Friedrich Nietzsche

Lecture on Nietzsche (1844-1900)

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Twilight of the Idols

Nietzsche wrote The Twilight of the Idols in the last active year of his publications (1888); then he slipped into insanity. The book rails against the sickness of his age, in which he duels with reason, anti-Semitism (which he condemns), positivism, modernism, humanism, and above all the ascetics in history from Socrates to the eunuch priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church, whose renunciation of the instinctual life is tantamount to a renunciation of life itself or a naturalistic morality. He takes, covertly, particular aim at Richard Wagner and his operatic magnum opus of the Götterdämmerung from his cycle of The Ring, because he made tragedy farce and kitsch. Wagner commercialized music with his organized spectacles that stifle human involvement. All the protagonists and villains have fates fixed by Destiny; so, Nietzsche finds Wagner repulsive in his anti-realism and, above all, in his racial bigotry, which Nietzsche could not sanction. They once had been the best of friends.

Let us discuss this quotation:

"In the early Middle Ages, when the church was indeed, above all, a menagerie, the most beautiful specimens of the ‘blond beast’ were hunted down everywhere; and the noble Teutons, for example, were ‘improved.’ But how did such an 'improved' Teuton ... look afterward? ... [H]e had become a ‘sinner, he was stuck in a cage, imprisoned among all sorts of terrible concepts ... full of hatred against the springs of life, full of suspicion against all that was still strong and happy. In short, a ‘Christian.’"

Nietzsche, a nominal Protestant, had a strong loathing for the Roman Catholic Church with its iconography. He smashed the idols because he felt that the Church entailed a renunciation of manly values for the faith. Kindness, piety, devotion, and so forth embodied values that had to be transvalued. He had a contempt for females and their characteristics that made men soft, particularly through the institution of marriage, controlled by the State and Church. Nietzsche believed that Christianity destroyed the heroic German nation and replaced it with a Church and State, based on nationalistic prejudices that rendered life both effeminate and bureaucratic. Nietzsche advocated a vigorous sexual life, spontaneity in short, in which men would not feel guilt about asserting their will to power.

Great men make history, according to Nietzsche. They destroy old, liberal values and institutions and replace them with the noble and imperial values best found in ancient Rome. Napoleon was his hero because he wanted to create an empire in Europe. Nietzsche detested nationalism because he believed that it made men parochial in outlook. He believed himself to be the man who would destroy the ideologies of socialism, modernism, and democracy. He loathed the masses as unworthy of living, let alone having rights and the vote. He thought their role should be that of slaves to serve the masters, who by genetic breeding would be fit to rule. These great men would live by not denying their instincts and would take to the deed, instead of thinking like philosophers, who corrupt. Yes, Socrates should die. He corrupted the youth of Athens by setting a bad example. Nietszche admired ancient Rome and the historical period of the Renaissance, in particular. In his doctrine of eternal recurrence, he affirms that history can be made noble by working on it as a hammer works on a piece of stone to shape it. The image is graphically violent. Oddly, in his time, he thought that Czarist Russia, with its primitive tribalism and transcontinental expanse, would best reinvigorate Europe by example. He was an imperialist. Expand or die. You should note that Machiavelli and Homer were his two favorite writers. They wrote epics and understood history in its totality.

War cleanses, in the mind of Nietzsche. He wanted an elite to rule the world. He thought the most ignoble thought ever conceived was that men were created equal by God. He said God is dead and that democracy cannot make what is inherently unequal equal. In particular, he cursed Rousseau as an effete intellectual who stirred the Paris mobs to action in the French Revolution. When Napoleon seized control of the Revolution, he represented the man of action on the front lines, not the weak types like Mirabeau and Robespierre, who worked for the people. Napoleon represented an ancient race, the Corsicans, who inspired him with the idea of blood and soil.

Was Nietzsche a proto-Nazi? No. He was not a racist. He rejected the decadence of life in a capitalist, materialist society, where men were unmanned by the forces of modernism. He was an advocate of Dionysius, a mythic figure who lived a life of excess, frenzy, and affirmation. He looked for those values in a naturalist art and philosophy of life. Hence, he was more an existentialist than a National Socialist. His views of the dark side coincided with those of Freud; though he would place less emphasis on the Unconscious with its soft determinism. Nietzsche had a very positive view of Jews, which contradicted Wagner’s eliminationist anti-Semitism that influenced his operatic productions. Nietzsche thought these works sickly morbid and wrote Contra Wagner to express his contempt for the man and his racism. Nietzsche viewed Jews as a universal race that had creatively survived persecution and adversity. Such strength he admired in a collectivity. Some of Nietzsche’s colleagues and friends were Jewish and were treated equally in social standing and professional accomplishments.

Three months after writing this essay in late September 1888, along with other pieces during that feverish year of productivity, he fell into a paralytic insanity from which he never emerged. The Nazis fifty years later did appropriate whatever they found useful in Nietzsche, particularly his making cruelty a virtue in hard times. There is no progress in history toward man’s betterment. Nietzsche despised Enlightenment ideals; hence, he could be considered a posthumous fellow traveler.

Human, all too Human. Men die. That is a cold fact that could not be undone, according to Nietzsche. But he viewed death positively as compelling men to make great decisions now, not await glory in the hereafter. He would have been disappointed had he seen what had happened to Germany under Hitler, a man of ressentiment, who unleashed the forces of nihilism with no strategic objectives that had a root in reality, unlike Napoleon.

Central Ideas of Nietzsche

Masters and Slaves. There are people who follow the herd mentality. That is why he hated democracy and the masses—attributable to their ressentiment, their leveling instincts whose intention was to destroy what was noble in the few great. Remember the Parable of the Cave in Plato, where the man who sees the sun and returns to liberate the prisoners is murdered because people are "stupid" and do not want to change with what they are comfortable with. Nietzsche disliked Plato and Socrates because they exalted reason above the passions. He called them sick Sophists.

Nietzsche engaged a perspectivist approach to democratic and modern values in that what resulted was a hermeneutics of suspicion, given that values had to be transvalued to create a man of solitude (necessarily) who could fight for the good life against all odds. He believed in a Darwinist, naturalistic ethics, based on firm biological principles that ideally only the fittest should survive to produce an aristocracy of talents. He proposed eugenics to breed a multinational elite and ruling class. There would be great cruelty in the pursuit of higher goals, in which one would live dangerously. He went back to the Greek tragedies to uncover the concept of areté. The Superman who pursues excellence has to shape his life as with a hammer in order to create a work of art out of it. Nietzsche is not an absolutist existentialist like Sartre, who said there are no limits to your freedom. Nietzsche said that there are biologically determined limits in which your choices are fate. Amor fati; love of your fate. Every great individual such as Napoleon had a Destiny. There is definitely hero worship in his works. However, he went back to the Greek tragedies to exemplify what he thought great. For instance, he revered Sophocles’ Oedipus, who is to this day an archetype of a tragic figure, who had good intentions that resulted in terrible consequences. The opposite of the great man would be the last man, who could only be pitied in Nietszche's moral psychology. He was the inactive man who could only forget virtue and absorb himself in his material self interests. Ironically, Nietszche used ad hominem arguments to attack the "scholarly" oxen of his day who committed philosophical suicide by their asceticism to the detriment of the health of the species. History, and that includes the philosophy of history, should serve life and affirm the values of a hard life in which the will becomes steeled to be an exclusive agency of the person to transform his environment after his own image. Sexuality personified the will to power, as one of many examples of this will to power.

There is in Nietzsche an anticipation of Freud. He did write about the unconscious, which was a force working through the individual unbeknownst to him. It had to do with the instinctual drives toward the affirmation of life against reason, which was only instrumental and utilitarian in character and hence ignoble and debased. Reason made means into ends. The will to power led to the joyous Dionysian embrace of the world by the individual, but conditionally. Traditional reason is Apollonian in character, hence too passive to engage life in the fullness of its plural aspects.