This commentary is part of The Atlas Society's 2000 online "CyberSeminar" entitled " Nietzsche and Objectivism ."
Abstract: In this essay, I explore Nietzsche’s position that nihilism is the result of the absolutism of the Judeo-Christian values after the influence of God has withered away from the philosophical trends of a culture. I also address the issue of Nietzsche’s influence on National Socialism and defend Nietzsche’s anti-Semitism as deeper, intellectually, then the German anti-Semitic tradition.
I. Nietzsche and Nihilism
In Part I of Will To Power, I see the existentialist roots fully exposed to the light of day. I see Nietzsche’s concept of the will to power, with its primal urges, instincts, and the unconscious in a quest for life power, as an existentialist walk down the path between the “absolute” values of Christian morality and nihilism. For Neitzche, it would take a superman, backed by a fully developed new morality or “revaluation of all values,” to be able to clear the way and endure such a path.
Nietzsche saw nihilism as the consequence of the “death of God.” God’s influence was no longer as fundamental to the European culture in its everyday existence. God no longer mattered to the culture as deeply as in the history of man. This void left by the absence of God’s influence caused the descent into nihilism to take hold of European man. With the absence of absolute values (Judeo-Christian values), man was left with the emptiness and meaninglessness of nihilism, or in Nietzshe’s words, it’s “against meaninglessness on the one hand, against moral value judgements on the other” (WTP 1) and “morality was the great antidote against practical and theoretical nihilism” (WTP 4).
The belief in God placed values into another realm, unreachable by man from this realm. When European man broke from the yoke of the influence of God, he awoke to a yearning for values and, failing to discover an objective code of values, fell into the meaningless void of nihilism. (Perhaps this was inevitable since the full effects of the Industrial Revolution had not yet taken place, which was vitally important for Ayn Rand , as she admitted, in formulating her philosophy.) Though, according to Nietzche, every purely moral system ends in nihilism, (WTP 19).
Nietzsche saw nihilism as the consequence of the “death of God.”
Nietzsche briefly describes this either-or scenario of absolute value or meaningless nihilism in section 55 of Will to Power. “Extreme positions are not succeeded by moderate ones but by extreme positions of the opposite kind. Thus the belief in the absolute immorality of nature, in aim and meaninglessness, is the psychologically necessary affect once the belief in God and an essentially moral order becomes untenable. Nihilism appears at that point, not that the displeasure at existence has become greater than before but because one has come to mistrust any ‘meaning’ in existence. One interpretation is collapsed; but because it was considered the interpretation it now seems as if there were no meaning at all in existence, as if everything were in vain.”
From this walk between absolute values and nihilism, I see where writers like Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre got their versions of existentialism. However, instead of seeing man as caught up in an absurd struggle unable to rely on any code of values, he envisions a morality that will lift mankind beyond good and evil. Through the life force of the will to power, developed from the Schopenhauer will into a will that is an end in itself, the creativity created by the life force becomes the life power in the purposeful pursuit of existence. It is the will to power that is the influence all of human behavior but this will to power is not simply the will to power over others, it is the very life force that drives the human condition. “There is nothing in life that is a value, except the degree of value--assuming that life itself is the will to power.”
In regards to Nietzsche’s position regarding nihilism, I contend that he thinks nihilism is bad, along with the absolute values of Christianity and Judaism. Nihilism, Nietzsche contends, results from a faith in values that are ready made for another realm, beyond man’s grasp. After God’s influence withered, the philosophical pendulum swings toward the meaninglessness and lack of values of nihilism. Nietzsche rejects this opposite-sides-of-the-same-coin dilemma as a false choice. It leads Nietzsche to call for the new philosophers of the future to carry his morality on.
The final result is Nietzsche’s own version (though, probably, by no means done consciously) of the Hegelian Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis. The thesis/antithesis being Christian Absolute values/Nihilism and the synthesis is the revaluation of values and the will to power. Nietzsche thought the way to rise out of the ashes of nihilism was in the blaze of a better morality, one free of the mistakes and prejudices in the history of the philosophers before it.
Nietzsche calls for a new breed of philosophers who will be strong enough to carry his philosophy of the future into existence, which reminds me of Ayn Rand ’s call for a new intellectual who is strong enough to follow reason and practice the virtue of rationality and selfishness. Nietzshe’s new intellectual would see past the prides and prejudices of the history of philosophers, identifying the will to power as the life force and superior morality and its placement beyond good and evil. Nietzsche’s new intellectual, however, is not for the many, but for a limited few who are strong enough to carry his new morality.
Like we see throughout part I of Will To Power, Nietzsche is again calling for a revaluation of morality in Beyond Good and Evil. The Christian values held the good as those who sacrifice for others and evil as those who inflict harm through selfishness. Good and evil are related because they are “flip sides” of each other. The will to power and its master morality is the elevation beyond good and evil.
From the will to power everything comes. Thinking, feelings, or sensations are derivative of this will to power, where feeling and thinking are merely its ingredients. Nietzsche calls us both the commanding and obeying parties in the relationship to the will. Man can be driven by it, yet he does possess a faculty of volition--in other words, both master and slave to the will.
II. Nietzsche and Nazism
At this point, I would like to shift gears and address question #10 raised by Stephen Hicks in the introduction to part three . To what extent were the Nazis justified in seeing Nietzsche as a precursor? One can hardly doubt his influence when ones sees aspects of his thought that are contained within the Nazi philosophy. The division of the strong and the weak can surely be seen reflected in the Nazi thought. However, I think his influence is merely part of the total influence on Hitler and National Socialism.
Richard Wagner and his opera/drama The Ring of the Nibelung, with its implicit critique of capitalism and promise of a better race after Valhalla burns, also had a heavy influence upon Hitler’s philosophy and the German culture. Though Nietszche may have had anti-Semitic implications tangled in his philosophy, Hitler’s brand of anti-Semitism grew, in part, from the influence of the book The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, which preached of a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world. As pointed out by Leonard Peikoff in his book The Ominous Parallels, the major philosophical influence of the German culture in pre-Nazi Germany and beyond was Kantian self-sacrifice, with a sense of duty to sacrifice oneself to the collective as the ideal. It would be incomplete and misleading to advance the notion that Nietzsche is a precursor of the Nazis, much like it would be incomplete to single out Wagner, Kant, and various other implications throughout the totality of the history of philosophy as precursors. Nietzsche may have prescribed the sacrifice of the weak to the strong or the slave to the master, but he doesn’t advance the Kantian notion of sacrifice that was the major influence to the German culture. Nietzsche, too, identifies the Kantian influence on the German culture in BGE 11. Nietzsche’s influence on the National Socialist philosophy was merely a part of an integrated whole philosophy with aspects of different German influences and philosophers.
Nietzsche had problems with Judaism as a philosophy, not with the Jewish people as a race.
Though Nietszche saw Judaism as a source of contemporary weakness, I don’t think he was simply a continuation of the German anti-Semitic tradition. Nietzsche also held the same low regard for Christian values and its traditions. As I stated in the beginning of this essay, Nietzsche saw all such absolute moralities as false values that lead to nihilism. Nietzsche was anti-Semitic as much as he was anti-Christian.
Further down the road in part 8 of BGE (251), Nietzsche makes his greatest defense of not simply being a continuation of German anti-Semitic as he explicitly says the Jewish race is “beyond any doubt the strongest, and purest race now living in Europe.” I think Nietzsche had problems with Judaism as a philosophy, not with the Jewish people as a race. Hitler, in contrast, with his paranoia of a Jewish conspiracy from “Protocols” and other sources, was anti-Semitic in the German tradition.
In conclusion, Nietszche saw that absolute values would inevitably collapse into nihilism after the influence of God is significantly reduced in the lives of the people. The solution for Nietzsche is in the recognition of the will to power and a revaluation of values into a better morality. In regard to Nietzche’s influence on National Socialism, it would be best described as only one of many philosophical influences; his anti-Semitic arguments are intellectual in nature and not necessarily aligned with the German tradition of anti-Semitism.