Friedrich Nietzsche
Friedrich Nietzsche; drawing by David Levine

David Krell, in a note to his translation of Heidegger’s lectures on Nietzsche, describes the changing history of Nietzsche’s image. This strange genius, who believed he could destroy all previous philosophies, was first seen primarily as a poet and essayist; then as a legendary and tragic symbol of the times; and only later as a serious philosopher.

What, one may ask, does Nietzsche, the opponent of transcendental metaphysics and of positivism, who undertook nothing less than the “revaluation of values,” signify for philosophy today? The question sounds reasonable but cannot be answered as it stands because there is no one thing that is “philosophy today.” Nor is this merely a ritual nod in the direction of diversity. Instead of one movement in which the Zeitgeist can be discerned there are, even within Western philosophy, two schools of thought so alien to each other that historians of some distant future lacking incidental clues might be tempted to deny that they were contemporaneous. What Nietzsche is for the philosophy of phenomenology and existentialism—for Jaspers for instance, or Heidegger—is one matter: what he is for the descendants of Frege, Russell, and Wittgenstein quite another.

It follows that a review of Heidegger’s lectures on Nietzsche which would do them justice, and would reflect the importance of this work in the development of Continental philosophy, must be given from within this tradition. That the approach is very different from that of anyone in analytic philosophy is easy to see: even a single sentence will tell one in which part of the philosophical world one is. Thus Heidegger, whose text was the collection of notes posthumously arranged and published as The Will to Power, opens his discussion of the will to power by announcing that the “question as to what being is seeks the Being of beings,” and he goes on to say that for Nietzsche all Being is a Becoming, and since a Becoming is a willing and all willing is will to power, Becoming is a will to power. This language is quite alien to the analytic philosopher, who demands plainness and clear sense: no one of this school would be ready to discuss the Being of beings, or say that all Becoming was or was not willing before the component ideas were explained. How, for instance, is willing to be understood if it is to make sense to say that willing is found even in a merely mechanical or chemical process? The analytic philosopher would insist on questioning Heidegger, Nietzsche, and their predecessors about such things, before starting any argument; as a builder surveys his blocks and beams before construction begins.

The American philosopher Harold Alderman, much influenced by Heidegger but avoiding on the whole the jargon of Continental philosophy, criticizes in Nietzsche’s Gift another typical Heideggerian discussion of Nietzsche. In this instance the question turns on Nietzsche’s doctrine of “eternal recurrence”—his idea that everything that has happened will repeat itself forever exactly as it has been before; so that even our lives will be lived again and again. Heidegger asked whether in his doctrine of eternal recurrence Nietzsche does not revert to the Platonic way of thinking that he once described as operating by means of “pale, cold, conceptual nets thrown over the motley whirl of the senses”? He thinks that in accepting and willing the transient as eternally recurrent Nietzsche is indeed imposing a fixed Platonic reality upon appearances, and so “thinking nothing less than the thought that pervades the whole of Western philosophy.” Alderman disputes this interpretation, arguing that it relies too heavily on The Will to Power, the book that Nietzsche never published or even put together. He suggests that Nietzsche was at least as successful as Heidegger himself in breaking away from the “metaphysical hubris” of “Western man’s subjective inclination to overwhelm the data of experience in his theorising.”

Alderman’s discussion of such passages from Heidegger—which have to do with the question of whether Nietzsche was as wholehearted an opponent of metaphysics as he claimed—forms an interesting postscript to his book. Most of it consists, however, of an analytic commentary on Thus Spake Zarathustra, perhaps the most important but not the most accessible of Nietzsche’s works. Though occasionally pretentious in its language Alderman’s book has the great merit of conveying, by description and judicious quotation, a sense of Nietzsche’s strange and original imagery. For example he describes vividly the friendship between Zarathustra and the animals who go with him on his journeys: the eagle the proudest and most distant, and the serpent the wisest, most worldly animal. And he quotes the haunting passage in which Zarathustra is shown recoiling from revealing his teachings.

The hand moved, the clock of my life held its breath—I had never heard such stillness about me: so that my heart was terrified.

Then, voicelessly, something said to me: “You know, Zarathustra?

And I cried out for terror at this whisper, and the blood drained from my face; but I kept silent.

Then, again, something said to me voicelessly: “You know, Zarathustra, but you do not speak!”

And I answered at last defiantly: “Yes, I know, but I will not speak!”

He also gives an excellent account of the psychological aspect of the doctrine of eternal recurrence; for although it has, as he says, to do with the acceptance of contingency and the unchangeability of the past, it also signifies Nietzsche’s ability to say “yes” even to his own tormented, intensely lonely life.


Alderman is right too to bring out Nietzsche’s love of lightness of heart, and the importance in Zarathustra of what is said about dance and laughter. When Nietzsche wants to speak of “spirit come home to itself as worldly and human” (to quote Alderman) he uses the metaphor of a dancing God, the only God in whom he will believe. And it is in laughter that Zarathustra finds the cure for solemn pretensions to eternality, universality, and absoluteness. But one becomes a little weary and even embarrassed when Alderman insists repetitively on Nietzsche’s own playfulness, and compares his humor with the comedy of the Marx Brothers. I find this humor for the most part painfully heavy, and wonder how many have actually laughed as they turned the pages of Zarathustra.

Alderman is, unfortunately, at his weakest in his account of Nietzsche’s thoughts about morality. Nietzsche’s immoralism—or as some would say his new morality—is the most interesting part of his work for most philosophers of the analytic schools. And it must surely be of interest to anyone who knows of the connection between his writings and the ideologies of the Nazis and Fascists, and who knows too that Nietzsche’s “revaluation of values” has never exactly been refuted. Do we know how to deal with this part of the philosophy? Are we even able to say quite what it is that Nietzsche is up to? The very question whether he is a “moralist or immoralist” betrays a gap in our understanding. It is disappointing therefore that Alderman gives a highly questionable account of Nietzsche’s ideology of values, and in particular that he glosses over the harsh and threatening aspect of this teaching.

At one point Alderman suggests that when Nietzsche speaks of slave morality he refers only to the slavishness of one who is unable to master his own desires. But Nietzsche gave that name to the attitudes and rules of those whose aim is to protect the weak from oppression. Slave morality belongs, he says, to “the herd” whose members brand as “evil” that which is dangerous to themselves. And Nietzsche not only objects to principles which favor “the misbegotten”; he also objects to moral principles as such because they prescribe a code that is to apply to everyone. He despises the morality of the herd because he thinks it will always have resentment and malice as its psychological foundation. He thinks that in protecting the weak from the strong it acts in favor of sickness and decline. And he believes that the imposition of any universal rule of conduct (“good and evil the same for all”) prevents those few who are fitted to do so from finding their own idiosyncratic good.

Behind all this lies one crucial thought, about the different value of different types of men. Over and over again one finds Nietzsche speaking of “higher” and “lower”; of an order of rank among men. And the highest value of all is said to lie in the Superman of the future, the one who yet may come because man is an animal whose “nature is not yet fixed.” Here is Nietzsche’s most fundamental valuation. Holding up a picture to compel our admiration, he asks us to see what is there represented as something so marvelous that whatever favors it is to be cherished, and whatever is inimical to it destroyed. That there should be these higher men, strong, self-disciplined, passionate, exuberant, and autonomous, is an ideal which is to give meaning to life, and justify any sacrifice.

The nature of the sacrifice follows from the nature of the ideal. For Nietzsche insists that the type of man to be so valued is, necessarily, one who creates his own values. His own will is to give him the law of his action, his own will based on what he loves and forged from his own ordered desires. Not for a moment does Nietzsche preach the satisfaction of any and every desire. He does preach, to those to whom he is ready to preach anything, an individualism which is incompatible with any morality that forbids each and every man to trespass against others, to oppress them, or deny them their rights.


To understand the structure of Nietzsche’s philosophy of value one must notice that he is concerned with two valuations, firstly the one made by the splendid healthy individual who knows no law but his own, and secondly that implied in our admiration for him. Together they spell immoralism because morality would destroy or cripple the object of our admiration. Morality—the morality of rules, duties, and rights—is an obstacle to the achievement of the highest type of man. So Nietzsche believes

…precisely morality would be to blame if the highest power and splendor actually possible to the type man was never in fact attained.

Nietzsche’s doctrine thus undeniably tends to deprive people of protection. No one who follows it can use the teachings of morality to protect the weak against the strong. Nietzsche himself is ready for this deprivation, and in writing of it sometimes shows a lack of heart. It could never have been said of Nietzsche, as it was said of Dickens by Chesterton, that he disliked oppression, not this or that argument for it but “a certain look on the face of a man who looks down on another man.” At his worst Nietzsche seems so to disdain those he thinks of as weak, sickly, and mediocre, that he even relishes their sacrifice.

It is surprising then to find that Alderman paints an almost wholly reassuring picture of Nietzsche’s views on morality. In his pages Nietzsche appears as a rather elevating moralist, teaching us to recognize and overcome our own hidden resentments and fears and to be bravely independent of convention and the opinion of others. We are also advised to be ready to express anger directly and to be creative, positive, egoistic, “this-worldly,” and self-aware. At moments Alderman’s list of Nietzschean virtues sounds oddly like something from a manual of modern psychological self-help, and he assumes that we shall all hope to find in ourselves the “master” morality that Nietzsche endorses.

To obtain such a picture he has had to obscure the opposition between Nietzsche’s individualism and our ordinary morality. The morality that is being opposed is, he thinks, “other-worldly morality,” i.e., morality depending on religion or metaphysics. It is also, he says, the morality of principles which “absolutely forbids” certain things. Thus he makes it sound as if Nietzsche were merely opposing excessive rigorism in morals; or that he is, at worst, no more of an immoralist than those many contemporary moral philosophers who think that any kind of action whatsoever might be permissible given extraordinary circumstances such as the need to save thousands of lives. He fails to see that what Nietzsche objects to is any morality imposed by society on all alike, and therefore any morality in which even the most blatantly oppressive action is forbidden to us all. Under Nietzsche’s system the weak would be left to the contingent mercies of the strong; and although the strong may be merciful Nietzsche does not suggest that the will of the individual who “creates his own values” necessarily turns in that direction.

One must, therefore, accuse Alderman of a critical misinterpretation of Nietzsche in the chapter of Nietzsche’s Gift that is called “Value and Will.” He seems, in fact, to be the latest of those preachers of “authenticity” who want to side with Nietzsche, and think they can do so with no more than a pleasant spice of danger. His book is on the whole a good book and much of what he says illuminates the text of Zarathustra; but for anyone who wants to think hard about Nietzsche’s views on morality it is not good at all.

J. P. Stern, writing an introductory study of Nietzsche in the Modern Masters series, had a more difficult task than Alderman. It is hard to see how anyone could give an outline of Nietzsche’s whole philosophy and a sense of the original in so short a space, and Stern fails to make Nietzsche sound half as interesting as he really is. Nevertheless the discussion itself is lively and no one could accuse Stern of pulling his punches. He is ready to make candid assessments and to ask awkward questions, so ready indeed that where Nietzsche’s moral ideology is concerned Stern’s fault is the opposite of Alderman’s. In this book, as in his earlier study of Hitler, Stern has little hesitation in describing Nietzsche’s philosophy as an actual prototype of the doctrines of National Socialism and Fascism.

The question of Nietzsche’s real relation to the Nazis and Fascists is complicated and troubling, and it is hard, I think, not to feel some kind of revulsion against him simply on account of the historical connection, as if he were tainted by it. Yet we shall not understand Nietzsche unless we are fair to him here. It is true that Alfred Rosenberg himself named Nietzsche with Wagner (his “apparent opponent”) as two of the prime sources of Nazi philosophy. (The other two were Paul de Lagarde and Houston Stewart Chamberlain.) And Mussolini, who unlike Hitler had actually read him, said that Nietzsche had influenced him powerfully. Yet Nietzsche detested nationalism in general and German nationalism in particular. He had written vitriolically against nationalism, against Bismarck, and against the anti-Semitism with which through his sister and her husband he was so lamentably to be associated. Hitler, as the banal representative of Volk values, would surely have roused his fiercest scorn.

There is, indeed, so much to be said in Nietzsche’s defense against the charge of being a precursor of National Socialist ideology that Karl Jaspers actually saw Nietzsche’s ideas as a powerful weapon to be used against the Nazis. In 1934 and 1935 Jaspers intended, he tells us, “to marshal against the National Socialists the world of thought of the man whom they had proclaimed as their own philosopher.” Admitting that he could have formed a devastating chapter of his book by citing “the errors to which Nietzsche momentarily fell victim and which at a later date could provide phraseological materials to be used by the National Socialists in support of their inhuman deeds,” he decided in the end to ignore such material as showing nothing more than temporary aberration.

Jaspers is perhaps to be faulted for not taking more seriously the substantial connection between Nietzsche’s philosophy and the ideology of the Nazis. Yet Stern goes too far in the opposite direction and makes the similarity between the ideologies much greater than it is. In the first place he is surely misleading when he writes, “If there is anything in the recent ‘Nietzschean’ era that comes close to an embodiment of the will to power, it is Hitler’s life and political career.” Passing over the ambiguity and covert insult involved in calling the era “Nietzschean,” one may ask why he takes Hitler as the special embodiment of Nietzsche’s principle of the Will to Power. Stern is, of course, right to insist that the doctrine has to do with the objects of the will, and not chiefly, as Heidegger would have us believe, with the abstract concept of willing. What Nietzsche primarily means by the Will to Power is a law of life by which dominance, rather than self-preservation or happiness, is the object of desire. But the principle is supposed to operate very generally and is discerned by Nietzsche not only in attempts to dominate others, whether in direct or underhand ways, but also in asceticism, in philosophy, and in the kind of self-discipline that he admires, as for instance that of the artist. If one reads Stern carefully one finds him taking account of the protean nature of Nietzsche’s Will to Power; but then he has no right to take the life of Hitler as its special embodiment.

Stern is even more misleading when he says, in an odd-sounding sentence, “No man came closer to the full realization of self-created ‘values’ than A. Hitler.” For this suggests, at least, that in those passages in which Nietzsche wrote about people creating their own values he was referring simply to the absence of external sanctions and restraints. What is certain, however, is that he would have seen no value in Hitler’s self-will. In the case of one so banal, so spiritually mediocre as Hitler, Nietzsche would undoubtedly have said that he might just as well submit to the direction of others since his action would be worthless whatever he did. It is only in the higher type of man that self-direction is supposed to be something splendid.

There is, moreover, another respect in which Hitler is not suited to be an example of the Nietzschean ideal. Hitler saw himself as the representative of the German people, claiming that he expressed their will; and Nietzsche would have nothing to do with such collectivized values or such a collective will. He saw value in the higher man acting as an individual, never as expressing communal wishes and ideals. This is a point upon which Alderman remarks, and it is important when one is thinking about the relation between Nietzsche’s philosophy and the Nazi doctrines.

Nevertheless it is wrong to see the whole story of the Nazi invocation of Nietzsche as one of misrepresentation and misuse. For there is something sinister that they do have in common, namely the thought of acting splendidly “beyond good and evil,” where good and evil are what ordinary morality takes them to be. In both Nietzschean and Nazi ideology such things as justice and benevolence are to be, or may be, set aside for the sake of something supposed glorious and worthy of the sacrifice.

To be sure, the ideals thus represented are different; so different that Jaspers was not wrong in seeing Nietzsche as one whose thoughts could be used against some aspects of National Socialism. But the structure of the two value systems is the same in this one crucial respect—that rules of morality may be thrown over or ignored for the sake of something seen as an ideal. Thus it is not enough to say that Nietzsche’s philosophy was liable to be misused by people whom he would have despised, by people doing atrocious things in a state of hysterical exaltation for the sake of wretched ideals such as those of racial purity and national glory. His teachings are not merely dangerous in that sense, but actually in themselves threatening. As Stern remarks at one point, institutional arrangements as man’s only protection against arbitrariness mean little to Nietzsche. The truth about Nietzsche is that protection itself meant little to him compared to the ideal of the “improvement” of man, the encouragement of the “higher” type of individual, and the Superman of the future.

Nietzsche saw that his teaching was deeply shocking; but in its terrible aspect he thought that it mirrored the reality of things. For one of his strongest convictions was that the purely antithetical nature of good and evil was an illusion. If God is dead, what is there to guarantee that truth, for instance, is not harmful to men, and illusion necessary? Perhaps wickedness is the condition of good.

If, however, a person should regard even the emotions of hatred, envy, covetousness, and imperiousness as life-conditioning emotions, as factors which must be present, fundamentally and essentially, in the greatest economy of life (which must therefore be further developed if life is further to be developed) he will suffer from such a view of things as from sea sickness. And yet this hypothesis is far from being the strongest and most painful in the immense and almost new domain of dangerous knowledge.

The idea that it is necessary to renounce pity and permit oppression for the sake of the highest value in the universe was, therefore, something he was ready to countenance. And if God is dead we may indeed ask why it must be possible for us to follow the good without allowing, or even encouraging, evil.

This is, surely, an extremely interesting line of thought, which startles us and reveals our unconscious rejection of radical inconsistency among valid ideals. Here, as in many other places, we see Nietzsche’s extraordinary originality, and must see him too as one of the bravest of thinkers, to be taken seriously by any philosopher of any school of philosophy. But must we also consider seriously whether we ourselves should follow him in his immoralism? If we refuse to do so, why is this? Merely because we are immovably committed to the choice of morality as the only device we have, miserably ineffective as it often is, against oppression and indifference to suffering? To say this implies that when we make our choice we are indeed in the dilemma that Nietzsche wanted to suggest to us: we can have morality or the “highest development of which man is capable,” but not both. Do we believe that the dilemma is real? If Nietzsche is to convince us that it is he must show us a possibility to which morality is inimical. He must describe some “marvelous” type of man, and persuade us that but for our “slave morality” individuals of this type might exist.

At this point, however, when it is absolutely necessary for Nietzsche to succeed, he fails. For where, we may ask, is this marvel? Or what would he be like? Nietzsche writes much about the higher individual and the Superman, but they never come to life as actual characters with lives to lead, except perhaps when Nietzsche is describing what he knew best, namely what it is like to be a dedicated, disciplined artist at work. Otherwise we have little way of filling out the picture, except by imagining the “noble” ruling class of earlier cultures; and Nietzsche never suggests that these ruthless men, seen by others as barbarians, actually embody his ideal. Nietzsche seems to expect that we will be content with a half-imagined “higher man,” whom we would not indeed expect to imagine given that he is to be the Superman of the future, belonging, almost, to a new race of men. Nietzsche speaks as if he could see this new race on the horizon, but of course he cannot do any such thing. And so his “terrible” conclusions are drawn from what, in the end, seems merely fantastical.

This Issue

May 1, 1980