Friedrich Nietzsche claims that each nation “creates” its own good and evil as an expression of its will to power. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he puts into the mouth of his title character the aphorism that “A tablet of the good hangs over every people. Observe, it is the tablet of their overcomings; observe, it is the voice of their will to power.” He illustrates with the Persians: ‘Speak the truth and be skilled with the bow and arrow’ – this seemed both dear and difficult to the people from whom my name derives.”
When I was in grad school, this argument seemed utterly convincing, as it does to many of my grad students now. How different Herodotus sounds where he says “Persians educate their boys to ride well, shoot straight, and speak the truth” than Torah sounds where it says “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Truly, I thought, there are no universal goods and evils. Each nation sets up its own.
But these differences are superficial; they lie in detail and emphasis. The Persians detested lying, but didn’t Torah too? Torah instructs Israel to love God, but didn’t even the idolaters know that deity is to be obeyed? As to telling the truth and shooting straight, don’t all peoples admire the courage and skill of those who fight for the homeland?
Nietzsche speaks of overcoming, of doing hard things. But telling the truth was not harder to the Persians than to the Israelites, nor loving God to the Israelites than to the Persians. These things are hard for all nations. The glory of Torah was that it more perfectly expressed what was written on the Persian heart too.
(Translation of Nietzsche by Adrian del Caro;
of Herodotus, by Andrea L. Purvis; and of
Deuteronomy 6:4-5, from the RSV-CE)