Nietzsche’s Master-Slave Moralities: A Deep Dive

Although Friedrich Nietzsche makes references to it in much of his earlier writings, his first essay of On the Genealogy of Morals most thoroughly outlines the philosopher’s famed concept of the disparity between master-slave moralities that are found within human societies, and how this disparity—and the ensuing conflict from it—greatly influences our perception of moral values in modern times.

Nietzsche begins his prose by denouncing the basic tenants of utilitarianism, the ethical position that the value of an action’s goodness is innately correlated with the utility it holds for maximizing the collective well-being or happiness of a group, as nothing more but the ‘idiosyncrasy of the English psychologists”[1] (undoubtedly, a reference to English utilitarian philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, but also sociologists like Herbert Spencer).

Nietzsche’s attack on utilitarianism is noteworthy for two reasons: 1. It distances him from the other leading secular moral philosophies of his day, ensuring no confusion will arise in the reader’s mind about Nietzsche’s allegiances on account of his own irreligious convictions. 2. It gives him the opportunity to explain the primary objective he is hoping to achieve through his essay. The first reason is self-explanatory, and a minor add-on to the greater context. The second, on the other hand, cuts to the core of the matter in how Nietzsche’s criticism of utilitarianism stems from his desire to seek the origin of human morality (to trace its genealogy), and explain how and why good and bad have come to be assigned the values they currently possess; the modern function of moral values—defining good as that which increases happiness—is of no importance to Nietzsche’s project.

To Nietzsche the claim that utility is the measure of morality would have been something to reject instinctively, since he spent a great deal of time showing how mankind willingly subjects itself to a number of moral virtues that hold no utility to its happiness whatsoever (his extensive critique of religion is a good example of this); hence, he would argue, that to maximize utility could not have been the origin of our morality, but exists solely as an arbitrary ethical maxim of modern times.

Instead, Nietzsche proposes a far simpler origin for moral values, one in which what he calls the aristocratic nobility “seized the right to create values and to coin names for values.”[2] To support his proposition, he makes large use of the etymological roots found across differing languages in relation to the moral conception of good:

I found they all led back to the same conceptual transformation—that everywhere “noble,” “aristocratic” in the social sense, is the basic concept from which “good” in the sense of “with aristocratic soul,” “noble,” ‘with a soul of a higher order,” “with a privileged soul” necessarily developed: a development which always runs parallel with that other in which “common,” “plebeian,” “low’ are finally transformed into the concept “bad.”[3]

Here, Nietzsche is plainly stating that modern thinkers are approaching the issue of moral values backwards, mistakenly attributing the origin of concepts like good to the lower ranks of society, rather than the high-ranking nobility, who alone [according to Nietzsche] held the creative aptitude to assign meaning to such values. The reason why this is little explored is explained by Nietzsche as a result of the ineptness of modern thinkers to contemplate the topic objectively due to their reasoning having been polluted.

With regard to a moral genealogy this seems to me a fundamental insight; that it has been arrived at so late is the fault of the retarding influence exercised by the democratic prejudice in the modern world toward all questions of origin.[4]

In other words, most of us are too blinded in out idealistic devotion to populist sentiments about the virtue of egalitarianism, and other such “democratic prejudices,” to ever consider the possibility that the origin of moral values resides within a much more exclusionary, hierarchal framework—that it is the privileged who rightly define the good, because the downtrodden are too sickly in conscience to possess the capability to do any such thing; hence, all they create will by definition be bad.

This line of reasoning reinforces much of the same preference for the individual few, over the herd-instinct masses, found throughout Nietzsche’s other writings. As Nietzsche probably sees it, his willingness to bluntly state that the lowly, underprivileged members of society are a representation of the decadency—not the preservation—of good moral values, would have been an affirmation that, unlike his contemporaries, he is not afraid to explore the genealogy of human morality from all conceivable angles. To support his case, Nietzsche makes extensive use of his academic training as a philologist, and offers up a plethora worth of linguistic examples to support his aristocratic-origin proposition (sections 5, 10, 11, 15, and a brief note on the importance of linguistics on the subject, by Nietzsche himself, can be found in section 17).

A fair criticism of Nietzsche’s method would be to point out that (with the exception of a handful of examples) the etymological evidence he presents is largely Eurocentric, and therefore might be deemed as insufficient to explain the origin of all moral values. Of course, it is unlikely that Nietzsche would have seen this critique as much of a counter to his ideas, since his goal is to show the true origin of the modern values we currently hold. And given the influence Westernization has had on the rest of the globe (even by Nietzsche’s time) the philosopher would most likely have made the point that the morals of Europe have also largely been imposed as the morals of the world [for better or for worse].

As mentioned, Nietzsche points out that the origin of words like good, light, noble, courageous, all trace to an aristocratic root, whereas words like “bad,” “ugly,” “dark,” “cowardice,” all trace back to the lower plebeian masses. It is clear that Nietzsche sees more worth in aristocratic over plebeian values, however he does also state that this highest caste will also inevitably splinter itself into contending knightly and priestly sects,[5] out of which a conflict between concepts of “pure” and “impure” will emerge, causing a rift in the aristocratic value judgment. Given Nietzsche’s hostility towards all things religious, a decent argument can be made how this description is a subtle critique of this perceived higher aristocracy, whose superiority the philosopher appeared to have been praising hitherto, but is now admitting to a defect in its structure; namely, the emergence of this priestly aristocracy:

There is from the first something unhealthy in such priestly aristocracies and in the habits ruling in them which turn them away from action and alternative between brooding and emotional explosions, habits which seem to have as their almost invariable consequences that intestinal morbidity—must one not assert that it has ultimately proved itself a hundred times more dangerous in its effects that the sickness it was supposed to cure?[6]

It is telling that Nietzsche does not attempt to blame the emergence of the priestly aristocracy on a corruption of the higher caste by the lower masses, leading to the conclusion that this unhealthy sect is a natural product of the nobility itself—leaving room for the assessment that the noble aristocracy is ultimately unstable. As to why Nietzsche chooses not to state this observation openly, one can only speculate that since he sees the influence of the priestly morality as a far more detrimental force on the values of the modern world, he reasoned that its direct refutation held more urgency. Or, perhaps, this subtle hint of a critique against aristocratic morals was an appetizer to an upcoming larger work Nietzsche was planning (i.e. his never written tome The Reevaluation of All Values), which might have included a broader critical assessment of the higher caste, too. Whatever the case, Nietzsche is clear in his assessment that the priestly aristocracy is a natural branch-off from what he calls the knightly-aristocracy:

The knightly-aristocratic value judgments presupposed a powerful physicality, a flourishing, abundant, even overflowing health, together with that which serves to preserve it: war, adventure, hunting dancing, war games, and in general all that involves vigorous, free, joyful activity. The priestly-noble mode of valuation presupposes, as we have seen, other things: it is disadvantageous for it when it comes to war! As is well known, the priests are the most evil enemies—but why? Because they are the most impotent.[7]

At this point Nietzsche’s narrative can become a bit murky, and care must be taken in order to thoroughly follow along, without falling into the trap of generalizing and misreading key parts of the text.

Having proposed that the aristocratic nobility is the only plausible contender to serve the role of being the original arbitrators of goodness, and subsequently all moral values, Nietzsche then goes on to suggest that the perversion of this true origin of moral concepts must have arisen from within the aristocratic caste, too—namely, the impotent priestly aristocracy—because the lower masses are not capable of assigning any sort of unique value judgment on their own, unless they are guided by the corruption or stupidity of greater minds.

Now, is the part where Nietzsche’s essay gets very controversial, by which I mean statements like the following:

The Jews, that priestly people, who in opposing their enemies and conquerors were ultimately satisfied with nothing less than a radical evaluation of their enemies’ values, that is to say, an act of the most spiritual revenge. For this alone was appropriate to a priestly people, the people embodying the most deeply repressed priestly vengefulness.[8]

Famed Nietzschean writer, Walter Kaufmann, is adamant about the fact that Nietzsche’s views here should not be confused with the ramblings of a bigoted anti-Semite, on account that Nietzsche’s reference to the ancient Jewish people places them amongst the superior aristocratic nobility, and not with the inferior herd-like plebian masses. In chapter 10 of his biography of the philosopher (conveniently titled Nietzsche) Kaufmann explains that, to Nietzsche, ancient Jerusalem (and its inhabitants) served as a representation of the priestly-aristocratic values, in contrast to ancient Rome’s (and its inhabitants) knightly-aristocratic values. Thus, Nietzsche’s mistakenly attributed anti-Semitism is actually just his desire to give historical context to his ideas. And, of course, Nietzsche, who sees himself as the foremost opponent of Abrahamic values, decided to go right to the originators of what he deems to be the cause of today’s ignorance and degeneration of moral values.

[Note: Personally, I don’t consider it my job to defend Nietzsche’s views against charges of bigotry, and the fact that the man often seemed to go to great pains to be misunderstood by the layperson is his problem, not mine. Having read his writings, and being aware of his personal bouts with everyone from his sister, to former friend Richard Wagner, to even his own editor, over their adherences to anti-Semitic prejudices, it would be disingenuous of me to act as if I find the charge of this specific bigotry against Nietzsche in the least bit convincing. On the other hand, it is no secret that Nietzsche openly professed a deep prejudice against all things religious, in particular all things Christian. Thus, as he must have seen it, since his aim is to attack the heavily Christian influenced morality of his day, it would be incomprehensible for him to not mention (and denounce) the precursory faith to Christian values.]

To Nietzsche, what sets the (“knightly”) aristocracy apart from the masses is its ability—one might even say compulsion—to exhibit a great sense of physicality to meet its need for self-affirmation, to act in accordance to one’s creative impulses, and to do so unashamedly. The priestly-aristocracy is different, in that it’s impotence on matters of physical assertion causes it by necessity to retreat to the concocted realm of spirituality, in a spiteful attempt to satisfy its creative compulsion. In doing so, the priestly aristocracy inverts the aristocratic values-equation by surreptitiously redefining moral concepts into spiritual terms. Meaning that where it was once understood that it is the strong, the noble, the cunning, and the healthy that stand as embodiments of the morally good, it is now perverted to a monstrosity of contrary assertions:

Wretched alone are the good; the poor, impotent, lowly alone are the good; the suffering, deprived, sick, ugly alone are pious, alone are blessed by God / and you, the powerful and noble, are on the contrary the evil, the cruel, the lustful, the insatiable, the godless to all eternity; and you shall be in all eternity the unblessed, accursed, and damned![9]

This, Nietzsche argues, is the birth of the slave revolt in morality. And he attributes its origin squarely on the emergence of Abrahamic moral virtues, beginning with Judaism, but perfected by Christianity, with its emphasis on the meek and mild, and the wish to place hope in the sheepish entrance of a heavenly kingdom, rather than an affirmation of life incarnate. Leading to Nietzsche’s proclamation, “What is certain, at least, is that sub hoc signo (lat. “Under this sign”) Israel, with its vengefulness and revaluation of all values, has hitherto triumphed again and again over all other ideals, over all nobler ideals.”[10] And this is the moral tradition the modern world has inherited today.

Nietzsche anticipated the protestation that such an assertion would bring out in his contemporaries, and faces the charge of anti-egalitarianism that his views are guaranteed to arouse headfirst. The philosopher attributed this reflexive defensiveness as a symptom of how deep the poison of the slave revolt in morality has permeated into the core of social consciousness; declaring that even his fellow irreligionists (so-called “free spirits”) are also helpless to its affect, mockingly stating, “Apart from the church, we, too, love the poison.”[11]

Nietzsche summarizes the psychological development of this slave mentality as follows:

The slave revolt in morality begins when ressentiment itself becomes creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of natures that are denied the true reaction, that of deeds, and compensate themselves with an imaginary revenge. While every noble morality develops from a triumphant affirmation of itself, slave morality from the outset says No to what is “outside,” what is “different,” what is “not itself”; and this No is its creative deed.[12]

It would be a mistake to translate Nietzsche’s usage of ressentiment to refer to a simple emotion of “resentment” or jealousy exhibited by the impotent priestly aristocracy against their active knightly counterparts. It is better thought of as a mode of reaction against hostile external stimuli. The priestly slave moralists are too impotent to act spontaneously and are therefore entirely dependent on perpetually exerting themselves against what they perceive to be hostile external forces. In contrast to their noble counterparts, whose moral mode of valuation does not seek out an opposition in order to validate its own convictions, slave morality tries to compensate for its inferior position by reassigning its own weaknesses into purported strengths, which is done by decrying the strengths of its superiors as wicked and sinful—everlastingly depending on the acts of the supposed sinner to give itself relevance. All of this causes a shift in the moral pendulum, and a subversion of what was once good (being strong and active), to mean what is now good (being meek and passive). This subversion is at the heart of ressentiment.

Nietzsche acknowledges that this does not mean that the noble mode of valuation is infallible, in any sense, only that when it commits, “blunders and sins against reality, it does so in respect to the sphere with which it is not sufficiently familiar, against a real knowledge of which it has indeed inflexibly guarded itself.”[13] Meaning that the noble mode of valuation makes mistakes, but out of ignorance, not malice.

This sounds like another subtle criticism by Nietzsche against the noble aristocracy, expressing that their disposition can cause them to express a certain degree of naiveté about the common man of the lower orders. Presumably, because when one looks at an opponent from a higher plane, it becomes too easy to forge a falsified image of one’s enemies. However, this does leave the question open as to why the noble aristocracy seems to not be able to properly evaluate the morally corrupt priestly (“slave moralist”) caste, which resides within the same higher ranks of the intellectual hierarchy? The answer Nietzsche gives to this question is that since noble man “live in trust and openness with himself,” he is left defenseless against the underhanded slave moralist, because, “a race of such men of ressentiment is bound to become eventually cleverer than any noble race; it will also honor cleverness to a far greater degree.”[14]

Despite common misconceptions, Nietzsche does not see cleverness as a needed trait of the noble individual, seeing it as less essential to a healthy mind than the possession of sound instinctive cognition. Another point of clarification is also the issue of whether or not ressentiment ever appears in the psych of the noble man. Nietzsche’s position is that if it does, the great physical exertion of the nobility will cause it to be exhausted before it has any chance to corrupt the noble man’s mind. The inactive, and impotent, slave moralist, on the other hand, has no means to relieve this poison from its body, and thereby inevitably becomes consumed by it.

Nietzsche is thoroughly convinced that modern culture is completely infiltrated by its unwavering devotion to slave morality, as demonstrated by the domestication of man:

The meaning of all culture as is the reduction of the beast of prey “man” to a tame and civilized animal, a domestic animal, then one would undoubtedly have to regard all those instincts of reaction and ressentiment through whose aid the noble races and their ideals were finally confounded and overthrown as the actual instruments of culture.[15]

For Nietzsche, the cultural progression of mankind over the centuries has in reality been a regression of man’s true nature. With every step forward representing a step further into the abyss of a decadent moral framework:

We can see nothing today that wants to grow greater, we suspect that things will continue to go down, down, to become thinner, more good-natured, more prudent, more comfortable, more mediocre, more indifferent.[16]

The slave revolt of morality has spread its impotence over the masses, in fact, has given leverage to the lowly plebian ranks, and now we lie content with our mediocrity and herald our indolence as a show of virtue against barbarianism:

To demand of strength that it should not express itself as strength, that it should not be a desire to overcome, a desire to throw down, a desire to become master, a thirst for enemies and resistance and triumph, is just as absurd as to demand of weakness that it should express itself as strength.[17]

Our egalitarian sentiment, according to Nietzsche, is a result of the poison we have all blindly swallowed. Our demand for universal moderation, for the value of humility, our aversion to boastfulness as being too impolite in the presence of weaker, stupider individuals, and our desire to reduce the feeling of inadequacy from an opponent’s failures, are all manifestations from the original slave revolt of morality that is promulgated by those who seek to vindicate the virtue of their inferiority by means of social cohesion—to rationalize away personal failure in favor of mass victimization.

Also, according to Nietzsche, religious and spiritual expressions are the primary venue by which this slave revolt, this ressentiment, was made possible. The moral shift of emphasis on an unearthly paradise, the call to be mild and meek in face of opposition, while simultaneously proclaiming one’s spiritual superiority on account of one’s physical weakness. And, above all else, to claim this faux-superiority by proxy of an otherworldly Being, who will issue a final judgment on the submissive slave’s behalf, is to Nietzsche the perfect expression of what he calls ressentiment; primarily, because this is the very origin of the slave revolt of morality:

In faith in what? In love of what? In hope of what?—These weak people—some day or other they too intend to be the strong, there is no doubt of that, some day their “kingdom” too shall come—they term it “the kingdom of God,” of course, as aforesaid: for one is so very humble in all things![18]

Or, as the philosopher put it in a more historical context:

“Rome against Judea, Judea against Rome”:–there has hitherto been no greater event than this struggle, this question, this deadly contradiction.

Personally, I remain largely unconvinced by Nietzsche’s a priori attempt to glorify ancient Rome as a last remnant of sound moral value,[19] as it ignores the fact that much of Rome’s claim to conquest was shrouded in myth and superstition. Which brings up the subsequent issue of whether Nietzsche’s emphasis on physical assertion as a buffer against spiritual thinking holds much weight under historical scrutiny (though it should be acknowledged that Nietzsche is right about ancient Rome not placing much value on passive-aggressive virtues like humility and modesty).

As I mentioned earlier, Nietzsche’s statement that a corrupt priestly caste will branch off from the aristocratic-value judgment, is a base admission that the noble aristocracy is not all too stable to withstand long-term opposition, in particular because it exhibits no trait in wanting to subvert its moral opposition. Bringing up the question of just how superior their moral-value truly is, if it is incapable of surviving the assault of a weak and impotent foe? But, undoubtedly, these would have been seen by Nietzsche as minor objections to his primary goal of overturning the popular conception that what we in the modern world perceive as morally good, is an absolute reflection of reality, and to contemplate about the possibility that our judgment has been clouded through generations worth of social conditioning. Furthermore, I will give credit to Nietzsche for not laying claim to the final word on the subject, and urging readers to not cease the quest for the origin of moral values here:

Whoever begins at this point, like my readers, to reflect and pursue his train of thought will not soon come to the end of it.[20]

[1] Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals, “First Essay: ‘Good and Evil,’ ‘Good and Bad,’” 1887, section 2.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, section 4.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, section 6.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, section 7.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, section 8.

[11] Ibid, section 9.

[12] Ibid, section 10.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid, section 11.

[16] Ibid, section 12.

[17] Ibid, section 13.

[18] Ibid, section 15.

[19] Ibid, section 16.

[20] Ibid, section 17.

The Politics of Friedrich Nietzsche

Nietzsche writes in the first section of his autobiographical Ecce Homo, “Hear me! For I am such and such a person. Above all, do not mistake me for someone else.” Possibly foreshadowing the innumerable misinterpretations and false generalizations that politically-minded individuals will be determined to make out of the philosopher’s writings in the generations to come.

The most useful interpretation of Nietzsche’s politics is to simply reject the notion that the man had any clear political inclination to begin with, or at least not any that fit clearly within the political models commonly made reference to in his day, or ours. Indeed, over the past few decades, academia has done its best to instil just such a post-political framework into Nietzschean philosophy. Unfortunately, the effort has yet to trickle down to the self-styled public intellectuals, who have cleverly deduced that context-void quotations, from context-heavy philosophers, make for a more digestible expression of their own personal ideologies than actual self-reflection (why bother thinking about defenses for your own position on sociopolitical matters, when someone long dead has already done all the work for you, right?).

Now, since there is little point disputing the fact that Nietzsche directly called himself anti-political (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Wise,” Section 3), the only reasonable question left to consider is what sort of political implications a person might be justified in deriving from the philosopher.

Above all else, if there is one consistent fact that must be understood about Nietzsche’s relations to the politics of his day, it’s that (in stark contrast to many of his claimed admirers today) the man loathed and ridiculed everything associated with his native Germany; from its culture right down to its cuisines:

Against the Germans I here advance on all fronts: you’ll have no occasion for complaints about “ambiguity.” This utterly irresponsible race which has on its conscience all the great disasters of civilizations and at all decisive moments of history had something “else” on its mind / now has “the Reich” on its mind—this recrudescence of petty state politics and cultural atomism (from NIETZSCHE’S LETTER TO OVERBECK, October 18, 1888).

Only the complete worthlessness of our German education—its “idealism”—explains to me to some extent why at precisely this point I was backward to the point of holiness (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Clever, Section 1).

The German climate alone is enough to discourage strong, even inherently heroic intestines (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Clever,” Section 2).

The few cases of high culture I have encountered in Germany have all been of French origin (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Clever,” Section 3).

The Germans are incapable of any notion of greatness (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Clever,” Section 4).

The way I am, so alien in my deepest instincts to everything German that the mere proximity of a German retards my digestion (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Clever,” Section 5).

As far as Germany extends, she corrupts culture (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Clever,” Section 5).

This is just a small sample of the disdain Nietzsche repeatedly expresses for his place of origin in his writings.

It is a clear reflection of the philosopher’s rejection of ideological identification, illustrated by his extensive attacks on what he considered to be the most evident of its mindless incarnations: the growing sentiment of German nationalism in the late 19th century. To Nietzsche this sentiment represented the antithetical of critical thought, and he was not shy about using the grand image of its idolatry (i.e. the German “Reich”) as the irredeemable symbol of all things decadent in modern civilization. Thus, it becomes highly ironic to consider how in popular thought today the man has been cast into the same ranks with nationalists and fascists, and their wannabe modern descendants; not to mention the bemusing fact that many of these nationalists and fascists will ignorantly promote Nietzsche as their intellectual muscle—bearing to all just how sickly and illiterate their cognitive fitness truly is.

Very well, Nietzsche has no place in nationalist politics, or any traditional Left/Right political spectrum. But what about something less categorically restrictive? After all, Nietzsche talks a lot about individualism, and the need for self-creation, doesn’t this give credence perhaps to anarchist thinkers, or (on a more moderate tone) at least libertarians? In short, no. Just as people make the mistake of radicalizing Nietzsche in with fascist-crackpots, the folly of romanticizing the man as some sort of idol of individual strength and responsibility would be equally mistaken.

At its core, Nietzsche’s philosophy is not about individualism, nor does he promote the notion of self-governance; what he really aimed at was to promote the message that one must be strong enough to conceive reality as it is, for “only in that way man can attain greatness” (Ecce Homo, “Why I am A Destiny,” Section 5). Following a political narrative would have been pure poison to Nietzsche’s program, as the parameters of any such narratives are by definition restricted solely to the acceptable party platforms.

As far as individualism goes, the man clearly states in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “For, my brothers, the best should rule, the best also want to rule” (“On Old and New Tablets”). It is true that Nietzsche believed that society placed too many restrictions on the individual, but it is also true he considered human society to be a long trial, with the herd-mentality being an innate manifestation for most people. Nietzsche’s rejection of free will (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Wise,” Section 6; also see Nietzsche on Free Will) leaves no room for personal self-improvement. You are either one who rules or you are with the herd, hence to act in any other way than your innate nature dictates for you to act would be nonsensical to Nietzsche. Most the majority of us, we cannot and we will not, rise above our herd-minded instincts, according to Nietzsche, hence a political model celebrating individualism (or emphasis on individual responsibility) would have have seemed self-defeating to the philosopher.

The point of the matter is that you simply cannot defend your political ideology through anything Nietzsche wrote, without negating one or more important aspects of his broader philosophy. And, on that note, you shouldn’t want to. And shouldn’t need to waste time defending your convictions by desperately attaching them to the musings of any one philosopher or another. As is the repeated theme throughout this article, Nietzsche is not someone to be admired or canonized to an infallible guru status. Like all thinkers, past and present, he is to be examined and scrutinized, allowing little to no romantic idolatry to cloud one’s judgment.

Whatever politics you personally support you are to defend it by the merit of its own tenets, not by the virtues you think some third party would approve of. Especially, not by the virtues of Friedrich Nietzsche, who would no doubt instinctively scoff at and ridicule any such attempt.       

Nietzsche on Free Will

There is some confusion and misunderstanding floating around concerning Friedrich Nietzsche’s thoughts on the concept of free will. By which I’m referring to the willful inability of many admirers of the philosopher to accept the fact that he wholeheartedly rejected the existence of anything akin to free will.

To Nietzsche, free will is a concept that cannot be separated from its religious underpinnings, thus: “God has been thoroughly refuted; ditto, ‘the judge,’ ‘the rewarder.’ Also his ‘free will'” (Beyond Good and Evil, “What is Religious,” section 53).

Since Nietzsche gives no credence to the religious worldview, he sees no reason why religious concepts ought not to be rejected right along with the rest of the divine packaging, “The desire for ‘freedom of the will’ in the superlative metaphysical sense, which still holds sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the half-educated (Beyond Good and Evil, “On the Prejudice of Philosophers,” section 21).

He does acknowledge, however, that many of his irreligious peers still try to preserve some notion of a non-supernatural version of free will, a sentiment that Nietzsche describes as the need for individuals to hold onto a sense of personal responsibility, “some will not give up their ‘responsibility,’ their belief in themselves, the personal right to their merits at any price” (Beyond Good and Evil, “On the Prejudices of Philosophers,” section 21). The mindset of the naturalistic thinkers who hold to the existence of free will, is their attempt to salvage the idea of accountability (their own, and that of others), and by extension, the institution of justice and due punishment for one’s actions.

But Nietzsche rejects this desire as a misdirected conflation of two separate issues; namely, a conflation of justice with punishment, and a further conflation of both of these with free will:

The idea, now so obvious, apparently so natural, even unavoidable, that had to serve as the explanation of how the sense of justice ever appeared on earth–“the criminal deserves punishment because he could have acted differently”–is in fact an extremely late and subtle form of human judgment and inference: whoever transposes it to the beginning is guilty of a crude misunderstanding of the psychology of more primitive mankind (On the Genealogy of Morals, “Second Essay,” section 4).

Nietzsche proposes that the origin of justice can be more accurately characterized as a form of trade, serving as a method to equalize two competing parties, and not necessarily as a punishment for one’s freely chosen actions (i.e. free will). In fact, in such a framework the emphasis on punishing offenders is superseded by the notion that, “every injury has its equivalent and can actually be paid back, even if only through the pain of the culprit” (On the Genealogy of Morals, “Second Essay,” section 4).

As already mentioned, Nietzsche’s rejection of free will is tied in with his general rejection of theism. And he feels that the efforts of atheistic philosophers to retain the faulty concept, while still proposing a godless reality, is misguided; not to mention counterproductive:

Surely, that philosophers’ invention, so bold and so fateful, which was then first devised for Europe, the invention of “free will,” of the absolute spontaneity of man in good and in evil, was devised above all to furnish a right to the idea that the interest of the gods in man, in human virtue, could never be exhausted (On the Genealogy of Morals, “Second Essay,” section 7).

Nietzsche argues that the reason free will was originally invented as a concept was to give religiously-minded philosophers a means by which to allow for unconstrained supernatural intervention on the part of the various gods man had hitherto created. In short, free will is a trump card conveniently utilized to give deities a meaning to exist:

The course of a completely deterministic world would have been predictable for the gods and they would have quickly grown weary of it—reason enough for those friends of the gods, the philosophers, not to inflict such a deterministic world on their gods! (On the Genealogy of Morals, “Second Essay,” section 7).

Now, a fair question for a reader to ask is how Nietzsche’s rejection of free will does not also lead to a dismantling of much of Nietzsche’s own philosophy, in particular his conception of “the will to power,” and his continuous call for individuals to create their own values in life? Although a good point, it nonetheless rests on a superficial reading of Nietzsche’s thoughts on the subject.

It is true that Nietzsche heralded the idea of individuality, but not in any sense that would imply self-improvement. He fervently maintained that, “independence was for the very few” (Beyond Good and Evil, “The Free Spirit,” section 29), and even these individuals had no choice in the matter, because their instinct for individualistic expression is also deterministically confined, just as the herd-instinct of the masses can’t help itself but to subvert the independence of the few (On the Genealogy of Morals, “First Essay,” section 2). In this regard, there is nothing “free” about Nietzsche’s “will to power,” which is itself entirely instinctive, driven not by any conscious intent or choice-value, but on purely mechanical responses to environmental and genetic factors. Thus, in Nietzsche’s own language, the will to power is nothing more but the instinct for freedom (On the Genealogy of Morals, “Second Essay,” section 18), which of course is an instinct no one can freely choose to have.

Nietzsche understood how his views on this matter would make some uncomfortable (in particular his call for persons to abandon a concept like free will, upon which so much of the popular conception of personhood is based on), to which he bluntly responded: “One should guard against thinking lightly of this phenomenon merely on account of its initial painfulness and ugliness” (On the Genealogy of Morals, “Second Essay,” section 18).

According to Nietzsche, free will–being fundamentally an illusion–necessitates that we have no choice but to act as if our decisions are free agents. Therefore, the disdain individuals feel about the fact that their actions are entirely deterministic is itself a causal result of the way by which human perception has evolved to relate to its environment. We have no free will, but we are determined to behave as if we do. Whatever, “painfulness” or “ugliness,” people imagine will result from acknowledging this point is moot on principle.

Nietzsche’s “Overman” and “Last Man”

Breeding Nietzsche's Superman. The Most Important Concept in… | by The  Modern Platonist | Interfaith Now | Medium

The concept of the overman[1] (Germ. Übermensch) is one of the most recognizable (not to mention, most misinterpreted) philosophical propositions associated with Friedrich Nietzsche, most prominently explored in what is arguably considered to be the philosopher’s magnum opus, Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

From the prologue onward, Nietzsche’s title character conveys the importance of the overman in the greater scope of human development:

What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the overman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. You have made your way from worm to man, and much in you is still worm. Once you were apes, and even now, too, man is more ape than any ape.[2]

Here Zarathustra is emphasizing how the intellectual evolution of humanity is largely encapsulated by mankind’s repeated (some would even say, obsessive) desire to identify where and how our species truly fits in with the rest of the natural order. In this pursuit, we have almost always began and concluded with the presupposition that, as a living organism, man must—by some measure—stand apart from and ultimately transcend the rest of his material surroundings. Hence, in our reasoning of ourselves as the most exceptional of living creatures, we inadvertently declare our existence (i.e. human existence) as the most serious of considerations rationally conceivable; thereby clumsily demoting the existence of all else as something far less serious, in comparison to our own, and giving credence to the anthropomorphic ideal that all of physical reality exists with human priority in mind. And just as in this view we—i.e. modern man—have “transcended” in our perspective beyond the lowly underpinnings of the natural world all living beings are undoubtedly slaves to, so too Zarathustra claims will the overman “transcend” over the lowly underpinnings that intellectually, spiritually, and morally, enslave us.

Nietzsche reasons that because nothing within the harsh reality of nature itself warrants a belief in the transcended existence of man, the means by which we have come to justify our presumed higher status in the natural order is by appealing beyond the confines of nature, declaring the true spirit and virtue of man in the world to be a matter ordained by something wholly otherworldly. All on the assertion that we are not egotistically designating ourselves a favored status in physical existence, but are just humbly accepting the role that has been cast for us by something greater than physical existence itself. This is where Zarathustra draws a contrast between man and overman, because while the overman also identifies his existence as residing on a higher “spiritual” plane to the rest of the living world (at least in comparison to modern man), he will feel no need to credit his transcendence beyond the realm of the physical world—because “the overman shall be the meaning of the earth!”[3]

According to Zarathustra, the reason we are inclined to look beyond the confines of the earth to give our lives on earth value, is ultimately due to our innate feeling of helplessness over the frailty encompassed in our finite existence. Thus, we seek—and, if need be, concoct—infinite answers on which to escape the dread of mortal life; an exercise that only serves to take man’s mind and hopes away from the earthly domain he resigns in. Zarathustra sees this as a great toxin paralyzing the spirit of human life, and calls on man to emancipate himself from such restraints:

I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes! Poison-mixers are they, whether they know it or not. Despisers of life are they decaying and poisoning themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so let them go.[4]

Zarathustra considers mankind’s continued attempt to give meaning to life by virtue of appealing to a “greater”, “higher”, “transcendent”, otherworldly “beyond” to be a misguided effort that prevents man from ever overcoming the harsh reality of life—and death—because it causes them to repeatedly look for guidance from assumed metaphysical forces, instead of coping with the physical forces causing them grief in the first place. By Zarathustra’s standard, one cannot be truly fulfilled in life as long as the knowable source of life (i.e. earth) is marginalized in favor of a presumed better, unknowable, realm of existence:

To sin against the earth is now the most dreadful thing, and to esteem the entrails of the unknowable higher than the meaning of the earth.[5]

Such a perspective breeds contempt for the earth, and, by extension, the life housed by the earth; fostering a sense of resentment towards one’s own physical existence, and an unyielding desire to be free from it permanently. Zarathustra proposes the dawning of the overman to be the antidote to this depressingly nihilistic view of life.

However, the overman should not be mistaken as a bringer of happiness and contentment. Quite the opposite, as the hour of the overman is described by Zarathustra as the “hour of the great contempt. The hour in which your happiness, too, arouses your disgust, and even your reason and your virtue.”[6]

Zarathustra does not view happiness and contentment as necessarily benign reactions, because they often serve to numb the individual to the depressive forces pulling him or her down in life. To truly overcome the depressive forces suffocating one’s existence—i.e. to be the overman—one cannot steer clear of the chaotic, destructive, and frantic realities of life, because these deemed displeasures of life are as much a part of life as any deemed model of happiness could ever be.

The true means by which man overcomes such chaotic forces is to embrace them wholeheartedly; not seek to escape their destructive reality, but to motivate oneself through them and rise higher in one’s own being:

“Where is the lighting to lick you with its tongue? Where is the frenzy with which you should be inoculated?

“Behold, I teach you the overman: he is this lighting, he is this frenzy.”[7]

It is clear that Nietzsche conceives of the overman as the symbolic representation for humanities potential progression towards a more life affirming existence. However, it is a progression that Nietzsche did not foresee as anywhere near set in stone in our social evolution:

Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman—a rope over an abyss. A dangerous across, a dangerous on-the-way, a dangerous looking back, a dangerous shuddering and stopping.

Despite what has come to be the dominate perspective on this subject in popular culture, Nietzsche did not envision the overman to be any one individual or group [and he certainly did not envision it as any one particular race or nationality]. Rather, the overman to Nietzsche is a frame of mind human existence ought to be striving for if it is to mature past the confines that are suffocating its creative and intuitive spirit.

However, Nietzsche did not believe that modern man was heading towards the path of the overman. Rather, the philosopher foreshadowed that if society continues to advance forward in its current direction, the likely outcome will be a degenerate caricature of what once existed of humanity, having Zarathustra declare to his unreceptive audience: “Let me then address their pride. Let me speak to them of what is most contemptible: but that is the last man.”[8]

Overcoming a Spirit of Hopelessness – Help for Today

The last man is the antithesis to the overman. He is the zenith of mediocrity and degradation of life. He does not aspire, he does not innovate. He cannot create anything or progress anywhere from the spot he happens to be standing on; nor would he ever want to. He is content, and wishes nothing more than to remain in his contentment. The last men do not care about overcoming the harsh realities endemic to life; they simply wish to be sheltered from it; festering away in a mundane existence of riskless bliss:

Becoming sick and harboring suspicion are sinful to them: one proceeds carefully. A fool, whoever still stumbles over stones or human beings! A little poison now and then: that makes for agreeable dreams.[9]

Because they avoid all manner of conflict and discomfort, the last men will be too fragile to confront the hardness of life (ironically causing them to recoil for more of the sort of sheltered existence that has left them so vulnerable to begin with). And by attempting to avoid—or more accurately, deny—the cruelties and chaos that make up life, they are avoiding and denying a vital aspect of life itself.

To the last men the concepts of ambition, success, and power have too many possible dangers associated with them to even be contemplated, because to attempt to succeed and advance creates the potential to fail and disrupt one’s cozy contentment in life. Thus, partaking in work no longer stems from a desire to accomplish a particular task, or even to earn a living, but to preoccupy one’s time with an inoffensive routine:

One still works, for work is a form of entertainment. But one is careful lest the entertainment be too harrowing. One no longer becomes poor or rich: both require too much exertion. Who still want to rule? Who obey? Both require too much exertion.[10]

The world of the last man is bland and colorless; where creative fortitude has been sacrificed in favor of comforting sameness. The problem Nietzsche sees with this mentality is in its capacity to render human ingenuity sterile and restrain the most creative elements in society, because it is a world where “everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse.”[11] Although all will claim and even believe themselves to be happy due to the contentment surrounding them, it is a very artificial happiness made possible solely by the fact that the imaginative spirit of humanity will have been dulled too much for anyone to be capable to protest the mediocrity that is their mundane existence. “‘We have invented happiness,’ say the last men, and they blink.”[12] In other words, when one seizes to care enough about life to find things within it worth combating against, life has become equivalent to death.

Zarathustra’s brief proclamation that, “one must have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star. I say unto you: you still have chaos in yourselves,”[13] conveys that Nietzsche did not believe that contemporary man had reached the level of debasement of the last man, yet. However, he does make it clear that he believed that modernity was gradually setting us on that path.

No doubt he would have considered such modern values as egalitarianism and democratic governance to be antecedents of this trend. And admittedly there is certainly something to be said about the paradox of how it is exactly that with the advancement of security and comfort in the modern world, the continued rates of severe depression has increased exponentially (with no signs of leveling out). These may be issues that modern society ought to take seriously, and seek possible remedies to, but whether the ideal of the overman is the means by which these issues are to be best resolved remains to be seen.

Perhaps it’s manageable to contain the chaotic and destructive realities of life, and embracing their rightful place within the natural order; all while striving for greater security and comfort for as many people as possible. It may be true that by seeking to find a middle ground between Nietzsche’s dichotomy of the overman and the last man, we are sacrificing the creative and spiritual potential of humanity, in favor of finding simple contentment in life (i.e. instead of living truly fulfilling lives, we are just trying to survive through them). By all accounts, the answer to this dilemma depends on what priorities one has for oneself as an individual and society as a whole. And finding a consensus on the path forward human nature ought to be taking is certainly an obstacle too challenging to overcome—possibly even for the overman.


[1] The German word Übermensch is variably translated as both overman and superman, depending on the translation one uses. For this essay I decided to use “overman”, popularized by famed Nietzschean scholar Walter Kaufmann, as I believe it better conveys the philosophical underpinnings that the term is meant to encompass by its originator.

[2] Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “Prologue”, section 3.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, section 5.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence and the Affirmation of life

The eternal recurrence is most heavily referred to by Friedrich Nietzsche in his 1883 Thus Spoke Zarathustra, where it serves primarily as a thought experiment proposed by the title character (Zarathustra) that is meant to designate a supreme achievement of human development; the ascension to a higher type of consciousness in man.

In Zarathustra, Nietzsche conceives of a cyclical universe, where every event is ever recurring, across an infinite stretch of time, forever. Nietzsche’s intent is to focus the mind of his readers on a possible reality in which every action they had committed (all faults, setbacks, mistakes, and wrongdoings) was bound to be repeated by them, an infinite amount of time. Where they would be forced to endure their shame and grief over and over again, unable to change or improve on any past misdeeds, for all eternity. And then to ask the question: “Would you be willing to bear such a reality?” Would a person be able to cope with knowing that s/he will have to helplessly live through all the pains, heartbreaks, bad decisions, and grief that s/he has already struggled through once in life? And would this person, aware of this eternal recurrent, still manage to affirm a will to live?

Nietzsche believed that most people alive would decisively shriek a unanimous “No!” to such a proposition, because it would seem too bleak and fatalistic a fate to have to eternally return to one’s life’s errors, infinitely doomed to recommit one’s sins (for lack of a better term). Nietzsche saw this as a reflection of the destitute modern man has surrendered himself to; the wanting denial of one’s true existence. He contrasted this with what he called amor fati (Lat. love of fate):

My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendaciousness in the face of what is necessary—but love it (Ecce Homo, “Why I am So Clever,” section 10).

To be able to look at the compilation of one’s life, with all one’s mistakes and regrets, and still unashamedly proclaim one’s desire to relive it all as is (with no intent to alter one’s past actions), is according to Nietzsche the ultimate affirmation of life—a full embrace of one’s existence, a testament to the arrival of the overman (Ger. Übermensch).

Although the eternal recurrence was a central theme in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche seemed to have somewhat abandoned the thought experiment in much of his later work (he makes no mention of it in either Beyond Good and Evil or On the Genealogy of Morals). However, this appears to be a hasty conclusion, since Nietzsche does make continuous references to the basic sentiment found in his 1883 philosophical novel, and seems to be expanding on the same core concepts in his later writings.

This eternal return, and its importance in signifying the coming of the overman, is Nietzsche’s attempt to offer a possible redemption narrative for humanity. A means by which man can take the fatalistic nature of life, and surpass its dire implications by ascending beyond them into a realm of complete oneness with all the facts and events that come together to compose one’s life story. Yet, this redemption is not inevitable, for man (or “modern man,” as Nietzsche would say) is in a constant state of rejecting amor fati, and moving away from self-acceptance, in favor of finding acceptance with “higher” ideals, that are imagined to dwell exterior and superior to oneself. This is the fate of what Zarathustra called the “last man”—the alternate fate of mankind—the final descend of mankind to a sheepish, complacent shell of what he once was, living in fear of his own existence.

Friedrich Nietzsche on Peoples & Fatherlands

How Friedrich Nietzsche helps to explain Brexit

A lot of what passes for Nietzsche’s image in popular thought is a caricature of what was constructed by the Nazi propaganda machine in the 1930s (largely with the help of the philosopher’s own nationalistic, anti-Semitic sister, Elisabeth).  Of course, if blame is to be assigned, then it is only fair to point out that much of the misinterpretations surrounding Nietzsche stems from the man’s own insistence on expressing his views in rather quick, often intentionally obscure musings and aphorisms, leaving his ideas wide open to be bastardized by opportunistic ideologues. 

The reality is that even though it takes little effort to sanction an elitist system through Nietzsche’s philosophy, the actually details that accompany the man’s anti-egalitarian values—namely, anti-politics, anti-nationalism [especially anti-German], anti-group/herd mentality—are by definition incompatible with the belligerent, conformist, nationalistic, fascism inherent to the Third Reich’s state ideology.  Nietzsche views on the notion of nationalities and personal identities (and the often times conflicted dynamics between the two), reveal a much more complex and nuanced perspective than the picture that has been (still is) often presented of him as the patron saint of Nazism.

In Part Eight of Beyond Good and Evil (1886), titled “Peoples and Fatherlands”, Nietzsche outlines his analysis of European and Western development, and critiques the modern move towards democratic institutions as a step towards the cultivation of a true tyranny.  Nietzsche comments that the tribal affiliations that once dominated Europe are eroding away in favor of a more borderless sentiment amongst the hitherto disconnected people:

The Europeans are becoming more similar to each other / an essentially supra-national and nomadic type of man is gradually coming up, a type that possesses, physiologically speaking, a maximum art and power of adaptation as its typical distinction.[1]

For Nietzsche, this development is a direct result of the advent of modernity, and modern ideas, which has made a person’s allegiance to a trifling tribe or nation unsatisfactory in light of modern man’s greater awareness of the world.  Thus, a grander identity is needed, and a newer, more encompassing, international personal ideology is required to escape the limitations of the narrow worldview of one’s regional clan.  Moreover, as identities and ideologies extend beyond the old local boundaries, a person’s interests will also evolve from the tribal group to the global.  Politically, one possible result from all of this will be the development of a pluralistic society, out of which democracy will ascend as a means of appeasing the diverging—and converging—interests arising amongst the new, modern populace.  It is within this context, Nietzsche argues, that democracy is born.

Nietzsche understands how this rise of democracy is looked upon as a great progress by contemporary society, but the philosopher himself is wary of the implications that such a system holds for humanity, stating that “this process will probably lead to results which would seem to be least expected by those who naively promote and praise it, the apostle’s of ‘modern ideas.’”[2]  Nietzsche is distrustful of populist inclinations, because it unduly gives credence to the degenerate, weaker persons of society to regress the progress of the more innovative value-creators, who will be forced to reside amongst the lowly plebeian masses.  This sentiment is directly tied in with Nietzsche’s thesis on the dichotomy of master-slave moralities, the relevant part of which can be summarized as follows:

Our egalitarian sentiment, according to Nietzsche, is a result of the poison we have all blindly swallowed.  Our demand for universal moderation, for the value of humility, our aversion to boastfulness as being too impolite in the presence of weaker, stupider individuals, and our desire to reduce the feeling of inadequacy from an opponent’s failures, are all manifestations from the original slave revolt of morality that is promulgated by those who seek to vindicate the virtue of their inferiority by means of social cohesion—to rationalize away personal failure in favor of mass victimization.

The democratization of society is to Nietzsche a move towards the promotion of mediocrity.  It will condition us to be content with the will of others as reasonably equivalent to our own, instead of asserting our own interest in opposition to the whims of the masses.  In short, our strive to achieve a more egalitarian mindset, will leave us too eager to be content with compromises with positions we fundamentally disagree with, rendering us potentially incapable of identifying and combating the ascension of any tyrannical entity that might see fit to stealthily encroach its power over our person:

The very same new conditions that will on the average lead to the leveling and mediocritization of man—to a useful, industrious, handy, multi-purpose herd animal—are likely in the highest degree to give birth to the exceptional human beings of the most dangerous and attractive quality.[3]

Nietzsche proposes that in a society where the primary aim is to create unanimous equality, the ultimate result will be to create an environment of obstinate complacency (the greatest form of oppression that can be leveled against a thinking person).  All this will in turn lead to the sweeping infantilizing of the individual, making her/him dependent on the body of the system as a whole for her/his survival, rather than one’s own strength and merit.  A trend that will lead to a population “who will be poor in will, extremely employable, and as much in need of a master and commander as of their daily bread.”[4] 

However, the degeneration will not be universal amongst all individuals.  Nietzsche explains that “while the democratization of Europe leads to the production of a type that is prepared for slavery in the subtlest sense, in single, exceptional cases the strong human being will have to turn out stronger and richer than perhaps ever before.”[5]  According to Nietzsche, in nature there exist those who can only dominate by virtue of their own values, and those who can only be dominated as a result of their inability to create values (hence, they must leach off of the values of others).  These two groups do this by the presence of their will to power, that is to say, the very nature of their existence.  As long as they exist, they cannot choose to act differently than the manner in which their nature—i.e. their will to power—dictates. 

The problem Nietzsche sees with modernity is that our egalitarian-minded moral system has turned all of this upside-down, allowing for the weaker plebeian caste (who cannot create any values of their own) to dominate the environment on which the stronger noble caste (the natural value-creators) are cultured to stoop to the level of the very masses they should be dominating.  This causes a dilemma for those few contemporary men born possessing the noble character trait, where their instinct (their will to power) tells them to reject the moral values of their surroundings and create their own moral values, but their conscience (indoctrinated by the slave mentality of the lowly masses controlling the moral discourse) tells them that subverting their own will in benefit of the herd is the highest virtue of the good modern man.  Thus, when any individuals do inevitably rise above the masses (because, in Nietzsche’s view, the masses cannot help but unwittingly condition themselves to be dominated by some sort of master), the resulting value-creators who ascend to power will be as much a perversity of the noble character, as the degenerate culture that has produced them; what will ensue is absolute tyranny:

I meant to say:  the democratization of Europe is at the same time an involuntary arrangement for the cultivation of tyrants—taking that word in every sense, including the most spiritual.[6]

Reading these dire statements by Nietzsche through the privileged viewpoint of the 21st century, an observer would be justified to marvel at the prophetic nature of the philosopher’s words in predicting the rise of the totalitarian systems that would follow a few decades after his death.

The rise of fascism in both Italy and Germany appeared to emerge out of relatively democratic phases in both nations’ histories.  Likewise, the 1917 October Revolution in Russia that brought to power the Bolshevik faction in the unstable country was enabled by the indecisiveness of the democratically-minded Provisional Government that arose from the 1917 February Revolution.  In all of these examples the presence of a democratic political institution did not hinder the advent of repressive totalitarian regimes.  Moreover (Nietzsche might argue), the presence of said democracies were instrumental in opening the door to these malignant forces, by having no mechanism by which to eject them from the political process besides the whims of a broken, infantilized population (whom Nietzsche describes as being “prepared for slavery in the subtlest sense”). 

However, if one wants to be critical about the possibly prophetic nature of Nietzsche’s philosophy, it would also be apropos to point out that this sort of historical analysis is more the result of selective reasoning then objective inquiry.  After all, it is equally true that every single one of the European democracies that yielded the totalitarian regimes of the 20th Century, were themselves preceded by non-democratic political entities, whose infrastructure crumbled despite their lack of concern for creating an egalitarian society.  Furthermore, if the oppression of the totalitarian models of the last century are to be blamed on the insufficiency of the democratic institutions that preceded them, than consistency demands for us to also blame the insufficiencies of these democratic institutions on the failures of the aristocratic power structure that preceded them; and so on, and so forth, ad infinitum.

A better way to approach Nietzsche’s position here, is to consider that the philosopher may not be referring to political power at all, but a psychological development:  “I hear with pleasure that our sun is swiftly moving toward the constellation of Hercules—and I hope that man on this earth will in this respect follow the sun’s example?”[7]  Hercules, of course, is the Roman demigod who is described as having returned from the underworld[8], and eventually ascended to the realm of the gods by virtue of his strength and valor—a character whose legend for Nietzsche must have served as a fitting representation of the philosopher’s will to power.  The fact that Nietzsche states the reference as a question indicates that he was doubtful of the development of man to follow the example set forth by the Roman demigod.

I mentioned before that Nietzsche popular image is heavily, and unjustifiably, linked with Nazism.  The falsity of this supposition is verified by Nietzsche’s own rejection of the purity of the German people, a sentiment that is antithetical to Nazi ideology:  “The German soul is above all manifold, of diverse origins, more put together superimposed than actually built.”[9]  To Nietzsche the idea that Germany is to be cleansed of foreign elements is an absurdity in and of itself, since all things German (for him) are a mixture of originally non-German elements [a truth that I personally believe aptly pertains to all nations and ethnicities].  Nietzsche views the German nationalism emerging in his time as a result of an undefined people attempting to become a coherent identity; it is a compensation for a fault, which in its path “is at work trying to Germanize the whole of Europe”[10] [a statement that perhaps once again hints at Nietzsche’s “prophetic” qualities in predicting the coming decades].

The most surprising fact to anyone whose opinions of Nietzsche have been largely shaped by the man’s false impression as a Nazi-precursor is the philosopher’s staunch abhorrence of European anti-Semitism.  Nietzsche seems to understand the potential for his writings to be utilized by opportunistic anti-Semites, causing him to purposefully herald the Jewish people as a superior specimen, in contrast to the anti-Semites who seek to expel them from the continent:

The Jews, however, are beyond any doubt the strongest, toughest, and purest race now living in Europe; they know how to prevail even under the worst conditions (even better than under favorable conditions), by means of virtue that today one would like to mark as vices.[11]

The irony here is that Nietzsche is attributing to the Jewish peoples every positive quality the anti-Semitic nationalists of Europe wish to attribute onto themselves.  Just how much of this is motivated by Nietzsche’s preemptive desire to separate himself from the bigoted views of some of his potential admirers is an open question, but what is certain is the philosopher’s complete denunciation of the conspiratorial propaganda the anti-Semites are eager to spread into public consciousness:

That the Jews, if they wanted it—or if they were forced into it, which seems to be what the anti-Semites want—could even now have preponderance, indeed quite literally mastery over Europe, that is certain; that they are not working and planning for this is equally certain.[12]

In other words, Nietzsche is of the opinion that if the Jewish people were as eager for world domination as the anti-Semites claim, they would already be dominating the world by now.  The fact that they are neither planning nor interested in this is evident by the continued harassment they have to endure by people who claim (and have been claiming for a good few centuries now) to constantly be a knife-edge away from “Jewish-dominance.”  Instead, Nietzsche suggests that the history of the Jewish people in Europe indicates a desire to want to at long last be accepted within the public realm:

Meanwhile they want and wish rather, even with some importunity to be absorbed and assimilated by Europe; they long to be fixed, permitted, respected somewhere at long last.[13]

Even going so far as to insist that to achieve the long overdue inclusion of the Jewish people “it might be useful and fair to expel the anti-Semite screamers from the country.”[14]  I mentioned before the possibility that Nietzsche’s motivation for writing this screed against the anti-Semites of Europe is directly tied in with his desire to counterattack any possible conflation between his views and the views of some of his more questionable admirers (it was a move that, while well-intentioned, proved futile in the long run).

A more intellectual challenge that can be issued on Nietzsche’s passionate defense of the Jewish people, is the seeming contradiction it creates with the man’s staunch attacks against religion, in particular against Abrahamic monotheism, of which Judaism is the founding faith.  A reasonable counter Nietzsche could make is that nowhere in his defense of the Jewish people does he defend any of the religious tenets of Judaism; rather he is aiming to point out the prejudice unduly leveled against the Jews as an ethnic group (which is what their most vitriolic defamers classify them as).  Another point of consideration is that Nietzsche’s defense of the Jewish people, as an ethnic group, is completely compatible with his broader worldview regarding master-slave moralities.  As a quick summary, Nietzsche divides human society into two distinct castes:  the aristocratic nobility (the value-creating masters) and the plebeian masses (the herd-minded slaves).  Amongst the aristocratic nobility, who–according to Nietzsche–are the rightful arbitrators of what is morally good, a further distinction is made between the knightly-aristocracy and the priestly-aristocracy;[15] the latter of which are the ones who have provided the intellectual means for the lowly plebeians to charge a slave-revolt against the purer morality of the more noble caste—a slave-revolt which has permeated and shaped the moral conscience of modern man.  In this scenario described by Nietzsche, the ancient Hebrews would occupy the role of the priestly-aristocracy, which has created the opportunity for the revolting slave-morality of Christianity to perverse the nobleman’s superior morality.

But Germans and anti-Semites aren’t the only groups Nietzsche holds in low regard; his opinion on the English are equally negative, dismissively referring to the nation’s philosophical contributors as the archetypes of modern mediocrity:

There are truths that are recognized best by mediocre minds because they are most congenial to them; there are truths that have charm and seductive powers only for mediocre spirits: we come up against this perhaps disagreeable proposition just now, since the spirit of respectable but mediocre Englishmen.[16]

Nietzsche’s sentiment here could be due to his perception of the historical influence English thinkers have had in fostering the atmosphere for what he considers to be harmful modern ideals.  Nietzsche’s reasoning may partly be justified by the fact that English parliamentary-style government has served as a model for many forms of European democracies; a system which, as discussed earlier, Nietzsche views as contributing to the “mediocritization of man.”  This reading is supported by the philosopher’s persistent equating of the lowly plebeian values with the English nation, in contrasts to the superior (in Nietzsche’s eyes) French culture, “European noblesse—of feeling, of taste, of manners, taking the word, in short, in every higher sense—is the work and invention of France; the European vulgarity, the plebeianism of modern ideas, that of England.”[17]  Here, Nietzsche’s personal biases are leaking through the prose, showing his preference towards the Latin countries he spent a great deal of his creative career residing in, in hopes that the temperate climate would alleviate his poor health.  France, in particular, is a place he developed a great deal of fondness for, an affection that was further encouraged by the fact that the German nationalists of his time (à la Richard Wagner) held French culture in very low regard.  In contrasts to the barbarianism of the northern cultures of Europe, Nietzsche described the French as possessing a more timid and sophisticated taste and mannerism:

Even now one still encounters in France an advance understanding and accommodation of those rarer and rarely contented human beings who are too comprehensive to find satisfaction in any fatherlandishness and know how to love the south in the north and the north in the south.[18]

Of course, it can be easily argued that Nietzsche is engaging in a very selective form of cultural analysis in his heralding of France as a society that has transcended politics and nationalities.  Furthermore, one is even justified in pointing out the apparent contradiction in Nietzsche’s reasoning, since the ideals of the French Revolution played a large part in nurturing the call for democratic reforms throughout the European continent—at least in spirit, if not in practice—a historical development Nietzsche claims to despise wholeheartedly.  The inconsistency in Nietzsche’s condemnation of the English for their historic role in nurturing democratic principles, but failure to acknowledge France’s equal part in this modernization effort, is a shortcoming that cannot (should not) be easily overlooked by even the casual reader.

On the face of things, Nietzsche’s opinions of nationalities and patriotism appear direct and concise, as he spends page after page polemically dissecting and chastising all who fall for such “infantile” ideals.  However, the man’s mindset on the modern development of Western society seems to be somewhat murky at times.  He writes as if he loathes the coming uniformity of society (a sentiment instilled through the growing influence of democratic institutions), but at the same time he condemns the narrow-minded tribalism on offer from the nationalists.  This leaves open the question on what sort of political development Nietzsche would like to see come about to reverse the wrongs we are currently on.  Moreover, is it even possible to develop any political ideals from a man whose philosophy is so staunchly anti-political to begin with; will not any such attempt result in complete failure, on account that one cannot successfully create an ideological foundation on inherently polemical premises?  I think Nietzsche’s primary goal on the issue of modern politics ought to be viewed more as a social criticism, rather than a social framework.  For instance, when it comes to European affairs, the philosopher distances himself from both the nationalist and democratic factions, but is astute enough to realize that the former is a final gasp of a dying sentiment, and that the latter will be the ultimate trend amongst modern man, because (above all else) “Europe wants to become one.”[19]  Yet, despite the potential that lie with the aim in greater social unity, the underlying principles upon which this globalizing trend is based on, is something Nietzsche simply cannot support in good spirit.

[1] Nietzsche, Friedrich.  Beyond Good and Evil, Part Eight “Peoples and Fatherlands,” section 242.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, section 243.

[8] Virgil, Aeneid, 6.395.

[9] Ibid, section 244.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid, section 251.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Nietzsche, Friedrich.  On the Genealogy of Morals, “First Essay: ‘Good and Evil,’ ‘Good and Bad,’” 1887, section 7.

[16] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, “Peoples and Fatherlands”, section 253.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid, section 254.

[19] Ibid, section 256.