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Book Review – Nietzsche, the aristocratic rebel. Intellectual biography and critical assessment (Raffaella Santi)

Book review – Domenico Losurdo, Nietzsche, il ribelle aristocratico. Biografia intellettuale e bilancio critico [Nietzsche, the aristocratic rebel. Intellectual biography and critical assessment], Bollati Boringhieri, Turin 2002, pp. XV+1167

Raffaella Santi


In Towards a Philosophy of Real Mathematics David Corfield writes: “Ian Hacking opens his book Representing and Intervening with a quotation from Nietzsche’s The Twilight of the Idols: ‘You ask me, which of the philosophers’ traits are idiosyncrasies? For example: their lack of historical sense, their hatred of becoming, their Egypticism. They think that they show their respect for a subject when they dehistoricize it – when they turn it into a mummy’” (Cambridge 2003, 6). My aim with this quotation is not so much to highlight the reference to Nietzsche in these contemporary scientific works, but rather to argue that the portrait of the German philosopher which emerges from the new book by Prof. Domenico Losurdo – the author of “Heidegger and the Ideology of War: Community, Death, and the West” (Amherst NY 2001), and of many other books and essays in Italian and German – is very far from being similar to what Nietzsche himself would have defined “a mummy”.
In fact, in this book Nietzsche’s non-systematic thought is seen, and interpreted as a whole, as being deeply rooted in “the late XIX Century aristocratic reaction” – the ideological reaction to the French Revolution and to the post-revolutionary European movements which had caused the uprisings in 1848, the Paris Commune in 1871, and what was felt could happen after that. Nietzsche never actually wrote a work on political philosophy. Nevertheless, he was aware that the spectre of communism was haunting Europe, and he was very concerned about this, particularly since, in his opinion, the forces of opposition were so weak.

Taking into account all Nietzschean published and unpublished works, and quoting significant passages from all of them – the author argues that the historical-political issue is indeed the key to interpreting Nietzsche’s thought in its unity, and to revealing its cohesion.

Here it is only possible to give the bare outlines of an argument which is developed in over one thousand pages in the book – the summary alone being nine pages long, which is much more than any editor review would allow to a reviewer. The book, which presents a carefully analytic interpretation of Nietzsche’s intellectual biography, is divided into thirty-three Chapters, which are organised into seven Parts (1. Nietzsche in his times. The fight against Socratism and Judaism, 3-192; 2. Nietzsche in his times. Four successive approaches in the critique of Revolution, 193-398; 3. Nietzsche in his times. Theory and practice of “aristocratic radicalism”, 399-648; 4. Beyond “metaphor” and “anticipation”. Nietzsche in a comparative perspective, 649-763; 5. Nietzsche and the aristocratic reaction between two historic periods, 765-893; 6. In Nietzsche’s philosophical laboratory, 895-1004; 7. Niezsche and us. Radicality and the demystifying power of the reactionary project, 1005-1076). It concludes with an appendix entitled How to construct Nietzsche’s innocence. Editors, translators, and interpreters (1077-1094), followed by 150 pages of bibliographical references and by an index, compiled by Dr. Emanuela Susca, which proves useful in such a monumental work.

As the author stresses, “Nietzsche lived in a period which, in the United States, saw the war of secession and the ‘abolitionist revolution’ (which sometimes took the shape of a crusade seeking to eliminate of the sin of slavery and to construct a new world which would realise Christian ideals in concrete terms), in Europe the Paris Commune and the development of the Socialist movement, in Asia, or more precisely, in China, the revolution and the subsequent attempt to build ‘the Heavenly Reign of Peace’, of which the Taiping movement – also deeply influenced by Christian Messianism – was the protagonist” (508-9). All these events contributed to persuading him that a criticism of the current ideology, with the consequent deconstruction of traditional values, was necessary: “If Marx sides with the “defeated”, who are exhorted to look upon the chains that oppress them, Nietzsche calls on the “winners”, unveiling a truth of which they – in their own interests and those of the civilisation which sees them as leader – must become aware, but which must remain unknown to the defeated” (486).
The process of creating a new ethics, which would succeed in overcoming traditional moral schemes, is seen as the result of Nietzsche’s growing awareness of his mission (Bestimmung) as a philosopher which is developed on four levels, the first two belonging to the “metaphysic” phase, the third to the phase of the “Enlightenment” and the fourth to the “immoralist” phase, respectively. Throughout these four stages of development, however, the author identifies one common, underlying element: a denunciation of the dangers inherent in the French Revolution, which is seen as the culmination of a degenerative process which began with Jewish and Socratic ethics. The author points out that Nietzsche invites the members of the aristocratic élites to react to this ideological movement in the following four ways, which correspond to the four stages mentioned: as members of the “popular community” celebrated in The Birth of Tragedy, as “solitary rebels”, as “aristocrats of the Enlightenment”, and finally, as “immoralist aristocrats” (see in particular pp. 364-7).

To an ethics of equality and pity, an untermenschen ethics which looks at the many, Nietzsche opposes a vitalistic, übermenschen ethics which looks at the few, with important political consequences – because at a political level a fully justified inequality means that the condition of the masses should not be changed by dangerous welfare-state policies and trade unions, that slavery is natural and necessary, and that there is nothing wrong with colonialism.

Nietzsche was not alone in having these opinions in the XIX century. The method by which it is shown that his philosophy, as far as its “radical aristocratic” demands are concerned, is not an isolated phenomenon (despite his insistence on the Unzeitgemässe of his own thought) consists of the “comparative analysis of ideological processes” (as explained at page 661). Through this analysis, the author is able to connect Nietzsche’s views to those of other leading and minor figures in the intellectual landscape, as well as to ideological movements like social Darwinism, which in certain cases took the radical shape of a theorised and practised eugenics. We discover that even Francis Hutcheson would admit slavery as a remedy for beggars, and that liberal thinkers such as John Stuart Mill and Tocqueville were well prepared to condemn the cultural, political and economic inactivity of China, and the tendency – which was to be found there – to make everybody equal, which threatened to infect the more advanced and active Europe. Although Edmund Burke’s political philosophy is one of the most important models in the first phases of Nietzsche’s thought, it does not go far enough. Burke is not able to delineate a concrete and “revolutionary” aristocratic reaction, because he does not differentiate enough the few from the many, the masters from the slaves, remaining somewhat attached to the past. Thomas Carlyle was an influential writer in Victorian England, with strong connections with Germany too. His book Past and Present was “critically” praised by Friedrich Engels in a review published on the “Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher” in 1844: “Of all the fat books and thin pamphlets which have appeared in England in the past year for the entertainment or edification of ‘educated society’, the above work is the only one which is worth reading”. Engels liked Carlyle for having been mainly occupied with the social condition of England, but he disliked his “hero-worship” or “cult of genius”, and his calling for a “true aristocracy”, which had eventually resulted in a superhuman dimension opposed to that of the masses (the rulers opposed to the ruled). “As if these heroes could at best be more than men” – an objection which Engels, from his own perspective, could have moved against Niezsche’s super-man too. However, Nietzsche and Engels partially shared the same kind of criticism of Carlyle, accused of maintaining a religious and moralistic world-view. The relationship between Carlyle and Nietzsche is not often emphasised by interpreters, and Losurdo is right to give it space in several passages of the book.

Among the many themes discussed, there is also the issue of the links between Nietzsche on one side and Fascism and Nazism on the other. Losurdo is nearer to the historians than to the philosophers in recognising the deep influence exercised by Nietzsche’s thought on the ideologies of Mussolini and Hitler. He writes: “In particular, when thinking of Nietzsche’s celebration of art, and of his antipolitical pathos, the ‘purely’ philosophic interpreters tend to present as a remedy that which in the analysis by historians is the disease itself. Paradox is added to a paradox: one would say that the previous have forgotten Benjamin’s lesson, which sees the ‘aesthetization of politics’ as the main characteristic of fascism; the latters remind them this” (797). Nietzsche’s connections to the Third Reich’s ideology have been underlined also by revisionist historian Ernst Nolte – and in his History of Europe 1848-1918, recently published in Italian (Milan 2003), he also locates “Nietzsche and Nietzscheism” among those “forces, tendencies and movements” which have been very influential before the First World War. But Losurdo rejects Nolte’s “indulgent” vision of The Antichrist as a response to The Communist Manifesto, corresponding to the Mein Kampf as a response to State and Revolution in the following Century; he finds this interpretation “wrong and unilateral” (790).

Also the aphoristic style chosen by Nietzsche is partially dictated by political reasons: only “deadly blows of hammer” (932) can contrast the dominant values in contemporary reality – which is perceived as catastrophic and decadent -, being very persuasive in rising the spirits to a “theodicy of happiness”. Once embraced by the members of the “party of life”, this tragic and dionisiac theodicy of happiness should have been able – in Niezsche’s view – to delete once and for all the socialist-Christian “theodicy of suffering” (922).

By showing, in this precise, persuasive, and not easily refutable analysis, that political concerns are always at work in Nietzsche’s writings as a foundation which supports his philosophical views, Losurdo succeeds in presenting (in the words of another, more learned reviewer of this book: Kurt Flasch, in the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” 21.02.2003, 42) “Ein neues Nietzsche-Bild”. A new image of Nietzsche which will make this book indispensable to all serious scholars of the German philosopher.

The Journal of Nietzsche Studies, n. 27, (Spring 2004)


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