Nietzsche: Free-Thinker or Reactionary Aristocrat?

Young individualist-anarchists, for more than a century, have been powerfully drawn to the highly original, often poetically exultant writings of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900).  The quintessential free spirit, Nietzsche effectively used paradox, playful irony and wordplay to heap scorn on life-hating (Judeo-Christian) morality, with its sex-negative ideas of “sin” and its condemnation of healthy human desire and self-assertion.  In Nietzsche’s time and place, Calvinist-Lutheran morality warned of hellfire for the many, predestined salvation for only a few.  As a psychologically crippling ideology, it produced obedient, moralistic and loyal subjects to the authoritarian power of fathers, the church, and, most significantly, the State.  Of course, the young Nietzsche lived in a loose German confederation composed of dozens of small kingdoms and their “electors.”  But the Prussian militarist Bismarck, through a ruthless plan of intimidation and military might, soon created a greater, united German Empire, with the Prussian king as Emperor with absolute powers.  Nietzsche deplored the populist “leveling” of the populace into such a highly regimented, bureaucratized, and military-dominated Empire.

Still in his twenties, the young Nietzsche was obligated to serve as a medical orderly in the Franco-Prussian war (1870-71).  His assignment included daily transporting, from the raging battlefield, both decaying corpses and terribly wounded soldiers screaming in pain.  It is surprising that biographers have generally failed to connect such horrifying experiences with his subsequent, lifelong nervousness and psychosomatic maladies; in short, with the aftereffects of PTSD.  In any event, suffering recurrent insomnia and anxiety attacks for the remainder of his life, he became dependent on chloral hydrate, a powerful sedative with dangerous side-effects.  Moreover, more recent research has disclosed that in later years, “Dr.” Nietzsche – of philology, that is – wrote cocaine prescriptions for himself.  It is certainly not implausible that his later writings–with their often grandiose, exultant passages of unparalleled eloquence — might have been cocaine-induced.

As a philosopher, he rejected the Platonic “idealism” which permeated German metaphysics from Kant to Hegel, in favor of the empirical-materialist Epicurus, who had insisted that the world of the senses, properly interpreted, was the only real world.  (But the French philosophe and atheist Denis Diderot–who had preceded him in this by over a century–had also insisted, anticipating Darwinian ideas about species’ adaptations, that the desires of the body were entirely natural.)  Nor was Zarathustra’s proclamation that “God is dead” particularly earth-shattering–having been preceded by many of the 18th French philosophes, as well as Ludwig Feuerbach (and Karl Marx) by the 1840s.

Despite the oracular incoherence and wild speculations of the pre-Socratics, Nietzsche oddly came to insist that the dialectical rationality exhibited by Socrates was a “decadent” threat to the supposedly ecstatic (Dionysian) joie-de-vivre of the ancient Greeks.  But Greek tragedy, with its impulsive violence, relentless vengeance, and divinely-ordered predestination, hardly substantiates Nietzsche’s sunny vision–and slavery and warmaking were basic institutions of both Athens and Sparta.

Despite the Enlightenment-influenced rational skepticism often expressed in such books as Human, All-Too-Human, Nietzsche ultimately can be linked to the German Counter-Enlightenment, with its exaltation of instinct and sentiment as opposed to reason, and its dislike of the emerging commercial-industrial order which would diminish the semi-feudal traditions personified by the giant land-owning Junkers.

Having suffered as a child in an all-female household of sin-obsessed moralists–who hardly extended to him Jesus’s virtues of kindness and forgiveness–he would later become a self-identified anti-moralist.  Written in a style unmistakably parodying the Gospels, his Thus Spoke Zarathustra–extolling human values and condemning life-hating moralities obsessed with the “next (non-existent) world,” the book, adopting Jesus’s style of teaching-by-parable, is not one of his best.  In this and other books of his last period (1884-1889), he, like all right-wing Romantics (e.g., Carlyle), extols the majesty of pure will, unfettered by religious moralism and intellectual objections.

No doubt influenced by Plutarch (and probably Machiavelli), Nietzsche came to idealize the supreme vigor, grandeur and mastery exhibited by the vigorous Julius Caesar–in reality a ruthless power-seeker, whose military prowess (slaughtering tens-of-thousands of Gauls and Germans) enabled him to vanquish his rival Pompey, thereby destroying the remnants of the Roman Republic in the process, in order to become absolute imperator perpetuus.  In one of his worst books, The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche actually blames the early Christians–who were sadistically tortured and dismembered in the arena for the amusement of Nero and his ilk–for infecting the Roman empire with ideas of “sin” and “guilt” (for such minor acts as raping slave boys and tormenting condemned gladiators, among others).  A persecuted religious minority, these abused Christians had only their faith in eventual salvation as a consolation.

Nietzsche eagerly prophesied a world presided over by overmen–superior, masterful individuals, artist-philosophers whose aristocratic station allowed them the leisure for supreme aesthetic cultivation and philosophical grandeur of vision.  (Perhaps he had his former idol, composer Richard Wagner in mind–though, unlike Wagner, he deplored the German empire and was emphatically not an anti-Semite!).  Yet what of the “masses” of ordinary Germans, mere subjects of the Kaiser, a supreme autocrat.  Like most aristocrats of the time, educated in a semi-feudal, mostly agrarian country of great landowners and small business folk, Nietzsche had little sympathy for democracy.  Dismissing the stupendous achievements of the French Revolution–abolition of feudal titles and privileges (both the Church and Aristocracy, tax-exempt, had like the Crown heavily taxed the people into virtual starvation), establishment of a Republic of elected officials, guarantees of basic human rights including voting–Nietzsche could only think of the few mob massacres and bloody Reign of Terror).        

Conspicuously missing from his writings is any appreciation of Thomas Paine, Jefferson, Lincoln, or even, if I remember, J. S. Mill (whose On Liberty includes the wonderful chapter “Of the Individual”).  Unlike the slaveholder Jefferson, who nonetheless advocated vehemently for an imminent freeing of the slaves, Nietzsche by implication, may have envisaged a return to a slave-system, the labor provided enabling such overmen the capacity to exercise their masterful will and ingenious creativity.  Nietzsche, an “aristocrat of the intellect,” was emphatically against republican equality of rights under the law.  His iconoclastic daring, however liberatory to certain aesthetic-intellectual non-conformists and “free spirits,” failed–unlike Beethoven or Robespierre–to envision free growth for a universal humanity.  Unlike Jefferson and the others, Nietzsche ultimately believed in “the freedom of the noble [sic] men”– not “the nobility of the free men.”

• Image:  Nietzsche, 1882 (Wikimedia Commons)

Intellectual historian and psychoanalytic anthropologist, William Manson (Ph.D., Columbia) has published numerous scholarly books and papers, and is a longtime contributor to Dissident Voice. Read other articles by William.