Human Nature and Ethics Nietzsche and Plato Compared

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This paper serves as an examination of the similarities and differences in the views of two philosophers, Plato and Nietzsche, relating top human nature and ethics as expressed in Plato’s The Republic and Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. Nietzsche writes this volume as the end of his life approaches and uses it as an instrument to record his life’s work. He uses aphorisms to make each point and concludes with a poem which extolls the virtue of friendship as an allegory for letting go the teaching of old ways and creating new and personal philosophical views based on personal reasoning.

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The Republic was written approximately 380 BCE while Beyond Good and Evil was written in the 1880 and first published in 1886. This essay will contain a summary of both Plato and Nietzsche’s stance on the topic of human nature and ethics as presented in the aforementioned texts. I support the idea that there are universal truths and that open discourse ultimately leads to the a more accurate and complete expression of the truth. Plato’s republic supports is best aligned with my thinking on the reason and purpose of government and the role and obligations of the citizenry. The essay will conclude with an expression of which stance I find more acceptable with my reasoning for this conclusion.

In Plato’s Republic there are two fundamental themes. The first seeks to define what is justice within the framework of a society and by extension what does justice mean to each individual. The second theme explores whether an individual will experience happiness when treated justly. Plato outlines political (societal) justice as a systemic harmony across the three main classes of people in a society. He calls out rulers, auxiliaries and producers with the rulers setting the societal standards (law), auxiliaries who enforce the law and producers who make use of their talents to afford commerce within the community by farming, making and building things for use by the people. Plato later draws an analogy between societal classes and dimensions of the human soul, the rational, the spiritual and the lustful part. The rational seeks truth and relates to the ruling class in society. The spiritual seeks to fulfill the intent of the rational self and mirrors the auxiliary class of society. The lustful or appetite driven self lusts after wealth and the things that bring pleasure. He completes the analogy with the assertion that the spirited and the “appetitive” souls serve the intent of the rational soul just as the auxiliary and producers work toward the intent of the rulers. He further concludes that each class of society is predominantly ruled by the corresponding dimension of the human soul. With a complete framework for individual and societal structure in place he moves to explain justice as the cooperating effort and intent of the classes of society to fulfill the intent of the ruler and by implication that the just individual uses the fullness of the soul to fulfill the rational intent of the person.

Plato constructs a view where the world consists of two realms, the seen which is known through experiential sensory perception and the intelligible which can only be understood within the mind in thought and cognitive analysis. As justice is thus defined as the seeking of the rational with all aspects of our soul or across all classes in society, he asserts that the philosopher is best suited to be leaders among men in that they alone have achieved a fully rational demeanor and possess the knowledge essential to determining right action. The notion of the greatest good then follows as opposed to the least harm which appear on the surface as two sides of one coin but are unique and not simply restatements of the same idea. Therefore, Justice is founded on the greatest good and those that detract from that must be dealt with appropriately. In his conclusion the poets are banished as detractors from truth and encouragers of following more base desires rather than being guided by reason. An important point concludes that justice is only relevant in the consequent not the very just act itself. If this is true then we can hardly say that acting for justice is a selfless endeavor. It is difficult to imagine engaging in selfless behavior without working toward a goal or desired outcome. If the outcome is desired, then the motive comes under question. A pervasive sense of purpose replaces the reasoned and self-reflective cycle of action. His exploration of various forms of government from land holder through power holder and democracy and tyranny expose the flaws and strengths in each concluding that none will survive through time because of failure to provide just governing of the populace. He asks about the rewards of acting justly and presents a view of afterlife where the just are happy and the unjust tormented. This implies or reinforces the idea that the consequent is the driving motivation for acting justly.

Nietzsche undertakes an examination of justice by reviewing the nature of good and evil as it has developed through the ages and concludes that we must move beyond prior iterations to achieve justice within societies and internally. He writes that it is absurd to apply rules and standards universally, but rather rules and standards must be set by the culture within which they will apply. His premise that the will to power is the motivation for all behavior discounts all opportunity for the possibility of altruism and highlights his claim that there is a tendency toward a dominating mentality within each person. His two-class system model of ruling class and slave class morality can be seen as an application of this first claim within one single geography with separate societies apparently interacting and hold each other in disdain. Nietzsche attributes justice to equalization and settlement of agreements between similarly or equally endowed entities. Morality and justice are to be s defined according to the individual group’s context. His claim that his thinking is from his superior intellect and life of study and observation is cataloged in Beyond Good and Evil. He states that morality must give way to the order of rank reinforcing the notion of class distinctions and animus between classes. He makes some claims that seem to discredit many other philosophers saying that there is an inherent bias hidden either by intent or unintentional filtering. If we are to trust any observation it should be substantiated and applied through the individuals experience. With this in mind he says the only free man is the man free to act based on his own reasoning. If we cannot reason individually, we are little more than the unreasoning herd.

Nietzsche asserts that “every profound thinker is more afraid of being misunderstood” this is because being misunderstood only affects the vanity or self-image and understanding hurts the heart and sympathy. The individual should therefore seek to act alone for self-benefit however not at the cost of depriving another of their own benefits, at least within one society, race or ethnicity. Nietzsche being primarily a philologist chooses his words for precision. His claim that races and ethnicities have unique characteristics beyond the nature of appearance is not easily accepted today. He accuses philosophers of being dogmatic, so therefore is he including himself in the realm of philosophers? He advocates for an experimental approach to thinking with the hope that future generations of thinkers can remove the filters and biases of the past to create a more ideal description of values and meaning rather than the factual accounting which he sees as empty facts. Through the application of scientific measures, he says we can remove the prejudices and biases of the individual from the intellectual work they produce. His view to the future calls for education of the strongest members of society, here again there is a call to judge who is then the strongest and best among us. Should the superior intellect be only academically, and the physical specimen groomed for utilization of his ability only on the visible and easily detected qualities of each. A greater ability could easily be overlooked. He promotes the view that individuals should not be bound in action by morality but rather should shun the notion of morality and seek the truth individually. The “higher man” can apply unfiltered reason to his actions and can reason the best course to take. The higher man is driven by a passion for truth and self-betterment. Again, this derives from improving understanding of truth through reason and self-discipline and introspection. We must individually and cumulatively go beyond the reasoning of the past generations by reliance on the superior intellect of the deep thinkers. If he speaks that philosophers ought not be trusted, then why trust him?

As I read The Republic, it occurs to me that seeking the rational is probably the best approach for achieving a just society. If we seek the rational personally and societally, we seek justice, but we do potentially harm some along the way. In the conclusion of the republic the poets are harmed by banishment with the intent of providing for the greater good by removing detractors. I think this is analogous to racial profiling today in treating an entire class differently because of their potential effect on the society. Also, by eliminating the detractors we eliminate their questioning of why things are so perhaps because of the way they present the question rather than on the content of the question itself. An educated and rational person should see such questions as opportunities to improve the fundamental understanding of the truth rather than as a challenge to the status quo. The rational man should not therefore fear the question nor punish the questioner, but seize the opportunity to argue the merits of the existing policy, expl;ore the implication of the detractors and arrive at an improved version of the truth. The improvement can come in the form of changes to the accepted truth or a stronger understanding of the established truth. To me the time-tested work of Plato makes more sense. Guiding by reason across all groups does mean that there are universal truths such as the sanctity of life. If we accept the notion that each society must be viewed in isolation, then by extension we should also view each person individually. Should we then ever judge another person. We can say we that slavery (or worse still cannibalism) is acceptable in any place or at any time? Should we should apply our reason to the concept of the greatest good as opposed to the least harm. Either requires a judgement about relative good or evil. I note that Plato ends the republic with the banishment of the poets while Nietzsche ends Beyond Good and Evil with a poem. Was he intentionally contrasting against the conclusion of the republic so as to highlight his claim that each group can only be viewed within a self-context? Nietzsche may have viewed Plato along with many of the classical philosophers. Nietzsche agrees with Plato that justice is of principal importance.

The equal assignment of the produce according to need and the responsibility to produce to the extent of capability. Since Nietzsche says the will desires a goal it can be presumed that societies also desire goals and the role of establishing the goals belong to the legislators. Enforcing the goals falls to the executive and here is where the notion of greatest good is applied to the goals, for the society at large. Individual rights may be sacrificed to promote the greater good and this is an area where I struggle to accept this view. Who can make the judgement of whether one life ending is more or less valuable than many lives extended? Can a murderer who is also a doctor be easily judges and can reason alone lead us to the correct resolution? The calculus of moral judgement is not without merit but is also not without flaws. I agree that each individual should seek the best outcome for self, but never at a cost to others. Further I agree that the application of reason with adequate examination of personal motives and contributing factors will generally lead to just outcomes when a greatest good filter is applied. An individual is not likely going to weigh the effect of an action on others as highly as the self-effecting outcome.

Some version of applying the greater good with reason as the basis appears the best approach to providing universal justice. In Plato’s view there can be such a universal truth and therefore a universal justice, but he ends the republic with the great injury of banishment to the entire class of poets as too risky to allow them to flourish within the very political system that has given them the ability and opportunity to grow into this avocation. The poets have done no harm except appealing to the base desires influencing the abandoning of reason. With responsibility relegated to the individual for their own actions why should the law force itself upon this class. If each individual is truly accountable for their own destiny as he says, why the sweeping treatment of this entire class of the society? It seems that this banishment is contrary to the notion of inclusive thought in debate or argument with an intent toward the better and more full exploration of the truth. To my thinking we can never judge another but should always seek the better good. This is summed in the pervasive “golden rule” which appears in many religious and social doctrines around the globe. In this simple statement to do unto others as you would have done to you is summed the essence of justice. If we can recognize in ourselves what we desire based on reason and then by extension apply that to others and other societies, we will achieve a common form of justice. I think this is the closest we can ever get to a common form for interpersonal and inter-societal justice. Nietzsche’s defense of the aristocracy and by extension class wise distinctions within and between social groups goes contrary to the inclusiveness that is required to have complete debate on all sides of an issue to arrive at a better understanding. I therefore mostly reject Nietzsche and favor Plato’s view on justice.

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Human Nature and Ethics Nietzsche and Plato Compared. (2020, Jan 07). Retrieved from