The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 24, 2014

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Understanding Nietzsche
Paul Gottfried - 02/02/09
Munch's Nietzsche

One of the chief problems in understanding Friedrich Nietzsche has been the pictures created around his life and work, not all of which match or even overlap. Among these characterizations are those derived from the renowned philosopher of being Martin Heidegger, from Italian Marxist Domenico Losurdo, from German intellectual historian Karl Löwith, from French post-modernist leftist Jacques Derrida, and from the American liberal Democratic translator of Nietzsche and would-be existentialist Walter Kaufmann. Some interpreters have tried to make Nietzsche user-friendly for the Left, efforts extending from Kaufmann’s depiction of a religiously skeptical, philosemitic, and even Teutonophobic Nietzsche to Derrida’s fanciful depiction of him as a proto-feminist who had made sexist remarks to be ironic.

Among those approaches to Nietzsche’s thinking that seem to me the most interesting are those of Heidegger, Löwith, and Losurdo. All of these exegetes are selective about their texts but also highly illuminating. Heidegger examines Nietzsche’s “nihilism,” as a questioning of the dominant metaphysic of Western thought in both its classical and Christian phases. Heidegger in his study of Nietzsche and in his essay Zur Seinsfrage (1956) adapts his predecessor to examining and deepening the distinction between two forms of being, contingent, historically limited Dasein and the more encompassing and not fully definable Sein. Heidegger depicts Nietzsche as someone who anticipated his journey, by breaking from a God-centered theological conversation, one that both figures considered passé. Like Nietzsche, Heidegger bequeaths to posterity an austere fatalism, which he claims to be finding in pre-Socratic Greek musings about the nature of being. Like Nietzsche, he insists that a wrong turn had been taken by abandoning an earlier Greek attitude toward the mystery of being for what became with Socrates rationalism and a rationally accessible theology.

Heidegger’s student and a German Jewish refugee scholar, Karl Löwith offers us a markedly different Nietzsche. This one focuses on a crisis of German thought precipitated by the breakdown of a once dominant synthesis of religion and philosophy. The synthesis in question was the system of Hegel, which had treated revealed religion as leading to philosophy. Moreover, Hegel had presented the modern state, in his time constitutional monarchy, as an ethical institution. It preserved a state church and protected the bourgeois family. It also nurtured national customs but simultaneously secured property and a certain degree of individual freedom. The philosophical groundwork for this project and the bourgeois modernity in which it was embedded went against Nietzsche’s sense of the life force and of the heroic possibilities of human existence.

According to Löwith, Nietzsche framed an extended critique of Hegel by drawing on the thought of Hegel’s breakaway disciples, and especially of two anti-Christian Hegelians, Ludwig Feuerbach and Bruno Bauer, and the radical individualism of a third self-described Hegelian, Max Stirner. Nietzsche took the anti-Christian views of all three and fused them with Greek fatalism. Then he proposed a myth of History as eternal recurrence and an essentially aesthetic view of the future, one that was open to the creative master who would furnish a replacement for what seemed to be an already decayed Christian belief system. Nietzsche investigates the transition then taking place from Christian revelation to modernist interpretations of Christianity, stressing social progress and political equality.

Löwith is fully aware of the aristocratic, anti-egalitarian elements in Nietzsche. He quotes from Nietzsche’s broadsides against the “herd instinct,” which the philosopher identifies with mass democracy. But Löwith’s emphasis (if I read him correctly) is on the radical, atheistic Nietzsche. This led his subject into his own alternative to bourgeois Christian civilization, one based on the will to believe in a therapeutic myth, which was the eternal return of the same. Even if this conviction was not demonstrable, we are urged to accept the notion that everything comes back historically, as the ancient Greeks and Indian Brahmins believed, because believing this would result in a tough, life-enhancing fatalism. Nietzsche ascribed the opposite historical view to Judeo-Christianity and to the democratic Left, both of which he detested.

Löwith’s critical readings of Nietzsche influenced or foreshadowed a particular Christian conservative interpretation of his work. Löwith sketches a starkly iconoclastic Nietzsche, one who stood within the company of other radical young Hegelians. This view of Nietzsche comes into play in the preponderantly Catholic American Right of the post-World War Two years; and it can be summed up by the sneering reference to him from the aesthetic but not creedal Catholic George Santayana. According to Santayana, Nietzsche was the author of “boyish blasphemies,” which were put into the mouth of his fictitious prophet Zarathustra. And from Zarathustra and, even more famously, Dostoyevsky’s character Raskalnikov, we learn “God is dead” and “all things are now permitted.”

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By This Author
Howard, John
Herberg, Will

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