This commentary is part of The Atlas Society's 2000 online "CyberSeminar" entitled " Nietzsche and Objectivism ."
Kevin Hill writes: “Given Nietzsche’s elusiveness and suggestiveness, I think that trying to understand Nietzsche in terms of a list of core commitments, in terms of a reconstructed ‘Nietzscheanism’--while of value in making sense of Nietzsche--is not the best way to gauge whether or not a particular figure went through a ‘Nietzscheanism phase.’ I think that a more profitable way of conceptualizing the matter is: how much *attention* did the thinker devote to Nietzsche.”
I am inclined to think that Kevin hits the nail on the head throughout this post. (I’ll still be interested to see what Eyal Mozes has to say in reply, though, if anything.) And I agree that attention, as Kevin describes it, is critical to the question of influence. But I would be willing to press a little further on the issue of core commitments. Here is a list I kept while I was first reading GM back in February of points of agreement between Rand and Nietzsche.
Ayn Rand and Nietzsche both:
- are driven by an ideal of the highest in man.
- believe only a precious few people will ever achieve great things.
- wish to protect the achievers; allow them to flourish.
- think the “noble soul” simply forgets others; whereas the man of “ressentiment” obsesses over other people (GM i.10; ii.24).
- think the lower people are offended by the “severity and high-mindedness” of the noble man, but are pleased by people like themselves, who “let themselves go” (GM ii.24).
- reject the mind/body dichotomy.
- regard this-worldly values--sex, health, pleasure, etc.--as good.
- express disappointment in artists as compared with their works (GM iii.4).
- believe in happiness (GM i.10).
- believe religion is hostile to life.
- criticize the attack on reason (e.g., in Kant) as anti-life (and say that anti-life philosophers attack reason) (GM iii.12).
- criticize the notions of “pure reason” and objectivity as disinterestedness, and say in reply that all knowledge takes place by some particular means (GM iii.12).
- are pro-life as a or the key value.
- have a conception of human life which is biological.
- believe the most corrupt motive is hatred of the successful per se (GM iii.14).
- see altruism as a dirty trick to gain control of the powerful, the successful, the happy (GM iii.14).
- have a sense of hierarchy of personal worth (some people are more important than others).
All these points of agreement still hold in The Fountainhead . I’m inclined to think they all stayed with her through the end of her career, though some, such as (17), she soft-pedaled after The Fountainhead .
All of these are agreements about positives, not just agreements about being against something, except (10) and (16). Some which may seem negative are only phrased that way. (6) and (11), for instance, could be stated as believing in mind/body unity and defending reason. It may seem strange to say that Nietzsche defended reason, but that’s what Kaufmann says, and he has a point. Nietzsche never uses “reason” in a negative sense. It’s rationality he criticizes.
People are going to say that, if Nietzsche has ultimately no use for truth or objectivity or rationality, he can’t be a defender of reason. And people are going to say similar things about many of the above points. For example, that Nietzsche isn’t “really” pro-life. In response, I want to say that we should allow for different detailed conceptions of core ideas. Perhaps I agree that, if you don’t believe in truth, you don’t “ultimately” believe in reason. But I’m not sure I do, to be quite honest about it. It’s actually a very deep topic. However, it seems clear that at the phenomenal level Nietzsche and all of us mean the same thing by “reason,” viz., ratiocination that follows certain strict rules.
Similarly for being pro-life. This is a better example, actually, because Nietzsche was more fervently pro-life than pro-reason. As Kevin Hill says, it is difficult to state Nietzsche’s exact position on the value of life. But we can be pretty sure that it differs from the Objectivist view. However, to say therefore Nietzsche wasn’t “really” pro-life strikes me offhand as absurd, since quite obviously he was passionately concerned about it. So, although it is probably true that Ayn Rand and Nietzsche don’t agree in detail about the value of life, at a certain valid level of abstraction I think they do agree, and the agreement is quite important.
Nietzsche’s Best and Worst
Readers of my posts to this CyberSeminar will have observed that, in the matter of interpreting his writings, I have little interest in cutting Nietzsche any breaks. This is not out of hostility to Nietzsche, however.
The fact is that, in spite of how appalling some of his views are, I have found Nietzsche to be a highly stimulating, valuable, and even positive author. In fact I think he has made the largest positive contribution of any German philosopher (not necessarily the highest praise, mind you!). And now that the question has been raised whether Ayn Rand could have found anything positive in him, I want to try to formulate just what I think the positive components of Nietzsche’s philosophy are.
Following is a list of eight.
- Belief that one’s own life is critically important and one should seek to make it as perfect as possible (cf. eternal recurrence discussion at GS 341).
- Belief that life should be for “the earth,” i.e., this-worldly.
- Belief that life should be (one way or another) the standard of value.
- Belief that philosophy should be for life.
- Naturalistic approach to human nature (psychological, biological).
- Profound discomfort with the attempt to make pity the core of morality.
- Major concern with excellence and desire to promote it.
- His undogmatic, growth-oriented intellectual attitude (not just “officially” but in his practice and what he seeks to elicit in others).
The foregoing eight planks are intended to capture fundamentals of Nietzsche’s thought, not necessarily his positions on detailed, textbook philosophic questions. I take it they all represent very important issues and that Nietzsche’s views on them (at the level of abstraction depicted here) should be welcome to Objectivists.
To complement the above, I have also tried to come up with a list of the eight most deleterious tenets of Nietzsche’s philosophy, again sticking to fundamentals. Here is the list.
- Belief that truth and objectivity are mythical (i.e., rejection of reality as possessing determinate identity discoverable by reason).
- Denial of political rights to “lower” people.
- Emphasis on the order of rank as a key moral principle.
- Makes higher forms the end of life rather than well-being.
- Psychology of cruelty and power lust.
- Celebrates “living dangerously” (GS 283) (i.e., risky, painful “self-overcoming”) and despises living well (i.e., prudence, excellence as measured by given standards, rational decision making).
- Rejection of rationality as capable of determining ends and standards of value.
- Social conflict, and the subjugation of the weak by the strong, not only as necessary but as a positive good.
Perhaps surprisingly, I found the second list much harder to generate than the first. And notice how many of the items overlap in meaning. Really, I think there are just three tenets here--best captured by numbers (1), (2), and (6)--which the remaining items merely elaborate and fill in.
On this accounting, therefore, in spite of the very bad things about him, Nietzsche is far from completely bad. Am I missing something? What are others’ reactions to my two lists?