For a man with such little ears, Friedrich Nietzsche heard a multitude of deep pulses within the heart of European culture. The great despiser of liberalism and humanitarianism was also no less than the great despiser of conservatism and capitalism. As is the case with many important thinkers in the Western canon, Nietzsche’s dislikes greatly outnumbered his likes, just as the contradictions in his thought served to develop them all the better. Adoring power, he hated the powerful of his time for their unearned privileges. Adoring culture, he hated the cultured milieu of his time for its abiding philistinism. Adoring the sanguine bigotry of nineteenth-century society, he hated anti-Semites and the Darwinian biology that Herbert Spencer would later develop into a lethal social philosophy. His reputation in the popular consciousness is inaccurate as often as it is unflattering.
Nietzsche has been called the philosopher of a Hell that would put any of Dante’s to shame; he has also been called the original entrepreneur of the self-help genre. Who can say that most of this popular genre doesn’t boil down to “how to be what you already are?” The majority of humankind sickened him—“suffering from solitude…I have only ever suffered from ‘multitude…’”—even as his own sanity famously deteriorated during his final productive years. The overman himself was a botched invalid, internally contradictory, eloquent even in his madness. It is this aspect of Nietzsche’s thought that proves the most interesting of all his many interesting thoughts. For the epistemological break in Nietzsche, from his relatively sane years to the period in which his syphilis destroyed him, is the hinge of his oeuvre, the unhinging of which provided the world with its own worst reflection.
There is, first, a need for some biographical context. In life, Nietzsche was a soft-spoken, gentle man. Like Schopenhauer before him, he detested the animal vivisection of his time and the Christian dogma which supported it. Descartes had taught that animals were only machines: only humans could say cogito ergo ego. The beaten horse of Thus Spake Zarathrustra, saved by the anti-Christ himself, is probably the most famous beast in Western philosophy. Nihilism mingled with antihumanism when it came to Nietzsche’s view of war, however; he saw in war a great synthetic process that improved humanity for all its loss of life. This is a paradox, considering he considered himself totally opposed to nihilism in all its forms. All of life was a battleground, power was the world’s skeleton, and whoever could not gain power was rightfully doomed to serve those who could. Nietzsche went far beyond a basic philosophy of “sink or swim” in his preachments—he taught that swimming in the ocean was a belittling affair compared to declaring oneself its personal god. He was a thoroughgoing sexist, too, although most men, even Christian men, were sexists in the deeply religious nineteenth century. Had he been more progressive on the sexual question, Nietzsche might have retained more relevance after the sexual turn of contemporary philosophy. Some of his flaws, it must be said, caricature him even at his most solemn.
The timid bachelor held that morality was a mechanism spun into culture in order to enslave mankind to its lower orders and that, once the Victorian liberalism became ascendant over the old feudal regime, the slaves had won the game. Of course, Nietzsche’s view of slave morality was rather idiosyncratic: he thought the rich were slaves, the skilled workers were slaves, and homeowners were slaves par excellence. For Nietzsche, the overman, the man who was himself, the man who had transcended both culture and contingency, had not yet been born. In this respect he thought himself the foe of determinism and the very midwife of a new aristocracy freed from every circumstance save those that were worthy of the next evolution in human ethics. Whether he invented modernism or postmodernism, he invented.
It would be no travail to produce a fruitful thought experiment concerning the man in the flesh. Imagine the phenomenology of being one of Nietzsche’s friends, of knowing him, of having been at first repulsed by his eccentricity and then inevitably drawn into its orbit. He would either entice you or estrange you. Who can say that Ignatius J. Reilly, of Toole’s novel A Confederacy of Dunces, was not modeled on Nietzsche’s physical appearance: a lumberman’s mustache, slicked-back hair, and lunatic eyes? Given that the nineteenth century was a bit less normative than our own—most periods in history respected eccentricity more than our own, in fact—he might have struck a social note less strange than any of the illiterate handiworkers of his day. But if one had the benefit of hindsight, it must have been an event bordering on the uncanny not only to have met Nietzsche, but to have known him for what he was: a world-historical creep, an unsound man, a profound critic of the everyday, a scholar steeped in far-flung days, an iconoclast who couldn’t keep a friend anymore than he could keep a lover. Had he been alive today he would be brushed off as a mouth-breather, or a gloomy diarist, or cast aside as an unsocialized loner incapable of integrating into the status quo. Of course, Nietzsche expected this expelling of singular persons from respectability, writing in Daybreak that
The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.
The only cure for the unqualified sameness of human civilization was eccentricity, then. Behaving like the mass was to be equivalent to the mass, and this, for Nietzsche, was a sin greater than any concoction of the Christian gospel.
Given his valuation of difference, what would Nietzsche say about the sane-insane dichotomy which was only coming into scientific discourse during his lifetime? Unenlightened society often calls its outliers insane, and even enlightened society has no limitation of names for psychological deviations. Much of Nietzsche’s writing sounds bipolar, or schizophrenic, or amoral (to this last accusation he would yelp an astounding yes). A more anti-social philosophy the nineteenth century never produced. But it is a mistake of psychological prejudice to denounce him as merely insane, and therefore fit only to be ignored.
When he wasn’t a crank, he spoke truths so frightening they hardly bear countenance; when he was a crank, he still provided insights of more worth today than that of most of our credentialed moralists. To be an atheist in the nineteenth century was to count oneself a member of the Ship of Fools. Today, we would sooner declare insane the man who declares his personal affinity with God than the village atheist, who would look incomparably more normal, a veritably endowed member of consensus reality. Nietzsche himself taught that conventions and customs change over time, borrowing this from the German higher biblical criticism of his era. Were it not for the empirical understanding of his venereal disease and its effects on the brain, we would have little evidence of his insanity, except that Der Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, and Zur Genealogie offend us.
If, as Peter Sloterdijk has it, Walter Benjamin universalized the category of prostitution in his critique of capitalism, then Friedrich Nietzsche universalized the category of the godforsaken in his critique of Christianity. The modernist Christianity of today bears almost no resemblance to the Christianity of Nietzsche’s era—it was very much the nihilist construction he painted it to be. If it affirms earthly life today, it is only because it denied it in the past; it preached asceticism to the “factory slaves” (Nietzsche’s term, as well as Karl Marx’s) and reserved praise and pleasure for the powerful alone. He thought Christianity had smuggled weakness into the former majesty of Western culture and, in preaching the essential equality of practically unequal people, vulgarized all that existed. To defend the botched was to condemn the perfected. Of course, Nietzsche’s failure to recognize himself among the botched was a lasting error of his philosophy, which even H.L. Mencken, the journalist who introduced him to the English-speaking world, pointed out in a humorous essay condemning the pseudoscience of Jazz Age eugenics.
Prescience eludes even the most astute of prophets, at times. Nietzsche was weak and preached the demise of the weak, or their enslavement; perhaps the one remnant worth preserving from this particular labyrinth of power relations is his insistence that race did not determine the worth of a man. Nietzsche was many unsavory things, but he was not a racist. Such a construct as race could only be inherited, and was therefore below the status of the self-made man no longer all too human. While he did not view race as modern biologists do—that is, he did not think it was purely a myth, as post-racial biology insists it is—he did think it was an anxiety of influence the overman deserved to shed. It is a historical quirk that European fascism found a hero in Nietzsche, since he would not have supported totalitarianism or the embrace of capitalism. Such atmospheres, in abolishing solitude, would stifle the Nietzschean overman. He probably would not have deplored the war casualties of the second World War—he was overjoyed at the prospect of Europe depopulating by a fourth-measure after the turmoil of his own mid-century—but he would have deplored the idea of philistines winning the game of international politics. National Socialism was as far removed from the core of Nietzsche’s existential thought as American liberal democracy or Europe’s vying theocracies of the Middle Ages.
What to make, then, of the elder Nietzsche’s lunacy? Did it inform his philosophy and thereby disqualify it, or did it oust him from the confines of mere convention and therefore render his worldview absolute? Hating the world as it was, he denounced Christianity for preaching the same, that the mundane was only a pathetic reflection of the platonic Heaven. Proving unfit for war, he preached war and the death of able-bodied inferiors. Flitting from one antimony to the next, Nietzsche’s existence contradicted his philosophy in almost every respect possible. Like the individualist Emerson with his wife’s financial support, Nietzsche lived off a university pension for most of his authorial life—on the nineteenth-century equivalent of welfare. He himself could not have survived in a Nietzschean universe. Every site of his contradiction devalues his philosophy in the abysmal concrete.
But philosophy, as Kant said, is the science of concepts. The Nietzschean concept is beautiful, if terrifying; even if it is not practicable for the uppermost portion of human beings, it inhabits a special place in the imagination that yearns for betterment of self and world. His books were not his body. That his own mind was split in twain by a biological infestation is immaterial in relation to his philosophy, which exists beyond the carnal body. His demon of the “loneliest loneliness” that preaches the doctrine of the Eternal Recurrence is a valuable thought experiment anyone and everyone should perform in their private introspection. That this life, being the only one we have, ought to be as perfected as possible is surely not the stuff of sin. It exemplifies the American ideology better than any belief system concocted in America. In his On the Genealogy of Morals, he writes
It is not impossible to conceive of a society whose consciousness of power would allow it the most refined luxury there is—that of allowing those who did it harm to go unpunished.
What statement better exemplifies the American maxim that it is better to travel the high road than the low when confronted with adversity? What better display of power than the power that goes unused? If only the American government’s foreign policy followed such advice as Nietzsche’s—not the Nietzsche of the fascist parody, but the aristocratic Nietzsche who sees warfare as a means to a peaceful end rather than the indefinite extension of the military-industrial complex, or the global hegemony of a single statehood. Against modern capitalist dynamism, which can enslave as much as it can emancipate, and against the medieval Great Chain of Being that inhibited social mobility completely—like it or not—Nietzsche posed his formula of amor fati. Even if one is unable to navigate the world, to bend it to his will, he nevertheless must love that he is in it, be he the hangman or the hanged.
With his decade-long period of invalidity in his sister’s care, he even portrays mankind at its most vulnerable: in him, the brutality of competition melds utterly with the essential impotence of the human experience in this vale of tears. If Nietzsche was insane, his insanity was more valuable to the human race, which he despised, than the sharpest clarity of an Emerson, a Spinoza, a James, a Niebuhr, or a Wittgenstein. We have his books precisely because he could not live up to their ideals, because his esoteric and idiosyncratic epistemology was so problematic that it could only be birthed through the medium of text. Few today would recognize that he originated the adage “whatever does not kill me, makes me stronger.” Modernity—right or left—owes to him its viable atheism, its insistence on individual progressive striving rather than collective cow-towing, and the relativist morality that bolsters its liberal achievements. The disease that devoured his unfortunate brain, in turn, enlightened and enriched our own thinking, however much the man himself was damned in the process. Where would we be without Friedrich Nietzsche but lost and raving in the intellectual gutters?
— Jeremy Brunger
Jeremy Brunger is a Tennessee-based writer and graduate in English of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. His interests trend toward Marxist-humanist political philosophy, the psychological tolls of poverty, race theory, and the end results of religious practice in modern societies. He publishes poetry with Sibling Rivalry Press and the Chiron Review and nonfiction prose with various and sundry venues and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- In treating Nietzsche’s 1889 “epistemological break,” I borrow the concept from Louis Althusser’s symptomatic reading of Karl Marx in Reading Capital (Verso, 2009), since Nietzsche is, no doubt, better treated by philosophy than psychiatry.↵
- Descartes, the founder of modern Western philosophy, dissected cats in his spare time. Although Nietzsche was morbid, he never was so morbid as that, and hesitated to harm a fly. It is odd that Descartes is remembered as a positive influence and Nietzsche as a psychopath.↵
- See Heidegger, Martin. “The Word of Nietzsche: God is Dead.” The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. Harper Perennial, 1977.↵
- See Nietzsche. “First Part, 14: On the Friend.” Thus Spake Zarathrustra. Oxford, 2005. Pg. 50. This section, among others, explains the subtleties of Nietzsche’s sexism. In it, he condemns women as essentially still being slaves, and therefore incapable of friendship—even calling them birds and cows—but at the same time he condemns most men for being in the same debased state. It must also be remembered that the narrator is an ambiguous conceit exemplifying madness.↵
- Once a full professor, Nietzsche benefited from his later estrangement from the German academic establishment. His alienation from scholarship solidified his audience, who were still reeling from the revolutionary movements and institutional storms and stresses of 1848. In fact, had he been a more normal man with the same ideas, it is unlikely he would have been remembered by posterity. See also Ratner-Rosenhagen, Jennifer. “Nietzsche as Educator.” American Nietzsche. The University of Chicago Press, 2012. Pg 169.↵
- See Kaufman, Walter. The Portable Nietzsche. Penguin, 1982. In this definitive anthology, Kaufman translates Daybreak as Dawn.↵
- In contrast to his earlier demand for sober aesthetics, Nietzsche exhorts in Twilight of the Idols that “for there to be art, for there to be any kind of aesthetic doing and seeing, one physiological precondition is indispensable: intoxication.” The Dionysian worldview is the quintessence of what lay psychology would call insanity. See also Ronell, Avital. Crack Capitalism. 1992.↵
- See Sloterdijk in the 2010 film Marx Reloaded , a short philosophical documentary concerning the re-emergence of Marxist philosophy in the light of the 2007-08 global financial crisis. It is also worth noting that, contrary to some popular opinions concerning Nietzsche and laissez-faire capitalism, he would in all likelihood detest elite capital as much as he detested the common man. He would sooner have been impressed by a breath-controlling yogi than by a financial magnate.↵
- See Mencken, H.L.. “Dives into Quackery.” Prejudices: Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Series. Library of America, 2010. Mencken introduced the Nietzschean philosophy to America with his 1908 book The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, but given that he did not have access to the mountain of scholarship on him now extant, Mencken’s book now reads rather superficially.↵
- See Sussman, Robert. The Myth of Race. Harvard UP, 2014.↵
- See Foucault, Michel. “Society Must Be Defended”. Picador, 2003. “Here we have the beginnings of the famous great portrait of the ‘barbarian’ which we will go on finding until the late nineteenth century and, of course, in Nietzsche, [for whom] freedom will be equivalent to a ferocity defined as a taste for power and determined greed, an inability to serve others, and constant desire to subjugate others…” (149). Foucault’s portrait of Nietzsche was apolitical, whereas totalitarianism demands over-arching political structures that, in the philosopher’s view, could only limit the individual in his quest for overman status. If, as he aged, he revered a strong state, it was only to keep the masses from limiting the liberated overmen, not as an end in itself. He is also notorious for despising hero-worship as embodied by the proto-fascist Carlyle’s historicist great man theory.↵
- See Nietzsche. “Why I Write Such Good Books.” Ecce Homo. Oxford, 2007. “I am one thing, my writings are another…I myself am not yet timely; some are born posthumously.” Pg.36.↵
- See Berman, Marshall. “Marx, Modernism, and Modernization.” All That Is Solid Melts Into Air. Penguin, 1988. Pg 100-01. While Berman’s book is ostensibly more about Marx’s relation to modernity than Nietzsche’s, in this chapter he thoughtfully links Marx to Nietzsche’s attack on nihilism to the whole administration of contemporary capitalist-bureaucratic society.↵