One hundred years ago Thus Speak Zarathustra appeared. The most celebrated work of Nietzsche, it has been read and cited by even moderately educated people. The German philosopher has a stormy reputation due to his tirades against Christianity and his aristocratic rejection of conventional moral views. Nietzsche provokes all kinds of reactions. Each reader may have his own Nietzsche, drawing from him a cherished opinion to be worn as a colored badge with the hope of shocking ordinary folk. And in fact in the last one hundred years, everything and anything has been said about Nietzsche.
This absence of professionalism and this facile subjectivism have produced occasionally disastrous consequences. From the beginning Nietzsche’s thought has defied systematic construction. Even now the most memorable characteristics of his pioneering work are his ferocious fulminations, his deconstruction, and the acrid stench left by those who have raided his texts. One cannot hope to say finally what Nietzsche really meant. But it may be possible to find a unifying thread. This requires ignoring abusive and merely subjectivist interpretations while highlighting those of true value. The renewed interest in Nietzsche’s works has produced a vast body of relevant literature, much of it critical.
In June 1981 Rudolf Augstein, editor of Der Spiegel, stated without qualification that Hitler was the man of action who put Nietzsche’s thought into practice. The journalist took for proof the falsifications of some of Nietzsche’s manuscripts by his sister Elisabeth Nietzsche-Forster, who had shaken Hitler’s hand in the twilight of her life. This argument is perhaps a bit thin in view of the many other writings that his sister did not doctor.
Augstein is concerned not just about Nietzsche’s revival by a young generation of German philosophers but also by the progressive abandonment among German intellectuals of the neo-Marxist Frankfurt School for Social Research. For Germans educated in the wake of “de-Nazification,” the Frankfurt School’s attack on bourgeois values, though often couched in arcane phrases, represented an effort to come to terms with the German past. Nonetheless, Frankfurt’s total rejection of all thought that affirms a given fact has led to an impasse. Negativity cannot be an end in itself; no one can progress intellectually or artistically through a permanent process of negation.
For Jurgen Habermas, the last important representative of the Frankfurt School, the Real is bad in that it does not include from the start all the Good existing in ideal form. Confronted by the imperfect Real, one feels compelled to maximize the Good, to moralize ad extremum in order to minimize the force of evil encrusted in a real world marked by incompleteness. Imperfect reality must call forth a redeeming revolution. But this revolution runs the risk of affirming and shaping another more or less imperfect real thing. Habermas rejects great global revolutions that initiate new eras. Instead he prefers sporadic micro-revolutions that inaugurate ages of permanent corrections, small injections of the Good into the sociopolitical tissue inevitably tainted by the Bad. But the world of political philosophy cannot rest content with this constant tinkering, this dogged adherence to reform without limit, this social engineering without substance. The suspicion of Nazism weighing heavily on Nietzscheism and the impossibility of keeping philosophy at the level of permanent negation make it necessary to reject the obsession with the proto-Nazi Nietzsche and the Frankfurt School’s negative attitude toward any given.
Nietzsche and SocialismÂ
Nietzsche certainly had his share of Nazi interpreters. Philosophers who fellow-traveled with the Nazis often made kind references to his thought. Yet recent scholarship shows that Nietzsche found not only Nazi admirers but also socialist and leftist ones. In Nietzsche in German Politics and Society 1890-1918 (1983), the British Professor R. Hinton Thomas demonstrates the close relationship between Nietzsche and German socialism. Thomas deals with Nietzsche’s impact in Imperial Germany on social democratic circles, on anarchists and feminists, and on the youth movement. This produced, on balance more resolute enemies of the Third Reich than Nazi cadres. Thomas shows that Nietzsche helped shape a libertarian ideology during the rise of the German social democratic movement. At the urging of August Bebel, the famed German socialist, the infant Social Democratic Party in 1875 adopted the Gotha Program, which sought to achieve redistributionist aims through legal means. In 1878 the government enacted anti-socialist laws, which curbed the party’s activities. In 1890, with the Erfurt Program, the party took on a harder revolutionary cast in conformity with Marxist doctrine. Social democracy subsequently oscillated between strict legalism, also known as “revisionism” or “reformism” because it accepted a liberal capitalist society, and a rhetorical commitment to revolution accompanied by demands for far-reaching changes.
According to Thomas, this second tendency remained a minority position but incorporated Nietzschean elements. A faction of the party, led by Bruno Wille, ridiculed the powerlessness of reformist social democrats. This group, which called itself Die Jungen (The Youths), appealed to grass-roots democracy, spoke of the need for more communication within the party, and ended up rejecting its rigid parent. Wille and his friends mocked the conformism of party functionaries, great and small, and the “cage” constituting organized social democracy. The party’s stifling constraints subdued the will and thwarted individual self-actualization. Die Jungen exalted “voluntarism,” or the exercise of will, which they associated with true socialism. This emphasis on will left little place for the deterministic materialism of Marxism, which the group described as an “enslaving” system.
Kurt Eisner, the leader of the revolutionary socialist Bavarian Republic, devoted his first book in 1919 to the philosophy of Nietzsche. Though he criticized the “megalomania” that he found in Thus Spake Zarathustra, he also praised its aristocratic ideals. The aristocratic values found in Nietzsche, he said, had to be put at the service of the people, not treated as ends in themselves. Gustav Landauer (1870-1919), another founder of the Bavarian “Red Republic,” emphasized Nietzschean voluntarism in his training of political revolutionaries. Landauer’s original anarchistic individualism became more communitarian and populist during the course of his political career, approaching the folkish, nationalist thinking of his enemies. Landauer died in the streets of Munich fighting the soldiers of the Freikorp, a group of paramilitary adventurers who were classified as “rightist” but who shared much of Landauer’s outlook.
Contrary to a later persistent misconception, Nietzsche aroused suspicion on the nationalist Right at the end of the nineteenth century. According to Thomas, this was because Nietzsche mocked many things German (which offended the pan-Germanists), was generally contemptuous of politics, had no enthusiasm for nationalism, and fell out with the composer Richard Wagner, a fervent and anti-Semitic German nationalist.
Nietzsche as a NaturalistÂ
Nietzsche’s vitalist concepts and naturalist vocabulary may account for his early support on the European Left and for his later popularity on the non-Christian Right. Nietzsche’s emphasis on will and his affirmation of an ethic of creativity have had diverse appeal. In his concise work, Helmut Pfotenhauer assesses Nietzsche’s legacy from the point of view of physiology, a term with a naturalistic connotation. This word appears frequently in Nietzsche’s work in the phrase Kunst als Physiologie, art as physiology.
The great French writer Balzac, who coined the phrase “physiology of marriage,” said about this neologism: “Physiology was formerly the science dealing with the mechanism of the coccyx, the progress of the fetus, or the life of the tapeworm. Today physiology is the art of speaking and writing incorrectly about anything.” In the nineteenth century the term physiology was associated with a type of popular literature such as the garrulous serials in daily newspapers. Physiology was intended to classify the main features of daily life. Thus there was a physiology of the stroller or of the English tourist pacing up and down Paris boulevards. In that sense physiology has some limited relationship to the zoological classifications of Buffon or Linnaeas. In his Comedie humaine, Balzac draws a parallel between the animal world and human society. “Political zoology” is used by various nineteenth-century writers, including Gustave Flaubert and Edgar Allen Poe. Nietzsche was aware of the literary and scientific usage of physiology. He noted that the physiological style was invading universities and that the vocabulary of his time was embellished with terms drawn from biology. One wonders why Nietzsche resorted to the term physiology when he believed that it was often used carelessly.
In Pfotenhauer’s view, Nietzsche had no intention of giving respectability to the pseudoscientific or pseudo-aesthetic excesses of the “physiologists” of his day. His intention, as interpreted by Pfotenhauer, was to challenge an established form of aesthetics. He constructed the expression “physiology of the art,” insofar as the arts were conventionally approached as mere objects of contemplation. From Nietzsche’s perspective, artistic productivity is an expression of our nature and ultimately of Nature itself. Through art, Nature becomes more active within us.
By using the term physiology Nietzsche was making a didactic point. He celebrated the exuberance of vital forces, while frowning on any attempt to neutralize the vital processes by giving a value to the average. In other words, Nietzsche rejected those sciences that limited their investigations to the averages, excluding the singular and exceptional. Nietzsche though that Charles Darwin, by limiting himself to broad classes in his biology, favored the generic without focusing on the exceptional individual. Nietzsche saw physiology as a tool to do for the individual confronting existential questions what Darwin had accomplished as a classifier of entire phyla and species. He attempted to analyze clinically the struggle of superior individuals for self-fulfillment in a world without inherent metaphysical meaning.
The Death of GodÂ
“God is dead” is an aphorism identified with Nietzsche. Nietzsche believed that, together with God, all important ontological and metaphysical systems had died. Only the innocence of human destiny remained, and he did not want it to be frozen in some “superior unity of being.” Recognizing the reign of destiny, he thought, involves certain risks. In the river of changing life, creative geniuses run the risk of drowning, of being only fragmentary and contingent moments. How can anyone gladly say “yes” to life without an assurance that his achievements will be preserved, not simply yielded to the natural rhythms of destiny? Perhaps the query of Silene to King Midas is well-founded: “Is this fleeting life worth being lived? Would it not have been better had we not been born?” Would it not be ideal to die as quickly as possible?
These questions pick up the theme of Arthur Schopenhauer, the famous philosopher of pessimism. The hatred of life that flowed from Schopenhauer’s pessimism was unsatisfactory to Nietzsche. He believed that in an age of spiritual confusion the first necessity was to affirm life itself. This is the meaning of “the transvaluation of all values” as understood by Pfotenhauer. Nietzsche’s teachings about the will were intended to accomplish the task of reconstructing values. The creative exercise of will was both an object of knowledge and an attitude of the knowing subject. The vital processes were to be perceived from the point of view of constant creativity.
Through the abundance of creative energy, man can assume divine characteristics. The one who embraces his own destiny without any resentment or hesitation turns himself into an embodiment of that destiny. Life should express itself in all its mobility and fluctuation; immobilizing or freezing it into a system was an assault on creativity. The destiny that Nietzsche urged his readers to embrace was to be a source of creative growth. The philosopher was a “full-scale artist” who organized the world in the face of chaos and spiritual decline. Nietzsche’s use of physiology was an attempt to endow vital processes with an appropriate language. Physiology expressed the intended balance between Nature and mere rationality.
Myth, for Nietzsche, had no ethnological point of reference. It was, says Pfotenhauer, the “science of the concrete” and the expression of the tragedy resulting from the confrontation between man’s physical fragility (Hinfalligkeit) and his heroic possibilities. Resorting to myth was not a lapse into folk superstition, as the rationalists believed it to be. It was rather an attempt to see man’s place within Nature.
Pfotenhauer systematically explored the content of Nietzsche’s library, finding “vitalist” arguments drawn from popular treatments of science. The themes that riveted Nietzsche’s attention were: adaptation, the increase of potential within the same living species, references to vital forces, corrective eugenics, and spontaneous generation. Nietzsche’s ideas were drawn from the scientific or parascientific speculations of his time and from literary, cultural, and artistic tracts. He criticized the imitative classicism of some French authors and praised the profuse style of the Baroque. In the philosopher’s eyes, the creativity of genius and rich personalities had more value than mere elegant conversation. Uncertainty, associated with the ceaseless production of life, meant more to him than the search for certainty, which always implied a static perfection. On the basis of this passion for spiritual adventure he founded a “new hierarchization of values.” The man who internalized the search for spiritual adventure anticipated the “superman,” about whom so much has been said. Pfotenhauer’s Nietzsche is made to represent the position that the creative man allies himself with the power of vital impulse against stagnant ideas, accepting destiny’s countless differences and despising limitations. Nietzschean man does not react with anguish in the face of fated change.
Nietzsche had no desire to inaugurate a worry-free era. Instead, he responded to the symptoms of a declining Christian culture by criticizing society from the standpoint of creative and heroic fatalism. This criticism, which refuses to accept the world as it is, claims to be formative and affirmative: it represents a will to create new forms of existence. Nietzsche substituted an innovative criticism affirming destiny for an older classical view based on fixed concepts. Nietzsche’s criticism does not include an irrational return to an a historic and unformed existence. Nietzsche, as presented by Pfotenhauer, constructs his own physiology of man’s nature as a creative being.
Robert Steuckers is the editor-in-chief of the Belgian journal Orientations and has written on European fascism and the evolution of Nietzsche as a thinker.
[The World And I (New York), May, 1987]