The Sense for Custom and the Feeling of Power: Nietzsche’s Joyous Denial of the Old Ways

comments 2
custom / force / morality / Nietzsche / Politics / power / society / sovereignty

We should take Nietzsche seriously when he asserts that Daybreak is the work of the subterranean man, one who constantly undermines the foundations of our belief by illuminating the mixed origins from which those beliefs emerge (Preface 1). While Nietzsche indicates briefly that it is the scientist who best represents this figure, the subterranean thinker could stand in general for anyone who conducts thought experiments that examine and dismantle our faith in morality. The active decay of morality also forces us to overcome degenerate artists—like Wagner—who are always trying to persuade us to worship where we no longer believe (Preface 4). Beyond the philosophical pessimisms of Kant, Schopenhauer, and Hegel, Nietzsche aspires in Daybreak to construct a train of thought that affirms a sophisticated immorality through the cultivation of the ability to deny joyously an outworn set of customs.

Why is morality unproductive? First of all, Nietzsche asserts that the concept of morality entails nothing other than obedience to customs, and we obey these customs insofar as a higher authority commands us, not because we derive utility from them (9). In fact, every potential activity in an individual’s social life has moral implications and significations that push and pull us to more readily assimilate ourselves into a social collective. The emphasis here is on group cohesion, for the individual’s actions are to be performed in accordance with a set of customs. An individual that acts in accordance with cultural laws develops the mark of morality. This mark is necessary so that the community can guarantee its protection by ensuring the individual’s strict adherence to a regimented and segmented mode of life. If the individual fails to gain the mark of morality, he or she jeopardizes the entire community, for the supposed or real injustice of the individual is held to affect the social whole negatively. Primitive society does not only take responsibility for the individual’s punishment, it also lays claim to their guilt as well. Thus society has a deep interest in cementing a specific set of customs to ensure its security along with the individual. Nietzsche’s analyses develop strength here: if the individual is motivated to repeat customs that are not necessarily beneficial in themselves, how can we explain originality in any area of life without understanding how innovation of any kind seems to acquire a bad conscience (9).

Above all, this seems like a problem that addresses the ways in which a society educates its constituents. A re-education of humanity would take away the concept of punishment by showing how it was punishment in the first place that “robbed of its innocence the whole purely chance character of events” (13). In fact, any “evil chance event” that befalls that community arouses a suspicion whether or not custom has been offended. Instead of promoting scientific interest into the natural phenomena of the world, this type of reaction sees value in reality only “insofar as it is capable of being a symbol” (33). Turning the world into a realm of symbolic coordinates is the beginning of nihilism because it degrades the value of this earthly world. It posits a higher and imaginary world that is in control of the events that befall a community; therefore, any good or evil that happens is interpreted as either a divine or diabolical intervention. Before understanding how punishment can be removed from culture, we must understand the long evolution of the ability to calculate external forces and measure them in relation to a society’s strength. Only through this detour can we understand a society’s will to security along with the critical concepts that can give value back to reality without the recourse to a divine order.

We have discussed the way that primitive society interprets and reacts to chance events along with the disciplinary actions taken on the individual. The customs of a society gain a strong protection from criticism because the individual can never guarantee the ability to perform a ritual correctly (21). Thus, even if the individual obeys the performance of custom, no blame can ever be attributed to the custom because it is above all the individual’s weakness that is forced to take the blame. This supposed incompetence of the individual further decreases the feeling of self-worth and self-confidence that the free spirit needs in order to distance him/herself from a set of customs. Nietzsche goes further and argues that our cultural education instills a sense for custom which makes the fact that we have customs in general a matter that can not be discussed without a negative reaction. It is the sense for custom along with the idea that customs can never be perfectly performed that causes the individual a great distress in facing one set of repetitive laws for living within a primitive community.

The individual’s distress or indisposition, too, is attributed to a divine origin. But the process here is more complex. In order to remove these negative feelings, the individual will at first make other people suffer in order to become conscious of the power that the former possesses (15). Nietzsche is very quick to generalize this type of action as cruelty, but we should not be too quick to interpret this as a simply evil or sadistic action. As Nietzsche will say elsewhere, cruelty is the movement of culture upon bodies, and so we might ask ourselves what sort of unconscious cruelty we impose on other individuals and on ourselves in order to better assimilate ourselves into a group mentality. I’m thinking of middle school with its half-innocent and semi-unconscious cruelty that everyone, including the fat kid, must endure. I think the most important point about cruelty here, though, is the way in which we train ourselves to incorporate a lot of the social repression that we experience through cruelty and turn it on ourselves in the form of psychic repression. Indeed, this is the second stage of the individual’s mode of measuring force where every bad feeling or misfortune is interpreted as our own well deserved punishment, a little dose of personal karma (15). Against Job’s method, we interpret our misfortunes as a punishment; by doing so we invent a way for atoning for our personal guilt (with respect to the community) and the means to free ourselves from that which we imagine will result from any supposed or real evil deeds that we may commit. This is the second stage in enjoying suffering, one that gives the individual a large advantage insofar as he can sharpen his or her capability for the measurement of forces. And as Nietzsche so boldly suggests, is this not the ability that we are most subtle in? I’m referring to the feeling of power, the judgment of forces, internal and external, that has always remained a fascination for the individual and the society. In fact, Nietzsche argues that “the means discovered for creating this feeling almost constitute the history of culture” (23). We free spirits who can examine the history of culture recognize all too well the customs of cruelty that stunt us and divert us from trekking out on other paths. Or do we?—is this not only half the battle?

 –Taylor Adkins


The Author

Please feel free to email me about anything and everything that's on the site. I love every chance I get to engage in stimulating conversation. Email:


  1. Is the battle to become free the struggle to learn the truth? And if cruelty is half the battle, I wonder if compassion might be the other. After all — it’s this feeling of power that we’re most subtle in, right?

    So — beyond modernism and primitivism, the dawn of a free society. How could it appear but as a struggle, as a challenging of systems of control? Before struggle is a question of judgment, it’s a question of power…

  2. So how do we link up compassion as the other side of cruelty? Here it is a question of definition, for we know that a certain type of compassion is utterly rejected by Nietzsche — pity. Does compassion mean ‘passive together’–or ‘acted upon together,’ like a doubling of the ego? Maybe what you mean by compassion can be best understood with respect to Daybreak #146, “Out beyond our neighbor too.” Nietzsche writes,

    But if we also want to transcend our own pity and thus achieve victory over ourselves, is this not a higher and freer viewpoint and posture than that which one feels secure when one has discovered whether an action benefits or harms our neighbor? We, on the other hand, would sacrifice–in which we and our neighbor are both included–strengthen and raise higher the general feeling of human power, even though we might not attain to more. But even this would be a positive enhancement of happiness.

    A little Levinasian ‘religion’ to strengthen and set the foundation for any future ‘politics?’ I’m sure you know the passage in Totality and Infinity to which I am referring. O how difficult the knot Nietzsche-Levinas seems at the surface!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.