Nietzsche is pretty neat

In the course of wrestling with a half-written post about the influence of neoconservative thinkers (especially Leo Strauss and Alan Bloom) on current US politics (foreshadowed here), I’ve found myself being diverted onto exploring the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, not least because my almost-partner Jen, a classic practical Nietzschean if ever there was one, professes an intention to read Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

I’ve read bits and pieces of Nietzsche and have a vague general idea of his thinking (Superman, the herd, will to power etc), but I haven’t read any of his major works in toto, and certainly not Zarathustra. I guess I’ll have to get around to it now, if only to be able to converse intelligibly with Jen if she makes good on her latest planned obsession. In the meantime, I’ve perused the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entries on Nietzsche (here and here).

But more interestingly, I came across a web page of uncertain provenance, dealing with the influence of Nietzsche across a wide range of intellectual disciplines. It doesn’t discuss his influence on neocons like Strauss and Bloom (something my half-written post attempts), but I was struck by the author’s summary of Nietzsche’s influence on popular culture ideas of human personality, psychology and personal development. In fact, although some of them have a rather trite pop psychology flavour, Nietzsche’s ideas seem to reflect quite closely many of my own values and personal aspirations:

If there are few names from the second half of the 20th century cited above it is not because Nietzsche’s influence has dwindled. Rather it so pervades modern culture that many who have never read him are influenced by his thought indirectly. Consider the following ideas circulating in American culture today, all of them traceable at least in part to Nietzsche, although many of them are much simpler than similar ideas held by him:

  • The goal of life should be to find yourself. True maturity means discovering or creating an identity for yourself.
  • The highest virtue is to be true to yourself (consider these song titles from a generation ago: “I Gotta Be Me,” “I Did It My Way”).
  • When you fall ill, your body is trying to tell you something; listen to the wisdom of your body.
  • People who hate their bodies or are in tension with them need to learn how to accept and integrate their physical selves with their minds instead of seeing them as in tension with each other. The mind and body make up a single whole.
  • Athletes, musicians, etc. especially need to become so attuned to their bodies that their skills proceed spontaneously from the knowledge stored in their muscles and are not frustrated by an excess of conscious rational thought. (The influence of Zen Buddhism on this sort of thinking is also very strong.)
  • Sexuality is not the opposite of virtue, but a natural gift that needs to be developed and integrated into a healthy, rounded life.
  • Many people suffer from impaired self-esteem; they need to work on being proud of themselves.
  • Knowledge and strength are greater virtues than humility and submission.
  • Overcoming feelings of guilt is an important step to mental health.
  • You can’t love someone else if you don’t love yourself.
  • Life is short; experience it as intensely as you can or it is wasted.
  • People’s values are shaped by the cultures they live in; as society changes we need changed values.
  • Challenge yourself; don’t live passively.

It is notable that none of these ideas flows from the traditional Judeo-Christian culture which dominated Europe for a thousand years. Many of them have their roots in Romanticism, with Nietzsche merely articulating impulses that others shared; but he is a major transmitter of them to the modern world.

What Nietzsche’s thought conspicuously lacks is any clear conception of the personal qualities needed to co-exist successfully in human society, whether or not you see yourself as a Superman whose life and morality are beyond the “herd”. Advanced post-industrial societies necessarily involve increasing interdependence and require high levels of flexible interpersonal co-operation. That in turn necessitates mutual respect, tolerance, civility and a fair degree of acceptance of diversity: qualities that are in many ways antithetical to Nietzsche’s solitary Superman. Is it possible to exemplify both sets of personal qualities, I wonder?

This article (or rather book chapter) by Peter Levine about Nietzsche, Strauss and Bloom suggests one reason why each of these thinkers devalued civility and social co-operation, and might hold some clues about the extreme adversarial, confrontational nature of neoconservative politics:

Strauss imagines all humans, except Overmen like himself, as absolutely committed members of herds (cultures) whose values are incompatible with those of other herds. He sees no possibility of communication among cultures, which he imagines as completely discrete entities. One integrated set of values defines each culture precisely and serves as the foundation of all its members’ lives; these values have no validity for members of other cultures. Like Nietzsche, Strauss believes that one either follows herd morality, or else one plunges into an abyss of nihilism. In Chapter IX, I will argue that “cultures” are terms that we use to categorize people according to salient characteristics which they share; but such categories can be conceived in numerous, overlapping ways. We each differ from those around us in fundamental aspects of our character and background, just as we may be similar in some respects to people living far away or long ago. A paradigm that dispenses with reified notions of culture will avoid the nihilist conclusions that Strauss reached because of his crude Weltanschauung-historicism. In order to live and act in the world, we do not require an absolute commitment to values that all the people around us share; in fact, it is rare for such a situation to occur. Therefore, nihilism will not overtake a civilization that is aware of cultural difference; and Strauss’ program seems an unjustified exercise in deceit.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
This entry was posted in Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
21 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Manas
2022 years ago

I’ll never forget our first year philosophy tut about Nietzsche. I remember the conversation took a weird turn when it was revealed that he dies of syphilus. Not sure what was funny about that, but something about that tut had everyone rolling around the floor in stiches.

Ken, do you know what it was about Nietzsche’s philosphy that so attracted Nazi theorists? I’d be interested to know. Was it the superman theory? To what extent did Nietzsche compartmentalise humans, into categories like Strauss – such would seem to give some credence to theories of racial supremacy.

Carita.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Ken, I’m not too sure about your linked page’s tracing Nietzsche’s ideas to Romanticism – though it’s right that Nietzsche was very much consciously against the Judeo-Christian vein. In The Birth of Tragedy and Beyond Good and Evil in particular, Nietzsche made it very clear that he thought Christianity had been a disaster for humankind – and that he wanted to revive the spirit of the Greeks (there are echoes here in Strauss’ division between ancients and moderns).

In The Antichrist, Nietzsche wrote:

The Christian conception of God – God as God of the sick, God as spider, God as spirit – is one of the most corrupt conceptions of God arrived at on earth: perhaps it even represents the low-water mark in the descending development of the God type. God degenerated to the contradiction of life, instead of being its transfiguration and eternal Yes! In God a declaration of hostility towards life, nature, the will to life! God the formula for every calumny of ‘this world’, for every lie about ‘the next world’! In God nothingness deified, the will to nothingness sanctified!…

As well as having a look at Zarathustra, you might like to dip into the maxims in Daybreak and Human, All Too Human. But I think the best way to get a grip on Nietzsche’s thought is to read Beyond Good and Evil.

Another key influence of Nietzsche is on post-structuralist and post-modernist thought in the humanities – very directly in the case of Michel Foucault, and also indirectly in sociology through the work of Max Weber.

And politically, the German jurist, onetime Nazi and political philosopher Carl Schmitt, was another key link in the transmission of Nietzschean thought to Strauss – as was Alexandre Kojeve – political philosopher and later EU bureaucrat. Schmitt in particular is responsible for the definition of the political in terms of friends and enemies. For Schmitt, war epitomises the political through the “negation of the enemy’s way of life”. Schmitt is probably one of the most intellectually powerful opponents liberalism has had. There’s a lot on him in my thesis and some of my public work and I might write something here about him at some point if I can de-complexify it sufficiently!

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Carita

Don Arthur could almost certainly tell you a lot more. The web page from which I lifted the pop Nietzsche dot points says:
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was notoriously unread and uninfluential during his own lifetime, and his works suffered considerable distortion in the hands of his sister Elisabeth, who managed his literary estate and twisted his philosophy into a set of ideas supporting Hitler and Nazism (Hitler had Thus Spoke Zarathustra issued to every soldier in the German army).
I think the aspects of Nietzsche that appealed to Hitler were the Superman, beyond good and evil and will to power stuff, along with a distinct racial superiority flavour in parts (although I might be doing him an injustice with that comment).

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Ken, on the last point – one thing the Nazis had to gloss over was Nietzsche’s extremely caustic and negative comments about “The Germans”.

This quote from The Antichrist might also give some idea of why:

What is good?–Whatever augments the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself, in man.
What is evil?–Whatever springs from weakness.
What is happiness?–The feeling that power increases–that resistance is overcome.
Not contentment, but more power; not peace at any price, but war; not virtue, but efficiency (virtue in the Renaissance sense, virtu, virtue free of moral acid).
The weak and the botched shall perish: first principle of our charity. And one should help them to it.
What is more harmful than any vice?–Practical sympathy for the botched and the weak–Christianity…

The problem that I set here is not what shall replace mankind in the order of living creatures (–man is an end–): but what type of man must be bred, must be willed, as being the most valuable, the most worthy of life, the most secure guarantee of the future.

This more valuable type has appeared often enough in the past: but always as a happy accident, as an exception, never as deliberately willed. Very often it has been precisely the most feared; hitherto it has been almost the terror of terrors ;–and out of that terror the contrary type has been willed, cultivated and attained: the domestic animal, the herd animal, the sick brute-man–the Christian. . .

Mankind surely does not represent an evolution toward a better or stronger or higher level, as progress is now understood. This “progress” is merely a modern idea, which is to say, a false idea. The European of today, in his essential worth, falls far below the European of the Renaissance; the process of evolution does not necessarily mean elevation, enhancement, strengthening.

True enough, it succeeds in isolated and individual cases in various parts of the earth and under the most widely different cultures, and in these cases a higher type certainly manifests itself; something which, compared to mankind in the mass, appears as a sort of superman. Such happy strokes of high success have always been possible, and will remain possible, perhaps, for all time to come. Even whole races, tribes and nations may occasionally represent such lucky accidents.

We should not deck out and embellish Christianity: it has waged a war to the death against this higher type of man, it has put all the deepest instincts of this type under its ban, it has developed its concept of evil, of the Evil One himself, out of these instincts–the strong man as the typical reprobate, the “outcast among men.” Christianity has taken the part of all the weak, the low, the botched; it has made an ideal out of antagonism to all the self-preservative instincts of sound life; it has corrupted even the faculties of those natures that are intellectually most vigorous, by representing the highest intellectual values as sinful, as misleading, as full of temptation. The most lamentable example: the corruption of Pascal, who believed that his intellect had been destroyed by original sin, whereas it was actually destroyed by Christianity!–

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Ken, on Schmitt as the other Nietzschean influence on Strauss and Bloom, Gary Sauer-Thompson has written a fair bit about him on his philosophy blog.

Manas
2022 years ago

Did his sister twist his ideas into something supporting Nazi theories after the Nazi’s already existed?? Just trying to grapple with the timeline here.

Ta – I will check out Don Arthur’s site as well.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Carita

Don is blogging here at Troppo now. I was just trying to tweak his interest so he could give you the benefit of his much greater knowledge than mine on matters philosophical. However, it seems that Mark Bahnisch is just as erudite, so you’ve probably got your answer.

Neitzsche died in 1900. His sister certainly survived into the Nazi era, greatly admired Hitler and was famously photographed with him.

Tex
Tex
2022 years ago

Nietzsche’s work was horribly distorted by his loony Nazi sister Elizabeth, and by Heidegger (himself a Nazi), both of whom who pretty much ignored everything Nietzsche wrote except for the works Elizabeth cobbled together.

Nietzsche’s best: “Human, all to human” and “Beyond Good and Evil”. I recommend the versions translated by Walter Kaufmann.

Jim Birch
Jim Birch
2022 years ago

Neitzsche: “Insanity in individuals is something rare – but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.”

Out of date or a concise guide to current geopolitics?

Gary Sauer-Thompson
2022 years ago

Ken,
there has been a number of postings on various aspects of Nietzsche’s philosophy over at philosophical conversations that may be of interest.

jen
jen
2022 years ago

Mark I’ll skip ‘thus spake’ and go directly to Beyond Good and Evil.
Parish you must have been chuckling when you typed out that little list of what’s important.
Self-indulgence.
….although when you enjoy most of the things in your life it’s a mere slip into delicious indulgence ……. and from there, the descent into self-indulgent hell comes all too swiftly …. and hot misery chokes and the saviours in the US heartland begin to look strangely attractive…. do I dare continue?
Self -indulgent drivel mea culpa ahhhh

Norman
Norman
2022 years ago

The quick [but useful] response to “links” between Nietzsche and Hitler is the same as that for many other cases of politicians drawing on the works of ‘prestigious’ writers. It’s often not ifficult to find passages which can be used in a ‘helpful’ manner.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
2022 years ago

Poor Nietzsche – the first mention of his name and the Nazi rumours start coming out. I believe this was spread by Christian propagandists (I remember reading this Nietzsche=Nazi equation once in a Readers Digest in a dentists’ waiting room). The fact is not only did Nietzsche personally despise German anti-semites but the psychological framework he applied to New Testament Christianity would also be easily applied to German anti-semites of his day
1) the notion of ‘ressentiment’ i.e. resenting people because deep down you think they are better than you and it gives you an inferiority complex
2) turning one’s perceived weaknesses into virtues. therefore if one is stupid one characterises clever people as swindlers. therefore Jews are swindlers while the poor oppressed German anti-semites are not stupid, they are just not swindlers and their virtues are their straightforwardness and naive courage, bla bla bla
3) if Nietzsche were to classify people according to untermenschen and ubermenschen there is no doubt the silly German anti-semites with their inferority complex and sense of grievance masking as racial pride would go under untermenschen. By contrast he calls the Jews ‘the toughest, strongest race in the world’ that produced ‘geniuses’ like Jesus and Spinoza.

As Tex points out, the Nazi crap crept in because of his sister handling his estate.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Jason

Again I’m not sure of its provenance, but this article seems to indicate that Nietzsche’s attitudes to race weren’t quite as innocuous as you suggest:
First of all, it is correct that following his final mental breakdown and during the last decade of his life, his sister Elisabeth F

Gary Sauer-Thompson
2022 years ago

Ken,
just a question raised by this passage:

“…a form of biological racism is detectable in Nietzsche’s work from the very beginning. We have already drawn attention to Nietzsche’s treatment of the Greek philosopher Socrates in The Birth of Tragedy.”

How does biological racism work in Nietzsche’s evaluation of Socrates in the Birth of Tragedy?

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Two comments. First, racism in the 19th century was the prevalent paradigm. Taxonomic and rationalistic knowledges combined with the social misappropriation of Darwinism led to a climate of thought where different ‘races’ were thought to have different capabilities and were hierarchically ranked according to a pseudo-scientific notion of evolutionary achievement. This was also the mentality which led Imperialism and colonialism to flourish. Nietzsche, though an exceptionally original thinker, was nevertheless a product of his times.

Secondly, just as I would argue that Marx does not have responsibility for Stalinism, so I would argue that Nietzsche is not responsible for the misappropriation of his ideas by the Nazis. All complex and interesting thinkers create multiple inheritances which can be selectively misread and misused – and political ideologists are not motivated by scientific or intellectual rigour but rather by a search for intellectual window-dressing or legitimisation for their political projects.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Jen, Beyond Good and Evil is an interesting read. Look forward to hearing your -and Ken’s – further thoughts and reflections.

Incidentally, a really rather good US science fiction series – Andromeda – features genetically modified humans called ‘Nietzscheans’. Some nice use of irony and a fair degree of faithfulness to the philosopher himself – I was thinking Jason might also know it!

Gary Sauer-Thompson
2022 years ago

Ken,
I do think that some of the protocols of scholarship should be observed on this topic.

Have you read the passage in The Genealogy Morals that is referred to this passage you quote:

“The impact of Gobineau’s ideas is almost certainly apparent in Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals (1887) . Beginning with the claim that the genealogical method is the correct one, Nietzsche states: “In Latin malus … could indicate the common man as the dark one, especially as the black-haired one, as the pre-Aryan dweller of the Italian soil which distinguished itself most clearly through his colour from blonds who became their masters, namely the Aryan conquering race.”

James Russell
2022 years ago

Did his sister twist his ideas into something supporting Nazi theories after the Nazi’s already existed??

Long before them. The Nazis were founded in 1919 or 1920 (I forget which). Lizzie was at work distorting her brother’s legacy as early as the 1890s, I think, by which time he was in no position to defend himself any more.

Norman
Norman
2022 years ago

A Century ago, racist attitudes usually resulted in people saying specific races HAD to be inferior or superior in particular innate abilities. Today, we’re told NO race can be different from another in ANY innate ability.
Some of the available evidence does take a strong imagination to deal with the [obviously mistaken?] differences which do appear to exist. How on earth do some groups appear, for example, to be better long distance runners?
Thank God for cognitive dissonance?

trackback
2022 years ago

God is dead

Great line, you have to admit. Out of (what seems) the blue, Ken Parish has posted in preliminary praise of the author. I mention this only because last weekend I happened to read through the chapter on “Morality” in my…