Assessing Nietzsche

Nietzsche staked his reputation on the future. He believed that a great cultural upheaval was imminent and that his thought provided the resources required to make the best of it.

In some ways Nietzsche’s expectations for the future of Western civilization were borne out by the twentieth century. He said that Christian belief would decline; it did. He predicted newly destructive wars driven by ideological conflict; they came to pass. He hoped for creative geniuses who would free themselves from Christian morality and other forms of the “ascetic ideal” and create great works of art that would celebrate “this world” rather than the metaphysical “other worlds.” Here too, in my opinion, the last century did not disappoint. It would be silly to try to list the artistic accomplishments of the last 120 years. But in literature, names such as T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Ezra Pound, Marcel Proust, and Wallace Stevens come to mind. In music, it’s difficult to imagine a more Dionysian composition than Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (1913), not to mention composers like Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. With the exception of Eliot, their works were not notably shaped by Christian morality; in fact many were inspired or influenced by Nietzsche himself. An assessment would also have to take into account the achievements of film, an art form that didn’t even exist in Nietzsche’s time.

In moral theory virtually no one working in the field relies on religious assumptions; academic moral philosophy, at least, is emphatically post-theological. It is true that most contemporary philosophers uphold the universality and objectivity of our moral obligations to one another, and Nietzsche wouldn’t approve of that. On the other hand, during the last decades of the twentieth century many philosophers (e.g. Bernard Williams and Susan Wolf) argued for a more “relaxed” understanding of the place of morality in human life, as one among other legitimate goods. Again, the influence of Nietzsche himself is at work here. In the wider moral culture, the sexual revolution beginning in the 1960s was just one expression of the emergence of a more tolerant and pluralistic atmosphere than the Victorian morality that Nietzsche found so destructive.

Moreover, many of these artistic accomplishments and changes in moral attitudes took place in democracies, despite Nietzsche’s fear that the democratic ideology of equality would work to suppress individual greatness. Some of them may even have been dependent on democratic culture in ways that Nietzsche perceived at times in

“that enchanting and mad semi-barbarism into which Europe had been plunged by the democratic mingling of classes and races…. The past of every form and way of life … flows into us ‘modern souls’, thanks to this mixture; our instincts now run back everywhere; we ourselves are a kind of chaos. […] Through our semi-barbarism in body and desires we have secret access in all directions, as no noble age ever did … the sense and instinct for everything, the taste and tongue for everything.” (Beyond Good and Evil §244.)

“The hybrid European … needs a costume. […] Let anyone look at the nineteenth century with an eye for these quick … changes of the style masquerade…. [W]e are the first age that has truly studied ‘costumes’ – I mean those of moralities, articles of faith, and religions – prepared like no previous age for a carnival in the grand style…. Perhaps this is where we shall still discover the realm … in which we, too, can still be original … perhaps, even if nothing else today has a future, our laughter may yet have a future.” (Beyond Good and Evil §223.)

Here Nietzsche seems to anticipate postmodern literature and architecture’s aesthetic of pastiche, collage, juxtaposition, and ironic self-undermining.

On the other hand, Nietzsche’s arguments against universal morality and the ascetic ideal are for the most part unpersuasive. The most telling objection, it seems to me, concerns what Nietzsche would have to say about the unprecedented evils committed by totalitarian movements and regimes in the twentieth century. For Nietzsche, these acts can only be assessed by determining who carried them out and whether they expressed the affirmative will to power of a free-spirited noble personality, or not. Even if the resulting judgment were negative, all that Nietzsche could consistently say is that the acts were bad, not evil. And they could not be considered bad in a moral sense – they could not be wrong – but only in the sense that they were unaesthetic, in bad taste. Can a theory of morality that is unable to see Auschwitz for what it is – evil – possibly be regarded as adequate? Nietzsche is committed to distinguishing between superior and inferior types of people. Anyone who fears his fellow human beings is for that reason inferior to the higher types who do not fear because they are less attached to life as such than to greatness. But is understanding that we are all vulnerable a sign of weakness, or honesty about the fact that human beings are capable of terrible cruelty and that no one, not even the most gifted, is immune? If the latter, then we all have an interest in creating institutions in which abuses, when they inevitably occur, will be less destructive than they might have been without the institutions.

The basic flaw in Nietzsche’s arguments is that he tends to draw unnecessarily extreme conclusions from otherwise insightful observations and thoughts. It seems more than plausible to me that giving an absolute priority to our moral obligations to others might get in the way of an individual’s creative pursuits. It’s difficult to imagine how Wagner could have created the Bayreuth Festival without treating others as means to his end rather than as ends in themselves. It’s also important – probably more so than ever – to distinguish genuine moral judgment from moralization and moralizing, i.e. the use of moral values and concepts to harass and intimidate. Nietzsche has extraordinarily insightful things to say about the psychological nature and function of this kind of thing. But is it really necessary to eliminate morality completely in order to create the “immoral” space required for creative accomplishment – to attribute no intrinsic worth or dignity to individuals at all? Insisting on a minimal standard of respect and consideration – limiting the acceptable ways of manipulating others to offering them good reasons to do what you want them to do – doesn’t limit the scope of creative will to power to any significant extent. A liberal democracy devoted to basic rights and equality of opportunity should be compatible with a culture that recognized dramatic inequalities in ability between individuals and that placed greater value on creative achievement than on ordinary contributions to society. I don’t see why Nietzsche should require more than this.

1 Comment Assessing Nietzsche

  1. Mack bolgen

    Well, I suppose I could have just read a little more of your writing rather than leaving you a three-page question that really didn’t need to be asked.
    The real banality is in the comment section, to modify a popular urinal phrase. (‘Urinal phrases,’ as a term may well be my only true contribution to any segment of society or culture. I’m pretty sure nobody else is talking about the urinal phrases, and I guess I’m proud? At some future date the fact that those two words were used back-to-back within the span of a page on a philosophy blog will register as a one or a zero in some Grand artificial intelligence calculation, many thousands of years after it has gotten rid of us and decided on some other purpose for itself and spacetime.
    If all the paper, too, is converted to paper clips, then what the hell is the goddamn point, I ask?
    These are the important questions.
    Kind of makes my concerns about ‘urinal phrases’ being my lasting contribution seem a little silly in retrospect.

    Your task, should you choose to accept it, is to place a wager with a friend as to whether or not the person who left this comment has a diagnosed mental illness. You don’t strike me as a betting man, but we could all use a little personal growth, and I trust you will find this task to be…not insurmountable? Mountable? Sir Mountable! He’s just like sir Lancelot, only far worse and a real stain on humanity as a whole. He’s a whore in shining armor. How did you think it stayed so shiny? Metal polish? Come on, man. They didn’t have that back then.


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