The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 23, 2014

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.”

On the postwar Right Thomas Molnar, Eric Voegelin and Voegelin’s disciples gave expression to this negative view of Nietzsche, as a self-worshipping atheist. Nietzsche’s nihilistic teachings, we are told, prepared the ground for twentieth-century totalitarianism and in a more mysterious way for the hippie and multicultural Lefts. Recently I encountered these arguments in a partly autobiographical work Brooklyn Existentialists done by two retired Christian Aristotelian professors from St. Francis College in Brooklyn. Although the authors, Arthur di Clementi and Nino Langiulli, offer touching reminiscences about a vanished Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn, what they say about Nietzsche is disappointingly unoriginal. For example: “That morality (Nietzsche’s) is not the moderation of Aristotelian ethics, not the moral law of the Mosaic code, and especially not the Christian doctrine of love which he despises as slave morality. It is, however, the warrior code, the martial ethics of the Homeric epics as the master morality. It is this negation of Aristotle, Moses, and Jesus and affirmation of Homer that constitutes Nietzsche’s “transvaluation of values.’”

Beside these religiously motivated attacks against Nietzsche on the American right, another now more popular critique has arisen since the 1980s; and it may be useful to distinguish this briefly from the one already mentioned. Contrary to the assertion by the conservative Catholic Stephen Tonsor, made in a speech before the Philadelphia Society in 1986, that the neoconservatives represent a Nietzschean invasion of what had been the Thomistic American Right, the most vehement assaults on Nietzsche’s ideas have come precisely from the neoconservatives. Indeed these critics have gone well beyond their predecessors in linking Nietzsche to everything they fear and loathe, from the Nazis to the student Left of the 1960s.

All of these cultural evils are ascribed by Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind to “the German connection.” Relativism, historicism, and an ethic of war in which the strong are allowed to devour the weak, are all evils that Bloom fathers on Nietzsche and his Teutonic tradition. Those who follow Nietzsche are inviting “war, great cruelty rather than great compassion” because cultures, as Nietzsche understood them, “fight wars with each other.” Moreover, it was supposedly Nietzsche who first called attention to Plato’s Hellenic background when he interpreted his impact on Western thought. For pre-historicist interpreters, Plato was, according to Bloom, a philosopher who dispensed universal wisdom. A book published by the neoconservative Catholic editor of the New Criterion, Roger Kimball, The Long March (2000), stresses the same Bloomian view as the one given above, that student radicalism is to be blamed on the usual Teutonic suspects. Kimball insists that Nietzsche, together with Marx and Freud, bears a special responsibility for New Left destructiveness. Nietzsche on this reading, however, bears a greater blame than Kimball’s other villains, having led to Hitler as well as Jerry Rubin.

Surveying these charges from a changing American Right, it seems that there may be some sense in the Okhamite maxim about not searching for answers beyond sufficient causes. In the case of Nietzsche’s alleged responsibility for social disintegration, we are dealing with a connection that is so remote that it may be idle to pursue it. It is one thing to argue, like Löwith and the ethicist Alasdair Macintyre, that Nietzsche’s radical individualism has had profound implications, not all of which have been for the good. This argument is put forth, actually without mentioning Nietzsche, in Jim Kalb’s learned indictment of modern ideology The Tyranny of Liberalism. Here Kalb makes a cogent case for the slow advance of certain moral, ontological, and political assumptions that have conduced to the present liberalism. Within this process one may certainly place that side of Nietzsche which is traceable to the Enlightenment and to the Enlightenment’s assumptions about religion and individuality.

That said, there is no reason to blame Nietzsche for recent upheavals that could be laid at his doorstep only distantly. If Nietzsche, together with Marx, Darwin, and Freud, is responsible for our multicultural politics, how exactly did he bring that about? Were his tragic view of life and appeal to Homeric epic figures and the rule of Hindu Brahmins responsible for the state of New York’s using public money to pay for liposuction surgery or for the distribution of condoms in public schools, both signs of our decadent times for both Di Clementi and Langiulli? Is Nietzsche responsible for the widening appeal in our political culture of a more perfect equality? Were Nietzschean motives really what was behind the decision of progressive white Americans to vote for a far leftist black in the most recent presidential election? And in Bloom’s brief, how exactly did the hippie Left, which was hysterically antiwar, put itself on the side of Nietzsche’s warrior ethic? It is inconceivable for me that the love-beads bedizened hippies whom I tried to teach in the late 1960s were awash in Nietzschean-texts. Perhaps Bloom’s experience was different from mine, but I for one never heard these hippies talking about the will to power or Nietzsche’s aristocratic radicalism.

It was actually Nietzsche who warned against the leveling effects of Christian slave morality. It was likewise Nietzsche who in the introduction to Der Wille zur Macht describes “nihilism” as the portentous “history of the Western world for the next two hundred years.” Nietzsche claimed to be composing a “fragment out of the history of a post-Christian epoch,” as someone who could draw on both Greek fatalism and intimations of a post-nihilistic future. One may not agree with such claims but they have nothing to do with moral relativism. In fact Nietzsche would have been the first to recognize the character of moral relativism, as a dishonest form of slave morality.

But it may be a good idea not to confuse Nietzsche’s predominantly Catholic traditionalist critics with partisans of the neoconservative persuasion. To some extent their censures overlap, and it is not surprising that despite his stated contempt for supernatural religion, Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind has resonated well among religious traditionalists. Like Bloom, they have disliked the New Left and cacophonous, anti-patriotic popular culture, and so they have not objected when neoconservative critics look for devils among long-dead undemocratic Germans. But what Bloom and his imitators dislike about Nietzsche and his qualified admirer Heidegger is not their lack of moral traditionalism but their unmistakably anti-leftist perspective.

Bloom offers us this passage expressing his made-in-America patriotism: “And when we Americans speak seriously about politics, we mean that our principles of freedom and equality and the rights based on them are rational and everywhere applicable. World War II was really an educational experiment undertaken to force those who do not accept those principles to do so.” And when Bloom provides an example of the anti-Nietzschean creed that holds America together, we learn the following: “By recognizing and accepting man’s natural rights, men found a fundamental basis of unity and sameness. Class, race, religion, national origin or culture all disappear or become dim when bathed in the light of natural rights, which give men common interests and make them brothers. There was a tendency, if not a necessity, to homogenize nature itself.” Although Christian traditionalists have spurned Nietzsche, and not always wisely, they have not done so for the reasons that Bloom articulated.

Bloom’s line of argument receives more coherent treatment than it does in his book from the Italian Marxist Domenico Losurdo. In Nietzsche e la critica della modernità (1998) and Nietzsche, il ribelle aristocratico (2002), Losurdo sets out to “contextualize historically” the reasons for Nietzsche’s rejections of Christian ethics and the political Left. Note this Left that he feared was still emerging in his time and would eventually burst forth as democracy, socialism, and women’s rights. Given these stated aversions of his subject, Losurdo examines the social and cultural concerns that led him into rebelling against the Western religious tradition.

According to Losurdo, his subject was driven by genuine counterrevolutionary passions but unlike social conservatives after the French Revolution, Nietzsche strongly doubted that religious orthodoxy would stave off the changes he deplored. Contrary to a mistaken view, he did not view the social Left as a laicization of Christian teachings. But he did view Christianity and the social Left as sharing a core of beliefs, which made them subject to and reflective of the same attitudes and values. In a nutshell, Christianity, according to Nietzsche, did not have the resources to counter the attack on civilization, including Christian civilization, which the Left had generated.

Note there is much in Losurdo’s twelve-hundred page magnum opus Nietzsche, Il ribelle aristocratico which is full of Marxist humanist special pleading. I for one do not find its attempted link between the violence of the Paris Commune of 1871 and the appearance of Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy two years later as demonstrable as Losurdo suggests. Nietzsche’s commentaries on Greek tragedy and the presumed role of the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk in reviving this art form can be studied without any reference to the Paris commune. There is in fact no need shown to make such a connection. Furthermore, Losurdo’s tendency to translate the German Gattungsweise in the Gay Science as “la razza” in order to turn Nietzsche into a proto-Nazi practitioner of racial hygiene is a tiresome, redundant gesture. It is particularly so in an age reeking with PC. Losurdo’s next to the last chapter about Nietzsche’s building on “the enslavement of the many” that was already implicit in Locke’s defense of property is equally tendentious, and particularly when Losurdo associates Nietzsche with a form of capitalist social engineering that is supposedly located in Thus Spake Zarathustra. Such an association never rises above the cultural Marxist practice of assuming linkages that may not be there but which serve an ideological purpose.

Still and all, Losurdo’s main point is not to “renazify” Nietzsche, that is, to blame his ideas for the crimes of the Third Reich or try to plot a developmental line extending from one to the other. Rather Losurdo argues that Nietzsche’s critique of the Left became the matrix for all rightwing movements in the twentieth century, to whatever extent that Right could be distinguished from older forms of opposition to the Left. In a confrontation with Michele Foucault and other representatives of the deconstructionist left, Losurdo shows conclusively that it is only by capriciously reconstructing texts that one could make Nietzsche something other than what he was, namely an aristocratic radical. Neither Losurdo nor I would defend all aspects of Nietzsche’s thought but it is imperative to note that it is derivative from rightist impulses and concerns. In no way is Nietzsche propagating a leftist worldview, and that does not change because he dared to call himself an “anti-Christian.” Christians of the Right are free to take or reject any part of his thinking, but to treat Nietzsche as a forerunner of student rebels of the 1960s or the present swarm of Obamaites is both ludicrous and dishonest. By now this capriciously made connection is becoming part of a program of deception. It is one in which quintessentially leftist notions are made into “permanent things” or “values,” while the anti-egalitarian Right is dismissed as Nazi or nihilistic. Nietzsche has been counterfactually forced to do double duty, as a rightwing nihilist and as the father of the value-relativist Left. This may be the most unjustified insult ever leveled against a brilliant European thinker.

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