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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.

Primarily this is to be a moral and spiritual revolution: the gentle Nietzscheans emphasize this. But it also requires, and this they avoid recognizing, a political revolution: democracy and socialism are political concepts and their antithesis must also be political. The Nietzschean aphorism implies a strong executive, a prince. Nietzsche often writes with legislative intent, as in this passage from his posthumous MSS., which were collected under the title The Will to Power:

Society, the great trustee of life, is responsible to life itself for every miscarried life—it also has to pay for such lives: consequently it ought to prevent them. In numerous cases, society ought to prevent procreation: to this end, it may hold in readiness, without regard to descent, rank or spirit, the most rigorous means of constraint, deprivation of freedom, in certain circumstances castration.

No philosopher,” wrote Nietzsche, “will be in any doubt as to the type of perfection in politics; that is Machiavellianism. But Machiavellianism pur, sans mélange, cru, vert, dans toute sa force, dans toute son âpreté is superhuman, divine, transcendental, it will never be achieved by man, at most approximated.”

The bourgeois states of his own day were poor approximations or dilutions: even Bismarck was not Machiavellian enough. Yet Nietzsche, who did not always write respectfully of the state, came to see in it toward the end of his creative life a kind of collective superman, and this precisely because of its emancipation through Machiavellianism and raison d’état from the traditional morality. “Multiplicities,” he wrote,

are invented in order to do things for which the individual lacks the courage. It is for just this reason that all communities and societies are a hundred times more upright and instructive about the nature of man than is the individual, who is too weak to have the courage of his own desires. How does it happen that the state will do a host of things that the individual would never countenance? Through division of responsibility, of command and of execution. Through the interposition of the virtues of obedience, duty, patriotism, and loyalty. Through upholding pride, severity, strength, hatred, revenge—in short, all typical characteristics that contradict the herd type. None of you has the courage to kill a man, or even to whip him, or even to—but the tremendous machine of the state overpowers the individual, so he repudiates responsibility for what he does (obedience, oath, etc.) [The Will to Power].

It does not seem to me at all surprising that the Nazis should have held Nietzsche in such high regard. I cannot see that they required to distort his work or engage in exegetical acrobatics in order to like him. On the contrary it is in order not to see him as a proto-Nazi that these acrobatics are required. Not through occasional obiter dicta, but through the central thrust of his work, Nietzsche legitimizes ferocity and the politics of ferocity, an authoritarian politics freed from the trammels of Christian, liberal, and democratic tradition—including the trammels of that appearance of piety which was binding on Machiavelli’s Prince.

Compared with the effects of these “bold strokes in morals and politics” it seems to me that the contradictions which would make Nietzsche unassimilable by the Nazis or make it necessary to distort him are trivial, or the result of misunderstanding. It is true that he speaks contemptuously of the Germany and German nationalism of his contemporaries; indeed it is his way to treat every aspect of contemporary life with disdain.

But he does not—and as a good Machiavellian he could not—overlook the value of patriotism; on the contrary it is one of those “salutary interposing virtues” which permit the state to liberate the heroic and frightful powers of man. This surely must have presented very little difficulty to the Nazi ideologists.

What the gentle Nietzscheans always present as their trump card is actually a central weakness in their system. How, they ask, can Nietzsche be a precursor of the Nazis when he is actually on record as being an anti-anti-Semite? Now it is quite true that Nietzsche despises contemporary anti-Semites, and most notably his detested brother-in-law Bernhard Forster. It is also true that he sometimes praises the intellectual strength, imagination, and other qualities of Jews. And what he preaches—and he is a preacher—is anti-Christianity, and apparently not anti-Semitism. But—and it is a tremendous but—at the core of his anti-Christianity is anti-Semitism; he uses anti-Semitism as a tool for arousing anti-Christianity, and anyone who becomes anti-Christian by his route will be a hater of Jews.

In The Antichrist he writes about the Gospels: “One is among Jews,” he writes—the first consideration to keep from losing the thread completely. Paul and Christ were “little superlative Jews.” “One would no more associate with the first Christians than one would with Polish Jews—they both do not smell good.” “Pontius Pilate is the only figure in the New Testament who commands respect. To take a Jewish affair seriously—he does not persuade himself to do that. One Jew more or less—what does it matter?”

There are many sayings in that vein. One might perhaps find these harmless boutades, as the marvelous gentle Nietzscheans do, were it not for their position in the general strategy of his work, helping to establish the picture of the Jews as the arch corrupters of Aryan humanity, inventors of Christianity, the anti-Aryan religion par excellence and the revaluation of all Aryan values: Nietzsche’s language in Twilight of the I dols. The basic image is the old medieval one of the Jew poisoning the well, but the new twist is that the poison is nothing other than Christianity. Freud saw unconscious resentment against Christianity as a cause of Christian anti-Semitism.

Nietzsche’s writings encourage that resentment and point to the Jew as the author of the trouble. His real complaint against the vulgar Christian anti-Semites of his day was that they were not anti-Semitic enough; that they did not realize that they were themselves carriers of that Semitic infection, Christianity. The Jews, he wrote in The Antichrist, “have made mankind so thoroughly false that even today the Christian can feel anti-Jewish without realizing that he himself is the ultimate Jewish consequence.” He underlines the last words: they are the ultimate insult, and the ultimate revelation of the real character of Nietzsche’s supposed anti-anti-Semitism. He is in fact the most radically anti-Semitic writer, as well as the most radically anti-Christian writer, known to history.

Nietzsche’s writings were widely disseminated in Germany and elsewhere, in popular editions and selections, long before the Nazis came to power, and also after that date. We cannot know what specific effect they had. Certainly it was defeat in the First World War, and not the mad philosopher of whom the Boston ladies heard, which was responsible for the rise of a demogogic, chauvinist, militarist political movement in Germany, and certainly any such movement in Germany would have been anti-Semitic, even if Nietzsche had never lived. But what Nietzsche did was to encourage the substitution of an anti-Christian anti-Semitism for the old bumbling self-contradictory Christian anti-Semitism. Nietzschean anti-Semitism was an anti-Semitism without inhibitions—more, an anti-Semitism in the context of a cult of pride, severity, strength, hatred, revenge, and a cult of the state which lets loose these emotions.

Unless one goes so far as to deny all influence to the dissemination of ideas, I think one is forced to see that a mass movement permeated by Nietzsche’s ideas—not in their Kaufmannite dilution but straight out of the bottle—is going to be a more dangerous and thoroughgoing affair than one which is still affected by the inhibitions of the traditional ethic. Nazism without Nietzsche would still have been brutally anti-Semitic, but Nietzsche made it easier for Nazism to pursue its inner logic as far as the gas chambers.

Each age, of course, reinvents the authors of the past. The Nazis needed a fierce Nietzsche and found him without any difficulty. In the decades after the defeat of Nazi Germany, that Nietzsche became unacceptable, and a gentle Nietzsche was offered to the postwar public. But I suspect that we have not done with Nietzsche, any more than with Machiavelli, and that the fierce Nietzsche may be due for a revival. In part on intellectual grounds: the Nietzsche of the gentle Nietzscheans is a fake, and there are limits to the survival value of fakes. But there are also historical reasons why a Nietzschean ethic may come to recommend itself. The world by the turn of the century is likely to present some terrible aspects. The comfortable countries, if they can keep their hands off one another’s throats, will be more comfortable, or at least more affluent than ever. But the poor world is likely to be drowning in the excess of its own population, a human swirl of self-destructive currents, of which the Nigeria-Biafra war may have been a type and forerunner.

The advanced world may well be like, and feel like, a closed and guarded palace, in a city gripped by the plague. There is another metaphor, developed by André Gide, one of the very powerful minds powerfully influenced by Nietzsche: This is the metaphor of the lifeboat, in a sea full of the survivors of a shipwreck. The hands of survivors cling to the sides of the boat. But the boat has already as many passengers as it can carry. No more survivors can be accommodated, and if they gather and cling on, the boat will sink and all be drowned. The captain orders out the hatchets. The hands of the survivors are severed. The lifeboat and its passengers are saved.

Something like this is the logic we apply when we tighten our immigration laws, and in the general pattern of our relations with the so-called underdeveloped countries. Something like this, but not exactly the same: it’s more as if we were using the hatchets to keep our rations at the existing very high level. As this situation becomes more obvious it is likely to generate its own psychological and moral pressures. The traditional ethic will require larger and larger doses of its traditional built-in antidotes—the force of hypocrisy and cultivated inattention combined with a certain minimum of alms.

But there will be minds, and probably some powerful minds among them, who will go in quest of a morality more appropriate to the needs of the situation and permitting, within the situation, both honesty and a good conscience. Such minds may well turn to Nietzsche, reading him, not in the gentle adaptation, but for his bracing fierceness. There is much there for their comfort, not only in the general ethic, but also in specific applications. Nietzsche approves “Annihilation of decaying races.” He also has this to say in The Will to Power: “The great majority of men have no right to existence, but are a misfortune to higher men. I do not yet grant the failures (den Missrathenen) the right. There are also peoples that are failures (missrathenen Völker).”

Professor Kaufmann admits that these words—written but not published by Nietzsche—“sound ominous,” but adds that “it is clear from Nietzsche’s books”—this is a common gentle Nietzschean use of a blanket reference to smother a particular and precise statement—“that he is not thinking of the Jews, the Poles, the Russians or any other peoples whom the Nazis later decimated.”

Who then was Nietzsche thinking of? Professor Kaufmann leaves the question open.

Freud was afraid of Nietzsche, at least I can see no other meaning in his frequent, confused, and obviously agitated references, his tremendous tribute to him and his simultaneous claim not to have really read him. This is understandable. The thought of a man who sees so deep into human nature—or at least into his own nature—and sees there such a need for frightfulness: that is not easy to face. The appeal of Nietzsche simultaneously to the best minds of our century and to the Nazis is another sinister paradox, nor is it consoling to think of what some other future readers of this master may have in store for us. Yet it remains a pity that Freud should have flinched and failed to look Nietzsche in the face—a pity because of the contribution to the understanding of Nietzsche that we have thereby lost but also, more widely, through what “Freud on Nietzsche” might have meant to our understanding of the destructive forces in our psyche and in our society.

Nietzsche did not invent Fascism: Fascism invented Nietzsche. That was Thomas Mann’s idea. It is neat: the society was incubating Fascism, Nietzsche merely expressed the trend of what was happening in the society. Yet it is not enough to say this. The writer is not just a symptom or a clinical indicator. The imagined order which he creates legitimizes in others some image of that order. To legitimize means to free something which would otherwise be at least partly suppressed. In that sense, Nietzsche was one of the great liberators. He freed creative imaginations—Yeats for example might never have developed into a great poet without the Nietzschean permission. He also freed other forces, extended the range of Machiavelli, gave the killers license and a good conscience.

He was sometimes frightened himself, even this most daring of thinkers. Frightened of some travesty of his thought, he said, and the gentle Nietzscheans take comfort from this. Frightened, I think myself, of what he was actually saying, and of what his messages might effect when they reached minds which were as bold in action as he was bold in thought. Let me conclude this by quoting one of the most tragic and moving passages in his works, that passage where the lonely walker of the Engadine looks out to that future which his thought was helping to shape. This is from Book V of The Gay Science, first published in 1887:

The background of our cheerfulness. The greatest recent event—that “God is dead,” that the belief in the Christian God has ceased to be believable—is even now beginning to cast its first shadows over Europe. For the few, at least, whose eyes, whose suspicion in their eyes, is strong and sensitive enough for this spectacle, some sun seems to have set just now…. In the main, however, this may be said: the event itself is much too great, too distant, too far from the comprehension of the many even for the tidings of it to be thought of as having arrived yet, not to speak of the notion that many people might know what has really happened here, and what must collapse now that this belief has been undermined—all that was built upon it, leaned on it, grew into it; for example, our whole European morality….

Even we born guessers of riddles who are, as it were, waiting on the mountains, put there between today and tomorrow and stretched in the contradiction between today and tomorrow, we firstlings and premature births of the coming century, to whom the shadows that must soon envelop Europe really should have appeared by now—why is it that even we look forward to it without any real compassion for this darkening, and above all without any worry and fear for ourselves? Is it perhaps that we are still too deeply impressed by the first consequences of this event—and these first consequences, the consequences for us, are perhaps the reverse of what one might expect: not at all sad and dark, but rather like a new, scarcely describable kind of light, happiness, relief, exhilaration, encouragement, dawn?

Indeed, we philosophers and “free spirits” feel as if a new dawn were shining on us when we receive the tidings that “the old god is dead”; our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, anticipation, expectation. At last the horizon appears free again to us, even granted that it is not bright; at last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea, our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an “open sea.”

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    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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