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The Gentle Nietzscheans

Nietzsche, it is usually held, was purely a man of thought and letters, and he was certainly never involved in practical politics: his political thought is generally considered to come a long way, in importance, after his contributions to psychology, German prose, and the critique of ethics.

Such classifications have their uses, especially for librarians, but it may also be useful to ignore them. All writing that we know—even the writing of Samuel Beckett—is a form of social communication, a cryptic signaling going on in society and history. And this signaling is not going along a narrow channel, as the old New Criticism would perhaps have preferred.

It does not usually work, even among strong and trained intelligences, through the concentration of maximum attention on a series of texts—that is training or discipline at best; it may also be a game or a refuge. But the real creative and destructive process of communication goes on in jumps, and crisscross jumps at that. Each mind and each age take from the messages what they can absorb and feel they need, and in this process it is irrelevant whether the signaler or the receiver is classified as politician, poet, or philosophical writer.

Machiavelli was more important for Nietzsche than were the “purer” men of letters of the sixteenth century. Nietzsche, and later Burke, and an idealized picture of Renaissance Italy were more important in the development of Yeats’s imagination than were any of the poets of those places and times. A few lines of poetry, the selected aphorisms of a retired man of letters, may liberate the demon of a charismatic political leader. The whole imaginative and intellectual life of a culture is one interacting field of force.

It is necessary to emphasize this particularly in the case of Nietzsche because people have gone to great pains to insulate Nietzsche, to isolate him from the culture in which he has been so potent a force. There is, we are told, a legitimate way of understanding Nietzsche, and also illegitimate ways which twist his true meaning. The key to the legitimate way is a spiritual one. When Nietzsche praises, as he so often does, war and cruelty, we are told we must understand him as calling for spiritual struggle and a stern mastery over the self.

Remarks which cannot, on the face of them, be easily interpreted in that way may be attributed to the author’s taste for the provocative and the paradoxical, or may be described as not consonant with the general tenor of the work as a whole, which in turn is always presented in the most spiritual sense. The Nietzsche who emerges from this kind of treatment is an essentially benign schoolmaster, whose astringent and sometimes frightening quips conceal a heart of gold and a strenuous urge to improve the spiritual and moral condition of his pupils.

I cannot say exactly how prevalent this version of Nietzsche is in England; it is certainly influential. I do know that it is almost completely dominant in America, where nearly all the Nietzsche texts generally available in English are translated, introduced, and annotated by Professor Walter Kaufmann of Princeton, a noted Nietzsche scholar, who also happens, as far as interpretation is concerned, to be the king of the gentle Nietzscheans.*

The gentle Nietzscheans start out, properly enough, by demolishing the fiercer caricatures of Nietzsche. There are two sets of these caricatures, unfavorable and favorable, and they resemble each other closely. The unfavorable one is the Nietzsche of allied war propaganda in the two world wars. This might be summed up in the language of a headline in a Boston paper in 1940. I quote from memory: GERMAN AGGRESSION DUE TO MAD PHILOSOPHER, CATHOLIC WOMEN TOLD. The Nietzsche presented to the Catholic women of Boston and other similar audiences was distorted by being presented as a German nationalist and—especially in the Second World War—a crude anti-Semite.

There was naturally an emphasis on the more frightening of his sayings, leaving out of consideration anything that might tend to mitigate these. The superman and the blond beast were both taken as representing the Germans. Now the Nazis on their side, in adopting Nietzsche as their precursor, took over to a great extent the Nietzsche of allied First World War propaganda, with the difference, of course, that for them the idea of a blond bestial Germanic superman had favorable connotations.

The gentle Nietzscheans were able to point out correctly that Nietzsche was not a nationalist, that he seldom wrote of Germany and the Germans with anything but mockery, that his blond beast was without specific nationality, and that his superman was to transcend all such petty matters as nationality. Finally, they argued that, far from being an anti-Semite, Nietzsche was outspoken in his contempt for the anti-Semitic screamers of his own day: one of his last recorded sayings, as his mind finally gave way, was “I am having all the anti-Semites shot.”

So far, so good. The gentle Nietzscheans go on from there to argue that Nietzsche was, “thoroughly opposed to all proto-Nazism” and that Nazi writers can cite him “only at the price of incredible misquotation and exegetical acrobatics” (Kaufmann). I shall come back to this.

Nietzsche’s work, which coincides roughly with the decade of the 1880s, at the end of which period he became incurably mad, consists of essays, aphorisms, and the long rhapsodic fable Thus Spake Zarathustra. His most perfected form—at least for those who have no taste for Germanic lyric playfulness—is the aphorism, a form which of course tends to paradox and hyperbole. Contradictions did not worry him greatly, although I think that most of his contradictions are in fact superficial. His psychological insights were profound; they not only anticipate Freud but did much to: make Freud possible. Ernest Jones recalls that Freud several times said of Nietzsche that “he had a more penetrating knowledge of himself than any man who ever lived or was likely to live.”

The following aphorism would probably be identified by most people as either Freudian or post-Freudian.

I have done that, says my memory. I could not have done that, says my pride, and remains inexorable. My memory yields.

The aphorism is in fact from Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, written in 1885. Freud liked to say that he “tried to read Nietzsche,” “gave up studying” him, or “avoided” him. In fact, no one can try to read Nietzsche without absorbing quite a lot, and no one like Freud could have succeeded in avoiding Nietzsche by the turn of the century. It is no exaggeration to say that there was hardly an important mind in Europe in the first half of this century that was not deeply marked by Nietzsche. Some other minds, that seemed at first quite unimportant, were marked also.

The insights were profound, their formulation by preference explosive. Burke would certainly have classed Nietzsche, with deep disapproval, with those who “exploited the marvellous” giving rise to “new and unlooked for strokes in politics and morals.” Machiavelli was in fact a precursor of Nietzsche. The gentle Nietzscheans do not like this; Professor Kaufmann is on the watch. Nietzsche, he says, “refers to [Machiavelli] very infrequently, and there seems no good reason for linking their names as is sometimes done” (Glossary of Twilight of the I dols). The references may be infrequent—Nietzsche is as jealous as Freud was about his really quite safe reputation for originality—but they are not insignificant. The category of thinkers about whom Nietzsche was enthusiastic is very small indeed, and the Machiavelli of The Prince is high among them. Consider this from Beyond Good and Evil:

Machiavelli in his Principe lets us breathe the dry thin air of Florence and cannot resist presenting the most serious matters in an ungovernable allegrissimo—perhaps not without a malicious artist’s inkling of the antithesis he is venturing on: thoughts that are long, difficult, hard and dangerous—in a tempo of galloping along in the best and most playful high spirits.

Really, praise of this order hardly has to be frequent to justify a linking of names! Of this order, but above all of this type. For no one who reads Nietzsche at all could fail, one would think, to miss the point here: the adjectives he lavishes on Machiavelli—difficult, hard, dangerous, playful—are not only his terms of highest praise but, by no coincidence, those he likes to apply to his own work. I don’t think there is any other writer with the possible exception of Dostoevsky—a late discovery—about whom Nietzsche writes with such enthusiasm and sense of identification. Identification is strong indeed when the hero of one’s hero becomes one’s own hero.

It is unlikely I think that a nineteenth-century German would pick out Cesare Borgia as a heroic archetype, as Nietzsche does, had it not been for Machiavelli. Here again the gentle Nietzscheans are on hand with the disinfectant. Nietzsche’s treatment of Borgia “invites misunderstanding” we are told, but the invitation should be declined. Nietzsche called Borgia “a beast of prey” and “a tropical monster” and “these are not terms of approbation.” No doubt they are not for Professor Kaufmann. But for Nietzsche? Let us leave the question in suspense for a moment.

You will recall the opinion of those American scholars who held that Burke’s great achievement was “to close the Machiavellian schism between politics and morality.” As I have argued elsewhere, Burke did not in fact close the schism; he allowed for its continuing existence in “dreadful exigencies.” The thinker who closes it is Nietzsche, and he does so, not by restoring the dominion of morality over politics as those scholars imagined Burke to have done, but by letting loose the forces of Machiavellian politics to the destruction of the traditional Judeo-Christian morality.

For Machiavelli, cruelty and lying are still evils, but evils which rulers must sometimes practice, and whose use they must learn. For Nietzsche, cruelty and lying are necessary to healthy life and the vigor of their exercise by a ruler is not an exception but an inherent part of the ruler’s superiority, by which he liberates himself from the traditional slave morality and prefigures the Superman. The schism is closed.

The idea of the Umwertung des Wertes, the revaluation or transvaluation of values, is at the heart of Nietzsche’s system. The recurrent theme is that our culture has been poisoned by the Jews with the poison of the Gospels. The Jews, a strong and pure race but outnumbered, needed, for their own protection and survival, to infect the Gentiles with an ethic of pity and other moral inhibitions. The Gospels carried this infection, and it continues to work even in minds which reject the supernatural aspects of Christianity—in such forms as democracy, socialism, and a reluctance to destroy defective human beings. The reversal of values effected by the Jews must be re-reversed, permitting the emergence of a morality and order of the strong, the subordination of the inferior, and the elimination of the unfit.

  1. *

    All of the following books have been translated and/or edited by Walter Kaufmann: On the Genealogy of Morals: Ecce Homo, Vintage, $1.95 (paper); Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, Vintage, $1.65 (paper); Birth of Tragedy: Case of Wagner, Vintage, $1.65 (paper); Portable Nietzsche, Viking, $5.50, $1.95 (paper); Thus Spake Zarathustra, Viking, $1.45 (paper); The Will to Power, Random House, $10.00, $2.95 (paper); and, most recently, Basic Writings of Nietzsche, Modern Library, $4.95.

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