzsche’s rhetoric alternates. On the one hand, a yearning for a firm rooting or footing in or on the solid ground of some cultural, spiritual or intellectual framework in which one is at home and within which one knows one’s way instinctively around. On the other, an impulse to question, shatter and uproot ourselves from such frameworks and set out on unfamiliar, uncertain seas. Sometimes, the contrast between these poles takes the form of an opposition between an active, conscious “yes-saying” that affirms some given framework and a “no-saying” that negates it (in his early “History” essay, for example, an opposition between modes of history that affirm the historical underpinnings of a given culture, and critical ones that cast the basis for certain traditions into question). Elsewhere, the contrast is between unreflective attunement and conformity to established patterns of habit, custom or instinct on the one hand, and moments of reflection, creative impulse and doubt that disrupt and deviate from these patterns on the other (in the terms of the “History” essay, a contrast between the unhistorical and the historical rather than between different modes of history).

The former pole – a yearning for a solid foundation – comes to the fore in Nietzsche’s earlier, Wagnerian period, including the “History” essay, where the indiscriminate scepticism of “science” is stripping away the moderns’ instinctive certainties and depriving them of any cultural “home”. The latter pole, meanwhile, becomes prominent in Nietzsche’s subsequent middle period, where he reacts against Wagner and now champions the cause of “free spirits” who, under the banner of “science”, refuse to accept inherited certainties without question and instead “attain to a wholly individual perception of the world” [HAH 230] lacked by the “fettered spirits” who conform unquestioningly to tradition and are “narrowly determined by what is already existent” [HAH 228].

Despite the difference in emphasis, in both periods what is crucial is a balance between these poles. The “History” essay recognises that both affirmative and critical modes of history (yes-saying and no-saying, as it were) can be harmful if applied exclusively and indiscriminately. Furthermore, in the same essay Nietzsche also remarks that it is only by “imposing limits” on the “unhistorical element” through “reflecting, comparing, distinguishing, drawing conclusions” that “man became man” [UM II:1, p. 64] in the first place; to cease to reflect and question, and instead act simply on instinct, would be to revert to being merely animal – but “with an excess of history man again ceases to exist”: no longer humans or even animals, but “cogitals” [UM II:10, p. 119]. Meanwhile, in Human, All Too Human he acknowledges that a “living sense of community” requires that only a minority should be free spirits who challenge the traditional certainties underpinning that community [HAH 224] and that it is “certainly not to be desired” that “rigorous science” should detach us to more than a limited extent from the “power of habits of feeling acquired in primeval times” [HAH 16].

Fully fledged individuality requires not simply conforming to what already exists. But the same reflective impulse that elevates human beings to individuals rather than animals also has the potential to rob them of this achieved freedom and individuality by depriving them of the background of unreflective certainty against which doubt, creativity and reflection – and hence, individuation, language, personhood – can arise. Unconventional idiosyncrasy expressive of a unique inner self can tip over into affectation or eccentricity that strikes us as inhuman and detached. Misguided attempts to realise either pole in “pure” form (something that is not, in fact, achievable) bring about, at the one extreme, self-satisfied, narrow-minded boors and, at the other, detached, fragmented nihilists (stretching things a bit, we might compare the former to conservatives and the latter to liberals). (The picture is, incidentally, complicated by attempts by those drawn towards each pole to affect a semblance of the other: wannabe free spirits who “chatter” about new ideas but “go on doing what they have always done” [UM II:5, p. 87], or those who plaster over their anxieties and doubts by manufacturing facades of fanatical certainty or needily conforming to the status quo)

As well as the idea of balance between these poles, Nietzsche also relates them in terms of a movement from one pole to the other. We set out on uncertain seas not to stay forever at sea, but so as to find new, better land elsewhere. “No-saying” clears the way for subsequent “yes-saying”. Doubt and reflection uproot ingrained habits, instincts and values so that new ones can take root instead – and once they have done so, they become unreflective second nature. The process of becoming habituated to a new home or learning a new technique is attended by instability and uncertainty, but once the process is complete these will (at least to some extent) disappear. “One has attained to mastery when one neither goes wrong nor hesitates in the performance” [D 537]; “the precondition for any kind of mastery, any kind of perfection in the art of living” is a “complete automatism of instinct” [A 57]. This is not the unreflective certainty of the masters in the prehistory of the Genealogy of Morality, who are more animal than human and have not yet acquired the power of reason; rather, it is mastery acquired through making lessons learned from reflection habitual, instinctive and assured; and it is towards such mastery that Nietzsche would direct his readers. (Of course, many of Nietzsche’s presentations of those who purportedly exemplify this ideal may instead suggest brittle narcissism that merely affects to have achieved such assurance and mastery: consider Zarathustra’s words “I am not one of those who may be questioned about their Why. Do my experiences date from yesterday? It is a long time since I experienced the reasons for my opinions.” [Z, Of Poets])

On this interpretation, the impulse to find firm footing ultimately takes precedence over the impulse to set out to sea: the latter is instrumental to the former. However, Nietzsche does not view any landfall as a final resting point. He professes to hating “enduring habits”:

[I] feel as if a tyrant has come near me and the air around me is thickening when events take a shape that seems inevitably to produce enduring habits – for instance, owing to an official position, constant relations with the same people, a permanent residence, or uniquely good health. [GS 295]

Remaining too long trapped in one place leads to stagnation; Nietzsche’s ideal is one of periodic self-overcoming and renewal, setting off to sea again to find new ground. But this should not be mistaken for an ideal of constant restlessness. Although he prefers “brief” to “enduring” habits, better enduring habits than no habits at all:

The most intolerable, the truly terrible, would of course be a life entirely without habits, a life that continually demanded improvisation – that would be my exile and my Siberia. [GS 295]

In rejecting the ideal of a “permanent residence”, Nietzsche is advocating not the life of the homeless, postmodern “tourist” to whom all things are permanently foreign, but rather that of the nomad who settles in many different homes temporarily.


Works by Nietzsche

A             The Anti-Christ, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (with Twilight of the Idols) (London: Penguin, 1968 [1894])

D             Daybreak, eds. Maudemarie Clark and Brian Leiter, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997 [1880/1887])

GS           The Gay Science, ed. Bernard Williams, trans. Josefine Nauckhoff (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001 [1882/1887])

HAH       Human, All Too Human, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986 [1878/1886])

UM        Untimely Meditations, ed. Daniel Breazeale, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997 [1873–1876])

Z              Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (London: Penguin, 1969 [1883–1885])


Many of the arguments in this piece are indebted to the work of Stephen Mulhall, especially:

(2005) Philosophical Myths of the Fall (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press)

(2011) “The promising animal: the art of reading On the Genealogy of Morality as testimony” in Simon May (ed.) Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality: A Critical Guide (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press), pp. 234–64

(2013) The Self and Its Shadows (Oxford: Oxford University Press)



There are various different ways in which the general schema suggested by Nietzsche can be fleshed out. One area I have neglected here relates to interpersonal bonds and ways of relating to other people, which Nietzsche seems sometimes to have an impoverished appreciation of (particularly in his naricisst–elitist vein) and elsewhere seems keenly attentive to. In lieu of further discussion, I will close with a passage from Nietzsche that connects (perhaps somewhat tangentially) to some of these themes:

Star friendship.— We were friends and have become estranged. But this was right, and we do not want to conceal and obscure it from ourselves as if we had reason to feel ashamed. We are two ships each of which has its goal and course; our paths may cross and we may celebrate a feast together, as we did—and then the good ships rested so quietly in one harbor and one sunshine that it may have looked as if they had reached their goal and as if they had one goal. But then the almighty force of our tasks drove us apart again into different seas and sunny zones, and perhaps we shall never see one another again,—perhaps we shall meet again but fail to recognize each other: our exposure to different seas and suns has changed us! That we have to become estranged is the law above us: by the same token we should also become more venerable for each other! And thus the memory of our former friendship should become more sacred! There is probably a tremendous but invisible stellar orbit in which our very different ways and goals may be included as small parts of this path,—let us rise up to this thought! But our life is too short and our power of vision too small for us to be more than friends in the sense of this sublime possibility.— Let us then believe in our star friendship even if we should be compelled to be earth enemies. [GS 279]


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