How could a political innovation suffice to turn men once and for all into contented inhabitants of the earth? If anyone really does believe in this possibility, he ought to come forward, for he truly deserves to become a professor of philosophy.―Friedrich Nietzsche, Schopenhauer as Educator.
Matt McManus’ recent article “On Left and Right Nietzscheanism” is a worthwhile survey of this overcrowded field. Understandably, McManus concludes that there is more scholarly work to be done in order to understand Nietzsche. But part of the problem is viewing Nietzsche as a political theorist to begin with.
Nietzsche is at best an unsystematic political theorist, and, at worst, offers nothing positive at all. He derided academic philosophers as “metaphysical bird-catchers,” whose main aim was “to sleep well.” Yet his style invites endless interpretations and perhaps that was his intention―to keep academics safely occupied and therefore shut away from those who want to live rather than sit around about writing and reading books in between their untroubled slumbers.
Nietzsche’s mature judgment on his first book―The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music―was that it was misguidedly written for the “initiated.” By this he meant academics. By contrast, the book he regarded as his finest―Thus Spoke Zarathustra―is subtitled “A Book for All and None.” The “all” invites everyone who wants to really live; the “none” is his dig at scholars.
Nietzsche speaks directly to the reader. He was not writing for intermediaries who would explain to others what he really meant. He wanted people to make up their own minds, individually, not as herded sheep. Nietzsche saw Christianity as a kind of sheepherding enterprise—a mistake Zarathustra had made long beforehand. Nietzsche wanted to inspire a culture of heroic individualism and personal responsibility―“intellectual conscience” in his terminology―which would give rise to the best of all “noble souls.”
Becoming Fully Human Is Not Reducible to Politics
Nietzsche’s primary interest was in how to create a culture that would enable the individual to find meaning and purpose in a godless universe and become the best kind of person it is possible to become, rather than merely to “be.” This distinction is fundamental: we are always becoming something, and we can shape this process. This is something one must achieve on one’s own and―because of the inescapable tragedy of existence―heroically. Nietzsche did not believe that the rules for living chosen by one person are generalizable to anyone else. Unless one wishes to dismiss much of his published work―including central texts like Beyond Good and Evil and On The Genealogy of Morality―this renders the collectivist left interpretation of Nietzsche unconvincing.
Nietzsche’s Übermensch―the ultimate self-overcomer―is an abstract conceptualization of the existential reality of a self that is totally self-created, a self-legislator who is always in the process of becoming the archetypal heroic individualist. Nietzsche was clear that no one would ever fully achieve this status. This is a journey without end, that cannot be legislated for or brought about by others, though external factors may help or hinder the process―or even destroy it completely. There’s no right or wrong (or left or right) way to travel, and the key events and way-stations are internal to the self: existential not political.
Nietzsche’s Psychological Turn Dissolves Left and Right
There remains the largely unexplored possibility that Nietzsche’s philosophy is actually―at least in part―an attempt to dissolve the distinctions between the political left and right, by fusing all political activity into an expression of failure to achieve the self-overcoming Nietzsche views as the aim of the “noble soul.” From the mid-1870s, Nietzsche situates the primary struggle for dominance within the individual, as a self-chosen project to overcome atavistic motivations that are an obstacle to becoming fully human. The fundamental agon (contest) takes the form of the psychological and moral dynamic within every person who seeks to generate a unitary sense of self. Only when this fails does the inner conflict become externalized into a confrontation between opposing agendas and points of view, a conflict between power-hungry wannabe tyrants, a war of all against all. Those who lack the means, strength or desire to fight try to sit it out on the sidelines, or huddle in dark corners plotting their Nietzschean “slave-revolt”—as happened with Christianity, according to Nietzsche. This undermines any interpretation of Nietzsche as arguing that the strongest individuals will always dominate or oppress the weak.
McManus cites the parable of the madman in The Gay Science as amenable to any interpretation any reader projects upon it, implying that only academic scholars can authoritatively interpret Nietzsche. Nietzsche himself undermines this idea. His conceptual model of life as a text to be interpreted, and the self as a quasi-literary construct, must necessarily include his own life and self, which effectively precludes the claim that any one interpretation of his work can give us an idea of what it is to be definitively Nietzschean. McManus tells us it might “make sense” to talk in terms of a “left-Nietzscheanism” and a “right-Nietzscheanism.” But then, as he has already implied, almost any interpretation of Nietzsche can be made to “make sense” if worked at with sufficient ingenuity. The very fact that Nietzsche’s ideas have been used to justify almost every political stance from extreme right to extreme left attests to the difficulty in making a judgment about Nietzscheanism.
If all these incompatible uses and abuses of Nietzsche’s ideas are correct, the only possible inference is that his work is so malleable as to be useless as an aid to understanding the fundamental motivations underlying political orientations. And if Nietzsche’s work is so ambiguous and vague that it is impossible to arrange these different interpretations into some kind of hierarchy of value, then he has failed in his aim to discredit any shallow unmitigated epistemic and moral relativism. He aims to provide an insight into the challenge of becoming more fully human so that we might progress from what we are now to something deeper and more life-affirming than the life-denying existence of the slave. The concept of the slave is used by Nietzsche as a metaphor for the passive, resentful subjection of one mind to other minds, one self to other selves.
While it must be tempting for those inclined to political theorizing to view this as a political process, any such interpretation must be based on the scattered fragments of ideas that litter Nietzsche’s unsystematic observations on politics. Which means that his texts must be deconstructed to mean what someone else wants them to mean. Which means we are back where we started and anything goes—which means everything stays. This leads to unmitigated epistemic and moral relativism.
Nietzsche’s Rejection of All Political Philosophies
The idea that Nietzsche viewed himself as offering a philosophy of politics is misconceived. He openly rejects all political philosophies, being equally dismissive of conservatism, liberalism and socialism. Neither does he advocate anarchy, still less totalitarianism. He doesn’t even like democracy, because―in theory at least―it permits the majority to interfere in the lives of the minority. Nietzsche believed that at any one time only a minority will ever become the most fully human it is possible to become, and if they are sidelined then culture and society will slide towards mediocrity, and western civilization will fail. And Nietzsche did want to save western civilization. His philosophical project to provide a remedy for nihilism has no credible meaning except in the context of preserving, promoting and enhancing the best aspects of Western culture, which are life-affirming rather than life-denying. Nietzsche draws his inspiration from Homer’s portrayal of Odysseus, who successfully defies the gods, rises above the inescapable tragedy of life, triumphs over all adversity and returns to Ithaca as a new kind of man: the first heroic individualist, who―instead of enslaving the dependents of his slaughtered foes―shows them kindness.
Nietzsche fails to consider whether democracy can be managed so that mediocrity is not the outcome. That would require the young to be educated to understand how the flaws in democracy can be remedied. The aspirations of the majority need to be encouraged, because genius can arise in anyone irrespective of ancestry, and it is only the constant churning of the social pot that allows the best to rise to the top. A society of static classes does not allow this to happen and will enter cultural stasis and atrophy―which is where all political arrangements seem inevitably to end up unless some instability arises or democracy intervenes. Nietzsche doesn’t explore these issues, but it is almost inconceivable that he would have supported any political arrangement that enabled a power-hungry political elite to dominate at the expense of cultural renewal―and every culture needs constant renewal if it is to thrive and endure.
Nietzsche has been taken to be a romantic anti-capitalist, but his objections to capitalism are actually about what capitalism can lead to, not about the capitalist system. The consumer society of risk-averse, greedy, self-indulgent, shallow, nihilistic narcissists is what offends him, not capitalism itself. He never addresses the argument that capitalism has benefits no other economic system can deliver, or that its faults might be remedied.
The political environment in which all this takes place matters because it can enhance or inhibit attempts to become more fully human. But the political life is not itself the fully human life and never can be. Nietzsche is clear that in his view the best people―the “noble souls” and “free spirits” for whom he adopts the misleading term “aristocrats”―are not those whose status is determined by public acclaim, material wealth or political power. They are those who are concerned with, and excel at, cultural endeavors convergent upon the aim he himself adopts, and who are not influenced in this by considerations of social convention or striving for power over others. His most admired group were the Bohemian artists of late nineteenth-century Germany, who sought neither fame, power nor fortune.
Nietzsche’s conclusion about politics is inescapable: politics cannot solve the problem of existence.
Nietzsche on the Ideal Political Arrangement
Politics is the servant of culture. It cannot be the other way around, because culture is what makes us what we are, and we―in our individual striving to affirm our existence and give it meaning and purpose―make culture what it is. If what governs us becomes the power of others over our lives then we have already ceased to be ourselves, we are slaves, and our culture is already in decline or becoming moribund. The issue for Nietzsche is that―if some political organization is necessary―how should it function so as to promote and perpetuate a culture of the best kind of people, the “noble souls” and “free spirits”?
His answer is rather unsatisfactory because it is left in the abstract. In an ideal society, such people will rise to the top and influence every aspect of life. And if politics were really the servant of this kind of culture, then the ideal arrangement would be one in which the majority of ordinary people served the interests of the cultural aristocracy, the Übermenschen, the ultimate “noble souls” notable for their exquisite manners, good nature, super-human benevolence and an existential depth far beyond the reach of ordinary people. Nietzsche’s concept of human society as the “economy of the whole” would mean that these Übermenschen would have much in common. But life would still be a contest for excellence and the supreme achievement of self-overcoming through brutal self-discipline that would always be life-affirming, even if participating in the natural―and perpetual―cycle of creation and destruction. Hierarchies of power, rank and value are unavoidably necessary and as inescapable as the rhythms of nature.
Ordinary life would go on all around this cultural elite, proceeding much as before: an endless cycle of creation and destruction, violence, oppression and exploitation, as those who failed to keep their destructive urges under control unleashed their nihilism on the world. So even the ideal political arrangement designed to serve the interests of the cultural elite would essentially be an exercise in nihilism by all except the elite who would benefit from it. The possibility that the masses might progress towards the Übermenschen in terms of self-development is left moot by Nietzsche.
Nietzsche as the Seer of What Is, What Must Be and What Might Be
It is always difficult to draw a line between Nietzsche as a describer of what is and must necessarily be the case―such as the tragedy of life, with its ceaseless competition, violence, destruction and creation―and as offering a view of what might be the case if certain conditions prevailed (as with the Übermensch).
From the early 1880s, Nietzsche increasingly turned inwards as his mental and physical health continued to decline. In his loneliness and intellectual isolation he even admits to inventing his own imaginary friends, his interlocutory “free-thinkers.” His concerns about nihilism become focused primarily on the challenge of finding meaning and purpose in a world in which the Christian god has ceased to be a cultural force. Take God out of the equation and the moral order collapses, and the brutal tyrants―monsters―emerge from the lairs where they have been hiding (inside unbalanced and unstable individuals) and stride across the landscape laying waste to everything within their reach. They are facilitated in this by the egotistical indifference of the “last man,” the ultimate product of the liberal consumer society, who seeks a comfortable, risk-free and petty life as a free-rider on the bus of western Christian culture until that culture itself fails through lack of support. This is why Nietzsche has the madman declare “God is dead … And we have killed him.”
The violent catastrophes of the twentieth century were not the product of random chance: they were inevitable once Christianity started to fail, and there are more upheavals and convulsions to come. Nietzsche viewed these cataclysmic paroxysms of projected self-hatred as not only an inevitable consequence of the pathology of the failure of self-overcoming, but a necessary nihilistic prelude if humans are ever to come to their senses and decide that it is better to create more and destroy less.
Destroying ourselves is easy. Creating something that enables us to become fully human in a culture that will endure—that is the challenge. It requires the best people to come to the fore—as cultural influencers but not as political masters. These are artists of genius who create great art, who, according to Nietzsche, hold the key to revealing what it is to become fully human. Politics is about acquiring and exercising power, concerns that are not generally those of great artists (who are driven by their art) and when great artists do get involved in politics it is usually to correct the abuses of power by an unaccountable elite (Václav Havel is a recent example).
Nietzsche’s views on good Europeans are a reaction to the failure of the liberal experiment in Bismarck’s unified Germany and its slide into authoritarian quasi-democratic proto-socialism, statist nationalistic power politics and imperialism. He doesn’t seem to have understood that, if the political stage is made pan-European, all that will result is that the ambitions of the power-hungry politicians and their attending technocrats will grow in direct proportion to the opportunities available. In this respect, his view of politics is naive, especially since he admired Napoleon Bonaparte as an example of “great politics” in action. It’s difficult to see how laying waste to much of Europe in a megalomaniacal effort to unify it and build a despotic empire can be considered heroic except in the sense that it failed―by uniting Napoleon’s enemies against him―leaving millions dead and western civilization unraveling at its core.
But even if political conditions are ideal, the struggle to become fully human will remain a uniquely and intensely personal one. The role of great art is to inspire us to become existentially deeper so that we can become more fully human. This influence must extend to politics if politics is to serve a culture of excellence of be(com)ing, and such a culture will necessarily be aristocratic in the sense that it allows only the best people to be exemplars of cultural renewal. Aesthetics is more fundamental than politics.
Politics of the sort we have today―that of left and right ―is actually a politics of nihilism and of petty squabbles between small selves living unheroic lives. This is a reaction to, and continuation of, the ongoing collapse of Christianity as a cultural force, without anything constructive to put in its place that will allow western civilization to renew itself. We have no vision of the future, no ideal of the Übermensch: we’re just paddling in the muddy shallows of life. We still have a long way to go before we reach the open seas and chase the fleeing horizon of infinite possibilities.
If life is a text, everything is interpretation. There are left and right interpretations of Nietzsche, and he would not have objected to that. But the question is: would he have taken them seriously?