The Metaphysics of Presents: Nietzsche's Gift, the Debt to Emerson, Heidegger's Values


In the Preface to Ecce Homo, Nietzsche says that with Zarathustra he has "given mankind the greatest present (Geschenk) that has been made to it so far.” I propose to take Nietzsche's talk of the gift seriously, not only with respect to his claim about Zarathustra but also in so far as that book itself involves a discourse of the gift. Most obviously in the first part of that text, the gift is never far away; it is announced at the beginning and eventually becomes the subject of a chapter "On the Gift-Giving Virtue" ("Von der schenckenden Tugentf”). The question of the gift is internal to the text of Zarathustra. What is it to be a gift, to be a giver, to be a receiver-these are questions that arise throughout the book (a gift for all and none). Giving and everything associated with it are clearly thematized and problematized within the text. For example (but it is more than an example), in the series of economic speeches in which he weighs and measures the "three evils" -- sex, the lust to rule and selfishness -- Zarathustra considers each of these both in the "evil" form in which it is conventionally stigmatized and the transvalued form in which it appears to him after his return home, the return in which he now finds his own language. Of the lust to rule (Herrschsucht), he says:

“The lust to rule-but who would call it lust [Sucht] when what is high longs downward for power? Verily, there is nothing diseased or lustful in such longing and condescending. That the lonely heights should not remain lonely and self-sufficient eternally; that the mountain should descend to the low plains-oh, who were to find the right name for such longing? "Gift-giving virtue"-thus Zarathustra once named the unnameable.”

As we will see, Nietzsche's attempt (through Zarathustra) to name the unnameable will become more intelligible both by exploring his debt to Emerson and by considering Heidegger's critique of the supposed commitment to a metaphysics of values that he finds in Nietzsche's thought.

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Copyright © 1997 Routledge. This book chapter first appeared in The Logic of the Gift: Toward an Ethic of Generosity.

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