This commentary is part of The Atlas Society's 2000 online "CyberSeminar" entitled " Nietzsche and Objectivism ."
Essays and Comments on Nietzsche's View of History and Culture:
Introduction to the Discussion, by Stephen Hicks
In this section, we raise the question: Is Nietzsche a sour, Jew-hating proto-Nazi, or what?
Or, to put the question less technically, we explore Nietzsche’s views on contemporary culture’s malaise, the issues of whether he is an anti-Semite and the extent to which he contributed toward the climate that made the rise of National Socialism possible.
On Decline and Slave Morality. In Part One , we explored the connection between biology/psychology and morality. Now, in discussing Nietzsche’s analysis of contemporary culture, we are exploring the connection between morality and culture. For Nietzsche, psycho-biological types underlay moral types, and moral types underlay social/cultural types.
Nietzsche sees the 19th century as being dominated by the following cultural trends: socialism, tepid religion, democracy, positivism, utilitarianism, capitalism. He sees all of those trends (and others) as pathological. So two questions:
1. Why exactly are they pathologies?
2. What is their genealogy--that is, how are all of them connected to either expressions of slave morality and/or the death of God?
Nietzsche’s Bias? Nietzsche sees 19th century culture as being in a significant decline phase. Is his cultural analysis biased? For a thinker who is passionate about creativity, Nietzsche seems blind to many 19th century creative geniuses such as those in art, industry, science, and politics. Here are some tendentious examples to consider:
- One of history’s great empires, the British, seems not worthy of his attention; a regular theme in Nietzsche’s writings is sniping and sneering at all things English. (For example, as Will Thomas pointed out to me, Nietzsche admires Napoleon’s empire-building, but not Wellington’s.)
- The American experiment seems not to be on his horizon.
- The 19th century explosion in scientific knowledge and technology is not seen as especially noteworthy.
- He does not seem interested or aware of the achievements of the many 19th century captains of industry.
- He does not celebrate romantic art.
So four questions:
3. Is there a bias or overly-selective focus in Nietzsche’s selection of representative examples of 19th century culture?
4. If there is a bias, is it a result of Nietzsche’s deeply ingrained conflict/win/lose premises, those premises leading him not to see accomplishments that are potentially peaceful and win/win?
5. If there is a bias, is it a result of the stereotypical humanities intellectual’s bias against science, technology, and business?
6. Or, if there is a bias, is Nietzsche another example of the phenomenon of intellectuals who are unable to identify the other creative geniuses of their age, who survey their generation and see only mediocrities in comparison to the brilliant lights of the last era?
Decline and Perspectivalism. Given the premise that slave morality dominates 19th century cultural trends, how are we to integrate this with Nietzsche’s epistemological and ethical perspectivalism? If, on the one hand, we emphasize Nietzsche’s perspectivalism, we can ask:
7. Is it the case that the spread of slave culture is good from the perspective of the slaves, and only seems nihilistic from Nietzsche’s aristocratic perspective? If so, is there a fact of the matter anywhere here or only an expression of personal preferences?
If, on the other hand, we push Nietzsche toward non-perspectivalism, we operate on the premise that there really are healthy and unhealthy sets of values. Then, rephrasing a question from Part One of the CyberSeminar, we can ask:
8. Which of the following is/are Nietzsche’s position(s)?
Is Nietzsche a sour, Jew-hating proto-Nazi, or what?
a) Nihilism is value-neutral. A culture’s life cycle has a growth and a decline phase, and the nihilism of the 19th century is simply one phase in the cycle of life. By analogy, a tree’s leaves turn brown in the autumn and fall off, and that is a normal phase in the tree’s life cycle; falling brown leaves are not bad, except perhaps in the sense of causing a feeling of melancholy or nostalgia for the spring and summer. Nihilism, then, is not bad but only a sign that one set of values has run its natural course.
b) Nihilism is good. Cultures have a growth and decline phase, and the nihilism of the 19th century is an opportunity for a new set of values. By analogy, a large corporation’s becoming complacent and sloppy is good for the upstart entrepreneurs because it provides them an opportunity and a large competitor that will make them work for their successes. Nihilism is good, then, because the new masters will emerge stronger from the struggle necessary to overcome nihilism.
c) Nihilism is good, option deux. Cultures have growth and decline phases, and the nihilism of the 19th century culture means that there is lots of untapped energy for those with new values to use ends. By analogy, last year’s fallen leaves become fertilizer for next year’s leaves. Nihilism is good, then, because it’s a state of cultural potential energy that can be actualized.
d) Nihilism is bad. Cultures can have growth and decline phases, but no phase is necessary. So the decline into 19th century nihilism is bad because there’s no guarantee that European culture will be able to raise itself out of its nihilism. By analogy, a tree that is dying may fail to produce new seeds or viable seeds or it may scatter its seeds upon barren soil; so the tree’s death means its entire line could die out. Nihilism, then, is bad because it signals the possible permanent decline into insignificance of European culture.
On the Germans and the Jews. Anti-Semitism in Germany has a long history, among the intellectuals as much as among individuals from other walks of life. I am struck, for example, by the contrast between leading intellectuals in England and France, on the one hand, and those in Germany. Taking John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration as an example, by the late 1600s in England intellectuals were calling for an end to religious hatred and for toleration of religious differences. They were willing to extend it not only to members of other Christian sects but also to Jews and Muslims. By the mid-1700s in France, taking Voltaire as an outstanding example, intellectuals were following the English lead. In Germany, however, the story was different: at the end of the 1700s the leading German intellectuals were still stoking the fires of religious hostility.
Kant thought that the Jews were a bunch of “sharp dealers” and “a nation of swindlers”; because of their “immoral and vile” behavior in commerce, as evidenced by the fact that “the spirit of usury holds sway amongst them,” he thought it clear that the Jews “do not aspire to civic virtue.”
Kant was a moderate. His disciple Johann Fichte wrote: “A mighty state stretches across almost all the nations of Europe, hostile in intent and in constant strife with all others. This is Jewry.” And: “As for giving them [the Jews] civil rights, I for one see no remedy but that their heads should be all cut off in one night and replaced with others in which there would not be one single Jewish idea.”
Nietzsche respects the Jews more than the Christians.
Hegel wrote that the Jews could never be assimilated into German culture since their greed led them to follow an “animal existence that can only be secured at someone else’s expense.” And as for the tolerance between Christians and Jews, Hegel wrote: “Spirit alone recognizes spirit. They [the Jews] saw in Jesus only the man. For He was only one like themselves, and they felt themselves to be nothing. The Jewish multitude was bound to wreck His attempt to give them the consciousness of something divine, for faith in something divine, something great, cannot make its home in a dunghill.”
So here’s the question:
9. Is Nietzsche, then, with his attacks on Judaism, simply a continuation of the German anti-Semitic tradition? On the one hand, Nietzsche most strongly identifies the Jewish tradition with slave psychology and slave morality, both of which he condemns. On the other, Nietzsche also has harsh things to say about anti-Semites, seeing them as a case study in the psychology of ressentiment (e.g., at GM II.11).
Nietzsche and the National Socialists. 10. To what extent were the Nazis justified in seeing Nietzsche as a precursor?
In answering this question, here are some elements to consider.
- Nietzsche shares with the Nazis a division of society into strong and weak sub-cultures.
- Like the Nazis, he specifically identifies Judaism as the root source of contemporary cultural weakness.
- Like the Nazis, he is a collectivist: It is justifiable to sacrifice members of the weak group for the sake of strengthening the species (e.g., GM 3:14, and Zarathustra, On Free Death: “All-too-many live, and all-too-long they hang on their branches. Would that a storm came to shake all this worm-eaten rot from the tree!”)
- Like the Nazis, he urges the belief that bloodshed and warfare are necessary and legitimate means to achieve ends, and that such means will make you stronger and more real (e.g., in GM II.6: “The beginnings of everything great on earth [are] soaked in blood thoroughly and for a long time”).
- Epistemologically, like the Nazis he advocates “blood and soil” over reason (e.g., GM II.16).
- Nietzsche was widely mis-read in many of his statements. For example, the “blond beast” he admires is a lion, not the Nordic racial type (e.g., in GM 1:11 it is clear that his admirable type is spiritual, not racial, for he identifies the Japanese and the Arabs as once having had the same spirit).
- Nietzsche’s anti-Judaism is in his judgment not the same as traditional German anti-Semitism (Cf. again GM II.11, where he states that ressentiment is most easily studied in anti-Semites).
- Given that many Nazis thought of themselves good Christians or that Nazism was compatible with the core of Christianity, it is significant that Nietzsche respects the Jews more than the Christians. Nietzsche sees Christianity as a degenerate version of Judaism, while the Nazis greatly preferred Christianity to Judaism.
- Nietzsche held contemporary Germans to be weaklings and unaware second-rate copiers (e.g., GM 1:11, and The Use and Abuse of History, section 4.) Feel welcome to add more elements to the list of pros and cons.