Mankind can only now begin to hope again, now that I have lived. Thus I am necessarily a man of Destiny. For when Truth battles against the lies of millennia there will be shock waves, earthquakes, the transposition of hills and valleys such as the world has never yet imagined even in its dreams. The concept “politics” then becomes entirely absorbed into the realm of spiritual warfare. All the mighty worlds of the ancient order of society are blown into space—for they are all based on lies: there will be wars the like of which have never been seen on earth before. Only after me will there be grand politics on earth.—Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo
As Walter Kaufmann opined, Nietzsche is one of the few major philosophers whom many intelligent people read for pleasure. His influence is profound—on everything from intellectual shakeups to the ubiquity of aphorisms like whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. A lot of this popularity can be chalked up to the fact that Nietzsche is deceptively easy to decipher. Unlike Kant, Hegel or Heidegger, Nietzsche provides poetry, humor and personality in his writing and he directly addresses profound issues with refreshing candor. Where Kant would devote dozens of pages to a “transcendental dialectic” analyzing the question of God’s existence, Nietzsche has a madman descend from the mountains to the shout of “God is dead!” This is powerful stuff.
The Problems with Interpreting Nietzsche
This can lure a reader into a false sense of security: Nietzsche is a very difficult thinker —in part because his writing is so vivid and imagistic. This was partly by necessity, since Nietzsche’s chronic illness limited his capacity to produce the long, dense tomes many have come to expect of German philosophers. But even had he been a model of health, Nietzsche would probably still have chosen a vivid, aphoristic style; for reasons of temperament and because his work responds so directly to both Plato and the Bible: both are famous less for the architecture of their work than for their tremendous writing and imagery—including the idea that we must emerge from the darkness of the cave to the light of the eternal forms, and the drama of a paradoxical God-man crucified to save the world. Unfortunately, as with Plato and the Bible, this pictorial quality leads to serious difficulties in figuring out what Nietzsche means. Anyone who reads the parable of the madman in The Gay Science can easily project into it any meaning she wishes: from apocalyptic horror at an emerging nihilistic world to triumphant liberation from the fetters of tradition. Things get even more complex if we try to suss out any systematic lesson or philosophy from Nietzsche’s prolific writings. Nietzsche planned a magnum opus of sorts, appropriately titled The Will to Power. But the book never made it past the planning stages, and the collection of scraps and comments later published under that title were organized by his sister—an infamous Nazi supporter who had a complex relationship with her brother. This means that there is no Rosetta stone to help us put the pieces of Nietzsche’s work together into a comprehensive architecture of thought, which leaves much open to interpretation.
And interpret people have! One of the most interesting developments has been the political appropriation of Nietzsche. Following the precedent set by Hegel, it might make sense to talk about a left-Nietzschean and a right-Nietzschean interpretation.
Nietzsche and the Problem of Nihilism
Although Nietzsche never provided a systematic overview of his thinking, it is unified by an obsessive concern with a single problem: the emergence of nihilism as a philosophical and cultural condition. He traces its roots to the deepest convictions of western civilization. For Nietzsche, Plato and the other later Greek thinkers constituted a drift away from the primordial and life-affirming values of early Dionysian Greek society. Where Homer and others had admired wise Achilles, the great warrior who risked it all for a chance at historical immortality, Plato elevated the sagacious philosopher to heroic status. This was because the philosopher alone realized how vain and idle the achievements of this transient world were: a sentiment captured by the allegory of the cave, in which Plato describes the mass of human beings as mired in illusion. The point of life therefore was to see past the illusions to a higher, eternal realm beyond bodily existence, through ruminating on the abstract forms.
For Nietzsche, this was a nihilistic gesture. Life as lived had become not good enough for people: only contemplation of a better life or eternal world beyond this one was worthy of veneration. But Platonism was too abstract and unusual an ideal for many people to grasp. Christianity was required to spread the gospel of nihilism to the masses. To Nietzsche, Christianity—Platonism for the people—was fundamentally destructive of life-affirming values. Jesus preached that the ancient heroic virtues of martial prowess, glory and nobility were sinful. Individuals who showed a genuine lust for life were ensnared in the darkness of a fallen world; or, as St. Paul puts it in Galatians, “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh.” In place of these vital ideals, Christians came to worship a little dead God, who offered his life for humanity—the ultimate loser, who allowed himself to be mocked and dragged through the streets of Jerusalem by the very people he sought to save. Nietzsche had some respect for Plato and Jesus—at one point he even calls Christ the only opponent worthy of him—as innovators genuinely committed to their principles. What made their achievements noxious is that the nihilistic core of their thinking spread to the current epoch in secularized form. Nietzsche regarded modern liberalism, socialism and the other political doctrines of his day as watered down Christianity. The moderns professed to no longer believe in God, but posed as men and women of science and reason. In a sense, the Platonic underpinnings of Christianity had finally triumphed over religious faith and love, giving way to the modern reverence for rational order. Yet we moderns still feel compelled to hold on to fundamentally Christian ideals of human equality and freedom for the masses. Liberalism and its egalitarian offshoots challenged the old aristocratic ideals in the name of moral equality, and wound up producing societies of “last men,” who believed nothing was worth fighting or dying for. Combined with modern rationalism, this led to the emergence of a society in which people demanded that their needs be met by the market or the state while they dithered around, working at menial jobs for year-end bonuses.
To counter this development, Nietzsche wanted a return to the more primal and ancient aristocratic outlook. He sometimes appeals to the Greek god Dionysius as a predecessor. While Plato and his followers revered stately Apollo, the god of reason, order and light, Nietzsche professed to be a disciple of the god of darkness, excess, fertility and madness. He prophesied the coming of the übermensch, or Superman, who would have nothing but disdain for the vulgarity of the modern era. The Superman would be a tall “blonde beast”: noble in his bearing, scorning pity, compassion and the other Christian virtues. But he would not be a creature of violent resentment, gnawing on others for the satisfaction milked from their suffering and subordination. Instead, the Superman would pursue great projects of artistic and political accomplishment, indifferent to the objections of the mediocre. His “will to power” would be unfettered by considerations of good or evil. As Nietzsche puts it in Ecce Homo:
The word Übermensch, indicates a type of supreme achievement, as opposed to ‘modern’ men, ‘good’ men, Christians and other nihilists … When I whispered into the ears of some people that they were better off looking for a Cesare Borgia than a Parsifal, they did not believe their ears.
To clear the way for the coming of the Superman, Nietzsche began a tremendous genealogical project of moral deconstruction. He aimed to expose the nihilistic core of our most deeply settled convictions by revealing their grounding in history. This meant showing that many of these ideals flow not from excellence, but from weakness, resentment and other “sick” emotions that hold people back from pursuing truly great projects. This would prove inspiring to radicals and eccentrics across the political spectrum.
On Left-Nietzschean Thinking
I am simply a Nietzschean, and I try as far as possible, on a certain number of issues, to see with the help of Nietzsche’s texts—but also with anti-Nietzschean theses (which are nevertheless Nietzschean!)—what can be done in this or that domain. I attempt nothing else, but that I try to do well.—Michel Foucault, interviewed by Gilles Barbedette and André Scala, 1984
Left-Nietzschean thinking got its kick from the French appropriation of Nietzsche’s work and was further spurred on by the unusually warm reception of Heidegger by the political left in France. Nietzsche had a profound impact on existentialist authors like Sartre and Camus, and was a major influence on postmodern theorists, such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. Left-Nietzscheans were more inspired by the playful, skeptical and genealogical dimensions of Nietzsche’s work—the dimensions that led Paul Ricoeur to label the German philosopher a leading member of the “school of suspicion.” In The Genealogy of Morals, Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ, Nietzsche tries to show that many traditions have been glamorized by a false universality and naturalness. Ordinary citizens and intellectual apologists had long thought that Christian views of morality, sexuality and political order were based on eternal truths delivered by God to his creation. Nietzsche delighted in exposing such pretensions. He relentlessly showcases the ways in which these cherished ideals came into the world as the result of specific events, were invariably backed by power and all too often inspired less by divine will than by human failings like resentment, stupidity and conformity. By contrast, Nietzsche insists that good and evil, right and wrong are often a matter of perspective and history. As he puts it in the prologue to The Genealogy:
Luckily at an early stage I learned to separate theological prejudices from moral ones, and I no longer sought the origin of evil behind the world. Some education in history and philology, along with an inherently refined sense concerning psychological questions in general, quickly changed my problem into something else: under what conditions did man invent for himself those value judgments good and evil? And what value do they inherently possess?
Left-Nietzscheans appropriated these dimensions of his philosophy to undermine the more authoritarian and socially conservative traditions of western states, arguing that, when right-wingers rail against declining sexual standards or a loss of shared traditions, they aren’t speaking in the name of anything objectively true, but, at best, reflecting the prejudices of the mediocre, often backed up by various forms of state discipline and even legal prohibition. For instance, when anti-LBGT activists talk about how gay relationships are unnatural or irreligious, all they’re doing is invoking highfalutin rhetoric to dignify empty expressions of outrage and disgust. In The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault uses Nietzsche’s genealogical method to point out that—far from being natural and eternal—different societies have conceived of human sexuality in very distinct ways. This undermines the claims of the powerful to be upholding timeless human standards of decency. When pious defenders of capitalism treat the market like a natural phenomenon that emerged from the depths of human nature, they’re also doing little more than reflecting the shallow tropes of their time. Nietzsche ridicules the vulgarity of the liberal-capitalist order, dismissing it as a society of mediocre “last men” (of a kind who would treat the arrival of the next iPhone like an event of religious significance). Leftist interpreters of Nietzsche, like Terry Eagleton and Theodor Adorno, heartily agreed. Following Nietzsche—with plenty of Marx in the blend—they railed against the inhuman and stultifying effects of consumer societies and the culture industry in producing masses of one-dimensional drones, passively indifferent to their domination by capital.
There is much to be said for this interpretation of Nietzsche as a master of suspicion and a valuable intellectual ally in combatting authoritarian traditionalism, prejudice and ahistoricism. He continuously directs attention to the ways in which people try to portray as natural the contingent structures of power and ideology. Also, contra some of Nietzsche’s fans on the alt-right, he was a vehement anti-nationalist—even calling himself a “good European” in the preface to Beyond Good and Evil. But there are substantial problems with interpreting him as a progressive. As Ronald Beiner points out in his excellent recent book Dangerous Minds: Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the Return of the Far Right (reviewed here) Nietzsche was far from an egalitarian. This is where the justifications for a right-Nietzschean interpretation come in.
The great majority of men have no right to life, and serve only to disconcert the elect among our race; I do not yet grant the unfit that right. There are even unfit peoples.—Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power
The right-Nietzschean interpretation tends to be far less playful, and more focused on his support for hierarchy. To his most reactionary interpreters—the Nazis and the contemporary alt-right, Nietzsche is the philosopher of decline and fall from a noble, aristocratic past to a decayed, egalitarian present. Moderate interpreters like Max Weber and F. A. Hayek see Nietzsche as offering resources to combat the burgeoning bureaucratic state, which demands uniformity with mediocre and life-dampening policies. Firm reactionaries like Oswald Spengler and Heidegger read Nietzsche as describing how modern Western societies crumbled from within, as their existential vigor and yearning for power settled into the easy relativism and materialism of liberal democracy. Many on the contemporary alt-right agree with these criticisms, as they view the surge of cultural progressivism as an inevitable symptom of rot, as western civilization has become ever more permissive and focused on rights, rather than virtues and excellence.
In its moderate interpretations influenced by the Austrian school, right-Nietzschean thinking views the marketplace as the site where exceptional people can make their mark in a peaceful and law-governed way. They endeavour to reconcile Nietzsche’s seemingly illiberal appeals to nobility with liberal capitalism by contending that capitalists are a proxy for the Superman, recreating the world in his image. The more hierarchical elements of Nietzsche’s writings are echoed in their suspicion of democracy and the welfare state, which they see as potentially holding back the truly productive members of society. More radical right-Nietzscheans reject the conceit that liberal capitalism can be reconciled with Nietzsche’s outlook. They contend that liberalism is little better than its egalitarian competitors, since everyone from liberals to Marxists agree that people are fundamentally moral equals. Their only substantial disagreements are whether moral equality demands higher or lower levels of basic material equality for all. To radicals like Heidegger, Nietzsche helped show that liberalism and Marxism are “metaphysically the same” in their nihilistic egalitarianism and materialism. Consequently, both need to be rejected in favour of a more just and noble hierarchy where superior men—and for radical right-Nietzscheans it should almost always be men—rule over their inferiors. This will make everyone better off, since it is only these superior men who can bring genuinely life-affirming values into the world and provide a sense of meaning amid a dangerous and nihilistic existence.
I dismissed the right-Nietzschean interpretation for a long time, until Beiner’s work convinced me that it is the more accurate way of reading Nietzsche. This poses a major challenge for progressives who want to interpret him in an emancipatory fashion, since we need to decouple what is useful in his writing from a great deal of inegalitarian and reactionary virulence. But, despite this, Nietzsche’s work has helped pilot many through the strange tides of modernity and postmodernity. This makes interpreting him properly an important theoretical task.