Thursday, 28 March 2013

Some Thoughts on Nietzsche

A student of mine (I was tutoring him as he studied Political Science) was assigned Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morality, so I had to read it through as well. As I usually do, before reading the work itself, I read through the book's introduction and then read more background on the work and the author from the web. I was aware that Nietzche's thoughts were criticized strongly while he was alive and were then damned after his death for a presumed association with Nazi thought. (His sister supported the Nazis). I had read an interesting argument that the evil mastermind in the Sherlock Holmes stories, Professor Moriarty, was based on Nietzche. (The book, which I enjoyed but have misplaced is Naked is the Best Disguise by Samuel Rosenberg). On the other hand, I had read a sympathetic treatment of the man and his philosophy in Alain de Botton's The Consolations of Philosophy. The academic consensus, also, seemed admiring.

As I read On the Genealogy of Morality, I took notes, then revised them into the following. Page numbers refer to the Carol Diethe translation, edited by Keith Ansell-Pearson, Revised Student Edition (2007) in the "Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought" series.
On reading Nietzsche for the first time, I came to understand that much of his writing is not what it seems. What seems original is largely commonplace; what seems heartfelt is fantasy; what seems logical is emotion. These observations relate, respectively, to his theories of the creation of society, his theories of morality, and the relationship between his theories and his actions.

First in importance to the study of political science is his attack on Social Contract Theory and his presentation of an alternative. In the "Second Essay of On the Genealogy of Morality," he argues that society did not begin with a contract between free individuals, but as an “act of violence” perpetrated upon those individuals by a few strong-willed, aggressive people who are “organized for war.” The few take power over an unorganized mass of individuals. They impose a ruthless and wantonly cruel dictatorship that is the first form of state. From the dictatorship comes division of labour and the fruits of civilization.

The social contract theories of Hobbes or Locke could be regarded as thought experiments that may not have their roots in any prehistoric reality; it does not really matter for the theories if an actual formal agreement ever occurred. Nietzsche’s theory, however, is clearly meant to reflect a historical reality. He gives away the time and place and actors in this drama of conquest when he calls the ruling class “a pack of blond beasts of prey” and “a conqueror and master race.”  (p. 58, see also p. 23)

They can be no other than the original light-skinned, light-haired Aryans, the original speakers of Indo-European languages. In Nietzsche’s time they were popularly conceived as having conquered their way from their original home (or Urheimat) through all of Europe and most of Asia, subjugating or exterminating the original inhabitants of these regions. Far from being an original conception, Nietzsche here gives us a cliché.

Nevertheless, Nietzsche states that this cliché destroys the social contract theory. He says, “I think I have dispensed with the fantasy which has it begin with a ‘contract’. Whoever can command, whoever is a ‘master’ by nature, whoever appears violent in deed and gesture--what is he going to care about contracts!” (p. 58)

As that quotation implies, Nietzsche is here perpetuating another cliché of nineteenth-century thought: the Great Man Theory. The theory is that history is not created by laws of change or mass movements, but by the actions of a few exceptional men. Nietzsche describes such men in terms that Thomas Carlyle, the theory’s originator, might have praised. “Such beings cannot be reckoned with, they come like fate, without cause, reason, consideration or pretext, they appear just like lightning appears, too terrible, too sudden, convincing and ‘other’ even to be hated.” (p. 58) The difference between Carlyle’s Great Man and Nietzsche’s, however, is that the first crop up unpredictably while the latter occur in packs of blond beasts. In other words, in the context of early European history, the Aryans are Great Men, and the Great Men are Aryans.

And what of the personalities and beliefs of the subordinate classes, the non-Aryans, and even the “semi-animals” that the Great Men rule? Nietzsche explains them in the First Essay: “to all intents and purposes the subject race has ended up by regaining the upper hand in skin colour, shortness of forehead and perhaps even in intellectual and social instincts.” By social instincts he refers to the type of social organization preferred by the pre-Aryans. Specifically: “who can give any guarantee that modern democracy, the even more modern anarchism, and indeed that predeliction for the ‘commune’, the most primitive form of social structure...are not in essence a huge throw-back--and that the conquering master race, that of the Aryans, is not physiologically being defeated as well?” (p. 15)

Nietzsche presents these two cliches together, the Migration Theory and the Great Man Theory, as his theory of the origin of civilization. They win him no prize for original thought. From an early twenty-first century perspective, they run into additional obstacles. First, there is archaeology, which is by no means sure of whether Indo-Europeans spread out or the Indo-European languages did, and whether the spread was by fire and sword, trading and mating, or by seed and plough. More importantly, there is a problem with biology. There is no evidence that any personality trait, let alone a cultural one, is associated with a race and is diluted over time by miscegenation.

Nietzsche’s theories of morality are much more original than those he presents about society’s origins. They are founded on the observation that many languages use the same term to mean “morally good” and “socially superior.” (p. 13) His examples come from German, Iranian, and so on, but the English word noble makes his point just as well. Thus, he argues that the activities and attitudes of the noble class were considered good by definition. These include, towards each other, “consideration, self-control, delicacy, loyalty, pride, and friendship.” Towards outsiders, they include psychopathy: nobles “compensate for the tension which is caused by being closed in and fenced in by the peace of the community for so long, they return to the innocent conscience of the wild beast, as exultant monsters, who perhaps go away having committed a hideous succession of murder, arson, rape and torture, in a mood of bravado and spiritual equilibrium as though they had simply played a student’s prank, convinced that poets will now have something to sing about and celebrate for quite some time.” (p. 23)

This prelapsarian state of murderous grace was revealed to Nietzsche through his study of history. In the barbarian culture of Homer but also in the Classical culture of Athens he finds that a “good man” was not necessarily a “nice man,” but closer to the opposite. Pericles himself, says Nietzsche, praises Athenians’ “unconcern and scorn for safety, body, life, comfort, their shocking cheerfulness and depth of delight in all destruction, in all the debauches of victory and cruelty.” (p. 23) Nietzsche  found the same characteristics in Romans and Arabs, Germans and Japanese nobility. The morals of these peoples he calls “noble morality.” It values physical strength, health, beauty; it lacks fear, guilt, and pity; together, these characteristics make for happiness. Those who lack them are called either “the unhappy” or “the bad.” (Nietzsche does not use this example, but consider that the word for a poor farmer, low on the social scale, was “villain”).

Now consider how many of the characteristics of noble morality Nietzsche personally possesses, or even seeks to possess. There is no evidence that he ever committed any “hideous succession of murder, arson, rape, and torture,” however much he wished that he could. I find no evidence that he lacked conscience. He was clever, as the Jews were clever. He was introspective, as the Jews were introspective. He possessed resentment. He certainly possessed pity. Although he could write, “Are you going to woman? Forget not your whip,” his first stay at an insane asylum came when he rushed to save a horse from being whipped.

I suspect that, like a poor person imagining that he is rich or an unattractive person longing to be glamorous, Nietzsche created the “blond beast” as a wish fulfilment fantasy. The blond beast, muscled and amoral, is the exact opposite of a philosopher.

In the same way as the philosopher Nietzsche despised philosophers such as himself, the German Nietzsche despised Germans such as himself. He distanced himself from his origins with another fantasy, that he was the pure-blood descendant of Poles, and not merely Poles, but Polish nobles. Is it too much to see this fantasy as related to the blond beast fantasy? Polish nobles had dominated serfs much more recently than their German counterparts, and so were nearer to being authentic blond beasts.

Despite his reputation as an important thinker, Nietzsche reminds me of no-one more than Miniver Cheevy, the title character of an E.A. Robinson poem. Its second stanza introduces the blond beasts.
Miniver loved the days of old                      
When swords were bright and steeds were prancing;                      
The vision of a warrior bold                      
Would set him dancing.
The third stanza introduces Nietzsche’s Classical studies and his early work on Homer.
Miniver sighed for what was not,                          
And dreamed, and rested from his labors;                  
He dreamed of Thebes and Camelot,                  
And Priam's neighbors.
The fifth praises the "noble morality" that Nietzsche prefers to Jewish and Christian morality.
Minever loved the Medici,                          
Albeit he had never seen one;                      
He would have sinned incessantly                          
Could he have been one.
The sixth introduces Nietzsche’s loathing for the bourgeois culture of modern times.
Miniver cursed the commonplace                              
And eyed a khaki suit with loathing;                          
He missed the mediæval grace                      
Of iron clothing.                     
The final two verses reveal Nietzsche’s reactions to his circumstances. The first reaction, of course, was to philosophize.
Miniver scorned the gold he sought,                              
But sore annoyed was he without it;                          
Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,                      
And thought about it.
And the second reaction was to indulge in self-destructive behaviour.
Miniver Cheevy, born too late,                          
Scratched his head and kept on thinking;                  
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,                      
And kept on drinking.


  1. Interesting. I've tried reading Nietzche a few times, but have yet to find his writing engaging. My introduction to Nietzche occurred through Jung's examination of his thinking, and the possible roots for his suicide being in having elevated man out of mucky Life into pure mind/ego. Jung's observation is that such an attitude is not sustainable.

    1. I'm curious where you got the information that Nietzsche committed suicide, Guy. According to Wikipedia: "In 1898 and 1899 Nietzsche suffered at least two strokes, which partially paralysed him and left him unable to speak or walk. After contracting pneumonia in mid-August 1900 he had another stroke during the night of August 24–25, and died about noon on August 25."

      When I was writing about Nietzsche's "self-destructive behaviour," I wasn't implying suicide but the possibility that he contracted syphilis in a brothel and the tendency to antagonize almost everyone. The results were predictable. For example, when he tried to get a teaching position in the University of Leipzig, "It was made clear to him that, in view of the attitude towards Christianity and the concept of God expressed in Zarathustra, he had become in effect unemployable at any German University."