Asked who the most overrated author was in a recent interview, Steven Pinker, Harvard psychologist-at-large extraordinaire, named Friedrich Nietzsche. He explained, “It’s easy to see why his sociopathic ravings would have inspired so many repugnant movements of the 20th and 21st centuries, including fascism, Nazism, Bolshevism, the Ayn Randian fringe of libertarianism, and the American alt-right and neo-Nazi movements today.”
For Pinker, the British analytical philosopher Bertrand Russell got Nietzsche right in his 1945 book A History of Western Philosophy when he pointed out that he would rather have lived in the Athens of Pericles or the Florence of the Medici than today. That he would rather live in the past than the present – and in eras known respectively for the birth of democracy and the Renaissance no less – is, according to Pinker, suspect, because on every measure human life has today become longer, healthier, safer, happier, more peaceful, more stimulating and more prosperous (he has made 75 graphs to prove it). “If one wanted to single out a thinker who represented the opposite of humanism (indeed, of pretty much every argument in this book), one couldn’t do better than the German philologist Friedrich Nietzsche,” Pinker writes at the end of Enlightenment Now. “Drop the Nietzsche” is his recommendation.
Another who blames the ills of the world on the type of postmodernism Nietzsche is often associated with is the Canadian academic psychologist Jordan Peterson, who has become the darling of the alt-right. Peterson presents himself as the defender of “traditionalism” or “classical liberalism”. Beyond his online lecture series, what brought Peterson to international attention was his railing against a Canadian law that would enforce gender-neutral pronouns. His colleague at the University of Toronto, Ronald Beiner, a professor of political science, explicitly links Nietzsche to the alt-right in his book Dangerous Minds. Beiner argues that Nietzsche’s rejection of the Enlightenment has influenced right-wing ideologues from Richard Spencer to Steve Bannon.
From the nemesis of the Enlightenment to the inspiration for the alt-right: why is Nietzsche in the bad books again?
To understand why Nietzsche has been so misunderstood, Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy is a good place to start. He wrote the book during the Second World War while at Bryn Mawr College near Philadelphia. Although the book was lauded for its literary style, and subsequently cited as having contributed to Russell winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950, the account of the various philosophers it discussed – including Nietzsche – was dismissed by specialists.
A well-known pacifist who at first opposed the war – although he later accepted it as the lesser of two evils when compared to Hitler taking over Europe – much of Russell’s History was his personal response to it. So part of what he was trying to do was to understand the rise of Hitler, and to that he found an answer: Nietzsche. The Second World War, Russell declared, was “Nietzsche’s War”. With Donald Trump in the White House and the alt-right in the streets, many commentators have started to ask whether fascism has finally arrived in America. As such it is no surprise to see the 1930s return as the historical moment to compare to the present era. Mussolini claimed he was influenced by Nietzsche, and Hitler presented himself as a Nietzschean superman leading his Aryan master race to victory.
Nietzsche died in 1900 after suffering a mental breakdown in 1889 – legend has it he broke down in Turin after seeing a horse being flogged by its owner, wrapping his arms around it to protect it. The great political figures of his day were neither Hitler nor Mussolini but Bismarck, and its politics was neither fascism nor Nazism but the “power politics” of German unification and the European balance of power.
Nietzsche was born in 1844 in the small town of Röcken in the German province of Saxony. His father, a Lutheran pastor, died at quite a young age, of a “softening of the brain”, which Nietzsche himself might have been afflicted by in later life. He was a precocious student, gaining a chair in philology at the age of 24 at the University of Basel. But he was plagued by ill-health for most of his life and had to resign his position, after which he became a wandering intellectual.
He met some of the most important people of his time, including the composer Richard Wagner, whom he would later fall out with over the latter’s pan-Germanism, anti-Semitism and rallying to Christianity. He also knew the psychoanalyst and later lover and muse of Sigmund Freud, Lou Andreas-Salomé, whom he fell in love with (like everyone else). Nietzsche proposed to her at least twice, but instead she ran off with his friend Paul Rée. He also volunteered as a cavalry officer in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, the last of the wars Bismarck waged to unify Germany into the first German Reich with Prussia at its head.
Both the Nazis and Mussolini tried to use Nietzsche to legitimise their world-view
It would be hard to overestimate the influence Nietzsche had on the culture of the 20th century. His literary style influenced Albert Camus, André Gide, DH Lawrence, Jack London, Thomas Mann, Yukio Mishima, Eugene O’Neill, William Butler Yeats, Wyndham Lewis and George Bernard Shaw; his philosophy Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault; and he is often considered the forefather of existentialism, critical theory, post-structuralism, deconstruction and postmodernism. His books range from a study of Ancient Greek drama in The Birth of Tragedy (1872) to the later poetic philosophy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883) and his attack on Christianity in his final book, The Antichrist (1888). Today he is best remembered for his 1887 polemic On the Genealogy of Morality, in which he explored in three essays the idea that all history was a struggle between two moralities: a noble “master morality” that values strength, beauty, courage and success, and a “slave” morality that values kindness, empathy, sympathy. The latter he strongly associated with Christianity.
But he didn’t leave it at that: he used his theories and ideas to analyse the politics of his time. Bismarck’s aim was to unify Germany so that it might have a seat at the table with the other great nations – France, Great Britain and Russia – who were dividing the world between them. But Nietzsche rejected a politics based on nationalism, xenophobia, philistinism and the fragmentation of Europe: it was the political manifestation of the slave morality he so brilliantly dissected in the Genealogy. Instead, he posited his own master morality “great politics” that aimed at the unification of (continental) Europe to be led by a new, transnational elite. Their aim would not solely be to lead Europe into what Rudyard Kipling later called the “great game” – namely the power struggle between Britain and Russia over Afghanistan and northern India (the “jewel in the crown”) – but more importantly to participate in the creation of a new, truly European, high culture.
How did Nietzsche become the philosopher of the Third Reich? It was Alfred Baeumler, the Nazi court philosopher, who transformed him into a “Hitler prophecy”, as the German writer Thomas Mann put it. Nietzsche was recast as a philosopher of the German state and of German racial purity. Baeumler was aided and abetted by Nietzsche’s sister, Elisabeth, who published a collection of his final notebooks as Will to Power.
Nietzsche was quite close to his sister, two years his junior, when he was younger, but their relationship soured when she tried to intervene in his doomed courtship of Lou Andreas-Salomé, whom she considered to be “immoral”. But the definite break came when she married Bernhard Förster, a rabid anti-Semite who tried to found a “pure” Aryan colony “Nueva Germania” in Paraguay. In a letter to his sister, Nietzsche denounced Förster as part of an “anti-Semitic canaille”, and they never spoke again. For the rest of his life Nietzsche considered himself to be an “anti-anti-Semite”.
The colony in Paraguay was a failure: Förster committed suicide and Elisabeth returned to Germany in the early 1890s heavily in debt. But she saw an opportunity in the new-found celebrity of her brother (who had since had his mental breakdown).
The great Danish literary critic Georg Brandes, who was Jewish, had started lecturing on Nietzsche in Copenhagen. Elisabeth set herself up as the guardian of her brother’s literary estate. From this came a collection of his last notes, which Elisabeth edited and presented as the “magnum opus” he had intended to complete, even though Nietzsche claimed to have “finished” his final book with The Antichrist. The Nazis claimed Nietzsche as their own philosopher and in 1934 Hitler visited the Nietzsche archive set up by Elisabeth in Weimar, and she offered him her brother’s walking stick.
Although from this period we only remember the so-called Nazi-Nietzsche, Baeumler’s was not the only voice. For instance the psychologist and existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers wrote what many consider to be the first serious scholarly study of Nietzsche in 1936, and he explained that he “intended to marshal against the National Socialists the world of thought of the man whom they had proclaimed as their own philosopher”.
This struggle between the good and the bad Nietzsche has gone on ever since. After the Second World War, Nietzsche was made safe again by the German émigré philosopher and translator Walter Kaufmann, who, in his classic 1950 study, showed how the Will to Power was a fraud.
The Nietzsche that came out of that strand of interpretation was a sunny, happier (and more literary) Nietzsche, one linked with individual self-fashioning as explored in film (think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), literature and poetry. But the bad Nietzsche was never far away. He reappeared in the 1980s “culture wars” in America, notably as a consequence of the conservative philosopher Allan Bloom’s attack on the moral relativism, or “nihilism”, that had supposedly taken over American universities. Bloom had read Nietzsche, and praised his cultural elitism, but he decried how his thought had come to serve the cause of the liberal identity politics Bloom abhorred.
Ironically, the term “culture war” is derived from Bismarck’s Kulturkampf – his “cultural struggle” against German Catholics he was concerned would not be loyal to the new Protestant Reich. Nietzsche despised Bismarck’s policies, and secretly hoped that the Catholic church and the German state would “mutually devour one another”. For him, the “struggle” was a squabble within Christianity itself: the true world-historical struggle is between master and slave morality, whereas the struggle between Catholics and Protestants was only a struggle within slave morality itself.
Ultimately whether we have the good or the bad, Nietzsche tells us more about ourselves and our times than it does about Nietzsche: when things are good we have the Nietzsche of individual self-creation, when things are bad we have Nietzsche the god-father of fascism.
But something more profound is going on. And that has to do with Nietzsche’s notorious claim that “God is dead”.
What Nietzsche meant is that modern societies no longer have a common moral reference point to guide their actions: the role Christianity used to play. This has come about because of the Enlightenment Steven Pinker defends, which undercuts not solely the belief in a Christian God but in all types of belief structures.
The Enlightenment has brought about the triumph of scientific rationality over sacred revelation. We no longer have a shared morality around which to organise our lives, and we are left instead with moral relativism, or nihilism: the belief that life has no value; that there is no objective morality. Nihilism holds that “nothing is true, everything is permitted”, as Nietzsche, perhaps drawing from one of his favourite novelists, Dostoevsky, whom he considered one of the greatest psychologists of his time, put it.
Nietzsche is often considered one of the great psychologist-philosophers, having diagnosed the ills that befall our age: Freud lauded him as having the most “penetrating knowledge of himself than any man who ever lived or was likely to live”. And this nihilism – a feeling of being unmoored in the modern world – captures something profound about the spirit of our age, which has seen events – the election of Trump and Brexit to name but two – many of us find difficult to apprehend. Having lost our intellectual anchor, we set sail looking for a new mooring, but the open sea still separates us.
Steven Pinker and Jordan Peterson are both psychologists, so it is no surprise that Nietzsche the psychologist-philosopher, diagnostician of the nihilism of the modern world, should play such a central role in their thinking. Both agree that what is wrong with the world is nihilism, and both want to restore order to it. The subtitle to Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life is An Antidote to Chaos. Pinker thinks the answer is to return to the values and methods of the Enlightenment, grounded in modern science, thereby skipping back over Nietzsche as if he had never existed. Petersonbelieves the world is divided between order and chaos, and that for masculine order to dominate the feminine chaos, then certain rules – the 12 he proposes – must prevail.
Nietzsche’s notion of the “death of God” is introduced by a madman rushing into a marketplace in daylight with a lit lamp, asking where God is. He is met with much ridicule by the those gathered around, themselves non-believers.
The madman declares: “Where is God? I’ll tell you. God is dead, and we have killed him, you and I.”
This is met by shocked silence, and the man, frustrated, finally smashes his lamp to the ground and says to himself: “I come too early, my time hasn’t come yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still travelling – it has not yet reached human ears. Lightning and thunder need time, deeds need time after they have been done before they can be seen and heard.”
The point of this famous passage from The Gay Science (1882) is that although “God is dead” – in that the non-believers no longer believe in him – they continue to live as if he were still alive. This is what Nietzsche calls living in the “shadows of God”. The challenge that Nietzsche, through the parable of the madman on the market square, addresses to non-believers is neither to pretend that God isn’t dead nor to fall into nihilism, but instead to have the courage to create their own values. If we have killed God, then “must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” the madman asks.
From a Nietzschean point of view, what both Pinker and Peterson propose is to remain within the shadows of God. Pinker wants to erect a new God of the Enlightenment, with its values and methods. In elaborating his rules for life, Peterson draws freely from the great myths and religions of the past, which he describes as being essentially moral stories. But it is not just the Christian God that has died but “All Gods are Dead”, as Nietzsche’s infamous alter-ego, Zarathustra, will make clear: it is not just Christian morality that can no longer be grounded but all types of morality.
Peterson comes closest to advocating what Nietzsche is advocating – he has a long engagement with his notion of the death of God in 12 Rules – but he steps back from the abyss. Perhaps he didn’t like what he saw there. (“You stare into the abyss and the abyss stares back into you,” as Nietzsche put it.) Peterson agrees we are living in an age of nihilism, but rejects Nietzsche’s view that what is left for us is to create our own values: “We cannot invent our own values, because we cannot merely impose what we believe on our souls.” We have a nature that must be discovered, and we need rules for our life so chaos doesn’t overwhelm order.
Nietzsche would have nothing to say against constraints, nor does he believe that it will be open to everyone to create their own values: he is quite happy for the majority of people to go on living as if God were still alive. But that didn’t mean he thought creating new values, as we saw from the madman passage, would be open to no one. It would be open to non-believers who have the courage to create their own values.
In his book Dangerous Minds, Beiner is thus quite right to point out that: “Nietzsche wanted creativity and open horizons for the heroic philosopher and wanted brutally closed and confined horizons for everyone else,” except that Nietzsche thought the closed and confined horizons were self-imposed (ie imposed on the slave-morality herd by itself). Such a political vision does not immediately make Nietzsche a Nazi. In fact, there is an element of pluralism in Nietzsche’s thinking: he gladly accepts that most civilisations are a mixture of master and slave moralities and that most people should continue to live as if God still existed, while those who do not should be given the opportunity to explore new modes of existence.
Both types of lives, according to Nietzsche, have their own value, and his desire to find the right balance between the two opens the door to what we would recognise today as political liberalism – that is, a politics that tries to mediate between competing spheres and demands, while giving each its due.
Linking nihilism to Nietzsche is undoubtedly correct, but blaming Nietzsche for nihilism is like shooting the messenger: Nietzsche diagnosed its arrival, but he never endorsed it. His whole enterprise was about trying to find ways out of it. Linking Nietzsche to fascism, as both Pinker and Beiner do, is thus likely to backfire: the alt-right will seize on this as a way of giving their movement the intellectual heft it is missing, much like the Nazis and Mussolini tried to appropriate Nietzsche to legitimise themselves.
If Nietzsche is the diagnostician rather than the herald of nihilism, then perhaps the conceptual tools he forged for himself to make sense of the world he lived in might be the best way to use him today. Nietzsche, after all, was the philosopher of ressentiment, which seems to be driving much populist politics today.
Indeed his notion of “slave morality”, marked by nationalism, xenophobia and fragmentation, seems like a good way to characterise a lot of the current politics of the far right. Bertrand Russell closed his chapter on Nietzsche in A History of Western Philosophy with the line: “His followers have had their innings, but we may hope that it is coming rapidly to an end.” This is unlikely – not least because we are still grappling with the “death of God”. The way out will not be through erecting another “good” or “bad” Nietzsche, but through confronting head-on what he was trying to teach us.
What was he trying to impart? On his own account Nietzsche’s greatest lesson was the thought of the eternal return. In another famous passage from The Gay Science Nietzsche asks: “What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’… Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’” The key word here is “if”: Nietzsche does not claim that the eternal return is true – that you will relive every single instance of your life an infinite amount of times – but asks how you would react if it were true. Would you “curse the demon”, or would you say “never have I heard anything more divine”?
Most people would probably opt for the former – there are plenty of moments in one’s life one would rather not have to relive, and indeed given the option most people will want to return to the past to change something they have done and regretted. But what Nietzsche is trying to cure us from is resentment towards our past: he wants us to come to accept it. And one way to accept it is to learn from the past to better confront the future: if we hadn’t made mistakes in the past how could we warn against making the same mistakes in the future?
So the question we might ask ourselves is: what future action would justify my past mistakes; what in the future might help me reconcile myself with a past action I regret? This is why the eternal return not only has a backward-looking but a forward dimension too: Nietzsche writes “that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity”. Overcoming one’s resentment towards one’s past is the only way to overcome nihilism, to give one’s life meaning again.
Again, most people still might not pass the test, but that is OK: Nietzsche was quite content for lots of people – if not the majority – to continue to live their lives as they have always done. But for those willing to give it a go, perhaps the thought of the eternal return can offer the basis for a new valuation, for a new ethics. As moral philosopher Bernard Williams brilliantly saw in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985), what Nietzsche was trying to do was to replace a top-down, institutional, dogmatic and absolutist morality with a more bottom-up, individualistic and self-creating ethic. Will this succeed? Who knows, but it might be worth a shot. If not we’ll be condemned to eternally play out the good versus the bad Nietzsche.
Hugo Drochon is a political theorist at Cambridge University and the author of “Nietzsche’s Great Politics” (Princeton University Press)
This article appears in the 29 Aug 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How politics turned toxic