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Nietzsche, Nihilism and

the Philosophy of the Future

Continuum Studies in Continental Philosophy
Series Editor: James Fieser, University of Tennessee at Martin, USA

Continuum Studies in Continental Philosophy is a major monograph series from

Continuum. The series features first-class scholarly research monographs
across the field of Continental philosophy. Each work makes a major
contribution to the field of philosophical research.

Adorno’s Concept of Life, Alastair Morgan

Badiou, Marion and St Paul, Adam Miller
Being and Number in Heidegger’s Thought, Michael Roubach
Deleuze and Guattari, Fadi Abou-Rihan
Deleuze and the Genesis of Representation, Joe Hughes
Deleuze and the Unconscious, Christian Kerslake
Deleuze, Guattari and the Production of the New, edited by Simon O’Sullivan
and Stephen Zepke
Derrida, Simon Morgan Wortham
Derrida and Disinterest, Sean Gaston
The Domestication of Derrida, Lorenzo Fabbri
Encountering Derrida, edited by Simon Morgan Wortham and Allison Weiner
Foucault’s Heidegger, Timothy Rayner
Gadamer and the Question of the Divine, Walter Lammi
Heidegger and a Metaphysics of Feeling, Sharin N. Elkholy
Heidegger and Aristotle, Michael Bowler
Heidegger and Philosophical Atheology, Peter S. Dillard
Heidegger Beyond Deconstruction, Michael Lewis
Heidegger, Politics and Climate Change, Ruth Irwin
Heidegger’s Contributions to Philosophy, Jason Powell
Heidegger’s Early Philosophy, James Luchte
The Irony of Heidegger, Andrew Haas
Levinas and Camus, Tal Sessler
Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology, Kirk M. Besmer
Nietzsche’s Ethical Theory, Craig Dove
Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, edited by James Luchte
The Philosophy of Exaggeration, Alexander Garcia Düttmann
Sartre’s Phenomenology, David Reisman
Who’s Afraid of Deleuze and Guattari? Gregg Lambert
Žižek and Heidegger, Thomas Brockelman
Nietzsche, Nihilism and
the Philosophy of the Future

Edited by Jeffrey Metzger

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Acknowledgments vii
Contributors viii
Note on Citations to Nietzsche’s Works x
Introduction 1
1 Nietzsche’s Double Rhetoric: Which Nihilism? 9
Stanley Rosen
2 Toward a New Aristocracy: Nietzsche contra Plato
on the Role of a Warrior Elite 20
Michael Allen Gillespie
3 Nietzsche: Nihilism and Neo-Gnosticism 37
Stanley Corngold
4 Nietzsche—Rhetoric—Nihilism: “Every Name in History”—
“Every Style”—“Everything Permitted” (A Political
Philology of the Last Letter) 54
Geoff Waite
5 Does That Sound Strange to You? Education and Indirection in
Essay III of On the Genealogy of Morals 79
Daniel Conway
6 Free Spirits and Free Thinkers: Nietzsche and Guyau
on the Future of Morality 102
Keith Ansell-Pearson
7 How Deep Are the Roots of Nihilism? Nietzsche on the Creative
Power of Nature and Morality 125
Jeffrey Metzger
vi Contents

8 Nietzsche and the Impossibility of Nihilism 143

James I. Porter
9 Nietzsche, Contingency, and the Vacuity of Politics 158
Robert Guay
Notes 171
Bibliography 196
Index 208

I am of course grateful to the contributors to this volume for their essays.

I would especially like to thank Keith Ansell-Pearson for his helpful advice
and interest at various stages of the project. I would also like to thank Sarah
Campbell and Tom Crick for their help in managing the production of this
volume. Finally and most importantly, I would like to thank my mother and
father and two brothers for their support and encouragement during the time
I began work on this collection and throughout my life.

Keith Ansell-Pearson holds a Personal Chair in the Department of Philosophy

at the University of Warwick. He has published several books, including
Nietzsche Contra Rousseau and An Introduction to Nietzsche as Political Thinker: The
Perfect Nihilist, and many articles and book chapters. He is also the co-author
(with Christa Davis Acampora) of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, and has
edited or co-edited, amongst others, A Companion to Nietzsche and The Nietzsche

Daniel Conway is Professor and Head of Philosophy at Texas A & M University.

He is the author of Nietzsche and the Political, Nietzsche’s Dangerous Game, and
Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, and the editor or co-editor of several
other books, including the four-volume Nietzsche: Critical Assessments of Leading
Philosophers. His research has been supported by grants from the National
Endowment for the Humanities, the Oregon Humanities Center, the Deutscher
Akademischer Austausch Dienst (DAAD), the Andrew W. Mellon Faculty Fel-
lowship in the Humanities at Harvard University, and the National Humanities

Stanley Corngold is Professor of German and Comparative Literature at

Princeton University. He is the author of five books, including The Fate of the Self
and Complex Pleasure: Forms of Feeling in German Literature, has co-authored a
novel, and has edited or co-edited seven books. He has also published over one
hundred articles and book chapters. He has edited and translated the Norton
Critical Editions of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and of Kafka’s Selected Stories.

Michael Allen Gillespie teaches at Duke University, where he is the Jerry G.

and Patricia Crawford Hubbard Professor of Political Science, Professor of
Philosophy, and the Director of the Gerst Program in Political, Economic,
and Humanistic Studies. He is the author of several books, including Nihilism
Before Nietzsche and The Theological Origins of Modernity, and has edited or
co-edited three others, including Nietzsche’s New Seas: Explorations in Philosophy,
Aesthetics, and Politics.

Robert Guay is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Binghamton University,

State University of New York. His work on Nietzsche has appeared in European
Contributors ix

Journal of Philosophy, Inquiry, Philosophy and Literature, Philosophical Topics, and in

several edited collections.

Jeffrey Metzger is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History and

Government at Cameron University; he has also taught at Brown University
and Kenyon College. He has held numerous fellowships and has published
essays on Nietzsche.

James I. Porter is Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature at the

University of California, Irvine. His main research interests are in literature,
philosophy, and intellectual history. He is author of Nietzsche and the Philology
of the Future and The Invention of Dionysus: An Essay on The Birth of Tragedy and
editor of Constructions of the Classical Body and of Classical Pasts: The Classical
Traditions of Greece and Rome. His book, Matter, Sensation, and Experience: The
Origins of Aesthetic Inquiry in Ancient Greece, is forthcoming from Cambridge. His
current projects include a study in the invention and reception of Homer, fur-
ther studies in ancient aesthetics, and Nietzsche and the Seductions of Metaphysics.

Stanley Rosen recently retired as the Borden Parker Bowne Professor of

Philosophy at Boston University; before that he was the Evan Pugh Professor
at Pennsylvania State University. He is the author of over ninety articles and
book chapters and of 16 books, including Nihilism: A Philosophical Essay, The
Limits of Analysis, Hermeneutics as Politics, The Ancients and the Moderns, The Ques-
tion of Being: A Reversal of Heidegger, and The Mask of Enlightenment: Nietzsche’s
Zarathustra. His work has been translated into ten different languages.

Geoff Waite teaches at Cornell University in the Department of German

Studies and in the Fields of Comparative Literature and Visual Studies. He is
the author of Nietzsche’s Corps/e and the forthcoming Heidegger: The Question of
Esoteric Political Ontology.
Note on Citations to Nietzsche’s Works

References to the German editions of Nietzsche’s work are to the volume and
page number of the following editions, indicated by the following abbreviations:

KSA = Sämtliche Werke: Kritische Studienausgabe in 15 Bänden. Ed. G. Colli and

M. Montinari. Berlin: DTV and de Gruyter, 1980.
KGW = Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe. Ed. G. Colli and M. Montinari. Berlin:
de Gruyter, 1967–.
SB = Sämtliche Briefe, Kritische Studienausgabe, 8 vols. Ed. Giorgio Colli and
Mazzino Montinari. Munich and Berlin: DTV and de Gruyter.

We have followed the common English-language practice of referring to

Nietzsche’s published works by abbreviations of their translated titles. Unless
otherwise noted, references are always to the section numbers (and, where
appropriate, to book or part numbers, then section numbers), never to page
numbers. We have used the following translations; where a particular essay has
used different translations, they appear in that essay’s bibliography.

A or AC = The Antichrist. Trans. Walter Kaufmann, in Walter Kaufmann (ed.),

The Portable Nietzsche. New York: Viking Press, 1968. Also The Anti-Christ. Trans.
R. J. Hollingdale. New York: Viking Penguin, 1968.
BGE = Beyond Good and Evil. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books,
BT = The Birth of Tragedy. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books,
CW = The Case of Wagner. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books,
D = Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality. Trans. R. J. Hollingdale.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
DS = David Strauss, the Writer and the Confessor, in Untimely Meditations.
EH = Ecce Homo. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books, 1969.
GM = On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic. Trans. Walter Kaufmann and
R. J. Hollingdale. New York: Vintage Books, 1969.
GS = The Gay Science. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books, 1974.
Note on Citations to Nietzsche’s Works xi

HAH = Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits. Trans. R. J. Hollingdale.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
NCW = Nietzsche contra Wagner. Trans. Walter Kaufmann, in The Portable
PTAG = Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks. Trans. Marianne Cowan.
Washington, DC: Regnery, 1962.
RWB = Richard Wagner in Bayreuth, in Untimely Meditations.
TI = Twilight of the Idols. Trans. Walter Kaufmann, in The Portable Nietzsche. Also
Twilight of the Idols. Trans. R. J. Hollingdale. New York: Viking Penguin, 1968.
TL = On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense. In Philosophy and Truth:
Selections from Nietzsche’s Notebooks of the Early 1870’s. Ed. and trans. Daniel
Breazeale. Atlantic Highlands: Humanities International Press, 1979.
UM = Untimely Meditations. Trans. R. J. Hollingdale. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1983.
WP = The Will to Power. Trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale. New
York: Vintage Books, 1967.
Z = Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Viking Press,
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Nietzsche famously referred to nihilism as “this uncanniest of all guests” (dieser

unheimlichste aller Gäste). The figure of the guest, “standing at the door,” sug-
gests that he is foreign, an outsider or alien from whom one can safely disso-
ciate or differentiate oneself. The fact that nihilism is the “uncanniest of all
guests,” however, suggests that he makes our home itself foreign and alien; his
chill figure is not simply unwelcome, it renders us homeless (heimatlos). It was
Nietzsche’s engagement with nihilism, his prescient experience of homeless-
ness, that dominated the serious reaction to his work in the early part of the
twentieth century. Nietzsche was regarded as the prophet of the death of God,
the herald of the most profound spiritual crisis to convulse the Western world
in centuries. There were of course exceptions, but for the most part the catas-
trophe Nietzsche had foretold and christened with the name “nihilism” was
never far from the minds of his readers, living as they were in the midst of
civilizational cataclysms every bit as terrifying as those Nietzsche had predicted.
At some point in the past 20 or 30 years this situation changed, at least in the
English-speaking world. Nietzsche’s name is no longer associated primarily
with nihilism, and in some cases the association does not seem to be made at
all. Certainly this period has produced numerous excellent treatments of
Nietzsche’s relation to nihilism (several by contributors to this volume), and
many very good discussions in books not principally devoted to the subject.
Overall, however, and given the explosion of academic work on Nietzsche over
the past 20 years or so, it is surprising to see how little direct attention the sub-
ject of nihilism has received. The concentration on other topics in Nietzsche’s
writings is obviously to be welcomed, and many important studies have appeared
illuminating aspects of Nietzsche’s work that had been obscured or overlooked
by the emphasis on Nietzsche’s cultural criticism and diagnoses. Despite this
expansion of our field of vision, however, one cannot escape the sense that we
have lost sight of something important, indeed vital, and that this loss is not
necessary. The present collection of essays therefore aims to contribute to our
understanding of Nietzsche by returning attention to his treatment of nihilism,
the aspect of his thought that Nietzsche himself considered perhaps the most
important and original. It does so by bringing together a series of distinct and
at times discordant perspectives on Nietzsche, representing not only substan-
tive, interpretive, methodological, and “disciplinary” differences but divergent
2 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

attitudes toward Nietzsche’s intentions and success in his confrontation with

Stanley Rosen begins the collection with a powerful restatement of some of
the major themes of his writings on Nietzsche. In particular, Rosen is concerned
with two main topics: Nietzsche’s double rhetoric and the inevitability of nihil-
ism in his thought. Nietzsche’s double rhetoric, his habit of both concealing
the fact that fundamentally there is only chaos and shouting it from the roof-
tops, reflects his position as the final, self-destructive culmination of modern
philosophy. There are, according to Rosen, two main streams of modern
philosophy, one which conceals the artefactual—that is, the constructed and
temporary—character of philosophical truth and one which insists on boldly
announcing it, whatever the consequences. “The oddity of Nietzsche is that he
accepts, or at least seems clearly to accept, both of these theoretical styles, often
in the same context.” Ultimately, however, both styles collapse into the recogni-
tion that without stable criteria for truth there cannot be stable criteria for
nobility; the result is not only that truth collapses into chaos, or that philosophy
cannot finally be distinguished from art, but that nobility collapses into mere
power. As Rosen puts it, speaking of Nietzsche’s distinction between active or
noble nihilism and passive or base nihilism, “It is essential for Nietzsche’s entire
program, both political and theoretical, that the distinction between the two
main types of nihilism can be preserved. In other words, there must be an
enduring distinction between the noble and the base that permits us to identify
instances of each general type. As we have seen, there is no such definite or
stable distinction of this or any other sort. Both the noble and the base deterio-
rate into chaos.” Of Nietzsche’s attempt to ground noble or active nihilism
in the doctrine of the will to power, Rosen says more pointedly, “Nietzsche’s
argument seems to be circular. The noble is the powerful and the powerful is
the noble.”
Michael Allen Gillespie continues Rosen’s critical treatment of Nietzsche, but
focuses more on the social and political aspects of Nietzsche’s thought, and
particularly on his attempt to create a superhuman type through his writings.
Gillespie’s essay begins with a discussion of the necessity of warriors for political
life, and specifically the treatment of the warrior as a human type by Homer
and Plato. Turning to Nietzsche, Gillespie begins with an insightful overview of
Nietzsche’s treatment of the cultural implications and meaning of nihilism.
The confrontation between Plato and Nietzsche that Gillespie reconstructs is
therefore not the familiar story of Nietzsche as antimetaphysician. Gillespie
rather provides an illuminating discussion of the two thinkers’ differing cul-
tural aims and particularly their contrasting goals for education—Plato seeks to
tame and moderate the warrior, while Nietzsche seeks the hardening of the
heart or the soul and therefore necessarily and in the first place the hardening
of the body (for the soul is simply an outgrowth of the body). Gillespie acknowl-
edges that Nietzsche had a more nuanced and respectful view of Plato than is
Introduction 3

often believed, and in particular that he did not actually mistake Plato, who
believed warriors to be necessary and even the breeding ground for philoso-
phers in his ideal city, for Christianity. Even so, however, Nietzsche does reject
Plato’s attempt to moderate warriors.
According to Gillespie, this ultimately reveals the superiority of Plato to
Nietzsche, for it shows that Plato better understood both the soul of the warrior
and the necessities of political life. Most tellingly, Plato’s account of education
is precisely what is missing in Nietzsche; although Nietzsche does not seek
merely to produce a race of ferocious warriors, he gives no account of how
the warriors he believes are necessary to move beyond bourgeois society will be
educated and civilized into something higher than mere destroyers. As Gillespie
writes, Nietzsche “was much more interested in convincing his contemporaries
to choose the path that leads to such an aristocracy rather than with detailing
how this aristocracy should be forged, trained, and ennobled.” Moreover, how-
ever inspiring Nietzsche’s rhetoric may be, without the necessary institutional
and educational structures to promote his spiritual vision over successive gen-
erations, there is little reason to expect his writings to exercise the kind of
formative influence he seemed to hope they would.
Stanley Corngold’s essay is also focused on Nietzsche’s attempts to create a
new aristocracy, though Corngold approaches this question by identifying a
Gnostic streak in Nietzsche’s writings, both published and unpublished, that
will surely surprise many readers. Corngold begins with a long, unpublished
essay-fragment titled “European Nihilism,” which provides a compressed narra-
tive history of nihilism and its stages of development before culminating in a
call for a new elect to emerge and rule Europe. This leads into the discussion of
Gnosticism, in which Corngold shows that Nietzsche shares with Gnosticism not
only a belief in “the ontological priority of an elect,” but also a desire for a more
or less irrationalist form of transcendence, which in Nietzsche’s case centers on
poetic or artistic creation and which he often illustrates with the figure of a self-
igniting and self-consuming flame. In his moments of Gnostic élan, in other
words, Nietzsche rejects not so much the transcendence as the moralized
transcendence of Christianity, the world-weary longing for an escape from
reality. But the image and imagination of a different, incandescent type of tran-
scendence clearly exercised a fascination for Nietzsche throughout his life.
Corngold isolates further significant elements of Nietzsche’s neo-Gnosticism,
including his antinomian and iconoclastic repudiation of Pauline Christianity,
and more generally of “the institutions constituting state and community,”
and his belief, especially evident at the end of “European Nihilism,” that this
repudiation will prepare the way for an almost miraculous transformation
of the social order and the institution of the rule of the elect. Even this, how-
ever, is not an exhaustive list, and one of the strengths of Corngold’s study
is his ability to discern this Gnostic strain both in Nietzsche’s poignant attem-
pts to communicate his singular aesthetic experience and in his somewhat
4 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

more clamorous calls for the cataclysmic renovation of the political and
cultural world.
The first three essays raise serious and probing questions about the success
of Nietzsche’s confrontation with nihilism; Geoff Waite’s characteristically
ambitious essay argues that Nietzsche has been all too successful in his attempt
to spread “a great severe form of contagious nihilism.” Waite’s work is one
of the most important challenges to the perennial attempts to normalize
Nietzsche, to read him as a simple precursor to contemporary trends in philoso-
phy, and he continues this challenge here with an analysis of Nietzsche’s claims
to be every name in history and to write in every possible style. These claims,
according to Waite, do not imply a nihilistic permissiveness, despair, or paraly-
sis; on the contrary, Nietzsche’s writings are governed by a highly selective
authorial intention. “This is why he can be ‘every name in history’ and yet prefer
being ‘Prado’ and ‘Chambige,’ can deploy ‘every style,’ yet prefer exo/esoteri-
cism. Like Eternal Recurrence, ‘everything is permitted’ demands selectivity.”
Waite is here referring to Nietzsche’s interest in the cases of Prado and
Chambige, two murderers whom Nietzsche claims to be in his final letter to
Jakob Burckhardt. Nietzsche’s interest in these murderers and the popular
accounts of their trials, and his subsequent tremendous influence on popular
as well as “high” culture, illustrate the Russian Formalists’ “law of the canoni-
zation of the junior branch,” according to which “popular culture—notably
feuilleton journalism, vaudeville, and, in the case of Dostoevsky’s novels, detec-
tive fiction—must be periodically elevated into the ‘canon’ before being
reciprocally returned to the ‘junior branch.’” This formalist law, according to
Waite, implying as it does the necessary and inevitable cross-pollination or
cross-contamination of high and low culture, “is how Nietzsche’s self-described
‘promotion’ of the ‘severe form of great contagious nihilism’ subsequently
has affected a vast array of popular literature, music, and cinema but also of
murderers.” Waite applies his political philology both to Nietzsche’s relation-
ship with the popular press and literature of his time and to his reference to
“my centrum,” concluding his essay with a detailed annotation of Nietzsche’s
last letter to Jakob Burckhardt.
Daniel Conway’s essay also centers on the rhetorical effects of Nietzsche’s
texts but offers a more positive reading of Nietzsche’s intentions and influence
(indeed, Conway’s chapter marks a shift in the volume as a whole from critique
to respectful interpretation). While Waite maintains that Nietzsche’s rhetoric
serves destructive and indeed murderous purposes, Conway suggests that it is
rather designed to educate and train “his best readers.” Conway begins with
Nietzsche’s reference in the Genealogy to his “unknown friends,” an instance of
the general type of comment one finds throughout Nietzsche’s writings address-
ing a “we” or his “friends.” These comments range in tone from impassioned
and exhortatory to intimate and confessional, and from seductive to ironic, but
in every case they raise the question of who Nietzsche means to reach with this
Introduction 5

rhetorical device, and never more so than in his reference to his “unknown
friends” in the Genealogy. Conway’s argument is that Nietzsche’s goal in the cli-
max of the Genealogy is to bring his “unknown friends” into being by teaching
them how to turn the destructive power of the ascetic ideal against itself. He
begins by highlighting several rhetorical snares and pieces of textual misdirec-
tion in these final sections, designed in the first place to separate those among
Nietzsche’s readers who are determined to oppose the ascetic ideal from those
who will be satisfied with half-measures or simple self-deception. Once the “last
idealists of knowledge” have pressed on, however, and have recognized them-
selves in Nietzsche’s portrait of the last, noblest instantiation of the ascetic ideal,
their education and training begins. Nietzsche, according to Conway, forces
his best readers to realize that their devotion to scientific truth is ultimately
grounded in the ascetic ideal, so that their attack on that ideal must be laun-
ched from within its “closed system.” This means then that the overcoming
of the ascetic ideal will require the self-overcoming, and thus possibly the self-
destruction, of these “unknown friends” Nietzsche sets out to create in the Gene-
alogy. Even Conway’s relatively benign or life-affirming Nietzsche requires his
best readers to live dangerously.
Keith Ansell-Pearson’s essay considers Nietzsche in relation to one of his con-
temporaries, Jean-Marie Guyau, whose works Nietzsche read with appreciation.
Although Ansell-Pearson modestly announces that his hope is to shed light on
“the wider intellectual context” of Nietzsche’s work, the comparison with Guyau
is of more than purely historical interest. While Ansell-Pearson is certainly suc-
cessful in showing that Nietzsche read and esteemed Guyau as an important
writer, the essay goes further and reveals Guyau to be an interesting thinker in
his own right. Furthermore, Ansell-Pearson provides a concise yet surprisingly
comprehensive account of Nietzsche’s thought on morality and nihilism
through a series of point-by-point comparisons by Guyau, who illuminates
Nietzsche as much by articulating what both have in common (but in a way that
emphasizes different aspects or a different context than does Nietzsche) as by
contrasting with him.
Ultimately, however, Nietzsche did find Guyau wanting as a thinker, and con-
signed him to the rank of “free thinkers.” As Ansell-Pearson’s title indicates,
Nietzsche draws a clear distinction in his mature works between “free spirits”
and “free thinkers,” where the former are clearly superior to the latter.
Nietzsche’s dismissal of Guyau as a mere “free thinker” forces us to ask what
exactly separates the two. Ansell-Pearson answers this question in the course of
his overview of Nietzsche’s thought, which uses the contrast between free think-
ers (like Guyau) and free spirits (like Nietzsche) to show the importance for
Nietzsche of affirming precisely the unchristian and immoral aspects of life and
nature, which are absolutely essential for vitality and growth. Thus Nietzsche’s
censure of morality is not merely a matter of an abstract critique of concepts
like selflessness and free will, but of affirming suffering and discipline as the
6 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

only means to enhance humanity. As Ansell-Pearson succinctly puts it, “the free
thinker holds that the human herd can develop without the need of a shep-
herd; the free spirit upholds the need for one.” Thus while Ansell-Pearson is
less critical or dubious of Nietzsche than some of the earlier essays, he agrees
that Nietzsche is no liberal and no democrat: “Nietzsche does value autonomy,
personality, and sovereign individuality but he couples his valuation of them
not with the Enlightenment ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity but with an
unashamedly elitist ‘radical aristocratism.’”
My own contribution continues the focus on Nietzsche’s analysis of social or
political life and its relation to nihilism. It looks specifically at Nietzsche’s
account of the origin of political society in On the Genealogy of Morals, and asks
whether Nietzsche’s argument is that all society, precisely because it enacts and
relies upon repression of instinct, poisons its members with ressentiment and
thus leads to nihilism. I begin by asking whether the question of origins should
have any bearing on the examination of nihilism at all, given Nietzsche’s
emphatic statement that origins do not determine later meaning, and more
generally his keen awareness of the historical mutability of morality and human
nature. I suggest several reasons why the question of origins is relevant to an
appraisal of morality (especially for Nietzsche), the most important of which is
that an investigation of how political society, and so the “bad conscience,” came
into existence reveals the matrix or condition of all morality, and in particular
the role of nature in shaping and driving moral creation. I then turn to the
particulars of Nietzsche’s account in the Second Essay of the Genealogy, and
suggest that Nietzsche’s view is that socialized morality, despite requiring instin-
ctual repression, expresses the same natural form-creating force manifest in
the founders of states, and is therefore an experience of actual, creative power,
and as such does not provoke ressentiment.
The final two essays stand as something of a counterpoint to the rest of the
volume. While all of the other essays more or less agree that Nietzsche regards
nihilism as a genuine and terrible crisis, and that his analysis of nihilism is
meant to have profound political and social consequences, James Porter argues
that Nietzsche is not and cannot be a nihilist, and Robert Guay that Nietzsche’s
response to nihilism is fundamentally apolitical.
Porter begins his chapter with a brisk statement of the essay’s thesis or prem-
ise: “If you love life you cannot be a nihilist about life.” Porter’s argument is that
nihilism, or the negation or rejection of reality, is impossible for both philo-
sophical and psychological reasons. Porter traces the influence on Nietzsche of
both Kant, who argued that one cannot negate reality, and Schopenhauer, who
argued that one cannot negate life, and shows how both convinced Nietzsche
“that willing is an irrefragable constituent in human life.” Yet the fact that the
kind of total or uncompromising negation that nihilism may seem to imply
is not possible does not mean that we are or can be caught up in a simple
or unambiguous affirmation, either: “Nietzsche effectively wants to love life
Introduction 7

unconditionally, but knows he cannot do so because he recognizes that life

itself is never loved or lived simply or unconditionally: life is loved and lived out
of a complexity of motives, only one ingredient of which will be a purely affir-
mative gesture, the instantaneous affirmation of things. Love is overshadowed
by these complexities; and it is ultimately compromised by them as well.”
Nietzsche, in short, “by no means affirms all the forms of life, and he possibly
affirms no form of life unconditionally; all that he affirms is the most basic affir-
mation of life.” This is enough, however, to make nihilism an impossibility. One
cannot negate without willing, and one cannot will without affirming life as a
basic or general condition (here Porter points to Nietzsche’s discussion of
asceticism in the Third Essay of the Genealogy). But what of nothingness, the
total lack of meaning and purpose? Is not the specter of nihilism crippling
and terrifying, an abyss in which one’s will is annihilated, not something that
one can even affirm by negating? No, for the “prospect of the sheer absence of
meaning is not too horrific to bear owing to any lack of meaning, but rather
owing to its excess of meaning. Such an idea will always have too much meaning for
a subject. We can never, in fact, be nihilistic enough to realize the insignificance
that nihilism requires of us.” Thus nihilism remains as impossible as pure
affirmation, and we remain caught in the uneasy space between the two, seized
and animated by an imperfect love of life.
Robert Guay’s essay begins with an excellent account of how to reconcile
Nietzsche’s insistence on human creativity with his insistence that human
action is determined by impersonal forces of nature and history. “According to
Nietzsche, our spontaneous powers are not only conditioned by various deter-
minations, but they also depend on them, so much so that the possibility of these
powers is contingent upon being embodied, having a claim to a history or his-
tories, and belonging to a culture.” This means that contingency plays a crucial,
formative role in human identity and action: “Contingency is a feature of
human existence because we play a role in shaping our identities: what we are
is neither simply determined from outside nor invented in the absence of any
constraint.” Because contingency is such an essential and inescapable part of
the meaning that sustains agency, the possibility of failure is a necessary part,
indeed a necessary condition, of meaningful human action. How then should
we deal with or understand the inevitability of failure?
Guay identifies two major categories of responses to contingency in Nietzsche’s
writings, the Prudential and the Ironic. The Prudential seeks to eliminate or at
least minimize the gulf between our aspirations and our reality, either by simply
believing the two are already identical (Idealism), or by revising one’s hopes so
that they are attainable (Realism). The Ironic, on the other hand, affirms the
distance between the ideal and the actual, reacting to this reality with either
despair or a tragicomic self-awareness and resolve to continue orienting one’s
life by impossible ideals. Guay argues that for Nietzsche, the tragicomic response
is not only the most noble but in fact the only one able to support the possibility
8 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

of meaningful choice and action: “The productive process that makes us what
we are depends on maintaining a tension between human situatedness and
human aspiration.” Modern politics, on the other hand, is prudential and
therefore vacuous according to Guay, since its sole concerns are the rational
management of resources and facilitating peaceful social interactions.
Nietzsche is thus a liberal in Guay’s reading, but a very specific and unusual
kind of liberal: “Nietzsche’s position functions as a form of liberalism, since the
role of the state is restricted for the sake of free self-development. The point of
this restriction, however, is not to acknowledge inherent human worth, but to
promote conflict in a manner that is productive of the meanings that sustain
our senses of self.” Nietzsche, in other words, wants to preserve the division
between public and private in its modern liberal form, but only because it
positively produces or promotes more intense private conflict and tragicomic
struggle—not, as in the case of Richard Rorty, because relegating such spiritual
struggles to the private realm makes the public sphere of liberal procedural
justice more secure. In this reading Nietzsche subordinates the public to the
private because he subordinates the prudential to the tragicomic.
It is a cliché to say that a philosopher’s thought exhibits “breadth and depth.”
And these essays, while certainly giving evidence of the scope, rigor, and pene-
trating brilliance of Nietzsche’s mind, do more than simply answer a formal
requirement for diversity and heft. They not only demonstrate the power
of Nietzsche’s insistence that we stop worshipping the shadows of a dead God,
but, taken as a whole, force the reader to confront both aspects of nihilism
as Nietzsche experienced and anticipated it: both the “long plenitude
and sequence of breakdown, destruction, ruin and cataclysm that is now
impending . . . this monstrous logic of terror,” and the “free horizon” and “open
seas” that “[w]e philosophers and ‘free spirits’” perceive when hearing of the
death of God (GS 343). From just over the horizon Nietzsche calls to us, vehe-
mently imploring us to face the deadly truth of nihilism, joyously tempting us
to share in his “gratitude, amazement, premonitions, expectations.” Whether
this is a sinister siren song, the delicate and luminous tune of a Dionysian
pied piper, or the fading echo of an explorer who has suffered shipwreck? That
we cannot know without setting out on these waters ourselves.
Chapter 1

Nietzsche’s Double Rhetoric: Which Nihilism?

Stanley Rosen

Anyone who studies Nietzsche with minimal care cannot fail to be struck by the
great importance he assigns to lying and concealment. “Ah! It is impossible to
have an effect with the language of truth: Rhetoric is necessary” (KSA 9: 160–1).
The frequency of remarks of this sort in the Nietzschean corpus is balanced,
however, by a constant and increasingly violent celebration of his philosophical
and political destiny, culminating in the manic assertion “I am dynamite!”
To exaggerate slightly, Nietzsche insists openly that he sanctions, and in fact
recommends, lying and concealment. We are therefore forced to ask which
Nietzsche is telling the truth. The answer to this question is not simply a matter
of literary style. It goes to the heart of his thought. I shall argue that there are
two roads leading to that heart. Both are intended to overcome nihilism, but
both make it inevitable. “The world is throughout no organism but [rather]
chaos” (KSA 13: 373). And again: “will to power as knowledge: not ‘knowing’
but schematizing, so as to impose onto chaos as much regularity and form as
suffices for our practical needs” (KSA 13: 333).
As I read him, Nietzsche is the culmination of modern epistemology, literally
a reductio ad absurdum, not at all the founder of a new postmodern philosophy
but the last consequence of the modern scientific split between primary and
secondary attributes. As such, Nietzsche exemplifies the repudiation of natural
as well as transcendental metaphysics. If there is any trace of metaphysics in
Nietzsche, it is materialism, not idealism. But the materialism is of the construc-
tive variety; we do not, according to Nietzsche, discover but rather produce the
order of the world. In that sense, Nietzsche is a Kantian, but with an important
difference. Nietzsche has no equivalent to the transcendental ego, which he
would regard as itself a production of the will to power. But these productions
emerge from chaos, and thus lead to nihilism.
To come back to the main argument, the problem is that Nietzsche seems to
reveal his doctrines fully and loudly, while at the same time claiming that he
sanctions comprehensive lying and concealment whenever they are necessary
to protect his insights from the degradation imposed by the many. Whether
these contradictions are logical or rhetorical, they are responsible for much
obscurity in Nietzsche’s writings. They have also led to a wide range of conflict-
ing Nietzsche interpretations and assertions that it is a mistake to look for a
10 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

coherent doctrine in what is essentially a series of aesthetic observations, lack-

ing in sustained supportive argumentation.
It should come as no surprise that Nietzsche is unable to distinguish between
the principles of art on the one hand and philosophical truth on the other.
Truth is an artifact for him, and therefore it is a lie, because it pretends to be
the discovery of natural order. We thus find two main streams of modern phi-
losophy. The first conceals the truth about the artefactual, whereas the second,
largely influenced by modern science and mathematics, adopts the edifying
rhetoric of truth and repudiates lying and concealment, whatever the difficult,
even disastrous, results of this honesty. The oddity of Nietzsche is that he
accepts, or at least seems clearly to accept, both of these theoretical styles, often
in the same context.
Nietzsche advocates both reticence and boldness, concealing the truth and
shouting it from the roof tops, all in one breath. Still more precisely, he pro-
claims the truth with ever-greater boldness, namely, the truth that there is no
truth. The point must be emphasized. Whereas Nietzsche was familiar with the
doctrine of the difference between esoteric and exoteric writing, which is
explicitly discussed in section 30 of Beyond Good and Evil, it is not quite accurate
to say that he had an esoteric teaching. Nietzsche states his esoteric teaching in
full view of the public, which teaching turns out to be the same as his exoteric
So much by way of presenting the context for what follows. I turn next to
some remarks on the related characteristics of lying and concealment, as well as
their differences. To the best of my knowledge, Nietzsche does not distinguish
explicitly and systematically between lying and concealment, but the difference
is obvious. In general, lying is a form of speaking and it depends upon commu-
nication or what may be called political or social activity. Concealment may
also involve language, but it need not. One may conceal something without
being perceived, and this in two main ways—by remaining silent or by excessive
chatter: “To speak much of oneself is also a means to hide oneself” (KSA 10: 95).
The reiterated celebration of masks and concealment may indicate that
Nietzsche’s praise of lying is itself a rhetorical concealment of his deeper
thought: “Everything deep loves the mask” (BGE 40).
This point should be developed in connection with Nietzsche’s relation to
Plato. In the Nachlass of 1884 (KSA 10: 189), Nietzsche remarks: “knowingly
and willingly to lie is worth more than to say the truth involuntarily. On this,
Plato is right.” And again: “an educator never says what he himself thinks about
something, but always only what he thinks with respect to what is useful to those
whom he educates” (KSA 11: 580). As I understand this passage, it is useful to
lie for the sake of a noble end, but utility is not the same as nobility. This is more
or less reminiscent of Platonism, but there is a crucial difference. For Plato, the
noble element in the noble lie is not itself a lie. Perhaps we could call it an
Idea. In Nietzsche, however, truth itself is a lie. All lies are noble, if they achieve
Nietzsche’s Double Rhetoric: Which Nihilism? 11

a sufficient degree of power. Unfortunately, since there are no eternal or objec-

tive standards for the nobility of values, the definition of noble is a matter of the
strength of one’s will. And this is nihilism, the only alternative to which is the
equation of value with strength. There is no reason, other than that of taste and
sensibility, that validates aristocratic values for the person who lacks taste and
sensibility. And again, we come once more to nihilism.
There is little doubt that for Nietzsche, nobility is associated with conceal-
ment (= the mask). The many lack the power to preserve high culture, which
they bring down to their own level. One may also say that the many do not
deserve to come into contact with what is deeper or higher than they. In other
words, Nietzsche rejects the central premise of the French Enlightenment. This
can be made still more specific. Lying is closer to the surface than concealment.
In Nietzsche’s portrait, lying is social whereas concealment, as a steady detach-
ment from the surface, is also a turning toward isolation or solitude. There is
much here that reminds us of Freud, to mention only one explorer of subjectiv-
ity. We cannot study here the degree to which Nietzsche points us toward the
very faculty that he taught us to dissolve or “analyze.”
I want to say a word about the political significance of the doctrine of the will
to power. This concept is an extreme consequence of modern European revolu-
tions, which become progressively more violent in speech and deed. Lying and
concealment continue to hold a prominent place in modern revolutions,
thanks to the rise of pseudophilosophical ideologies, many if not all of which
equate ideological adherence with freedom of speech. Perhaps more impor-
tantly, the replacement of philosophy by ideology increases the recourse to a
double rhetoric, one part for the masses and one for the powerful few.
Nietzsche goes very far toward reliance upon this double rhetoric, so far,
indeed, that many of his readers come to see him as the champion of freedom
and creativity. Their vision is dimmed by the frequency and intensity of his
admirers, so that they are no longer shocked by what Nietzsche says bluntly.
Nietzsche can go so far as to dispense with the truth, or to reduce it to a work
of art. I shall return to this dispensation shortly.
It should now be evident that Nietzsche’s doctrine of rhetoric has been
influenced by Plato, and in particular by the doctrine of the noble lie, namely,
those that redound to the good of the city. But it is also plain that the analogy
is quite limited. Perhaps “useful” would be a better term than noble; lies are
for Nietzsche the tools by which we all, noble and ignoble, attempt to impose
our will onto others. The most powerful transform themselves into lawgivers
and commanders. Such individuals are in Nietzsche’s vocabulary world creators.
They are the paradigm of nobility.
Nietzsche does not say so explicitly, but it is obvious that he distinguishes
tacitly between lies and concealment. One can conceal oneself without speak-
ing, but lies require linguistic expression. As lying stands to discursive commu-
nity, or in a word, to politics, so concealment stands to privacy and solitude.
12 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

In Nietzsche’s lexicon, the deepest thoughts are also the highest thoughts; both
are accessible only to the poetic thinker, who both sees and creates at once.
Nietzsche is a philosopher of extremes who from time to time speaks moder-
ately for the sake of concealment.
As a corollary, I note that language is of central importance to the modern
(and postmodern) Enlightenment, whereas the status or respectability of con-
cealment, in politics and philosophy at least, steadily deteriorates. Experience
soon teaches us that openness is not the same as honesty. There are such things
as masks of transparence. Whoever enters into politics learns almost immedi-
ately that one may, and apparently must, conceal lies with masks of honesty.
There is then an inner connection between politics and lying.
In Plato’s Republic, the noble component of the noble lie is not the lie but the
nobility it serves. And this in turn is for Plato the Ideas, whereas for Nietzsche
it is continuous creation of new and ever higher values. Unfortunately,
Nietzsche’s argument seems to be circular. The noble is the powerful and the
powerful is the noble. This will be of some interest when we come to the eternal
return. Meanwhile, we continue with lying and concealment.
There is another way in which to illustrate the superiority of concealment to
lying. Consider the following passage from Stendhal, quoted by Nietzsche in
French: “A belief that is almost instinctive in me is that every powerful man lies
when he speaks, and for even stronger reasons when he writes” (KSA 13: 19).
The superior power of writing to speaking arises from the greater possibility
of concealment when one writes rather than speaking. Speeches may be judged
by actions, which speak louder than words. Conversely, it is no doubt true, as
Nietzsche himself observes, that “to speak much of oneself is also a means to
hide oneself” (KSA 10: 95). And the same is true of everyone, philosophers
and nonphilosophers alike. “If there were a God, he would need on grounds
of politeness alone to manifest himself simply as a resident of the world”
(KSA 11: 543).
Thus far we have examined the relationship between the Socratic and
Nietzschean noble lies. For Nietzsche, there is a correlation between nobility
and power. Everyone seeks to impose onto others his or her own values. The
most successful in this contest are the most noble. With the proper modifica-
tions, one could say something of the sort about Socrates and his students, but
with this crucial difference. For these thinkers, the will of the philosopher is
itself subordinate to a perception of the truth, whereas for Nietzsche, the truth
is what exerts the highest degree of power. Stated in equivalent terms, what
counts as true has been, or is being, produced by the will of the powerful per-
son. Truth is a creation of powerful human beings. It is a work of art. Art is
worth more than the truth for human life, because it is art that determines
what we regard as truth. This being so, however, it seems that the statement
about the true nature of art must itself be an artwork, and therefore an expres-
sion of the will to power. This is the same as to say that truth is a lie.
Nietzsche’s Double Rhetoric: Which Nihilism? 13

It should perhaps be obvious, but let me repeat for the sake of caution, that
Nietzsche’s praise of lying refers to the degree of utility of a given statement
for world-creations, and not to the truth value of empirical statements like
“Grass is green” or formal propositions like “2 + 2 = 4.” It is not intrinsically
better for 2 + 2 to equal four rather than five, but it is better for the sake of
the application of arithmetic to the task of creating new world-perspectives
or destroying old ones. It is helpful to think here of Kant’s distinction between
the domain of the transcendental and the empirical. For Kant, there is just
one set of transcendental, world-constituting laws, whereas for Nietzsche, the
number is endless.
Speaking very generally, there is a difference between purposely misidentify-
ing someone or something, and concealing something so that it cannot be
perceived. For the most part, there is no lie in concealment; lying begins, or
may begin, when something comes into view. Stated in another way, if we wish
to protect the genuine philosopher from the misunderstanding of the rabble,
then one must not speak or in some other way betray the nobility of his soul.
For example, philosophers must present themselves as prophets or lawgivers, or
perhaps as commanders and statesmen. More broadly stated, we move from the
love of ideas to the power of ideology.
I have been arguing that Nietzsche’s two rhetorics correspond to what he
himself distinguishes as active and passive nihilism (KSA 12: 350–2). The for-
mer is addressed to philosophers, and the latter to nonphilosophers. One could
also express this as the distinction between esoteric and exoteric teaching (KSA
12: 350, 355). It is essential for Nietzsche’s entire program, both political and
theoretical, that the distinction between the two main types of nihilism can be
preserved. In other words, there must be an enduring distinction between
the noble and the base that permits us to identify instances of each general
type. As we have seen, there is no such definite or stable distinction of this or
any other sort. Both the noble and the base deteriorate into chaos. In his own
way, Nietzsche attempts the strikingly Hegelian task of mastering chaos, but in
a poetical rather than a logical language, of which the high point is the myth of
the eternal return.
So far we have established that Nietzsche makes use of a double rhetoric in
ways that are a function of the nature of his audience. In the most important
cases, that of speaking to philosophers or more extensively to potential philo-
sophers, the problem is not so much that of safeguarding the many from dan-
gerous truths as it is of safeguarding dangerous truths from the many. The
question is that of nobility and baseness, which are beyond good and evil.
A failure to perceive this distinction is at the bottom of the defects of the late
modern European Enlightenment.
Nietzsche often provides contradictory definitions or characterizations of his
main technical terminology. He conceals his inner thoughts by masking them
with illusions or noble lies, but in so doing, he neither affirms nor denies the
14 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

truth. Let us take a concrete example: the ascetic ideal, which is developed
most fully in the third essay of the Genealogy of Morals.
It is not easy to understand what Nietzsche means by this expression. There
are almost too many senses to encompass its richness. There can be no doubt
of its importance, however. Nietzsche says “I know of hardly anything that has
had so destructive an effect on the health and racial strength of Europeans as
this ideal; one may without any exaggeration call it the true calamity in the history
of European health” (GM III: 21). We may connect it with decadence and
a sickness that debilitates life: “the ascetic ideal springs from the protective instinct
of a degenerating life which tries by all means to sustain itself and to fight for its
existence” (GM III: 13).
There is, however, another side to the ascetic ideal: “All honor to the ascetic
ideal insofar as it is honest! so long as it believes in itself and does not play tricks
on us!” (GM II: 27) In other words, Nietzsche rejects the simulacra of life-
enhancement and honors the honest efforts of decadent individuals to
preserve us from the spiritual death of nihilism (GM III: 26).

Unconditional honest atheism . . . is therefore not the antithesis of the

ascetic ideal but only one of the latest phases of its evolution . . . It is the awe-
inspiring catastrophe of two thousand years of training in truthfulness that
finally forbids itself the lie involved in belief in God. (Ibid.)

Nietzsche’s analysis of the ascetic ideal is a good example of his conceptual

style—“methodology” would be the wrong word. His key terms—ressentiment,
nihilism, truth, the philosopher—are frequently dialectical in the sense of bear-
ing two quite different, not to say opposite, meanings. In the present example,
two thousand years of truthfulness lead to the rejection of the lie required for
the belief in God. But the full understanding of the ascetic ideal includes the
knowledge of the destructive function of the revelation of the truth. Honesty is
not the least of the roads to nihilism.
Let us take another example. Consider the word “art” (Kunst). In the early
paragraphs of the third essay of the Genealogy of Morals, art is presented in a
quite unfavorable light. Nietzsche asks himself the question “What, then, is the
meaning of ascetic ideals?” And he answers: “In the case of an artist, as we see,
nothing whatever! . . . Or so many things it amounts to nothing whatever!” This is
of course not to say that artists never excel at their metier. The point is that this
metier does not include the ability to arrive at an independent understanding
of works of art, their own or those of others. “They have at all times been
valets of some morality, philosophy, or religion,” as well as surrendering to the
flattery of their admirers (GM III: 5).
It is an immediate inference from this passage that Nietzsche does not regard
artists as capable of the honest and independent search for the truth. But this
is not the whole story. In his notebooks for 1885 Nietzsche writes: “On the main
Nietzsche’s Double Rhetoric: Which Nihilism? 15

points, the artist has been more correct than all philosophers thus far,” and in
1887–88: “Art and nothing but art; it is the great enabler of life, the great
seducer to life, the great stimulus to life.” And again, Nietzsche says that he has
experienced that art is worth more than truth (KSA 11: 587; 13: 194). Art is
superior because there is no correct explanation of life, no logos, as we may
put it. Instead, there are myths of the whole, perspectives that may be rank-
ordered on the basis of their capacity to invigorate (see the various remarks
on interpretation and perspectivism in the Nachlass for 1885–86). We should
not fail to remember that Nietzsche’s own doctrine of life-enhancement by
means of art is itself a myth or work of art, not a correct philosophical analysis
of the meaning of life. This fact is obviously connected to the problem of the
place of philosophy within the rank-ordering of “explanations”—actually, inter-
pretations—of life. Throughout his writings, Nietzsche emphasizes that the
task of philosophy is to grasp the truth about the whole. But that truth is the
identification of the whole as a work of art. This is why the philosopher must
conceal the truth, as Nietzsche insists at length in Beyond Good and Evil. As
he says there, it is not so much that the rabble will be endangered by being
told the truth of things, but rather that they will vitiate that truth, bring it down
to their own level.
“Everything rare for the rare!” (BGE 43). The multitude does not deserve to
know the truth. In the Genealogy of Morals, the complementary point is made
about the few—Nietzsche both praises and criticizes those contemporaries who
regard themselves as free spirits and are not captives of the ignorance of the

They certainly believe that they are as liberated from the ascetic ideal as
possible, those free, very free spirits; and yet, to disclose to them what they
themselves cannot see—for they are too close to themselves: this ideal is
precisely their ideal, too, they themselves embody it today, and perhaps they
alone . . . They are far from being free spirits: for they still have faith in truth.
(GM III: 24)

Clearly Nietzsche values truth enormously. But in order to perceive it, he

believes, we must be liberated from unexamined bondage to anything, includ-
ing and primarily the truth itself. The only truth is that there is no truth. That
is, at the heart of Being is chaos. It is almost as though freedom is more valuable
than truth because it is a prerequisite for the truth. I think that on this point,
Nietzsche is inadequate. The experiment with respect to the value of truth is
itself the truth or a perspectivist artifact. If it is true, that is, if it is the condition
for the possibility of truth, then the doctrine of perspectivism is false. But if it is
false, then it cannot sustain an investigation into truth. Nietzsche would have
been better advised to argue that some experiments on the value of truth are
sound, because they permit us to carry out the experiment.
16 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

In sum, Nietzsche thinks in what I would call the light of a double paradigm
of art. The whole discussion of art seems to have two different and opposing
principles. The first principle is, to modify for our own purposes a phrase from
Fichte, that art is higher than Being (i.e. Being cannot limit our creativity;
Fichte says that freedom is higher than Being). To this, Nietzsche as it were adds
that Being at its heart is chaos, which he derives as a corollary from the first
principle. I cited Fichte, but one could argue that the principle lies at the heart
of modern philosophy at least since Kant. The failure of modern idealism in the
nineteenth century is virtually simultaneous with Nietzsche’s transformation
and appropriation of nineteenth-century materialism into an emotionally satis-
fying but incoherent doctrine of freedom wedded to amor fati. Unfortunately
the marriage proved unstable.
The second principle of art is that art is subordinate to Being, or what comes
to the same thing, that it cannot know the truth but only construct it to the
specifications of the philosopher-lawgiver. It is not by chance that our discus-
sion of art quickly invoked a consideration of philosophy. This is because
what I called the two conflicting principles of art are in fact also the principles
of philosophy for Nietzsche. In Nietzsche’s notebooks for 1872–73 (KSA 7: 423),
we find the following note: “the philosopher must know what is needed, and the
artist must create it.” This could have been written by Plato. Twelve years later,
Nietzsche writes in his notebooks that there are two kinds of philosophers, those
that preserve the law and those that give it (KSA 11: 611 f). “Giving” is ambigu-
ous; it could refer to a gift that we ourselves create, but also to something that
is made by someone else and then presented to us.
The issue is taken up again in the following note from 1883 (KSA 10: 278):
“The higher man must create, i.e. impress his higher Being on others . . . Matters
stand the same with the philosophers; they want to make their taste rule over
the world.” Perhaps the decisive statement in this vein is to be found in Beyond
Good and Evil 211: Nietzsche insists here upon a distinction between genuine
philosophers and their servants, the scholars and scientific laborers, the poets,
critics, historians, and so on. The philosopher must be able to see

with many different eyes and consciences, from a height and into every
distance, from the depths into every height, from a nook into every expanse.
But all these are merely preconditions of his task: the task itself demands
something different—it demands that he create values.

The passage is too long to quote in its entirety. Suffice it to say that Nietzsche
insists upon the rejection of the past by philosophers who reach for the future
with creative hands. The genuine philosophers are commanders and legisla-
tors; they say “Thus shall it be.” “Their ‘knowing’ is creating, their creating is
a legislation, their will to truth is will to power” (BGE 211). The same point is
made in the Twilight of the Idols, a late publication (1889), where Nietzsche
Nietzsche’s Double Rhetoric: Which Nihilism? 17

writes: “in order to live alone, one must be a beast or a God—says Aristotle. The
third case is missing: one must be both—a philosopher . . .” (I: 3). This passage
should be compared with one of Nietzsche’s favorite authors, Machiavelli, who
writes in Chapter 18 of The Prince that

there are two kinds of fighting: the one with laws, the other with force:
the first is proper to man, the second to beasts: but because many times the
first does not suffice, it is expedient to recur to the second. Therefore it is
necessary for a prince to know well how to use the beast and the man. This
part was taught to princes covertly by the ancient writers, who write that
Achilles, and many other ancient princes, were given to Chiron, the centaur,
to be nourished that he might raise them under his discipline. (Machiavelli
1997, p. 65)

Machiavelli goes on to develop this point with reference to the symbolic attri-
butes of the fox and the lion. There is no reference to God in Machiavelli’s
version. Nietzsche corrects Aristotle by defining the philosopher as part beast,
part God. What we are accustomed to call “renaissance humanism” is no more
present in Machiavelli than it is in Nietzsche.
So far we have three definitions of the philosopher, of which two are closely
related if not at bottom the same. First, the philosopher knows what is needed,
whereas the artist must create it. Second, philosophers either preserve or give
the law; no mention is made of art or creation. Third, philosophers can live
alone because they are constructed from a beast and a God. It is of course not
my point that these citations exhaust what Nietzsche has to say about the nature
of the philosopher, but they exhibit very well the essence of the matter.
In order to reinforce this assertion, I cite Beyond Good and Evil 61: “The phi-
losopher, as we free spirits understand him, as the man of the most comprehen-
sive responsibility, who has the conscience for the total development of man.”
To this we add that man is the perspectival animal; to assert oneself as this or
that perspective (= creator of truth) is to construct another. Eventually, the
whole circle of possible worlds negates itself (in a sense close to Hegel). Truth
is a contradiction. In traditional language, Nietzsche combines theory and
practice in a very Platonic style, with one crucial exception. There are no
eternal Ideas in Nietzsche. Instead, there is the eternal return of the same.
The first thing to be said is that Nietzsche does not claim that the myth of the
eternal return has been invented or created by some artist. He obviously wishes
to assert that he is a philosopher who has understood the difference between
philosophy and art. Without such an understanding, he could never claim to
know that art is worth more for life than the truth. Nietzsche has two compre-
hensive conceptions of the nature of philosophy, which contradict each other,
and which he never reconciles in the course of his writings, published or unpub-
lished. One conception is succinctly represented by a notebook entry for 1870–71
18 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

(KSA 7: 140); after praising the Denkerstaat of Plato’s Republic, Nietzsche says
“the mistake lies only in the Socratic concept of the city of thinkers; philoso-
phical thinking cannot build; it can only destroy.” This contention is given a
more elaborate formulation in Nietzsche’s later discussions of the doctrines
of perspectivism and interpretation. In the Genealogy of Morals (GM III: 12),
Nietzsche asserts that there is no such thing as pure knowledge. “There is only
a perspective seeing, only a perspective ‘knowing.’” And in the notebooks: “The
same text permits countless interpretations (Auslegungen) because of the inter-
pretive character of all happenings” (KSA 12: 115–20, 121: Welt-Auslegung, nicht
Let us once more state the two principles of art and philosophy: (1) the truth
is created by the process of knowing, and (2) the truth is discovered by the pro-
cess of knowing. If the first principle is sound, then we require a criterion for
distinguishing between spontaneity and chaos. If the second principle is sound,
then the truth is worth more than art for life. The first principle fulfills itself by
ending up as nihilism; the second principle empties freedom of meaning or
embraces amor fati, which is itself nihilism. The same problem arises in the
interpretation of the eternal return. It can be understood in two possible ways:
(1) It is a myth or work of art, designed to attribute maximum value to our
lives (“Was that life? Well then, once again!” as Zarathustra expresses the point).
(2) But the myth denies us our freedom and robs us of meaning, for which it
substitutes amor fati.
The upshot of these remarks is that we can neither separate nor combine
the principles of art and philosophy. We can illustrate this conclusion with the
assistance of a myth of our own. Let us say that there are two Nietzsches, whom
I shall designate as the Hyperborean and the Heraclitean. I shall use these
metaphors to represent two fundamental and conflicting philosophical orien-
tations, each of which is defended by Nietzsche in his attempt to overcome the
separation of monism and dualism or, in a different idiom, our inability to rank-
order discovery and creation. The first orientation attributes to the philosopher
the ability to see the eternal order of human life; the second orientation
explains this order as a free creation of the human will.
According to Pindar, as he is interpreted by Nietzsche, the Hyperborean
dwells far to the North, inaccessible by land and by sea. He can see us, but we
cannot see him. Nietzsche’s Hyperborean is like a denizen of eternity, who
stands at the far North of the earth, watching and measuring the movements
of the heavenly bodies. He himself is not a participant of any of these con-
stellations. That is, he is capable of understanding the rotation of the finite
world-historical perspectives, but his access to the stars detaches him from
becoming a citizen of any such perspective.
The second Nietzsche is an Ionian philosopher or Heraclitean for whom
everything flows. He is an inventor of all things, but is incapable of forcing
them to retain some stable shape. The Heraclitean would like to claim that man
Nietzsche’s Double Rhetoric: Which Nihilism? 19

is the measure of all things, but this is impossible for him, since whatever he
touches, including his measures, begins to dissolve. The question now arises: is
there some halfway house between motion and rest, something like the revers-
ible cosmos described by the Eleatic Stranger in Plato’s Statesman, which looks
in both directions, forward and backward, and for which every segment of the
circle of time corresponds to the reiteration of past and future? I believe that
for our purposes, a more useful comparison is that between Plato’s myth in the
Phaedrus and the Nietzschean eternal return. In the Phaedrus, the philosopher’s
bipartite soul is represented as a team of winged horses, one noble and the
other base, standing on the roof of the rotating cosmos, from which vantage-
point his dual nature both facilitates and interferes with his vision of the
hyperuranian beings.
In other words, this gives us at best a moving image of eternity. If we interpret
the myth in Hyperborean terms, the heavenly bodies are accessible to us as
cosmological or world-defining perspectives onto the succession of historical
stages. The motion of the stars both blurs and preserves our perceptions of
them. From a Heraclitean perspective, there are no stars, or there are at most
the reflection of the stars in flowing water.
On this interpretation of the myth of the eternal return of the same, both
Plato and Nietzsche have the same goal, namely, to overcome the split (and so
to overcome the separate development of rest and motion without reducing
one to the other). This was a common enterprise in nineteenth-century conti-
nental philosophy, especially German. The only major thinker to my knowledge
to spell out this enterprise in rational terms is Hegel. Nietzsche is perhaps the
most influential thinker of late modernity to attempt to finesse the collapse of
monism and dualism with myth and poetry. Whether it be because of the impos-
sibility of that enterprise or due to some limitation on Nietzsche’s part, he does
not succeed. A major sign of his failure is his inability to distinguish philosophy
and art. Philosophy becomes an artifact.
Otherwise stated, it is the function of philosophy to articulate the structure of
art. Nietzsche owes us a rank-ordering of philosophy and art that cannot itself
be just a work of art. How this is possible for a thinker who believes that life
“rests upon delusion, art, deception, optics, the necessity of the perspectivist
and of error” is not clear. (BT “Preface” 5). What is clear, however, is that the
two Nietzsches both end up in nihilism. The noble or active nihilism is indeed
an expression of the will to power. As such, it turns out to be the vulgar or base
Chapter 2

Toward a New Aristocracy: Nietzsche contra

Plato on the Role of a Warrior Elite
Michael Allen Gillespie

Friedrich Nietzsche is an inspiring and troubling thinker. He calls humanity to

awe-inspiring heights, but argues that these heights can only be attained by
a few extraordinary human beings who have been hardened by centuries of
warfare. He despises equality as an invention of slaves, denies that freedom is
anything but a relative superiority in power, and sees the desire for peace and
prosperity as a decrepit hedonism at odds with human thriving. He points us
toward the superhuman, but the path to this superhumanity is one of domina-
tion and destruction. While many have admired and drawn on his critique of
liberalism and have recognized the powerful appeal of his hope for a new
nobility, few other than the Fascists have been willing to affirm his unstinting
elitism and his claim that violence is essential to human well-being. For liberals
these elements of his thought have been anathema.
In an effort to separate the awe-inspiring from the terrifying and use his
thought to strengthen or ennoble liberalism, many scholars have argued that
Nietzsche’s antiegalitarianism and penchant for violence are merely literary
tropes, and that his talk of war and warriors is only about the struggle of ideas,
not real combat. In the light of the damage done to Nietzsche’s reputation by
the world wars and the Holocaust, such interpretative efforts are perhaps under-
standable as a means to reawaken attention to his thought, but we should not
be misled by them. The evidence from Nietzsche’s notes and letters demon-
strates overwhelmingly that he longed for the destruction of liberal democracy
and hoped to foster in its wake a martial aristocracy out of which his superman
might arise. Real war and the development of a warrior elite were essential to
his task. Opponents of liberalism such as Deleuze and Foucault may accept
Nietzsche’s bellicose criticism of liberalism as akin to their own, but they reject
his critique of democracy and support for aristocracy. Or rather they argue
that the ironic, self-undermining character of Nietzsche’s thought makes it pos-
sible to read his apparent advocacy of a vertical order of rank as supporting a
horizontal order of difference that is, at its core, essentially democratic. While
this deconstructed and reconstructed Nietzsche might be preferable to the
Toward a New Aristocracy 21

actual Nietzsche, no one with any concern for evidence can doubt that such
democratic views are completely at odds with everything the historical
Nietzsche actually believed.
This chapter begins with an examination of the role of violence in political
life through an analysis of the problem of Achilles. It then focuses on the
Platonic solution to this problem. This framework provides us with the basis
for understanding Nietzsche’s advocacy of violence, war, and a warrior elite as
essential steps to the realization of his superman.

Violence and the Political: The Necessity and

Danger of Warriors
Mao Zedong, whose early teacher was the first to translate Nietzsche into
Chinese, famously remarked that power grows out of the barrel of a gun. While
this dramatic claim was certainly hyperbolic, it was not merely rhetorical. Even
if violence is not always necessary to gaining power, it often is, and it is essential
to the preservation of all regimes. Violent force is not merely needed to defend
the state from foreign invasion; it is also necessary for the maintenance of inter-
nal order. Thus Locke famously defines political power as

a right of making laws with penalties of death, and consequently all lesser
penalties for the regulating and preserving of property, and of employing the
force of the community, in the execution of such laws, and in the defence of
the commonwealth from foreign injury; and all this only for the public good.
(Locke 1967, p. 268)

While violence may be necessary, the regime itself is not merely the rule of
force. In fact, it rests on the legitimate use of force.1 For the use of violence to be
legitimate it must be authorized, and it must be for the general good rather
than the good of any particular group or individual. Violence thus can only be
an element of the political if it serves something higher, that is, if it obeys an
authority that arises out of a bond of affiliation that makes the political realm a
community rather than a collection of disparate individuals struggling for
power. This said, it is clear that the ever-recurring need for force endangers the
political. The force that is necessary to preserve the regime can also be used to
destroy it, transforming a community into an imperium governed not by agree-
ment but by violence. Those who use force on behalf of the regime thus are a
constant and unavoidable threat to the political realm. Indeed, the preeminent
political problem is how to limit, control, and direct the use of violence.
The creation and preservation of the political realm depends on restraining
those who use force, that is, restraining the warriors. The first question we need
22 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

to ask then is who the warrior is and how he differs from other citizens. In the
simplest sense the warrior is a person who is willing to kill or be killed, someone
who is both courageous and cruel. The “and” here is of considerable impor-
tance. There are obviously those who are courageous but not cruel, just as there
are those who are cruel but not courageous. Neither of these are warriors. The
former are saints or moral heroes, the latter criminals or sociopaths. Both types
are rare and their combination is even rarer.
The archetypal warrior in the Western tradition is Achilles. He is a naturally
ferocious man—a lover of discord (as Agamemnon correctly describes him at
Iliad 1.177), who longs above all else for glory on the battlefield. He believes
he will attain immortal fame by being foremost in slaughtering enemies. While
we are likely to see him as a psychopath, the Greeks saw him as something
superhuman, the manifestation of a primal cosmological power.
What distinguishes Achilles from other humans is the character of his eros, his
love or drive. Humans as they appear in the Iliad are pulled toward one of the
three human goods: power, honor, or pleasure. The story of the Iliad focuses on
Achilles’ monomaniacal pursuit of honor, which is contrasted to Agamemnon’s
pursuit of power and Paris’s pursuit of sensual pleasure. The warrior, as seen
through this lens, is possessed by the desire for honor and driven mad, over-
come by rage, when it is denied him. This is no accident. Rage is a particular
danger for the warrior because it is rage that makes him ferocious and thus
effective. In this respect Achilles is quite different than Hector, who “learned to
be courageous.” One cannot learn to be cruel, hard, or unrelenting without a
natural ferocity. Such ferocity, however, is a great danger because it can turn
into rage with one’s fellows. While the warrior is necessary, he is thus also a
constant danger to the community. Indeed, in the Iliad (1.3–5) the misdirected
ferocity of Achilles is the source of the disaster that shatters the community,
bringing “countless ills upon the Achaeans.”
While the warrior is necessary to political life, he is thus also a source of insta-
bility. Indeed, political life can only be sustained when the warrior is convinced
that he has been properly recognized. He then is willing to subordinate himself
to political authority. The preservation of the political realm thus depends
on the warrior recognizing that unless he puts the well-being of his friends or
fellow citizens above his own honor he is merely “a useless weight on the good
earth,” as a grieving Achilles puts it in the Iliad (18.104). The political realm can
only come into existence if the warrior uses violence in the service of his friends,
family, and fellow citizens, and it is only through his continued support that it
can be sustained. The ferocious warrior who turns against the community
destroys the political. He is willing to do whatever is necessary to secure his
mastery and recognition as lord. This warrior wants to rule absolutely, that is to
be tyrant, and to gather to himself not merely the supreme honors he deserves
but also everything else he even remotely desires.
Toward a New Aristocracy 23

The Lure of Tyranny: Plato versus the Sophists

for the Soul of the Warrior
Perhaps more than any other ancient thinker, Plato recognized the need to
restrain the warriors’ penchant to use violence to obtain absolute power. He
tried to deflect them from this endeavor by showing them that it was incompat-
ible with their own well-being. He was particularly concerned with this problem
because he believed that the excessive freedom of Athenian life produced the
immoderation and corruption that were the breeding ground of tyranny.
Instead of simply pursuing glory, ambitious Athenian warriors would, he feared,
be drawn to power and pleasure as well. He was concerned that such men, influ-
enced by the sophists, would then seek to become tyrants.
The Republic is centrally focused on the problem posed by the warrior in
an open society such as Athens. The dialogue begins with the attempt by
Polemarchus (whose name means “war leader”) and his roving band of young
men/warriors to “capture” Socrates and Glaucon and have them do their bid-
ding by accompanying them to the house of Cephalus, Polemarchus’s father.
Polemarchus tells Socrates that he must either prove stronger or do as they say.
This beginning is highly reminiscent of Thucydides’ Melian dialogue in which
the Athenians tell the council of Melos that the city must submit because it is a
law of nature that the strong do as they wish and the weak as they must. In this
respect the problem of the rule of force in the Republic is presented as the result
of the internalization of the desire for imperium that characterized Athenian
foreign policy.
In response to Polemarchus’ demand, Socrates suggests that there is another
possibility, that he might persuade them to let him go, but Polemarchus answers
that this won’t work because they won’t listen. This sets the problem that the
rest of the dialogue addresses—how can one convince warriors to act civilly
rather than tyrannically and thus how can one make them loyal citizens of the
polis rather than wild beasts who want to destroy it? The initial problem in the
Republic though is how to get the warriors to listen, to participate in dialogue
with their fellow citizens rather than simply using force. One answer to this
question is suggested in the opening scene when Adeimantus, who is a member
of Polemarchus’ band but also the brother of Glaucon and the student of
Socrates, takes Socrates’ remark as a suggestion and seeks to persuade them to
come along. Consanguinity and friendship clearly play a role in moderating the
warrior’s demands or at least his methods, just as they did in the Iliad.
While the contending parties reach a modus vivendi as a result of Adeiman-
tus’s intervention, this peace is upset when they reach the house of Cephalus by
the sophist Thrasymachus (whose name means “fierce fighter”), who seeks to
convince the young men that as warriors they should not just stand with their
friends against their enemies but use power to shape the laws to their own
24 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

advantage. In other words, he claims that the stronger (i.e., the warriors) should
be tyrants. The rest of the Republic is essentially Socrates’ attempt to convince
these young men/warriors not only that they should not want to be tyrants but
that they should voluntarily subject themselves to the rule of the philosopher.
Indeed, the argument developed in the Republic purports to show that this is the
only way they can be happy. Socrates argues in books 2–9 that in the best regime
they and all of their fellow warriors would be brought up to accept this notion
as a matter of course, but that even if such a regime does not come to be, they
can and should still live according to its laws, avoiding the lure of tyranny, and
following a philosopher such as Socrates if one is available or, if not, at least
following his precepts.
The argument in the Republic is twofold. The major argument responds to the
claim that the life of the thoroughly unjust man, that is, the tyrant, is superior
to the life of the just man. To refute this position Socrates has to show that the
life of the just man, even when he is thought to be a perfect villain, is more
choiceworthy than the life of the tyrant who is mistakenly honored as the city’s
greatest benefactor. The second argument, presented as an analogy supporting
the first, describes the best regime, a true community in which the people as a
whole and the warriors in particular are happier than in any other city.
The argument presented in the Republic assumes that there are three goods
humans strive for—pleasure, honor, and wisdom. Plato knows that many men
strive for power and wealth but treats these as merely instrumental to the pur-
suit of the primary goods. Thrasymachus, Glaucon, and Adeimantus suggest
that spirited men should strive for power so that they can enjoy all the goods. In
countering this argument, Socrates has to show that spirited men do not want
all the goods but only those that will make them happy. He thus argues, perhaps
with Achilles in mind, that spirited men/warriors need honor above all other
things, with a modicum of wisdom and pleasure added in order to be happy. He
also demonstrates that power is not choiceworthy because it is a burden rather
than a benefit. He thus believes he has proven that the warriors’ happiness will
be better served by being ruled by philosophy rather than by being tyrants.
This argument in the Republic rests on a number of problematic assumptions.
The first is the notion that each human being has a specific natural ability (one
man, one art) and consequently a specific nature that is preeminently satisfied
by just one of the primary goods. This becomes the basis for the caste system in
the ideal city, reinforced by the noble lie (myth of the metals). The second is
the idea that it is possible to determine what an individual’s nature is at a rela-
tively young age. The third is that the rulers of the city can master and direct eros
in ways that will avoid the conflict over specific sexual objects such as that in the
Iliad (the community of women). The fourth is that the rulers can organize
reproduction to overcome the love of and preference for one’s own offspring
(the community of children). The fifth is that the warriors will be content with
being housed and fed at public expense and will not try to accumulate private
Toward a New Aristocracy 25

wealth (communism). And finally, the sixth is that the philosopher will be able
to determine who must marry whom in order to sustain the caste system and to
produce other philosophers who can do the same (the nuptial number).
Plato recognizes that these assumptions are at best problematic. This is
evident in the account Socrates gives of the decline of the regime in books 8
and 9, where it becomes clear that the warriors are not naturally attracted to
a single good but choose an ever-greater assortment of goods including exces-
sive honor (timocracy), unlimited wealth (oligarchy), every available pleasure
(democracy), and finally all good things whatsoever (tyranny). Hidden in this
account is the recognition that the attraction to tyranny is powerful among the
warriors and can only be overcome by equally powerful restraints. There are, of
course, multiple structural constraints upon the warriors but the success of the
regime depends finally on its system of education.
The goal of the educational system in the Republic is to soften the warrior
class. It is true that warriors are chosen because they are spirited, but being
spirited does not mean that they are ferocious, and thus liable to the kind of
rage that burst forth so disastrously in Achilles. Plato’s warriors do not fight
because they are filled with an unbearable passion that seeks release in battle
but because they have the right opinion about what is terrible, fearing shame
more than death, and desiring fame or glory more than pleasure or wisdom.
Their courage is thus rational and not passionate. In this respect they are an
amalgam of Achilles who was made strong and hard by “Zeus’s ordinance” and
Hector who “learned to be courageous.” Plato’s warriors are thus chosen
because of their disposition but they are formed and constrained by their
The Iliad sought to demonstrate that the warrior is caught in a contradiction
between the love of his friends and his demand to be honored above them. He
thus inevitably comes to a tragic end. In the long run, he cannot sustain friend-
ships and thus cannot be a fellow citizen. Plato agrees this is a problem, but
argues that a regime can be constructed that allows warriors to attain honor
and enjoy perfect friendship with their fellows, if they give up political power,
wealth, the exclusive right to particular sexual partners, and offspring that they
recognize as their own (i.e., if they give up all of the goods that were the source
of conflict in the Iliad).
Within the Republic this choice is made possible by the educational system
that produces not freely thinking individuals but “noble dogs,” who do good to
friends and harm to enemies, and are indifferent to their sexual partners,
wealth, and offspring. This educational system is supplemented by a social sys-
tem that makes the accumulation of wealth, women, and offspring impossible,
but that also gives warriors performance bonuses in the form of sexual prizes
(although from among other warriors and not captives). In contrast to the
Spartan system (that it is often wrongly thought to resemble), the system of
education in the Republic emphasizes training in music and de-emphasizes
26 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

physical training or gymnastics. The goal is not to heighten ferocity but to

temper it. The warrior in this sense will not be driven by the need to vent his
innate ferocity but by a rational desire for his own happiness. This is markedly
in contrast to the Spartan goal of making the citizen as ferocious (and yet as
obedient) as possible.
The model of a warrior is presented to children in poetic depictions of the
gods, the demigods, and human heroes, sanitized to constrain and direct the
imagination of the protowarrior to the proper objects. In contrast to the work
of Homer and Hesiod, these new works are to portray the world not as tragically
broken but as harmonious, governed not by a dark and incomprehensible fate
but by a (single) good and rational god who rewards meritorious behavior and
punishes evil. In this world the warrior is not the epitome of cosmological trag-
edy but a particular type of human being who has a role to play in a harmonious
political order. At the core of this order is the belief that each individual has a
character that falls in one of the three classes and that each has an employment
and reward suitable to his or her nature. That all of these teachings are intended
to resist the natural tendency of warriors to desire and appropriate all things is
evident in the fact that the ultimate rule for the censors is that no one may
depict a tyrant as happy.
Importantly, the Republic suggests that the philosopher king is drawn from
the warrior class, although he only becomes a philosopher by means of a higher
education in mathematics, astronomy, antistrophe, and above all dialectic. In
contrast to any ruler in the Iliad or in earlier Greek tragedy, the philosopher
king can thus serve as a true pilot for the ship of state, avoiding all of the rocks
and obstacles that might bring the ship down. Or to use the language of the
Statesman, he is the master weaver who combines all of the threads of society
into one single if elaborate fabric.
The possibility of founding and maintaining the best regime thus depends on
the philosopher king. However, the philosopher king must die, and as hard as
he may try to produce a successor out of the available human material, he will
not always succeed. The best regime thus remains subject to the laws of time
and must perish, giving rise to a series of regimes that tend increasingly toward
As disheartening as the inevitable decline of the best regime may be, it is
the failure of this utopian project that underpins the practical moral project
that is the immediate goal of the Republic. Plato knew that there could be no
decent politics in Athens without warriors who were willing to resist the degen-
eration of democracy into tyranny. The goal of the Republic and of the Academy
was thus not just to produce the best regime—a difficult task heavily dependent
on accident or divine intervention. Rather Plato hoped to sustain the political
community by preventing its further decline into tyranny. Plato’s efforts
(recounted in the Seventh Letter) to turn Dionysius of Syracuse in a less
Toward a New Aristocracy 27

tyrannical direction, and the efforts of Plato’s student Dion to overthrow

Dionysius (recounted in Plutarch’s Life of Dion) testify to these purposes.
In his efforts to convince the warrior classes to avoid tyranny, Plato never
suggests that war or warriors could or should be eliminated. Indeed, while he
seeks to reduce the likelihood of war by reducing excessive consumption and
production, and by limiting contact with other cities, he recognizes that war-
riors will be needed even in the best regime, and the account of the develop-
ment of the philosopher in Book 7 suggests that he comes out of the warrior
class and is intimately acquainted with war making. Finally, insofar as the phi-
losopher also serves as king and has to manage the state, he must lead the army
as well. Thus, for Plato, the philosopher must be harder than we might imagine,
experienced in war and war making, and thus able to use and command the use
of violent force.

Of Lions and Supermen: Nietzsche’s Warriors

In contrast to Plato, who lived in a period of constant warfare, Nietzsche lived

during an extended period of European peace. Like Plato, he served in the
military, although not in a combat role, caring for wounded soldiers as a hospi-
tal attendant during the Franco-Prussian War. While he bemoaned the waste of
human life in combat, he was more concerned that the German victory would
leave Germany culturally destitute (DS 1; TI “What the Germans Lack”). He saw
the victory as the result of technical superiority in the organization of men and
material and not as the result of a higher, more heroic culture. He was thus
concerned that the Germans would be less cognizant of the need to revive the
classical elements in their culture that he believed were necessary to rejuvenate
the German spirit.2
From his earliest days Nietzsche was concerned with the German cultural
decline. This decline was the result of what he characterized at various points
in his career as the dominance of commercial society, the triumph of philis-
tinism, the death of God, the advent of nihilism, the growth of decadence, the
decline in European life energies, and the triumph of slave over master moral-
ity. The outward forms of this decline included a preference for democracy
over aristocracy, the spread of the doctrine that work had value, a longing for a
world without conflict, the degeneration of art and music into a disingenuous
spectacle, the increasing dominance of a morality of pity, and a hypersensitivity
to suffering. He was convinced that this decline, which had begun with Plato
and that found its foremost expression in Christianity (“Platonism for the
people”), had brought Europe to the verge of total collapse. He at times even
seems to have suspected that the European civilization would disappear as a
result of mass suicide.
28 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

As desperate as he believed things were, Nietzsche was not without hope.

Indeed, he believed that the death of God and the advent of nihilism opened
up the possibility for a new beginning. While this greatest of all recent events
would bring about the collapse of European morality and usher in a long period
of war and destruction, it would also wipe clean the cultural horizon so that a
new beginning would be possible. During the coming epoch humanity would
face a great choice. At this “great noon,” humanity would have to decide
between two paths, one that led to the last man and the other to the superman.
The role of war and the warrior in Nietzsche’s thought is bound up with this
development. In order to understand this, however, we need to examine the
grounds for Nietzsche’s conviction that such a crisis was at hand, the nature of
this crisis, and what he believed was necessary to overcome it.
Man, as Nietzsche understands him, is not a rational animal, a cogito, or a
form of self-consciousness. He is a willing being. The will itself, however, has a
number of forms and any particular human falls somewhere on a spectrum of
possibilities. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra declares that man is a rope over an abyss,
stretching between beast and superman. What does this mean? While Nietzsche
does not deny that humans are self-conscious, consciousness in his view is only
the tip of the human iceberg. Most of what we are is concealed beneath the
surface. Each of us is not a mind or a soul but a self, which Nietzsche identifies
with the body. This body is not the physical mechanism we typically identify as
the body but a multiplicity of passions striving with one another for dominance.
Despite our conscious experience of these passions as our own, they are in fact
expressions of drives or instincts that are, at bottom, all moments of a world will
or cosmological force that Nietzsche calls the will to power. This world will is the
constant struggle among all things for dominance and for self-overcoming.
Within humans this will manifests itself as the struggle of competing passions
for dominance. Strength and power are a function not merely of the strength
of particular passions but of their organization. Humans are strong and power-
ful when all of their contending passions are subdued by a dominant passion
(which Nietzsche calls one’s “virtue”). This strength is the result of the refocus-
ing of all the psychic energy by establishing a hierarchy or what Nietzsche calls
a rank order of values. Being human in his view thus means organizing oneself
hierarchically by ordering values or passions.
While power comes from establishing a hierarchy that concentrates the
force of all the drives in a single direction, weakness and degeneration are the
result of the disintegration and collapse of such a hierarchy. Nietzsche believed
that the crisis that he saw afflicting European civilization was the result of the
breakdown of the longstanding hierarchical order that had shaped European
humanity. The highest values, as Nietzsche put it, devalue themselves. These
values for the last two thousand years have derived from the Christian vision of
God, and the entire moral and political system that was built upon this idea
of God. The death of the Christian God and the advent of nihilism thus have
Toward a New Aristocracy 29

eliminated the external authority that established order in the self and in
This collapse poses the greatest danger humanity has ever had to face. With
the destruction of the prevailing hierarchy, humans both individually and col-
lectively are pulled in conflicting directions by competing desires. Nietzsche
believed such a decline was already underway, and was reflected in the develop-
ment of liberal democracy and commercial society that legitimated and sought
to satisfy every desire. This development in his view was concomitant with the
appearance of the democratic self that has no order of rank or self-discipline.
Freedom in this context means the absence of any external or internal impedi-
ment to one’s momentary desires. For contemporary humans in democratic
and commercial societies every passion is equal and equally deserving of satis-
faction. They recognize nothing as more valuable than anything else, and are
thus unable to subordinate (or sublimate) any passion or desire. Since power
and strength arise from such subordination, humanity becomes decisively
weaker. Under these circumstances happiness derives not from living virtuously
but from the immediate satisfaction of desire. Nietzsche calls this human being
the last man not because he stands at the end of history, but because he is the
last human possibility before the beasts who are dominated entirely by instinct
and desire.
The other possibility, which Nietzsche espouses, is an ascent from present-day
decadence to the superman, the titanic figure that haunts all of his works (see
Fink 1988, pp. 203–19). This possibility, however, is distant and can only be
achieved by an arduous journey. There are three forms of humanity or three
ways of being human between the last man and the superman: the camel spirit,
lion spirit, and child.3 They are stages of development on the way to the super-
man. The camel, Nietzsche argues, bears a great burden because he is a believer.
This form of human life, which Nietzsche identifies with Christianity, came into
existence in opposition to the master morality that dominated the ancient
world. It is an expression of the “slave revolt in morals” that draws on Plato,
projecting the origin of values into a “real” world as opposed to the “apparent”
world in which we live our everyday lives.4 A hierarchical organization of the
self and of society is established for the camel not in order to gain goods in
this world but to attain salvation in the next. The death of God and the advent
of nihilism, which have their origin in the Christian demand for truth that
reveals that God is merely a human creation, have made this form of life
With the advent of nihilism, man is left in limbo, no longer a believer but also
unable to believe in himself or in a superhuman possibility. In Zarathustra,
Nietzsche attempts to render this possibility more palpable by sketching out the
path from the camel spirit to the superman (Z I: 1). The transition from the
camel/believer to the superman/creator passes through a series of stages, with
the camel transformed first into a lion, the lion into a child, and the child
30 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

finally into the superman.5 According to Nietzsche, this is the only way to this
goal. No leap of the imagination or faith can traverse the great gulf that sepa-
rates us from the superman. While it is only a short way from the camel to the
last man, that is, from the Christian believer to the utility-maximizing consumer,
there is no easy route upward. This path requires not just a new way of thinking
but a new way of being, and that means the reformation of the body, by which
Nietzsche means the self and the passions.
Each new stage of human existence is possible only on the basis of the estab-
lishment of a different hierarchy of the passions and drives, that is, only on the
basis of a physiological change in the nature of the human. A new hierarchy thus
can only be established as the result of a new disciplining of the passions and
this in Nietzsche’s view requires violence and war. The path to the superman for
Nietzsche is thus open only to warriors.
The first step on this path is the metamorphosis of the camel into the lion.
The lion, according to Zarathustra, creates a new freedom by saying a sacred
“No” to the “thou shalt” that governs the obedient camel/believer. The lion-
spirited man is the destroyer of old values, the slayer of the dragon on each of
whose scales is inscribed a “thou shalt.” He is above all a destroyer. In his late
notes he calls this type of man an active nihilist and identifies him with Russian
nihilists such as Nechaiev. Such destroyers are needed to complete the destruc-
tion of Christianity, to push over the husk of the old God, and to destroy
the hollow idols that continue to shape human behavior when the belief in
God is gone.6
The elimination of the worn-out shell of the old order is only the first step
in the transition to the superman. With the collapse of the old order, humanity
in Nietzsche’s view will be engulfed in chaos and destruction. It will be a period
of unparalleled ferocity with wars the like of which the world has never seen
(EH “Destiny” 1).7 While many might find this prospect horrifying, Nietzsche is
less concerned about the coming carnage and looks to the future with a new
cheerfulness that grows out of his sense of liberation (GS 343). His disgust with
late-nineteenth-century Europe, with the idea of human dignity and the value
of labor—the most abysmal forms of slave morality—is profound, and he longs
for its destruction in the belief that the resulting chaos and war will promote a
new manliness, and help humanity to recover from the weakening, softening,
and decadence that Christianity brought about. He is convinced that only in
the cauldron of war can humanity be hardened and overcome pity, which
Zarathustra refers to as his final sin. This hardening is not merely a mental
toughening, but primarily the training and disciplining of the body, of the self
and its passions. In particular it includes the elimination of sympathy for the
suffering of others. Lest one imagine that Nietzsche intends this in a merely
metaphorical sense, he specifically points to the brutal heroes of the Norse
sagas, whom he praises for their unfeeling hardheartedness, as models for what
he has in mind (BGE 260).8 Contemporary human beings in his view are a herd
Toward a New Aristocracy 31

of consumers; he wants humans who are warriors and beasts of prey. Such men
in his view will learn discipline in the midst of war and destruction or they will
not survive.9 Out of these ferocious barbarians will grow a new aristocracy,
repeating a process Nietzsche believes has occurred many times before.
How this process will unfold and modify the barbarism of the “blond beasts”
is not something that Nietzsche (in contrast to Plato) considers in any great
detail. He does not develop a system of education for this elite although he
assumes they will be transformed and acculturated. That music and perhaps
dramatic festivals will play a role seems certain but what this role will be and
how it will be concretely achieved is not something that Nietzsche laid out. He
was much more interested in convincing his contemporaries to choose the path
that leads to such an aristocracy rather than with detailing how this aristocracy
should be forged, trained, and ennobled.
It is out of this aristocracy that Nietzsche believes first the child and then the
superman will arise. This will take a long time. In his later thought he speculates
that a period of two hundred years of war will be necessary, although this is obvi-
ously only a guess based probably on the historical examples of Greece, Rome,
and Renaissance Italy. He argues that this period of destruction will end with
the founding of a thousand-year Dionysian kingdom ruled by the superman.
But who is this superman? And how will he come into being?
The first stage in this process is the metamorphosis of the lion into the child.
What characterizes the child in Nietzsche’s view is his innocence, his psycho-
logical freedom from the dead hand of the past or what Nietzsche’s Zarathustra
calls the spirit of revenge. The spirit of revenge arises in the lion spirit as a
desire to liberate oneself from the past, from the “It was.” The past imposes a
terrible burden on the will because it limits spontaneity and thus creativity. The
will is thus never able to be truly active and remains merely reactive. The weight
of the “it was” thus presses on the will and threatens to crush it. Zarathustra
personifies this burden as the “spirit of gravity.” In his early work, Nietzsche
thought this problem could be overcome by forgetfulness, which he character-
ized repeatedly as a positive power. Forgetfulness frees us from the psychologi-
cal burden of the past and allows us to act as if we were willing spontaneously
and creatively, to will “naively” and not “sentimentally,” to use Schiller’s famous
distinction. Such forgetfulness allows humans to attain a new innocence. It is
this innocence that characterizes the child, the offspring and successor of the
lion-spirited destroyers who would obliterate European civilization and the
burden of its history.
Despite the attractiveness of such a restored innocence, Nietzsche came to
realize that the hope for such a forgetting is illusory, and that a more profound
solution is needed. This is portrayed in Zarathustra as Zarathustra’s growing
need to face his most abysmal thought. Nietzsche seems to have realized with
the development of his somatic psychology that mere forgetfulness was insuffi-
cient because the past was not merely written in consciousness but inscribed in
32 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

the body. The past, as the immense chain of causes leading up to this moment,
might be forgotten but it would still be supremely powerful. Here the impact of
the Stoics and Schopenhauer on Nietzsche was profound, although he did not
believe they were correct in their view that the past had to be accepted. Mere
acceptance led only to apatheia (in the case of the Stoics) or to resignation (in
the case of Schopenhauer), which Nietzsche equated with decadence and weak-
ness. To free oneself from the past and the spirit of revenge it was necessary that
it be affirmed.
In order to affirm the past it is necessary, as Zarathustra enigmatically puts it,
“to will backwards.” To be free from the dead hand of the past and from the
spirit of revenge one must will it and by this Zarathustra means something more
than merely affirming everything that has occurred, however horrible or dis-
tressing, because it has produced some perfect moment in the present (as
Goethe’s Faust does). Rather one must always have already willed it as it is in its
entirety with all of its horrors. This is only possible in Nietzsche’s view if one
affirms the doctrine of the eternal recurrence of all things, the idea that the
whole is a titanic recurring cycle. To affirm this doctrine it is necessary to will all
of the moments that have been and all that will be.
To will something for Nietzsche means to love it. To will all things, one must
thus love each thing in its own right and not merely because it leads to some-
thing else. This is what Nietzsche calls amor fati. To will in this sense means not
merely saying yes to all things but doing them, accepting all things as one’s own
doing, as my deed, and as a deed that I would repeat over and over again. This is
extraordinarily difficult, something that Dostoevsky, for example, was unable or
unwilling to achieve. In considering the torture of innocent children, his Ivan
Karamazov argues that there can be no possible justification for a God that
allows such things to occur. He thus “gives back his ticket.” He cannot say yes to
such things let alone imagine doing them himself. Nietzsche, by contrast, seeks
to say yes to life (and life’s god, Dionysus) even in its most abysmal incarnations.
Affirming the doctrine of the eternal recurrence of all things means affirming
the torture of children, indeed recognizing oneself as their torturer.
Only the affirmation of this doctrine makes possible the metamorphosis of
the child into the superman. This “most abysmal thought” almost kills Zarathus-
tra when he finally succeeds in calling it to consciousness. Digesting it, however,
allows him to become affirmative in a new and more profound way, not merely
forgetting the past but remembering and loving it as his own deed or creation.
It is this affirmation that finally frees one from the spirit of revenge and makes
possible true creativity, and it is this creative, self-affirming will that character-
izes the superman.
While the end of Nietzsche’s project is the creation of a superman, he never
describes this Promethean being with any specificity. He is reluctant to do
so because such a qualitatively superior being cannot be understood. He will be
to man, Nietzsche asserts, as man is to the ape (Z “Preface” 3). The implication
Toward a New Aristocracy 33

is that we can no more imagine the character of his existence than the ape
could ours. Nietzsche thus describes him only obliquely and allusively. In Zara-
thustra he is the vintager with the diamond knife for whom only future songs
will find names (Z III: 14). In Beyond Good and Evil, he is the genius of the heart
who wants man stronger, more evil, more profound, and more beautiful (BGE
295). In the works of 1888 he is Dionysus or Dionysus Philosophos. In his late
notes he is characterized as an artist-tyrant. In one note, Nietzsche describes
him as Caesar with the soul of Christ (KGW VII 2: 289). What distinguishes the
superman is that he is able and willing to create and thus also to destroy on a
monumental scale. He can and does use violence but does so only positively
and creatively. He is free from the spirit of revenge and loves all that has been
or will be (see Gillespie 2005). He is in other words hard and pitiless but not
intentionally cruel. He is a warrior but also an artist, who will lead humanity not
toward some abstract or universal good but toward a goal determined by his
dominant passion. The explicit character of his relation to others and to the
warrior aristocracy in particular is never spelled out. He remains a distant prom-
ise intended to justify the age of death and destruction that Nietzsche believes
is just over the horizon. Indeed, the image of this being is a siren’s song calling
to those who despair in the midst of bourgeois society to throw themselves into
the stream and risk death in pursuit of a superhumanity.

Nietzsche Contra Plato

Nietzsche repeatedly describes himself as an implacable enemy of Plato and

Christianity, which he calls “Platonism for the people.” Many Nietzsche scholars
and postmodernists accept this claim unquestioningly. There is reason to doubt,
however, that it is true. Nietzsche recognizes that there are crucial differences
between the thought of Plato and Christianity. He claims that Plato was a noble
young Greek seduced by Socrates into questioning and criticizing the master
morality of his time. Even if this were true, it would not prove that Plato (or
Socrates) was a manifestation of the slave revolt in morals Nietzsche sees at the
heart of Christianity. Plato may seek to soften or temper the warrior morality
exemplified in the Iliad and manifest in the Peloponnesian War, but tempering
the warrior culture is not the same as abandoning, reversing, or overthrowing
it. Warriors play a decisive role in Plato’s ideal regime and the philosopher
king himself comes from the warrior class and not from the class of priests,
craftsmen, or farmers. In the Republic, the meek do not inherit the earth. To be
sure, they are not viciously abused and indeed are reasonably well off by com-
parison to the actual regimes of Plato’s time, but they do not rule and they are
not models for a virtuous or pious life. Plato’s ideal regime may be less tyranni-
cal and more paternalistic than typical Greek states, but it is still well within the
parameters of what Nietzsche calls master morality. Even if one assumes that
34 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

Plato’s real goal was not to realize the ideal regime but only to prevent a slide
into the worst regime, that is, into tyranny, he still cannot be counted as favor-
ing the slaves or lower classes. He does not call upon craftsmen and farmers
to rise up in revolution or to martyr themselves nor does he suggest that the
warriors should feel guilty for their actions. Moreover, while he suggests Greeks
ought not be enslaved, he does not suggest that slavery be abolished. He tries to
convince the young men/warriors not that tyranny is morally wrong because of
the harm it does to others but because of the harm it does to tyrants. Tyranny
thus will not make them happy in this world and could possibly be punished
in the next.10
Christianity, as Nietzsche understands it, has a different goal. It is a manifesta-
tion of a slave revolt in morals. This project, like Plato’s, involves the creation of
another world alongside the actual world, but in the case of Christianity it is a
world born out of the resentment of slaves and members of the lowest classes
who are unable to resist the will of their masters in this world and are driven
by the spirit of revenge to imagine they will be rewarded and their masters
punished in another world. The Christian God is not a warrior (in contrast to
the wrathful God of the Jews) or a philosopher, but a carpenter (craftsman)
who doesn’t conquer but is crucified, or who conquers only by being crucified.
Moreover, the leaders of the Christian world are not warriors but priests.
Finally, Christianity does not aim at conquest and aggrandizement but at
peace. Christianity in Nietzsche’s view thus rests not on a doctrine of virtue
but on the feeling of pity. In considering the relationship between Plato and
Nietzsche, we thus need to distinguish Plato’s actual position from that of
Christianity. Patristic Christianity certainly drew on neo-Platonic thought but
it would be wrong to identify it with Plato’s own thought.
Nietzsche’s critique is thus distorted by his conflation of Plato’s moral teach-
ing and Christianity. His characterization of Christianity as “Platonism for the
people” is true as far as it goes, but he also tries to reverse this claim, effectively
arguing that Platonism is Christianity for the elite or at least for intellectuals.
Even if we accept Nietzsche’s portrayal of Socrates in Twilight as someone for
whom life was a disease for which death was a cure (TI “Socrates,” 12), there is
no indication that Nietzsche thought that Socrates or Plato were seeking
revenge against the warrior class. It is not the strong who are punished and
the weak who are rewarded in the Myth of Er. Rather, the strong who are
philosophic are rewarded and the strong who are tyrannical are punished.
Beneath the apparent differences between Plato and Nietzsche on the ques-
tion of the role of war and warriors there are surprising convergences that
become visible when we focus on the context of their arguments. In a world
dominated by war and warriors, in pursuit of empire and tyranny, Plato sought
to soften and civilize warriors in order to incorporate them within the commu-
nity. His goal was not to turn them into pacifists but into dependable citizens.
Toward a New Aristocracy 35

Nietzsche, by contrast, argues we must encourage martial passions and harden

the strongest to produce a warrior class. He believes that only several centuries
of war can bring this about. He thus longs for war not because he loves violence
and destruction but in order to produce the higher humanity he believes is
crucial to prevent the degeneration of humanity into a herd of petty consum-
ers. While this seems to be diametrically opposed to Plato, Nietzsche is not
speaking to fourth-century Greeks but to nineteenth-century Europeans, that
is, not to a Hellenistic world dominated by hardened warriors whose deepest
desire is to dominate others, but to a still largely Christian Europe dominated
by producers and consumers who dream of eternal peace and believe in the
innate dignity of man and the value of work. Thus, while there would undoubt-
edly be many differences between Nietzsche’s new warriors and the humanized
warriors of Plato, these differences might not be as profound as we commonly
Nietzsche does not simply want to produce a race of ferocious warriors on the
model of Achilles. Such warriors are necessary but he imagines that they will
ultimately be civilized. However, what is missing in his thought is any account of
how this will occur, that is, an account of the institutional structures and system
of education to civilize these blond beasts. He is overwhelmingly concerned
with convincing young men to become warriors rather than clerks or shopkeep-
ers, and not with what happens to them after that. He is hopeful for the future
because he believes the warriors who it brings into being will be the source of a
new aristocracy. What he does not do is explain how this transition will take
place. Even this aristocracy, however, is not his ultimate goal. It too is merely a
means. His ultimate goal is to create a superman who is free from the spirit of
revenge, whose violence will not be merely reactive, but he does not explain
how violence can become creative. He sets out an awe-inspiring goal for human-
ity, but it is surprisingly lacking in particulars. Moreover, he does not even begin
to explain concretely how humanity can reach this goal.
Nietzsche does expect his warriors to sacrifice themselves to produce the
superman, but are they likely to do so? Nietzsche tries to inspire his readers,
and to impart to their task a missionary zeal, but is there any reason to think
that such motivation can be successful in the long run? Moral, religious, or
aesthetic appeals can have immense short-term effects, but they have never
been successful unless they are institutionalized and strengthened by a system
of training and education that give people more immediate incentives to pur-
sue long-term goals. In the absence of these, even the most magnificent goals
are soon set aside. Are Nietzsche’s warriors then likely to pursue the distant
superman in the absence of such incentives or will they follow the path of almost
all previous warrior aristocracies toward self-aggrandizement, the accumulation
of property and sexual objects, the insistence on honor, and the preferential
treatment of their offspring? There are certainly no institutional structures that
36 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

Nietzsche puts in place to prevent such a development, and very little in his
minimalist account of a future educational system that would offer any hope of
redirecting traditional aristocratic behavior.
For these purposes Nietzsche seems to rely almost entirely on the coercive
and persuasive force of his superman, the artist tyrant of the future. As part
Caesar, part Christ, something of Goethe, a bit of Napoleon, a piece of Aeschylus,
a sprinkling of Pericles, and last but not least a dash of Socrates or Heracleitus,
the superman is certainly magnificent. Indeed, the picture of this figure that
Nietzsche paints has engaged the imagination of readers for more than a
hundred years, but is such a being possible? And even if he is possible, is he
likely to come into existence? And if he does, is such an event ever likely to be
repeated? Is Nietzsche’s superman any more likely than Plato’s philosopher
Nietzsche asserted in an early, unpublished work, “The Greek State,” that
the sole reason ordinary humanity is justified is the production of the genius.11
He seems never to have abandoned this position and in the end to have been
willing to sacrifice everything and everyone in the hope that such a genius
might be produced. Nietzsche longed for an age of war and a hardened warrior
elite as a step in this direction. Plato lived in such a world and believed that a
warrior elite left to its own devices produced only the brutal tyranny spelled
out in the Melian dialogue and evident in many cities of his time. Plato, like
Nietzsche, hoped to produce a genius and hoped that he would rule over a city,
but recognized, as Nietzsche did not, that hortatory rhetoric alone would not
make this happen. Indeed, such rhetoric was likely only to produce the rule of
violence as warriors became tyrants rather than forming a political community
in which they could play a leading role. While Nietzsche saw the parallels
between Plato’s Republic and his own ideas, he seems so closely to have identi-
fied Plato with Christianity that he was unable to learn the lessons that Plato
had to teach. Nietzsche thus never formulated a notion of the political and
remained like many of his followers wedded to the notion that all social inter-
action is merely the exercise of power and domination.
Chapter 3

Nietzsche: Nihilism and Neo-Gnosticism

Stanley Corngold

This study of an unremarked neo-Gnostic strain in Nietzsche’s work aims to

contribute to the general tenor of our volume, which treats the many kinds
of thought in Nietzsche that run counter to his fascination with European
nihilism as a culture of death. That such contrary strains exist comes as no sur-
prise when, as is well-known, Nietzsche sees second-stage nihilism as a stimulus
to more life. The European predicament demoralizes—and hence energizes;
the outcome is suggested in the vivid title of Keith Ansell-Pearson’s and Diane
Morgan’s recent volume Nihilism Now! Monsters of Energy.
The “nihilism-complex” in Nietzsche’s thought emerges “organically” in
his unpublished 1887 essay titled “European Nihilism” (Kuhn 2000, p. 293;
Montinari 2003, p. 90; KSA 12: 211).1 This meditation is informed by a con-
ception of value and values, since nihilistic man conjures up, precisely, “the
danger of dangers”—the valueless life (KSA 12: 109). Nietzsche’s essay prepares
us to grasp his Gnostic élan as one of several directions that the invoked neces-
sity of a transvaluation of values must take. The Gnosticism-complex contains
the striking neo-Gnostic tropes and images encountered everywhere in his
work, from The Birth of Tragedy on, and especially in his poetics and poetry (Figl
1989, pp. 455–71; Pauen 1994, pp. 87–94). The contrary factor to nihilism, in
this neo-Gnostic strain, is the lure of transcendence evoked by these tropes and
images, opposite to the morally-founded promise of transcendence in contem-
porary Christianity become “Buddhistic.” “European Buddhism,” Nietzsche
writes in his earlier 1882 jottings, makes [one] “good and unproductive” by
extinguishing impulses to a higher life (KSA 10: 44). He couches this higher
life, as it might be revealed to an elect individual or group, in the imagery of
otherworldly inspiration, fire, and light.

Nietzsche on Nihilism

Nietzsche’s earliest mentions of nihilism derive from his exposure to the

Russian nihilists and terrorists of the 1860s (Gillespie 1994, p. 178). These
notations barely touch the center of Nietzsche’s thought on nihilism, which
38 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

bears more on fatigue in Europe than outbursts of violence in the East. (He has
no patience for the radical “belief in unbelief, in nihilism of the ‘St. Petersburg
variety’ ending in [the perpetrator’s] martyrdom”) (GS 347). Nietzsche does
begin to approach his central concern in fragments from the summer of 1882,
which evoke that object of horror and fascination in the haunting phrase “nihil-
ism as a brief prelude” (KSA 10: 43). We shall see how this term recurs in a
fuller account in June 1887, in the cluster of aperçus titled “European Nihilism.”
But the original embeddedness of this phrase in the notes of 1882 is a rich sign
of what is to come.
The notes begin with a signal to the Elect, to us, whose “morality of freedom”
impels us to sustain life. For we find ourselves embattled, confronted by the
rise of an enemy termed “hatred of life,” which Nietzsche calls “Buddhism.”
The scene is all of Europe—a Europe informed by a will to power (Thatkraft)
that, perverted by “Buddhism,” is en route to suicide. In the midst of this
crisis, the idea of the “recurrence” adds “a terrible burden.” Nietzsche has in
mind the endless recurrence of the same meaningless life cycle, implying
eternal, inescapable nullity. In 1887 he will write down this thought “in its
most frightful form: existence, as it is, without meaning and purpose, but irre-
sistibly returning, without a finale into nothingness: ‘The Eternal Recurrence’”
(KSA 12: 213).
What is to be done?
The elect, writes Nietzsche, must confer an organization on themselves. This
thought can have been guided by an early-published fragment of Friedrich
Hölderlin’s Hyperion (despite Nietzsche’s mean-spirited ambivalence toward
the beloved author of his Schulpforta days) (Waite 1978, pp. 179–420). Hölder-
lin writes of two ideals of existence:

[A] state of the highest simplicity, where our needs are reciprocally attuned
to themselves, and to our powers, and to everything with which we are con-
nected, through the mere organization of nature, without our cooperation;
and a state of the highest cultivation (Bildung), where the same would take
place amid infinitely multiplied and intensified needs and powers, through the
organization that we are able to give ourselves (emphasis added, SC). (Hölderlin
1970, 1: 483–4)

“If we do not maintain ourselves,” Nietzsche continues—“we, ourselves, through

organization—everything will come to an end.” And only if we do are we “life’s
friends.” This model of friendship is based on the implicit likeness of two forms
of organization—of life and “ourselves.” What is again remarkable is that
an intersubjective relation functions, as in Hölderlin throughout, as an onto-
logical category. This is a point of some hermeneutic importance in all of
Nietzsche’s writings, beginning with his plangent address, in The Birth of
Tragedy, to “my friends”: “Yes, my friends, believe with me in Dionysian life
Nihilism and Neo-Gnosticism 39

and the rebirth of tragedy” [!]. (BT 20; BW 124).2 “Friendship” identifies a
likeness of structure called “organization,” a notion that entails the concerted
activity of various “centers.” Without such centers—which in the period
between fall 1887 and March 1888 Nietzsche subsequently calls “ruling centers”
(“Herrschaftsgebilde”)—we have only a great, diffuse noia, a disaggregation of the
will, which augurs worse: “nihilism as a brief prelude.”
The fact of nihilism, the actual cultural condition of nihilism, is a prelude to
a great effect, envisioned as mass “suicide.” Its mark is the prevailing mood of
fatigue (Baudelaire—Nietzsche’s frère ennemi—is eloquent on this mood he calls
“spleen”). There are no instruments at hand working toward a cure. Under
these conditions “philosophy” is “impossible,” no palliative at all; what is
called “morality” is itself the root of that fatigue, as are “the good men” and all
“conciliation” and “proper behavior”—namely marriage!—and idealism and
The outcome of this failure is a vast expansion of contemporary European
nihilism—fatigue unto death. The subsequent body of fragments of June 1887
titled “European Nihilism” deepens the crisis and supplies it with an origin.

“European Nihilism”

These jottings are among the most coherent of Nietzsche’s aphorism-

complexes, and constitute, under the head of “European Nihilism,” sketches
for a chapter of the decisive work he projects as The Will to Power.3 This point
alone would amount to a heads-up as regards their importance. In the follow-
ing pages, I will stay close to this (hitherto untranslated) text, paraphrasing
and commenting on its actual sequence of ideas (KSA 12: 211–17).
The notes were jotted down in the summer in which Nietzsche, in a “state of
nearly uninterrupted inspiration,” wrote the entirety of On the Genealogy of Mor-
als.4 Hence, some of the perceptions driving these aperçus reappear, slightly
modified, in On the Genealogy, which Nietzsche always had in mind to write
while composing “European Nihilism.” Other of these jottings were evidently
projected to belong elsewhere—namely, in The Will to Power—since, in the
course of setting them down, Nietzsche includes this latter title among the
books, some already realized and some soon to be realized, that would form a
single library constituting his legacy: Beyond Good and Evil, On the Genealogy
of Morals, The Will to Power, Sayings like Arrows, and The Sayings of an Immoralist.
The subtitle to The Will to Power reads: Attempt at a Transvaluation of all Values.
The four or five chapter headings that follow contribute crucially to the right
contextualization of Nietzsche’s understanding of nihilism. They are:

1. On the Value of Truth

2. What Follows from There
3. On the History of European Nihilism
40 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

4. The Eternal Recurrence

[5.] Morality as Will

The connection of the ideas “value,” “truth,” “nihilism,” “the eternal recur-
rence,” and “morality as will” take us to a privileged center of Nietzsche’s
labyrinthine thought.5
“European Nihilism” unfolds the idea of nihilism in its historical develop-
ment, faithful to Nietzsche’s ruling aphorism in the Genealogy of Morals: “All
concepts in which an entire process is semiotically concentrated elude
definition; only that which has no history is definable” (GM II: 13; BW 516).
Nihilism—the sense of life as valueless, meaningless—first emerges as the
medium in which Christianity, and thereafter its decadence, originate. In the
course of its development, nihilism acquires a second valence and becomes a
stimulus to thought-experiments on behalf of life. As the basis of contemporary
life in Europe, it is not only a thing to rue but also a thing to empower a new
depth of thought, offering (in Yeats’s phrase) “the fascination of what’s difficult.”
Its first stage is the human struggle with wickedness and suffering, to which
Christianity offers several kinds of help: “It gave mankind an absolute value, in
contrast to its smallness and contingency in the great stream of coming into
being and passing away.” And it conferred a perfect economy on the world, a
“freedom” in the light of which even suffering and misery acquire a fullness of
meaning. Nietzsche leaves this “freedom” unexplained: it might mean the
passage from the world of suffering and evil through death to a higher life; or
this liberation might itself be the outcome of the freedom to choose virtue or
belief or (if one may annex Luther to this discussion) to “sin bravely.” Finally,
Christianity engenders theological knowledge, a first consciousness of absolute
values and, with it, a passion for more such knowledge.
The supreme value of any “moral hypothesis” is its power to preserve and
enhance life, and that is precisely what early Christianity accomplished in inspir-
ing the value of self-respect: it provided grounds for affirming life as full of
meaning and value as well as conceptual categories fitted to this point of
view. Hence, “morality was the great counter-specific against practical and
theoretical nihilism.”
But the conceptual energy inspired by Christian morality—which Nietzsche
calls “truthfulness” (Wahrhaftigkeit)—in a dialectical movement undoes its
very source. This moment in the argument also reads as a biographical fable
(Nietzsche, as the son of the pastor Karl Ludwig Nietzsche, is acutely conscious
of his own genealogy). The crux of Europe’s disenchantment with morality is its
perception of the “interestedness” of “God’s lawyers,” an insight that works
inside this massive hypocrisy as a stimulus to . . . nihilism of a second historical
order, a process of dissolution.
Our—Europe’s—present fate is now subject to a complex, unmasterable ten-
sion: on the one hand, we continue to have the needs that made our fathers
Nihilism and Neo-Gnosticism 41

receptive to morality, no matter that we recognize these as needs for untruth.

They stimulate the formation of values for the sake of which we go on living.
But this very conflict between not valuing what we know to be a lie and no
longer being permitted to value the mendacious illusions we are inclined to
conjure produces the nihilistic fatigue of modernity.6
And now, what is to be done? A first step toward the recovery of will and
energy is to grasp that the present need for transcendental orientation is unnec-
essary. Life in contemporary Europe is less “uncertain, contingent, and absurd”
than it was for the first desperate believers in the Gospel. We need not pine
for moral discipline and moral justification; we can tolerate a good deal of
absurdity and accident: “God” is an unnecessarily extreme hypothesis. But,
adds Nietzsche, in an especially perspicuous aphorism, “Extreme positions are
not replaced by moderate ones but rather by extreme ones, though of the
opposite kind.” With the untenability of the moral hypothesis has come a new
extreme—contemporary, second-order nihilism—itself shored up by a primary
belief in the absolute immorality of nature and the purposelessness and mean-
inglessness of all, even inescapable, psychological affects. Nietzsche is here
evoking, through his famous forgetfulness, “the will to truth” from Beyond Good
and Evil, which he had published in the preceding year (1886):

In rare and isolated instances it may really be the case that such a will to truth,
some extravagant and adventurous courage, a metaphysician’s ambition to
hold a hopeless position, may participate and ultimately prefer even a hand-
ful of “certainty” to a whole carload of beautiful possibilities; there may
actually be puritanical fanatics of conscience who prefer even a certain
nothing to an uncertain something to lie down on—and die. But this is nihil-
ism and the sign of a despairing, mortally weary soul—however courageous
the gestures of such a virtue may look. (BGE 10)

Second-stage nihilism is not a consequence of a heightened displeasure in

life—of an empirical increase in mortal suffering. It is the consequence of an
increase in truthfulness, the outcome of a passion for rigor, one that is disposed
now to see absolutely no sense in suffering. With the “God-hypothesis” shat-
tered—the sole ruling interpretation of life—it looks as if no interpretation of
the meaning in life is possible and that everything is in vain. This “in vain” is the
core of contemporary nihilism. It haunts all possible values, which appear to be
nothing more than makeshifts to prolong the comedy. Despair is heightened by
this very temporal factor. The judgment “in vain” is not punctual; the despair of
the meaninglessness of the present is a despair that includes all future times.
This temporal awareness is deadly: “values” are cheats, and we are powerless in
the course of time not to be cheated again.
Nietzsche heightens this factor, absolutely, in his cardinal thought on
temporality, “thinking this thought in its most frightful form: existence, as it is,
42 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

without meaning and purpose, but inevitably returning, without a finale into
nothingness.” This is “the Eternal Recurrence,” nihilism in its most extreme
form: eternal nothingness, eternal meaninglessness without relief.
And now, appropriately, Nietzsche returns to the very trope he employed in
the notes of 1882 on evoking a European form of Buddhism. Europe’s ener-
getic pursuit of knowledge and will to power (Nietzsche’s word is “Kraft”; in the
jottings of 1882, the word was “Thatkraft”) compel it to embrace this extreme
belief—nihilism. As the “most scientific of all possible hypotheses,” nihilism
proves irresistibly attractive to the will to truth. This claim comes as no surprise
to the reader who recalls in The Birth of Tragedy the Faustian drive to all knowl-
edge, even to the rim of the abyss of all possible oceans of knowledge (BT 15).
“The new passion” also figures earlier in a long passage from Daybreak:

Why do we fear and hate a possible reversion to barbarism? Because it would

make people unhappier than they are? Oh no! The barbarians of every age
were happier: let us not deceive ourselves!— The reason is that our drive to
knowledge has become too strong for us to be able to want happiness without
knowledge or the happiness of a strong, firmly rooted delusion; even to imag-
ine such a state of things is painful to us! Restless discovering and divining
has such an attraction for us, and has grown as indispensable to us as is to the
lover his unrequited love, which he would at no price relinquish for a state of
indifference—perhaps, indeed, we too are unrequited lovers! Knowledge has
in us been transformed into a passion which shrinks at no sacrifice and at
bottom fears nothing but its own extinction; we believe in all honesty that all
mankind must believe itself more exalted and comforted under the compul-
sion and suffering of this passion than it did formerly, when envy of the
coarser contentment that follows in the train of barbarism had not yet been
overcome. Perhaps mankind will even perish of this passion for knowledge!—
even this thought has no power over us! But did Christianity ever shun such
a thought? Are love and death not brothers? Yes, we hate barbarism—we
would all prefer the destruction of mankind to a regression of knowledge!
And finally: if mankind does not perish of a passion it will perish of a weak-
ness: which do you prefer? This is the main question. Do we desire for man-
kind an end in fire and light or one in the sand? (D 429)

The nihilist hypothesis of the eternal recurrence without a goal, without a

finale, is on reflection the most readily validated of all hypotheses, since, if
there were a goal, it must by now have been reached. It has not been reached.
Our task is to think a way out of this debacle. Pantheism comes alive momen-
tarily as a potential belief-system undamaged by the collapse of morality. Pan-
theism, in Nietzsche’s view, exhibits a palpable kinship with the doctrine of the
goalless eternal recurrence, since such pantheism, in which everything is seen
as “perfect, divine, eternal” (as in Hölderlin’s Nature), also conduces to a belief
Nihilism and Neo-Gnosticism 43

in eternal recurrence. And so the European drive to the goallessness of nihilism

is at once a drive to distinguish its position from pantheism. For it is moot
whether, with the collapse of a transcendental morality, the logic of pantheistic
affirmation is as such repudiated. Perhaps there is sense in conceiving a God
beyond good and evil. True, the process of life would be without evident purpose
or goal, but it is thinkable that one could still affirm the process and every
single moment recurring within it, à la Spinoza, as logically necessary.
How does one refute Spinoza’s argument? Nietzsche returns to his procedure
in “On the Prejudices of Philosophers” in Beyond Good and Evil: “Gradually it
has become clear to me what every great philosophy so far has been: namely,
the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and uncon-
scious memoir” (BGE 6; BW 203). The thought-system is the expression of the
psychological character of the thinker: in Spinoza’s case, that basic character is
logicalness. Spinoza would inevitably attribute a logical necessity to every
moment of existence. In then “discovering” the logical character of such
moments, Spinoza enjoys a sort of “triumph” in respect to a world so consti-
tuted. Spinoza’s pantheistic affirmation of existence is a tautology, the outcome
of what Nietzsche earlier called a “necessary psychological affect.” As one whose
character is all logic and who then proves that the world is all logic, Spinoza
must conclude by triumphantly affirming the world.
What Nietzsche here calls the “basic character trait” (Grundcharacterzug) of
individuals—meaning both events and persons—returns in his writings in late
1887 as “values.” The thinker who finds in reality the value that informs his
point of view—which he must regard as “good, valuable, a source of delight”—
joyously affirms that value. But Nietzsche’s circular argument, based in
Spinoza’s case on the common “character” of his mind and work, seems to this
commentator to be of limited validity, and hence it is no wonder that we have
the suggestive thesis that Nietzsche took Spinoza as a model for Zarathustra! (Kiss
2001, pp. 121–41). The parallel is immediately justifiable in principle, since
Spinoza’s truth, not unlike “this thought [of eternal recurrence] in its most
frightful form,” also conjures a universal process without purpose. But while
Spinoza’s universe, following Nietzsche, is at every moment “perfect, divine,
eternal,” Zarathustra’s universe is at every moment vanishing and dwindling
away, as see Nietzsche’s early injunction, “If you saw things finer, you would
see everything in motion: as burning paper curls up, everything continually
passes away and in that motion curls up” (KSA 9: 651).
Here, Nietzsche abruptly leaves Spinoza’s metaphysics, and, in an important
move, urgent in light of his preoccupations in the Genealogy of Morals, lowers the
nihilism-complex into the lesser abyss of human society. What are the social
implications of the first nihilism (a world of threatening danger), its palliative
(belief in God), and modern, second-order nihilism, arising through the rejec-
tion of a belief in absolute values? Those persons most receptive to the Gospel
were those persons most in danger at the hands of their masters—rapacious
44 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

oppressors. In a superb proto-Freudian insight Nietzsche writes: “For it is impo-

tence in the face of men, not impotence in the face of nature, that produces the
most desperate embitteredness toward existence.” Since all older moral systems
held men in power—men of violence—to be the enemy, the common man was
encouraged and protected against his masters. Hence, we arrive at the capacity
of morality to teach hatred and contempt of the ruling type’s basic character
trait: his will to power. This thought can be understood as an implication flow-
ing from the passages on slave morality in Beyond Good and Evil and elaborated
especially in the first essay of the Genealogy of Morals.
In the present argument, however, we observe a dialectical move, comparable
to Nietzsche’s first dialectical move, which saw morality producing the very
instrument—truthfulness—that led to its undoing. The first destruction of
God-given morality took place at the level of thought; the destruction of a
humanly assumed “morality” of power takes place at the level of affect before
it crystallizes as thought. It occurs as a response to a first “morality” of violence
(a misnomer, really, since it is no morality at all: it is the sheer exercise of power
over others [SC]). In its first guise, that violence appeared as the suffering
inflicted by the random nature of existence, the “stream of coming into being
and passing away.” But now, attached to a class of men, it becomes the practice
of the powerful—“their will to power.” It is a “drive,” intensely hated by
the weak, who are concerned now to do away with this “morality”—deny it,
deplete it through an appropriation of the same drive, which now acquires
a reverse affect and value. This will is the bulwark of the oppressed party; to
lose this belief in the right to despise the will to power—the gift of God-driven
morality—would cause it to despair utterly. This would be the consequence
of its realizing that the will to power is the essential character of life and that
even its own moral will to despise power is itself a will to power. The oppressed
party would see that it stood on level terrain with its oppressor and had no privi-
lege of moral rank over him. In this way, we arrive by another route at the nihil-
ism of modernity, which can be characterized as the recognition of the moral
parity of all exercises of the will to power and the dissolution of all distinctions
of rank among men.
The contempt for power has no privilege over the power it despises. All value
in life is a function of the degree of power that it exercises, life itself being this
will to power. Morality protected the botched and bungled from the nihilism
of despair by assigning them an infinite metaphysical value and including
them in an order different from that of worldly power. New values—modesty,
submission—replaced futile resistance. But now, as this morality shatters, the
botched and the bungled shatter: their life lacks all justification.
Morality is disintegrating: but if the weak are going to their ruin, their fate
appears as a self-condemnation, the instinctive selection of a destructive neces-
sity. What is called “culture” is merely merciless self-analysis, poisoning of
all sorts, intoxication, romanticism. . . . In the midst of this crisis, a new set of
Nihilism and Neo-Gnosticism 45

categories appears: the crisis “purifies,” it consolidates elements that rightfully

belong together—and then destroys them in a single mass! The active nihilist
idea assigns common tasks to men of the most disparate modes of thought,
including the weak, and in this way sponsors a new order of rank based on great
health, so that those who command are seen as commanding and those who
obey are seen as obedient. This redistribution would have to occur off to one
side of all present-day social arrangements.
Note the unexpected reversal of Nietzsche’s thought we have just seen occur-
ring: the revolt of active nihilism suddenly blossoms as the preparation of a new
elect. (This will forecast the element of revolt in Gnosticism, which calls for an
absolute repudiation of given social arrangements led by an elect).
Under this new order, who, asks Nietzsche, would emerge as the strongest?
He answers in the spirit of his earlier “scientific” writings, resisting, we might
suppose, the great error of answering one extremism with another, for “Extreme
positions are not replaced by moderate ones but rather by extreme ones,
though of the opposite kind.” Instead, he advances the rule of those “who are
moderate, who do not need extreme doctrines, who are not only able to admit
a good portion of accident and nonsense but love it . . . .” This thought has
been well prepared for. Consider his earlier aperçu, from the first pages of

Estimation of unpretentious truths—It is the mark of a higher culture to value

the little unpretentious truths which have been discovered by means of rigor-
ous method more highly than the errors handed down by metaphysical ages
and men, which blind us and make us happy. At first, one has scorn on his lips
for unpretentious truths, as if they could offer no match for the others: they
stand so modest, simple, sober, even apparently discouraging, while the other
truths are so beautiful, splendid, enchanting, or even enrapturing. But truths
that are hard won, certain, enduring, and therefore still of consequence for
all further knowledge are the higher; to keep to them is manly, and shows
bravery, simplicity, restraint. Eventually, not only the individual, but all man-
kind will be elevated to this manliness, when men finally grow accustomed to
the greater esteem for durable, lasting knowledge and have lost all belief in
inspiration and a seemingly miraculous communication of truths. (HAH 3)

This last point, however, will prove to be one of Nietzsche’s least stable truths.
Anticipatory signs of this universal, level rise in enlightenment (“all mankind”)
are not at hand; the world, as it is now constituted, appears to be irredeemable,
an endless repetition without revolution of sense. It has won the assent of
the will to truth and the fury of an active nihilism. How tenacious a hold on
Nietzsche’s imagination can the vision of a revolution that throws up “moderate
men” now have? All of Nietzsche’s later thought turns against such moderation
in figures like the Dionysian type, Zarathustra, and the übermensch. And what is
46 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

equally important to this argument about extremism is Nietzsche’s empirical

experience. His only grounds for enduring the nihilistic thought of the recur-
rence would appear to be moments of aesthetic experience, art-philosophy
produced under extreme imaginative compression—a point of importance
to my own thesis on Nietzsche’s reliance on the gnosis vouchsafed in his
experience of artistic inspiration.
A single question, laden with power, closes the essay on “European Nihilism”:
“What would such a man [‘displaying with conscious pride the strength
attained’] think of the eternal recurrence?” We end with the philosophical
birthplace of the higher type as a critical necessity.
It is finally important to stress the shift in affect informing the latter phase of
Nietzsche’s argument. Earlier on in the essay, we have Nietzsche standing off
with the pathos of distance from nihilism as an appurtenance of the weak, when
not, indeed, the botched and the bungled. But at the point of conjuring a crisis
and purification, occurring in spite of and apart from the present social order,
Nietzsche identifies with this “other,” active type. It is a movement that character-
izes so much of Nietzsche’s writing when his attachments seem contradictory, as
for example the double valence that the ascetic ideal receives: it is at once the
knout of the priests and the spur that made man, for the first time, an interest-
ing animal. Nietzsche’s moral attachments are always convinced and often
unstable. But here we have at the close a vision of purgation off to one side of
present social arrangements that might well be called neo-Gnostic in its aim
and intensity.

The Gnostic Strain7

The association of Nietzsche and Gnosticism, rebarbative as it may sound,

will come as no surprise to readers of one of the most original political philo-
sophers of the last half century. This connection of ideas was made forcefully by
Erich Voegelin in the 1950s and 60s; indeed, his claim that Nietzsche must be
considered an avatar of Gnostic thinking took the learned world’s political-
philosophical breath away. In The New Science of Politics (1952) and Science,
Politics, and Gnosticism (1962), Voegelin argued that Nietzsche was a secular—
and catastrophic—vessel of Gnostic thought, having sought to “immanentize
the eschaton.”8 Voegelin’s argument was taken up very attentively, for one, by
Hans Blumenberg in his monumental The Legitimacy of the Modern Age. Blumen-
berg explains that his thesis, finally opposite to Voegelin’s, “begins by agreeing
that there is a connection between the modern age and Gnosticism, but
interprets it in the reverse sense. The modern age is the second overcoming of
Gnosticism” (Blumenberg 1983, p. 126).
If Blumenberg is immediately stimulated by Voegelin’s thesis, he is also led
to address Gnosticism in the wake of a good deal of early nineteenth-century
Nihilism and Neo-Gnosticism 47

German speculation that held Gnosticism to be at the root of Christianity (Lilla

2007, n.p.). For Blumenberg, Gnosticism, indeed, is “the old enemy who
did not come from without but was ensconced at Christianity’s very roots”
(Blumenberg 1983, p. 126). Since Nietzsche’s notes on “European Nihilism”
begin with a discussion of the motives to an original Christian morality, it is
reasonable to consult Nietzsche on Gnosticism. After repudiating the fictions of
Christianity, does Nietzsche repudiate the fictions of Gnosticism? We have seen
him being drawn a little to Spinoza’s pantheism, which is radically opposed to
the Gnostic view of a world conceived in evil and corruption by a demiurge in
revolt against the cosmic order. Does this attraction imply a corresponding
repudiation of Gnosticism?
There is plain evidence for this negative conclusion. Nietzsche was aware of
Gnostic thought even in the 1860s, and traces of that interest survive in the
complex of ideas in The Birth of Tragedy (Figl 1989, pp. 455–71; Pauen 1994,
pp. 87–94). But Nietzsche’s few immediate uses of the term are polemical-
pejorative, namely:

In the last resort it was the restrained and long stored up piety of the
Germans that finally exploded in their philosophy . . ., now in clouds of pan-
theistic vapor, as in the case of Hegel and Schelling, as gnosis; now mystical
and world-negating, as in the case of Schopenhauer. (KSA 11: 604)

Again: “The German attempt to transform Christianity into a gnosis is most

profoundly rejected: what is most strongly felt is what is ‘untruthful’ here (con-
tra Schelling, e.g.). . .” (KSA 12: 129).
It is not difficult to imagine Nietzsche vexed by the German idealist attempt
to represent Christian belief as higher metaphysical knowledge, as a sort of
intellectual intuition. We have seen in “European Nihilism” that the idealist
claim suppresses the wholly this worldly establishment of Christianity as a polit-
ical-psychological strategy. This point is made forcefully again in The Antichrist
(AC 21): “Christian too is mortal enmity against the masters of the earth, against
the ‘noble’—along with a sly, secret rivalry (one leaves them the ‘body,’ one
wants only the ‘soul’)” (PN 589).
These repudiations of a Gnostic sensibility are found in Nietzsche’s
notebooks, but we have an even more forthright rejection of proto-Gnostic
dualism in Ecce Homo, in Nietzsche’s inversion of Zoroastrianism. (EH “Destiny” 3;
BW 783 f.).9
Here Nietzsche finally addresses the “Zarathustrafrage,” the question that he
claims needs to be asked and has not been asked: Why is his masterpiece called,
in so many words, “Thus Spoke Zarathustra?” What has Zarathustra to do with it?
The answer is that the Persian prophet Zoroaster must be made to repudiate his
Gnosticism, if under this head we can refer to a religious perspective in which
the categories of good and evil are at once objective and wholly separate.
48 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

Nietzsche continues: Because Zoroaster was “the first to consider the fight of
good and evil the very wheel in the machinery of things: the transposition
of morality into the metaphysical realm, as a force, cause, and end in itself,”
Zoroaster became the first moralist. But in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche’s
own Zarathustra negates and overcomes the principles of his historical prede-
cessor: “Zarathustra created this most calamitous error, morality: consequently,”
writes Nietzsche; “he must also be the first to recognize it.” This attack on
“morality” as the first evil, arising as a palliative to an early nihilism of uncer-
tainty and despair in the face of a hostile world, is by now familiar from
“European Nihilism.” In this sense, Thus Spoke Zarathustra takes back, indeed
overcomes nihilism.
All this should make Nietzsche the anti-Gnostic par excellence. But what can
have led a thinker of Voegelin’s acuity to term him a neo-Gnostic par
If Gnosticism is nihilism, it is also nihilism’s violent corrective. In a recent
essay on Voegelin, Mark Lilla follows Voegelin (who himself follows Hans
Jonas) in summing up the first principles of Gnosticism: one,

the created world was the work of an evil lower deity, or demiurge, and thus
utterly corrupt; [two,] direct access to a higher, spiritual divinity was possible
for those with a secret knowledge (gnosis) developed from a divine spark
within. (Lilla 2007, n.p.)

Lilla then adds, as a third principle, an idea not uniformly found in Gnostic
writings but one central to Voegelin’s social-revolutionary “extension” of Gnos-
tic thought. It is the idea, writes Lilla, that “redemption would come through a
violent apocalypse, led, perhaps, by those possessing gnosis” (Lilla 2007, n.p.).
Now, there is some likeness in this thought to Nietzsche’s own, but this like-
ness is rough on two counts. First, Voegelin does violence to the normative,
second-century Gnostic account of “salvation” by historicizing the putative
apocalypse. For him, the Gnostic apocalypse came down to earth in the
communist and fascist revolutions of the twentieth century, impelled by the
idea that “Salvation from the evil of the world is possible . . . [if] the order of
being . . . is changed in an historical process . . . —a change possible through
man’s own effort” (Voegelin 2004, pp. 64–65). This thought-model prompts
Voegelin to see Nietzsche as the precursor to such revolutions—a secular mille-
narian—and, hence, as the neo-Gnostic thinker par excellence. But normative
Gnosticism holds gnosis itself to be the means to salvation and not a mot d’ordre
for imposing the Beyond, the eschaton, onto the social arrangements of the
ordinary day.
True, when we read Nietzsche on the “new man,” this necessary specific
against nihilism, we find Nietzsche locating his birth at no great distance from
Nihilism and Neo-Gnosticism 49

Voegelin’s thought-model, for “breeding a new species” might be reckoned the

result of “man’s own effort.” But Nietzsche’s übermensch is better reckoned a
figure of thought—literarily indescribable, at most intuitively evident—and
hence constituting a radical break, a line of flight from any imagination of
social reality. In this light, Nietzsche’s struggle to transcend his fascination with
nihilism would find features of the normative Gnostic sensibility attractive.
In both world-views, gnosis of the right kind would play a saving role: the gnosis
of the Gnostics corresponds to Nietzsche’s “inspiration,” which prompts the
creation of values, as in this passage from The Twilight of the Idols:

When we speak of values, we speak with the inspiration, with the way of look-
ing at things, which is part of life: life itself forces us to posit values; life itself
values through us when we posit values . . . From this it follows that even that
anti-natural morality which conceives of God as the counter-concept and con-
demnation of life is only a value judgment of life—but of what life? of what
kind of life?—I have already given the answer: of declining, weakened, weary,
condemned life. Morality, as it has so far been understood—as it has in the
end been formulated once more by Schopenhauer, as “negation of the will
to life”—is the very instinct of décadence, which makes an imperative of itself.
It says: “Perish!”—it is a condemnation pronounced by the condemned.
(“Morality,” 5; PN 491)

Elsewhere, we see such inspiration at work creating values under the highest
pressure of composition; this idea is found in Nietzsche’s claim for inspired
writing, the striving for unitive knowledge:

Has anyone at the end of the nineteenth century a clear idea of what poets of
strong ages have called inspiration? If not, I will describe it.—If one had the
slightest residue of superstition left in one‘s system, one could hardly reject
altogether the idea that one is merely incarnation, merely mouthpiece,
merely a medium of overpowering forces. The concept of revelation, in the
sense that suddenly, with indescribable certainty and subtlety, something
becomes visible, audible, something that shakes one to the last depths and
throws one down, that merely describes the facts. One hears, one does not
seek; one accepts, one does not ask who gives; like lightning, a thought flashes
up, with necessity, without hesitation regarding its form,—I never had any
choice. A rapture whose tremendous tension occasionally discharges itself in
a flood of tears, now the pace quickens involuntarily, now it becomes slow;
one is altogether beside oneself, with the distinct consciousness of subtle
shudders and of one’s skin creeping down to one’s toes; a depth of happiness
in which even what is most painful and gloomy does not seem something
opposite but rather conditioned, provoked, a necessary color in such a
50 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

superabundance of light; an instinct for rhythmic relationships that arches

over wide spaces of forms—length, the need for a rhythm with wide arches, is
almost the measure of the force of inspiration, a kind of compensation for its
pressure and tension . . . Everything happens involuntarily in the highest
degree but as in a gale of a feeling of freedom, of absoluteness, of power, of
divinity . . . This is my experience of inspiration; I do not doubt that one has
to go back thousands of years in order to find anyone who could say to me, “it
is mine as well.” (EH “Z” 3; BW 756)

At this point, we can also reasonably advert to the residual neo-Gnostic effects
flowing from Nietzsche’s radical antinomianism. Let us think of Nietzsche’s
Gnosticism as Wittgenstein thinks of “philosophy,” which consists in “assem-
bling remainders for a certain purpose.” In Nietzsche’s Gnosticism there are
remainders enough of Gnosticism à la Voegelin; there is a potential political
dimension in what may be seen as the preparatory destruction of given social
arrangements. But what properly connects Nietzsche’s thought to the alien
vision of normative Gnosticism is the very absence of an envisioned historical
process bridging the ruin of the present to the birth of the new man.
From an alien perspective, the thinker contemplates a creative destruction of
the given world to make room for the übermensch. Seek transformation! This
stance is alien in an absolute sense; in a more immediate sense, it is familiar as
the impulse behind the active nihilism that Nietzsche acknowledged at the
close of “European Nihilism.” The end-state of both visions is a new rank-order-
ing of men, no matter what the cost:

Zarathustra is happy that the battle of the castes or classes (Stände) is over and
now it is finally time for a rank-ordering of individuals. [His] hatred of the
leveling-system of democracy is only the foreground: really, it is a good thing
that this [leveling] has come so far. Now he can fulfill his task.—His teachings
were hitherto addressed only to the future ruling caste. These masters of the
earth shall now replace God, and the deep unconditional trust of the ruled
created. First of all [for these masters of the earth, SC]: their new holiness,
their renunciation of happiness and contentment. They provide the basest,
not themselves, with the expectation of happiness. They redeem the botched
and bungled through the doctrine of “swift death,” they offer religions and
systems, to each according to his order of rank. (KSA 11: 620)

What is radically antinomian Gnostic in these citations, aside from the privi-
leging of a caste of Gnostics, is the peremptoriness with which the given social
order—the “class structure”—is rejected. In this rhetorical mode, Nietzsche
stands on the far side of parrhesia—responsible, contingent truth-telling—
and speaks out of gnosis—a knowledge establishing distance (think: “pathos
Nihilism and Neo-Gnosticism 51

of distance”) between the eye of the illuminated and the social world. It is a
perspective that encourages a “moral destruction” as well.
This argument is faithful to a good deal of Nietzsche’s elitist reflections, as in
this decisive long note written in late summer 1885:

Inexorable, hesitating, terrible as fate, the great task and question is approach-
ing: how shall the earth as a whole be governed? And for what shall “man” as
a whole—no longer just one people, one race—be raised and bred?
The legislative moralities are the main means of fashioning out of men
whatever a creative and profound will desires, assuming that such an artistic
will of the highest rank holds power and can assert its creative will over long
periods of time, in the shape of laws, religions and customs. Such men of
great creativity, . . . will be sought in vain today, . . . [for nothing presents] a
more hostile obstacle to their emergence and development than what in
Europe is nowadays straightforwardly called “morality,” as if there were and
must be no other one—that morality of the herd animal . . . A morality
with such reverse intentions, . . . a morality whose intention is to breed a
ruling caste—the future masters of the earth—must, if it is to be taught, intro-
duce itself by starting from the existing moral law and sheltering under its
words and forms. That this, however, requires many means of deception and
transition to be devised, and that because the lifespan of one man signifies
almost nothing compared to the time needed to carry out such lengthy
tasks and intentions, above all a new species must first be bred, in which the
same will, the same instinct is guaranteed to last through many generations:
a new species and caste of masters—this is readily understood as the Etcetera
of this thought, long and difficult to express. To prepare a reversal of values
(Umkehrung der Werte) for a certain strong species of men of the highest
spirituality and strength of will, and for this purpose to unleash in them,
slowly and cautiously, many instincts previously reined in and calumniated:
anyone who thinks about this is one of us, the free spirits—admittedly, a
newer kind of “free spirits” than the ones before, who wished for more or
less the opposite. To us belong, it seems to me, especially the European
pessimists, the poets and thinkers of an outraged idealism, insofar as their
dissatisfaction with the whole of existence also drives them, at least logically, to
dissatisfaction with present-day man; likewise certain insatiably ambitious
artists who fight unscrupulously and unconditionally for the special rights of
higher men and against the “herd animal,” and who use the means of seduc-
tion offered by art to lull to sleep all herd instincts and herd caution among
more exquisite spirits; thirdly and finally, all those critics and historians by
whom the successfully initiated discovery of the world of antiquity—it is the
work of the new Columbus, of the German spirit—is courageously continued
(for we are still at the beginning of this conquest). (KSA 11: 580)
52 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

This sinister summons, especially in being attached to “the German spirit,”

picks up the social-revolutionary aspect of Nietzsche’s thought consistent with
Gnosticism à la Voegelin. But that is not the chief element in our argument
about Nietzsche’s Gnostic élan. When we wrote earlier, “Seek transformation!,”
seeming to mime Nietzsche, we were actually miming Rilke, Nietzsche’s acolyte:

Seek transformation. Oh, be enthusiastic about the flame,

in which a Thing that flaunts metamorphoses eludes you;
that designing spirit, which masters earthly things,
loves nothing in the swing of the figure so much as the turning point. (Rilke
1966, I: 514)

Rilke’s poem warns that something very hard, indeed, “ein Härtestes,” is in store,
but it is not obviously a political “governance” of life.
We aim now for a summing up. Nietzsche’s fervid celebration of this world—
the only world we have—is conventionally grasped as an answer to nihilism,
and in its monism, the “Umwertung” of a Gnostic perspective. But this “Umwer-
tung” is nonsimple. In fact, strong features from the standard Gnostic account
survive, namely,

1. the antinomian pathos against Biblical morality;10

2. the castigation of the imposter god of Pauline Christianity;
3. the iconoclastic stance toward the institutions constituting state and
4. the ontological priority of an elect;11
5. the engendering of the übermensch, the modern counterpart of “the race of
The Perfect Human” of the Nag Hammadi gospels (Williams 1996, p. 32;
cited in Webb 2005, p. 55);
6. the primordial, nonrational knowledge of the Dionysian One celebrated
from the Birth of Tragedy on, captured in a phrase of Voegelin as the “libidi-
nous rush toward cognitive mastery over the hen” (to hen—the One, cf. Plato
in Philebus) (Voegelin 1990, p. 283; Webb 2005, p. 69).
7. the poverty of the actual body and its sought after transformation into “light
and flame.” In The Gay Science, Nietzsche writes:

We are not thinking frogs, nor objectifying and registering mechanisms

with their innards removed: constantly, we [philosophers] have to give
birth to our thoughts out of our pain and, like mothers, endow them with
all we have of blood, heart, fire, pleasure, passion, agony, conscience, fate,
and catastrophe. Life—that means for us constantly transforming all that
we are into light and flame—also everything that wounds us: we simply can
do no other. (GS “Preface” 3)
Nihilism and Neo-Gnosticism 53

The great poem “Ecce Homo,” in the “Prelude” to The Gay Science, speaks of this
transformation accomplished:

Ecce Homo
Yes, I know from where I came!
Ever hungry like a flame,
I consume myself and glow.
Light grows all that I conceive,
Ashes everything I leave:
Flame I am assuredly.
(GS “Joke, Cunning and Revenge: Prelude in German Rhymes” 62)

Zarathustra’s “Night Song” tells of too much light, a self turned only into light
and flame.

Night has come; now all fountains speak more loudly. And my soul too is a
fountain . . . .
Light am I; ah, that I were night! But this is my loneliness that I am girt with
light. Ah, that I were dark and nocturnal! How I would suck at the breasts of
light! And even you would I bless, you little sparkling stars and glowworms up
there, and be overjoyed with your gifts of light.
But I live in my own light; I drink back into myself the flames that break out
of me. I do not know the happiness of those who receive . . . .
Many suns revolve in the void: to all that is dark they speak with their light—to
me they are silent. Oh, this is the enmity of the light against what shines:
merciless it moves in its orbit. Unjust in its heart against all that shines, cold
against suns—thus moves every sun . . . .
Alas, ice is all around me, my hand is burned by the icy. Alas, thirst is within
me that languishes after your thirst.
Night has come: alas, that I must be light! And thirst for the nocturnal! And
loneliness! ….
“Thus sang Zarathustra” (Z II: 9; PN 217–18)

This is the imaginable anguish of the “children of light” possessed by gnosis.

Chapter 4

Nietzsche—Rhetoric—Nihilism: “Every Name

in History”—“Every Style”—“Everything
(A Political Philology of the Last Letter)
Geoff Waite
Per Francesca nessun altro


There is a pleasure sure in being mad which none but madmen know.
—John Dryden, “The Spanish Friar”

Nihilism is a feeling of pleasure [ein Glücksgefühl].

—Gottfried Benn, “Rede auf Heinrich Mann”

Thus speaks the scarlet judge: “Why did this criminal murder? After all, he wanted to
rob.” But I say unto you: his soul thirsted not for robbery but for blood: he thirsted for
the pleasure of the knife [nach dem Glück des Messers]!
—Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra1

Je suis la plaie et le couteau!

Je suis le soufflet et la joue!
Je suis les members et la roue,
Et la victime et le bourreau!
—Charles Baudelaire, “Heautontimoroumenos”2

Nothing would be more useful or more to be promoted than a thoroughgoing Nihilism

of the deed [. . .]
Nietzsche—Rhetoric—Nihilism 55

Problem: with what kind of means could one achieve a severe form of great contagious
nihilism: one, which, with scientific conscientiousness, teaches and practices voluntary
death . . . (and not a feeble, vegetating living on in expectation of a false afterlife—)
One cannot sufficiently condemn Christianity because it devalued the value of
such a great purifying nihilistic movement, as was perhaps already in formation,
through the idea of the immortal private person: likewise through the hope of resur-
rection: in short, always through continual deterrence of the deed of nihilism, which
is suicide . . . It substituted slow suicide; gradually a petty poor but enduring life;
gradually an entirely commonplace bourgeois mediocre life, etc.
—Nietzsche (KSA 13: 221–22; early 1888)3

The criminal of criminals is the philosopher.

—Nietzsche's (KSA 6: 254; September 30, 1888)

Crime or miracle: a complete man.

—Max Ernst4

The Exhibition

In the chiaroscuro of my epigraphs, I read our anthology’s title—Nietzsche's.

Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future—as provocation to rethink three signi-
fiers: “Nietzsche,” “Rhetoric,” “Nihilism,” These I transcode into Nietzsche’s
own words: “Nietzsche” is “every name in history,” “Rhetoric” is “every style,”
“Nihilism” is “everything is permitted.” The latter permits being “every name”
and deploying “every style” but in each case selectively: “every style” reduces to
exo/esotericism; “every name” reduces to the names of God and of two human
murderers of women.
For exhibition purposes, it is expedient to treat each signifier—Nietzsche,
Rhetoric, Nihilism—as a separate category.5 In fact, however, as we will hear
Nietzsche only implying—and this will be my exhibit—all three transcoded signi-
fiers are fused into one “eccentricity” or “contagion” emanating from what he
also calls “my centrum,” which is designed to be unreadable and lethal. Being
one of Nietzsche’s infinite names, it is my great pleasure to read Nietzsche’s last
(ostensibly insane) letter to infiltrate my Trojan Horse into his “my centrum.”

No Future

The quasi-Wagnerian term “philosophy of the future” (Zukunftsmusik: Zukunfts-

philosophie) cannot be at ultimate stake in this anthology. (Zukunftsphilologie
56 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

never existed.) Regarding the future, it is true that Nietzsche is the greatest
recent practitioner of what Leo Strauss identified as a distinguishing feature of
modern (as opposed to classical) writing beginning with Machiavelli. Nietzsche
is a writer who “begins a war against the established order—a new war in a new
land against a new enemy of the highest possible reputation,” but who is “a
captain without an army,” who “must recruit his army [. . .] only by means of
books,” and who therefore addresses less his contemporaries than posterity
(Strauss 1958, p. 154; 1959, pp. 45–6). On the German wing of this long front,
Nietzsche arrives midway between Heinrich von Kleist, who said “I bow down
before someone to come in a millennium” (Kleist 1978, 4: 16), and Martin
Heidegger, who adopts Kleist’s future as his own (see Heidegger 1988, p. 76).
Only apparently more modest, in Nietzsche’s rhetoric of prolepsis, “To explode
into flame after 300 years—is my desire for fame” (KSA 10: 191; November
1882–February 1883). Nietzsche concludes the Preface to On the Genealogy
of Morals: A Polemic (1887)—which will decipher “the entire, long, hard-to-
decipher hieroglyphic writing of man’s moral past”—with another litotes:
“it will be some time before my writings will be ‘readable’” (KSA 5: 254, 256;
GM “Preface” 7, 8).
On the other hand, however, Eternal Recurrence renders any absolute
distinction between past, present, and future moot (“300 years” or “some
time” being a miniscule fraction of that recurrence). We are always already inside
Nietzsche’s forever “untimely” and nihilistic “philosophy of the future.” We are
his corps/e (see Waite 1998).

Problematic Centrum, Double Rhetoric, Political Philology

Notwithstanding all apparent controversy, there exists a largely unacknow-

ledged consensus about who Nietzsche was and even about the various signifi-
cations he gives “nihilism.” This consensus constitutes a problématique, that is, an
interrogative structure in which we give correct answers to the wrong question.
Any problématique “is centred on the absence of problems and concepts [. . .] as
much as their presence,” and so demands “symptomatic reading” (Brewster
1970, pp. 253–54).6 My philological problem: How to read the centred absence
that Nietzsche calls “my centrum?”
In order to promote his “severe form of great contagious nihilism,” phi-
lologist Nietzsche must “fight over words” because “in political, ideological
and philosophical struggle, the words are also weapons, explosives or tran-
quillizers and poisons” (Althusser 2001, p. 9). In Nietzsche’s sibylline vari-
ant—that of the self-described “hermit”—”every philosophy also hides a
mask; every opinion is also a hiding place, every word also a mask” (KSA 5:
233, 234; BGE 289). Hermits or not, we too must fight over words—with
Nietzsche—Rhetoric—Nihilism 57

or against Nietzsche but without knowing exactly who he is behind or facing

his mask.
My tactic, here, is to infiltrate with my political philology Nietzsche’s last let-
ter, written on January 5, 1888, to Jakob Burckhardt, in which Nietzsche avows
that he is “every name in history” (SB 8: 578). Like Eternal Recurrence, this
avowal collapses past, present, and future—rendering it virtually impossible to
know whether we are fighting against or with him. For this reason, I regard
Nietzsche’s avowal as a crucial statement of his nihilism. I adapt the term “politi-
cal philology” from Antonio Gramsci, in his spirit if not precise letter.7 A version
of this philology I locate already in Nietzsche’s own practice when he says he has
mastered “every style” (KSA 6: 304; EH “Books” 4). Nietzsche’s and my political
ends are perhaps radically opposed, though apodictic certainty appears impossible.
It is too often forgotten that Nietzsche trained not as philosopher but as
philologist.8 His published Leipzig University dissertation, De Fontibus Diogenis
Laertius (1869), probes the sources of the often-contaminated texts attributed
to the pre-Platonic philosophers, on whom he immediately begins lecturing
upon arrival at Basel University in 1869. Philology continues to inform all his
work: most extensively and explicitly in his late text, On the Genealogy of Morals,
but also, I argue, most implicitly and profoundly in his last letter. My own
exhibition will remain problematic because, as Nietzsche rightly stresses in a
notebook in early 1888, we today “lack philology” (KSA 13: 460). This perhaps
irreparable lacuna is “for the finer intellect a lack of cleanliness” because “one
constantly mistakes the interpretation for the text—and what an ‘inter-
pretation’!” (ibid., 456).
In logico-rhetorical terms, a problématique is a form of enthymeme (within +
mind) or “practical syllogism” (Aristotle), a statement in which one premise is
not explicitly stated, suppressed to have more or less subliminal—thus maxi-
mally efficacious—perlocutionary force. As Roland Barthes acutely notes in
L’Aventure sémiologique (1985), the enthymeme’s “conclusion is a decisional act”:

The major premise is occupied by a current maxim (eikos); in the minor

premise, the agent (myself, for instance) notes that he finds himself in the
situation covered by the major premise; he concludes by a decision of con-
duct. How does it happen, then, that the conclusion so often contradicts the
major premise, and that the action resists knowledge? It is because, very
often, there is a deviation from the minor premise: the minor premise sur-
reptitiously implies another major premise. (Barthes 1988, p. 63, emphasis
added [hereafter indicated by “em”])9

In agent Nietzsche’s rhetoric, the suppressed major premise is “my centrum.”

On January 3, 1888, a year before his breakdown in Turin, Nietzsche writes Paul
Deussen (his old classmate at Schulpforta and now a leading translator of the
58 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

Indic Vedas) to remark that the German critics who have just begun reading his
work are characterizing it in pejorative medical terms as “‘eccentric,’ ‘patho-
logical,’ ‘psychiatric,’ et hoc genus omne.” However, Nietzsche continued,

These gentlemen, who have no clue about my centrum, about the great
passion in the service of which I live, will have difficulty casting a glance where
I previously have been outside my centrum, where I was really “eccentric.”
(SB 8: 221)

Latin centrum signifies the stationary point of a compass or any circle (or a hard
knot in wood, a precious stone in the interior of an encasing rock, and so on).
As philologist Nietzsche knows, however, centrum derives from Greek κεντρον.
Kentron originally designated: the sharp point of a spear; the sharp point
of a tool or torture instrument; a symbol of sovereignty; and an animal quill
usable for writing. Nietzsche (like Heidegger after him) views Latin as the
inception of an ongoing trajectory of euphemization away from original Greek
significations—not merely ancient but, I stress, archaic. Some Roman writers
(notably Cicero) still use centrum as if it retained the original Greek meaning.
However, this transitional moment is less significant than the general tendency
of Latin to convert what had been the specifically military terminology of strata-
gems into epistemological terminology.10 Thus, for example, a key Greek word for
trickery, δολος, became in Latin dolus but also error. The Homeric Trojan Horse
was a strategic dolos (Odyssey 8: 494; Iliad 6: 187–89), whereas Virgil’s Trojan
Horse was an error in the same sense (Æneid 2: 48, 152; see further Wheeler
1988, pp. 30, 85). Nietzsche’s “centrum” is thus in effect the Trojan Horse in all
our “interpretations” of his writing. Yet, I can reciprocate with a Trojan Horse
of my own.
The original signification of kentron as the point of a spear is homologous
with German “Ort” (place). It derives from Germanic *uzda, also the point
of a spear. This is noted by Heidegger, who also sees its etymological trace in
“interpretation” as Erörterung (Heidegger 1959, p. 37).11 At stake (quite literally)
in Nietzsche’s “my centrum”—and hence in the interpretation of both—is an
allusion to the archaic practice of using the weapons of a defeated enemy to
mark out the ground plan for a monument to victory or a fortification to defend
and from which to attack.
When Nietzsche writes in 1888 that his would-be pathologist-interpreters
are overlooking both his “centrum” and his “eccentricity” to it, he accordingly
has things quite violent in mind: his weapon, his symbol of sovereignty, and
his writing instrument.12 In mid-November 1888, Nietzsche avidly reads ubiqui-
tous newspaper reports about Prado and Chambige, both labeled “nihilists”
in the press, and who he implies in his last letter are the most significant for
“Nietzsche” being “every name in history.”13 Prado and Chambige are murder-
ers of women, following the dictum that “everything is permitted,” and thus
Nietzsche—Rhetoric—Nihilism 59

murder must be at the core of Nietzsche’s kentron. At just this time, Nietzsche
drafts a letter to his sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche:

What I have to do is terrible [furchtbar], in every sense of the word: I chal-

lenge not individuals, I challenge humanity as a whole with my horrific
[entsetzlichen] accusation; no matter how the decision may fall, for me or
against me, in any case an unspeakable amount of disaster [or destiny:
Verhängniß] adheres to my name . . . (SB 8: 474)

Nietzsche may well decide not to send this letter. In 1884, however, he has
already warned the former “1848er” Malwida von Meysenbug that:

I have things on my conscience that are a hundred times heavier to bear

than la bêtise humaine. It is possible that for all humanity I am a disaster, the
disaster [Verhängniß]—and consequently it is very possible that I will one
day become silent out of love for humanity!!! (SB 6: 490)

In both letters, Nietzsche symptomatically silences the precise content of his ken-
tron, except to aver that it exists and that it intends some terrible and horrific
act, challenge, provocation, destiny, or disaster. In fine, Nietzsche qua God aims
“to break the history of humanity in two.”14
This aim may sound mad (or at least like mad rhetoric) today. But this problém-
atique is archaic, and it is at least double. On the one side, “whom the gods
destroy they make mad” (see Padel 1995; and Montiglio 2005); on the other
side, however, among Nietzsche’s own infinite names are those of gods, notably
the demigods Jesus and/or Dionysus, indeed of God simply. Gods traditionally
count as among the very highest values, and one of Nietzsche’s definitions of
nihilism is “the highest values devaluate themselves” (KSA 12: 350; WP 2; em).
Nietzsche’s rhetoric is thus nothing if not self-reflexive. Moreover, it is tautologi-
cal.15 Tautologies ultimately derive from the sentence “God is God” (“I am that/
what/who I am/was/will be,” etc.). As Stanislas Breton shows in Philosophie
buissonnière, exactly one century later, “the name of God is a veritable bomb” due
to “the rapport that unites violence and monotheism” (Breton 1989, pp. 135,
136). Nietzsche’s kentron is intended to be violent: suicidal-and-murderous.
Nietzsche’s aim “to break humanity in two” is also not as mad as it sounds
today if, as Socrates says, “in reality the greatest blessings come to us through
mania [maniaς], when sent as a gift of the gods [dosei didomenhς]” (Phædrus
244a). (The fact that God or gods were dead, before Nietzsche-God, changes
nothing in Eternal Recurrence.) In Heidegger’s echoing dictum, merely
“‘philosophizing’ about being shattered is separated by a chasm from a thinking
that is shattering” (1967, p. 174; em). Like Heidegger, Nietzsche rarely talks
about anything, and definitively not when he is shattered-and-shattering.16
As Shoshana Felman shows in Writing and Madness (1978), the difference
60 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

between merely speaking about madness and speaking madness is equivalent to

the difference between grammar and rhetoric (see Felman 1985, pp. 12–13).
Nietzsche’s rhetoric retrofits several archaic Greek terms. Intimately related
to his “centrum” or kentron is meson (middle, centre). Meson is lucidly analyzed
by Marcel Detienne in Les Maîtres de vérité dans la grèce archaïque (1967), and
I view Nietzsche as a latter-day master of truth. After combat, the spoils of war
are distributed on the battlefield to the victors “in the middle [eς meson etqhke]”
(cit. Detienne 1996, p. 90). Meson also designates the location where a speaker
must stand to speak “in the middle of the assembly [sth de meshi agorhi]” (cit.
ibid., p. 95) on the battlefield or elsewhere. His is then “efficacious speaking
[krainein].” Krainein is the originary form of what we now euphemistically
demilitarize as “performative speech act.” “Once articulated, this kind of speech
becomes power, force, action” (ibid., p. 71). It predates by millennia the dia-
logic or dialectic way of speaking in the merely ancient Greek democratic polis,
which delivers “the death blow for efficacious speech” (ibid., p. 105).17 This

magicoreligious speech is above all efficacious, but its particular kind of reli-
gious power comprises other aspects as well. First, such speech is indistin-
guishable from action; at this level, nothing separates speech from action.
Furthermore, magicoreligious speech is not subject to temporality

and is “pronounced in the absolute present” (Detienne 1996, p. 74). For this
reason, krainein is an aspect of the rhetoric most appropriate to express
Nietzsche’s Eternal Return. I am also suggesting that his meson or kentron—
“the great passion in the service of which I live”—is indeed, as he implied to
Deussen, going to be unreadable to his readers, including those deeming him
pathologically mad. For, as noted by Detienne, “the master of truth is also a
master of deception” (ibid., p. 86; em).

According to Plato, Philebus 58a–b, reporting a remark made by Gorgias, the

power of the logos over the soul it is persuading is certainly that of a master
over a slave; the only difference is that the soul is reduced to slavery by
the mysterious constraint exercised through consent rather than force. (Ibid.,
p. 194, n.84; em)

Recalling Nietzsche’s own word, this constraint is “voluntary”—whether the

resulting “deed of nihilism” is suicide, as he says, or murder, as he silently
What further problematizes the relation between the terms “Nietzsche” and
“nihilism” or any other key term—no matter how defined—is Nietzsche’s
deployment of a unique form of the ancient art of so-called double rhetoric, that
is, his retrofit of transhistorical (never ahistorical) exoteric-cum-esoteric expres-
sion. The term “esoteric” derives from the “circle” or rather kentron around the
Nietzsche—Rhetoric—Nihilism 61

Pythagoras who is rumored to order disobedient members of his “acousmatic”

corps executed (see Allman 1889, p. 43; further Porush 1996, pp. 111–13).
Among two or three of the most important discussions of Nietzsche’s “double
rhetoric” is the work of Stanley Rosen (esp. 1989 and 1995).18 Of course,
this rhetoric long predates Nietzsche. Consider, for example, Spinoza’s “dual
language” (see Yovel 1989, pp. 28–39, but esp. Zweerman 1993)—let alone
Plato’s Epistle VII. But whereas Rosen locates content in both the esoteric and
the exoteric sides of Nietzsche’s double rhetoric, I maintain that Nietzsche’s
kentron is a formal principle with lethal intent. Rosen is correct to say that
“whereas Nietzsche associates the rejection of the natural order of rank with
nihilism” (referring to The Will to Power), “Nietzsche also teaches at all stages of
his thought that ‘the total character of the world is . . . in all eternity chaos’”
(citing The Gay Science). The latter teaching leads Rosen to posit the content of
“Nietzsche’s esoteric or deeper teaching.” For Rosen, Nietzsche’s “exoteric” or
“lower” teaching is “the recommendation to return to the cruel creativity of
the Renaissance city-state or to the polis of Homer (more generally, pre-Socratic)
Greece” (Rosen 1989, p. 197).19 (In other words, Nietzsche’s double rhetoric
constitutes a complete political ontology.) According to Rosen, the content of
Nietzsche’s “esoteric or deeper teaching” is the following: “Since what the tradi-
tional philosophers call Being or nature is in fact chaos, there is no eternal
impediment to human creativity, or more bluntly put, to the will to power”
(Rosen 1989, p. 197). By contrast, I fail to see any real or efficacious distinction
for Nietzsche between cruel (political) creativity and either the (ontological)
cruelty within chaos or any form of creativity within Will to Power, which is
always as destructive as it is creative. Rosen also refers to “the inconsistencies in
Nietzsche’s exoteric teaching, taking it apart from the esoteric teaching” (ibid.,
p. 198, n. 21). On my view, however, these cannot be taken apart in Nietzsche or
when interpreting him. It is precisely because his double rhetoric disallows the
assignation of any content that it is, in this sense, nihilistic. Again, I emphatically
stress that both his unreadable kentron and wherever it is “really eccentric” are
intended to be lethal. However, neither the centripetal nor the centrifugal force
is ultimately any more esoteric or any more exoteric than is the other.
I do concur with Rosen that, “as is shown by his defence of courage in the face
of our insight into chaos, Nietzsche never reduces nobility to an image of chaos.
Rather he insists upon the truth of chaos in order to sustain nobility” (Rosen
1980, p. 200). But this is because, as Pierre Klossowski and Gilles Deleuze have
long shown, Eternal Return “is essentially selective, selective par excellence”
(Deleuze 1967, p. 284). The reason Zarathustra recovers from his initially
horrific encounter with Eternal Return (i.e., that we “last men” of communism
will also repeatedly return) is that Zarathustra “finally understands what is
unequal and the selection in the eternal return” and that “essentially the
unequal, the different is the true rationale for the eternal return” (Deleuze
1967, p. 284). In other words, Zarathustra simultaneously affirms ontological
and political inequality. Call it “nobility,” if you will, because Nietzsche’s double
62 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

rhetoric is indeed selective. This is why he can be “every name in history” and
yet prefer being “Prado” and “Chambige,” can deploy “every style,” yet prefer
exo/esotericism. Like Eternal Recurrence, “everything is permitted” demands
To be more precise, the ultimate consequence is not that Nietzsche’s inter-
locutors or readers can never be confident about what Nietzsche “really meant.”
To the contrary, in their problématique they think they know all too well. This is
exactly the rhetorical or perlocutionary effect Nietzsche wanted and achieved.
This is why the phenomenon of “Nietzscheanism” has long been so evenly
distributed (albeit changing in response to whatever conjuncture) across any
conventional ideological spectrum. There have always been and always will be
Nietzscheans on the “Right,” the “Middle,” the “Left,” just as there is nihilism
on all these fronts. However, due to his kentron and meson, of these three, the
“Middle” is usually most efficacious.
Regarding Nietzsche’s meson, consider two theses in Gramsci’s Prison Note-
books (sometimes in close proximity). First, Russian nihilism (as Nietzsche
encounters it in Turgenev and later in Dostoevsky) is a “party of the middle”
because it is exploited by both the Right and the Left (Gramsci 1975, 14[3]).20
“Anarchism is bourgeois philosophy turned inside out” (Lenin 1973, p. 48).
Second, the growing phenomenon of Nietzscheanism is in effect also a party of
the middle inasmuch as it is a consequence, simultaneously, of both “popular
literature” (e.g., Montecristo in Dumas, Vautrin and Rastignac in Balzac, and so
on) and Nietzsche’s higher philosophizing (Gramsci 1975, 14[4]). Moreover,
popular literature also deeply affects Nietzsche himself, as can be seen in his
last letter with his reference not only to Alphonse Daudet’s recently published
novel L’Immortel (1888)—in which the main protagonist commits suicide—but
also to the murderers Chambige and Prado, whose cases Nietzsche is following
minutely in Le Figaro and in the feuilletons of other journals, one of which
(L’Illustration) has serialized L’Immortel earlier that year.
According to my political philology, nihilism, Nietzsche, and Nietzscheans
(beginning with early ones) thus all fall under the “laws” identified by the
Russian Formalists as “carnivalization” (Mihhail Bakhtin) and “the canoni-
zation of the junior branch” (Viktor Shklovsky) (see Bennett 1979). This law
prescribes that popular culture—notably feuilleton journalism, vaudeville, and,
in the case of Dostoevsky’s novels, detective fiction—must be periodically
elevated into the “canon” before being reciprocally returned to the “junior
branch.” Nietzsche is fascinated, from the several newspapers he is reading
in Turin, by “the literary crime” in which criminals are accused of having mur-
dered as a result of reading both popular and canonical literature.21 Stendhal,
Nietzsche’s ally in double rhetoric, is often being mentioned in the press as
complicit in this crime.22 Finally, this Formalist “law” is how Nietzsche’s self-
described “promotion” of the “severe form of great contagious nihilism” sub-
sequently has affected a vast array of popular literature, music, and cinema
Nietzsche—Rhetoric—Nihilism 63

but also of murderers.23 Whether Nietzsche administers this law consciously or

unconsciously is indeterminable because the question does not matter insofar
as it is, precisely, a law.

Truth as Combat

It is also simply not true that Nietzsche’s double rhetoric renders any arti-
culation of his name with nihilism indeterminable. Nietzsche’s double rhetoric
produces every possible articulation in decisive, ultimately mortal combat. This
combat takes place on two major fronts: within “Nietzsche” qua “every name
in history;” and within and among us. In Maurice Blanchot’s words, “that
Nietzsche’s thought is dangerous, is certainly true. He is the first to teach us
this: if you begin to think, then you can hope for no rest” (Blanchot 1995,
p. 128). For, in the aforementioned words of Terentius, “Homo sum, humani
nil a me alienum puto.” I follow Georges Bataille: “One cannot hear [or under-
stand: entendu] one word in Nietzsche’s corpus without experiencing that
dazzling dissolution into totality” (Bataille 1945, p. 26). In 1894, Lou Andreas-
Salomé wrote that “during his last philosophical mysticism, Nietzsche slowly
sinks into a final solitude into whose silence we can no longer follow him”
(Andreas-Salomé 2000, p. 41). Today, qua his corps/e, we have no choice but to
take this dangerous plunge into his totality.
One thing not to be feared in Nietzsche is the specter of nihilism qua relativ-
ism. Any appearance to the contrary, Nietzsche and his rhetoric of nihilism are
not relativist because they have their kentron. Adopting Cornell West’s terms, we
could say that Nietzsche’s is “an extreme nihilism” that “denies even relativistic
moral claims” (West 1991, p. 6). I prefer Heidegger’s terms, in 1934: “from the
sentence ‘there is no absolute truth’ it does not follow that the sentence itself
is absolutely true; it is only true for us [wahr für uns]” (Heidegger 1998, p. 80; em).24
However, Heidegger immediately rejects the commonsensical assumption that
he is promoting relativism—not if it entails pacifism. Contrary to the “common
opinion that philosophy must, as the highest science, be free of standpoint
[standpunktsfrei].” Heidegger continues, “there must be a standpoint, without
a standpoint one cannot stand. It is not a matter of freedom of standpoint,
but rather a matter of fighting for a standpoint. It is a matter of a standpoint-
decision [Standpunktsentscheidung]” (Heidegger 1998, p. 80). Nietzsche’s stand-
point is his kentron, meson, Ort—his broadcast central, his command centre, his
battle station. It is “the great passion in the service of which I live.”
In the seminal theological formulation of Karl Barth, “one can only under-
stand [Verstehen] that for which one stands [steht]” (cit. Burnett 2004, pp. 112,
288). Blasphemously substituting the name “Nietzsche” for Barth’s “St. Paul”
(another of Nietzsche’s names), I hijack Barth to say: “Our questions are, when
we rightly understand ourselves, the questions of Nietzsche, and the answers of
64 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

Nietzsche must, when their light illuminates us, be our answers” (cf. Barth 2005,
p. xi).25 My provocation in this problématique is twofold: on the one side, it is we
who are interpolated as agents among all Nietzsche’s names in history; on the
other side, we are called upon to select under which banner of which chosen
name or names to fight. “It is fundamentally the problem of all philosophical
(and political and military problems): to know how to get out of a circle while
remaining inside it” (Althusser 1994, p. 352). Yet, the brute fact that we are
Nietzsche’s corps/e and that nihilism is not something “out there” but “in us,”
does not mean that we must accept his rhetoric of nihilism and its effects as our
own without a fight, without introducing my own Trojan Horse within his

“Every Style” (Double Rhetoric)

With regard to the proper or improper name “Nietzsche,” I have been following
Pierre Klossowski, reading as exemplary Nietzsche’s affirmation (in his last
letter, written just before his irrevocable break on January 6, 1889): “What is
disconcerting and strains my modesty is that I am fundamentally every name in
history [Was unangenehm ist und meiner Bescheidenheit zusetzt, ist, daß im Grunde
jeder Name in der Geschichte ich bin]” (SB 8: 578). Nietzsche means every name—
past, present, future—and therefore he means to deploy “every style” in history.
In Ecce homo: How One Becomes What One Is (1888), Nietzsche writes:

A general remark immediately about my art of style. To communicate a state,

an inner tension of pathos, through signs, including the tempo of these
signs—that is the sense of every style; and, considering that the multiplicity
of inner states is exceptional in my case, there are for me many possibilities
of style—the most multifarious art of style that any man has ever had at his
disposal. Good is any style that really communicates an inner state, which
does not adopt the false notes, tempo of signs, gestures—all the laws of the
long period are the art of gestures. My instinct here is infallible. (KSA 6: 304;
EH “Books” 4; emphases modified.)26

In “L’ancienne rhétorique: aide-mémoire” (1970), Barthes remarks (without

reference to Nietzsche) that the rhetoric “prevalent in the West from the fifth
century B.C. to the nineteenth century A.D.” was comprised of nothing less
than six elements: a technique of persuasion; a teaching (verbal and later in writ-
ing); a science of classification (of tropes and figures); an ethics (the supervision—
the permission and limitation—of the “‘derivations’ of emotive language”);
a social practice (“that privileged technique [. . .] which permits the ruling
classes to gain ownership of speech”); and a ludic practice (“since all these practices
Nietzsche—Rhetoric—Nihilism 65

constituted a formidable [. . .] institutional system, it was only natural that a

mockery of rhetoric should develop, a ‘black’ rhetoric [suspicions, contempt,
ironies]: games, parodies, erotic or obscene allusions [. . .]”) (Barthes 1988,
pp. 12–14). Nietzsche’s rhetoric clearly combines all these elements but essen-
tially as his unique double, exo/esoteric rhetoric: the fluid reciprocity between
his black kentron and its resulting chiaroscuro “eccentricity.”
Elsewhere, in Le plaisir du texte (1973), Barthes makes an equally pertinent

In antiquity, rhetoric included a section which is forgotten, censored by

classical commentators: the actio, a group of formulae designed to allow
for the corporeal exteriorization of discourse: it deals with a theatre of
expression, the actor-orator “expressing” his indignation, his compassion,
etc. (Barthes 1975, p. 66)

Barthes contrasts actio with what he calls “writing aloud,” which “is not expres-
sive” inasmuch as

it is carried not by dramatic inflections, subtle stresses, sympathetic accents,

but by the grain of the voice. [. . .] What it searches for [. . .] are the pulsional
incidents, the language lined with flesh, a text where we can hear the grain of
the throat, the patina of consonants, the voluptuousness of vowels, a whole
carnal stereophony: the articulation of the body, of the tongue, not that of
meaning, of language. (ibid., pp. 66–7)

I am suggesting, however, that Nietzsche’s untranslatable double rhetoric

or “art of style” fuses ancient actio with Barthean writing aloud. This explains
Nietzsche’s enormous subliminal perlocutionary effect and suggests the central
place of letter writing in his corpus, since it is in this aspect of his kentron that his
actio writes aloud to a living body or to his and our corps/e.
The Neo-Kantian Hans Vaihinger (who knows whereof he speaks), is almost
correct to note in 1902 that “Nietzsche controlled the entire equipment of
antique and modern rhetoric and stylistics” (Vaihinger 2002, p. 12; em). But
we must not overlook the double rhetoric, the exoteric-cum-esoteric. Even
though we cannot know its precise kentron, we must recognize that it exists and
that Nietzsche intended it to be lethal. In his penultimate letter to August
Strindberg (December 8, 1888), in which Nietzsche avows he is “strong
enough to break the history of humanity in two pieces,” he remarks that his
Ecce homo “is written among other things in the ‘Prado’-Style,” and that the
recently executed murderer Prado “was superior to his lawyers, and even
judges, through his self-control, esprit, and hubris” (SB 8: 509, 508)—Ecce
homo Nietzsche aka Prado, whom Nietzsche will inform Burckhardt is “a decent
66 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

“Everything is permitted” (Murder)

A commonplace begins Stanley Rosen’s Nihilism (1969):

Nietzsche defines nihilism as the situation which obtains when “everything is

permitted.” If everything is permitted, then it makes no difference what we
do, and so nothing is worth anything. (p. xiii)

To which Rosen adds, “what seem to be various forms of nihilism in fact reduce
finally to just one form,” which must ultimately be “silence” since Rosen’s book
is “a defence of reason” (Rosen 1969, pp. xiii, xiv). But this single form, for
Rosen, apparently does not include Nietzsche’s specific rhetoric of silence
(sigetics), let alone his kentron.27 Closer to Nietzsche-God’s own perspective
(though not to his sigetics or kentron), notably in the final days in Turin, is the
following remark by Gilles Deleuze:

One must not say, “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” It is just to
the contrary. It is with God that everything is permitted. Not only morally,
because violences and infamies always find a holy justification. But aestheti-
cally, in a much more important way, because the divine Figures are animated
by a free creative work, by a fantasy that permits everything. (Deleuze 2002,
p. 18)

Prima facie, Rosen’s definition of Nietzsche’s nihilism is obviously soberer than

Deleuze’s critique—commonsensical even. Since another of Nietzsche’s defini-
tions of nihilism, as noted earlier, is “the highest values devaluate themselves,”
these previous values obviously once included the dictum that some things are
permitted, others not. In any case, “the reason for certain prohibitions is obvi-
ous” if “there is no culture that does not prohibit violence among those who
live together” (Girard 1987, p. 10), though Nietzsche would have laughed.
Albert Camus’s famous rejoinder to Nietzsche and to Dostoevsky was that “a
profounder logic replaces the ‘if nothing is true, everything is permitted’ [. . .]
by ‘if nothing is true, nothing is permitted,’” though Camus thought, very
wrongly, that “with Nietzsche, rebellion ends in asceticism” (Camus 1954,
p. 71). Moreover, introducing Nietzsche’s statement with a hypothetical—“if
nothing is true, everything is permitted”—suggests the possibility (nay, fact)
that, pace Camus (and Rosen inter alia), Nietzsche himself does not think that
nothing is true and that, therefore, everything (or nothing) is permitted. In
Nietzsche’s “centrum” and “eccentricity” some things are true, namely: that he
promotes “a severe form of great contagious nihilism,” that he is “breaking
humanity in two,” that he writes in “every style,” and that he is God and “every
name in history.”
Rosen (1969, p. xiii) does not provide his referent in Nietzsche for the state-
ment “everything is permitted,” making it appear that Nietzsche is speaking in
Nietzsche—Rhetoric—Nihilism 67

propria persona.28 Nietzsche always places the statement in quotation marks. It

occurs four times in his extant corpus, two of which are crucial.29 The first is
entirely negative, the second positive and decisive.
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everybody and No One, the phrase “nothing
is true, everything is permitted” is spoken not by Zarathustra himself, let alone
by Nietzsche, but by Zarathustra’s Shadow, to whose entire speech Zarathustra
responds “with sadness” because his Shadow has thus “lost the goal” (KSA 4: 340,
“The Shadow”; em; also 341). This is the most damning condemnation
Zarathustra can utter. Their exchange occurs in the fourth volume of Thus
Spoke Zarathustra, which Nietzsche wrote in early 1885 but immediately ordered
withdrawn from bookstores and further publication. When Nietzsche states
“everything is permitted” in his writing for the public, it is for the first and
last time in 1887 in On the Genealogy of Morals, where it is explicitly implicated
with assassination.
This is the passage at once closest to and most “eccentric” from his kentron:

When the Christian crusaders in the Orient encountered the invincible

Assassin-Order, that Free-Spirit-Order par excellence, whose lowest rank
lived in an obedience the like of which no Monk-Order had attained, they
obtained in whatever way also a hint about that symbol and shibboleth-word
[Kerbholz-Wort]30 which was reserved for the highest ranks alone as their
Secretum: “Nothing is true, Everything is permitted.” . . . Well now, that was
Freedom of spirit, with that the faith in truth itself was abrogated. (KSA 5: 399;
GM III: 24)31

In this passage, the phrase “nothing is true, everything is permitted,” even

though still in quotation marks, embraces Nietzsche’s own published opinions
on such matters as promoting highest rank, secrecy, freedom of spirit, and the
abrogation of the faith in truth itself. — In fine, the root of terrorism.
Nietzsche is correct in attributing the phrase to the Assassin-Order, whose
“nothing is true, everything is permitted” has been recently described (without
reference to Nietzsche) as “the first line in the canon of the secret tradition,
a nihilist catchphrase, an entry into negation, a utopianism, a shibboleth”
(Marcus 1989, p. 442). The phrase is commonly attributed to Hassan i Sabbah II,
Old Man of the Mountain, the twelfth-century leader of the cult of Ismailians
in Persia and/or to his Gnostic disciple, Rashid al-Din Sinan, another Old Man
of the Mountain and the leader of the historical Assassins (see, e.g., Debord
1978, pp. 224–5)—all on the home turf of Zoroaster-Zarathustra, as well as that
of the Islamic world (see Lewis 2003).
Therefore, Nietzsche would immediately recognize, as most readers in his
problématique do not, that “everything is permitted” is, in rhetorical terms, a
censoring euphemism, that is, the paradox of “unrecognizable, socially recog-
nized violence,” part of “the official truth produced by the collective work
of euphemization” (Bourdieu 1977, pp. 191, 196). Specifically, “everything is
68 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

permitted” is a euphemism for fear of death, in the double sense of the fear of
being-killed-and-killing others.
“Fear of death” has a long tradition but it is also specifically bourgeois—not in
an economic sense stricto sensu but in a Nietzschean sense, the philosophical
sense that dates from Rousseau or, more precisely, from the tradition into which
both he and Nietzsche intervene as combatants.32 In the formulation of Allan
Bloom (who, however, is plagiarizing and euphemizing Carl Schmitt):

Now, who, according to Rousseau, is the bourgeois? Most simply, following

Hegel’s formula, he is the man motivated by fear of violent death, the man
whose primary concern is self-preservation or, according to Locke’s correc-
tion of Hobbes, comfortable self-preservation. Or, to describe the inner
workings of his soul, he is the man who, when dealing with others, thinks only
of himself, and on the other hand, in his understanding of himself, thinks
only of others. (Bloom 1979, p. 5)33

On this definition, Nietzsche remains resolutely antibourgeois, as we heard him

avow in early 1888 when he promotes “the thoroughgoing nihilism of the deed,”
that is, the desired “voluntary” suicide by the “bourgeois.”
Nietzsche never really fears his own death, is hardly opposed to suicide, and
occasionally contemplates killing himself. The divine act of “breaking the his-
tory of humanity in two pieces” entails killing others, as when Nietzsche orders
“all anti-Semites shot” or “eradicated” in 1888/89. As he had stressed already in
1882/1883, while writing the first part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra: “The decision.
There will have to be countless victims [or offerings, sacrifices: Opfer]. An
Attempt” (KSA 10: 185). Nietzsche would prefer to assassinate the “bourgeois”
or “last man” rather than let him live, even though both these men and
Nietzsche must return eternally to be assassinated or to assassinate. Given the
current historical conjuncture, however, Nietzsche would much prefer that these
men (including most of us, especially communists) commit suicide.
No matter what, Nietzsche is free of the fear of death in both senses—being
killed and killing—indeed is free simpliciter. For, according to Spinoza’s ethics
qua “logic of war” (Albiac 1997, pp. 138–41), “a free man thinks of nothing less
than of death, and his wisdom is a meditation on life, not on death” (Spinoza
1925, vol. 2, p. 262). In Nietzsche’s more explicitly militant ethics in Twilight
of the Idols or How One Philosophizes with the Hammer (1888), “The free man is
warrior” (KSA 6: 140; TI “Skirmishes” 38).
When Nietzsche encounters nihilism in its most powerful literary form it is in
Dostoevsky’s Demons (Bési 1872), which Nietzsche reads in French translation
in late 1887 and early 1888, and in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (or Fathers and
Children: Ottsy i deti 1862), which Nietzsche also reads in French translation
albeit much earlier, in June 1873. This is during the time he is dictating to
Carl von Gersdorff the subsequently purloined and seminal text “On Truth and
Lie in the Extramoral Sense” (see Gersdorff and Nietzsche 1937, p. 63).
Nietzsche—Rhetoric—Nihilism 69

(Andreas-Salomé knew Turgenev; apparently Turgenev and Nietzsche

exchanged silent glances in the park in Baden-Baden in Spring 1875.)34
Nietzsche’s notes on Demons focus on that half of nihilism which entails
suicide (see KSA 13: 141–79; 1887/1888; also KSA 14: 756–7).35 Nietzsche is
aware that a protagonist, Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky, is based on the
nihilist assassin Sergey Nechayev and his revolutionary group “People’s
Vengeance,” and whose erstwhile mentor, Mikhail Bakhunin, Nietzsche knows
about from conversations with Richard Wagner, who had been inspired by
Bakhunin in the 1848 Revolution (see KSA 7: 580–2; early 1873). Nietzsche’s
last recorded reference by name to Dostoevsky, in early 1888, is his familiar
praise of Dostoevsky (in opposition to Ernst Renan’s “vulgarity”) as the “only
psychologist I know who has lived in the world where Christianity is possible,
where a Christ can arise at any instant” (KSA 13: 409). In 1888/89, this Christ
does indeed arise in Turin as “The Crucified,” among Nietzsche’s signed
names.36 As we will see in a moment, Nietzsche’s reading of Turgenev’s Fathers
and Sons focuses on that other half of nihilism which is killing others, though
both lethal consequences of nihilism are on intimate terms. As Freud notes in
“Mourning and Melancholia” (1917), “we have known for a long time that no
neurotic nurtures suicidal intentions who does not turn them back from an
impulse to murder others” (Freud 2005, p. 212).
On November 10, 1887, Nietzsche says he would almost be at home in Paris,

in those bi-monthly diners that the most clever and most sceptical band of
Parisian spirits shared together (Sainte-Beuve, Flaubert, Th[éophile] Gautier,
Taine, Rénan [sic], the Goncourts, Schérer, Gavarni, occasionally Turgenev,
etc.). Exasperated pessimism, cynicism, nihilism, with much interchangeable
exuberance and good humour; I myself would have belonged there not at all
badly—I know these gentlemen by heart, so much that I really have my fill of
them already. One must be more radical: with All of them what is fundamen-
tally lacking is “the main thing—la force.” (SB 8: 192; to Heinrich Köselitz)

With his last qualification, Nietzsche is chiding this group of (almost fellow)
decadents for not practicing physical force. He is recalling from the “occa-
sionally” attending Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons that “force” is precisely how the
self-defined nihilist Basarov and his mouthpiece Arkady define “nihilism”—
albeit in a conversation with Pavel Petrovich who wonders sarcastically if
his young interlocutors are prepared really to exert force, as they indeed are
not except in fiction.

“We destroy because we’re a force,” Arkady observed. Pavel Petrovich

looked at his nephew and smiled: “a fine thing force—without any content.”
(Turgenev 2009, p. 42; em)

Nietzsche smiles because he does not need content in his kentron.

70 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

What Nietzsche doubtless rejects is what Russia understood by nihilism qua

social movement, including feminism. In the words of Lev Deutsch, a leading
Russian Marxist:

By rejecting obsolete custom, by rising up against unreasonable opinions,

concepts, and prejudices, and by rejecting authority and anything resembling
it, nihilism set on its way the idea of the equality of all people without distinc-
tion. To nihilism, incidentally, Russia owes the well-known and remarkable
fact that in our culturally deprived country, women began, earlier than in
most civilized states, their surge toward higher education and equal rights—
a fact which already has had enormous significance and which in the future
will obviously play a great role in the fate of our country and even perhaps
throughout the civilized world. (cit. Stites 2009, pp. 283–4)

Compare Nietzsche:

A declaration of war of the higher man against the masses is necessary!

Everywhere mediocrity gathers to make itself master! Everything that makes
soft, gentle, advantageous to the “Volk” or the “feminine” works to the advan-
tage of suffrage universel, i.e., the rule of the lower people. But we want to
practice all repressive measures and bring this entire economy (which in
Europe begins with Christianity) to light and before the law. (KSA 11: 60;
early 1884)

For Nietzsche, “Christ and Anarchist is a perfect equation: their goal, their
instinct directed at destruction” (KSA 6: 245; A 58). Reading Demons in
1887/1888, and penning an aphorism entitled “The Nihilist,” Nietzsche con-
tinues to define the nihilist in theologico-political terms: theologically, as
consequence of “the emergence of Christianity”; politically, as “the typical
Socialist-Doctrine”—both of which are nihilistic (as tertium quid) since each has
“in the background of the rebellion, the explosion of a damned up repugnance
against the ‘masters’” (KSA 13: 178).37 Nietzsche is hardly opposed to rebellion
per se. We recall, however, that for Nietzsche nihilism is not just a revolutionary
social movement in which “all is permitted,” which at this one moment in
Eternal Return, he selects to loathe and to combat. Nihilism also requires using
“every style” and being “every name in history.” This includes being the names
of everybody, including people he loathes and must combat, including himself as
one of these names. Homo sum, humani nil a me alienum puto.

“Every name in history” (Nietzsche and Us)

On January 3, 1888, the day he completes his last text intended for publication,
Dionysus-Dithyrambs, Nietzsche writes his last three letters to Cosima Wagner in
Nietzsche—Rhetoric—Nihilism 71

Bayreuth, all unsigned.38 The most significant alludes to his being “every name
in history.”

To Princess Ariadne, my Love.

It is an advantage that I am a man. But I have already lived among men and
know everything that men can experience, from the lowest to the highest.
I have been Buddha among the Indians, Dionysus in Greece,—Alexander
and Caesar are my incarnations, the same goes for the poet of Shakespeare,
Lord Bacon. Next, I was Voltaire and Napoleon, perhaps also Richard
Wagner . . . This time however I come as the victorious Dionysus, who will
make the world a feast day . . . Not that I would have much time . . . The
heavens rejoice that I am here [or that I exist: daß ich da bin] . . . I have also
hung on the cross . . .
[unsigned] (SB 8: 572–3)

Note the only qualification: “perhaps also Richard Wagner.” Perhaps, alas, he
was. But who, exactly, is this Ariadne? The seventh of the nine dithyrambs,
“Ariadne’s Lament,” concludes with Dionysus’s response to her: “Must one not
first hate oneself when one is supposed to love oneself? . . . I am your labyrinth”
(KSA 6: 401). One of his Dionysus-Dithyrambs concludes with the ultimate
betrothal that he loves only “Eternity” (KSA 6: 405).
In a version of her myth, Ariadne is killed by Artemis at Dionysus’ command
or testimony (Odyssey 11: 324–5) after she elopes with Theseus, who has just
followed her thread out of the labyrinth. In another version, Ariadne and
Dionysus are married before eloping. In one version of her lethal desertion,
“Theseus and Dionysus are obvious doubles” (Harrison 1962, p. 322, n.4). Con-
sequently, it is insufficient to conclude that “Dionysus-Nietzsche [. . .] took
Cosima-Ariadne away from Wagner-Theseus” (Heller 1980, p. 124).
The signifier “Ariadne” derives, according to Carl Kerény, from Cretan-Greek
arihagne (absolutely pure), and he suggests that “Ariadne” is an epithet signi-
fying at once a prison containing at its centre death (the Minotaur) and a
dance-ground (see Kerény 1976, p. 89). The latter kentron is the site of sacrificial
rituals (see Harrison 1962, pp. 318–19). “The mythic women caused to wander
by Dionysiac frenzy ruin their households and themselves. Dionysus drives
women, not men, out of their houses and cities to wander in madness and
kill” (Montiglio 2005, p. 17). For Ariadne-Cosima (or anyone) to be loved by
Nietzsche-Dionysus, or to be married to him, is lethal, exactly as it is to be the
lovers of Chambige and Prado. Just as Nietzsche deploys “every style,” so too
“Nietzsche” is “every name in history” but now especially the names of God, the
demigods Jesus and/or Dionysus, and two mortal murderers. The sacrificial
practice specific to “the followers of Dionysus” is “the omophagia or eating of
raw flesh” during a “hunting game” that involves “tearing the victim apart
(diasparagmos [. . .]), and devouring its limbs raw” (Zaidman and Pantel
1992, p. 39).
72 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

Nietzsche’s fascination with rituals of blood sacrifice, also in connection with

marriage ceremonies, dates back to the half-year he spends in Sorrento from
October 1876 to May 1877, during which time he takes the ferry to Capri. Here
he has an extremely intense, visionary experience in the Grotto di Matrimonio
(properly: Grotto di Mitromania or Matromania), which he records in 1878 in
the notebook he entitles “Memorabilia.” He connects “Mithras—hope” to
“Mithras-insanity,” calling both “the idyllic image of unconscious life” (KSA 8:
507). Emperor Tiberius (who has intrigued Nietzsche since 1868), celebrates
his various weddings with sacrifices of animals (especially the bull: tauroctony)
and humans, including, as Nietzsche apparently accepts, at least one adolescent
boy (see further Leiris 1938). Moreover, all Mithraic temples (i.e., spaces in
caves) depict the cosmos, that is, “Cosima.”
Of Persian, Zoroastrian (Zarathustrian) origin, the Mithraic Mysteries (to
which Nietzsche alludes in his remark to Burckhardt about practicing “magic”
with Ariadne-Cosima), become popular in the Roman Empire in first to fourth
century C. E. as the legions advance from Italy to Germania and beyond.
Whether women are allowed to join as sacrificers or as sacrificed remains
matter of academic debate (see David 2000).
The scholar of Capri’s Blue or Mithras Grotto known to Nietzsche is
Ferdinand Gregorovius (1821–91), the prolific historian of Italy and the
Mediterranean and a friend of Nietzsche’s friend Malwida von Meysenbug,
Nietzsche’s companion in Sorrento. In 1856, Gregorovius writes the following
about the grotto. According to him, the locals in Capri

say the temple was consecrated to Mithras not because the Persian sun-god
was venerated in caves but because people found in this grotto one of those
reliefs which depict the Mithraic sacrifice [. . .]. They show Mithras in Persian
dress, kneeling in front of the bull into whose neck he plunges the sacrificial
knife while snake, scorpion and dog are wounding the bull [. . .]. (Gregorovius
1856, pp. 360–1)39

Since Nietzsche is “every name in history,” he is the Ariadne-Cosima for whom

he must harbor the wish to kill as does Dionysus himself.
At least one mythical Dionysus is “officially feminized,” wearing the krotos or
metra (a flowered, explicitly feminized dress) (Loraux 1995, p. 128).40 Philolo-
gist Nietzsche links the mitra to Mithras (etymologically from *mitra), supreme
God of the Persians.41 In his last letter, Nietzsche’s allusion to being half-dressed
or in négligé (from neglegere: to slight, insult; to overlook, disregard)—“a con-
dition of decency” in meeting Burckhardt in Turin—intimates being halfway
to murderous Dionysian transvestitism.
When Nietzsche-Dionysus is having “all anti-Semites shot,” he is aiming at
Cosima Wagner inasmuch as she is at least as ferociously anti-Semitic as Richard
Wagner—her husband since 1870 and who Nietzsche only “perhaps was.” In
Nietzsche—Rhetoric—Nihilism 73

same regard, Nietzsche will soon be aiming at his last correspondent, Jakob
Burckhardt.42 More generally, he is aiming at any interpellated reader of his
letter (Franz Overbeck is its second). As I have inferred from Freud, suicide
and murder are lovers, when not identical. Therefore, Friedrich Nietzsche also
aims at Friedrich Nietzsche.

Excursus: Prado and Chambige

The international press in November and December 1888 is replete with reports
of murders, murder trials, and the sentencing or executions of murderers. Most
sensational, in those two months, are the vicious serial killings in London of
women by “Jack the Ripper.” The Ripper has been only recently identified,
superbly by Patricia Cornwall, as the German-born Walter Richard Sickert
(1860–1942), arguably “the greatest British painter since Constable” (Cornwall
2002, p. 315), and another master of masks, disguises, and pseudonyms to
escape detection and apprehension. Avidly reading the popular press, Nietzsche
knows of the Ripper’s killings, not his identity. What Nietzsche does know
especially well are two murderers of women close to home: Prado and
Chambige with whom an eyewitness to his breakdown in Turin says he “identi-
fies” (Pavia 1932).
On January 5, 1888, Nietzsche writes his last letter to Burckhardt, his last
letter to anybody. It includes this crucial passage:

Naturally, I am in close contact with Figaro, and so that you get an idea of how
harmless I can be, listen to my first two bad jokes:43
Do not take the Prado case too hard. I am Prado [. . .]. I wanted to give my
Parisians, whom I love, a new concept—that of a decent criminal. I am also
Chambige—also a decent criminal. (SB 8: 578)

Widely reported in the European press, the murderer known as Prado has just
been guillotined in Paris a week earlier on December 27, 1888.44 The execution
is initially botched when the apparatus malfunctions and Prado’s ear and part
of his face are sliced off. (The audience is huge, with Paul Gauguin sketching
the execution; he just arrived in Paris from Arles where he has abandoned
Van Gogh and his severed ear, gifted to a prostitute.) Prado has used a baffling
number of pseudonyms, though not quite “every name in history,” most notably
Count Louis-Frédéric de Linska de Castillon. Dubbed “the gentleman burglar”
and “the nihilist” by the press, Prado robbed and stabbed to death the prosti-
tute Marie Aguétant in 1866 but escaped capture. (Prado’s victim is already
immortalized in Oscar Wilde’s 1881 poem “The Harlot’s House” either for
having slept with him or for having refused; see Wilde, pp. 105–6). In spring
1888, Prado is arrested for burglary and the attempted murder of a pursuing
74 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

policeman. During his trial, one of his current mistresses tells the court that
Prado confessed to her to killing Aguétant.
As we heard from his letter to Strindberg on December 8, 1888, Nietzsche
proclaims that Prado “was superior to his lawyers, and even judges, through
his self-control, esprit, and hubris,” and that he has written Ecce homo in
Henri Chambige has been arrested in Sidi-Mabrouk, Algeria for murdering a
respected married woman, Madame Magdeline Grille in 1886, the same year
Prado murders his prostitute. At his four-day trial in November 1888, Chambige
claims that he and Mme. Grille had made a double-suicide pact. He botched
his suicide after blowing out her brains. It is widely suggested that he had
“hypnotized” her.—“Death is hypnotizing.” (Bataille 1986, p. 13)
Chambige’s trial in November 1888 is intensely covered in the international
press, including by Le Figaro (issues 2–4 and especially November 11, 1888) and
in Nietzsche’s other favorite journal, Journal des Débats (issues 5, 7, and 10–12).
On November 11, 1888, Chambige is condemned to seven years forced labor.
He has already received and continues to receive enthusiastic support from
right-wing intellectuals and writers. The lead feuilleton in the issue of Le Figaro
to which Nietzsche refers in his letter to Burckhardt is Maurice Barrès’s “La
sensibilité d’Henri Chambige” (Le Figaro, November 11, 1888, 1–2), which is
available in Turin the following day. (Barrès is later influenced by Nietzsche
[see Dupouy 1931 and Virtanen 1950] and, as member of the Action Française,
will become an anti-Dreyfusard, alongside Alphonse Daudet’s anti-Semitic son
Léon.) Le Figaro has already made the Chambige case into a self-described
“cause célèbre” by publishing extracts from his autobiographical confessions
and novel drafts written while in gaol. These praise the “positive” influence on
him of important writers, all well known to Nietzsche, including Montaigne,
Sainte-Beuve, Goncourt, Dumas, Renan, and Flaubert (Grille is frequently
accused in the press for being a “Bovary”).
The same day as Barrès’s eulogy to Chambige, the front page of Le Temps
publishes an article by Anatole France, “Un crime littéraire: L’affaire Chambige,”
denouncing Chambige as “decadent,” “sick,” and “proud” and his murder as
“an assassination attempt on the gods” (France 1888, p. 1). The innuendo at the
trial and in the press is that Chambige is “homosexual.” Moreover, Chambige,
like Prado, is labeled “the nihilist.”
What also impresses Nietzsche in Barrès’s article is the depiction of
Chambige as having “the principal traits of the newest contemporary soul,” a
soul “made of marvellous particles [de parcelles merveilleuses],” and Barrès’s
depiction of Chambige’s own writings (Barrès 1888, p. 1). In Barrès’s words,
Chambige “accepts all emotions” and has made of his soul “the total sound
of humanity [le son total de l’humanité]”—a veritable doubling of Nietzsche’s
avowals that he is now “every name in history” but preeminently “Prado” and
Nietzsche—Rhetoric—Nihilism 75

“Chambige” and that his own autobiography, Ecce homo, employs “every style”
of writing but preeminently that of “Prado.” According to Barrès, the twenty-
two-year-old murderer Chambige is “an incontestable talent,” “a disciple of the
high literature of these times” (ibid., p. 2), and Barrès favorably compares him
to famous contemporary writers, again all well-known to Nietzsche, including
Renan, Benjamin Constant, Goncourt, and Sainte-Beuve, that is, to those
writers Chambige says have influenced his writing and his act of murder. Thus
does “the law of the canonization of the junior branch” operate, for Barrès
elevates Chambige into the pantheon, just as now Nietzsche-God elevates Prado
and Chambige into his own.
Chambige’s “sole aim,” Barrès says, is “to be ardent and clairvoyant” and not
to have “forfeited his self [moi] for a woman’s love.” He cites Chambige’s state-
ment, “believing to love a woman, I only love the error of my spirit.” This thesis
Barrès (himself member of “The Cult of the Moi”) approvingly adapts as his
own: “Only one thing is real: the Moi.” Finally, Barrès records that the public
at the trial has been “astonished” by Chambige’s defiant declaration to judge
and jury (exactly like Prado’s superiority over them, as approvingly noted by
Nietzsche to Strindberg) that his has been “a murder reputed to be dishonor-
able, but it is a heroic murder [une mort héroïque]” (Barrès 1888, 2). As reported
elsewhere in the press, Chambige has referred to himself not quite with
Nietzsche’s epithet, “a decent criminal” (also like Prado), but as “un faible
doux [a gentle weakling]” (cit. Blaye de Bury 1889, 590). As Chambige also
testifies, “I read everything. I read, glutton-like, the books where I found
answers to my solitary communings, [. . .] a part of my mind saw more clearly
the images borne in upon my disordered and smoking brain [mon cerveau
fumant et désordonné]” (cit. ibid., 592). “More than women, I loved the lie [plus
que les femmes j’aimais le mensonge]” (cit. ibid., 592).45 Chambige remains a point
of positive identification in parts of the Islamic world (see Toufic 2002) that, as
we will see, Nietzsche enormously admired.
Nietzsche’s primary and last selective identification with the “eccentric”
Prado and Chambige is thus an emanation of Nietzsche’s writing from his
“centrum” or rather kentron. Nietzsche, too, is a lethally “decent criminal.”

The Last Letter

I conclude “Nietzsche—Rhetoric—Nihilism” with Nietzsche’s last letter, written

to the preeminent historian of the Renaissance, Jacob Burckhardt, Nietzsche’s
former colleague at Basel University. I have alluded to it often and now look at
it more closely in my endnotes, although without space for the close analysis
of this extraordinarily woven text that political philology demands.46 From
76 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

December 1, 1888, to January 5, 1889, Nietzsche wrote 90 (extant) letters and

postcards, and this genre is of tremendous importance in his corps/e.
The importance of the last letter has been noted by several scholars who
know Nietzsche’s work well. Most notable include Carl Albrecht Bernoulli in
Franz Overbeck und Friedrich Nietzsche (1908), Edgar Salin in Jakob Burckhardt und
Nietzsche (1937 and 1948), and to a lesser extent Alain Badiou in Casser en deux
le monde? (1992), though none analyze the letter as a whole or in full detail.
For my purpose, the most important reflections on the letter are by Pierre
Klossowski in his Nietzsche et le cercle vicieux (1969 and 1975).47 Of equal impor-
tance is Klossowski’s earlier essay, “Nietzsche, le polythéisme et la parodie”
(1957 and 1963), in which he argues that Nietzsche’s identification with all im/
proper names in history, whereby all become totally interchangeable, has a very
specific form (see Klossowski 1963). However, it has been exhibited that
Kierkegaard, in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript to “Philosophical Fragments”
(1846), had already noted that polynymity, and pseudonymity in tandem with
censorship (whether externally or internally imposed) share the same structure
(see Kierkegaard 1992, p. 627). This exhibition has been used to push beyond
Klossowski’s interpretation of Nietzsche, so it need not be repeated here (see
Waite 1998, pp. 265–75).
But I do concur with Klossowski’s overall assessment of Nietzsche’s letter:

The extraordinary richness of “sense” that plays in such a shimmering

manner in this last letter to Burckhardt, though to psychiatrists it attests to
the collapse of the philosopher, constitutes nothing less than the full apo-
theosis [la pleine apothéose] of the Nietzschean “intellect.” The plenitude of
everything that Nietzsche’s life had gathered appears in a flash of histrionics:
the diverse themes, reunited and overcome in so many shortcuts [en autant
de raccourcis], form a unique vision. It is no longer a matter of the will to
power, nor of eternal return, vocables destined for reflection, for philoso-
phical communication. Rather, it is the obverse of the death of God: the king-
dom of Heaven, from which emanates the creation of the world. Teaching
philology was only a pretext for escaping the divine condition. (Klossowski
1975, p. 343)

Nietzsche’s last letter is indeed “the full apotheosis” of Nietzsche’s work because
it extricates Nietzsche’s intellect from the aporia of trying to grasp the precise
rapport between Will to Power and Eternal Return, but especially because this
letter fuses into one the Nietzschean problématique with Nietzsche’s own proper
kentron, that is, with my three fused definitions of Nietzsche’s nihilism: “every
name in history,” “every style,” and “everything permitted.”
If, as Henri Bergson said of Spinoza, “every philosopher has two philoso-
phies: his own and Spinoza’s” (cit. Yovel 1989, p. 5), as I partially believe to be
true; and if, as Gramsci said, “all men are ‘philosophers’” and “non-intellectuals
Nietzsche—Rhetoric—Nihilism 77

do not exist” (Gramsci 1971, pp. 323, 9), as I absolutely believe to be true if
we include so-called madmen—then we can say, for worse or for better, we
all have only one philosopher: Nietzsche. Alluding to Klossowski’s work on
Nietzsche alongside Nietzsche’s “I am basically every name in history,” Deleuze
remarked that the question of interpretation for reading any Nietzschean
text is no longer, “What is it?” but instead “Who?” [. . .] “More to the point, we
ask: who desires to dominate?” (Deleuze 1967, pp. 277, 278).
The question thus remains. If we, too, must “break history in two pieces,”
which, then, are the pieces; and who are we in our encounter with, or in our
break from, Nietzsche’s kentron?
On that discordant note, here is Nietzsche’s last letter from his kentron to

On 6 January 1889.48
Dear Herr Professor,
In the end, I would much rather be a Basel professor than God; but I have
not dared to take my private-egoism so far as to refrain from creating the
world for his sake. You see, one must offer sacrifices [or produce victims:
Opfer], no matter how and wherever one lives.—But I have reserved a small
student-flat for myself, situated across from the Palazzo Carignano49 (—in
which I was born as Vittorio Emanuele),50 permitting me moreover to hear
from its work desk the magnificent music from the Galleria Subalpina below
me. I pay 25 Fr., service included, prepare my own tea and do the shopping
myself, suffer from torn boots, and thank Heaven every moment for the old
world,51 for which men have not been simple and quiet enough. — Since I am
condemned to entertain the next eternity with bad jokes,52 I have a writing
business [Schreiberei]53 here that really leaves nothing to be desired: very nice
and not in the least strenuous. The post box is 5 paces away, where I put
the letters in myself in order to deliver [or play the part of] the great feuil-
letonist of the grande monde. Naturally, I am in close contact with Figaro,54
and so that you get an idea of how harmless I can be,55 listen to my first two
bad jokes:
Do not take the Prado case too hard. I am Prado, I am also Prado’s father,
and dare to say that I am also Lesseps56 . . . I wanted to give my Parisians,
whom I love, a new concept—that of a decent criminal. I am also Chambige—
also a decent criminal.
Second joke. I greet the Immortals[,]57 Monsieur Daudet belongs to the
What is disconcerting and strains my modesty is that I am fundamentally
every name in history; also regarding the children I have put into the world,
I consider with some misgiving whether or not all who come into the “King-
dom of God” also come from God. This autumn I was, clad as lightly as
78 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

possible, present twice at my funeral, first as Count Robilant60 (—no, that

is my son, insofar as I am Carlo Alberto, down below) but I was myself
Antonelli.61 Dear Herr Professor, you should see his edifice;62 since I am
entirely inexperienced in the things I create, you are entitled to any critique,
I will be grateful, without being able to promise that I will find any use for it.
We artists are incorrigible.—Today I looked at my operetta63—ingeniously
Moorish64—taking this opportunity to ascertain with pleasure that Moscow as
well as Rome are now grandiose things.65 You see, I am not denied my talent
for landscape.—Think it over, we will have a beautiful, beautiful chat, Turin
is not far, very serious professional obligations fall by the wayside, a glass of
Veltiner66 could be obtained. Negligé [sic] of dress a condition of decency.67
In heartfelt love, your
Tomorrow my son Umberto69 is coming with the charming Margherita,70
but whom I will receive here only in shirtsleeves. The rest is only for Frau
Cosima . . . Ariadne . . . From time to time magic is practiced . . . 71
I walk everywhere in my student frock, now and then slap somebody on the
shoulder and say siamo contenti? son dio, ho fatto questa caricatura . . . 72
I have had Caiaphas73 put in chains; I too was crucified by German physi-
cians in a very drawn-out way.74 Wilhelm Bismarck75 and all anti-Semites
You can make any use of this letter, which will not lower me in the estima-
tion of the people of Basel.—


In the end, my illness brought me the greatest use of all: it has released me from
myself, it has given me the courage to be myself . . . Also I am, following my instincts, a
brave animal, even a military animal: my long resistance has exasperated my pride a
bit.— Whether I am a philosopher?—But what does that matter! . . .
—Nietzsche (SB 8: 290; April 10, 1888, to Georg Brandes)

Une lettre arrive toujours à destination [A letter always arrives at its destination].
—Jacques Lacan (1966), 1: 53

Il arrive qu’une lettre n’arrive pas à destination [It happens that a letter does
not arrive at its destination].
—Louis Althusser (1993), p. 204
Chapter 5

Does That Sound Strange to You? Education

and Indirection in Essay III of On the Genealogy
of Morals
Daniel Conway

After the Yes-saying part of my task had been solved, the turn had come for the
No-saying, No-doing part: the revaluation of our values so far, the great war—
conjuring up a day of decision. This included the slow search for those related to me,
those who, prompted by strength, would offer me their hands for destroying.
—EH “BGE” 2

Despite the recent surge of interest in Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals

(hereafter, GM), the concluding sections of Essay III remain relatively
unexplored.1 On the one hand, the lack of attention paid to these sections is
certainly understandable. The wandering narrative that informs Sections 23–28
of Essay III is extremely difficult to follow. At some points, in fact, Nietzsche
himself appears to be uncertain of the intended path of its articulation. To
make matters worse, he employs these sections to launch a complex strategy
of rhetorical indirection,2 the point of which is not immediately obvious. Some
readers may be inclined, moreover, to dismiss these sections as either super-
fluous or irrelevant, inasmuch as Essay III reaches (what appears to be) its natu-
ral conclusion in Section 21, where Nietzsche delivers his blistering indictment
of the ascetic ideal. Finally, the history of the book’s fragmented construction
suggests that Sections 23–28 were conceived, written, and revised in fairly great
haste. Indeed, we should not be surprised to encounter trace evidence in these
sections of the evolution of Nietzsche’s aims in Essay III.3
On the other hand, these sections are integral to the narrative unity of
the Genealogy of Morals and to the elaboration of its dramatic and rhetorical
forms. As Nietzsche reiterates at the beginning of Section 23, his “aim” [Zweck]
in Essay III is

to bring to light, not what this [ascetic] ideal has done, but what it means;
what it indicates; what lies hidden behind it, beneath it, in it; of what it is the
80 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

provisional, indistinct expression, overlaid with question marks and misun-

derstandings. (GM III: 23)

He thus implies that the previous sections of Essay III, wherein he developed
his diagnosis of the ascetic priest and built his case against the ascetic ideal,
were meant simply to “prepare [his readers] for the ultimate and most terrify-
ing aspect of the question concerning the meaning of this ideal” (GM III: 23).
By his own account, then, he finally turns to address the titular concern of
Essay III—the meaning of ascetic ideals—only in Sections 23–28. As he confirms
in his Preface, moreover, these sections are central to the “exegesis” he pro-
vides, ostensibly as a model of the interpretive approach he recommends to his
best readers, of the “aphorism” he has placed at the head of Essay III.4
In this chapter, I wish to explore the distinctly political importance of the
concluding sections of Essay III. In particular, I wish to demonstrate that these
sections are meant to launch a rhetorical appeal to those readers—his “unknown
friends” (GM III: 27)—who are most likely to join him in conducting a final,
and potentially self-consuming, assault on Christian morality.5 In describing
these readers as “unknown” to him, Nietzsche touches on a familiar theme of his
post-Zarathustran writings: The others on whom he must rely are not to be
found among his contemporary and late modern readers. His rhetorical appeal
in the concluding sections of Essay III is thus complicated by the fact that it is
intended for an audience that, according to him, cannot yet exist. The human
type or kind these “unknown friends” are supposed to represent is not presently
known to humankind.
Further complicating this rhetorical appeal is the sense of urgency that moti-
vates Nietzsche’s campaign to secure the assistance of these “unknown friends.”
Not content simply to await their appearance on the scene, he furnishes the
concluding sections of Essay III with a rhetorical-dramatic structure that is
designed to expedite their arrival. He thus resolves to continue the program of
education and training that is under way in the Genealogy of Morals,6 despite his
recognition that his contemporary and late modern readers are not prepared
to progress any further. Hopeful that his rhetorical appeal will facilitate the
consolidation of the audience to which it is directed, he undertakes in Essay III
to train his best readers in the martial arts and virtues that will be most likely to
attract the favor of Wisdom (GM III: E). The concluding sections of Essay III
are thus supposed to complete—albeit in a distant and unsecured future—
the education and training that Nietzsche has endeavored throughout the
Genealogy of Morals to impart to his best readers.
But how can Nietzsche possibly hope to expedite the arrival of these “unknown
friends”? Through what mechanism or artifice might he position the Genealogy
of Morals to transcend the very real limitations of its (and his) time? Nietzsche’s
strategy for continuing his program of education and training is to establish
in the concluding sections of Essay III an arena of contest, wherein his best
Education and Indirection 81

readers joust with him as they attempt to prove themselves as opponents of the
ascetic ideal. They will do so, as we shall see, under the banner of modern
science, the practice of which they will present as a viable, extra-ascetic alterna-
tive to the ascetic ideal. Of course, most readers will fail in this endeavor, simply
because they are as yet unprepared to acknowledge that their scholarly activity
is in fact motivated by the ascetic ideal in its current, heretofore unrecognized,
incarnation. Most readers, that is, are both unwilling and unable to acknow-
ledge that modern science and the ascetic ideal are in fact cozy bedfellows.
Over time, however, Nietzsche’s readers will become stronger and progres-
sively more aware of themselves, owing in large part to their ongoing contest
with him. At some point in this contest, or so Nietzsche imagines, his readers
finally will acknowledge that they have failed to defend modern science as
an alternative, extra-ascetic ideal. No longer “strangers” to themselves, these
readers of the future will realize—at his prompting, of course—that their
animating will to truth is in fact the ascetic ideal in its most current and
refined incarnation. They finally will understand, that is, what the concluding
sections of Essay III are meant indirectly to convey—namely, that they are the
last champions of the ascetic ideal. As we shall see, in fact, Nietzsche’s “unknown
friends” will be those readers who prove themselves as opponents of the ascetic
ideal, but only insofar as they recognize themselves as the last knights of the
ascetic ideal.
Nietzsche’s pedagogical aspirations in the Genealogy of Morals thus burden the
concluding sections of Essay III with an unusually complex rhetorical task.
These sections are meant not only to summon the kind of “friends” who might
share his enthusiasm for facilitating the self-destruction of Christian morality,
but also, and more fundamentally, to summon this kind of “friend” into exis-
tence. Indeed, Nietzsche’s elusive “we,” to and for whom he speaks throughout
the Genealogy of Morals, will be fully constituted only in the event that the demise
of Christian morality is orchestrated—and in fact hosted—by those “unknown
friends” who attribute their bravery, strength, and wisdom to the inspiration
they received from him in the Genealogy of Morals.
This is an important point to bear in mind, for it is not enough that Christian
morality finally collapses under the weight of its own lies. It also must do so at
the instigation of opponents educated and trained by Nietzsche himself. If
humankind is to survive the death of God, he believes, its highest exemplars
must receive the collapse of Christian morality not simply as a boon, but also
as an expression of their will. This they will do, he further believes, only in
the event that they complete the education and training on offer in the
Genealogy of Morals. Should they do so, they may yet place their stamp on the
demise of Christian morality, and thereby proclaim, “thus we willed it.” Should
they do so while also acknowledging Nietzsche’s formative influence on them,
they will consecrate the elusive “we” to which, according to him, he and they
rightfully belong.
82 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

When these “unknown friends” finally arrive—provided they “offer [him]

their hands for destroying” (EH “BGE” 1)—Nietzsche will be “born post-
humously” as the convener of this world-historical “we.” As a “we,” he and they
will steer the moral period of human history—and, a fortiori, the late modern
epoch—to a timely, tragic conclusion. In that event, we have reason to hope,7
a genuinely post-ascetic, extra-moral epoch may ensue, wherein human (or
overhuman?) beings will orient their lives to an affirmative ideal of overflowing
health and indestructible life.

Part I8

By way of concluding his survey of the damage wrought by the ascetic ideal,
Nietzsche renders the following verdict:

I know of hardly anything else that has had so destructive an effect upon
the health and racial strength of Europeans as this ideal; one may without
exaggeration call it the true calamity in the history of European health.
(GM III: 21)

Unable, apparently, to stop himself, he continues his attack on the ascetic ideal
throughout Section 22 of Essay III, finally calling himself to order at the begin-
ning of Section 23. Rather than continuing to enumerate the innumerable
things that the ascetic ideal has ruined, he reminds himself and his readers that
the “aim” of Essay III is “to bring to light, not what this ideal has done, but simply
what it means” (GM III: 23). As he now explains, he has provided his readers
with “a glance at [the ascetic ideal’s] monstrous and calamitous effects” in order
“to prepare them for the ultimate and most terrifying aspect of the question concerning
the meaning of this ideal” (ibid., emphasis added).
In light of this apparent recognition of the need to return the narrative of
Essay III to its stated purpose, Nietzsche’s readers might naturally expect him to
resume his account of the meaning of the ascetic ideal. Rather than take up this
question in its “ultimate and most terrifying aspect,” however, he embarks
instead upon the most indirect and baffling rhetorical strategy to be found in
the whole of the Genealogy of Morals.9 In doing so, we should note, he is not
simply being playful or coy. He knows exactly what he understands this
“ultimate and most terrifying aspect of the question” to entail, and he in fact
reveals its deepest layer of meaning in the final section of Essay III. Nor does his
final disclosure necessarily take his best readers by surprise, for it is prefigured
in the “aphorism” with which he begins Essay III. There, we recall, he announced
that “the basic fact of the human will” is “its horror vacui: it needs a goal—and it
will rather will nothingness than not will” (GM III: 1).
Education and Indirection 83

What we learn at the end of the book, of course, is that the ascetic ideal shel-
ters a multiply masked will to nothingness, which, Nietzsche reveals, has covertly
fomented “a rebellion against the most fundamental presuppositions of life”
(GM III: 28). Although the ascetic ideal means various things to its various con-
stituencies, its ultimate meaning, wherein the whole of European civilization
finds its true principle of identity and unity, thus lies in its reliance, heretofore
undisclosed, on the will to nothingness. Here Nietzsche finally confirms what
his best readers may have suspected all along: The life of cultivated self-denial
delivers neither heavenly reward nor earthly redemption, but it does provide
practicing ascetics with the consciousness-blotting anesthesia they have been
trained to crave. Indeed, this craving is doubly suggestive of the will to nothing-
ness, for it is satisfied only in the event that one’s assault on the affective condi-
tions of life—techniques for which the ascetic priest gladly recommends—delivers
one to a transient, post-conscious state that resembles death itself. Despite its
many achievements under the aegis of the ascetic ideal, that is, Western civiliza-
tion has in fact followed a protracted program of unwitting self-annihilation.
As we have seen, however, Nietzsche elects in Section 23 to withhold this final
insight into the meaning of the ascetic ideal. Instead, he engages his readers
in an extremely indirect communication, which comprises the remainder of
Essay III. As we shall see, he employs this indirect communication to intimate
to his best readers that they are the last knights of the ascetic ideal and that, as
such, they are historically situated to host the final act in the self-destruction
of Christian morality.10 Although he does not say so explicitly, he apparently
means to inform them that they are uniquely positioned to turn their own will
to nothingness against itself, thereby bringing the ascetic, moral period of
human development to a tidy, self-consuming conclusion. In this light, that is,
Sections 23–28 of Essay III appear to be meant to complete Nietzsche’s cam-
paign in the Genealogy of Morals to educate and train his best readers.
Nietzsche inaugurates this indirect communication by posing a series of rhe-
torical questions about the possibility of an alternative to the ascetic ideal. (Here
we might note that the desirability of an alternative ideal is never established,
but simply taken for granted.) The point of these questions is to divert his read-
ers’ attention from the physiological effects of the ascetic ideal to the deeper
significance of its unchallenged reign:

What is the meaning of the power of this ideal, the monstrous nature of its
power? Why has it been allowed to flourish to this extent? Why has it not
rather been resisted? The ascetic ideal expresses a will: Where is the opposing
will that might express an opposing ideal? (GM III: 23)

Especially at first glance, it might appear that Nietzsche has already answered
these questions. The will expressed by the ascetic ideal is embodied by the
84 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

ascetic priest, whose “right to exist stands or falls with that ideal” (GM III: 11).
Presumably, then, the opposing will, which expresses an opposing ideal, will be
embodied by the new philosopher, whose triumphant debut was foretold in
Section 10 and likened there to the skittering, skyward flight of the freshly
emergent butterfly. The ascetic ideal has not yet met its match, that is, because
the new philosopher has not yet emerged from the “cocoon” of the ascetic
ideal. If and when the new philosopher establishes for himself a fully individu-
ated existence, independent of the unsuspecting patronage of the ascetic priest,
he will muster the opposing will that will express an opposing ideal. Only then
may we expect to orient our lives to an alternative, extra-ascetic ideal.
This last point is especially important to bear in mind, for Nietzsche will turn
very soon in the Genealogy of Morals to examine several supposed alternatives to
the ascetic ideal. While it is tempting to interpret this examination as evidence
of Nietzsche’s belief that an alternative, extra-ascetic ideal is at hand, we would
do well to resist this temptation. Indeed, the larger narrative of Essay III con-
firms that no such alternative ideal is currently available for our consideration.
As we learn at the end of the book, the ascetic ideal has prevailed as “the ‘faute
de mieux’ par excellence” (GM III: 28), for it has enjoyed a strict monopoly in the
business of conferring meaning upon human existence. Simply put, that is,
there are no other ideals to which we might realistically turn. Indeed, the
upshot of Nietzsche’s mock-serious examination of these supposed alternatives
to the ascetic ideal is that all such alternatives—including, most notably, those
touted by would-be opponents of the ascetic ideal—are in fact iterations or
emanations, as yet unrecognized as such, of the single ideal.
Here we may aspire to greater precision: While an alternative to the ascetic
ideal certainly would be welcome, especially as a hedge against the threat of
extinction, Nietzsche does not assign to us the task of identifying or legislating
or founding an alternative ideal. As we shall see, our task is to turn the destruc-
tive power of the ascetic ideal against itself, thereby clearing the way for those
human (or overhuman?) beings who will install a genuinely extra-ascetic
ideal. Until the career of the ascetic ideal has run its course, ending in a self-
consuming collapse engineered by Nietzsche and his “unknown friends,” there
will be no viable alternatives to the ascetic ideal.
But if no counterideal is available for our consideration, why would Nietzsche
encourage his readers, by means of these rhetorical questions, to identify
themselves with the counterideals of their choice? First of all, these rhetorical
questions are designed to waylay those readers who believe that an alternative
ideal lies within their immediate reach. Nietzsche has scattered various clues
and suggestions throughout the Genealogy of Morals in support of this belief,
and these readers may have pet ideals of their own to pursue. Such readers, it
must be said, are easily distracted from the larger claims of Essay III, perhaps
because they prefer (or expect) a happy ending to the doomsday narrative
that Nietzsche has related thus far. As such, these readers may strike him as
unlikely candidates for the additional education and training that will produce,
Education and Indirection 85

supposedly, his “unknown friends.” Simply put, that is, these rhetorical questions
are meant to afford Nietzsche one final opportunity to cull his least-promising
readers before pushing on toward the conclusion of the Genealogy of Morals.11
Second, these rhetorical questions are meant to provoke his best readers, to
whom he addresses himself throughout the remainder of Essay III. These read-
ers believe that an alternative ideal is not simply at hand, but actually in their
possession. (Although they are mistaken in this belief, the strength of their
conviction is essential to Nietzsche’s strategy of indirection in Essay III.) This
alternative ideal is expressed in their practice of modern science, which they
understand to comprise any scholarly pursuit or investigation that aims at the
disclosure and dissemination of truth. As practiced by them, or so they imagine,
modern science is life affirming, secular, naturalistic, and breathtakingly free of
unwarranted presuppositions, prejudices, superstitions, and dogmas. Accord-
ing to these brave scholars, they are valets to no one, serving no master save
truth itself. When prompted by Nietzsche to produce a genuine alternative to
the ascetic ideal, they proudly present their scholarly activity for consideration
and admiration. According to them, they are the opponents of the ascetic ideal
to whom Nietzsche’s rhetorical questions allude.
While there is much to admire in these scholars, Nietzsche does not regard
them as genuine opponents of the ascetic ideal. Rather than face them directly
with his suspicions, however, he instead provokes them into making their best
case for themselves as champions of an alternative ideal. It is only in doing so,
he believes, that they will feel the full force of his critique of the ascetic ideal
and, having done so, prepare themselves to enter the final stage in their educa-
tion and training. From this point forward, in fact, these scholars will continue
to progress only in the event that they contend with Nietzsche himself, in the
context of proving themselves worthy opponents of the ascetic ideal.
The irony here is that Nietzsche actually regards these readers as potentially
lethal opponents of the ascetic ideal, though not in their present incarnation as
self-assured atheists and free spirits. Although they will never oppose the ascetic
ideal in the sense of directing an exogenous challenge to its reign, they may yet
position themselves to mount an endogenous challenge to its “closed system of
will, goal, and interpretation” (GM III: 23). Before they can do so, however,
they must be disabused of the misguided notion that they (or anyone else)
might occupy an oppositional perspective external to this “closed system.”
Nietzsche’s rhetorical questions are thus meant to guide his best readers
toward the realization that they are mistaken about the nature of their avowed
opposition to the ascetic ideal.

Part II

Nietzsche’s rhetorical questions in Section 23 thus serve, in effect, to establish

an arena of contest, wherein his best readers are encouraged to make good on
86 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

their respective claims to oppose the acetic ideal.12 The final stage in their edu-
cation and training thus pits them against Nietzsche himself, as they attempt to
discredit his account of the ascetic character of modern science. This contest
is meant not only to strengthen them for war against the ascetic ideal, but also
to persuade them of the truth of his diagnosis of modern science. Only by
entering this arena will these brave scholars progress toward the contrary
interpretation that Nietzsche wishes to impress upon them—namely, that they
are in fact the last knights of the ascetic ideal. They will be ready to join him,
that is, only when they recognize themselves in the sketch he provides in Essay
III of those “last idealists” among the practitioners of modern science.
Immediately after posing these rhetorical questions, Nietzsche turns to
consider the claim that modern science (i.e., scholarly inquiry) expresses an alter-
native to the ascetic ideal. As we have seen, his attention to the opposition
supposedly offered by modern science is by no means arbitrary. Those readers
who make up his target audience are likely not only to regard themselves as
scientists (or scholars), but also to understand their scholarly activity as inimical
to the ascetic ideal. While they are not mistaken to regard science as the natural
opponent of the ascetic ideal, they are mistaken to regard their current practice
of science as presenting the ascetic ideal with meaningful opposition. As we
shall see, this mistake arises from their failure as yet to appreciate the unique
historical significance of their own scholarly activity.
Having established an arena in which his best readers may contend produc-
tively with a worthy opponent, Nietzsche provokes them with a rhetorical slap
in the face:

Science today . . . is not the opposite [Gegensatz] of the ascetic ideal but
rather the latest and noblest [vornehmste] form of it. Does that sound strange to
you? (GM III: 23)

The assertion of this claim marks a decisive advance in Nietzsche’s investigation

of the ascetic ideal. He will proceed to show that the authority of the ascetic
ideal has declined to the point that it now motivates only those few scholars who
retain their faith in the saving power of truth. More importantly, he will attempt
to convince his readers that, as strange as it may sound, they are the ascetic
scholars to whom he refers in this passage. At the very least, their interest should
be piqued by his allusion to a form of the ascetic ideal that partakes of nobility.13
Heretofore, they have understood the ascetic ideal as an artifice in the exclusive
service of priestly, servile, and reactive forces—hence their aspiration to be
known as its mortal opponents.
We will turn shortly to examine in detail Nietzsche’s attempt to persuade his
best readers to acknowledge their true identity, from which they remain
estranged. Before we do so, however, let us consider the significance of the
particular rhetorical question Nietzsche poses in the passage cited above: Does
Education and Indirection 87

that sound strange to you? [Klingt euch das fremd?] First, as we have seen, he relies
on this rhetorical question to provoke his best readers into the contest that may
position them, finally, to conclude their education and training. In what
follows, he thus addresses himself to those hypothetical readers who take up
the gauntlet he has thrown down.
Second, let us take note of Nietzsche’s appeal here to his readers’ sense of
hearing. He has aimed throughout the Genealogy of Morals to sharpen and refine
his readers’ senses, and on several occasions he has endeavored to test their
auditory range by placing them in proximity to strange sounds and noises.14 If
his heterodox pronouncement about modern science “sounds strange” to
them, they may be prepared to acknowledge their true relationship to the
ascetic ideal, as well as the unique historical opportunities this relationship
affords them. If they respond positively to his rhetorical question, moreover,
they soon may be ready to receive the even stranger sounds he wishes for them
to hear—including, eventually, the call (in Latin) to submit, which is directed to
all legislators by the “law of life” (GM III: 27). That his best readers are also
legislators is essential to his sketch of the last knights of the ascetic ideal. As we
shall see, in fact, they are enjoined by the “law of life” to submit to their legisla-
tion against the lie that supports belief not only in the Christian God, but also,
as in their case, in truth itself (GM III: 27).
Third, the category of the strange has played an important, intermittent role
in the development of the main narrative of the Genealogy of Morals.15 Earlier in
the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche identified wilderness as any “outside” place (or
space) “where the strange, the stranger [das Fremd, die Fremde] are found” (GM
I: 11). It may be the case, then, that Nietzsche’s rhetorical question is meant to
facilitate the return of his best readers to a condition of wilderness, wherein they
would be encouraged to experience something familiar to them as strange. It
was in wilderness, in fact, that the knightly nobles initially and fatefully encoun-
tered the priest under what would become his signature aspect—namely, that
of an exotic, diploid beast of prey, whose otherworldly incantations and potent
elixirs recommended him for accommodation rather than conquest (GM III:
15).16 It was in wilderness, that is, that the priest launched his “war of cunning”
against the unsuspecting knightly nobles (ibid.), quelling the rancor of the
lower orders while secretly mobilizing them for eventual deployment against all
things healthy and noble.
It was also in wilderness that the beasts of prey engaged in the depravities that
eventually led them to be designated as evil (GM I: 11). Even when occupied
with the day-to-day administration of the earliest state (GM II: 17), the beasts of
prey allowed themselves the luxury of periodic wilderness sabbaticals, where
they would renew their “innocent conscience” and slake their thirst for blood
(GM I: 11). In this respect, Nietzsche’s invocation of “the strange” may be meant
to prepare his best readers to be called—and by him, no less—the opposite
of what they take themselves to be. In both cases, in fact, a designation that
88 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

initially sounds strange, even preposterous—for example, the good man is in

fact evil—eventually comes to define the agency and character of those who
are so designated. Far from opponents of the ascetic ideal, as we have seen,
these intrepid scholars are in fact the last knights of the ascetic deal. If they
are to acknowledge themselves as such, moreover, they will be obliged to
execute a reversal of perspectives no less momentous—and wrenching—
than the reversal completed by those good nobles who eventually came to see
themselves as evil.
Finally, Nietzsche’s attention to the sound of something strange may be
meant to remind his best readers of their initial encounter with him, wherein
he revealed the secret of their common destiny:

So we are necessarily strangers to ourselves, we do not comprehend ourselves,

we must misunderstand ourselves, for us the law “Each is furthest from him-
self” applies to all eternity—we are not “knowers”17 with respect to ourselves.
(GM “Preface” 1)18

If they are so reminded, they may be prepared not only to appreciate the extent
of their progress since the time of their initial encounter with him, but also to
acknowledge the distance they yet must travel. While they are no longer quite
so estranged from themselves as Nietzsche suggested on that occasion, when
they misheard and miscounted the “twelve trembling bell-strokes” of their
“experience” (GM “Preface” 1), additional and potentially troubling aspects of
their identity remain to be revealed.
Taken together, these textual cues suggest that Nietzsche’s question—Does
that sound strange to you?—is meant to signal to his best readers that they are
about to enter the final and most difficult stage in their education and training.
In this final stage, Nietzsche will encourage them to gain sufficient critical dis-
tance from themselves to experience what is most familiar to them as strange—
and, so, as problematic.19 Of course, what is most familiar to them at this point in
their journey is their identification of themselves as modern scholars, that is, as
confirmed atheists and steadfast opponents of the ascetic ideal. In this final
stage of their education and training, then, they must come to experience their
defining commitment to scientific scholarship as itself animated by the ascetic
ideal. In them, as Nietzsche puts it, the will to truth must become “conscious of
itself as a problem” (GM III: 27).
As we have seen, of course, this is a stage of education and training that his
contemporary and late modern readers, even those who have followed him this
far in the Genealogy of Morals, cannot hope to complete. Although the arena of
contest established by Nietzsche is open to all, it is designed to detain unworthy
readers indefinitely in a state of unproductive contention. The regimen of edu-
cation and training outlined in Sections 23–28 of Essay III is thus reserved for
those readers of the future who are sufficiently renewed in their strength and
Education and Indirection 89

health that they are prepared, first of all, to challenge Nietzsche’s account of
modern science, and second, to acknowledge themselves as the last knights
of the ascetic ideal. By dint of this acknowledgment, or so Nietzsche hopes,
they will volunteer to join him in hosting the final act in the self-destruction of
Christian morality.

Part III

Let us now turn to consider the rhetorical strategies that Nietzsche employs as
he attempts to acquaint his best readers with their estranged selves. He begins
this process by presenting his readers with what appears to be a stark either/or.
Having asserted that some scholars conduct an ascetic search for truth, he con-
cedes that most scholars pursue their research without the benefit of a guiding
ideal, goal, will, or faith. This approach to science “conceals” from observers
and scholars alike that it now serves its practitioners “as a means of self-narcosis:
are you acquainted with that [kennt ihr das]?” (GM III: 23).20 The implication here
is that Nietzsche’s readers, accomplished scholars in their own right, belong
either with the unsuspecting champions of the ascetic ideal or with those “suf-
ferers . . . who fear only one thing: regaining consciousness” (ibid.). As strange as
the former position may seem to them, it is certainly preferable to the latter
position, which is adopted by those scholars who aspire at best to a semicon-
scious existence.21
Relying yet again on a rhetorical question, Nietzsche effectively constrains
the arena of contest in which his readers find themselves. As scholars (or scien-
tists), they are either unwitting adherents of the ascetic ideal or sufferers
seeking relief from consciousness itself. If they wish to assert their opposition to
the ascetic ideal, hoping thereby to establish a prima facie case for their avowed
allegiance to an alternative ideal, they must resist the conceptual straightjacket
into which Nietzsche has placed them. In so resisting, they may find themselves
compelled to conduct a potentially disturbing examination of their investments
in the current practice of science. Are they perhaps hiding something from
themselves? Does their pursuit of truth mask a deeper motive, which they might
be prepared, finally, to acknowledge?
Having earlier employed the category of the strange to trigger the desired
exercise in self-reflection, Nietzsche here invokes the category of the familiar.
(As we have seen, what the “common people” and “we philosophers” under-
stand by “knowledge” is simply the reduction of “something strange” [etwas
Fremdes] to “something familiar” [etwas Bekanntes] (GS 355).) As with his previ-
ous rhetorical questions, that is, Nietzsche intends for his best readers to be
reminded here of their initial encounter with him, where he revealed that they
(and he) are “knowers” [wir Erkenneden] who remain unknown to (or unac-
quainted with) [unbekannt] themselves (GM “Preface” 1). Thus reminded, or so
90 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

he hopes, they will allow themselves once again to acknowledge a heretofore

unknown condition of their knowing.
While it is possible that some of Nietzsche’s less-promising readers may dis-
cover at his prompting that they do in fact crave self-narcosis, what is more
likely is that they will become “incensed” at his suggestion that they are “sufferers
who refuse to admit to themselves what they are” (GM III: 23). In either event,
of course, such readers would be unlikely to continue in his program of
education and training. Once again, that is, we see that Nietzsche’s rhetorical
questions are meant to play a dual role in the selection of his best readers.
In this case, or so it would appear, he fully intends to brandish the “harmless
word” that will “wound” these hypersensitive scholars “to the marrow” and
thereby alienate them from him (ibid.).
Nietzsche now turns to consider the “rare exceptions” mentioned in the pre-
vious section. Even if we agree that mainstream science does not oppose the
ascetic ideal, is it not possible that “the last idealists left among philosophers
and scholars” might be the “desired opponents of the ascetic ideal, the coun-
teridealists?” (GM III: 24). That they believe this to be the case is clear enough
from the “seriousness” and “passion” with which they proclaim their opposition
to the ascetic ideal. Although they are not incorrect to regard themselves as
“counter-idealists,” they labor under the misconception that the target of their
opposition, the ascetic ideal, is external and unrelated to them. As Nietzsche
now hopes to demonstrate, they will realize their destiny as opponents of
the ascetic ideal only in the event that they resolve to oppose themselves, for they
are in fact the “last idealists” of whom he speaks.
At this point, Nietzsche once again presumes to speak on behalf of his
target audience. He does so, moreover, in such a way that is likely to prompt his
best readers to recall his inaugural address to them. “We ‘knowers’ [wir
“Erkennenden’’],”22 he now asserts, “have gradually come to mistrust believers of
all kinds” (GM III: 24), for conviction is a likely indicator of self-deception on
the part of the believers.23 He then asks his readers if this is true as well of those
“last idealists” who typically present themselves as opponents of the ascetic
ideal. In order to appreciate the rhetorical force of this question, let us note
that his reference here to their mistrust recalls his earlier admission that he and
his best readers are probably “too good” to conduct the honest psychological
inquiry that is required of them (GM III: 20).24 At that point in the narrative,
their mistrust was explicitly identified as directed at themselves. At this point in
the narrative, their mistrust is once again directed at themselves—for, as we
have seen, they are the “last idealists” to whom Nietzsche refers in this section—
but it is not explicitly identified as such. What Nietzsche wishes for his fellow
“knowers” to realize at this point is that he and they belong among those believ-
ers whom they have already come with good reason to mistrust. This means, of
course, that they eventually must extend their mistrust to themselves, which is
precisely what Nietzsche means for them to do.
Education and Indirection 91

Having held up a mirror for his readers, he now must help them to see them-
selves in the image it reflects. This is no easy task, however, for they must be
persuaded to recognize themselves under the aspect that they are most likely to
reject out of hand—namely, as believers, as knights of faith. In an attempt to
guide his best readers toward the realization that they are the “last idealists”
described in this section, he now implements two strategies of indirection.25 His
first strategy is to describe these “last idealists” as if they were a third party (or
“they”), while also noting their affinities with himself and his “we.” His ensuing
description of these “last idealists” is extremely flattering, perhaps surprisingly
so, as he attributes to them virtues and accomplishments that he elsewhere
ascribes to himself and his fellow “knowers.”26 Even in their signal failing, these
“last idealists” bear a strong resemblance to Nietzsche’s kindred “knowers,” for,
as he explains, “they are too close to themselves” [denn sie stehen sich zu nahe] to
see that the ascetic ideal “is precisely their ideal, too” (GM III: 24).27 As we recall,
he similarly described his kindred “knowers” as lacking sufficient distance from
themselves to count the bell-strokes of their existence (GM “Preface” 1).
Later, as he attempts to explain his familiarity with the plight of these “last
idealists,” he once again employs the word strange, which, as before, is meant to
trigger his readers’ memories of past epiphanies under his tutelage. He thus
hopes to prepare them to embrace another, as-yet-undisclosed aspect of their

[N]othing is stranger [fremder]28 to these men who are unconditional about

one thing, these so-called “free spirits,” than freedom and liberation in this
sense . . . (GM III: 24)

Finally, in an apparent attempt to connect the experiences shared in common

by the “last idealists,” his own best readers, and himself, Nietzsche intimates,
“I know all this from too close up perhaps” [Ich kenne dies Alles vielleicht zu sehr
aus der Nähe], which suggests a personal acquaintance with the experience of
those who claim, albeit mistakenly, to be free spirits.29 Here he apparently means
to remind his kindred “knowers” that he, too, once fancied himself a free spirit,
only to discover otherwise when a painful regimen of self-examination revealed
a lingering faith in truth. He knows the plight of these unsuspecting “last ideal-
ists,” that is, because he once was one of them. These “last idealists” are not yet
free spirits, he thus explains, “for they still have faith in truth,” which, he proceeds
to claim, betrays their “faith in a metaphysical value, the absolute value of truth,
sanctioned and guaranteed by this [ascetic] ideal alone” (GM III: 24).30
In support of this claim, Nietzsche cites at length from The Gay Science (GS
344), which bears the eye-opening title, How we, too, are still pious. Here he
launches a second, complementary strategy of indirection, relying on passages
imported from The Gay Science to convey truths and insights that he is not yet
willing to share directly with the readers of the Genealogy of Morals. This strategy
92 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

is apparently meant to remind his devoted readers of what they already (should)
know from reading The Gay Science (GS 344), and to encourage them to apply
these recovered insights to themselves. He thus writes, for the second time,

[W]e knowers31 of today [wir Erkennenden von Heute], we godless ones and
anti-metaphysicians, we, too, still derive our flame from the fire ignited by a
faith millennia old … that truth is divine. (GM III: 24)

Especially when considered within the larger contexts that Nietzsche recom-
mends to his readers (viz., GS 344, the whole of GS, Book V of GS, and the
1886 Preface to The Dawn), this extract clearly identifies him and his fellow
“knowers” as the “last idealists” described in this section.
Finding it “necessary to pause and take careful stock” (GM III: 24), Nietzsche
ventures an answer to the question with which the extracted passage concludes.
“If God himself turns out be our longest lie” (ibid.), he asks, are we not obliged
to expose the kindred lie that supports our current scientific and scholarly
pursuits? If we wish to continue the progress marked by our renunciation of
belief in the Christian God, he apparently means to imply, we will need to inter-
rogate our allegiance to the successor deity. Having earlier alerted his readers
to the affinities they share with the “last idealists,” Nietzsche here announces
the task that separates his best readers from all other idealists:

From the moment faith in the God of the ascetic ideal is denied, a new
problem arises: that of the value of truth. The will to truth requires a
critique—let us thus define our own task—the value of truth must for once
be experimentally32 called into question. (GM III: 24)

With the dawning of this “new problem” and the subsequent determination of
a task these “knowers” may call their own, Nietzsche brings the narrative of the
Genealogy of Morals up to date. Here the genealogist of morals (qua experi-
mental critic of truth) becomes the central focus of his genealogy of morals.33
As this passage indicates, Nietzsche hopes to persuade his fellow “knowers” of
the advantages that accrue to them as the final champions of the ascetic ideal.
Toward this end, he reveals that he and they stand in a unique, dual relation-
ship to the will to truth. As true believers, they are not free to renounce their
faith in the saving power of truth. Inasmuch as they possess disposable reserves
of strength, however, they may employ their will to truth in the service of a
critique of the will to truth. Unlike lesser idealists, that is, they may attempt to
tell the truth about truth—namely, that its value is limited, provisional, relative,
and conditional. Any such critique must proceed “experimentally,” for any
question they might raise about the value of truth invariably must derive its
Education and Indirection 93

authority from the “absolute value” they attach, involuntarily, to truth itself. As
we shall see, in fact, the truth about truth may be fatally complicated.
There is another, more uniquely Nietzschean sense in which this critique of
truth must proceed experimentally. If Nietzsche and his fellow “knowers” are
among the last believers in the divinity of truth, they will have little choice
but to direct their critique of truth against themselves. (Even if they begin this
critique by directing it toward others, as Nietzsche pretends to do in this sec-
tion, they eventually must call into question their own unscientific estimations
of the value of truth.) An “experimental” critique of truth would thus require
them to engage in self-directed criticism, the practice of which Nietzsche incre-
asingly comes to recommend in his post-Zarathustran writings as a sign of
renewed strength and renascent health. As we shall see, in fact, the require-
ment of self-directed criticism is central to his anticipated contribution to the
destruction of Christian morality.

Part IV

Nietzsche begins the penultimate section of Essay III by returning the focus of
his narrative to “our problem, the problem of the meaning of the ascetic ideal,”
which uniquely pertains to the future of humankind (GM III: 27). Building on
his earlier account of the alliance between science and the ascetic ideal (GM
III: 25), he now identifies the will to truth as the unadulterated “kernel” of the
ascetic ideal (GM III: 27). He thus implies that the cumulative opposition of
scientists and scholars has succeeded in stripping the ascetic ideal to its living
core, which we are now in a position to identify as the will to truth. This means,
of course, that aspiring opponents of the ascetic ideal must now direct their
opposition against its animating will to truth, which they are obliged to do qua
agents of the will to truth. In the end, that is, science may yet oppose the ascetic
ideal, but only if those scholars who make up Nietzsche’s target audience are
willing to undertake a self-directed critique of the will to truth.
We are now in a position to appreciate the motive behind Nietzsche’s
decision to inaugurate the indirect communication that comprises Sections
23–28. While it is not the case that his best readers can shift their allegiance to
an alternative (i.e., extra-ascetic) ideal, they nevertheless may align themselves
with an ideal that can be made to oppose the ascetic ideal.34 They may do so, he
believes, because their unique historical situation affords them the unprece-
dented opportunity to steer the ascetic ideal (qua will to truth) into opposition
with itself. On the basis of their palpable failure to defend modern science
as an alternative to the ascetic ideal, his best readers eventually will realize
that any genuine opposition to the ascetic ideal must be engendered from
within the “closed system” of the ascetic ideal itself. The “opposing will” he has
94 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

pretended to seek in Sections 23–27 is none other than the will to truth, which,
we are now in a position to understand, simply is the ascetic ideal in its most
current form.35
In this form, which is unique to the epoch of late modernity, the ascetic ideal
is indistinguishable from the scholarly (or scientific) quest for truth. They both
derive their justification from their pursuit of the same “one goal”—namely, the
possession of truth itself, which, supposedly, will redeem the faulted nature of
the human condition. In the will to truth, the ascetic ideal finally has met its
“match,” for the will to truth too

permits no other interpretation, no other goal . . . it submits to no power,

believes in its own predominance over every other power, in its absolute
superiority of rank over every other power . . . (GM III: 23)

As it turns out, then, “the desired opponents of the ascetic ideal, the counterideal-
ists” (GM III: 24) are none other than Nietzsche and his fellow “knowers”—
provided, of course, that they are able to steer their will to truth into opposition
with itself. Their task, in short, is to tell the truth about truth, which is precisely
what scientists and scholars have failed thus far to do. If successful in perform-
ing this task, they will hasten the demise of Christian morality.
Nietzsche thus confirms that “unconditional honest atheism” should not be
considered the “antithesis” of the ascetic ideal (GM III: 27). These self-described
atheists are to be applauded for refusing “the lie involved in belief in God,” but
they have not yet forbidden themselves the lie involved in stipulating the inesti-
mable value of truth. This is so, we are now in a position to understand, because
they have not yet acknowledged that their practice of science is supported by the
very lie that formerly supported belief in the Christian God. Calling themselves
to order, as Nietzsche soon will urge them to do, would thus require them to
forbid themselves recourse to the lie that animates their scholarly pursuit of
truth. Here we should note that Nietzsche explicitly includes himself in this
group of atheists, which is as close as he comes in the Genealogy of Morals to
placing himself and his “we” among the “last idealists” described in Section 24.
He then refers his readers to The Gay Science (GS 357), where we find his
answer to the question: “What, in all strictness, has really conquered the Christian
God?” The passage imported from The Gay Science (GS 357) begins by describ-
ing the self-conquest of Christianity (which he later identifies as an instance of
the “self-cancellation”36 [Selbstaufhebung] that “all great things” are obliged
by law to undergo), and it ends with a discussion of the “self-overcoming”
[Selbstüberwindung] to which he and his best readers are the rightful “heirs”
(GM III: 27).37 The imported passage furthermore identifies these two pro-
cesses as joined by the scientific “rigor” that distinguishes these “good Europe-
ans,” owing to their refined “conscience,”38 which demands of them “intellectual
cleanliness at any price” (ibid.).
Education and Indirection 95

By appealing at this particular point in his narrative to the passage imported

from The Gay Science (GS 357), Nietzsche hopes to impress upon his best
readers that he and they occupy a node of world-historical transformation. He
thus presents his readers with the tantalizing possibility that their seemingly
unremarkable labors of self-overcoming—most notably, as we shall see, their
experimental, self-directed challenge to the will to truth—may converge with,
and actually expedite, the self-cancellation of Christian morality. Immediately
following the imported passage, he thus invokes the “law of life,” which enjoins
submission in all things, great and small:

All great things bring about their own destruction through an act of self-
cancellation [Selbstaufhebung]39: thus the law of life will have it, the law of the
necessity of “self-overcoming” [‘Selbstüberwindung’] in the nature of life—the
lawgiver [Gesetzgeber] himself eventually receives the call: “patere legem, quam
ipse tulisti.” (GM III: 27)

This is Nietzsche’s first reference in the Genealogy of Morals to the “law of life,”40
and it comes at a crucial juncture in the elaboration of his main narrative.
Perhaps he presumes that his readers are (or will become) familiar with this
“law” from his earlier writings, in particular his Zarathustra (GM “Preface” 8).
Indeed, we know from his Zarathustra that life is “that which must always over-
come itself [was sich immer selber überwinden muss]” (Z II: 12). We also know from
his Zarathustra that the title character is not entirely sincere in professing his
love of life (Z III: 15.2), in large part because he is not willing to submit to the
law of self-overcoming that he so eagerly prescribes to others. When he does
not receive from life the special consideration he seeks for himself, such that
he might be granted an exemption from the law of self-overcoming, he promptly
leaves her for another woman, whom he calls Eternity (Z III: 16). Having squan-
dered the opportunity to align his will with the law of life, Zarathustra is obliged
to submit to this law as if to an objectionable, alien decree. This is why he seeks
the metaphysical comfort embodied by his new bride, Eternity, in whose emb-
race he will be forever spared the self-overcoming he prescribes to all other
beings. Zarathustra is thus representative of those lawgivers who receive, but fail
to heed, the call to submit to the laws they have prescribed to others.41 They
must submit to the law of life in any event—hence Nietzsche’s reference above
to the “necessity” of self-overcoming—but they are powerless to experience their
submission as an expression of their own willing. “Thus I willed it” is precisely
what they cannot say about their own inevitable submission to the law of life.
Zarathustra’s failing helpfully illuminates what is involved in the wisdom that
Nietzsche has trained his aspiring “warriors” to attract (GM III: E).42 If his read-
ers are wise, they will both receive and heed the call to submit voluntarily to the
laws they have prescribed to others. If they are wise, that is, they will submit
voluntarily to the demands for probity and truth that they have levied against
96 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

others. In particular, as we have seen, they will forbid themselves the lie that
sustains their faith in truth, which in turn animates their will to truth. Although
they must submit to this law in any event, their receptivity to this call affords
them the opportunity to do so as an expression of their own will. The proof
of their wisdom thus lies in their capacity to affirm the necessity of their own
self-overcoming and, subsequently, to align their collective will with the “law
of life.” Having done so, they may experience their inevitable submission not as
a cruel, absurd injustice, much less as an objection to life itself, but as a fully
natural consequence of their lawgiving, of which they might proclaim, “Thus
we willed it.”
Nietzsche does not identify the lawgivers who are called (in Latin) to submit
to their own legislations. From Beyond Good and Evil, however, we know that he
regards “Genuine philosophers . . . [as] commanders and lawgivers [Befehlende und
Gesetzgeber],” in large part because they decree “thus it shall be!” (BGE 211). From
the same book, we also know that the name he proposes for “the new species of
philosophers” he spies “coming up” (BGE 42)—die Versucher—calls to mind the
experimental task that he and his “we” have set for themselves (GM III: 24). From
The Gay Science, moreover, we know that Nietzsche places himself and his
fellow “good Europeans” in the lineage of those German philosophers—he names
Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, and Schopenhauer—whose legislations have propagated
“Europe’s longest and bravest self-overcoming” (GS 357). We may thus assume
with some confidence that the lawgivers in question include Nietzsche and his
best readers, those “unconditional honest atheists” whom the imported passage
identifies as “good Europeans” (GM III: 27).43
Having boldly ruled against the lie that sustained belief in the Christian God,
Nietzsche and his best readers are now called to rule against the kindred lie that
sustains their own belief in the divinity of truth. In doing so, he implies, they will
submit voluntarily to the law they have prescribed to others. As the imported
passage confirms, moreover, they are uniquely qualified to do so, by virtue of
the “rigor” with which their conscience asserts itself. Having called to order the
entirety of European civilization, they now must call themselves to order. The
time has come for them to assay, scientifically and experimentally, the genuine
value of truth.44
He continues: Christian truthfulness, which is all that remains viable in Chris-
tian morality, will draw its “most striking inference,”—that is, “its inference against
itself”—“when it poses the question ‘what is the meaning of all will to truth?’”45
(GM III: 27). Although Nietzsche does not name the agent(s) who will pose this
question on behalf of Christian truthfulness, the question itself recalls the
epochal “task” he earlier defined for himself and his best readers (GM III: 24).
We are thus meant to conclude, apparently, that they will represent Christian
truthfulness in its finest hour, as it issues a mortal challenge to Christian morali-
ty.46 By steering the will to truth into an unprecedented confrontation with
itself, they will expose its reliance on an unacknowledged faith in truth, about
which scholars and scientists heretofore have been anything but truthful. As we
Education and Indirection 97

have seen, moreover, their challenge to the will to truth ultimately must be self-
directed,47 for the will to truth now resides only in them. No one else still believes
in the saving power of truth, and no one else is historically positioned to tell the
truth about truth. The will to truth will finally become “conscious of itself as a
problem,” that is, in and through the experiments that he and his “unknown
friends” will perform on themselves (GM III: 27).
This particular claim merits further attention, for it sheds clarifying light on
the kind of “we” that Nietzsche has endeavored to build throughout the Genea-
logy of Morals. Here he explicitly links their newly determined task to their desire
(and corresponding quest) for meaning [Sinn],48 which they will secure, or so he
supposes, only in the event that in them “the will to truth becomes conscious of
itself as a problem” (GM III: 27). That Nietzsche appeals to the meaning to be found
in a collective challenge to the will to truth is indicative of his refusal thus far of
“modern science” and its nihilistic campaign to deprive existence—and espe-
cially human existence—of the meaning formerly accorded it (GM III: 25).49 Here
it becomes clear, in fact, that Nietzsche understands the task reserved for him
and his “unknown friends” as consistent with an approach to science that rejects
“the absolute fortuitousness, even the mechanistic senselessness of all events”
(GM II: 12) just as vigorously as it refuses supernatural principles of expla-
nation.50 In facing the will to truth with its problematic faith in truth, that is,
Nietzsche and his “we” must become practitioners of what he calls the gay science,
by virtue of which they will “cheerfully” resist the nihilistic conclusions that their
critique of science would seem (to others) to countenance (GM “Preface” 7).
By implicating himself in a collective quest for collective meaning, moreover,
Nietzsche finally acknowledges the full extent of his dependence on his best
readers. While addressing his “unknown friends,” he explicitly identifies his
problem—viz., the problem of securing adequate meaning [Sinn]—as “our
problem” (GM III: 27). Without their assistance, he thus concedes, he cannot
carry out the assault he has planned on the remains of Christian morality. Nor
can he find adequate motivation for doing so in the individual meaning that he
might derive from his efforts. Inasmuch as the meaning he seeks must be shared
with this “we,” he acknowledges that he must fully immerse himself—with none
of his familiar caveats, conditions, or reservations—in its “whole being” (ibid.).51
In typically Nietzschean fashion, of course, he also withholds himself from his
best readers, claiming that “as yet I know of no friend” (ibid.).
Here, I suspect, he is not simply being playful or gnomic. Despite his prefer-
ence for an increasingly nomadic form of existence, Nietzsche knew several
individuals whom he readily acknowledged as current or former friends. What
none of these flesh-and-blood friends provided, however, was the genuine sense
of meaningful belongingness and collective destiny that his new “task” obliges
him to seek. As he explains in the passage that serves as the epigraph to this
essay, he looked around for “those related to [him]” [Verwandten] (EH “BGE” 1),
which suggests a degree of intimacy and mutual understanding that his
anemic contemporaries would have been unlikely to muster and unable to
98 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

sustain. The “unknown friends” whom he seeks in the Genealogy of Morals are
such as will enable him, finally, to immerse himself in the collective agency and
identity of a genuine and worthy “we.”
Nietzsche closes this Section on a note that is equally suggestive of hope and
despair. The centuries to come, he promises, will spawn cataclysms and convul-
sions that may excite our desire for self-annihilation and consign the human
species to extinction.52 Alternately, these very same disruptions may contribute
to the self-overcoming of morality, the installation of a post-ascetic ideal, and the
dawning of an extra-moral epoch in human history. As we have seen, everything
rests on how Nietzsche’s readers respond to the “spectacle” that is about to
unfold around them (GM III: 27). Will they experience themselves as helpless
victims of this calamity, or as its proud, triumphant instigators? Will they endure
this spectacle as passive spectators, or will they take the stage as players in their
own right, placing their trust in the direction provided by the “grand old eter-
nal comic poet of our existence” (GM “Preface” 7)? If Nietzsche’s readers
are not yet wise, they are likely to receive the collapse of Christian morality
as a devastating blow to their efforts to lead a meaningful existence. If they
have managed to become wise, however, they will take their place onstage,
thereby positioning themselves to behold—and affirm—the extra-moral future
that may lie ahead.


Although Nietzsche concludes section 27 with a stirring rhetorical crescendo,

culminating in his audacious promise of the impending demise of Christian
morality (GM III: 27), his work in Essay III remains conspicuously unfinished.
Most notably, he has not yet revealed the full meaning of the ascetic ideal,
which means that he has not yet provided a satisfying answer to the titular ques-
tion of Essay III. Following an instructive, if belated, account of how the human
animal came to rely on the ascetic ideal,53 he finally explains how such a ruinous
ideal was able to “flourish” without serious “resistance” (GM III: 23).
According to Nietzsche, the ascetic ideal owes its enormous influence not to
any positive attributes of its own, but, as the “‘faute de mieux’ par excellence so far”
(GM III: 28), to the monopoly it has enjoyed in the business of conferring
meaning upon human suffering. Throughout the entirety of the moral period
of human history, under the civilizing regime of culture, human beings have
had no choice but to derive meaning and purpose from their orientation to the
ascetic ideal. Humankind is ascetic, that is, neither by nature nor by choice,
but by default—owing, as he insists, to the dearth of alternative ideals. Hence
Nietzsche’s answer to the guiding question of Essay III: The preponderance of
ascetic ideals means that no other ideal has presented itself for consideration
and adoption.54 As strange as it may sound, life itself has required all (or most)
Education and Indirection 99

human beings to pursue their projects of self-improvement and self-perfection

under the banner of the ascetic ideal. This claim marks a significant elabora-
tion of his earlier account of the ascetic ideal, for it explains why such a destruc-
tive ideal was able to amass such “monstrous” power.
Still, a final layer of meaning remains to be revealed. Nietzsche has yet to
disclose to his readers, as he knows he must, “the ultimate and most terrifying
aspect of the question concerning the meaning of this ideal” (GM III: 23).
Shifting abruptly to the present tense, he issues his best readers one final

We can no longer conceal from ourselves what is expressed by all that

willing which has taken its direction from the ascetic ideal . . . all this means—
let us dare to grasp it—a will to nothingness [einen Willen zum Nichts] . . .
(GM III: 28)

This is the “new truth” toward which Essay III has been steadily, if erratically,
building (EH “GM”), the illumination of which is Nietzsche’s avowed “aim”
[Zweck] in writing Essay III (GM III: 23).55 What the preponderance of ascetic
ideals means, in the end, is that the survival of the human animal has been
secured thus far through the activation and veiled expression of the will to noth-
ingness, which motivates the “aversion to life” that the ascetic ideal invariably,
if covertly, expresses (GM III: 28). Simply put, the ascetic ideal has enabled
human beings to sustain an animating sense of meaning, but only on the
condition that they participate, unwittingly, in a long, gradual, and heretofore
imperceptible campaign to destroy the very conditions of their existence.
Wary, apparently, of trusting his readers to close the circle of his exegesis,
Nietzsche concludes Essay III by repeating (though not quite verbatim) the
insight with which he began: “Humankind would rather will nothingness than
not will” (GM III: 28). Thus prompted by Nietzsche to revisit the first section
of Essay III, we are reminded of the “basic fact of the human will, its horror vacui:
it needs a goal” (GM III: 1). Thus reminded, we may conclude with some confi-
dence that the ascetic ideal initially arose in response to an existential crisis
that imperiled the future of the human animal. Forcibly estranged from its
natural instinctual heritage (GM II: 16), the human animal was obliged to
attach its crippled will to an external goal, the pursuit of which would deliver
the feeling of power to which the human animal was accustomed. Unable to
identify such a goal, the human animal began to question the meaning of its
existence and, subsequently, to consider seriously the option of “suicidal nihil-
ism” (GM III: 28). Rather than suffer the human animal to elect this option en
masse, life itself dispatched the ascetic priest, who, under the aegis of the ascetic
ideal, sponsored the will-preserving goal of self-deprivation.56
Until very recently, Nietzsche explains, the ascetic ideal has succeeded in
closing the door to “suicidal nihilism” (GM III: 28). It has done so, we now
100 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

understand, on the strength of a priestly feat of legerdemain. Instead of identify-

ing a goal that would obviate the default activation of the will to nothingness,
the ascetic priest sponsored a goal—namely, self-deprivation—whose pursuit
would enroll human beings in a cleverly disguised program of protracted
self-annihilation. Rather than banish the will to nothingness, that is, the ascetic
priest simply cloaked it “under the cover of holy intentions” (GM III: 21). In
this durable guise, the promise of salvation has furnished ascetics of all stripes
with a useful pretext for distinguishing, in all sincerity, between their virtuous
practice of self-deprivation and the sinful practice of suicide.
According to Nietzsche, however, this ingenious ruse has very nearly exhausted
its usefulness to the species. As the authority of the ascetic ideal has declined,
its clientele has steadily dwindled. Over most human beings, in fact, the ascetic
ideal no longer wields any meaningful influence. As a deterrent to “suicidal
nihilism,” which is the purpose for which it arose, it is no longer generally
In some human beings, however, the ascetic ideal remains a credible impetus
toward self-improvement and self-perfection. As we have seen, Nietzsche sur-
reptitiously appeals to the ascetic ideal as he exhorts the “last idealists” among
his readers to host a final, fatal act of self-examination on the part of the will to
truth (GM III: 27). Inasmuch as their will to truth “take[s] its direction from
the ascetic ideal” (GM III: 28), we now understand, it too must shelter a will to
nothingness. Like all champions of the ascetic ideal, they have no choice but to
derive meaning from the expression of their will to destroy the conditions of
their existence. Owing to their unique historical situation, however, they may
(and eventually must) turn the destructive force of their will to nothingness
against its source—namely, the will to truth, which, as we have learned, is
nothing more than the ascetic ideal in “its strictest, most spiritual formulation”
(GM III: 27). As we have seen, of course, any challenge on their part to the
truthfulness of the will to truth ultimately must be self-directed, for the will to
truth remains viable only in them.
What would it mean for Nietzsche and his “unknown friends” to undertake a
strategic, self-directed expression of their will to nothingness? Although they
are reliant on the will to truth for their identity and sense of purpose—it is,
after all, an ingredient to their legacy as “good Europeans” (GM III: 27)—they
nevertheless anticipate finding the “meaning” of their “whole being” in the
possibility that “in [them] the will to truth [will become] conscious of itself as a
problem” (ibid., emphasis added). Once cognizant of its untruthful reliance
on a problematic faith in truth, the will to truth will outlaw itself in one final, self-
consuming expression of its commitment to the incalculable, non-negotiable
value of truth.57 In their moment of envisioned triumph, that is, Nietzsche
and his “unknown friends” will gain meaning for their “whole being,” but only
at the expense of their animating will to truth, which alone has enabled them
to organize and warrant their existence. In their case, then, confronting the will
Education and Indirection 101

to truth with its own untruthfulness would be tantamount to declaring war on

the very conditions under which their lives have become meaningful.
This suggests, of course, that the meaning they stand to gain is likely to be
both fleeting and unsustainable. According to Nietzsche, the success of their
self-directed assault on the will to truth will seal the demise of the ascetic ideal,
which alone sustains their quest for the truth, and of Christian morality, which
alone sustains the moral imperative of their quest.58 Here we may wonder,
though Nietzsche does not, what a post-ascetic, extra-moral future might hold
for these “unknown friends.” As the afterglow of their triumph begins to fade,
will they find themselves in need of the very meaning they have banished from
the stage of human history? Or are they meant to perish (whether literally or
figuratively) from their self-directed experiments on the will to truth?59 Although
Nietzsche does not speculate in the Genealogy of Morals on the likely fate of his
“unknown friends,” we apparently are meant to understand that the meaning
they will derive from their assault on the will to truth is both compensatory and
potentially transformative. In the end, that is, it may be sufficient for them to
proclaim, “Thus we willed it,” regardless of their condition in the aftermath of
their triumph.
Chapter 6

Free Spirits and Free Thinkers: Nietzsche and

Guyau on the Future of Morality
Keith Ansell-Pearson

These falsely dubbed “free spirits” belong to the levellers, loquacious scribbling slaves
of the democratic taste and “modern ideas”: all of them are people without solitude . . .
plain, well-behaved lads whose courage and honourable propriety cannot be denied. It
is just that they are unfree and laughably superficial . . . What they are trying with all
their strength to achieve is a common green pasture of happiness for the herd, with
safety, security, comfort, ease of life for everyone . . .
(BGE 44)

Moral philosophy (La morale), which tries to formulate the most manifold and
complex relations existing between the creatures of nature, is, perhaps, also founded on
the greatest number of errors. Many beliefs related in history, which have inspired to
self-sacrifice, may be compared with those magnificent mausoleums erected in honour
of a name. If these mausoleums are opened, nothing is found; they are empty.
(Guyau 1896, p. 70; 1898, p. 60)


The main purpose of this essay is to contrast Nietzsche and Jean-Marie Guyau
(1854–88) on ethics and the future of morality.1 Although the novel and chal-
lenging character of Nietzsche’s approach to questions concerning morality
and its future has been well-attended to in the literature my hope is that by
bringing Guyau’s ideas on morality to the attention of readers, and showing
how aspects of them resonate strongly with Nietzsche, new light can be shed on
the wider intellectual context in which Nietzsche advances his future-oriented
project of critique and revaluation.
Nietzsche claims philosophical distinction for himself on account of his being
able to undertake the task of a “revaluation of values”: he is adept at inverting
perspectives and in possession of contradictory capacities (EH “Wise” 1; EH
“Clever” 9). This is a task he calls “immense” in Ecce Homo (EH “TI” 3) and
describes with the explosive imagery of a “shattering lightning-bolt” (EH “CW” 4).
Free Spirits and Free Thinkers 103

Similarly, in the preface to the Genealogy of Morals he claims distinction for him-
self on account of voicing in his writings a new demand, “we need a critique
of moral values, the value of these values should itself, for once, be examined . . . ”
(GM “Preface” 6). In a note for the preface to Dawn he writes of the need to
think about morality without falling under its spell and the seductive char-
acter of its beautiful gestures and glances (KSA 12, 2 [165]; WP 253). He
distinguishes himself from modern German philosophy, notably Kant and
Hegel, and what he regards as half-hearted attempts at “critique.” These two
cases of criticism, he contends, are directed only at the problem (how moral-
ity is to be demonstrated, whether as noumenon or as self-revealing spirit)
but never at the “ideal.” In the actual preface to Dawn Nietzsche claims that
morality is the greatest of all mistresses of seduction and that all philoso-
phers have been building “majestic moral structures” under its seduction
(D “Preface” 3). Kant, he says, was really a pessimist who believed in morality
in spite of the fact that neither nature nor history testify to it and in fact
continually contradict it.
In this essay I shall focus on the free spirit aspect of Nietzsche’s project of
revaluation. This should prove instructive for clarifying the ambit of the project
and what kind of spirit he envisages undertaking it. In a number of late sketches
for his planned magnum opus on the revaluation of values, which was invari-
ably to consist of four books, the second book was to be devoted to the free
spirit in which philosophy would be examined as a “nihilistic movement” (KSA
13, 19 [8]; see also 22 [14], 23 [13]). Here there are two tasks to perform: first,
exactly how and on what grounds are free spirits and free thinkers to be distin-
guished? Second, how do we differentiate Nietzsche’s own development as a
free thinker/free spirit from 1878 onwards? When Nietzsche defines the free
spirit in volume one of Human, all too Human (1878) it is a straightforward con-
ception he provides and conforms to the typical understanding of the free spirit
as the person who lives by reason not faith and who thinks differently from what
is expected of them on the basis of their origin, environment, class, profession,
the dominant views of the age, and so on (HAH 225–6). However, by the time
of Beyond Good and Evil (1886) the conception of the free spirit has altered in
some significant aspects and Nietzsche is keen to forge a distinction between
the free thinker and the free spirit. In The Anti-Christ he even claims that the
free spirits “already constitute a ‘revaluation of all values’” (AC 13; see also 36).
In this paper my attention is focused on the nature of this distinction which
predominates in his late writings (1886–88).


That Nietzsche has his intellectual roots in naturalism (and materialism) can-
not be doubted.2 Recent years have witnessed a serious renaissance of interest
in Nietzsche as a naturalist (which is how he was positioned at the very start of
104 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

his reception)3 with some important contributions in the history of ideas and
in philosophy.4 Nietzsche’s project has recently been interpreted in terms of
methodological naturalism and existential naturalism.5 My own preference is
to read Nietzsche as a naturalist in the context of nineteenth-century debates
about human evolution and the future of morality.
Modern naturalism holds the world of experience, the empirically given
coherence of nature, to be the one reality.6 It is also accepted in Nietzsche’s
time that naturalism can assume different philosophical articulations. Three
forms of naturalism are identified, which are idealism, materialism, and
monism, and these are seen to generate three systems of thought: theism,
atheism, and pantheism. Emerson, for example, whose importance for
Nietzsche is well known, was taken to be a representative of idealist naturalism.7
Nietzsche is a naturalist in the same way other philosophers of his day were
naturalists, such as Guyau for example who writes:

We are content to admit, by a hypothesis at once scientific and metaphysical,

the fundamental homogeneity of all things, the fundamental identity of
nature. Monism, in our judgment, should be neither transcendent nor mysti-
cal, but immanent and naturalistic. The world is one continuous Becoming;
there are not two kinds of existence nor two lines of development, the history
of which is the history of the universe. (Guyau 1962, p. 494)

Nietzsche holds a strikingly similar view to this: “My intention: to demonstrate

the absolute homogeneity of all events” (KSA 12, 10 [154]; WP 272). The sig-
nificance of this for Nietzsche is that it removes contradiction from things and
it is for this reason that he is a monist.
For both Guyau and Nietzsche naturalism denotes a scientific approach to
mind or spirit that places it firmly within nature. Guyau takes naturalism to
consist in the scientific view that nature, together with the beings that compose
it, make up the sum total of existence. The problems that confront the philo-
sophical naturalist include determining the essential character of existence
(for both Guyau and Nietzsche this takes the form of developing a notion
of “life”), ascertaining which mode of existence is most typical, and seeking
to determine whether existence is material or mental, or perhaps both. A key
question facing naturalists and evolutionists is whether the universe is made
up solely of dead matter or whether the universe is everywhere alive. If we
declare matter to be the sole reality analyzable into force, do we not then
have to recognize that force is a primitive form of life? Interestingly Nietzsche
conceives the will to power as a Vorform of life in Beyond Good and Evil (36).
Guyau’s worry is that materialism, no less than idealism, belongs to the poetry
of metaphysics (1962, p. 490), and he thinks that both science and philosophy
will make more progress if they now work with a concept of “life” and investi-
gate it free of moral and metaphysical prejudices. This will have enormous
Free Spirits and Free Thinkers 105

implications, he thinks, for our understanding of morality and of the human

animal as the moral animal: “Morality in the beginning is simply a more or less
blind, unconscious, or at best, subconscious, power” (ibid., p. 496). Let me
now focus on Guyau and some key aspects of his naturalization of ethics or
moral philosophy.

Naturalism and Ethics in Guyau

Many of the intellectual figures that Nietzsche read and critically engaged
with were seminal figures in the development of philosophy and sociology in
the nineteenth century but are little read today. In English-speaking apprecia-
tion, Nietzsche is too often read and interpreted in an intellectual vacuum.8
Some of the intellectual figures Nietzsche read and engaged with, several
of whom he respected as “free thinkers,” include Auguste Comte, Eugene
Dühring, Ernest Renan, Herbert Spencer, Taine, Eduard von Hartmann, and
so on. Jean-Marie Guyau (1854–88) is explicitly mentioned by Nietzsche as an
example of the modern free thinker. Guyau is an impressive philosopher and
the author of pathbreaking books that merit being read and appropriated
today. Nietzsche tremendously admired his work even though he regarded him
as a free thinker.
Guyau’s major work on ethics was published in 1885 (Nietzsche read it at this
time) and is entitled in English Sketch of Morality Independent of Obligation or Sanc-
tion (Esquisse d’une morale sans obligation, ni sanction).9 Prior to this work Guyau
had published in 1875, 1878, and 1879, studies of ancient and modern ethics
(especially English utilitarianism), being especially concerned with Epictetus
and Epicurus with regards to the ancients and with Darwin and Spencer with
regards to the moderns. He also published an essay on the “problems in con-
temporary aesthetics” in 1884 and in 1887 a fascinating tome entitled The Non
Religion (or Irreligion) of the Future which Nietzsche also read and admired.10 His
study of education and heredity was published posthumously in 1889, as was
his highly original study on the genesis of the idea of time in 1890.
The basic principle of Guyau’s naturalism is the one established by modern
science: man is not a separate being different to the rest of the world and the
laws of life are the same from the top downwards on the ladder of life (Guyau
1896, p. 86; 1898, p. 73).11 Guyau’s appeal at the time was as the “Spinoza of
France.” His aim was to promote a renewal of ethics in the face of the rise
of mechanical materialism to a position of intellectual dominance in which
there would be a focus on emotional and reflective activity in contrast to the
exclusive attention paid to physical and external phenomena. The influence of
Darwin and evolutionary theory on Guyau is immense. He makes frequent
recourse to natural and sexual selection to explain various human phenomena,
including moral ones such as courage. His appropriation of the Darwinian
106 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

revolution for ethics is incisive and novel. In the preface to his book, Guyau
expresses his chief concern:

Apologists who defend a particular system of morals or religion have never

proved anything, for there always remains one question which they forget—
namely, is there any true religion or true morality? (p. 68; p. 58)

Statements such as this resonate with the perspective Nietzsche develops

in chapter five of Beyond Good and Evil, starting with aphorism 186 and its
criticism of any and all attempts to establish ethics (der Ethik) on a rational
foundation (Begründung der Moral), which is something moralists have been
seeking for thousands of years like the philosophers’ stone.12 For Guyau a
scientific conception of morality cannot be expected to agree with the general
conception of morality since the latter is composed for the most part of preju-
dices and feelings. Attempts have been made to do this in ethics, such as
Bentham’s utilitarianism, but, Guyau argues, this has been at the expense of
violating the facts. Moreover, for him the scientific spirit is “the revolutionary
spirit” since it is the enemy of all instinct, the dissolving force of everything
nature has bound, and the struggle against the spirit of authority that is at
the root of all societies and also that which is in the depths of conscience
(p. 132; p. 111). In following habits, instincts, and sentiments human beings,
he argues, are obeying not some mysterious obligation, but “the most general
impulses of human nature” along with the “most just necessities of social
life” (p. 4; p. 2).
It is this daring approach to questions of morality that Nietzsche greatly
admired and led him to describe Guyau as “brave.” An examination of the
annotations he makes to his copy of Guyau’s text on morality makes it clear that
he strongly empathized with Guyau’s overall approach to morality. At one point
Guyau compares morality to an art that charms and deludes us, against which
Nietzsche writes “moi” in the margin (p. 70; p. 59).13 Nietzsche was also
impressed by the conception of truth Guyau puts forward in the text. I am
also confident that he would have found his conception of a “self-sublimation”
of morality partly prefigured and echoed in Guyau’s text. There are indications
in the annotations he makes to the section in the book on “the morality of
faith” which strongly suggest this was the case. In the face of these striking
parallels between the two projects it becomes a genuine search to identify the
reasons for Nietzsche’s judgment of Guyau as a free thinker and his call for a
new type of free spirit.
For Guyau the reign of the absolute is over in the domain of ethics: “whatever
comes within the order of facts is not universal, and whatever is universal is a
speculative hypothesis” (p. 6; p. 4). A chief characteristic of the future concep-
tion of morality will be “moral variability”: “In many respects this conception
will not only be autonomous but anomos” (ibid.).14 Nietzsche is often depicted
Free Spirits and Free Thinkers 107

as a philosopher who naturalizes Kant on questions of ethics, and this is

undoubtedly true. Guyau does something very similar. The feeling of obliga-
tion, he argues, is not “moral” (conceived as an independent reality) but sen-
sible. To suppose otherwise is to generate a “mystery” (a “supernatural law”)
with regards to the production of a pathological and natural sentiment, namely,
respect. Guyau is perplexed as to how we are to find an a priori reason, as Kant
wants, to join a sensible pleasure or pain to a law which is suprasensible and
heterogeneous to nature (pp. 232–3; p. 198). Nietzsche describes Kant’s ethics
as a form of “refined servility” (GS 5). Guyau makes the same criticism of Kant
when he questions the performance of duty for the sake of duty, which he
regards as pure tautology and a vicious circle. We might as well say be religious
for the sake of religion, or be moral for the sake of morality (p. 67; p. 57).
He then closely echoes Nietzsche in The Gay Science (335) when he argues,
“While I believe it to be my sovereign and self-governed liberty, commanding
me to do such and such an act, what if it were hereditary instinct, habit, educa-
tion, urging me to the pretended duty?” (ibid.)15
Guyau, let me make clear, does not contend that Kant’s thinking on ethics is
without importance or merit; indeed, he holds the theory of the categorical
imperative to be “psychologically exact and deep” and the expression of a “fact
of consciousness.” What cannot be upheld, however, is the attempt to develop
it without the requisite naturalistic insight in which what we take to be a practi-
cal, internal necessity will be demonstrated to be an instinctive, even mechani-
cal, necessity (pp. 102–3; p. 89).16 For Guyau an inquiry into the sentiment of
obligation is to take the form of a “dynamic genesis” in which we come to appre-
ciate that we do not follow our conscience but are driven by it and in terms of a
“psycho-mechanical power” (p. 117; p. 98). The sentiment of obligation and
our powers of action are to be examined as “forces,” ones that act in time, and
according to determinate directions with more or less intensity. In addition
questions of evolution—the evolution of the species and of societies—also
need to be taken into account. What kind of “impulse” is duty? How has it
evolved? And why has it become for us a “sublime obsession?” (p. 121; p. 101).
Ultimately, Guyau argues, Kant’s ethics must be seen as belonging to an age
that future humanity will outgrow. It is a moral philosophy similar to ritualist
religions which count any failure in ceremonial as sacrilege; it is thus a kind
of “moral despotism . . . creeping everywhere, wanting to rule everything”
(p. 170; p. 144). According to Guyau, we are witnessing today the decline of
religious faith and this faith is being replaced by a dogmatic faith in morality.
Although its fanaticism may be less dangerous than the religious sort it is
equally menacing. The new voice is conscience and the new god is duty:

The great Pan, the nature-god, is dead; Jesus, the humanity-god, is dead.
There remains the inward and ideal god, Duty, whose destiny it is, perhaps,
also to die some day. (p. 63; p. 54)
108 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

The belief in duty is so questionable because it is placed above the region in

which both science and nature move (p. 64; p. 55; compare Nietzsche in
D 339). Guyau maintains that all philosophies of duty and of conscience are,
in effect, philosophies of common sense and are thus unscientific, be it the Scot-
tish school of “common sense” derived from Thomas Reid or neo-Kantianism
with its assumption that the impulse of duty is of a different order to all other
natural impulses. Phrases such as “conscience proclaims,” “evidence proves,”
“common sense requires” are as unconvincing as “duty commands,” “the moral
law demands.” Guyau, by contrast, appeals to scientific truth, which he con-
ceives not as brute fact but as a “bundle of facts,” a “synthesis” not simply of
the felt and the seen but of the explained and connected. What lies outside
the range of our knowledge cannot have anything obligatory about it, and sci-
ence needs to replace habituated faith. Like Nietzsche, Guyau recognizes the
paradox—we immoralists remain duty bound and freely impose on ourselves a
new, stern duty (BGE 226). Guyau calls this “the duty of being consistent to
ourselves, of not blindly solving an uncertain problem, of not closing an open
question.” In short, the new method of doubt is not without its obligations
and cannot be (p. 68; p. 58). The extent to which Nietzsche empathized with
Guyau on these issues cannot be underestimated. Indeed, one might contend
that his conception of what it means to possess intellectual integrity has been
deeply inspired by Guyau’s exposure of the new faith in morality:

Nothing is rarer among philosophers than intellectual integrity (Rechtscha-

ffenheit): perhaps they say the opposite, perhaps they even believe it. But a
condition of their entire occupation is that only certain truths are admitted;
they know that which they have to prove; that they are at one over these
“truths” is virtually their means of recognizing one another as philoso-
phers. There are, e.g., moral truths. But a faith in morals is not a proof of
morality . . . (Nietzsche, KSA 13, 15 [25]; WP 445)

Guyau conceives “the strictest probity,” to be conceived as “absolute sincerity,

impersonal and passionate sincerity” (1962, p. 428–9), as the principal duty of
the philosopher.

Guyau and the Philosophy of Life

Guyau argues that a strict method is to be followed if we are to determine the

nature of a moral philosophy to be founded exclusively on facts. The contrast
to be made is with a metaphysical thesis which posits an a priori thesis and an a
priori law. He asks, “what is the exact domain of science in moral philosophy
(la morale)?” (p. 83; p. 71) Metaphysical speculation beyond the empirically
given and ascertainable can be permitted in moral philosophy but the most
important task is to work out how far an exclusively scientific conception of
Free Spirits and Free Thinkers 109

morality can go. Guyau inquires into the ends pursued by living creatures,
including humankind. The unique and profound goal of action cannot, he
argues, be “the good” since this is a vague conception which, when opened up
to analysis, dissolves into a metaphysical hypothesis. He also rules out duty and
happiness: the former cannot be regarded as a primitive and irreducible prin-
ciple, whilst the latter presupposes an advanced development of an intelligent
being. Guyau, then, is in search of a natural aim of human action. The principle
of hedonism, which argues for a minimum of pain and a maximum of pleasure,
can be explained in evolutionary terms in which conscious life is shown to
follow the line of the least suffering. To a certain extent Guyau accepts this
thesis but finds it too narrow as a definition since it applies only to conscious
life and voluntary acts, not to unconscious and automatic acts. To believe that
most of our movements spring from consciousness, and that a scientific analysis
of the springs of conduct has only to reckon with conscious motives, would
mean being the dupe of an illusion (p. 87; p. 74). Although he does not enter
into the debate regarding the epiphenomenalism of consciousness, except to
note it as a great debate in England (he refers to the likes of Henry Maudsley
and T. H. Huxley), he holds that consciousness embraces a restricted portion of
life and action; acts of consciousness have their origins in dumb instincts and
reflex movements. Thus, the “constant end of action must primarily have been
a constant cause of more or less unconscious movements. In reality, the ends are
but habitual motive causes become conscious of themselves” (ibid.).
Guyau is being strictly naturalistic in resolving the question of finality on the
level of efficient causality: “In the circle of life the point aimed at blends with
the very point from which the action springs” (p. 87; p. 75). For Guyau the cause
operating within us before any attraction of pleasure is “life” (p. 247; p. 210).
Pleasure is but the consequence of an instinctive effort to maintain and enlarge
life. Contra Bentham he argues that “to live is not to calculate, it is to act”
(p. 247; p. 211). An essentially Spinozist position—the tendency to persist in life
is the necessary law of life—is deduced with the aid of principles borrowed from
the English evolutionist school. Guyau takes this tendency to be one that goes
beyond and envelops conscious life, so it is “both the most radical of realities
and the inevitable ideal” (p. 88; p. 75). Therefore, Guyau reaches the conclusion
that the part of morality which can be founded on positive facts can be defined
as, “the science which has for object all the means of preserving and enlarging
material and intellectual life” (ibid.). He acknowledges that with a scientific
conception of morality living well is largely a matter of an enlarged hygiene. His
ethics centre, then, on a desire to increase “the intensity of life” which consists
in enlarging the range of activity under all its forms and that is compatible with
the renewal of force (p. 89; p. 76). Like Spinoza and Nietzsche, Guyau thinks
that “becoming-active” is the cure to many of life’s ills and to passive pessimism
(see also pp. 175–8; pp.148–51).17 When Guyau argues that all action is an “affir-
mation,” a kind of choice and election, this elicits from Nietzsche one of only
four “bravos” he makes in the margins of his copy of the book (p. 77; p. 66).18
110 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

A “superior being” is one that practices a variety of action; thought itself is noth-
ing other than condensed action and life at its maximum development. He
defines this superior being as one which “unites the most delicate sensibility
with the strongest will” (p. 42; p. 35). This finds an echo in Nietzsche when
he entertains the idea of a future superior human being as one composed of
“the highest spirituality and strength of will” (KSA 11: 582, 37 [8]; WP 957).

Guyau on the Future of Morality

Guyau contends that when conceived as the “systematization of moral evolution

in humanity” the science of ethics will come to exert an influence on this very
evolution and alter the human animal in the process:

The gradual and necessary disappearance of religion and absolute morality

has many . . . surprises in store for us. If there is nothing in this to terrify us, at
least we must try to foresee them in the interest of science. (p. 135; p. 114)

The chief problem thrown up by the new scientific approach to morality is

the question Nietzsche also focuses on: Why obedience? Why submission?
The only form morality can assume for us today is as a critique of morality
(D preface; KSA 12, 2 [191]; WP 399). This is perceived to be our problem
today by Guyau because we are bound by an impulse or inward pressure which
has only a natural character, not a mystical or metaphysical one that can be
completed by any extrasocial sanction (p. 140; p. 117). Guyau’s conception of
the future of morality differs from Nietzsche in placing the emphasis on an
expansion of the social and sociability: “Develop your life in all directions, be
an ‘individual’ as rich as possible in intensive and extensive energy; therefore
be the most social and sociable being” (pp. 140–1; p. 117). Science can only
offer “excellent hypothetical advice” and not anything that would purport to
be categorical or absolute. If we wish to promote the highest intensity of life,
then we have to experiment, that is, if we take the realm of the practical seri-
ously we must recognize that a scientific conception of morality cannot give a
definite and complete solution of moral obligation (p. 160; p. 134). A mature
humanity is one that will decide for itself what it wishes to obligate itself to on
the basis of the insights secured by scientific knowledge (e.g., placing the stress
on questions of hygiene) and in terms of an experimentation:19

There is one unchangeable moral philosophy—that of facts; and, to com-

plete it, when it is not sufficient, there is a variable and individual moral
philosophy—that of hypotheses (p. 165; p. 139).

Morality in the future will move in the direction not simply of autonomy but of
anomy in which the differences between individuals and temperaments are
Free Spirits and Free Thinkers 111

taken into account along with the absence of fixed and apodictic laws and rules.
Disinterestedness and self-sacrifice are not to be suppressed, but there is no
given common object of the imperative. Although Kant begins a revolution in
moral philosophy by seeking to make the will autonomous, as opposed to
bowing before a law external to itself, he stops halfway with the constraint of
the universality of the law. This supposes “that everyone must conform to a
fixed type; that the ideal ‘reign’ of liberty would be a regular and methodical
government” (ibid.). In contrast to this Guyau argues that true autonomy must
produce individual originality and not universal uniformity. The future of intel-
ligence demands that we allow for genuine pluralism of values and ideals freely
chosen and rationally deliberated over, as opposed to a uniformity that can only
annihilate intelligence. This is close to the position Nietzsche advocates in The
Antichrist (AC 11) when he argues that each one of us must fashion our own
“categorical imperatives.” Guyau also advocates perspectivism: “The infinity of
the points of view ought to correspond with the infinity of things” (p. 167;
p. 141). His hope is that heterodoxy and nonconventional living will become
in the future the true and universal religion or way of life. He envisages an end
to penal justice (p. 182; p. 154), which again brings him remarkably close to
Nietzsche, who expresses the desire to restore innocence to becoming and
purify psychology, morality, history, and nature of the concepts of guilt and
punishment (KSA 13: 425, 15 [30]; WP 765). Moreover, his championing of
a “truly scientific and philosophic mind” as one which does not entitle itself
to possession of “the whole truth” and whose only faith is that of continual
“searching” brings Guyau close to the free spirit Nietzsche celebrates in The
Gay Science (347) as the enemy of fanaticism (p. 170; p. 143).
In effect, what Guyau has done is to put aside every law anterior or superior
to the facts, anything a priori and categorical. Instead we need to start from real-
ity and build up an ideal, extracting “a moral philosophy from nature.” Guyau
wants to know what the essential and constitutive facts of human nature are.
He has curtailed consciousness since unconscious or subconscious life is the
real source of our activity. Ethics concerns itself with achieving harmony
between the two spheres of existence, unconscious and conscious; there is a
need to find a principle common to both spheres and Guyau thinks he has
found this in ‘life’ conceived as ‘the most intensive and the most extensive possible’
(p. 245; p. 209). In becoming conscious of itself, of both its intensity and exten-
sion, life does not have to lead to destruction but can increase its own force. In
the sphere of life we necessarily deal with “antinomies” (conflicts, contestations,
etc); the moralist is always tempted to resolve them once and for all by appeal-
ing to a law superior to life: “an intelligible, eternal, supernatural law” (ibid.). But
we need to give up making this appeal to such a law. The only possible rule
for an exclusively scientific moral philosophy is that it is a more complete and
larger life that is able to regulate a less complete and smaller life. Again, we find
this echoed in Nietzsche when he writes in the 1886 preface to volume one
of Human, All Too Human that it is necessary “to grasp the necessary injustice
112 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

in every for and against . . . life itself is conditioned by the sense of perspective
and its injustice.” The greatest injustice is to be found in a state “where life has
developed at its smallest, narrowest, and neediest.” Nietzsche wishes to aid the
cause of what he calls the “higher, greater, and richer” life.
In conclusion, then, Guyau’s naturalistic ethics has its basis in a philosophy
of life:

There is no supernatural principle whatever in our morality; it is from life

itself, and from the force inherent in life, that it all springs. Life makes its
own law by its aspiration towards incessant development; it makes its own
obligation to act by its very power of action. (p. 248; p. 211)

Naturalism and Ethics in Nietzsche

In examining Guyau on ethics I have indicated parallels between his ideas

and ones we are more familiar with from Nietzsche’s dramatic and thought-
provoking presentation of them. Nietzsche was impressed by Guyau’s critique
of Kant, his insights into the new dogmatic faith in morality, his conception of
truth, his understanding of action, and his claim that the reign of the absolute
was now over to be replaced by a new pluralism. However, three important
differences are signaled in Nietzsche’s annotations: (i) first and most impor-
tant, Nietzsche contests Guyau’s Spinozist conception of desire in which
the chief aim is self-persistence and self-maintenance (p. 92; p. 79)—to this
Nietzsche replies that life is “will to power” (Guyau 1912, pp. 287–8). In addi-
tion, he regards as a “distortion” (Verdrehung) Guyau’s view that the richer
one becomes in life, spiritually speaking, the stronger becomes the desire to
sacrifice and give of oneself—again Nietzsche notes in the margin, “Life is
above all concerned with power” (Guyau 1912, p. 290); (ii) secondly, he finds
“incredible” Guyau’s view that “charity for all men, whatever may be their moral,
intellectual, or physical worth, should be the final aim to be pursued even by
public opinion” (p. 217; p. 186; Guyau 1912, p. 301); (iii) thirdly, Nietzsche
disagrees with Guyau’s view that thinking is an impersonal and selfless activity
and contends that such impersonality belongs to the herd nature of our
consciousness (Guyau 1912, p. 289). Before probing further the nature of
Nietzsche’s disagreement with Guyau, I want to highlight some of the salient
aspects of his approach to morality.

The Self-Sublimation of Morality

When employed as a term of scientific knowledge, “morality” denotes for
Nietzsche the doctrine of the order of rank, and of human valuations in respect
Free Spirits and Free Thinkers 113

of everything human. Most moral philosophers, he contends, only deal with

the present order of rank that rules now. On the one hand, they display a lack
of historical sense, and, on the other hand, show that they are ruled by the
morality which says that what rules now is eternally valid. There is no compari-
son and no criticism, only unconditional belief (KSA 11, 35[5]). In this respect
moral philosophy is antiscientific (see also BGE 186). The present age has
one single conception and definition of morality (“the unegoistic”) which
it takes to be of transhistorical validity. This morality is what Nietzsche also
calls “herd-animal morality,” “which strives with all its force for a universal
green-pasture happiness of earth, namely, security, harmlessness, comfort, easy
living . . .” (KSA 11, 37[8]). The two most important doctrines on which it rests
its case are “equal rights” and “sympathy with all that suffers,” where suffering
is taken as something that is best abolished (BGE 44).
“Critique” is conceived as a preparatory task of revaluation and has several
aspects (KSA 12, 1[53]): (a) grasping and ascertaining the manner in which
moral appraisal of human types and actions predominates at the present
time; (b) showing that the moral code of an era is a symptom, a means of self-
admiration or dissatisfaction or hypocrisy, in which the character of a morality
is to be not only ascertained but also interpreted (otherwise it’s ambiguous);
(c) providing a critique of the method of judging (Urtheilsweise) at present: how
strong is it? What does it aim at? What will become of the human being under
its spell? Which forces does it nurture, which does it suppress? Does it
make human beings more healthy or more sick, more courageous and more
subtle, or more compliant and docile? On the one hand we can express the
“deepest gratitude for what morality has achieved so far,” but on the other we
can recognize that now it’s “only a pressure (Druck) that would prove disastrous
(Verhängniß).” Morality (Moral) itself, “as honesty (Redlichkeit), compels (zwingt)
us to negate morality” (ibid. 5 [58]). It is an illusion (Illusion) of the species—
it has helped to preserve the species, compelled individuals to discipline and
tyrannize themselves, and helped to breed self-confidence—but now something
else is possible and wanted, at least by some. Humanity has needed to gain
power over nature and to this end a certain power over the self. “Morality was
necessary in order for man to prevail in the struggle with nature and the ‘wild
animal.’” However, once this power over nature has been gained, we can then
use this power to continue freely shaping the self: “will to power as self-elevation
and strengthening” (KSA 12, 5 [63]; WP 403).
The insistence on “why?” and on a critique of morality is now to be our pres-
ent form of morality and is an outgrowth of the sense of “honesty” (Redlichkeit)
cultivated by Christianity and morality. It now needs to be inspired by a sublime

These are the demands I make of you . . . that you subject the moral valua-
tions themselves to a critique. That you curb the impulse of moral feeling,
114 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

which here insists on submission and not criticism, with the question: “Why
submission?” That you view this insistence on a “Why?”, on a critique of
morality, as being your present form of morality itself, as the most sublime
kind of probity [die sublimste Art von Rechtschaffenheit], which does honor to
you and your age (KSA 12, 2[191]; see also GS 345).

Nietzsche, then, is drawing upon the virtues cultivated by “morality” as a way

of conquering and overcoming its stranglehold on questions of life. He does
this because he fully appreciates the fact that they have yielded a profit in
our appreciation and judgment of things, such as “finesse (das Raffinement) of
interpretation, of moral vivisection, the pangs of conscience (Gewissensbiss) . . . ”
(ibid. 2 [197]). Our spiritual subtlety, which we are now deploying in the deve-
loping field of a “science” of morality, was achieved essentially through vivi-
section of the conscience (ibid. 2 [207]). We have been educated and trained
by morality; this training now leads us to say “no” to morality (to blind compul-
sion, to dogma, to God). However, although we now declare this “no” and do
not wish to preserve the old life, Nietzsche wants to know whether there is
within us a “hidden yes” (GS 377; WP 405).
The kind of morality that Nietzsche wishes to promote is what he calls the
“legislative” type which contains the means for fashioning out of human
beings the desires of a creative will or a will to the future. We see legislative
moralities in operation, he claims, wherever an artistic will of the highest rank
holds power and can assert itself over long periods of time, in the shape of
laws, religions, and customs. Today, however, he holds that creative human
beings are largely absent. The present morality needs attacking and criticizing
precisely because it is a hostile force and obstacle to any hope that they might
come into existence. “Morality” wants to fix the animal called “human,” which
up to now has been the “unfixed animal” (BGE 62). The philosopher of the
future, by contrast, does not want the human animal to be something comfort-
able and mediocre but to breed “future masters of the earth” (WP 957), con-
ceived, as already noted, as human beings of the highest spirituality and
strength of will.
For Nietzsche it is the free spirit, not the free thinker, who thinks about this
problem. He detects in the present a conspiracy against everything that is
shepherd, beast of prey, hermit, and Caesar. The free spirit seeks to show
that a new deliberate cultivation or “breeding” of the human is now required.20
It will make use of the democratic movement as a way of cultivating a new spiri-
tual tyranny: “the time is coming when we will learn to think differently about
politics” (BGE 208). The aim is to allow individuals to be free to work on them-
selves as artist-tyrants (KSA 12, 2 [57]). He adds an important qualification:
“Not merely a master-race, whose task would be limited to governing, but a race
or people with its own sphere of life [. . .] a hothouse for strange and exquisite
plants” (ibid. 9[153]). The concept for this nonaverage type of human being is
“the superhuman” (KSA 12, 10 [17]; WP 866).
Free Spirits and Free Thinkers 115

Nietzsche on Morality and the Future of Morality

Perhaps the main criticism Nietzsche makes of “morality” (die Moral) is that it is
“the danger of dangers” on account of the fact that it makes the present live at
the expense of the future and will prevent mankind from attaining as a species
its highest potential power and splendor (GM “Preface” 6). The focus of his
critical and clinical attention is not so much on the question of morality’s origin
but on its value, especially the unegoistic in which the instincts of compassion,
self-denial, and self-sacrifice are deified and transcendentalized. Nietzsche dis-
closes that his desire to vent a mistrust and skepticism against the glorification
of the unegoistic by Schopenhauer led him to locate in certain tendencies of
modern thinking the “great danger” to mankind, “its most sublime temptation
and seduction” to nothingness, in short a new Euro-Buddhism and nihilism
(ibid. 5). As he makes clear in the first essay of the Genealogy of Morals, nihilism
denotes a state in which we have grown tired of the human: “The sight of man
now makes us tired—what is nihilism today if it is not that? . . . We are tired of
man . . . ” (GM I: 12). Nietzsche sees a danger here because it means that man
is no longer held to be worthy of future tasks of cultivation and elevation: “in
losing our fear of man we have also lost our love for him, our respect for him,
our hope in him and even our will to be man” (ibid.).
Morality, Nietzsche contends, is frequently made the subject of outlandish
claims, for example:21

a. It is supposed that morality must have a universally binding character in

which there is a single morality valid for all in all circumstances and for all
occasions. Morality expects a person to be dutiful, obedient, self-sacrificing
in their core and at all times—this demands ascetic self-denial and is a form
of refined cruelty: “Man takes a delight in expressing himself with excessive
claims and afterwards idolizing this tyrant in his soul. In every ascetic moral-
ity man worships a part of himself as God and for that he needs to diabolize
the other part” (HAH 137).
b. Ethicists such as Kant and Schopenhauer suppose that it provides us with
insight into the true, metaphysical character of the world and existence. For
example, in Schopenhauer virtue is “practical mysticism” which is said to
spring from the same knowledge that constitutes the essence of all mysticism
and which gives us the kind of “real foundation” of ethics that Nietzsche
criticizes in Beyond Good and Evil (186): “harm no-one; on the contrary,
help everyone as much as you can.” For Schopenhauer, therefore, “meta-
physics is virtue translated into action” and proceeds from the immediate
and intuitive knowledge of the identity of all beings.
c. It is supposed we have an adequate understanding of moral agency, for
example, that we have properly identified moral motives and located the
sources of moral agency. For Nietzsche, the opposite is, in fact, the case: we
completely lack knowledge in moral matters.
116 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

d. It is supposed we can make a clear separation between good virtues and

evil vices but for Nietzsche the two are reciprocally conditioning: all good
things have arisen out of dark roots through sublimation and spiritualization
and they continue to feed off such roots.
e. Moral values claim independence for themselves from nature and history
and in order to win dominion they must be assisted by immoral forces
and affects. It is in this sense that morality is the “work of error” and self-
contradictory (KSA 12: 276, 7 [6]; WP 266).
f. Finally, once morality has attained dominion “all biological phenomena” are
then measured and judged by moral values and an opposition between life
and morality is established. Morality proves detrimental to life in the follow-
ing ways: to its enjoyment and the gratitude that can be expressed towards
it; to its beautifying and ennobling; to actual knowledge of life; and to its
development simply because it seeks to set the highest phenomena of life, as
expressed in certain human modes of being, such as greatness, at variance
with itself (ibid.).

Nietzsche calls for a “moral naturalism” in which we translate moral values that
have acquired the appearance of being emancipated and without nature back
into their “natural immorality,” that is, the conditions of life conceived in terms
of its full economy of affects (KSA 12, 9 [86];WP 299). This is essentially what
he means by translating the human back into nature (BGE 230): “Homo
natura: The will to power” (KSA 12: 132, 2 [131]; WP 391). Nietzsche wishes to
demonstrate that in the history of morality a will to power finds expression
and that mankind’s supreme values to date are in fact a special case of the will
to power. Furthermore, viewed from a “biological standpoint” this makes the
phenomenon of morality highly suspicious and questionable: “Morality is
therefore an opposition movement against the efforts of nature to achieve a higher
type” (KSA 12: 334, 8 [4]; WP 400). The question whether Nietzsche is entitled
to such a statement about nature cannot be dealt with here. It can be noted
that it is a consistent feature of his thinking about nature to attribute an
intention to it.
On the one hand, Nietzsche holds that we are living in a moral interregnum
in which there is a need to construct anew the laws of life and action and in
which inspiration can be taken from the sciences of physiology, medicine, soci-
ology, and solitude. These will provide the foundation stone for our positing
of new ideals (D 453). On the other hand, once we become free of morality
it will decline in the sense of inherited, handed down, instinctual acting in
accordance with so-called moral feelings. The individual virtues such as mod-
eration, justice, and repose of the soul will continue to be esteemed by future
humanity since they have a vital role to play in the art of living well. Nietzsche
continues to affirm morality, then, as the practice of “continual self-command
and self-overcoming . . . in great things and in the smallest” (WS 45; 212).
Free Spirits and Free Thinkers 117

Morality survives and has a future for Nietzsche in two main senses: (a) as tech-
niques of physical-spiritual discipline (KSA 12, 10 [68]; WP 981); and (b) as an
instinct for education and breeding (KSA 12, 1 [33]; WP 720). Regards (b) his
attention is focused on the new form this might take in the future. He wants this
“unconscious instinct” to be placed in the service of new individuals and not,
as he thinks we now have, of “the power-instinct of the herd.”22
In addition, Nietzsche criticizes the positing of a “moral norm” that stands
over reality and judges it. He argues that an attempt has been made to posit
a single type of human with its conditions of preservation and growth as a law
for all mankind. The effect of this “ethics of desirability” (Wünschbarkeit), in
which dissatisfaction is the “germ of ethics” (der Keim der Ethik) (KSA 12: 299, 7
[15]; WP 333), and in which “‘desirable’ values” (“wünschbaren” Werthe) are
privileged over “the real values of man,” has been to disparage the world and
man, to create a “poisonous vapor over reality,” to be the “great seduction to noth-
ingness” (KSA 13, 11 [118]; WP 390).23 The ascetic ideal, for example, is to be
criticized for being a closed system of will, goal, and interpretation that permits
only the one goal (GM III: 23). The idea that mankind has a single task to per-
form and is moving as a whole toward some goal is a young idea but also one
that is obscure and arbitrary. It needs displacing, Nietzsche argues, before it
becomes a “fixed idea” (KSA 13: 87, 11 [226]; WP 339). Mankind, he contends,
is not a whole but an “inextricable multiplicity of ascending and descending
life-processes” (ibid.). Nietzsche criticizes the moral ideal on a number of
grounds: first, it considers the one type desirable; second, it presumes to know
what this type is like; and third, it considers every deviation from this type to be
a regression and a loss of force and power in human progress. This is today how
we think the reality of a “goal in history,” as the progress of this ideal:

In summa: one has transferred the arrival of the “kingdom of God” into the
future, on earth, in human form—but fundamentally one has held fast to the
belief in the old ideal. (ibid. 89)

In short, although there are new secular ideals they have their source in the old
morality, for example, the idealization of the “good man” and the valuation
accorded to the “will to good” (KSA 13, 15 [113]; WP 351).
In the preface to the Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche makes it clear that it is
the value of the unegoistic instincts that he wants to place at the centre of his
critique and of the revaluation project. He thinks we need to become suspi-
cious over the unegoistic for a number of reasons. One main concern he has
is that we become so caught in our fictions and projections of ourselves as
good and pure that we become blind to the dangerously simple-minded view
of ourselves we have created. We need to be suspicious of the “moral miracle”
the unegoistic allegedly performs, transforming us from amoral animals into
saintly humans.
118 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

Morality, taken in this sense, makes a claim to knowledge it is not entitled to

since it is based on an ignorance of our so-called moral actions and feelings.
The study of morality is thus lacking in genuine psychological insight and intel-
lectual probity: “What is the counterfeiting aspect of morality?—It pretends to
know something, namely what ‘good and evil’ is” (KSA 11 [278]; WP 337).
Morality’s pretension to knowledge encourages fanaticism. The danger here is
twofold: (i) first, supposing the good can grow only out of the good and upon
the basis of the good; (ii) second, holding there is a pure realm of morality
where we disentangle the nonegoistic and egoistic drives and affects.24 The
esteem we moderns accord to “the good man” and the “will to good” rests on a
dangerously naïve understanding of life and of the human animal. On the basis
of an erroneous and inadequate analysis of morality a false ethics gets erected,
buttressed by religion and metaphysical monsters, and “the shadow of these
dismal spirits in the end falls across even physics and the entire perception of
the world” (HAH 37). If we examine what is often taken to be the summit of the
moral in philosophy—the mastery of the affects—we find that there is pleasure
to be taken in this mastery. I can impress myself by what I can deny, defer, resist,
and so on. It is through this mastery that I grow and develop. And yet morality,
as we moderns have come to understand it, would have to give this ethical self-
mastery a bad conscience. If we take our criterion of the moral to be self-
sacrificing resolution and self-denial, we would have to say, if being honest, that
such acts are not performed strictly for the sake of others; my own fulfillment
and pride are at work and the other provides the self with an opportunity to
relieve itself through self-denial. There are no moral actions if we assume two
things: (a) Only those actions performed for the sake of another can be called
moral; (b) Only those actions performed out of free will can be called moral
(D 148). If we liberate ourselves from these errors a revaluation can take place
in which we will discover that we have overestimated the value and importance
of free and nonegoistic actions at the expense of unfree and egoistic ones
(see also D 164).

Nietzsche on Guyau as a “Free Thinker”

Nietzsche does not refer to Guyau anywhere in his published writings. What can
be ascertained of his thoughts about him and his work comes from a few unpub-
lished notes and from the marginal remarks he makes in his copy of Guyau’s
Sketch (Esquisse). Nevertheless, in spite of this paucity what we do find provides
us with enough information to shed light on core aspects of Nietzsche’s project,
especially his distinction between free thinkers and free spirits, as well as
the distinctive character of his naturalism and ethicism. Nietzsche’s attitude
towards Guyau is ambivalent. On the one hand he calls him “brave Guyau,” and
regards him as a courageous thinker who has written one of the few genuinely
Free Spirits and Free Thinkers 119

interesting books on ethics of modern times (KSA 11: 525, 35 [34]).25 On the
other hand he thinks Guyau is caught up in the Christian-moral ideal, and
partly for this reason he is only a free thinker and not a genuine free spirit.
On the title page of his copy of Guyau’s Sketch Nietzsche writes the following:

This book contains a “funny” (komischen) mistake: in his effort to prove that
moral instincts have their root in life itself, Guyau has overlooked the fact
that he has actually proved the opposite—namely that all fundamental
instincts are immoral, including the so-called moral ones. The greatest inten-
sity is indeed necessarily related to life’s greatest expansion [Nietzsche
provides the French: sa plus large expansion] but this is actually the opposite
of everything altruistic—this expansion expresses itself as unrestrained will
to power. Just as little is procreation the symptom of a basic altruistic character:
it arises out of discord and struggle in an organism overladen with captured
food and lacking sufficient power to incorporate everything conquered.
(Guyau 1912, p. 279)

It is these concerns which inform the criticism Nietzsche makes in an unpub-

lished note from the spring-fall of 1887. He seeks, he reveals in this note, to
bring to light the more concealed forms of the cult of the Christian moral ideal
(KSA 12, 10 [170]; WP 340). We find this, he says, in an insipid and cowardly
concept of nature devised by modern enthusiasts of nature which lacks any
sense of its fearful and cynical aspects, and which is an attempt to read moral
Christian humanity into nature as if nature were freedom, goodness, inno-
cence, fairness, an idyll, and so on. It is difficult to square Guyau’s Darwinism
with such a conception of nature and indeed the figure Nietzsche mentions in
this regard is, of course, Rousseau.26 He then mentions, before going on to
discuss art and then finally the socialist ideal, the insipid and cowardly charac-
ter of the modern conception of man “à la Comte and Stuart Mill,” and claims
that this “is still the cult of the Christian morality under a new name—The
freethinkers, for example, Guyau.”
What is the nature of the distinction Nietzsche forges between free spirits
and free thinkers? On some definitions he provides of it the term free spirit
would incorporate a thinker like Guyau, but other definitions would, I think,
exclude him. The depiction of the free spirit we find in an aphorism such as The
Gay Science (347, from 1887), with its attack on fanaticism, would seem to defi-
nitely include a figure like Guyau. However, overall I think Nietzsche’s concep-
tion of the free spirit in his late writings serves to exclude him from the rank.
A note from 1887 is ambiguous on this point. Here Nietzsche defines the great
human being as a skeptic in which freedom from conviction is part of his
strength of will.27 Such a freedom of spirit has unbelief as an instinct and as a
precondition of greatness. Such a spirit’s skepticism does not mean however
that it is not committed to the realization of something great as well as the
120 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

means to it (KSA 13: 22–3, 11 [48]; WP 963).28 Guyau has unbelief as a free
thinker but in Nietzsche’s view such a thinker also lacks certain important
insights (KSA 13, 11 [151]; WP 904). What are these?
One of the most helpful aphorisms in his corpus on this point is Beyond Good
and Evil (44, the final aphorism in the chapter of the book devoted to the free
spirit), which can be examined in relation to a notebook sketch from June–July
1885 (KSA 11, 37 [8]; WP 957). In this aphorism Nietzsche addresses the
character of the coming philosophers of the future. Although they will be free
spirits, he says, they will also be something “higher, greater, and fundamentally
different.” We actual free spirits of today, he then adds, are heralds and forerun-
ners of these philosophers who do not as yet exist. For both he wishes to dispel
a misunderstanding that we find in both Europe and America, in which a kind
of intellectual spirit is misusing the name. These spirits are, he says, “narrow,
trapped, enchained.” They are such, he holds, because they are “advocates of
modern taste” and the genuine free spirit is not. For Nietzsche, as he makes
clear in this aphorism and its note, this taste is the “democratic taste.” The
phrase “beyond good and evil” is, he thinks, well chosen since it guards against
the philosophy of the future from being confused with the philosophy of the
free thinker (Freidenker). When he employs the latter term he also uses the
French and Italian expressions for it. In Ecce Homo he reveals that nothing is
more alien and unrelated to him than “the whole European and American
species of ‘libres penseurs’” (EH “UM” 2).29
The error of the freethinkers according to Nietzsche is that they fail to see
what is necessary if life is to be developed and the human enhanced. He argues
that the free thinker’s vision does not allow him to see that the spirit of the
human has only become what it is, something subtle and daring, through “long
periods of pressure and discipline” and “that its life-will had to be intensified
into an unconditional power-will” (BGE 44). In short, it is the philosophy of
beyond good and evil in which “everything evil, frightful, tyrannical, predatory,
and snake-like about humans serves to heighten the species ‘human being’
as much as does its opposite.” When one thinks like this and argues that this
is also a necessary condition for the future development of the human, then
one has placed oneself “at the other end of all modern ideology and wishful
thinking of the herd” (ibid). The freethinkers fail to understand what is neces-
sary for the elevation of the human: “inequality of rights, concealment,
stoicism, the art of experiment, devilry of all kinds, in short the opposite of all
that the herd thinks is desirable . . . ” (KSA 11: 581, 37 [8]; WP 957). In short,
the free thinker holds that the human herd can develop without the need of
a shepherd; the free spirit upholds the need for one (KSA 23 [4]; WP 282).
In Beyond Good and Evil (23) Nietzsche speaks of the intellectual conscience as
a conscience opposed to the hearty kind that will be distressed by the questions
posed by the new kind of free spirit such as whether good and bad instincts
reciprocally condition one another. Our attempts at knowledge should not be
Free Spirits and Free Thinkers 121

motivated by a need to satisfy “the heart’s desire” (AC 12). The theory of the
will to power doctrine is an attempt to develop psychology in the direction of
a morphology and evolutionary theory free of the prejudices of morality. It
is dangerous because it will seek to demonstrate that the active emotions
or affects—envy, greed, lust for power and rule, natural aggression, and so
on—are as necessary conditions of living as everything else we value, “crucial
and fundamental to the universal economy of life,” and if life is to be intensified
they will need intensifying. Furthermore, what is missing from the free thinker’s
worldview is the insight that the future can only come into being through a new
cultivation of the human:

[I]nexorably, hesitantly, terrible as fate, the great task and question is

approaching: how shall the earth as a whole be governed? And to what end
shall “man” as a whole—and no longer as a people, a race—be raised and
trained? (KSA 11: 580; WP 957)

In a note of 1888–89 on great politics from his final notebook Nietzsche spells
out what it is he declares war on and against: war not between people and peo-
ple (Volk) but rather against the absurd accidents of people, class, race, voca-
tion, education, and culture, “a war between ascent and descent, between will
to life and the seeking of revenge against life, between probity (Rechschaffenheit)
and spiteful mendacity (Verlogenheit) . . . ” (KSA 13, 25 [1]). For all these rea-
sons, then, Nietzsche insists that those who reflect on the need for a “reversal of
values” are a different kind of free spirit from all previous ones.
Nietzsche’s thinking on the future rests on two viewpoints that are alien to
free thinking modernity: (a) another mode of being to the one that prevails
under modern conditions needs to be cultivated so that existence can find its
transfiguration (Verklärung) (KSA 11, 41 [6]; WP 1051); and (b) this superior
nature or new “sovereign species” of human will not come into being without
“the experiment of a fundamental, artificial and conscious breeding” (KSA 12:
73, 2 [13]; WP 954). Nietzsche does value autonomy, personality, and sovereign
individuality but he couples his valuation of them not with the Enlightenment
ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity but with an unashamedly elitist “radical
aristocratism.”30 In some respects he shares Guyau’s emphasis on “anomos” as
the future of morality, but Nietzsche’s free spirit recognizes that not everyone
will wish to or can live in this manner. Hence his statement, “My philosophy
aims at an ordering of rank, not an individualistic morality” (KSA 12: 280, 7 [6];
WP 287). Nietzsche’s recommendation for the future is that we allow for two
divergent lines of human development to take place, one in the direction of
(natural) gregariousness, the other in the (unnatural) direction of solitariness.
The future order of rank by which valuations of life will be made will centre
on how solitary or how gregarious one is, and neither viewpoint should be
evaluated from the perspective of the other.31 Thus, Nietzsche is in favor of
122 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

both modes of life: “To evolve further that which is typical, to make the gulf
wider and wider” (KSA 12, 10 [59]; WP 886). The key task should be to “estab-
lish distances, but create no antitheses” (KSA 12, 10 [63]; WP 891). In fact, he
argues that any hatred for mediocrity is not worthy of a philosopher and is a
question mark against his right to philosophy. Rather, the philosopher must
keep the mediocre in good heart and take the rule under his protection (KSA
12, 10 [175]; WP 893).

Conclusion: Nietzsche and Guyau as “Immoralists”

Guyau was interpreted in his time as an “immoralist” and he was read in these
terms by some major figures, including the pioneers of American philosophy
such as William James and Josiah Royce32. It is true, however, that he does, as
Nietzsche notes, envisage the future as a movement in the direction of the
good, but here he is equating the good with the open (as opposed to the closed
and the parochial), the novel, the original, the different, and the plural (Guyau
1962: 498). These all seem to be values that Nietzsche associates with those he
calls “free thinkers” and who he finds “laughably superficial.” Guyau is very
much influenced by the naturalistic and evolutionist account of sympathy
and so-called altruistic sentiments provided by Darwin in his Descent of Man.33
He is also inspired by Alfred Fouillée’s conception of an “intellectual altruism:”
intelligence is an aspect of moral altruism, it denotes a capacity to conceive
the consciousness of others and enter into it, and it presupposes sympathy.
“Sympathy of feeling,” Guyau writes, “is the germ of the extension of conscious-
ness” and is explicable in terms of life: “This communicability of emotions and
of thoughts—which, on its physiological side,34 is a phenomenon of nervous
contagion—is explained to a great extent by the fecundity of life, the expansion
which is almost in direct ratio to its intensity. It is from life that we will demand
the principle of morality” (1896: 81; 1898: 70).35
It is clear that Nietzsche has a number of affinities with Guyau: the critique of
Kant is strikingly similar and a philosophy of life is central to both projects.
Both naturalize Kant and both propose a sublimation of morality. Perhaps the
key difference between them is over life and the future of morality. Nietzsche
agrees with Guyau that life involves expansion and spiritual growth. He departs
from Guyau, however, in interpreting life in terms of a “will to power” which is
“immoral,” and he criticizes Guyau, who speaks of life’s “moral fecundity,” for
remaining within the ambit of the Christian-moral ideal. Guyau’s conception of
the future is one of new individuals, of individual difference, of the greater
intensity of life, and so on. These are all things we find promoted in Nietzsche,
as when for example he argues, “Up to now morality has been, above all, the expres-
sion of a conservative will to breed the same species, with the imperative: ‘All variation
is to be prevented; only the enjoyment of the species must remain’”(KSA 11,
Free Spirits and Free Thinkers 123

35[20]; see also BGE 262). As we have seen, it is precisely “moral variability”
that Guyau posits as the most desirable future for morality. Both Nietzsche and
Guyau retain the word “morality” but for different reasons: Nietzsche to denote
a new discipline and breeding, Guyau to denote the future opening of life
beyond what has been customary, parochial, closed, and so on. Nietzsche takes
this to denote a desire to serve the herd and to remain within the bounds
of Christian morality. Both share a commitment to experimentation but for
Nietzsche this cannot be left to chance or accident; on the contrary, the time is
now right he thinks for putting a complete end to the chance and nonsense
that up to now have reigned in history and defined it (BGE 203).
Nietzsche is heterodox in two main interrelated respects: (a) in his position
on freedom, and, (b) in the peculiar manner in which he esteems the “superior
nature” of the great human being. Freedom for him is to be understood as
a “positive power, as will to power” in which the highest form of individual
freedom—sovereignty—emerges “in all probability . . . five steps from its oppo-
site, where the danger of slavery hangs over existence like a hundred swords of
Damocles” (WP 770; TI “Skirmishes” 38). He conceives of freedom as an exper-
iment in self-overcoming in which one grants oneself “the right to exceptional
actions” (KSA 13: 68, 11 [146]; WP 921). For Nietzsche freedom denotes an
experimental practice in self-testing and requires an uncommon and unpopu-
lar mode of self-discipline, a natural asceticism, and a veritable “gymnastics of
the will”: how much isolation can one endure? Can one promise? Can one will
to die at the right time? (KSA 12, 9 [93], 10 [165]; WP 915, 916) On one level
for him the future is to be an experiment in the fostering of freedom (what
Nietzsche calls the “superfluity of life” is life at its most free). On another level,
however, it is a question of power, of the degree of power that is to be exercised
over others or over all, and power may entail the sacrifice of freedom: “Put in
the crudest form: how could one sacrifice the development of mankind to help a higher
species than man come into existence?” (KSA 12: 281, 7 [6]; WP 859)36 The
“superior nature” for Nietzsche resides in radical difference, “in distance of
rank, not in an effect of any kind—even if he made the whole globe tremble”
(KSA 13, 16 [39]; WP 876). He is insistent that in accord with a “Dionysian value
standard” for existence the elevation of man can only take place “beyond those
values which cannot deny their origin in the sphere of suffering, the herd, and
the majority,” and this, he says, is to speak of the “pagan,” the “classical,” and
the “noble” “newly discovered and expounded” (KSA 13, 16 [32]; WP 1041).
In the literature on Nietzsche and Guyau it is often assumed that the two dif-
fer in that whereas Guyau’s philosophy of life is a philosophy of generosity and
love, Nietzsche’s is not.37 But this is questionable. Nietzsche does appeal to
“love” as part of his project but again his intellectual integrity tells him that this
love is necessarily coupled with malice (Bosheit); such is the character of the
philosopher’s desire (his will to power) to shape and mould human beings.38 In
a note of 1884 Nietzsche distinguishes between two different kinds of love, a
124 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

slavish one that submits and gives itself and a divine one that despises and
loves, that “reshapes and elevates the beloved.” Love for Nietzsche cannot be
altruistic and our psychological integrity should tell us this. “The great human
being,” he writes, “feels his power over a people, his temporary coincidence with
a people or a millennium: this enlargement (Vergrösserung) in his experience of
himself as causa and voluntas is misunderstood as ‘altruism . . .‘” (KSA 11, 25
[335]; WP 964).
Guyau’s philosophy of life clearly departs from the core assumptions of
Nietzsche’s thinking. For him, life is expansive in the sense of a need to share:
“It is as impossible to shut up the intelligence as to shut up flame” (p. 247;
p. 210). This means that human nature is “sociable” and cannot be entirely self-
ish even if it wished to be: “We are open on all sides, on all sides encroaching
and encroached upon . . . Life is not only nutrition; it is production and fecundity”
(ibid.). It is this fecundity of life which reconciles egoism and altruism for
Guyau. He thinks that an evolutionary growth can be located in the develop-
ment of human nature in which from a growing fusion of sensibilities and the
increasingly sociable character of elevated pleasures there arises a superior
necessity, a kind of duty in fact, which moves us towards others and does
so naturally and rationally: “We cannot enjoy ourselves in ourselves as on an
isolated island . . . Pure selfishness . . . instead of being a real affirmation of
self, is a mutilation of self ” (p. 249; p. 212). Like some neo-Nietzscheans, such
as Vattimo for example,39 Guyau regards morality, conceived as caritas, as the
great “flower of life”:

There is a certain generosity which is inseparable from existence and without

which we die—we shrivel up internally. We must put forth blossoms . . . in
reality, charity is but one with overflowing fecundity; it is like a maternity too
large to be confined within the family . . . (p. 101; p. 87)

To what extent the two philosophies of life, of the will to power and Dionysian
joy and moral fecundity and charity, are incompatible and a genuine stranger
to one another is a question to be pursued on another occasion. Nietzsche’s
new image of rule and the ruler along the lines of the Roman Caesar with the
soul of Christ may point us in an interesting direction in reflecting on this issue
(KSA 11, 27 [60]; WP 983). What is clear, however, is that the ultimate differ-
ence between the free thinker and the free spirit is an essential one: Guyau’s
conception of the future entails a commitment to a self-inventing humanity
whereas for Nietzsche humanity is an “endpoint.” For Nietzsche the problem is
not what should replace humanity in the order of being but rather, “what type
of human should be bred, should be willed as having greater value, as being more
deserving of life, as being more certain of a future” (AC 3).
Chapter 7

How Deep Are the Roots of Nihilism?

Nietzsche on the Creative Power of Nature
and Morality
Jeffrey Metzger

Nietzsche’s philosophy of the future is based on his critical understanding

of the past, indeed on what Nietzsche takes to be the first fully truthful and
therefore the first true understanding of the past. In a move typical of much of
modern philosophy (Rousseau being perhaps the exemplary figure), he com-
bines revolutionary proposals for the future with a theoretically revolutionary
analysis not only of the present and its needs but of the whole of human history
and the way it has shaped the present.
In Nietzsche’s case, of course, the specific crisis that demands his attention is
nihilism, the loss of value and meaning, the enervation of humanity’s creative
will. Nietzsche regards this crisis as the ultimate consequence not of particular
social arrangements or institutions like private property, but rather of certain
moral value judgments compounded with historical consciousness, specifically
the awareness of the untold amount of suffering that has suffused human his-
tory. The question is how deep the roots of nihilism go: is the vitiating morality
against which Nietzsche inveighs comprised only of very specific beliefs inform-
ing Western civilization (chiefly those of Plato and Christianity), or is there
something about society as such, and the instinctual repression which it requires
or enacts, that makes the human animal sick? Does Nietzsche’s analysis of nihil-
ism, in other words, call for the destruction of civil society and morality, or at
least a return to a less developed and so less repressive stage of human social
evolution (cf. Rosen 1995, p. 60)? Commentators have often observed that
Nietzsche’s censure of “morality” does not apply to all forms or types of moral-
ity; my question here concerns the conditions that make a morality healthy or
unhealthy. Are these conditions simply a matter of the degree of instinctual
repression embodied in a particular morality, so that the content and spirit of a
morality is ultimately merely a function of this fundamental fact?
126 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

Nietzsche and the Question of Origins

Perhaps the most straightforward way to investigate this question is to examine

Nietzsche’s account of the founding of political societies in the Second Essay of
the Genealogy of Morals. What better way to understand the effects of morality as
such than to look at the effects of the first morality, at how the most basic and
original form of morality changed human beings? This proposal, however, faces
an immediate objection drawn from Nietzsche’s own texts, namely his insis-
tence that the question of origins is irrelevant to a proper understanding of a
thing, and especially of morality. Nietzsche makes this general claim in a famous
passage in the Genealogy of Morals:

[T]here is for all types of history no more important tenet than that which
has been achieved with such effort, but which really should be achieved—
namely that the cause of the emergence of a thing and its eventual utility, its
actual employment and integration (Einordnung) in a system of purposes, lie
separated toto coelo; that something existing, having somehow come to be, is
always again interpreted from new views by a power superior to it, newly
monopolized, reformed and redirected to new uses; that all occurrences in
the organic world are an overpowering, a becoming master, and that again all
overpowering and becoming master are a new interpretation, an adaptation,
where the previous “meaning” and “purpose” must necessarily be obscured
or obliterated altogether. (GM II: 12)1

The implications of this view for understanding political and moral develop-
ment are clear enough, but Nietzsche makes them perfectly explicit elsewhere
(e.g., GS 345 end). We should note, however, that in passages like section 345
of The Gay Science, Nietzsche is speaking about the value of morality, which is not
quite the same as its “meaning” or “purpose,” the two aspects of a thing that the
passage from the Genealogy says change radically over time. For the purpose of
this paper, however, I think we can treat the two (or three) together, and ask
the very general question of whether understanding the origin of an object
contributes anything to understanding its present meaning or value.
It may then seem that Nietzsche does or should have no interest in the origin
of anything. It might, for instance, be an interesting piece of trivia to know that
the Christmas tree is descended from a pagan ritual or practice, but it does
nothing to illuminate the social meaning or function of Christmas trees in, say,
the contemporary United States or Victorian England. One could argue that
the Christian Christmas holiday, like the contemporary secular-commercial
version of Christmas (from which it cannot always be distinguished), serves
the same purpose as the original pagan ritual, to affirm fertility and rebirth
in the depths of winter, and that the evergreen tree plays an important part in
this function. This argument, however, should be based on an analysis of the
How Deep Are the Roots of Nihilism? 127

significance of the Christmas holiday in a particular time and place, not on an

assertion that the original meaning and purpose continue to exert a mysterious
influence over the present instantiation of the holiday, somehow imparting
that first meaning and purpose to all subsequent versions regardless of their
contexts or uses.
Brian Leiter answers this objection by arguing that the

point of origin of a morality has a special evidential status as to the effects (or
causal powers) of that morality, for example, as to whether a morality obstructs
or promotes human flourishing . . . by understanding the origin, we under-
stand the effects of adopting a particular morality. (Leiter 2002, pp. 177–8)

Leiter uses the sun as an example of an object that has had stable or permanent
causal powers over time but widely different meanings in different belief
systems (ibid.). In this case a certain type of morality, the Christian or altrui-
stic type of morality that has finally spawned nihilism, would have a positive
meaning for a certain type of human being, one racked by ressentiment and
trying to promote a morality that honors itself and the behaviors and atti-
tudes of which it is capable. But that type of morality will always be destructive
of human flourishing, for there is an ahistorical type of human excellence
that always requires a certain type of morality to realize itself (cf. ibid.,
pp. 8–11).
This claim, however, ignores Nietzsche’s emphasis on the radical variability of
both the causes and consequences of particular moral beliefs, or on the radical
variability of the different human types drawn to the same system of moral valu-
ation at different points in history. So, for instance, Nietzsche gives extremely
high praise to the one who first conceived of the Abrahamic or at least Judeo-
Christian imperative to love man for the sake of God (literally: “in order to
will God” [BGE 60]), and likewise notes that there came a time when the
aristocratic morality of ancient Athens was outlived and represented merely a
mendacious hedonism, not the aristocratic splendor and greatness of soul it
once had (BGE 212). Nietzsche is thus mindful and indeed insistent that
the same morality can not only provoke different responses over time but also
be espoused for different reasons and produce different results; for a time
Christianity deepened and broadened the human soul, just as a time came
when no amount of adherence to the moral code of old Athens was enough
to ward off disintegration and decay. Indeed, Nietzsche’s emphasis on the non-
rational psychological sources of morality suggests that morality is relatively
lacking in causal power unless it is imposed; the adoption of a particular
kind of morality already indicates something decisive about an individual
(e.g., BGE 3–6; CW “Epilogue”).2
Why then should one devote such attention to the question of the origin of
political society, and more specifically to Nietzsche’s treatment of it? It is, after
128 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

all, not even the case that Nietzsche’s claims about the disjunction between
origin and later meaning necessarily require knowledge of the origin: one could
conclude, solely on the basis of the many fundamental changes in meaning and
function that can be observed in history, that the original meaning and purpose
of a thing cannot determine its later uses. This claim, however, is always open
to the objection that without knowledge of an origin one cannot know whether
a thing’s origin is indeed shaping or controlling its later interpretations and
uses. A crude sketch of psychoanalysis provides an example: an early traumatic
memory is repressed but continues to inform our later experiences and indeed
to structure our minds and souls (and does so all the more powerfully for being
unrecognized or not consciously remembered). The point here is obviously
not whether psychoanalysis is true but whether we can conceive of a relation
between the origin and present in which a forgotten or unknown origin contin-
ues to define present experience; clearly we can.3
In the example Nietzsche uses in the Genealogy of Morals, however, namely the
history of punishment, it is clear that the procedure of punishment has had
such radically different purposes assigned to it that one can safely or reasonably
assume that the original purpose has been, as Nietzsche says, obliterated alto-
gether (GM II: 12). This is even more true of the meanings or interpretations
attaching to punishment, which have undergone revolutions so profound that
we can barely comprehend their earliest forms. Nietzsche tells us, for instance,
that “punishment, as requital, evolved completely apart from any presupposition
concerning freedom or unfreedom of the will” (GM II: 4). The belief that “the
criminal deserves punishment because he could have acted differently,” which
now seems “so obvious, so apparently natural, even unavoidable,” was in fact
completely absent or unknown in the earliest stages of civilization, though
punishment certainly was not. The original meaning of punishment is then
not the meaning it has now, even in a modified or attenuated form; this means
that when Nietzsche says that today it is impossible to say why one punishes
(GM II: 13), he is saying that there are multiple meanings that are currently
“alive” and animating or informing punishment, not that there are primordial
meanings continuing to do so without anyone’s being aware of it (indeed,
this latter view of intellectual and moral history is precisely the one for which
Nietzsche criticizes the “English psychologists” in the First Essay [GM I: 1–2;
cf. II: 4]). Again Christmas furnishes a good example—today the holiday has
commercial, religious, and larger social meanings, but this is because all of
these meanings, and all of the systems of purposes from which they arise, are
currently active and at work in the larger social field of interpretations, not
because one of these meanings is older and therefore “deeper” than the others,
and thus continuing to determine the meaning of Christmas without being
consciously or explicitly avowed.
Though it is not entirely clear that Nietzsche’s comments about punishment
apply equally to moral and social life, Nietzsche’s insistence on the importance
How Deep Are the Roots of Nihilism? 129

of the historical sense for studying the history of morality suggests that they do,
that both the form of social and political structures and their moral interpreta-
tion or meaning have been subject to repeated profound revolutions, so that
the original meaning and purpose of political organization have no influence
on its present significance, function, and value.
Yet Nietzsche does devote considerable time and effort to furnishing an
account of the origins of political society. Why? In the first place because even
if the origin of a thing does not determine that thing’s later uses, meanings, and
values, it can still effectively illustrate the basic character of life. The picture
Nietzsche presents of the world and of human history (especially in GM II: 12)
explains and is exemplified in the account of the origins of human society
he provides. The origins of something in the human world, and especially of
something as all encompassing and defining as society and morality, can teach
us a great deal about the basic conditions of existence and about the character
of things like the will to power and nature. Nature is illuminated especially
clearly by such an investigation, both the form of prepolitical human nature
and the qualities and work of nature itself in spurring or resisting the creation
of political life. Nietzsche, as we will see below, focuses not only on the role of
nature in the moment of political founding or in the very beginning of political
societies, but also on the related questions of how civilized morality has effected
human nature and whether or to what extent morality is actuated or molded
by nature.
At the same time, of course, Nietzsche is concerned to explain such an enor-
mous and essential event in human history in his own terms, to show that his
philosophy can offer a convincing and indeed illuminating account of these
topics; in other words, Nietzsche’s treatment of this question is part of his
attempt to “translate the human being back into nature” (BGE 230). I there-
fore agree with those who emphasize that part of Nietzsche’s concern in the
Genealogy of Morals is to give a naturalistic explanation of the rise of various
moral experiences and practices formerly thought to be of supernatural origin;4
this, indeed, is what Nietzsche stresses in his discussion of the Genealogy of Morals
in Ecce Homo.5
Finally, although Nietzsche warns against assuming that the present purpose
of a thing is the cause of its origin, this does not mean that no original feature
of politics and morality has perdured until today. The initial purpose of civi-
lized morality was simply to mold a formless and unruly populace into an
ordered whole or living structure (GM II: 17). This is not the essential or neces-
sary purpose of morality as such, and most of the specific injunctions (and
penalties), and thus the content as well as the aim and meaning of morality,
have changed completely since its inception. But the repression of the natural
instincts of aggression and cruelty, the psychological and moral phenomenon
that Nietzsche calls “the bad conscience” for much of the Second Essay, has
remained the basic condition or matrix for the creation of morality. Nietzsche’s
130 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

account of the origin of political society, and so of the origin of the bad con-
science, is therefore still germane and indeed indispensable to a consideration
of contemporary morality because it elucidates something fundamental about
the basic character of all civilized morality. It concerns the condition of living
in society as such, not simply the original meaning of political society. It there-
fore also illuminates the future of morality: is civilized morality something
that must be destroyed or at least severely pared down, or something that should
be refashioned and redirected to new ends?

Nietzsche’s Account of the Origin of Political Life

In the sixteenth section of the Second Essay Nietzsche gives a powerful state-
ment of his hypothesis concerning the origin of the bad conscience—that it is
a “sickness” that consists of humanity’s most basic animal instincts, aggression
and the desire for change and destruction, being turned back inward upon
their possessor. Human beings, in Nietzsche’s account, were forced to do this by
the imposition of social and political life, which made the violent, outward dis-
charge of those drives impossible. Nietzsche’s reconstruction of this process
clarifies his estimation of the status and value of civilized morality, understood
precisely as the repression and redirection of humanity’s animal instincts.6
There are three major aspects of this discussion: the nature or activity of nature
as Nietzsche describes it, the differences he indicates exist between the ancient
nobles and the artist-lawgivers who found states, and finally the decisive ques-
tion of whether all civilized morality makes human beings sick by poisoning
them with ressentiment.

The Form-Creating Activity of Nature

In the seventeenth section Nietzsche explains who, according to his hypothesis,
must have founded the first “state”:

[S]ome pack of blond beasts of prey (Raubthiere), a conqueror and master

race, which, organized for war and with the power (Kraft) to organize, unhes-
itatingly lays its terrible paws upon a population perhaps enormously
superior in numbers but still shapeless, still prowling. (GM II: 17)7

If the prepolitical Volk was a mass of “half-animals” (GM II: 16), Nietzsche
figures the founders of the first state as still wholly animal (cf. BGE 257: those
who founded the first hierarchical or aristocratic societies were “more whole
human beings [which at every level also means ‘more whole beasts’]”). On the
one hand, this language highlights the greater animality and thus naturalness
How Deep Are the Roots of Nihilism? 131

of these lawgiving blond beasts (and indeed Nietzsche is about to describe the
lawgiver or political founder as “by nature ‘master’”); on the other, it highlights
Nietzsche’s paradoxical conception of nature, for to be more natural and more
animal means, in the case of a human being, to create and found a political
society, and thus to sever a great mass of human beings from their natural
animal instincts and existence. In other words, even with Nietzsche’s emphasis
on the terribleness and violence of the lawgivers and his use of vivid animal
imagery to describe them, these blond beasts are above all concerned with
organization (organized and with the power to organize), as becomes even
more clear shortly. Unlike the nobles of the First Essay, this master race does
not delight or take pleasure in simple destruction (cf. GM I: 11); it seeks to
form and organize other human beings.
Nietzsche continues, “One who can command, who is by nature ‘master’ (wer
von Natur ‘Herr’ ist), who steps forth violent in work and gesture—what has he
to do with contracts!” Nietzsche thus shows that he has not clumsily mistaken
social contract theories for actual historical suppositions. Nietzsche’s argument
is not merely that historically the state did not begin with a contract; his argu-
ment is rather that nature does not warrant or underwrite any conception of
equal rights or a sovereign legal order in which all individuals are treated as
equal and inviolable (cf. the end of GM II: 11). On the contrary, nature makes
some masters; it makes them capable of violently commanding and molding
But what does it mean to be “by nature ‘master’”? What does nature create or
achieve in and through such a person? In the first place, it creates forms and
structures, a new, unified, living whole. The one who is by nature “master” does
not simply lord it over others or use them to satisfy his desires for pleasure or
even recognition or honor. He creates. Thus nature is creative, but this creation
must be violent and terrible, for there is neither an original natural form to
reproduce nor a harmonious progress toward a naturally ordained end. The
prepolitical populace is formless; indeed its nature seems to be only a formless
chaos. Yet it is nature itself that demands that this mass of half-animals be
formed into something. The prepolitical populace must therefore be given a
definite form by acts of violence, like a stone being smashed and cut into a
sculpture. At the same time, violence here is formative and creative, not simply
destructive, as it had appeared in the portrait of the nobles (GM I: 11); hence,
to repeat, the “blond beasts” described here are not simply destructive (barbar-
ian invasions, etc.)—they rather roam and raid in order to impose a form on
the conquered populace. The motivation of the artist-lawgivers of this passage
is thus somehow distinct from the joy in destruction attributed both to the
aristocratic blond beasts (GM I: 11) and to prepolitical humanity (GM II: 16).
Yet Nietzsche employs the word “nature” only to describe the violent artist-
lawgiver, not the formless prepolitical populace, just as he describes those
who found aristocracies in Beyond Good and Evil as “human beings with a still
132 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

natural nature (Menschen mit einer noch natürlichen Natur)” (BGE 257); it appears
that the violent but form-giving artist is what is natural, not the violent but form-
less primeval mass of people (cf. the crucial discussion in BGE 188). Put differ-
ently, although nature does not have unitary or harmonious purposes, and is
thus both destructive and creative, Nietzsche seems to identify its creative impe-
tus or activity as more essential than its purely destructive and chaotic activity.

The Nobles and the Artist-Lawgivers

The artist-lawgivers’ creation exemplifies both the creativity of nature and
the process of interpretation and the giving of meaning that Nietzsche deline-
ates at GM II: 12, as he makes clear in his description of their deed and its

Their work is an instinctive creation and imposition of forms, they are the
most involuntary, unconscious artists that there are—soon something new
stands there, where they appear, a ruling-structure that lives (ein Herrschafts-
Gebilde, das lebt), in which parts and functions are delimited and coordinated,
in which nothing at all finds a place which is not first assigned a “meaning” in
regard to the whole. They do not know what guilt, what responsibility,
what consideration is, these born organizers; at work in them is that terrible
artist-egoism . . . It is not in them that the “bad conscience” has grown, that is
understood at once—but it would not have grown without them. (GM II: 17)

This passage may seem familiar enough at first. The artist-lawgivers, like the
nobles of the First Essay, are powerful, violent, and unrepressed, indeed gov-
erned by their unconscious and involuntary instincts (cf. GM I: 11). One might
think that they are the same people or at least the same human type at different
points in time. As we have just seen, however, the nobles retain the prepolitical
populace’s joy in destruction; indeed their ability to revert to “the wild” and
release the pressure caused by socialization prevents the bad conscience from
affecting them nearly as profoundly as it does their social inferiors. Although
this means the nobles suffer less than those of lower social rank, it also means
that they lack the tension and sense of dissatisfaction necessary to envision new
ideals and forms of life. In short, the nobles do not create. Nietzsche says that
the nobles seek release from “the tension (Spannung) engendered by protracted
confinement and enclosure within the peace of society” (GM I: 11); the prob-
lem with the nobles seems to be that they find this release, that they are able
to relieve their tension before it becomes creative. The word Spannung usually
carries positive connotations for Nietzsche; he associates it with vision, creativ-
ity, and going beyond oneself. For the ancient nobles, on the other hand,
tension is an unpleasant symptom of living in society, but one which they are
How Deep Are the Roots of Nihilism? 133

able to assuage by returning to the wilderness. By slackening their tension

through uninhibited violence, the nobles close off any possibility of overcoming
themselves; they remain what they are, politically powerful and self-affirming
but one-dimensional and stagnant.
The artist-lawgivers therefore do not appear to be the same as the self-satis-
fied but sporadically violent nobles of the First Essay, who mainly occupy them-
selves with slapping themselves and each other on the back, occasionally going
out to kill and torture when the tension engendered by the demand for recip-
rocal admiration grows too great.9
The nobles, in short, are able to take a self-affirming attitude toward them-
selves and thus toward life or the world, which fills them with gratitude and love
for existence. These are obviously good things, but the nobles take their place
within a social order already established by others (indeed their affirmative
stance toward themselves and life is entirely dependent upon their place in
that order) and tend to be static and conservative elements within the living
structure they inhabit.10 Their emotional or affective experience is one of self-
affirmation, but the organized whole in which they live as well as the content of
their beliefs and their form of life are determined by the artist-lawgivers who
founded the community.
All of this should establish that a simple reversion to the noble or aristocratic
way of life sketched in the First Essay is not Nietzsche’s goal, in which case
Nietzsche would seem clearly not to be calling for a straightforward return to a
less civilized and thus less repressed stage of human history, and his view of
society and its concomitant suppression of instinct would not be purely nega-
tive. To this, however, one can object that Nietzsche presents the artist-lawgivers
as both wholly uninhibited and perhaps the pinnacle of human creativity.
They are free of the bad conscience and create as a matter of pure instinctual
discharge; thus whatever critical distance Nietzsche might maintain from the
ancient nobles, he ultimately regards society and its attendant moralized repre-
ssion of instinct in unfavorable terms. Indeed, one could still maintain that
Nietzsche desires a return to a more or less barbaric stage of human evolution,
not to recapture ancient forms of nobility but in order to make the emergence
of new artist-lawgivers possible.

Ressentiment and the Bad Conscience

Henry Staten makes perhaps the strongest case that Nietzsche is indeed
committed to just such a negative view of society and morality, as evidenced
especially by his insistence that the founders of states are untouched by
civilized morality (Staten 1990, pp. 51 ff.). For Staten, however, this indicates
a self-contradiction in Nietzsche’s thought more than anything else: he argues
that Nietzsche’s account of the bad conscience shows not only that all of
134 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

humanity living in society (and therefore necessarily the artist-lawgivers) are

subject to the repression of instinct Nietzsche calls the bad conscience, but that
this repression of instinct also necessarily produces universal ressentiment. There
are then two distinct criticisms of Nietzsche on this point. The first one is some-
what narrower and is made by both Staten and Aaron Ridley, both of whom
argue that Nietzsche is mistaken to claim that the founders of states caused the
bad conscience in others without being subject to it themselves (Staten 1990,
pp. 51 ff.; Ridley 1998, pp. 17 ff.). Since Nietzsche’s argument is that all human
beings living in any form of society are subject to the bad conscience, the
exemption he appears to grant the political founders in GM II: 17 is incoherent
on his own terms.
It is certainly hard to understand how a group of people “organized for war
and with the power to organize” could be so highly socialized and regimented
without having acquired the bad conscience. It may be possible to make sense
of Nietzsche’s statements if we take him to be suggesting that the law code
being imposed on one people (or a series of peoples) is experienced by the
subjected population as an oppressive restriction, but by the conquerors as a
vehicle for their will to power. When, for instance, ‘Umar ibn al-Khatta-b con-
verted to Islam he had to comply with a series of religious prohibitions and
injunctions, and thus to check some of his desires or the particular forms
taken by some of his instincts, but the religious and political structure of Islam
obviously provided him with an instrument through which to express and sat-
isfy his most fundamental instinct— his will to power—and to do so on a scale
of far greater power and magnitude than mere personal morality. And this did
not mean only military conquest and rule, but forming the conquered peoples
and civilizations into a new living structure, that provided by Muhammad and
his revelation. Thus ‘Umar’s mild suppression of certain instincts or desires
and, more significantly, his spiritual and political subordination to Muhammad
were secondary to the power and creative achievement this subordination
provided him.
Even more fundamentally, however, the freedom from the bad conscience is
perhaps best understood not as a lack of all constraint or the free expression or
discharge of every instinct, but as the concentration and molding, and thus
necessarily the partial compulsion and constriction, of the instincts of freedom
or the will to power into a specific creative activity (on the relation between
compulsion and creativity see BGE 188; EH “Z” 3). This would account for the
more difficult case of Muhammad, who would have had to restrict and channel
his creative energies even more severely than his followers, and thus again to
focus and intensify some instinctual impulses while subduing and starving
others. While Muhammad was the creator of the law and thus did not have to
submit himself to the rule of another, his actions and creations would have
been at least partially constrained by the forms he found already in existence,
beginning with the Arabic language which he used to such effect, and this
How Deep Are the Roots of Nihilism? 135

would have required a great deal of repression, rechanneling, and reordering

of various biological drives.11 Obviously, the Islamic conquest occurred at a
much later and more developed stage of civilization, and effected a much
less complete transformation, than the process described in GM II: 17, but
I believe we can extrapolate from the former to the latter, in both the case
of the founder and his followers, to provide at least a partial answer to this
The second, more penetrating criticism of Nietzsche’s presentation of the
artist-lawgivers is made only by Staten, who argues that in Nietzsche’s own tell-
ing, all of humanity, at least to the extent that it lives in society and so suffers
repression of instinct, is animated by ressentiment, not merely the weak and
vengeful slaves (cf. GM I: 10 ff). At stake is not only the logical consistency of
Nietzsche’s discussion in these passages but the guiding theme of this essay, the
character and status of society in Nietzsche’s thought. If ressentiment necessarily
attends or flows from repression of instinct, then what Nietzsche describes in
the Second Essay as the bad conscience is, in its essence, another manifestation
of ressentiment. In other words, Staten’s point is not simply that all socialized
human beings experience occasional ressentiment, as Nietzsche admits that even
the nobles do, but that all civilized morality is largely induced and governed by
ressentiment, in the same way that Nietzsche says slave morality is (GM I: 10).12
This would mean that ressentiment is one of the fundamental constituents of the
mental and affective life of every human being living in society, and thus that
freedom from ressentiment would require freedom from society and the morality
on which it relies.
This argument is very attractive; it is certainly tempting to read the Genealogy
of Morals as a whole as a sustained investigation of ressentiment, one which identi-
fies ressentiment at ever deeper levels of human consciousness and morality. The
book would then move from the relatively superficial case of ressentiment directed
at one’s political superiors and producing a particular form of morality, to the
more profound case of ressentiment directed toward oneself and one’s animal
instincts and permeating all of civilized life and morality, and finally show how
ressentiment has been directed against the very conditions of existence itself, and
has suffused and defined ascetic religion and even the scientific will to truth.
This reading is obviously intellectually satisfying, and helps to tie the three
essays together. But Nietzsche explicitly and emphatically insists that this is not
his argument, that the bad conscience represents an active force, indeed the
same active force at work in the founders of states, not the reactive force of

One should take care against thinking poorly of this whole phenomenon
merely because it is ugly and painful from the beginning. Fundamentally it is
after all the same active force (aktive Kraft) that is at work on a grander scale
in those artists of violence and organizers and that builds states, which here,
136 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

internally, on a smaller and pettier scale, directed backwards, in the “laby-

rinth of the breast,” to speak with Goethe, creates for itself the bad conscience
and builds negative ideals—it is precisely that instinct for freedom (in my lan-
guage: the will to power): only the material on which the form-giving and
violating nature (Natur)13 of this force vents itself is here precisely the human
being himself, his whole animal ancient self—and not, as in that greater and
more obvious phenomenon, the other human being, other human beings.
(GM II: 18)

Nietzsche goes on to lavish the bad conscience with some of the highest praise
found anywhere in the Genealogy of Morals:

[T]his entire active ‘bad conscience’ has ultimately—one could guess it

already—as the actual womb of ideal and imaginative events also brought to
light an abundance of strange new beauty and affirmation and perhaps even
for the first time beauty itself (die Schönheit).

Thus Nietzsche makes it clear that, no matter how appealing the reading
sketched above may be, this is not his position; the bad conscience is not an
instance or effect of ressentiment, and the Second Essay is not a further explora-
tion of ressentiment. The bad conscience, or at least the phenomenon Nietzsche
describes with that name in GM II: 16–18, is the expression or result of an
active, creative, form-giving force.
One may well object, however (as Staten does), that of course Nietzsche
remembers to use the proper terminology, but the point is that Nietzsche’s
claim that the process depicted here is free of ressentiment simply makes no
sense; how can the repression of instinct, specifically of the instinctual urge for
power, poison with ressentiment in one case but not in the other? What are the
differences between the two situations that make the distinction meaningful or
convincing? In the first place Nietzsche argues that the transition from the pre-
political to the political state was “a break, a leap, a compulsion, an ineluctable
disaster, against which there is no struggle and not even any ressentiment ” (GM
II: 17). The law, the “fearful tyranny” of the “crushing and remorseless machin-
ery” of the earliest state, is something too enormous, too total, and specifically
too brutal and terrifying for one to feel ressentiment toward it. The situation was
therefore not that the desire for revenge was thwarted and needed to be sup-
pressed and then satisfied covertly or mendaciously, but rather that there
simply was no desire for revenge, only a kind of stupefied terror and acceptance
of the dictates of the law and rulers.14
It is worth pausing here to note that in his explanation of why the imposition
of a political form does not provoke ressentiment, Nietzsche emphasizes the hor-
rific violence of the first state and the abject fear that violence aroused, rather
than the finality or the lack of intention inherent in the catastrophe he describes.
How Deep Are the Roots of Nihilism? 137

The founding of political society is a disaster or a piece of fate, as is “time and

its ‘it was,’” but the latter is still able to inspire ressentiment or, as Zarathustra calls
it, “the spirit of revenge” (Z II: 20). Social constraint and repression do not trig-
ger ressentiment, according to Nietzsche, not because human beings are too
rational to resent such a gargantuan, overwhelming, impersonal, and irresist-
ible process, but rather purely because of the logic of the affects, purely because
ressentiment cannot coexist with or spring from such intense and absolute fear.
Likewise, Zarathustra teaches not resignation or reconciliation to the inexora-
ble necessity of time’s passage, but rather redemption through creative willing
and affirmation.
Yet there is another, probably deeper and more important reason why the
bad conscience is not colored or driven by ressentiment in Nietzsche’s view. Very
simply, ressentiment is defined by three features, a feeling of impotence, a conse-
quent desire for revenge, and the satisfaction of that desire through fantasies of
revenge and a self-deceiving moralism. None of these things marks or informs
the bad conscience. Considered purely in its own terms and not with reference
to its origins, the bad conscience is an experience of power, not weakness,
and thus embodies not a need for vengeance but a successful attempt to gratify
the animal instincts of aggression that have been repressed. Since these instincts
do indeed find something to work over and mold, namely “the human being
himself, his whole animal ancient self,” the individual is saved from a stymied
and hence rancorous lust for dominance and revenge. Finally, this experience
of power means that the instincts constituting the bad conscience, unlike res-
sentiment, need not content themselves with a purely imaginary revenge, which
is to say with a purely imaginary feeling of power. Most fundamentally, then,
the bad conscience is not ressentiment because it is an actual form of mastery
and power, while ressentiment is not, and is indeed born of an experience of
Thus what is most significant about the slave revolt in morals, or the rise of a
morality of ressentiment, is not that the slaves’ will to power needed to find a
secret way to satisfy itself; this necessity is at the root of both the bad conscience
and slave morality. The crucial point is rather that the will to power of the
slaves was poisoned by ressentiment, which includes both the desire for vengeance
and the awareness that one is too weak to achieve it. This also then means that
the cardinal failing of the slaves (as opposed to the priests) is not simply their
lack of political power and so of an external outlet for their aggression, but
their weakness with regard to themselves, their inability to turn those instincts
inward, and refashion or reshape themselves. Their inversion of noble moral-
ity, as Nietzsche emphasizes especially, amounts to nothing more than self-
congratulatory prudence masquerading as virtue (GM I: 13), not to a new
moral code or spiritual dispensation that would serve the goal of furthering
humanity. Hence the bad conscience makes humanity pregnant with a future,
while slave morality simply makes it sick and false.
138 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

Another look at the actual mechanics of the bad conscience and its develop-
ment will help elucidate this point. For the sake of clarity, it is important to
begin by noting that Nietzsche specifically identifies “the same active force . . .
namely, the instinct for freedom (in my language: the will to power)” as the power
driving and shaping the bad conscience; he is, in other words, not simply
describing violent impulses, whether purely mindless or possessing a degree of
calculation or control. The instinct for freedom or the will to power manifests
itself in all the violent instincts that must be suppressed in society, but it is not
exhausted by or identical with them. This is significant because the instinct for
freedom is able to create a bad conscience and negative ideals, while it is not
clear that simple violent impulses could do anything of the sort. If one simply
had violent impulses, one could at best suppress them for prudential reasons,
like a kind of Pavlovian response. But there is something else present in or
informing those impulses that turns them to self-creation and self-refashioning,
or that makes one’s self-torture creative rather than aimlessly sadistic. This is
also significant because it means that blocking the immediate and outward dis-
charge of one’s violent urges does not necessarily mean repressing or suffocat-
ing the more fundamental instinct for freedom. Because one’s violent impulses
are in fact tied to or animated by the instinct for freedom, when those impulses
are checked that instinct is not thwarted or denied expression; it simply redi-
rects the violent drives inward and begins reworking the “ancient animal self”
from which it emanates. In fine, then, the active force Nietzsche is describing is
form giving and artistic, not merely violent (in fact, it seems opposed to the
simple destructive violence of prepolitical humanity, since it works to curb it),
and the repression of one’s purely violent, aggressive impulses does not poison
them with ressentiment, for it prevents their outward discharge but not their
ability to form and create.
But if, as Nietzsche claims (GM II: 18), this fundamental urge for freedom or
power “creates a bad conscience for itself and builds negative ideals,” how can
this still be considered a product of an active, affirmative impulse? How can
negative ideals not be inherently reactive or evidence of ressentiment? The key
point is that the creation of negative ideals serves the purpose of creation and
growth, and proceeds from an active impulsion toward this expansion and
reworking of oneself, not from a resentful reaction to inhibition. The negative
ideals constructed by the bad conscience, in other words, are not primary but
secondary and instrumental to the creative powers actuating this first stage
of human moral development. Thus, to repeat, legal and social constraint
have forced the will to power to change its direction and objects, but the force
shaping and driving the bad conscience does not spring from a vengeful reac-
tion to this constraint. The ressentiment of the slaves, by contrast, the force or
energy behind their creation of values and ideals, derives from a negative,
resentful reaction to another, and in particular to one more powerful than
oneself. The whole of slave morality is therefore an attempt to gain some kind
How Deep Are the Roots of Nihilism? 139

of compensation or solace for one’s impotence and inferiority by negating the

cause of one’s subordination, chiefly through self-serving lies about one’s moral
superiority and fantasies of violent otherworldly revenge; it is an attempt to
convince oneself that one does not really want to satisfy one’s most basic need
or desire, rather than, as in the case of the bad conscience, the actual satisfac-
tion of that need and desire, in however involuted and painful a form.15
For these two reasons, then, the bad conscience is not simply another, deeper
experience or product of ressentiment. In the first place, the cause of the bad
conscience, the external compulsion forcing one to turn one’s instincts inward,
is too savage and too terrifying to permit of any kind of reaction even approach-
ing ressentiment. Secondly and probably more importantly, once those instincts
turn inward, they find something on which to vent themselves, and are thus
able to experience themselves as powerful, as discharging themselves on some-
thing and refashioning it into something new. This experience of power pre-
vents the impotent rage and venom that create ressentiment. Hence even after
the initial terror of the founding of political life there is no necessary reason
why the bad conscience, or the internalization of the instincts of aggression that
Nietzsche describes with that name, must generate or fuse with ressentiment.
This discussion, however, has all taken place at a rather abstract level.
Nietzsche’s broader point that the “bad conscience” expresses the very instincts
it seems to negate is bold and powerful; but what would it actually mean, in
concrete terms, for the instincts of aggression and violence to turn against
themselves or against their possessor?16 The sketch below is necessarily spe-
culative, since Nietzsche does not provide a detailed explanation on this point,
but it is, I think, a faithful extension of Nietzsche’s thought on this point as it
is presented in the Genealogy of Morals.
Imagine that I am one of those human beings who have just been violently
enclosed in the enforced peace of a new political society (or rather, that several
years or perhaps an entire generation or two has passed since that first, terrible
episode). I am walking down the street when suddenly I see some toothless,
stoop-shouldered, sunken-chested old geezer, easily twenty-five years old if he’s
a day, gumming a glob of rancid meat in imbecile contentment. I have the
strong urge to rush up to him, smash his head against the ground, and eat his
food myself (or perhaps simply to kill him). But I have some vague but powerful
inkling that this will not end well for me. So I restrain myself, but it is not pos-
sible simply to dissolve or expunge the furious, primordial rush of this instinc-
tual demand for violent attack. It can only turn back on itself; I can only restrain
myself by turning my aggression back on itself, somehow splitting off some
sense of that instinct or affect of aggression and turning it back against its origi-
nal manifestation. It seems to me that this would happen immediately, that only
by turning this instinct against itself could I control it at all; in other words, only
by an act of psychic violence which would satisfy this instinct even as it checked
it, or which would split the instinct in two, so to speak, and satisfy one part by
140 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

checking the other, could I gain any control over that first, particular instance
of the aggressive instinct (my desire to kill the geezer and take his food). Note
that fear plays a crucial role here: it is only an intense fear born of witnessing
the horrifying punishments of the earliest society that can restrain my innate
ferocity (GM II: 3), and it is this fear that must be regarded as the psychological
agent or force splitting the instinct of aggression in two, even using one part of
it for its own purposes. The earliest mental and moral self, in other words, is
constituted largely by fear.
At this point there is already some division created within myself, and it seems
to me likely that, in Nietzsche’s view, the experience of the violent repression of
instinct, the extremely crude and half-conscious affect that has been separated
off from the original instinct of aggression, constitutes a new mind or sense of
self, and thus instantly becomes a new locus of power, meaning, and value, the
one that will become augmented or hypertrophied in and by the development
of the bad conscience; in this way, it quickly assumes sovereignty and becomes
at least a competitor with fear, if not a more powerful force in the individual’s
psyche. After this initial operation has been successfully performed a few times,
and I start to check my aggression more successfully, it begins to ache and
long for expression, for satisfaction, for a sense of play, mastery, venting, self-
enjoyment. The momentary and largely prudentially motivated discharge of
the drive against itself is insufficient. Thus it turns on itself in a much deeper
and more serious way; it begins to attack itself morally and psychologically,
and indeed to attack all of my basic animal instincts (though this may be more
likely to happen over several generations or even centuries rather than in a
single lifetime). It does so through this new sense of self, the conscience, that
has been created by repression. Thus the “bad conscience,” the feeling of guilt
at all of my desires and instincts as such, begins to form and grow, and this
new part of myself swells in power without recognizing itself for what it is, an
expression of the very instinct of aggression that it is supposedly trying to
control or extinguish.
Concomitant with this process of moral formation is the development of
human consciousness; while originally the conscious mind had no awareness of
the instincts, which simply asserted and discharged themselves without any
need for reflection or even basic conscious awareness, with the emergence of
the bad conscience the conscious mind begins to expand as it is forced to
become cognizant of and to exercise conscious control over a few very basic
and coarse but very powerful and frequently recurring instincts. Thus one
begins to arrive at a conscious awareness of one’s violent or aggressive instincts,
and also of the need to control them; this awareness necessitates or is perhaps
identical with a conscious effort to block or suppress these instincts, an effort
which sets in motion an attendant or auxiliary thought process, one which obvi-
ously includes a kind of moral self-examination and self-criticism. In time this
How Deep Are the Roots of Nihilism? 141

new mind or self, separated and alienated from the basic set of biological
instincts at work in an individual,17 develops the capacity not only for moral
judgment and inhibition but also for introspection and self-knowledge. From
here one not only starts to make value judgments about the different instincts
or drives; one also begins to develop the ability to think, reckon, infer, in short
to think about and plan for the future—and finally to reason, to think in a more
general or “theoretical” way, since even philosophic thinking is merely the
relation of one drive to another (BGE 36; cf. 6). Thus the first step not only
toward any moral life for human beings but also toward any intellectual life is
the inhibition of instinct, which forces one to become conscious of the instinct
or drive and then to judge it—initially on purely prudential grounds (to avoid
punishment), but soon enough in a manner charged with moral intensity and
self-inflicted cruelty—and to think in an intellectual sense, however crude that
sense may have been originally (am I more hungry or thirsty? which is stronger,
my desire to kill this person or my fear of being tortured to death as a result?—
though even such questions as these would have first been asked and answered
with only a simple preverbal or prelinguistic relation and comparison, i.e.,
struggle and rank-ordering, of the drives).
We can see, then, what an important, indeed what an essential and constitu-
tive part the bad conscience plays in the development of humanity. Since the
instincts being repressed and redirected are primarily desires for attack, change,
and destruction, it is not surprising that the condition or process Nietzsche
names “the bad conscience” is ever changing, ever driving forward, ever
needing to “reshape,” that is, to obliterate, so much of what presently exists,
and particularly so much of its own present form—it is, in short, tremendously
pregnant and fruitful. In Nietzsche’s account, however, the primal urge for
destruction and change which drives the bad conscience does not appear to
be what is natural; it is rather giving this primal urge a particular form, and
so necessarily constraining and even mutilating it, that is natural, both in the
case of individuals and of founders of states (see again not only Nietzsche’s
identification of the founders of states as natural but especially his discussion
in BGE 188). We now stand at a time when this self-overcoming energy seems
in danger of withering away, but that is the result of particular value judg-
ments that have composed Western philosophy and spirituality, not of an
intrinsic tendency of civilized morality to sap human fecundity and vitality.
Thus Nietzsche avers that the bad conscience requires divine spectators for
the drama it enacts (GM II: 16); this statement echoes Nietzsche’s comments
about religious belief at GM II: 7 in attributing the origin of gods, or of a certain
type of human belief in the divine, not to moralistic spite or defeat but to a
need for witnesses to human suffering. In this case, the spectacle is the constant
struggle of humanity to overcome itself, a struggle essentially unbound by any
final set of moral restraints and so capable of endless variation and fascination
142 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

for its spectators.18 In Nietzsche’s words, the spectacle of an animal soul turned
against itself

was something so new, deep, unheard of, enigmatic, contradictory and full of
future (Zukunftsvolles) that the aspect of the earth was essentially altered. In
fact, divine witnesses were needed to appreciate the spectacle . . . [The human
being now] gives rise to an interest, a tension, a hope, almost a certainty, as
if with him something is announcing itself, something preparing, as if the
human being is no end (Ziel), but only a path, an episode, a bridge, a great
promise . . . (GM II: 7)
Chapter 8

Nietzsche and the Impossibility of Nihilism

James I. Porter

Ich verachte das Leben am besten: und ich liebe das Leben am
meisten: darin ist kein Widersinn—Widerspruch.
I despise life best of all, and I love life most of all: there is no
absurdity in this—[no] contradiction.
Heart-sore anguish
—Nietzsche (1883)

If you love life you cannot be a nihilist about life. That is the premise of this
essay, which will suggest that Nietzsche belongs to a long antinihilist tradition
that ran from classical antiquity to, say, Eugen Dühring’s The Value of Life (1865),
and that Nietzsche’s views in favor of life preclude nihilism. Nietzsche knows
about the love of life.1 His writings from all points in his career frequently
mention “die Liebe zum Leben” (“the love of life”) or “das Leben lieben” (“loving
life”), and he assigns these acts an unqualified value (once the proper qualifi-
cations have been made). Thus, for example, a note from 1882: “The love of
life (die Liebe zum Leben) is almost the opposite of the love of long life. All love
is concerned with the moment and with the eternal—but never with ‘length’”
(KSA 10: 88, 3[1], §293).
A question that quickly arises in Nietzsche has to do with the organ with
which the act of love occurs. Is love in the mind or heart or soul—or in the will?
Any of these terms will do, though (again with the appropriate qualifications
being made). I want to focus on willing in Nietzsche’s sense of the term, for this
is the deepest thread in his later thought about action, and so too, as we shall
see, about the acts of love that constitute life. As it happens, there are a few
related expressions for “love of life” in Nietzsche which take us into the thick
of his peculiar scenarios of willing, and these are seemingly equivalent: the will
to life (der Wille zum Leben), the will to power (der Wille zur Macht), affirmation
(Ja-Sagen), and affirmation of life (das Jasagen zum Leben). The phrase “will to
life,” which is often but not always found in inverted commas, is on loan, in
modified form, from Schopenhauer. The very fact of its borrowing makes the
144 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

meaning of the phrase difficult to catch. “Will” (itself borrowed) is notoriously

hard to pin down in Nietzsche. It is less a faculty than a state that has to do with
dispositional attitudes that can be conscious or unconscious, or even organic
and suborganic. It may not even pay to try to locate the source or mechanism
of willing, because much of the time Nietzsche appears to be exploring the
problem of willing as an inherited concept or intuition, rather than enunciat-
ing a dogma about it. Still, within the frames of these frames, willing and affirm-
ing have a definite contour, which runs as follows: to will is to affirm, and to will
and affirm is to will and affirm life. These acts are unconditional, as uncondi-
tional as love—which, incidentally, brings us a bit farther along the way to a
definition of love of life, namely it is an unconditional affirmation of life. In a
moment we will meet the corollary: unconditional affirmation just is an uncon-
ditional affirmation of life. Finally, we shall see how such affirmation is for
Nietzsche the most basic activity of life in all its forms: it is what we do all the
time, at every moment of our lives. We are lovers of life, and incurably so.

The Affirmation of Life and the Will to Power

First, let us look at Nietzsche’s concept of affirmation, an idea that runs through
all the layers of his various conceptions of the way the world works (at least in
the last decade of his writings). At the top of the evaluative chain, so to speak,
are the characterizations of action in the stereotyped forms of affirmation or
negation, whereby action is what it is that a human agent does. Some actions
are life-affirming, others are life-negating. From this dilemma stem the familiar
dichotomies: laudable, noble, and active agents as opposed to loathsome,
resentful, and reactive ones. The distinction is one that cannot be maintained
with any consistency, however, if it is the case that all actions are life-affirming.
And, not infrequently (and arguably, all the time), Nietzsche’s writings betray
themselves along these precise lines. At the bottom of the chain are the molecu-
lar accounts of will to power, where actions at the higher level are laid out in
all their logical bareness. So, for instance, in the Genealogy of Morals we read,
“A quantum of force is equivalent to a quantum of drive, will, effect,” that is
subordinated to a single means, “namely as a means of creating greater units of
power” (GM I: 13; II: 11). Here, Nietzsche is postulating centers of agency,
willing-forces (much like atoms of will—the expression is in fact his: Atomkräfte—
radiating fields of force). One way of understanding this process is to follow
Gilles Deleuze and to say that all “a will wants is to affirm its difference.”2 This
can’t be right, and it surely can’t be all there is to the problem. A quantum of
will, on Nietzsche’s own description, surely wants to magnify its difference even
if all it ever succeeds in doing is affirming its difference from all other quanta,
whether its difference happens to be imaginary or real. Where this activity of
evaluation takes place is indeterminate, and perhaps irrelevant. Nietzsche is
Nietzsche and the Impossibility of Nihilism 145

training his focus on primitive acts of willing, which might obtain anywhere
at any time. The isolation is purely analytical. Be that as it may, there is more to
be said about the analysis.
We need to rethink the continuum of the world posited on Nietzsche’s
scenario. For not only is the world of forces scarcely fixed; instead, it is con-
stantly in flux, or rather moving in a flux of ever-changing relations (which is
to say, interpretations). The flux consists in the fact that quantities are ever
being recast in new form as new qualities by the constituent atoms of will, which
are themselves the very quantities and qualities in question. The conversion of
quantity into quality is in fact the activity most proper to the will to power, its
most basic perceptual judgment. “The desire for an increase in quantum grows
from a quale,” by which is meant the perception that answers to the question:
What is the quality in front of me, and what is my own? (WP 564). In this way,
identities are “fixed,” if only en route to ever larger, more powerful identities,
against the background of a postulated “whole”; differences in quantity and
quality are established, displayed, and altered in the very process of their estab-
lishment. But, again, these features and changes are mere perceptions, and
perceptions, being partial by definition, never agree with one another or even
internally to themselves within a stable framework of identity-relations. Thus, a
quantity of force will be internally incongruent just by possessing the quality of
being a quantity, which is to say, just by representing to itself a qualitative differ-
ence from all quantities, including its own. As Nietzsche writes, “Quantitative
differences . . . are qualities which can no longer be reduced to one another”
(WP 565). To be a quantity is to be a difference, a “difference of quantity”; it is
to have a valuated “rank,” and to stand in relation to other values (quanta) and
to the “whole”; it is to display the “quality” of a differential force (WP 563–5).
It cannot be the case that all “a will wants is to affirm its difference,” if that
means excluding the power from being “the object of a recognition, the con-
tent of a representation, the stake in a competition,” characteristics that are
proper to a “reactive” (slave) condition. After all, even the reactive will is an
expression of the will to power. But how can it be this, that is, essentially reactive
and not active, if what all willing wants is simply “to affirm its difference?”3 That
is the problem with all monistic hypotheses, which cannot account for devia-
tions (or derogations) from the essential nature of will without running into
the incoherent result that essence is asked to do double-duty, first to designate
“will” in general, and then to designate a species of will (“active,” noble will). If
Nietzsche seems to commend the duplication himself,4 elsewhere he calls this
logic into question: it is a “double error,” a fallacy of double counting (GM I: 13;
WP 531). Here we have an instance of what is a regular trait of Nietzsche’s writ-
ing: an invitation to fallacy. Suffice it to say that all forms of the will are active
and reactive by nature (“reality consists precisely in this particular action and
reaction of every individual part toward the whole,” WP 567), while the very
idea of a nonreactive will, of a will that is purely or even primarily active and
146 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

positively affirmative, is in fact itself a later simplification (by a willing-center

itself) of an originally more-complex scenario. Without entering into all the
gory details, it is enough to say that force is constructed as a phantasm of the
subject—the subject that any center of force in fact represents (see Porter
2006). And so too, the consistency of the world perceived by a center of force
(its view of the “whole,” epitomized in the dictum that “everything conditions
everything else”) attests to nothing but the consistency of a phantasm. A premise of
this picture is the supposition “that the world has a certain quantum of force
at its disposal” (WP 638), in other words, a sum of forces. But that premise is
false. Whatever else it may be, the will to power is a deeply anthropomorphic
hypothesis, and a projection of the constitutive limits of the subject.
The primitive mechanics of willing are analogous to the more-refined
and complex pictures at the macro level, although the connection is hardly
straightforward. It is left open, for instance, to imagine that there is no direct
correlation between micro acts of willing and larger-scale actions, but only
an overdetermined relation. The actions of an affirmative agent (or is it the
affirmative actions of an indeterminate agent?) are not obviously the sum of
her molecular acts of will, the infinitesimal acts of willing that comprise her
behavior. The doings of the “active,” as opposed to “reactive,” agent conceivably
consist of a mixture of active and reactive willing, leaving us with the horrifying
but inescapable conclusion that active agents are no strangers to reactive agency: they
comprise both kinds of agent within them, possibly surmounting the “weaker”
form of the two, but in no way can they disown them. Active agents necessarily
contain myriads of reactive agents (or centers of agency, or willing-centers)
within themselves. (“Whatever lives, obeys,” Z I: 12.) The results are either forms
of subordinated agency or (as is more often the case in Nietzsche) compromise
formations, treaties, and negotiated pacts “struck” amongst the various compet-
ing agencies within the mind and body, like so many political statesmen:

My idea is that every specific body strives to become master over all space and
to extend its force (—its will to power:) and to thrust back all that resists its
extension. But it continually encounters similar efforts on the part of other
bodies and ends by coming to an arrangement (“union”) with those of them that
are sufficiently related to it: thus they then conspire together for power. And the
process goes on—. (WP 636; emphases added)

The statecraft of agency is no cleaner than that of international politics. Appear-

ances are all that matter in the end.

The Value of Reality

We are now in a position to go back to the original problem of the love of life,
for it is intimately connected with the concept of affirmation. Nietzsche’s view
Nietzsche and the Impossibility of Nihilism 147

of affirmation (Bejahung) is immediately Kantian in origin, but ultimately it is

rooted in a tradition of rational scholastic thinking (Schulphilosophie) that goes
back to Leibniz and Wolff in the eighteenth century, with antecedents in the
logical analysis of ontology that reach as far back as Aristotle. (Here I am relying
on the magnificent analysis by Anneliese Maier, Kants Qualitätskategorien from
1930.5) To make a long story short, Kant takes over the concepts of affirmation
and negation, most recently deployed to designate judgments of existence
(being and not being, namely that a thing is or is not), but he gives these a
critical twist: henceforth, the judgments express not the modalities of actual
existence (of actual existing things) but the category of existence: they are
used to parse out what Maier suggestively calls “Wirklichkeitsgeltung,” or “valua-
tion [or ‘recognition’] of reality”—effectively, the value or degree of reality
assigned to an entity; and most of all, they signal the conceptual category
of existence itself. For Kant, this comes to mean “the qualitative-categorial
synthesis of entities.”6 The roots of this sense of quality lie in the scholastic
tradition of realitas: “reality” in this sense is what remains of an entity even when
you take away its objective existence (realitas . . . distinguitar [by Duns Scotus]
a re; quod res sit id quod per se potest existere . . . et non sit pars rei: realitas autem sit
aliquid minus re, in Stephanus Chauvin’s words). For Kant, reality is something
like the condition of the possibility of a thing, its essential quality, while the
quantity of existence (or reality) is never changing (nec augescendo, nec decre-
scendo); it is stably given.7 Obviously, reality in this sense is not easily destroyed;
in effect, it is what there is about things that cannot ever be taken away from
them, because it defines what they always were (one might compare the to ti ên
einai of Aristotelian primary substance, the “that which it was [or ‘was shown’]
to be”). So stated, the contrary of reality is not negation, but ideality.
The, as it were, indestructibility of things (on this conception of them) is the
key to the problem of affirmation. To affirm reality says nothing about objective
existence but only speaks to possible existence. Likewise, because judgments
as to existence and reality (or quality of existence) sit side by side in this tradi-
tion, to cast a negating judgment on a thing is nonetheless to affirm its existence.
The paradox here is that even negations involve affirmations of possibility: to
negate the reality of a thing is to negate the reality of a possible thing, but not
the thing itself; it is to negate the possibility of its existence but not to negate its
reality or its existence per se.8 The ultimate source of this tradition in modern
philosophy is Spinoza.
Negation, as a relativization of reality, can no longer be opposed to reality.
There being no independence for negation, negation can only coexist with
reality in a spectrum that runs along a gamut of quantitative differences. In
Kant, the spectrum “causes every reality to be represented as a quantity,” by
which are to be understood “unity,” “plurality,” and “totality” (CPR B183; A80),
while negation is merely a modification within this range of possibilities, no
longer a possibility per se. The upshot of all of this is that for Kant there is
effectively only one form of quality, a single category, that pertains all the time,
148 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

and that is the category of reality (Maier 1968, p. 130). It is the category of
intensity; and qualities are various intensities of magnitude within the given,
within the category of quantity (Maier 1968, p. 131). The proof is in the pud-
ding of sensation itself, which carries out, in its everyday operations, a categori-
cal synthesis (see Maier 1968, p. 132). The product is what Kant calls “the real
of appearance,” which can never be reduced to nil.9 Nietzsche would agree,
while drawing a further, ethical moral: sensation is for Nietzsche tied ineluc-
tably to the vitality of experience and to the experience of life in all its vivacity.
To experience a sensation is, quite simply, to affirm life.

Nietzschean Affirmation

Nietzsche’s conception of affirmation (Bejahung) is a direct descendent of the

scholastic tradition that Kant’s critique renews and renovates. But Nietzsche has
also read Schopenhauer, whose view of the world as a kind of animate soul, a
Weltseele, driven by a will to life, made a deep impression on Nietzsche:

Above, the characteristic of this subjective entity, or the will, was described:
the rapturous, powerful inclination of all animals and men to maintain life
and to perpetuate it as long as possible. In order to recognize in this some-
thing originary and unconditioned, we have to make clear to ourselves that
this same thing is in no way the result of any objective knowledge of the value
of life, but rather that it is independent of all knowledge; or, in other words,
that those beings represent themselves not as being pulled forward but as
driven from behind. (W 2.1, p. 41210)

Creatures are driven as from behind because they are blindly groping, strug-
gling, and forever pained by existence, much as they would prefer the quiet
stasis of death. Like moles burrowing tunnels in the ground, they toil and suf-
fer, nolens volens, and their efforts are never compensated by their rewards. So
viewed, the will to life might appear to be either a “fool” (seen objectively as a
kind of subject) or a “delusion” (seen subjectively as a state of mind) that “grips
all living things as they exert themselves to the limits of their powers and work
towards something that has no value” (W 2.1, p. 418). “Only,” Schopenhauer
reflects, drawing back from the blank pessimism of this image, “on closer
inspection we will find even here that the will to life is on the contrary a blind
force (Drang), a completely groundless, unmotivated drive” (ibid.). The gram-
mar of value is out of place. There can be no question of the value of life,
because life hasn’t, as it were, the time to think about such questions: life just is
restless, ceaseless activity, forever too late for enjoyment of any kind; it is an
ongoing struggle with pain that admits of no inner or outer view. The will to life
is invisible per se (whence its metaphysical status as “the limit [Gränzstein] of
Nietzsche and the Impossibility of Nihilism 149

every reflection that no reflection can get beyond,” let alone behold and
name); or else it is visible only in its works, in what it effectuates. “It attaches
the individual firmly to this Schauplatz,” the theater we call existence (ibid.,
p. 419)—and then blinds the individual to the spectacle.
The blind assent to existence is what Schopenhauer calls die Bejahung des
Willens zum Leben, “the affirmation of the will to life” (W 2.1, p. 408). Virtually
synonymous with willing itself (ibid.), affirmation of life is what willing is. About
its opposite, the negation (Verneinung) of the will, Schopenhauer has consi-
derably less to say: attempts to negate the will, to mortify it, to bring it to quies-
cence, in a word, the wish to die, are but one more instance of the struggle, of
willing, of affirmation of the will, of life, and of the world (ibid., p. 493). The
contradiction between these two tendencies, both equally rooted in life and in
the will, just is what the pain and suffering of life are. Beyond this there are no
alternatives, apart from nothingness itself. But that is a prospect no individual
can choose to have, never mind tolerate long enough to behold (ibid., p. 508).
From Schopenhauer, Nietzsche takes the (plainly, metaphysical) image of
action in its most primitive, conceivable form as constituted by basic acts of
will: what results is a kind of distributed willing specified over the gamut
of individuals in the world, each enacting its own version of willing and affirm-
ing, all collectively adding up to the self-affirmation of the one will (cf. W 1.2,
p. 417). From Kant, Nietzsche takes the images of willing and affirmation as pri-
mitive prepositional acts of judgment (the positing of qualities). His picture of
the will to power thus vacillates, unstably, between Schopenhauerian monism,
with its brooding psychology of dark urges spread out over the whole world of
phenomena, and Kantian subjectivism, with its defiantly critical, ex hypothesi
stance and its cool distance toward the projective mechanisms of individual
subjects. Despite the evident strains in this inheritance, there is a strong area of
overlap: for, from both predecessors he takes over the notion that willing is an
irrefragable constituent in human life. And to both positions he adds the view
that to will life is to express a love of life. Both Schopenhauer and Kant would
differently denounce this last move as the imposture of a delusion. Nietzsche
in his vitalism and in his fundamentally affirmative attitude to life would be
indifferent to this one form of delusion, exceptionally so, since elsewhere he is
keen not only to lay bare but also to savage illusions of all kinds.

For it is only in love, only when shaded by the illusion produced by love, that
is to say in the unconditional faith in right and perfection, that man is
creative. Anything that constrains a man to love less than unconditionally has
severed the roots of his strength: he will wither away. (UM II: 7; emphasis)

Nietzsche affirms, as it were, affirmation in its root sense, in the most basic
gesture that says yes to life, that is, the unconditional loving act that embraces
life in as unmediated a way as can be imagined. But Nietzsche’s affirmation of
150 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

affirmation is not unlimited, as it might generally be felt to be, and as it cannot

be if we wish to make sense of his divided sympathies, which are legion. Thus,
he can say, with perfect consistency, “I despise life best of all, and I love life most
of all: there is no absurdity in this—[no] contradiction” (KSA 10: 569, 18[13]).
There is no contradiction, because Nietzsche by no means affirms all the forms
of life, and he possibly affirms no form of life unconditionally; all that he affirms
is the most basic affirmation of life. He can get away with this stance because
he senses, possibly rightly, that no forms of life are purely life affirming.
Affirmation in its purest form is unsustainable; it can never remain a pure act.
Nietzsche felt keenly the impossibility of this stance, which is why in the next
breath of the note just quoted he qualifies himself: the problem is not one of
contradiction, but of heart-sore anguish (Herzensqual).
Nietzsche effectively wants to love life unconditionally, but knows he cannot
do so because he recognizes that life itself is never loved or lived simply or
unconditionally: life is loved and lived out of a complexity of motives, only
one ingredient of which will be a purely affirmative gesture, the instantaneous
affirmation of things. Love is overshadowed by these complexities; and it is
ultimately compromised by them as well. Take the example of love’s immedi-
acy, its intimate relationship to the present-tense pleasures promoted by
Epicureanism. Love, for Epicurus, is the spontaneous and pleasurable attach-
ment to life but not to life’s pleasures. For the attachment to pleasure
diminishes pleasure; it leads to longing (whether nostalgia or anticipation).
The present-tense condition of the love of life is just that: a conditioning factor
that can be felt as a limit. The dilemma for an Epicurean is how to take present-
tense pleasure in a past pleasure, for example, the memory of a departed friend.
A balancing act of affect is required, a management of one’s pleasures. In its
enviable simplicity, however, Epicureanism presents this balance as, practically
speaking, unproblematic: it is an attainable good. Therein lies the whole
promise of the philosophy.
Nietzsche knows better. His response to Epicurus would be, “Prove it. Show
me.” And he also knows that Epicurus can at best point to an emblematic
instance, the immortal gods who live in another world and arguably are living a
kind of deathly existence. And that won’t satisfy Nietzsche. Present-tense plea-
sures are compromised, first of all by their tensed condition, which is to say, by
the condition of time itself. To love life in the present tense is to eliminate this
love in its past tense. But it is also to eliminate the condition of time in all its
tenses, including that of the present. “Do I love the past? I destroyed it so as to
live. Do I love present things? I look away from them so as to be able to live”
(KSA 10: 209, §201). Whence the blistering critique of historical and temporal
consciousness in the second Untimely Meditation, despite the benefits that living
surrounded by history can bring.11 But then, to what does one look when one
lives life, if it is no longer to the past or even the present?
Nietzsche and the Impossibility of Nihilism 151

Nietzsche, we might say, has been bitten by the bug of skepticism. The naïve
illusionism of Epicurus is no longer even an option for him. Out of the crucible
of long looks at life,

one emerges as a different person, with a few more question marks—above

all with the will henceforth to question further, more deeply, severely, harshly,
evilly and quietly than one had questioned heretofore. The trust in life is
gone: life itself has become a problem. Yet one should not jump to the conclu-
sion that this necessarily makes one gloomy. Even love of life is still possible,
only one loves differently. It is the love for a woman that causes doubts in us.
(GS “Preface” 3)

Nietzsche’s attitude to the love of life is, I want to suggest, extremely complex,
as complex as his view of life itself. How does one love a problem? Life is defi-
nitely a problem for Nietzsche, and part of the problem is that one must love
life to the precise extent that one is alive (and not insofar as one wants to be
alive), however problematical life may turn out to be. And so it can happen that,
as he says in another note, “I love life: I despise man. But for the sake of life
I want to destroy him” (KSA 10: 462, 13[13]; 1883). The entirety of Nietzsche’s
writings are, I believe, best viewed as circling around this fundamental trait of
ambivalence. His critiques are acts of profoundest love and of equally pro-
found aversion. They bear reluctant witness to the complexity of life and often
to an unwilling admiration of its least wanted features. They are evidence of
a fascination. Is the fascination with life possibly an expression of a love of life?
Lest this last possibility seem far-fetched, let me give you one example. It is a
peculiar moment, one that I am quite sure has escaped notice because of
the way it is presented. But it is also absolutely paradigmatic, both of the last
quotation from 1882 and of the fundamental ambivalence in Nietzsche that
I have been commenting on throughout. In his Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche
details a problem about cultural progress, a problem that infects his own coun-
tercultural models as well. As culture advances, culture regresses; the higher
that man ascends through a process of self-overcoming, the more disastrously
does he plunge into his own internal abyss. That is the dilemma that haunts the
Genealogy of Morals as a whole, the logic of which is spelled out part way through
the First Essay (GM I: 11–12). There, culture is defined as the achievement
by which “the noble races and their ideals were finally confounded and over-
thrown” by the “instruments of culture,” namely, the reactive forces of ressenti-
ment. But, the instruments of culture, Nietzsche insists, are not its goal, and in
fact to confuse these is to confuse the meaning of culture, which issues (or
ought to issue) in noble activity, with the meaning of history, according to which
man sees himself “as the goal and zenith, as the meaning of history, as ‘higher
man’” (GM I: 11). Nothing could be more absurd than this Whiggish historical
152 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

view, which represents the height not of man, but of his delusion. The account
of this self-delusion, which in fact echoes sentiments expressed by Nietzsche
a decade and a half earlier, is worth attending to closely, and above all the
language in which it is expressed.12 What is most despicable about the reactive
subject, who stands as the end-product of culture today—that which gives
an answer to the question, “What today constitutes our antipathy to ‘man’?”—
is the fact

that we no longer have anything left to fear in man; that the maggot “man” is
swarming in the foreground; that the “tame man,” the hopelessly mediocre
and insipid man, has already learned to feel himself as the goal and zenith,
as the meaning of history, as “higher man”—that he has indeed a certain
right to feel thus, insofar as he feels himself elevated above the surfeit of
ill-constituted, sickly, weary and exhausted people of which Europe is begin-
ning to stink today, as something at least relatively well-constituted, at least
still capable of living, at least affirming life. (GM I: 11; emphasis added)

“Affirming life”?—Here we arrive at a genuine impasse, this time not of

language or narrative but of meaning. It is one thing to ask why this portrait
of false consciousness, drawn so disdainfully by Nietzsche, so clearly resem-
bles the sovereign individual of the Second Essay, that incarnation of self-
affirmation understood as a right.13 The simple fact of their resemblance would
be troubling enough even supposing one could account for the difference
exhaustively in terms of the justification of the feeling that each of the two
subjects has—assuming, that is, that the one subject is properly entitled to the
feeling of superiority she has while the other isn’t. Is the reactive subject
of the present passage an instantiation of the sovereign individual or just a
grotesque approximation?
No less troubling, in the present passage, is its indictment of the affirmation of
life that the reactive subject claims to have and feel.14 Now, it ought to be a given
in Nietzsche and in the readings of Nietzsche that the quality of life-affirmation
is an irrefragable good. Life-affirmation is more than a good: it is irrefragably
good because it is an essential and ineliminable property of life and of living
subjects. Not even the nihilist, that supreme denier of life, is an objection to the
principle of life-affirmation: the denial of life is self-refuting. The logic is as brilliant
as it is compelling: to inflict suffering on one’s self is to preserve the self, actu-
ally to “compel [it] to live”; to take one’s own life is to affirm it in a voluntaristic
act, and therefore tantamount to an affirmation of life; in short, “‘Life against
life’ is, physiologically considered and not merely psychologically, a simple
absurdity” (GM III: 13; cf. III: 18; III: 28). Incidentally, this position, which
anticipates Freud’s, is lifted straight from Schopenhauer, who notes the futility
of suicide, owing to the logic of the will’s inextinguishable self-affirmation
Nietzsche and the Impossibility of Nihilism 153

(W 1.2, pp. 455, 492).15 After all, ressentiment can be “a denial . . . in the form of
an affirmation” (GM II: 22).16
But in the passage before us, the affirmation of life falls under suspicion just
because it is a property of reactive subjects.17 This is singularly odd, as well as
logically strained—and a far cry from Nietzsche’s customary denial of “rights”
to the vitally challenged.18 In the case of a noble spirit, the affirmation of life
that she has as a feeling (and not just performatively and spontaneously has) is
in principle justification enough for the feeling of power corresponding to it.19
In the case of a weakly spirit, that justification is absent even when the feeling
of power (or what amounts to the same thing, the feeling of affirmation) is
present. Why is it that the reactive subject cannot have a valid sense of power
from the affirmation that she actually feels? Why is it that Nietzsche cannot
abide this sense of self when it appears in the paltry worm man? (He confronts
it with Widerwillen, “antipathy”.) Nietzsche’s customary answer would be con-
vincing in any other case—an ascetic spirit, for example, systematically misreads
health as sickness, and his feelings and beliefs are likewise systematically
betrayed by reality. But affirmation, it would seem, has properties of its own
irrespective of the subject who has them, and indeed at times even despite
that subject (most strikingly, in the case of the ascetic who—repulsively, to
Nietzsche—most affirms life when she tries most to deny it). If we accept
Nietzsche’s claim, then affirmation ought to be something about which we can
never, so to speak, go wrong whenever we feel it. How can this fail to apply in the
present case, that of a life-affirming reactive subject who affirms affirmation
and in doing so absurdly mistakes herself for a higher man, while at the same
time earning “a certain right” to this illusion, one who can at least claim (and
be claimed) to have earned a right to—her delusion? The same can be asked
of the ascetic priest, of course, which indicates the depth of the problem, as
does the following statement from a later section, which is no less relevant here:
“This [reactive] type of man needs to believe in a neutral independent ‘subject’,
prompted by an instinct for self-preservation and self-affirmation in which every lie is
sanctified” (GM I: 13; emphasis added). In a word, Nietzsche can be right to
critique the reactive subject only if there is something wrong with the logic of
I believe there is, at least in its glorified form. The instinct to self-affirmation
is, after all, an instinct to subjective delusion, as we saw in our analysis of the
will to power above; and this is doubtless part of the point of the passage from
the Genealogy of Morals (GM I: 11), which is beginning to look quite perversely
constructed. For what is surely odd about the passage is the way in which the
reactive subject here is fundamentally serving as a mouthpiece for Nietzsche’s
own apparent views, while in the same breath Nietzsche reviles her as “ill-
constituted, dwarfed, atrophied, and poisoned.” Rhetorically, the passage is
a disaster; its voicings are thoroughly confused, which makes it so hard to
154 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

read. So closely is Nietzsche identified with the reactive subject’s spleen and
exhilaration, her language and her ideas, that a neat separation of the two
views is effectively blocked. Surely it is this proximity that is the source of
Nietzsche’s repulsion.20 Consider her diagnosis of contemporary culture: unlike
the distorted misreadings of the ascetic, her readings of sickness in her culture
are a reading of sickness in that culture—or rather, they coincide to a tee with
Nietzsche’s own. But the contagion hardly ends here. Next, consider her
response to that diagnosis, her sense of elevation, her pathos of distance, which
aligns her with the nobles of the misty past; it is, in each case, “the protracted
and domineering fundamental total feeling on the part of a higher ruling order
in relation to a lower order, to a ‘below,’” that gives a subject, active or reactive,
its sense of self, power, and distance (GM I: 2). But how valid an index of any-
thing is a feeling (see Porter 1999)? The question suggests its own answer, and
in its light Nietzsche’s defense of the occasional errancy of noble pathos is a
transparent case of special pleading:

On the other hand, one should remember that, even supposing that the
affect of contempt, of looking down from a superior height, falsifies the image
of that which it despises, it will at any rate still be a much less serious falsifi-
cation than that perpetrated on its opponent—in effigie of course—by the
submerged hatred, the vengefulness of the impotent. (GM I: 10)

We are entitled to wonder whether the feeling of affirmation in a subject is ever

anything more than a falsification, the inevitable effect of a perspectival distor-
tion. In despising the deluded reactive subject, how can Nietzsche fail to despise
the very form the delusion takes—a form that reappears identically in the case
of active subjects? The more immediate problem, in any case, is one not of
adjudicating between two ideals, one noble and one debased, but of distinguish-
ing between them.21 The image of a reactive subject mistaking itself for an active
subject is, on Nietzsche’s scenario, truly grotesque. But what is perhaps even
more grotesque is our own incapacity to distinguish clearly between the two kinds
of subjects. But that is not a topic I want to press here.

Facing Nothingness

A similar problem confronts Nietzsche when he comes face to face with the
problem of nihilism. Let us go to the start of the Third Essay, to its inaugural
equivocation: “That the ascetic ideal has meant so many things to man . . . is an
expression of the basic fact of the human will, its horror vacui: it needs a goal—
and it will rather have nothingness than not will” (GM III: 1). Evidently, to posit a
goal is to avoid a lack, a lack of a goal and of meaning; it is to affirm oneself, to
assign oneself a meaning; and it is to attain to sovereignty. But above all, it is to
Nietzsche and the Impossibility of Nihilism 155

perpetuate this lack, the fearful void that lies at the heart of meaning, identity,
and willing:

This is precisely what the ascetic ideal means: that something was lacking,
that man was surrounded by a fearful void—he did not know how to justify,
to account for, to affirm himself; he suffered from the problem of his
meaning . . . —and the ascetic ideal offered man a meaning! In it, suffering
was interpreted; the tremendous void seem to have been filled; the door was
closed to any kind of suicidal nihilism. (GM III: 28)

Even so, “this interpretation . . . brought fresh suffering with it,” which is to say
a further lease of life, and consequently of will, for “[man] could now will
something; . . . the will itself was saved” (GM III: 28). In other words, life would
go on, even if absurdly so, for henceforth even nonmeaning could be recuper-
ated into meaningfulness: it would be “overcome” in the sense of being pre-
served in a transmuted form; it would be sublimated (aufgehoben). Willing is
the highest but also the sole expression of a horror vacui; but what it is most of
all the expression of is the (averted) horror of its own senselessness, of the
intrinsic meaninglessness of all meaning and all willing.
I say averted because there seems to be, in fact, no way of staring meaningless-
ness in the face: the very conception of a void in meaning and the fear this
evokes are themselves the product of a fantastic imagining, and thus already on
the road to idealization. So it is not even the case that willing is an expression
of a void in meaning; it expresses only the fear (and secret fascination) that the
prospect of this void evokes.22 Genealogy traces both these contrary drives
simultaneously, the flight from nothingness and the attraction to it, but without
being able to narrate fully what it traces. And so, as genealogy moves forward as
if approaching a goal, what it describes in its own motion, in the arc of its “plot,”
is not a receding goal but only the senselessness of the goal itself. Here, the
plotline of genealogy reenacts the problem it fundamentally revolves around,
namely, the problem of self-affirmation. Even meaninglessness is converted
into sense for a subject; and the ascetic ideal may be one way of naming the
subjective impossibility of looking meaninglessness in the face, one way of voic-
ing the irreducible human need for meaning and the equally compelling need
for its aversion—hence, the will to truth is simultaneously a concealed will to
contradiction (GM III: 12) and a will to death (GS 344). If the ascetic ideal gives
voice to a contradiction, then the subject is the inability to name that contradic-
tion as such, the impossibility of affirming the contradictions of the sort that
the ascetic ideal, or rather its underlying fascination, brings to light. Unable to
affirm such contradictions, the subject is unable to affirm itself. And this latter
impossibility is what defines the subject as its own antagonism.
Something like this is what Nietzsche has in mind when he speaks of the con-
dition of nihilism, “radical nihilism,” in which his contemporary culture found
156 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

itself. Nihilism is not merely the will to nothingness. It is the conflicted position
of a subject that knows too much and too little; it is the condition of radical
self-contradiction incarnated in praxis, a state in which knowledge and action
all but cancel each other out.

Radical nihilism is the conviction of an absolute untenability of existence when

it comes to the highest values one recognizes; plus the realization that we lack
the least right to posit a beyond or an in-itself of things that might be “divine”
or morality incarnate. (WP 3)

Enlightened self-consciousness is frozen by its own dark knowledge. But,

Nietzsche adds, “this realization is a consequence of the cultivation of ‘truth-
fulness’—thus itself a consequence of the faith in morality.” Hence Nietzsche’s
own contradictory views toward morality, its life-affirming qualities (“it pre-
vented man from despising himself as man, from taking sides against life,” WP
4, §4) offset only by the paradox that morality fosters precisely this self-ravaging.
Morality is an incentive to life . . . and to nihilism.

But among the forces cultivated by morality was truthfulness: this eventually
turned against morality, discovered its teleology, its partial perspective—
and now the recognition of this inveterate mendaciousness that one despairs
of shedding becomes a stimulant. To nihilism. (KSA 12: 211, 5[71],
§2 = WP 5)23

Nietzsche continues:

Now we discover in ourselves needs implanted by centuries of moral inter-

pretation—needs that now appear to us as needs for untruth; on the other
hand, the value for which we endure life seems to hinge on these needs.

This, he writes (KSA 12: p. 212), is our “antagonism,” our deepest and most
unwilling knowledge about ourselves and our existence, as well as that to which
we most unwillingly (and unwittingly) are returned, as it were eternally. The
thought that corresponds most frighteningly to our condition is a thought
in which thinking itself occurs “in its most terrible form”: it is the thought of
“existence as it is, without meaning or aim, yet recurring inevitably without any
finale of nothingness: ‘the eternal recurrence’” (WP 55 = KSA 12: 213, 5[71],
§6). And yet, this idea is not something that can in any way be affirmed or
thought as such. The prospect of the sheer absence of meaning is not too
horrific to bear owing to any lack of meaning, but rather owing to its excess of
meaning. Such an idea will always have too much meaning for a subject. We can
never, in fact, be nihilistic enough to realize the insignificance that nihilism
requires of us.
Nietzsche and the Impossibility of Nihilism 157

There is a certain bleak comfort in this last realization.24 This optimism, itself
tinged with despair, to be sure (and possibly just a delusory image of optimism),
is at any rate not an artifice of desperation, not some last minute decision to
salvage a future for mankind from Nietzsche’s scorching vision of it. It is actu-
ally written into that vision itself: strangers to ourselves, we cannot even have
the intimacy of knowledge that would be needed to correct our own errors; we
cannot even know that. It is a strangely inarticulate hope, a hope that will not
even become legible so long as the hope he superficially commends, the
approach of some messiah-like savior, continues to inspire belief in a Nietzsche
who is all too familiar in the way he is known to us. Only then will Nietzsche
truly have become a stranger to us all. And only so will life become worthy of
affirming without delusion.
Chapter 9

Nietzsche, Contingency, and

the Vacuity of Politics
Robert Guay

Wer sieht nicht bei der durchgängigen Zufälligkeit und Abhängigkeit alles . . . die
Unmöglichkeit, bei diesen stehen zu bleiben?
—Immanuel Kant, Ak. IV: 352

Nietzsche’s self-proclaimed “anti-political” (EH “Wise” 3; cf. TI 8: 4) stance is

often ignored.1 Commentators, that is, often interpret Nietzsche’s texts as
responding to familiar issues within political philosophy, and as furnishing a
novel position therein. This could indeed be the appropriate hermeneutic
response. Dismissing one of Nietzsche’s proclamations is, on a variety of differ-
ent grounds, hermeneutically reasonable. In this particular case, given all
that Nietzsche has to say about sociality and the roles of public institutions in
modern life, dismissal might even seem compelling. Here, however, I wish to
recuperate Nietzsche’s antipolitical stance. That is, I shall argue that Nietzsche’s
self-proclamation does in fact reflect his deep commitments, and thus compels
a reassessment of the political interpretations of his thought.
There have been a number of strategies for assigning a distinctly political
orientation to Nietzsche. Some attribute to Nietzsche an aristocratic or immor-
alist politics.2 They see Nietzsche as endorsing certain substantive values, and
further take Nietzsche as insisting that these values be somehow instituted or
enacted politically; those adopting this strategy typically do so in order to
criticize Nietzsche for advocating such a politics. Another strategy is to identify
commitments of Nietzsche’s that, although they ran aground in Nietzsche’s
person, implicitly furnish the core of an emancipatory or progressive politics.3
These commentators are more sympathetic to Nietzsche than the previous set,
but nevertheless disagree with Nietzsche’s personal views. Accordingly they
need to argue that confusions concealed his important insights; essential to
this strategy is, on the one hand, arguing for the force of some philosophic
position, and on the other hand sifting that position out from Nietzsche’s idio-
syncratic beliefs. Alternately, one could insist that Nietzsche’s antagonism to
politics is in fact an agonal politics, revisionist but recognizable, once properly
Nietzsche, Contingency, and the Vacuity of Politics 159

understood.4 This strategy, that is, on its own account requires only one instance
of brute hermeneutic force: that of reinterpreting “anti-politics” as opposition
to politics in a conventional sense, not to the whole sphere of politics properly
These are valuable projects, most of which are worth consideration in their
particular instantiations. But what I wish to argue here is that what they hold in
common, that Nietzsche had a distinctly political orientation, should be
rejected. I do not claim that Nietzsche’s antipolitical stance is somehow the one
incontestable interpretandum in Nietzsche and thus demands a proper reckon-
ing. Nor do I proceed by identifying all the elements of politics and then
accounting for which ones did or did not find Nietzsche’s disfavor, thereby
providing the data for a reckoning against politics.5 My procedure, instead, is to
clarify the grounds of Nietzsche’s antipolitical stance. I hope to show that anti-
politics can function as a prism though which we can, on the one hand, view
fundamental features of Nietzsche’s outlook, and on the other hand, at least
consider how different Nietzsche’s position is from what we might otherwise be
apt to recognize it as. The argument of the paper is that Nietzsche’s antipoliti-
cal stance is rooted in his account of contingency in human identity and the
appropriate orientation to this contingency. Nietzsche argues that one basic
orientation to human contingency, which I refer to as “tragicomic,” is superior
to all others, and further that no modern form of political life could manifest
this orientation. No form of sociality available to us even prospectively can both
satisfy the demands of politics and respond to the human condition in a way
that is productive of the meanings that sustain our agency.
Politics is thus both irremediable and unavoidable for Nietzsche. He locates
the political in the functioning of institutions that have allowed modern per-
sonality to develop. These institutions are characterized by norms such as
publicity, the monopoly use of coercive force and conflict-minimization, and
they could not function on any other basis. This becomes a danger, however,
when the significance of this sphere is misestimated: the typically modern
intensity of focus on the values particular to political organization and poli-
tical life distorts the rest of our lives in a way that contributes to nihilism. For
Nietzsche, becoming what we are involves not a singular achievement but a
productive process. This process requires an antipolitical stance; the failure to
maintain such a stance brings about the collapse in values and selfhood, the
culminating form of which is nihilism.


One of the many features of Nietzsche’s thought that generates confusion is his
insistence on both of the following. One, human beings are capable of moments
of spontaneous, self-expressive, thoroughly novel creativity and invention; this
160 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

inventiveness extends even to the existential matter of what it means to be

human. Two, human beings are, as pieces of nature (BGE 9; cf. EH “CW” 2;
cf. RWB 6), pieces of fatefulness (TI 6: 8; cf. TI 5: 6), and, more recently, pieces
of culture, thoroughly determined by causes that lie outside of individual
volition. This duality of human existence in Nietzsche’s thought can of course
lead one to focus on one side to the exclusion of the other, or on the apparent
contradiction. Nietzsche, however, not only insists on both sides of the duality,
but also deems it critical to offer an account of the relation between the two.
According to Nietzsche, our spontaneous powers are not only conditioned by
various determinations, but they also depend on them, so much so that the pos-
sibility of these powers is contingent upon being embodied, having a claim to a
history or histories, and belonging to a culture.6 To some extent, the reverse is
also true: human nature, the course of history, and the content of culture have
been shaped by human agency, even if those determinations are no longer
tractable to will. This very interdependence, furthermore, is what creates the
space for our agency. We live in the “unstable equilibrium between beast and
angel” (GM III: 2)—that is, between being entirely subject to natural causes and
having only ideal motivations. This permanent ambiguity furnishes the context
in which accomplishment is possible at the same time as our powers are moored
by something that gives it significance.7
These interdependences are what I shall refer to as human contingency.8
Nietzsche’s account of human contingency has three dimensions. One con-
cerns our deepest ideals and aspirations: that they are irredeemably unavailable
to us. Any particular goal can, of course, in principle be realized; Nietzsche
does not deny the possibility of local success in the achievement of even great
value. Contingency in our ideals implies, however, that unmitigated success is
nonaccidentally impossible: success without qualification, more than merely
difficult or improbable, is not a real possibility. This impossibility arises in two
different ways. The more straightforward one is that ideals and their conditions
of fulfillment are ultimately incoherent. This sometimes manifests itself in the
fragility or transience of goodness:9 as with Faust’s famous injunction to the
moment to linger, what we seek is inherently unstable, so that any fulfillment is
self-undermining. Some goods that are accessible to us maintain their value
only as exceptional or fleeting, or in light of commitments that exclude other
values we might otherwise pursue. In these cases, realization of an ideal dimin-
ishes the continuing availability of that very ideal. And all goods accessible to
us diminish in marginal value, so that the accumulation of even ideal goods
might be unsatisfactory. In the context of a human life, ideals have difficulty
maintaining their worth.
More generally, however, Nietzsche suggests that the conditions for success-
ful fulfillment of our ideals are at best determinate only in imperfect circum-
stances, and that even partial fulfillment alters their ability to serve as ideals.
For Nietzsche, ideals take their force by contrast with the circumstances that
Nietzsche, Contingency, and the Vacuity of Politics 161

one confronts. In one process of ideal formation, one wishes for a greater and
greater alleviation from troubles until the conditions under which goods are
available is abstracted away (cf. GS 335, GM I: 14). So on one hand Nietzsche
identifies ideals with imagining another, “true” world (EH “Fate” 8), one which,
because all obstacles have been removed from it, has no determinate content
other than the absence of ills. And on the other hand, achieving any ideal
requires a revision in ideals, since ideals take their shape by contrast with
present circumstances (cf. BGE 73).
A second dimension of contingency involves agency. Here again, contingency
involves the necessity of failure. Human powers of spontaneity are dependent
on a situated context: embodiment, social practices of authority and account-
ability, standards of salience, possible resistance to one’s will, and so on. Since,
in Nietzsche’s view, agency cannot consist in exerting influence on the world
from a location external to it, such a situated context is needed for there to be
anything that could count as spontaneous. But then the ability to claim one’s
deeds as one’s own and take responsibility for them depends on conditions that
make one susceptible to “fate” (GM II: 2), as Nietzsche would have it:10 implicit
in the very conditions are determinations that are outside the control of human
volition. We can thus be neither purely spontaneous nor purely conditioned.
The possibility of agency, rather, is conditioned by our relationships with others
and our own limitations, and for Nietzsche this places the implicit presence of
failure even within success.
Contingency in its third dimension extends through ideals and agency to the
self. For Nietzsche, to have a human identity is to maintain a tension between
the ideal and actual, so that one’s immediate characteristics do not exhaust
what one is. Instead, our more ultimate concerns and potentialities contribute
in a way that both exalts us and renders our identities susceptible to the destruc-
tion of those concerns and potentialities.11 Since one’s hopes and aspirations,
and the distance of these from actual circumstances, constitute part of who one
is, human identity is always vulnerable.
Distinguishing these three dimensions of human contingency is worthwhile
because doing so permits a consideration of the distinct ways in which human
existence is unalterable and at the same time unlimited. For just this reason,
however, Nietzsche deems it important to see these dimensions as a single phe-
nomenon: contingency does not merely imply that our values are parochial or
that our powers are frail, but extends, through our value and our powers, to our
very beings. From moment to moment many things make us what we are, and
most of these things are arbitrary or insignificant. But through the direction of
our striving some of these things can take on the significance that constitutes
our identities.12 In Nietzsche’s picture, we make ourselves into persons by
having ideal hopes and trying to work them out, even at the risk of fear, distress,
frustrated desire, or failure. This presence of risk is why, on one hand, it is
impossible really to know what one is before living one’s life,13 and why, on the
162 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

other hand, the “law of Life” promises doom: “all great things perish through
their own doing, through an act of self-sublimation: thus decrees the law of
Life, the law of the necessary ‘self-overcoming’ in the essence of Life” (GM III:
27). Nietzsche recognizes no external authority with the power to give laws,
but the legislating authority here is integral to agency: it comes from the
reflexive character of self-overcoming activity. The “necessary” character of
self-overcoming implies that the indeterminacy in oneself is what allows for self-
formative agency, which in the achievement of ideals ensures self-destruction.
Contingency is thereby implicated in “Life” itself, and for this reason repays
some acknowledgement.14


Contingency is a feature of human existence because we play a role in shaping

our identities: what we are is neither simply determined from outside nor
invented in the absence of any constraint. The productive process that makes
us what we are depends on maintaining a tension between human situatedness
and human aspiration. Nietzsche insists, accordingly, that how one orients one-
self to human contingency expresses “what one is” in a way that renders that
orientation fundamental to ethical assessment in general. Contingency, that is,
allows for a dimension of ethical assessment that transcends that of particular
value commitments and instead concerns the sustainability of one’s relation
to one’s values and oneself. In this section I review the basic orientations to
contingency that Nietzsche identifies and his assessments of them.15 Nietzsche
levels a variety of criticisms against each of the orientations, but his basic posi-
tion is that the orientation that I refer to as “Tragicomic” is superior to the
others because, by sustaining a gap between possibility and aspiration, it
best contributes to the possibility of agency and thereby to what Nietzsche
calls “Life.”
Nietzsche classifies possible orientations to human contingency in two main
categories, each of which has two component subcategories. One main cate-
gory is the Prudential. The orientations in this category share an acknowledge-
ment of contingency and hold that the proper response to the gap between
possibility and aspiration is to derive an appropriate strategy so as to further
one’s ends more effectively. Contingency, in this view, imparts the lesson that
one cannot have, achieve, or be everything that one might want, so one should
learn how best to adjust one’s means and aspirations so as to produce the
optimal result.
There are two sub-categories of the Prudential, Realism and Idealism,16 that
differ according to the priority they give to adjusting means or adjusting aspira-
tions. In Realism, one should eliminate one’s aspirations and replace them with
attainable ends. The acknowledgement of contingency provokes a change in
Nietzsche, Contingency, and the Vacuity of Politics 163

ideals. Since the aspired ideal cannot be realized, it is not worth pursuing;
instead one should restrict oneself to feasible pursuits. In Idealism, by contrast,
one should identify the means to overcome contingency and close the gap
between possibility and aspiration. The attractiveness of ideals is fixed and a
variety of approaches revolves around that. In this case, the confrontation
between circumstance and ideal only leads to a search for better and better
ways to approach the ideal, despite the shortcomings of any available means.
Nietzsche frequently repudiates Idealism in favor of Realism, but never
explains his position or even clarifies what he means by such a repudiation.17
His scattered remarks show, however, both that the terms revolve around human
contingency and that Nietzsche’s concern lay in arriving at an appropriate
orientation to it. There is a theoretical component to Nietzsche’s objection to
Idealism: Nietzsche decries its “cowardice before reality . . . untruthfulness” (EH
“CW” 2). Nietzsche does not complain of ignorance of reality here, but rather
of a kind of delusion or concealment. Idealism turns out to involve a recogni-
tion of contingency: Nietzsche emphasizes, in particular, the limits of beauty
and moral enterprises, which each arise out of the consciousness of their oppo-
site. But with Idealism this recognition is accompanied by the conviction that
contingency, at least in some limited domain, can be overcome (see TL 1; GM
III: 8, 19, 26; EH “HAH” 1). The basic feature of Idealism, then, is that adher-
ence to some ideal furnishes an unequivocal solution to problems of how to live
or what makes life worthwhile. Nietzsche of course treats this as a theoretical
mistake, of taking nature as amenable to solutions, but this theoretical flaw
becomes objectionable on account of its practical implications. There are two
ways in which Idealism “turns against Life” (EH “BT” 2). One is that it does not
work: one is more likely to get a better result with Realism. The deeper problem
with Idealism, however, is that it forces a kind of inauthenticity, in which one is
deluded about what one is. By insisting that contingency can be overcome and
that problems are solvable, Idealism invites so close an identification with one’s
ideals that this interferes with self-understanding and agency. When the ideal is
considered to fall within the realm of the achievable, there seems to be no point
in distinguishing one’s own standpoint as separate from the ideal—indeed,
it would be immoral. And one thereby neglects the opportunity to shape a
distinctly human identity.
Realism, then, is at least by default the superior form of the Prudential. The
Prudential is itself generally defective, however.18 Nietzsche of course does not
offer a blanket recommendation in favor of imprudence: some measure of
prudence is needed to satisfy one’s ends at all, and certain circumstances
that Nietzsche identifies make prudence imperative.19 But prudence is a “cold”
virtue according to Nietzsche: it typically involves self-detachment, stepping
back from one’s ends and one’s situation so that one can calculate the best
means of satisfying them more objectively. And for this reason Nietzsche sug-
gests that prudence, when it takes the form of an orientation to contingency, is,
164 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

in a sense, vacuous; it does nothing to inform one’s sense of the contours of

one’s agency or identity. Prudence, by itself, should offer no substantive value,
since it depends for its sense on there being already in place substantive ends
and commitments which give it direction.
Prudence can, nevertheless, give substantive direction, and this is where it
becomes deeply problematic. Substantive vacuity is a familiar phenomenon in
Nietzsche’s work: the willing of nothingness and nihilism are two examples.
The Prudential as an orientation to contingency, and Realism in particular,
similarly have a substantive form, in which one does not merely pursue one’s
ends prudently, but adjusts one’s ends according to the demands of prudence.
One could take from human contingency the lessons that what counts as impor-
tant is mutable and that, since it is mutable, we should arrange what we
care about so that we have the best likelihood of satisfaction. And this is what
Nietzsche finds objectionable: that care should be structured by vacuity,
however substantive this vacuity is.
In Nietzsche’s view, the Prudential represents a genuine but confused
response to contingency: it elevates making the best of a bad situation to an
existential level. One can see this by distinguishing two positions that could be
called “Realism” in the present context. On the one hand, Realism could stand
for an awareness of what is the case: that contingency obtains and thus no com-
plete realization of our ideals or powers is possible, for example. On the other
hand, Realism could stand for a practical commitment, to lower one’s sights so
that one only adopts attainable ends. The confusion that Nietzsche sees is that
of either conflating these two sorts of Realism or taking the former to compel
the latter.20 The former kind of Realism, the recognition of contingency,
animates all of Nietzsche’s thinking. But this kind of Realism leaves open the
question of how to respond: it neither includes nor entails the concession to
contingency that the second Realism represents. Nothing requires prudence,
and for Nietzsche the continuing availability of even impossible ideals might be
essential in making sense of one’s life.
The remaining main category is the Ironic. The orientations that fall under
this category both involve responses to contingency in which one takes distance
from oneself and one’s ideals: “irony” here refers to a stance in which one both
maintains one’s commitments and at the same time sees them as possibly acci-
dental or alterable and thus as separate from one’s identity. This orientation
thus requires holding one’s personal integrity, although just as vulnerable to
contingency, as separate from one’s commitments. Contingency, in this view,
thus obviates a full identification of oneself with the basic commitments and
purposes of one’s life. But it does not, however, compel adopting a revised pur-
posiveness, as the allocation of purposes remains under first-person authority
rather than simply abdicated to fate.
There are two subcategories of the Ironic, Despair and Tragicomedy, that
differ according to the effect self-distance has on active engagement in one’s
Nietzsche, Contingency, and the Vacuity of Politics 165

life. In Despair, the Ironic self-distance is provided by the abandonment of any

hope in realizing one’s aspirations. The recognition of contingency leads to
giving up any belief in the efficacy of one’s actions; the self-distance is then
compelled by reflection on the ultimate futility of all that one does. In Tragi-
comedy, by contrast, one maintains a sense of one’s contingency and the futility
of ideals and nevertheless actively sustains one’s aspirations. This orientation
requires an unusual degree of self-consciousness: here human agency is seen as
so powerfully ineffectual (or self-destructive) in confrontation with ideal hopes
that there is something laughable about this condition. Ironic self-distance, on
this orientation, enables one to maintain one’s commitments in spite of this
recognition of contingency.
The Ironic is superior to the Prudential because it accommodates the
processes needed to sustain agency. Contingency does not reveal itself, for
Nietzsche, as a single phenomenon, but in a number of processes that shape
and structure human experience. Nietzsche identifies processes, for example,
in terms of “the great economy of the whole” (EH “Destiny” 4; cf. NCW
“Epilogue”), “the necessity of error” (BT “Preface” 5),21 “the pains of betrayal”
(HAH I: 629), “the ever new appearance of the teachers of the purpose of exis-
tence” (GS 1), and “the value of having enemies” (TI 5: 3). In each of these
processes, commitments become contentful through opposition: the resistance
to one’s thoughts and volitions allows for their significance to take shape. What
might otherwise seem to be misfortune thus turns out, when seen from an
appropriate distance, to be indispensable for ideals to be meaningful. This is,
of course, not the ascetic embrace of misfortune or defeat, let alone the suicidal
embrace of self-destruction. Nietzsche does not call for the paradoxical embrace
of misfortune for its own sake, as if suffering and loss were themselves intrinsi-
cally ennobling. Instead, just as there are philosophers for whom an apparently
ascetic life is the “optimal condition for the highest and boldest spirituality”
(GM III: 7), so Nietzsche suggests that embracing one’s ideals also requires
embracing the conditions of their possibility. His point is that some values can
only become available in the context of a dynamic that admits the potential for
loss and death; and taken as a whole, human experience cannot avoid such
values, except perhaps at the risk of nothingness.
This is why Nietzsche advocates “danger” (see BGE 224) rather than either
the ascetic triumph in failure or the nihilistic triumph in safety. Those latter
two paths involve an avoidance of risk that turns out to itself be costly, with the
price of either holding perverse, self-destructive values or losing touch with
the distinctive values of a human life. By contrast, the very costliness of our
ideal commitments can give them significance, and thereby imparts to our
activity some measure of distinction. Our activity takes its shape, Nietzsche
suggests, by facing a tension between the actual and the ideal;22 only in this
way is our activity recognizable as such. We make sense of ourselves, in turn,
through our activity.
166 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

The Ironic orientations accommodate the dynamics of these processes: they

acknowledge the constitutive role of opposition and failure in human existence
and at the same time sustain ideals as at least potential candidates for commit-
ment.23 The self-separation of irony enables one to go forward in the face of
contingency without trying, per impossibile, to change it. The Prudential orien-
tations, by contrast, oppose or minimize contingency, and thereby attempt to
circumvent the processes of our self-constitution. Their proposed collapse of
the actual and the ideal deprives these processes of the dynamic that makes
them productive. Prudence is accordingly vacuous. It supplants the productive
processes with ones that rely on our agency already being firmly established.
As an orientation to contingency it thus either contributes nothing to life or
at most makes of life something as meaningful as a joke that has already been
told over and over again.
Within the Ironic, the Tragicomic orientation is superior to Despair. This,
I hope, does not require a lengthy explanation, but it is worth pointing out
that Despair is still superior to the Prudential orientations: it represents a mean-
ingful engagement with life, even if a frustrated or paradoxical one. Even
Despair is not a complete abdication to contingency, since it presupposes firm
commitments about what is important. In Despair, one sustains the integrity of
one’s own standpoint, even without the hope of effecting anything important.
The Ironic orientations are superior because they carry with them impossible
hopes, and we need impossible hopes to sustain our agency. These hopes are
needed not because they promise any chance of fulfillment, but because with-
out them the gap between real and ideal, in which we live, closes down. Irony
promises at best only partial, conditional successes, but is meaningful in a way
that prudence cannot be.


The preceding discussion aimed to show that, for Nietzsche, an Ironic orienta-
tion to contingency is needed to sustain agency. The argument of the present
section is that politics is not congenial to the Ironic and is therefore vacuous, in
that it is not independently productive of the meanings that shape human
identity. Modern politics must manifest a predominantly Prudential orientation
and therefore serve as useful rather than as meaningful. This is of course at
least instrumentally valuable, but becomes problematic when mistaken for
something more fundamental.
In Nietzsche’s view, modern politics must have a Prudential orientation and
for this reason is vacuous. It matters little to him whether politics is Idealist or
Realist: in either case, politics acquiesces to practical imperatives. Politics is the
art of the possible, and as such favors feasibility over what is true or right. These
latter norms are dispensable in the functioning of social organizations, and
Nietzsche, Contingency, and the Vacuity of Politics 167

indeed any such normative commitment seems to be tenuous within the politi-
cal sphere. Politics, then, elides something of interest to Nietzsche: the values
and commitments that play no useful role in public life. And Nietzsche sees
modern politics as a “movement”-based effort to bring a diversity of people into
enough consistency to minimize conflict, thereby further separating politics
from the potential for being interesting.
There are at least three basic features of modern politics that thus lead it to a
Prudential orientation. One is its form of discursiveness: politics speaks the lan-
guage of prudence.24 Irony, of course, has its discourse, too. One could have a
public discourse about social life that was sardonic, resigned, qualified, fanciful,
enigmatic, and cautious: its masks and foregrounds might both indicate and
conceal the basis of our collective affiliations. But political discourse is at least
supposed to be transparent. Of course it does not function in this way; it might
not even be able to function in this way, if its Prudential function of managing
the organization of social relations clashes with its Prudential content, which
promises prosperity, security, strength, and so on. Political discourse is also of
course liable to manipulation. But even such manipulation depends on its
primary role as an undistorted medium for communication. Politics makes
discourse something functional, and thereby restricts its possibilities: since it
provides a forum for common deliberation, it must be exhaustively comprehen-
sible.25 Its meaningfulness is thereby limited to what can serve our partial ends
instead of what makes us what we are.26
Another feature of modern politics is its form of competitiveness. Competi-
tion per se is of course not objectionable for Nietzsche, but its political form is
empty. Here we can contrast an older model of competition in which the strug-
gle is primarily positional: the stakes in conflict are taken as significant, so what
needs to be settled is who counts as the better.27 The ancient Greek agon, for
example, in part constitutes the relevant value; competition is then desirable
because it gives access to a kind of worth that would not otherwise exist. In
political competition by contrast, we expect ideals to be abjured as part of the
competition, and the result accordingly does not reveal position with respect to
something significant, but is instead part of a procedure for the determination
of policy.28 No one ever thinks that the winner of a political contest is better for
having won—at most it shows that the winner is a better candidate, or simply
received more votes (and maybe not even that). The process is not constituted
in a way to reveal anything about merit, but to produce an acceptable outcome
and thereby to put an end to conflict. Competition in its Prudential form solves
a problem rather than presents an opportunity.
The feature of modern politics that perhaps most demands a Prudential ori-
entation, however, is its connection to the administration of public institu-
tions.29 Since politics is, among other things, the means by which we settle on
the management of some of the more influential operations of our shared exis-
tence, it comes to seem important that politics conduct itself along prudent
168 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

lines.30 And because, in modern life, public institutions do have such prevalent
and powerful effects, they tend to concern themselves with more urgent and
more general needs, rather than with “higher” things. Nietzsche is not claiming
that they should do otherwise; one would hardly want one’s pension plan, let
alone the basic institutions of society, to be administered according to a tragic
sense of life. But politics is burdened by this Prudential responsibility. Playing
this role limits how it can be employed.
The implication that Nietzsche draws from the Prudential character of poli-
tics is that politics is itself meaningless and thus has no further role in shaping
human identity. This is not to say that politics is unimportant, or unworthy
of attention. Social life might only be possible if there are individuals who do
take politics as their vocation, and invest it with meaning for their own lives.
But even if our common social life is held together by this private vocation,
Nietzsche suggests, there is nothing exemplary or especially virtuous about
that. This private vocation, that is, has little if any bearing on others’ lives. The
immense usefulness of politics and even its opportunities for heroism do not
thereby give it any productiveness of the meanings that shape who we are,
or even any pride of place in settling the significance of our other concerns.
Politics, instead, appropriately depends on those other concerns, and so giving
it primary importance would, in light of its Prudential character, represent a
“diminishment” of ourselves in relation to contingency (BGE 203).
To clarify what the vacuity of politics involves, it is worth reviewing three
claims that Nietzsche is not making. Nietzsche is not claiming that politics has
no bearing on anything important. It would be foolish to think that anyone
could pursue ends in indifference to the effects of political life, and Nietzsche
would readily concede that politics can have a profound effect on things that
matter (see e.g., HAH 2). The arrangement of institutions obviously has a
profound effect not only on how effective individual pursuits are, but also on
what things are pursued and even how people think about them. If nothing
else, political arrangements affect material conditions, which in turn affect
the ends that are possible and desirable. What Nietzsche denies is that there
is any independent significance to be taken from the institutional arrange-
ments. The effectiveness of politics, rather, is subordinate to the significance
of social life.
Nietzsche does not even deny that politics can play an indirect role in the
social phenomena that do have significance (see, e.g., BGE 61). For example,
one can imagine both that institutional arrangements play a role in the cultiva-
tion of ressentiment and other reactive sentiments, and that it would be better
to have a social life free from these sentiments. In this case, politics not only
produces a particular effect, but it is also involved, through social interactions,
in the shaping of the human soul. Nietzsche is certainly not committed to claim-
ing either that the prevalence of ressentiment is unimportant, or that the organi-
zation of the political world does not bear on this. But he can claim here that
Nietzsche, Contingency, and the Vacuity of Politics 169

the psychodynamics of self are of primary importance, and that the workings of
political interactions with that psychodynamics is only derivatively so.
In identifying the vacuity of politics, Nietzsche is not even denying that poli-
tics is self-expressive (see e.g., BGE 202). That is, the political institutions that
we have or are capable of express something about who we are. One famous
example of this is Nietzsche’s claim, “it would not be unthinkable for a society
to have such a consciousness of power as to allow itself the noblest luxury that it
could have—leaving those who harm it unpunished” (GM II: 10). In this case,
a matter of public policy reveals something deep about the character of the
society, or at least the character it aspires to have. This hypothetical society
would then even have reasons, supported by practical necessity, to give expres-
sion to themselves through their institutions. For them it cannot be arbitrary
how they treat violators of the public order, but rather it would be a matter
of living in a way that is true to their own self-understanding. But social life
rather than political institutions is primary here: the policy only matters in
virtue of the social identity it expresses.
There are two options for trying to recuperate the significance of politics, but
neither are promising. One is to concede that politics is Prudential but to insist
that this could be reconciled with the Ironic. Politics, in this approach, becomes
a means of reconciling two incompatible sides to one another: on one side
there is conflict, self-subversion, and open-endedness, and on the other side
the rational, mutual inclusiveness that is needed for there to be social order.
Some dialogical or deliberative model of intersubjective dynamics then stands
as the tertium quid that reconciles, or at least mediates between, these two
sides. This remains a form of the Prudential, however: it promises a way to
accommodate conflict and thereby provide a solution to the difficulties of social
The other option is to abandon the Prudential altogether and insist on a
purely Ironic—most likely tragic—politics. Here the difficulty is not merely to
imagine a politics open to self-destruction, discursively enigmatic, that seeks
human identity in public offices, or that can laugh at human failings and not try
to fix them. All of that is conceivable, although it would probably make for a
poor showing in the general election. The problem here is that placing the
burdens of the Ironic on our public life limits the Ironic. It has turned out,
Nietzsche suggests, that the Ironic is far less productive when it is carried out
at the level of public life than when public life supports private engagements
with Irony.
This is why Nietzsche came to think of politics in light of its modern form, as
concerned with the administration of institutions, rather than in its classical
form, as concerned with the shape of the best human life. In his early essay
“The Greek State,” Nietzsche suggests that it was formerly possible to have
a substantive politics, one that was deeply meaningful for all its participants.
Politics then could be organized around promoting conflict and competition,
170 Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future

so as to make it possible, in general and in various specific domains, for some-

one to be the best.31 But the cost of this was “the unconditional sacrifice of all
other interests to the service of the states-instinct” (KSA 1: 771). Tragic politics,
that is, required a particular kind of social unanimity: it required everyone to
identify the significance of their own lives with that of the polis. This is not only
permanently unavailable to us now, but also undesirable. With tragic individual-
ism, perhaps, or tragic diversity, the vacuous discourses about managing affairs
and containing conflict make it possible for there to be more private, intense,
“spiritual” conflict. For these reasons, public life needs a prudent discourse
which does not intrinsically matter but which is necessary for Ironic possibili-
ties. So Nietzsche’s aim is not to replace our currently vacuous discourse with a
more meaningful one, but to try to separate off politics from the rest of life.
Nietzsche’s “anti-politics” thus involves what we might call a “liberalism of
strength”32: one that is not based on metaphysical claims about universal human
dignity or rationalist claims about the possibility of adopting a fully neutral
procedure for adjudicating disputes. Nietzsche’s position functions as a form
of liberalism, since the role of the state is restricted for the sake of free self-
development. The point of this restriction, however, is not to acknowledge
inherent human worth, but to promote conflict in a manner that is productive
of the meanings that sustain our senses of self. Nietzsche insists that we need a
split between the Ironic and the way our shared existence is administered, so
that some conflicts can be irresolvable without this being an urgent matter.
According to Nietzsche’s antipolitics, then, we need to adopt a Prudential
orientation to support our Ironic possibilities. What makes this antipolitical is
that it refuses both to envision a return to a tragic form of social existence and,
in the absence of such a tragic social existence, to seek ourselves within the
political. Antipolitics insists that either operation would misplace the impor-
tance of the political and thereby interfere with more productive possibilities
for human life.33

Chapter 2
Some have mistakenly concluded that the political is merely institutionalized
violence. In this respect, Schmitt (1996) and his postmodernist followers such as
Agamben (2005) and Žižek (2006) go astray in imagining that the political realm
is defined by the one who can determine the state of exception, that is, the person
who can decide when the rule of law can be set aside in favor of the rule of
force. In fact, the political comes to an end whenever mere violence rules. As
Montesquieu recognized, political authority is then replaced by despotic or
tyrannical force. The effort of postmodernism to show that all order is a form
of organized violence thus distorts the meaning of the political and blurs the
difference between citizens and subjects.
There was a widespread European concern in the latter decades of the nineteenth
century that a greater emphasis on martial virtue was necessary. Nietzsche’s
concern in this respect was not unusual. See Keegan 1993.
Nietzsche lays this out in the “Three Metamorphoses” in Zarathustra (I: 1). This
could be presented graphically as follows:

Beast Last Man Camel Lion Child Superman

On the distinction of the true and the apparent world see Twilight, “How the ‘True
World’ at Last Became a Myth.”
On this point see Gillespie (1999).
In the preface to Twilight Nietzsche calls this “sounding out” idols to reveal the
sound by which we are able to determine that they are hollow.
See Kuhn 1991, pp. 213–14. Nietzsche longed for this transformation: “I am glad
about the military development of Europe; also of the internal states of anarchy:
the time of repose and Chinese ossification, which Galiani predicted for this
century, is over . . . The barbarian in each of us is affirmed; also the wild beast.
Precisely for that reason philosophers have a future” (KGW VII 2: 261). These wars
will not be merely spiritual: “The consequences of my teaching must rage furiously:
but on its account uncountably many shall die” (KGW VII 2: 84).
These are the famous blond beasts of the Genealogy of Morals. While they are not his
final goal, he is unequivocal that they are a necessary step on the way, and an
improvement over present-day humanity.
172 Notes

This is the subject of the Second Essay in the Genealogy of Morals. What seems
essential to keeping promises is putting consistency ahead of one’s momentary
desires. To overcome the last man it is necessary to again employ the original
violent measures that bred such men in the first place.
Socrates suggests in the Republic that tyrants may be punished in the afterlife for
their crimes, but asserts in the Apology and the Phaedo that we do not know what
becomes of us after death.
Nietzsche was deeply influenced by Burckhardt’s argument that the production
of art in the Renaissance was tied to tyranny.

Chapter 3
I was alerted to this text by Vattimo 2002, p. 120.
When I have used a translation published in Nietzsche’s Basic Writings (Nietzsche
1966; hereafter BW) or The Portable Nietzsche (Nietzsche 1968; hereafter PN), I have
included abbreviations and page numbers of those editions after the work and
section number.
Montinari describes this “impressive fragment” as “a brief essay in sixteen
paragraphs, . . . one organic essay” (Montinari 2003, p. 90).
Letter to Meta von Salis, August 22, 1888 (SB 8: 397). Cited in Safranski
2002, p. 301.
Elisabeth Kuhn, who has written at length on Nietzsche’s “Philosophie des
europäischen Nihilismus,” comes to a similar conclusion: “Nietzsche’s draft of the
nihilism-complex constitutes the midpoint in the framework of his major philo-
sophical ideas: the will to power, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the
Übermensch and the Eternal Recurrence of the Same” (Kuhn 2000, p. 293).
Tracy Strong perceives the implications for a failed modern epistemology in this
tension, asking, “What then is the epistemology of nihilism? The hidden linguistic
imperatives of the categories which men now live under force them toward noth-
ingness. The end state of this process is nihilism, itself the final development of
all morality, to which men arrive, in Nietzsche’s understanding, when they find
both that there is no truth and that they should continue to seek it. The will to
truth drives men even further into the void: that they now recognize it as void is no
help. As Nietzsche notes at the very end of the Genealogy of Morals, ‘man would
rather will the void, than be void of will.’ Here then is the position we arrive at: the
present structure of human life forces men to continue searching for that which
their understanding tells them is not to be found. Such is the epistemology of
nihilism” (Strong 1976, p. 259).
The argument in this section exists in an earlier draft with German citations in
(Corngold 2008, pp. 231–43).
The word “eschaton” derives from the Greek word eschatos, meaning “last.” In
Christian theological diction “eschaton” means the “divinely ordained climax of
history” (Dodd 1936, VI, p. 193).
On the identification of Zoroastrianism as a proto-Gnosticism, I rely on evange-
lical authority, namely, “The branch of Gnosticism developed in Mesopotamia
Notes 173

reflects a horizontal dualism associated with Zoroastrian worship and is epi-

tomized in its later Gnostic form of Manichaeism. In this pattern light and
darkness, the two primal principles or deities, are locked in a decisive struggle”
(Borchert n. p.).
In one respected account of the normative features of Gnosticism, “active
rebellion against the moral law of the Old Testament is enjoined upon every
man” (Emery 1966, p. 14).
Geoffrey Waite sees this appeal as internalized in Nietzsche’s manner of writing
and calls for an esoteric reading of Nietzsche’s work (Waite 1996).

Chapter 4
KSA 4: 46–7. Henceforth I will cite this edition of his works as KSA, with volume
number and other pertinent information, thus as here: (KSA 4: 46–7; Z “On the
Pale Criminal”). Similarly, SB will designate the edition of his letters. Unless
otherwise indicated, all translations are mine.
“I am the wound and the knife! / I am the slap and the cheek! / I am the limbs
and the rack, / And the victim and the executioner!” “Heautontimoroumenos”
(Self-Torturer), recalls the eponymous drama by Terentius (ca. 190–60 BCE), in
which is inscribed the great dictum: “Homo sum, humani nil a me alienum puto
[I am a man, nothing human is alien to me]” (Act 1: Scene 1).
Only ellipses in square brackets are mine. Translating Nietzsche, it is important to
respect his punctuation, though the effect is not quite the same in translation.
Nietzsche’s ellipses and long dashes indicate the continuing flow of a thought that
should not be expressed, leaving open to the reader to imagine what is omitted,
without Nietzsche taking responsibility for this imagined content. In a letter to
Carl Fuchs (the gifted pianist, organist, director, and musicologist), Nietzsche
calls “punctuation marks” the equivalent of “musical phrasing”—both arts being
components of “rhetoric” (SB 8: 399–403; August 26, 1888).
La femme 100 têtes (1929); caption cited in Krauss (1994, p. 34).
In its mannerism of “phenomenology” (Max Scheler), my political philology
cannot verbalize as “to prove” (beweisen) only “to exhibit” (aufweisen or
This English glossary to Althusser’s For Marx (1965) was approved by Althusser.
The Althusserian term “symptomatic reading” has several sources in addition to
Freud, including Gaston Bachelard and Georges Canguilhem (see the work by
Althusser’s student, Dominique Lecourt 1972; see further Pfaller 1977).
On Gramsci’s philology, see Rosengarten (1986) and Buttigieg (1991).
Among the most important exceptions is Blondel (1986).
Barthes provides this example: “‘Drinking alcohol is harmful to man; now, I am
a man; hence I must not drink’ and yet, despite this fine enthymeme, I drink;
this is because I ‘secretly’ refer to another major premise: the sparkling and
the ice-cold quench my thirst, quenching my thirst is a good thing (a major
premise familiar to advertising and to barroom conversations)” (Barthes 1988,
pp. 63–4).
174 Notes

Nietzsche (a fortiori Heidegger) tends to think in Greek when he writes German.
See, for example, his response to Pilates’ fundamental question to Jesus: “What is
the truth?” (John 18: 38), which Jesus cannot answer because he “is” the alhqeia.
Nietzsche’s famous answer in “Truth and Lie in the Extramoral Sense” (1873): “A
mobile army of metaphors, metonymies […]” (KSA 1: 880; em). But Nietzsche’s
rhetoric knows that “syntax” derives from Greek suntaxiV, originally a body of
troops arranged for combat.
Similarly, Heidegger detects a connection—which Nietzsche would have particu-
larly savored—between logoV (logos) and locoV (trap, ambush) (see Heidegger
1954, p. 200).
Periodically near-blind Nietzsche was the first major writer to use the recently
invented typewriter (an Olivetti) but, finding it cumbersome, he preferred writ-
ing by hand, often while walking.
I will return to Prado and Chambige in my excursus before citing his last letter in
full with my endnotes.
See his letters from Turin to Overbeck (SB 8: 453; October 18, 1888), to Brandes
(SB 8: 500; early December 1888), and finally to Strindberg (SB 8: 509;
December 8, 1888). Note that Nietzsche writes this phrase to an (atheist) theolo-
gian, a (Socialist) literary critic, and a (quite mad) creative writer, respectively—
all of them major figures in their fields.
Accordingly, as Heidegger avers in Being and Time, “‘Dialectics’, which was a
genuine philosophical embarrassment, is superfluous” (Heidegger 1927, p. 25).
He maintained this position until his death.
Pace Heidegger, however, this is precisely why Nietzsche is not a metaphysician
inasmuch as metaphysics, like the empirical sciences, merely talks about (meta,
über) everything—a constant theme with many variations through Heidegger’s
work from immediately after World War II to his end. One thing nihilism
decidedly is not, for Nietzsche, is “determined by the history of Being,” pace
Heidegger’s insistence. On this point, Alain Badiou is correct to say that
Heidegger hereby “Hegelized” (Badiou 1992, p. 4).
Nietzsche begins his university course, “Description of Ancient Rhetoric”
(1872/73), with the remark that rhetoric “is an essentially republican art: one must
be accustomed to tolerating the strangest [die fremdesten] opinions and views and
even take a certain pleasure in their counter-play” (Nietzsche 1989, p. 4; trans.
modified). Nietzsche will later combat republicanism, in his modern sense
of democracy and communism, as increasingly hegemonic forms of nihilism—
combat it with his counter-nihilism qua “severe form of great contagious nihilism.”
Yet his earliest definition of rhetoric still obtains since his own opinions and views
are among “the strangest” qua deadly “destiny or disaster for humanity.”
For the apparent irreconcilability (or misunderstanding) between the other two,
see Lampert (2004, p. 75, n. 20) “contra” Waite (1998, pp. 31–3). For standard
approaches to “Nietzsche’s rhetoric of nihilism,” which largely ignore his double
rhetoric, see Darby et al. (1989). For an authoritative history of rhetoric, though
with inadequate discussion of Nietzsche or of the double rhetoric, see Vickers
Question: What on earth was the “HOMERIC polis”? (Parenthetically, Nietzsche
never thinks of the “pre-Socratic” before he thinks of the pre-Platonic.)
Notes 175

I cite from the Quaderni del carcere not with page numbers but in standard
notation so that the passages may be accessible in other editions or translations.
For a social history of the ubiquitous “suites funestes de la lecture des mauvais
livres” in the late nineteen century, see Shapiro 1996, with several references to
the Chambige case.
In his notebook used in the summer and fall of 1884, Nietzsche writes: “‘une
croyance presque instinctive chez moi, c’est que tout homme puissant ment,
quand il parle, et à plus forte raison, quand il écrit’. Préface ‘Vie de Napoleon’
p. xv Stendhal” (KSA 11: 251).
The Leopold and Loeb case—see also Hitchcock’s Rope—with Clarence Darrow’s
“Nietzsche defence,” is a mere tip of this unmelting iceberg.
I have emphasized his “true for us” in deference to Irish and Hibernian-English
double rhetoric, in which the expression “is fíor dóibh” translates exoterically
into “it is true for them” and esoterically into “they have the power” (see Joyce
1992, p. 37).
In his otherwise brilliant book on St. Paul, Badiou overlooks both the entire
Protestant tradition and the complexity of Nietzsche’s text on St. Paul, The
Antichrist (cf. Badiou 1997).
As noted by Barthes, “Rhetoric must always be read in the structural interplay
with its neighbours (Grammar, Logic, Poetics, Philosophy): it is the play of the
system, not each of its parts in itself, which is historically significant” (Barthes
1988, p. 46).
See, for example, Nietzsche (KSA 2: 22; HAH “Preface”). His allusion here is to
Boethius’ remark, written in prison before his execution, that one recognizes a
true philosopher by his silence (Philosophiæ consolationis, ll. 74–7). Moreover, this
is Nietzsche’s most “positivistic” book.
In a later text, Rosen (1989, p. 198) cites from Nietzsche’s so-called WP (602):
“Everything is false! Everything is permitted!” Again, Rosen does not place the
phrase in Nietzsche’s quotation marks. See my following note.
Nietzsche’s phrases “Nothing is true, everything is permitted” and “Everything
is false! Everything is permitted!” first appear—both times in quotation marks—
in the notebook Nietzsche used in early 1884 (see KSA 11: 88, 146).
German “etwas auf den Kerbholz haben” is “to have a guilty account,” “to have
done something not permitted.”
Nietzsche was certainly aware of the etymological connection between “assassin”
and “hashish”—the latter one of his many attempted (homeopathic) self-cures.
For an extraordinary reconstruction of the last walk of “the solitary walker” Rous-
seau, illuminating his complex fears, see Slovin (1999).
Cf. Schmitt in The Concept of the Political (1932): “Hegel […] offers the first polem-
ically political definition of the bourgeois. The bourgeois is an individual who
does not want to leave the apolitical riskless private sphere. He rests in the poss-
ession of his private property, and under the justification of his possessive
individualism, he acts as an individual against the totality. He is a man who finds
his compensation for his political nullity in the fruits of freedom and enrichment
and above all in the total security of its use. Consequently he wants to be spared
bravery and exempted from the danger of a violent death” (Schmitt 1996,
pp. 62–3).
176 Notes

See Förster-Nietzsche (1897, vol. 2, part 1, 179).
In his notes, Nietzsche quotes from and comments on the conversation in Demons
(part 3, ch. 6) between Kirillov (who will commit suicide) and Pyotr Stepanovich
Verkhovensky, including statements such as “If there is no God, then I am God”
and the theses that “the proof that there is no God is to commit suicide” and that
“God is a pain in the fear of death” (see Dostoevsky 1994, pp. 615–20).
From New Year’s Day until January 4, he signs “The Crucified” on trans-European
letters to August Strindberg, Heinrich Köselitz, Malwida von Meysenbug, an
anonymous “Illustrious Pole,” Meta von Salis, Georg Brandes, Cardinal Mariani,
and King Umberto I, who is exactly Nietzsche’s contemporary (both 1844–900)
and whom we will meet again in Nietzsche’s last letter.
Dostoevsky would have recognized the importance of Nietzsche’s response,
though he would have seen it as being itself nihilist. See his letter ca. 1874/1875,
cited by Pevear in the “Forward” to his translation of Dostoevsky (1994, p. xx).
Nietzsche’s previous letter to Cosima (likely Christmas Day 1888) has been signed
“The Antichrist” (SB 8: 551)—his riposte to all “Wagners” who “crawl before the
Also cited (and translated) by Heller (1980, pp. 131–2). Heller’s interpretation is
focused on Nietzsche’s “inverted sadism” (p. 136), that is, on masochism, but
these are ultimately indistinguishable in Nietzsche’s rejection of the double “fear
of death.”
See Euripides, Bacchæ (150, 233–6, 353, 453–9, 464); see further Turcan (1958).
On the complexity of this etymological question (though not on Nietzsche), see
Wells (1946).
On May 14, 1998, The Swiss National Bank, under fire for having issued its 1000
Franc note depicting Burckhardt, admitted that there were numerous anti-
Semitic remarks in his private correspondence, but insisted that this was not a
major preoccupation in his voluminous publications.—Nietzsche read both.
Whenever Nietzsche calls something “bad,” recall his observation in Genealogy of
Morals that German “schlecht” originally meant “plain or simple.” Beyond good
and evil, and despite any weak joke, Nietzsche-Prado is strong. I will return to his
second bad joke, which involves the novelist Alphonse Daudet.
On Prado (though without reference to Nietzsche), see Irving (1901), Bouchardon
(1935), and Borowitz (2002, pp. 89–90, 213, 251, 450).
In addition to Barrès’s crucial article in Le Figaro, there is a large literature on
Chambige (though not with reference to Nietzsche). His was the only major
detailed case analyzed a few months later by the important sociologist, psycho-
logist, criminologist, and critic of Émile Durkheim, Gabriel Tarde (1843–1904).
On Tarde (1889) and the literature on Chambige (though again not on Nietzsche),
see Carroy and Renneville (2005).
I will soon be publishing a more detailed philologico-political exhibition of
the last letter in another venue, showing just how finely interwoven Nietzsche’s
allusions are.
Here I am less concerned with the many attempts to reconstruct the circum-
stances and details of Nietzsche’s breakdown. Among the best are Podach (1930)
and Verecchia (1978). By far the most authoritative work on Nietzsche’s long
bouts with various illnesses and self-cures is Volz (1990).
Notes 177

In fact, the last letter is postmarked “January 5, 1888.” Burckhardt receives it on
January 6, and immediately shows it to Overbeck that day (see Bernoulli 1908,
pp. 229, 492). Thus does Nietzsche deliver the uncanny impression of instanta-
neous communication in Eternal Recurrence.
On December 15, Nietzsche witnessed from his window the elaborate funeral
procession of Eugenio di Carignano (1816–88), an important opponent of the
Risorgimento, which passed through the Piazza Carlo Alberto (see Pavia 1932).
The Palazzo Carignano is named for Carignano’s forefather, Eugenio di Savoia
(1663–736), the leading Field Marshall of his time, who repelled the Ottoman
Turks at the Battle of Vienna (1683). Thus, Nietzsche links his flat’s place name
to a third recent funeral—the other two will be mentioned in the next paragraph
of his letter. According to an eyewitness, Nietzsche first identified with the funeral
of Carignano, and only later with those of Robilant and Antonelli in the same
Piazza (see Pavia 1932).
The deceased King of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele II (1820–78). Emanuele II (ini-
tially Emanuele I) was indeed born in Turin. His father, Carlo Alberto, King of
Piedmont-Sardinia (1798–849) gave his name to the Piazza that Nietzsche’s flat
overlooks, and in which he had his breakdown on January 6, his arms embracing
a horse that is being beaten. Emanuele II is another icon of the Risorgimento
and is the first King of United Italy (1861). Deemed incompetent as a political
figure by many, he is quite successful as military leader. During the Crimean War,
he allies with Britain and France (at the Congress of Paris, 1856) against Russia
and Austria. Later fighting the Papal Army at Castelfidardo (1860), he drives
Pius IX back into Vatican City, an act for which Emanuele II is excommunicated
that year. He is an ally of Prussia against Austria and its allies in the Third Italian
War of Independence and the Austro-Prussian War (1866). While at university,
Nietzsche witnesses the Battle of Leipzig. The year Pius IX dies (1878), he reverses
Emanuele II’s excommunication. After his own death that same year, Emanuele
II is succeeded by his son, Umberto I (1844–900). Nietzsche’s penultimate letter
has been to Umberto I ( January 4, 1888), informing the King of Italy that “The
Crucified” is coming to Rome this week to convene a conference with the King
and Pope Leo XIII (SB 8: 577).
Thoroughly modern in many respects—including as partial decadent and
nihilist—Nietzsche often (i.e., strategically and tactically) sides with the ancients
in the battle between the ancients and the moderns.
On the schlecht in “schlechte Witze,” see my previous endnote 43. As shown by
Freud, there are many kinds of jokes, and not merely as the exposure of repressed
sexual desires or wishes, though this is obviously at play in Nietzsche’s “two bad
jokes” here. For Freud, there are “exposing or obscene jokes, aggressive (hostile)
jokes, cynical (critical, blasphemous) jokes” (Freud 1963, p. 115), and so forth.
As germane, in jokes Freud has “discovered in the condition of distracting the
attention, a by-no-means-unessential feature of the psychical process in the hearer
of a joke” (ibid., p. 153; em).
Schreiberei can also refer to a street stand used by professional writers producing
letters for illiterates, allowing Nietzsche to adopt their names as well.
Founded in 1826 as a satirical weekly, by 1866 the now-daily Le Figaro, named after
Beaumarchais’s Le Mariage de Figaro (its masthead: “Sans la liberté de blamer,
178 Notes

il n’est point d’élongé flatteur”) had attained the largest circulation of a French
newspaper. We have seen why Nietzsche mentions it in his letter, namely, Barrès’
feuilleton on Chambige. By leaving out the definite article, part of Nietzsche’s
joke about being “in close contact with Figaro” is that he is hereby alluding to
the titular protagonist of Beaumarchais’s opera. This is very black humor in
light of the Chambige case, not to mention Nietzsche’s assertion elsewhere that
Cosima-Ariadne and Dionysus-Nietzsche are married and thus in “close contact.”
Nietzsche does not say that he is harmless, only that he can be.
The French diplomat and architect Viscount Ferdinand-Marie Lesseps (1805–94)
had promoted and developed the Suez Canal (completed in 1869), which joined
the Mediterranean (West) to the Red Seas (East). When his name appears in
Nietzsche’s last letter, Lesseps is defending himself against charges of corruption
in his company, which is planning to build the Panama Canal. In 1888, his com-
pany has just gone bankrupt. He may be a “decent criminal” but no murderer.
Another “bad joke.”
Salin’s gloss: “I, the Immortal, great the ‘Immortals’—The God of the academi-
cians” (Salin 1948, p. 263).
“The Immortals” refers to the forty members (quarante) of the Académie
Française, excoriated by Alphonse Daudet (1840–97), “the French Dickens” and
frequent contributor to Le Figaro, in his aforementioned novel L’Immortel (1888).
It introduced the phrase “struggleforlifeur” (struggle-for-lifer), a version of Social
Darwinism (“the strong eat the weak”), into French literature and literary debates
in the 1880s and 1890s (see Clark 1984, pp. 109–10; Lyle 2008, pp. 305–19). The
main protagonist, Léonard Astier-Réhu, Perpetual Secretary of the Académie
Française, eventually commits suicide after having been ruined by his duplicitous
and ruthlessly ambitious Social Darwinian son, Paul, who is described in the
L’Immortel as “le nihiliste délicat.” During Nietzsche’s stay in Sorrento in
1876/1877, when he visited the Mithras Grotto in Capri, and again in Sils-Maria
and in Nizza in 1886, he enthusiastically read Daudet’s earlier novel, Le Nabab:
Roman de mœurs parisiennes (1877), written while ill and recalling his stay in
Algeria, where Chambige will murder Madame Grille.
Another overdetermined “bad joke.” The aforementioned suicide protagonist of
Daudet’s L’Immortel, Astier-Réhu, becomes the acronym (AST-U), but also that of
his son, who drives his father to kill himself. Astu has also been called a “patho-
logical babble-sound [pathologischer Lall-Laut]” (Bernoulli 1908, vol. 2: p. 494;
and Salin 1948, p. 263)—the traditional punishment meted out by the Greek
gods when they drive mortals insane. Additionally, Astu is a common Greek word
for “city”: αστυ. Finally, note the full stop (“Astu.”). This is an abbreviation for
several Greek words, including αστυ−αναξ (lord of the city), αστυ−νοµος (home-
less person), and αστυ−σια (male impotence). Several of Nietzsche letters in
December 1888 have been signed “N.”. The full stop fuses “Astu.” to “N.”.
Recently deceased politician Count Carlo Robilant (1826–88), bastard son of
Carlo Alberto, and whose funeral Nietzsche has just witnessed in the Piazza Carlo
Alberto “down below” his flat. “Down below” in his next clause also refers to
Nietzsche-God’s current sojourn on earth.
Recently deceased architect Alessandro Antonelli (1798–888), whose funeral
Nietzsche has also just witnessed in the Piazza Carlo Alberto. Antonelli designed
Notes 179

and built the Mole Antonelliana, originally the site or “centrum” of a synagogue,
which towers over Turin. It was dedicated to the aforementioned King Emanuele II,
son of Carlo Alberto and father to the also aforementioned Umberto I, whom
we will meet soon in person. In a letter on December 30, 1888, to Heinrich
Köselitz, Nietzsche has described the Mole as “the most genial edifice that
has perhaps been built” and says that it “resembles nothing other than my
Zarathustra” (SB 8: 565). Ecce homo is written in the “‘Prado’-Style,” Thus Spoke
Zarathustra in the Antonellian style. Since Nietzsche is living on Piazza Carlo
Alberto, he is not only “every name in history” but also every place or kentron.
The aforementioned Mole Antonelliana.
The internationally popular Spanish zarzuela, La gran vía, written (among others
and now Nietzsche) by Federico Chueca (1846–908). Set on the eponymous “grand
avenue” against the backdrop of “the city of the future,” it freely fuses comic
fantasy, vaudeville, and political satire. Another of Nietzsche’s contributions to
“the law of the canonization of the junior branch.”
See Nietzsche’s The Antichrist: Curse Against Christianity (1888): “Christianity has
cheated us out of the harvest of ancient culture, and later again out of the harvest
of Islam-culture. The marvelous Moorish culture-world of Spain, fundamentally
more related to us, speaking to our sensibility and taste more than Rome and
Greece, was trampled underfoot” (KSA 6: 249, A 60). “There should really be no
choice between Islam and Christianity, no more than between an Arab and a Jew.
The decision has been made, nobody is free to make any further choice. Either
one is Chandala or one is not. . . ‘War to the knife against Rome! Peace and amity
with Islam!’” (ibid., 250). He is citing German Emperor Friedrich II. The term
“Chandala” (or Tschandala) is then still being used in India, Ceylon, and Indo-
China. Nietzsche encountered it in the translations of the Vedas by Paul Deussen
as well as in a book he owned, Les législateurs religieux: Manou-Möise-Mahomet,
(1876) by the colonial judge and prolific writer, Louis Jacolliot (1837–90),
another source of Nietzsche’s (unreliable) information about “The Laws of
Manu,” which he admired. “Chandala” refers to the most despised people or “evil
men” who must live apart from all others. Thus, not unlike Nietzsche in many
quarters, in 1889 even his own.
Nietzsche’s accurate recognition that his “severe form of great contagious
nihilism” is beginning to grow internationally. Elsewhere he finds himself in
London, St. Petersburg, Copenhagen, New York, and Baltimore, among other
(Grüner) Veltiner is not Italian but Austrian wine—hence a provocation to Italy
from a bitter enemy. Nietzsche is armed to fight (or embrace) everybody on every
Recall that Prado and Chambige are “decent criminals.” Klossowski’s gloss:
“‘Everything that enters the kingdom of God also comes out of God’. This is
to say that in the kingdom of God all identities are exchangeable, and that
none of them is stable one time and for all. This is why ‘négligé is the rule
of decency’ [. . .]. ‘Négligé,’ in other terms, is the infinite availability of divine
histrionism” (Klossowski 1975, p. 344).
As with Cosima Wagner, to be loved by Nietzsche is a dangerous thing. Too,
he has not signed “Nietzsche” since he signed “Nietzsche Caesar” to August
180 Notes

Strindberg on December 31, 1888 (SB 8: 568) and “Nietzsche Dionysus” to

Catulle Mendés on January 1, 1889 (SB 8: 571). He has not signed simply
“Nietzsche” since December 29, 1888, in the letter to his publisher, C. G.
Naumann, in which he explores issues related to the problematic publication
of Ecce homo, Twilight of the Idols, and The Wagner Case.
Once again the aforementioned King of Italy, Umberto I (1844–1900), born in
Turin, son of Vittorio Emanuele II and grandson of Carlo Alberto. Umberto I is
incandescently loathed by anarchists and nihilists, who began making assassination
attempts on him in 1878. The almost-successful Neapolitan assassin, Giovanni
Passannante (1849–78), is driven insane during torture in gaol. The successful
assassination of Umberto I finally occurs in 1900, the year Nietzsche dies, directly
inspiring the assassination of American President William McKinley (1843–
1901)—first pioneer of U.S.-lead “globalization”—by the Polish-American
anarchist Leon Czolgosz (1873–1901), who is also inspired by Emma Goldman.
(On “Wilhelm” see my final endnote.) When Leon shoots him, and the enraged
crowd attempts to kill the former, McKinley shouts to his bodyguards: “Boys!
Don’t let them hurt him!” William McKinley’s last words are: “It is God’s way. His
will be done, not ours.” Leon Csolgosz is soon electrocuted near Ithaca, New
York. Nietzsche-God-Prado’s “double rhetoric” of suicide-cum-murder—his
kentron, his meson, his krainein—can will little better for the time being, this time
in Eternal Recurrence.
Queen Consort of the Kingdom of Italy (1851–1926), also born in Turin, married
to Umberto I, her first cousin. She gave birth in 1869 to Vittorio, later King
Emanuele III (1869–1947). Margherita is an important patron of the arts, and
Nietzsche has earlier attempted to have her support his musician friend
Heinrich Köselitz. (In the 1920s, she will be sympathetic to Mussolinian Fascism.)
Recall, once again, the Mithras Grotto in Capri. Thus, what Nietzsche means
by “the rest” is murderous-eroticism. Le Marquis de Sade: “There is no better
way to know death than to link it with some licentious image” (cit. Bataille
1986, p. 11).
“How are we doing? I am god, this caricature is my creation.”
Joseph Caiaphas is successor to Annas as High Priest, attaining that position in
A.D. 18, and so in power at the time of the trial of Jesus, whom he finds guilty of
blasphemy and immediately forwards to Pilate for execution (Matthew 26.3, John
18.13, 24). In another Gospel, Caiaphas judges that it is “expedient […] that one
man should die for the people” (John 11.49–52; 18.14). Here, Nietzsche-God is
protecting Himself and His Son, though he has fathered many other sons, as he
says, never least Prado.
Reference to botched attempts by doctors (and therefore also Nietzsche) to cure
his various ailments, including syphilis (which may not have been Nietzsche’s
Received opinion (even Colli and Montinari) to the contrary, this is obviously not
Otto von Bismarck. Nietzsche is indeed referring to the German Chancellor’s
younger son Wilhelm Bismarck (1852–1901), who dies in the same year as William
McKinley. Like Friedrich Nietzsche, Wilhelm Bismarck participates in the Franco-
Prussian War, in which the latter is awarded the Iron Cross for Gallantry and in
which the former may have contracted syphilis as a medical orderly. Like his
Notes 181

father, with whom he shares an uncanny resemblance, Wilhelm Bismarck

loves duelling. Nietzsche is baptized “Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche” by his anti-
Republican father in honor of the just-recently deceased Friedrich Wilhelm IV,
King of Prussia (1795–1861), who fights in the Wars of Liberation against
Napoleon. Publicly, Nietzsche drops his middle name after university studies
and earliest publications. In his last letter, “Nietzsche’s” reference to having
Wilhelm Bismarck “eradicated” is an assassination of his own hitherto suppres-
sed Christian names but with its tacit resurrection as an “every name in history”
(see further my endnote 69 supra)—“And the rest,” all others say, “is history” . . .
or “silence” . . .

Chapter 5
Notable exceptions in the secondary literature include Clark (1990, pp. 180–203),
Ridley (1998, pp. 115–26), Gemes (2006), Janaway (2007, pp. 229–44), and Hatab
(2008a, pp. 153–71; 2008b, pp. 110–17).
My attention to Nietzsche’s indirections in Essay III is indebted to Nehamas
(1985, pp. 120–37), Clark (1990, pp. 180–203), Staten (1990, pp. 50–68), Ridley
(1998, pp. 104–26), and Gemes (2006).
See Clark (1997, pp. 612–14).
The specified “epigraph” is now widely understood to comprise Section 1 of
Essay III (minus the call-and-response with which the section ends). See Wilcox
(1997, Clark 1997, p. 611) and Janaway (2007, pp. 169–70). My own sense is that
the “aphorism” in question comprises the following sentence: “That the ascetic
ideal has meant so many things to humankind, however, is an expression of
the basic fact of the human will, its horror vacui: it needs a goal—and it will rather
will nothingness than not will” (GM III: 1).
I develop this claim in Conway (2008b, pp. 101–3).
See Conway (2008b, pp. 96–103).
Nietzsche describes the “spectacle” that is about to unfold as “the most terrible,
most questionable, and perhaps also the most hopeful of all spectacles” (GM III:
27). See Ridley (1998, pp. 125–6).
Parts I–IV and the Conclusion draw on and develop material originally presented
in Conway (2008a, pp. 135–52).
Here I follow the line of interpretation developed by Gemes (2006, especially
pp. 191–3).
My interpretation of this section is indebted to Gemes (2006, especially p. 191).
I am generally indebted here to the extreme versions of this thesis advanced,
respectively, by Rosen (1995, for example, pp. 56–60) and Waite (1996, for exam-
ple, pp. 275–88), both of whom interpret Nietzsche as deliberately urging his
mediocre modern liberal readers to expend themselves in pursuit of a bogus
political agenda that these readers regard as faithfully Nietzschean.
The importance for Nietzsche of the theme of agon, or contest, has been explored
productively by a number of talented scholars. I am especially indebted in this
respect to Christa Davis Acampora, Jacob Golomb, Lawrence Hatab, David Owen,
Jacqueline Scott, Herman Siemens, and Tracy Strong.
182 Notes

He repeats this attribution later in this section. Now that the ascetic ideal
has managed to attract noble champions, it is finally worthy of Nietzsche’s pug-
nacity: “Equality before the enemy: the first presupposition of an honest duel.
Where one feels contempt, one cannot wage war; where one commands, where
one sees something beneath oneself, one has no business waging war” (EH
“Wise” 7). It may bear noting here that the duel was widely and historically
allowed to be the prerogative of noblemen. My attention to Nietzsche’s sugges-
tion of a potentially noble incarnation of the ascetic ideal is indebted to Leiter
(2002, pp. 282–3).
Nietzsche’s interest in his readers’ hearing is apparent in his initial address to
them, where he suggests that they (including himself) characteristically mishear
(and thus miscount) “the twelve trembling bell-strokes of our experience, our
life, our being” (GM “Preface” 1). Although their self-absorption has protected
them thus far, Nietzsche has determined that it is high time for them (including
himself) to hear and accurately count the bell-strokes of their existence, their
lives, their being (see also GM I: 9, I: 14, III: 7, III: 14, III: 19, III: 27).
Gemes productively associates the category of the strange with that of the uncanny
(Gemes 2006, pp. 201–6).
That the beasts of prey were unable to detect this imposter in their midst may be
the first sign of their inevitable decay.
Here I follow the translation proposed by Clark and Swensen (p. 1).
As Nietzsche explains in a passage that may have provided the basis and/or inspi-
ration for GM “Preface” 1, the “common people” and “we philosophers” alike
understand knowledge to involve the “reduction” of “something strange [etwas
Fremdes] . . . to something familiar [etwas Bekanntes]” (GS 355). In the “natural
sciences,” he allows, “it is almost contradictory and absurd to choose for an
object what is not-strange [das Nicht-Fremde]” (ibid.).
See Gemes (2006, pp. 191–3).
Here I follow the translation offered by Clark and Swensen (p. 108).
Nietzsche elsewhere attests to his own acquaintance with self-narcosis, which he
relates to “the need for deadening the feeling of desolation and hunger by means
of narcotic art—for example, Wagnerian art” in (EH “Human” 3). “In Germany,”
he observes, “all too many are condemned to choose vocations too early, and
then to waste away under a burden they can no longer shake off—These people
require Wagner as an opiate: they forget themselves, they are rid of themselves for
a moment.—What am I saying? For five or six hours!” (EH “Human” 3).
Nietzsche’s use here of Anführungszeichen recalls his practice in The Gay Science
(GS 354–5), where he meant to establish that what is popularly known as
knowledge simply involves the reduction of something strange to something
familiar. Here he may mean to signal the progress of his best readers toward an
understanding of the limits of this model of knowledge.
See The Gay Science (GS 375).
“Too good” [‘zu gut’] is also how he describes how the ascetic ideal makes “the
majority of mortals” feel about themselves vis-à-vis “this world” (GM III: 1).
See Gemes (2006, p. 206).
For example, his reference to the “Nay-sayers and outsiders of today . . .” recalls
his description of his “we” in The Gay Science (GS 357), which, as we shall see, he
actually imports into the text of the Genealogy of Morals (GM III: 27).
Notes 183

Here we might note the emerging theme of showing people what they cannot
see. But he does not write in large letters, as at the end of Essay I.
For the sake of consistency, I have translated fremder as “stranger,” rather than as
“more foreign,” which is favored by Kaufmann and Hollingdale and Clark and
Swensen (p. 109).
He explicitly identifies himself and his “we” as “free spirits” at HAH I “Preface” 7.
For an illuminating discussion of this point, see Ridley (1998, pp. 96–9).
Here too I follow the translation suggested by Clark and Swensen (p. 110).
Kaufmann and Hollingdale offer “experimentally” to translate the German
adverb versuchsweise, which is a term of increasing importance in the post-
Zarathustran period of Nietzsche’s career. A Versuch is an experiment or an attempt,
but it also suggests a temptation or enticement. Nietzsche called his 1886 Preface
to the new edition of The Birth of Tragedy, “An Attempt at a Self-Criticism” [Versuch
einer Selbstkritik]. He also suggests Versucher as a name for the “new species of
philosopher” that he sees “coming up” (BGE 42).
As Owen notes, the currency of Nietzsche’s narrative at this point in the Genealogy
of Morals positions his best readers to understand that “we are compelled by a
reason derived from the core of ‘morality’ to engage in the project of revaluation
to which Nietzsche enjoins us” (Owen 2007, p. 129).
Here I follow the general line of interpretation developed by Loeb (2008,
pp. 169–74).
Here I follow the general line of interpretation developed by Ridley (1998,
pp. 99–104) and Owen (2007, pp. 126–30).
Here I follow the translation offered by Clark and Swensen (originally on p. 47).
On “the self-overcoming [Selbstüberwindung] of morality,” see Ecce Homo (EH
“Destiny” 3) and Beyond Good and Evil (BGE 32).
In The Gay Science (GS 357) itself, he identifies “unconditional and honest
atheism” as a “triumph achieved . . . by the European conscience.” He alters this
passage for its (unacknowledged) inclusion in the Genealogy of Morals (GM III: 27).
Here too I follow the translation suggested by Clark and Swensen (originally
on p. 47).
Nietzsche also refers to the “law of life” in Twilight of the Idols (TI “Morality” 6).
My renewed interest in the failings of Zarathustra is indebted to Loeb’s excel-
lent study, The Death of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra (forthcoming). I should say,
however, that Loeb does not share, and should not be held to account for,
my interpretation of Zarathustra’s embrace of Eternity.
The wisdom they stand to gain may be related to what Nietzsche elsewhere
calls “tragic wisdom” (EH “BT” 3).
This assumption is supported by his later discussion of what he and his fellow
“good Europeans” are prepared to sacrifice for their “faith” (GS 377).
On the possibility and desirability of such a critique, see Janaway (2007,
pp. 229–33).
The grammatical form of Nietzsche’s question here—was bedeutet aller Wille
zur Wahrheit?—not only recalls the question embedded in the title of Essay
III—was bedeuten asketische Ideale?—but also represents a more precise, more
current formulation of the titular question. Those who pose such a question
will fully appreciate that the will to truth is the most current form of the ascetic
184 Notes

Nietzsche also claims this role for his “we” in D “Preface” 4.
The self-referential nature of their interrogation of the will to truth may be meant
to anticipate, or perhaps facilitate, the “revaluation of all values,” which Nietzsche
elsewhere describes as “an act of supreme self-examination on the part of
humankind, become flesh and genius in me” (EH “Destiny” 1). See Owen (2007,
pp. 126–30).
In its original context, the passage imported from The Gay Science (GS 357) is
followed by a discussion of how “Schopenhauer’s question immediately comes to
us in a terrifying way: Has existence [Dasein] any meaning [Sinn] at all?” (GS 357)
I am indebted here to the interpretation developed by Hatab (2008a, pp. 158–64);
see also Hatab (2008b, pp. 112–17).
See Hatab (2008a, pp. 160–3).
Initially presented by Nietzsche as likely to “miscount” the “twelve trembling
bell-strokes of . . . [their] being,” his best readers are presumed here to have
matured sufficiently that they may secure meaning [Sinn] for their “whole being”
(GM III: 27).
He elaborates on this vision of the future in Ecce Homo (EH: “Destiny” 1).
For a commentary on this account, see Conway (2008a, pp. 147–8).
While this claim might appear to be incompatible with his earlier reference to
the periodic resurgence of the “noble ideal of antiquity” (GM I: 16), he means
to imply here that no other extant ideal sponsored a goal whose pursuit would
provide the human animal with the desired feeling of power. The wound sus-
tained by the human animal was so deep, apparently, that the ascetic ideal alone
sponsored a goal—namely, self-deprivation—that would support the level of affec-
tive investment needed to deliver the feeling of power to which the human animal
was accustomed. See Ridley (1998, pp. 147–8) and Leiter (2002, pp. 286–8).
Here he finally reveals “what [the ascetic ideal] means; what it indicates; what
lies hidden behind it, beneath it, in it; of what it is the provisional, indistinct
expression, overlaid with question marks and misunderstandings” (GM III: 23).
Staten (1990, pp. 48–60), Ridley (1998, pp. 57–63), and Janaway (2007,
pp. 223–9) all offer insightful profiles of the priestly type.
Clark (1990) raises several cogent objections to the possibility and intelligibility
of any such “overcoming” of the ascetic ideal (pp. 193–203).
See Owen (2007, pp. 126–30) and Janaway (2007, pp. 237–9).
I am indebted here to Loeb (2008, pp. 170–1).

Chapter 6
Some Nietzschean-inspired thinkers such as Deleuze favor a distinction between
“ethics” and “morality” as a way of drawing a distinction between immanent
relations and transcendent norms (Bernard Williams also forges such a distinction
for not entirely dissimilar reasons). Whilst there is much to be said in favor of
this distinction nowhere does Nietzsche ever make use of it. When he criticizes
“morality” he uses both terms “Ethik” and “Moral” and likewise when he speculates
on the future morality he wishes to see flourish (see, for example KSA 12 1[33],
WP 720). See Deleuze (1988, chapter two).
Notes 185

See, for example, his lectures on the pre-Platonic philosophers, especially his
paean to Democritus (KGW IV 2: 211–362, chapter fifteen): “Now for the first
time is the total anthropomorphic world view of myth overcome . . . now we have
a rigorous, scientifically useful hypothesis” (p. 334).
A number of references could be given here, but let me single out for special
mention the excellent study by William Mackintire Salter, Nietzsche the Thinker:
A Study (Salter, 1917). The early reception of Nietzsche through naturalism
(and vitalism) provides one of the contexts in which Heidegger develops his
Nietzsche-interpretation and “confrontation” in the 1930s in which he is keen
to distance Nietzsche from biologism and what he calls “vulgar naturalism and
See, for example, Moore (2002) and the exemplary study by John Richardson,
Nietzsche’s New Darwinism (Richardson 2004).
See Leiter (2002) and Hatab (2005).
I am developing these insights about naturalism in Nietzsche’s day from a num-
ber of sources, including Guyau and Harald Höffding’s, Modern Philosophers and
Lectures on Bergson (Höffding 1915). Höffding divides modern philosophers into
different groupings: Nietzsche appears, along with Guyau and William James, in
the third group “The Philosophy of Value.”
Emerson’s philosophy is described by Guyau as one of “objective idealism” in
which the world is a precipitate of the soul. See Guyau (1962, p. 482).
In my view a few of the earliest appreciations of Nietzsche are stronger in some
respects than many recent studies for the simple reason that, in addition to being
philosophically astute about Nietzsche, they are much better informed about his
intellectual milieu and influences. Perhaps the best study of this kind I have come
across in the English speaking reception is the study by the American William
Salter, Nietzsche the Thinker: A Study. Many of the figures, sources, and influences
that Thomas Brobjer mentions and provides information on his recent helpful
study are known and discussed in these early appreciations such as Salter’s study
(see Brobjer 2008).
Brobjer notes that Nietzsche’s reading of the text “is likely to have been of major
importance for his views on ethics” (p. 91). For the purposes of this essay I have
been able to consult the fourth edition of the French from 1896 and the English
translation of 1898 based on the second edition. The differences between the
different editions are slight.
For some details see Brobjer (2008, p. 102 and p. 235, n. 32). Guyau’s text was
first translated into English in 1898.
The first page reference given is to the French edition (Guyau 2006, based on the
edition of 1896), the second to the English translation (Guyau 1898).
Bergson also makes virtually the same point several decades later in his The Two
Sources of Morality and Religion. For Bergson it is the ease with which philosophical
theories of ethics can be built up that should make us suspicious: “ . . . if the most
varied aims can thus be transmuted by philosophers into moral aims, we may
surmise, seeing that they have not yet found the philosophers’ stone, that they
had started by putting gold in the bottom of their crucible” (Bergson 1979,
pp. 90–1). The error of an intellectualist approach to morality, which is what
Bergson is attacking, is that it fails to appreciate the extent to which morality is
a “discipline demanded by nature” (ibid. p. 269).
186 Notes

Guyau’s Esquisse appears as part of a set of books listed by Nietzsche in a note
from the beginning of 1885 (KSA 11, 29 [67]). His annotated copy of the book
has been lost but his annotations can be found in the appendix to the German
translation of Guyau’s text by Elisabeth Schwarz (Guyau 1912, pp. 279–303).
The marginal notes were copied from the original by Gast and obtained by
Schwarz, supported by Fouillée, from the archive. For further insight see Fidler
(p. 77, n. 3) and Brobjer (p. 234, n. 22). Nietzsche writes “Ja” approximately
ten times, “bravo” four times, “ecco” two times, and “gut” and “sehr gut” approxi-
mately thirty times.
In the French original Guyau employs the Greek for both terms. Guyau’s concep-
tion of “anomos” was of course taken up by Emile Durkheim and put to quite
different ends in his well-known theory of “pathological anomie.” For further
insight see Orru (1983, pp. 503–4) and Watts Miller (1996).
In The Gay Science (GS 335) Nietzsche seeks to show that any attempt to truly
know ourselves must have recourse to the intellectual conscience which works as
a conscience behind our moral conscience which may be little more than the
product of habitually acquired opinions and valuations.
Guyau’s insight seems to anticipate the approach to the categorical imperative
Bergson proposes in his Two Sources: “an absolutely categorical imperative is
instinctive or somnambulistic, enacted as such in a normal state . . . ” (1979,
p. 26). See also Nietzsche on “the automaton of duty” in The Antichrist (AC 12).
There is an extended treatment of pessimism by Guyau in his Non Religion of
the Future, where he treats the same figures that occupy Nietzsche’s attention:
Leopardi, Schopenhauer, and von Hartmann (Guyau 1962, pp. 457–66).
For Nietzsche’s annotation see Guyau (1912, p. 286).
On the need for an “experimental morality” compare Nietzsche, Beyond Good and
Evil (BGE 210), and The Will to Power (WP 58 and 260).
Breeding for Nietzsche “is a means of storing up the tremendous forces of
mankind so that the generations can build upon the work of their forefathers”
and so provide, he thinks, some guarantee of perfection (KSA 15 [65]; WP 398).
For further insight see Richardson (2004, pp. 190–200).
For insight into the characteristics “morality” has for Nietzsche see also Geuss
On the importance of individuals in Nietzsche’s conception of a future morality
see, for example, The Will to Power (WP 269; KSA 12: 281, 7 [6]): “My idea: goals
are lacking and these must be individuals!” (Einzelne) (the contrast is with the
“slaves” one finds on the streets of our towns and cities). See also the positive
appeal to “strong individuals (starken Einzelnen) [les souverains]” (KSA 12: 380,
9[85]; WP 284).
This note from 1887–88 is entitled by Nietzsche “We Hyperboreans,” which is
not given in the The Will to Power. It may well be that Nietzsche has been
inspired in part by Guyau on this point who states that he will limit his focus
to “what in reality is desired” (désiré) in contrast to the “desirable” (désirable)
(p. 84; p. 72).
For Schopenhauer the basis of morality resides in compassion (Mitleid), the non-
egoistic par excellence: “The absence of all egoistic motivation is, therefore, the
Notes 187

criterion of an action of moral worth” (Schopenhauer 1995, p. 140). In acting

in accord with compassion it is not for Schopenhauer a case of my simply
elevating myself above my natural egoism and so becoming a moral agent; it is
rather, that I am now acting in accord with the metaphysical truth of existence:
namely, I have pierced the veil of Maya (illusion) and reached the real truth of
being that individuation (plurality) is not real and all is One. For Nietzsche,
Schopenhauer’s valuation is lacking in real psychological insight and intellec-
tual integrity. His position contra Kant is more complex because there is much
he admires in Kant, especially his appreciation of the importance of the severe
discipline involved in the “moral” training of the affects and his stress on auton-
omy. However, he detects selfishness in Kant’s moral law where there is supposed
to be a complete transcendence of the self and ego (see GS 335). Of course,
Kant’s point is that we cannot empirically disentangle the egoistic and nonfree
from the free and the nonegoistic; nevertheless it is the nonegoistic that we
do, in fact, value in which liberation of action from interest and inclination is
required in order to make genuine moral autonomy possible. Nietzsche also
considers Kant to be a moral philosopher lacking in integrity and keen to satisfy
“the heart’s desire” (AC 12).
This note is from May–July of 1885. It begins with Nietzsche noting the deplor-
able condition of literature on morality in today’s Europe and then reviews
contributions in the area from England, France, and Germany. Nietzsche singles
out Guyau’s book for special praise along with Rée’s The Origin of Moral Sensations
(1877) and W. H. Rolph’s Biological Problems (1881). He regards these three texts
as the strongest in contemporary ethics.
He also mentions, which is intriguing, Goethe’s specific appreciation of Spinoza.
See also The Will to Power (WP 850; KSA 12: 481, 10 [52]): “Nature cruel in her
cheerfulness; cynical in her sunrises . . . Our moralistic susceptibility to stimuli
and pain is, as it were, redeemed by a terrible and happy nature, in the fatalism
of the senses and forces. Life without goodness.”
At one point in his text on ethics Guyau discusses the position he calls “the
deepest moral skepticism” and in the margin Nietzsche writes “moi.” See Guyau
(1912, p. 283).
The free spirit, taken in this sense, differs from fanatic because he allows his
mortal enemy, the Christian moral and anemic ideal, not only to exist but to
even flourish (see KSA 12, 10 [117]; WP 361).
In Twilight of the Idols (TI “Germans” 2), David Strauss, the subject of Nietzsche’s
first untimely meditation of 1873, is described as “the foremost German
I follow Höffding in favoring this description of Nietzsche’s project over the
more familiar “aristocratic radicalism” since radicalism suggests something
Nietzsche is not. See Höffding (1915, p. 178).
A concern with the herd existence and gregariousness is not peculiar to
Nietzsche but is also a concern in the work of Spencer and also Francis Galton
whose text of 1883, Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development, has a
chapter devoted to the treatment of “Gregarious and Slavish Instincts” (Galton
1907, pp. 47–57).
188 Notes

See James (1956, pp. 184–216) and Royce (1899, pp. 349–84).
Darwin (2004), especially chapter four.
The English translation wrongly has “psychological” here for the French.
It can be noted that “sympathy” (Mitgefühl) is one of the four noble virtues listed
by Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil (BGE 284) along with courage, insight, and
Nietzsche here is talking of sacrificing one goal for another.
See for example the treatment in Fidler (1994, pp. 89, 96–7).
On philosophy as the most spiritual form of the will to power see Beyond Good
and Evil (BGE 9). On the coupling of love and malice see the denouement to
the Second Essay of the Genealogy of Morals.
See Vattimo (2007, pp. 39–46).

Chapter 7
Unless otherwise noted, parenthetical citations refer to the essay and section
number of the Genealogy of Morals (so here to Section twelve of the Second Essay).
I have used the Kaufmann and Hollingdale translation, but have frequently
modified it or replaced it with my own.
For further criticism of an ahistorical understanding of the will to power and
its human manifestations, see Staten (2005). States ascribes to Nietzsche a more
subtle position than does Leiter, but even so reveals important problems with
the attempt to understand creativity as an inner impulse of a will to power that
is purely active or creative, or that acts on and reworks physical and historical
contingencies without being affected by them in any significant way.
Nietzsche himself seems to embrace such a notion at times, as for instance in
his discussion of the forgotten and obscured “diverse origins” of the “German
soul” (BGE 244), and especially in his insistence on the importance of heredity in
determining the spiritual as well as the physical characteristics of an individual
(BGE 261, 264, GS 348–9).
For this general claim about the naturalist purpose of genealogy, see Clark (1998,
pp. xxi–xxiii) and Leiter (2002, pp. 172–3); for a specific account of how the
Second Essay in particular performs this function, see Conway (2007, pp. 76–85)
and Janaway (2007, pp. 124–42).
Here I am only trying to reconcile Nietzsche’s concern with the origin of political
society with his insistence that origins do not determine later meaning; I am not,
in other words, giving anything like a comprehensive account of the significance
of Nietzsche’s practice of genealogy (I mention the naturalist facet of it only
because nature plays a central role in Nietzsche’s account, as we will see below).
For more on the purpose and import of genealogy in Nietzsche’s thought see
Foucault (1984), Geuss (1999), Guay (2005), and Owen (2007) (a necessarily very
short and incomplete list).
Several very good recent studies of the Genealogy of Morals focus their readings of
the Second Essay almost exclusively on the formal characteristics of the kind of
morality Nietzsche is discussing, the evocative figure of the sovereign individual,
Notes 189

and the meaning of guilt and its relation to the bad conscience (Conway 2007,
Janaway 2007, Owen 2007; also May 1999). My concern here is with morality qua
instinctual repression of instinct and the place of nature in morality so under-
stood. I therefore do not engage at length with these studies, though I certainly
acknowledge their value for understanding the questions raised by the Second
Essay and by the Genealogy of Morals as a whole.
Statements like this certainly raise the question of the political or cultural effects
Nietzsche intended for this type of rhetoric to have. This question has been raised
most cogently by Stanley Rosen (e.g., Rosen 1989, Rosen 1995 passim) and Geoff
Waite (Waite 1996, especially, e.g., pp. 86 ff., 166 ff., and chapter three), but one
should also note Henry Staten’s somewhat different treatment of this problem
(Staten 1990 and 2005). For the limited purposes of this essay I try to set aside the
question of Nietzsche’s rhetoric as much as possible, to see if Nietzsche’s account
of the relation between moralized repression of instinct and nihilism can be
understood in purely thematic or theoretical terms. Obviously, however, this
yields only a partial or provisional interpretation of Nietzsche’s text.
As Keith Ansell-Pearson puts it, Nietzsche “is very much concerned with combat-
ing what he takes to be a ‘reactive’ view on this question: the view that the origins
of social order lie in the passions and needs of weak and insecure individuals”
(Ansell-Pearson 1994, p. 138).
At least this is how Nietzsche presents them in the First Essay of the Genealogy of
Morals. Elsewhere Nietzsche presents the noble classes of societies as somewhat
more spiritually complex and sophisticated, as for instance when he says that the
troubadour ideal of love as passion is of noble origin (BGE 260), a suggestion
somewhat at odds with the portrait of vacant self-congratulation which Nietzsche
paints in the First Essay.
This point can also be made by referring to the definition of conscience
Aaron Ridley uses in his book on the Genealogy of Morals: “To have a conscience,
then, good or bad, is to be not merely conscious but self-conscious: it is to
have the capacity to make oneself the object of one’s own consciousness and a
corresponding potential to make oneself the object of one’s own will” (Ridley
1998, p. 15). The nobles, at least as Nietzsche presents them in the First Essay,
are self-conscious enough—though barely, and perhaps not always—to be the
object of their own (self-affirming) consciousness, but have little or no reason
to make themselves the objects of their own transformative will (and are not
presented as doing so in Nietzsche’s account). They have, in this sense, half
a conscience.
In this context, it is also worth citing Ridley’s discussion of why the original
nobles are not Nietzsche’s models or goals (pp. 131–4). Although I disagree
with some aspects of Ridley’s construal of human development as it is presented
in the Genealogy of Morals, I think his basic account of Nietzsche’s dissatisfaction
with the ancient nobles is correct.
In the same way, the artist-lawgivers appear even in Nietzsche’s account to have
used the form of the debtor-creditor relationship rather than creating it them-
selves; they do not create wholly new forms so much as they create new systems
of purposes within which to reinterpret and redirect already existing forms.
I therefore think Nietzsche’s account can be interpreted to meet at least some
190 Notes

of the objections expressed in Staten 2005, though certainly the rhetorical

thrust of Nietzsche’s presentation of the artist-lawgivers, if nothing else, seems
to suggest a human or cultural creation ex nihilo.
On this point see Aaron Ridley’s discussion of creative and noncreative ressenti-
ment in Nietzsche’s Conscience (Ridley 1998, pp. 22–5).
Nietzsche’s use of Natur here rather than Wesen or Art, both of which he uses
much more frequently than Natur, indicates that he is identifying this force
powering the bad conscience as natural, as indeed he has identified the same
force as natural when it manifests itself in the artist-lawgivers.
One might also think that the sense of self was too rudimentary or nonexistent
for those being terrorized or tyrannized to experience the sense of personal
aggrievement and rancor that are necessary for ressentiment. But the rest of
Nietzsche’s treatment of ressentiment, especially his discussion of its relation to
the earliest law codes (in GM II: 11), suggests that the sense of self is well-
developed enough to allow for ressentiment from almost the first moment of
human sociability. Thus however primitive the sense of self and therefore of
ressentiment at the founding of a political society, it is still a possibility, and its
absence in those coerced by the law must be explained in another way.
I have been writing as if the slave and the priest are interchangeable, but in real-
ity the priest complicates matters considerably. Although Nietzsche stresses the
depth of the priest’s experience of ressentiment (GM III: 11), the priest’s value
judgments seem to originate in a basic negation of or aversion to certain aspects
of physical reality (specifically those involving the body: GM I: 6), not his political
enemies, and however great his ressentiment toward the more physically powerful
knightly aristocrats may be, he is eventually able to despise them (GM III: 15).
Thus the priest does not seem to be simply another instance or even simply a
more capable or articulate version of the slave; while slave morality is at bottom
just a thwarted and mendacious deformation of noble morality (an attempt to
enjoy or experience a sensation of power by affirming oneself), the priest’s values
and way of life seem largely unique, and to be based on a profound reaction
against basic reality which makes him exceedingly creative (even if this creativity
is ultimately disastrous for humanity).
Obviously, Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents is relevant here, but a compari-
son of Nietzsche and Freud is beyond the scope of this paper. Very briefly, though,
I think that Nietzsche takes the side of civilization, or of human morality and self-
creation, against both Freud and Rousseau, largely because for Nietzsche these
things are set in motion by a dynamic, continually self-overcoming nature, rather
than being a simple mutilation of an original, more or less fixed human nature
composed of a set of drives that did not contain any inner necessity to develop
and complicate themselves.
In time particular societies may impose a new order or discipline (Zucht) upon
the biological instincts, but even then I believe Nietzsche’s view is that the bad
conscience, here understood in its most penetrating and creative sense, remains
alienated from them and constantly working to remake and overcome the
socially imposed order or structuring of the drives. On the notion of socially
inculcated instincts, see Conway (1997, pp. 30–4 and chapter two more gener-
ally), which, although specifically concerned with the problem of decadence in
Notes 191

Nietzsche’s late thought, illuminates many important points in Nietzsche’s

mature psychology.
Nietzsche’s language in this passage also announces the full sense in which nature
has set itself the task of breeding an animal permitted to promise (GM II: 1): the
ultimate goal of humanity is not only for individual human beings to be able to
promise as individuals, but for humanity to be able to promise as a species, to be
able to promise something greater than and beyond the mere human; the goal
of humanity, as of all great things, is to overcome itself and so to destroy itself
by reaching its goal or endpoint, to reach a point where humanity is no longer
the goal. Again, the bad conscience or the moral repression of instinct is not
an impediment to reaching this goal but rather the condition of being able to
pursue it at all.

Chapter 8
This essay marks a continuation of Porter (2003) and Porter (2005), which form
part of an ongoing project to be titled Love of Life, From Antiquity to the Present.
Deleuze (1983, p. 9) echoing Heidegger (Heidegger 1961, 1: 161).
This might be a fair way of putting Nietzsche’s outlandish “theory.” Unfortu-
nately, Deleuze is not entirely consistent, and he cannot coherently account
for the generation of affirmation’s opposite, negation: it is variously “the aggres-
sion of an affirmation,” “subsequently-invented” (Deleuze 1983, p. 9) and an
“immediate qualit[y] of becoming itself” (p. 54); what it wants is “to deny what
differs” (p. 78). Deleuze’s theory thus rigorously reflects the incoherence of
Nietzsche’s will to power. A different assessment is needed.
For instance, in his claim that “life itself is essentially appropriation, injury,
overpowering of what is alien and weaker; . . . and at least, at its mildest, exploita-
tion [. . . , which] belongs to the essence of what lives, as a basic organic function”
(BGE 259). This “active, aggressive” account of the will to power simultaneously
encompasses and, by rhetorical implication, excludes weakly and passive reactive
Reprinted in Maier (1968, pp. 71–147). On Aristotle, see ibid. (p. 117, n. 95).
Maier 1968, pp. 74–5. This innovation is not in fact original with Kant but
contemporary; it is found in G. S. A. Mellin’s Encyclopädisches Wörterbuch der
kritischen Philosophie (1797–1804; cited by Maier 1968, p. 75).
Dilucidatio, Prop. X; cit. Maier (1968, p. 94).
Maier 1968, p. 88. Cf. ibid., p. 90.
Maier 1968, p. 137: “Negation in appearance is thus merely realitas evanescens, or
reality in diminishing degree.”
Citations after Schopenhauer 1977 (abbreviated as W).
Life dominated by historical remembrance “is far less living and guarantees
far less life for the future than did a former life dominated not by [historical]
knowledge but by instinct and powerful illusions” (UM II).
In the earlier account (UM II: 9), Nietzsche regards this delusion as a sign of
“incapacity for action” and of a historical cynicism whose incantation to itself is,
“We have reached the goal, we are the goal, we are nature perfected.” Nietzsche
192 Notes

replies, “Overproud European of the nineteenth century, you are raving!”, and so
on (p. 108; trans. Hollingdale).
See Porter (1998) for an analysis of the Sovereign Individual.
This follows despite the odd irregularity of the last “that”-clause, which is perhaps
most naturally construed as representing a fact not about the reactive subject
but (elliptically) about her own belief. (Similarly, the final “as”-clause.)
Cf. also Hartmann (1869, pp. 635–6; cited in UM II: 9). See also Herman (1997,
p. 85): “The stance of suicide is active; it preserves an inner sense of control” and
is “a sign of resistance and pride.”
Ressentiment’s more customary face is that of an affirmation in the form of a denial
(GM III: 28).
And not because it is a property of a belief or feeling. See next note. Similarly,
Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Z II: 6), a reflection about the “maggots in the bread of
life” who inspire “not my hatred but my nausea”: “Alas, I often grew weary of the
spirit when I found that even the rabble had esprit,” namely, will to power and life.
Hence, “the great disgust with man.” And yet, one must acknowledge that “the
man of whom you are weary, the small man,” “eternally recurs” (ibid., III: 13;
trans. Kaufmann).
As, for example, in Beyond Good and Evil (BGE 204), where philosophers of a
certain persuasion (it does not much matter which) are rebutted for “having
desired more of themselves at some time without having had the right to this
‘more’ and its responsibilities.” This, too, is remarkably stingy for someone as
interested as Nietzsche is in promoting the health of the philosophers of the
In the present passage, Nietzsche doesn’t pronounce on the question, but my
point is that were he to indict the feeling of self-affirmation for being subjectively
false he would not also indict it for being a feeling: the feeling as such remains
objectively “true.”
Cf. “has already learned.” The question has to be asked: Has Nietzsche been
seduced by a reactive fantasy into an identification with it? Only, the question,
once posed, has to be directed not only to the present passage, but to the Genea-
logy of Morals as a whole. Cf. The Gay Science (GS 370), where Nietzsche’s ideal, the
“Dionysian,” includes by definition “the hatred of the ill-constituted, disinherited,
and underprivileged” (emphasis added).
One way to justify a difference is to say that the Nietzschean affirmation is an
activity one spontaneously performs without the attendant feeling (or conscious-
ness) of affirmation. But this possibility is falsified by Nietzsche’s text, as was just
seen (and compare: “the noble, powerful, high-stationed and high-minded, who
felt and established themselves and their actions as good, that is, of the first rank,
in contradistinction to all the low, low-minded, common and plebeian,” GM I: 2);
and such a possibility ought, I wish to argue, to be discounted as nothing but
an idealization of affirmation itself. The power a subject has is reducible to the
feeling of power a subject has. Affirmation is the affirmation of this power, and
therefore of this feeling.
See especially what leads up to the quotation just given: “ . . . behind every great
human destiny there sounded as a refrain a yet greater ‘in vain!’ This is precisely
Notes 193

what the ascetic ideal means: that something was lacking . . .” There is a certain
circularity here. The void exists only insofar as it is feared, but the fear is prompted
by the prospect of the void. We have before us, in other words, a retrospective
and self-confirming lack.
These last two words are missing from The Will to Power (WP 5), which I have
slightly modified in the translation.
Dühring’s ideal, which is that of a human life on the brink of despair but consti-
tutionally denied the way to a nihilistic conclusion (1865, p. 173), likewise fights
off pessimism toward life. His view is a subtle counter to that of a superhumanity
(Übermenschlichkeit), which he contemplates (e.g., Dühring 1865, p. 6), and a
good deal closer to what is arguably Nietzsche’s implied and internal critique of
his own mythical (or just hazy) image of an Übermensch. Nietzsche simply makes
arriving at “belief in the value of life” (Dühring) considerably harder and more
desperate an affair than Dühring allows.

Chapter 9
There are of course exceptions to this: commentators who have called attention to
Nietzsche’s antipolitical stance. See, for example, Kaufmann (1950/1968), Hunt
(1985), Bergmann (1987), and Pippin (1991).
See, for example, Detwiler (1990), Brinton (1941), and Appel (1998).
See, for example, Warren (1991) and Hatab (1995).
See, for example, Honig (1993), Owen (1995), and Connolly (2002). One should
of course be somewhat wary of my neat compartmentalization: most of the above
cited works are more complex than I can represent here, and some of the most
interesting work takes on clearly hybrid strategies, such as those of Strong (1972),
Ansell-Pearson (1994), and Conway (1997).
Since writing this paper, I have come across Shaw (2007), which among its many
other merits, provides a nuanced account of Nietzsche’s attitude toward politics.
Her account is much more subtle than the procedure of tabulating the merits
and demerits, from Nietzsche’s perspective, of the elements of politics. Neverthe-
less I cannot discuss her approach in the present context.
One way of illuminating this point is by a contrast with Aristotle, for whom
pure actuality is possible (albeit not for human beings). Whereas for Nietzsche
all powers are contingent upon determination, for Aristotle having a power is to
realize, and thus exclude, such a determination.
I have discussed these issues in Guay (2002 and 2006a).
I use this as a term of art: there are of course other meanings given to “contin-
gency,” with reference to Nietzsche and in general. Since my present enterprise
is to examine the political implications of contingency, I am not concerned to
present a very fine-grained account of contingency itself here; indeed, a suitably
generalized account should be better at bringing out the implications. Neverthe-
less, one can find different accounts of contingency in Nietzsche in Havas (1995)
and Small (2004). Havas of course cites Rorty (1989), which offers a different
account of contingency from the one presented here. As far as I can tell, what
194 Notes

Rorty means by “contingency” is only the latter part of my account, namely that
human beings are determined by causes that lie outside of individual volition.
This, by itself, Nietzsche takes as obvious and trivial.
On the notion of a “fragility of goodness,” see Nussbaum (1986).
On the notion of fate in Nietzsche, see Owen and Ridley (2005).
I have discussed these issues in Guay (2006b).
I discuss this in Guay (2007).
On the impossibility of prospective self-knowledge, see Ecce Homo (EH
“Clever” 9).
I mean to claim something minimal here: not that the acknowledgement of
contingency is necessary for self-formative agency, or even useful in some way,
but merely that such an acknowledgement is valuable in understanding the
phenomenon of “Life.” Whether or not this understanding is itself valuable
I leave as an open question here.
I leave aside here the position that all contingency is false or should be ignored,
which Nietzsche discusses but does not take seriously.
These terms, of course, have meanings other than the ones operative here; the
present usage covers only a part of even Nietzsche’s use of the term.
On idealism see, for example, TL 1; D “Preface” 1; BGE 210; on realism see
GM III: 12; TI 9: 50.
On prudence, see, for example, UM II: 5; GS 3, 20; BGE 34, 205; GM I: 2, I: 12.
There are even types of prudence, such as “manly prudence” (Z II), the “pru-
dence of free spirits” (HAH 291), or even “the great prudence” (EH “Clever” 9)
that seem to be generally praiseworthy, unlike prudence as a whole.
One can find examples of this sort of conflation, or unexplained move from the
theoretical observation of the impossibility or unavailability of certain ideal hopes
to the practical commitment to change one’s attitude to them, in Nussbaum
(1986), Williams (2005), Reginster (2006), and Nussbaum (1994).
The necessity of error, in various forms, is a common theme in Nietzsche (also
see, for example, EH “Clever”; UM II: 3; HAH 16, 29; WS 12, 350; D 148, 425;
GS 107, 115, 121; BGE 24).
This is, incidentally, the main point of agreement between Nietzsche and
Christianity, at least in its perhaps imaginary non-Pauline form. The one great
invention of Jesus was the belief in unattainable ideals, such as perfected good-
ness, complete reconciliation of human and divine, fulfillment of all law and
prophecy, and unconditional love, the practice of which is undiminished by
this impossibility (cf. GS 377). In the pagan tragic picture by contrast, one
does achieve the impossible, but is afterwards or concurrently destroyed. Even
if Christianity never remained faithful to Jesus’ invention, for a moment at least
it promoted the possibility of agency: one can see this, for example, in Genealogy
of Morals (GM III: 28).
Cf. White (2001) on whether Life can be loved despite its untrustworthiness.
See PTAG 2; UM I: 4; UM II: 5, III: 3; A “Preface”.
See HAH 438; HAH 482.
See TI 8: 1.
See PTAG 6; HAH 170.
Notes 195

See HAH 472; GS 368; BGE 261; TI 9: 40; contrast with TI 5: 3.
See HAH 450, 474; D 179; BGE 241; TI 8: 4.
Nietzsche highlights the demand upon politics to provide an organized response
to urgent needs (see, for example, GS 56).
Cf. Nietzsche’s remarks on the meaning of ostracism (KSA I: 788).
The allusion here is of course to The Birth of Tragedy (BT “AS” 1).
I wish to thank the members of a panel organized by Jeffrey Metzger at a meeting
of the American Political Science Association (APSA) and my students at
Binghamton for helping me to write and improve this paper.

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Index of References

BGE 6 43 GM III: 24 67, 90–3

BGE 44 120 GM III: 27 93–8
EH “Books” 4 64–5 GM III: 28 98–101
EH “Destiny” 3 47–8 “The Greek State” 36, 169–70
EH “Z” 3 49–50 Letter of 5 January 1888
“European to Jacob Burkhardt 75–8
Nihilism” 39–46 TI “Morality” 5 49
GM I: 11 151–4 Z I: 1 29–30
GM II: 16–18 130–42 Z II: 9 53
GM III: 23 85–90 Z IV: 9 67
General Index

Achilles 22, 25 naturalism 103–18, 129

affirmation 32, 144, 148–50, 152–4 nature 113, 116, 119, 129, 130–2,
agency 144–6, 160–6 141, 160
Ariadne 71
art 12, 14–15, 16–19, 46 philology 56–63
asceticism 14, 46, 79–80, 82–6, 93, Plato 10–11, 12, 19, 23–7, 33–6
98–101, 153, 154–5, 165 political founding 130–7
politics 11–12, 21–2, 26–7, 158–9,
Barthes, Roland 57, 64–5, 173n. 9, 166–70
175n. 26
ressentiment 133–9, 151–3, 168–9,
Christianity 28–9, 33–4, 40–1, 47, 81, 190n. 14
94–7, 119, 127 rhetoric 9–13, 36, 55–65, 67–8, 79–81,
contingency 40, 159–66 175n. 26, 189n. 7
Rilke, Rainer Maria 52
Deleuze, Gilles 61, 66, 77, 144, 191n. 3 Rosen, Stanley 61, 66
Dionysus 71–2
Dostoevsky, Fyodor 32, 68–9, 176n. 35 Schopenhauer, Arthur 115, 148–9,
187n. 24
education 25–7, 31, 35–6, 80–1 Socrates 12, 23–5, 34
eternal recurrence, eternal return 17–19, Spinoza, Baruch 43
32, 42–3, 56–7, 61–2, 76, 117n. 48 Strauss, Leo 56

Gnosticism 37, 46–53 Thucydides 23

God, gods 17, 26, 28–9, 41, 59, 66, 71–2, truth 10, 12, 15–16, 18, 60, 63–4,
77, 92, 107, 141–2, 92–3, 156 see also truthfulness,
Guyau, Jean-Marie 104–12, 118–20, 122–4 will to truth
truthfulness 40–1, 96, 156 see also truth,
Heidegger, Martin 59, 63, 174n. 16 will to truth
Hölderlin, Friedrich 38
Voegelin, Erich 46, 48–9
irony 164–6, 169–70
war, warriors 21–7, 30–1, 33–6
Kant, Immanuel 9, 13, 107–8, 111, 147–8, will 81, 143–6, 148–9
149, 187n. 24 will to power 9, 11, 19, 28, 44, 61, 116,
Klossowski, Pierre 61, 76–7 121, 134, 137–8, 144–6
will to truth 41–2, 91–8, 100–1 see also
liberalism 20–1, 170 truth, truthfulness

morality 40–1, 44, 51, 102–3, 105–19, Zarathustra 29–33, 43, 47–8, 50, 53, 61,
122–4, 125–30, 135–41 67, 95, 137