There are far too many who have unjustly negative views on or connotations with Nietzsche, and Hugo Drochon’s recent article for The New Statesman summarises some of the main reasons for this. I’ll begin with a quote by Nietzsche: “Whoever believed he had understood something of me had dressed up something out of me after his own image” (Ecce Homo: ‘Why I am so wise’). This is a fundamental statement in understanding Nietzsche’s work and philosophy, and also one which practically destroys the possibility of any ‘true’ interpretation of such. In a way then there is an affinity to be found in reading Nietzsche with viewing a work of art, and indeed, he often spoke of Thus Spoke Zarathustra as moreso a work of art or music than anything else. He provides us with the ‘images’; the metaphors and fertile philosophical aphorisms and we then attach our own subjective meaning and interpretation. This is a ‘Biblical’ approach to philosophy you might say. He even once declared that “culture can only proceed on the basis of the centralising significance of an art or artwork”, and in many ways this is what TSZ provides. Discussing this centerpiece of his philosophy, he wholeheartedly expresses that in reading it “one no longer has any notion of what is an image or a metaphor: everything offers itself as the nearest, most obvious, simplest expression… one has to go back thousands of years in order to find anyone who could say to me, “it is mine as well”‘ (Ecce Homo: ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’). Here then one finds the root of Bertrand Russel’s claim in his History of Western Philosophy indicated by Drochon, that is, ‘that he would rather have lived in the Athens of Pericles or the Florence of the Medici than today. That he would rather live in the past than the present’ (Drochon, 2018). But Nietzsche also here indicates what is perhaps the primary concern of the work: to provoke that very ‘simplest expression’.. to cut to the very essence of things.. This is, quite clearly, an aesthetic philosophy, an artistic philosophy, which works at urging subjective ideas using a metaphorical potentiality. Drochon’s observation that such negative readings ‘tells us more about ourselves and our times than it does about Nietzsche: when things are good we have the Nietzsche of individual self-creation, when things are bad we have Nietzsche the godfather of fascism”, reinforces this idea in the sublime mercureality of his philosophy: and as time passes, we continue to ‘dress him up’ in whatever assemblage seems best suited to the times.
“Zarathustra is a prophet!” they say. But a prophet who declares “God is dead!”? This is what you might call the primary paradox of Nietzsche. For we all know that religion can be both a prison and a means of radical empowerment. His epochal declaration (“God is dead”), spoken first by the madman of The Gay Science, is a rather simple and mundane declaration at heart: in times of science, it is hard to have faith. And Nietzsche’s notorious antagonism towards christianity was by no means in any way connected to this declaration, as many assume, it is rather an ideological opposition. He saw Christianity as promoting and sustaining a ‘slave’ mentality over all that is ‘noble’ (both terms which are distinct from class – you could be a noble beggar for example), centralising its doctrines on ideas of pity, selfless devotion and submission to a ‘higher power’, at the expense of self and ego, and the potential for pushing ones’ own capabilities to max capacity. Nietzsche exposes that any society built upon such selfless laws and inhibitions will inevitably result in disempowered subjects. But to reject such Christian views and ideals is not by any means to automatically veer into the realm of egoist, tyrannical and fascist ideas. Though that is not to say he did not play both sides, especially in his most spirited Ecce Homo: ‘I have chosen the word immoralist for myself as a symbol and badge of honour for myself; I am proud of having this word which distinguishes me from the whole of humanity. Nobody yet has felt Christian morality to be beneath him: that requires a height, a view of distances, a hitherto unheard of psychological depth and profundity’ (Ecce Homo: ‘Why I am destiny’). Devotion enables humanity to attain their very greatest heights, this is irrefutable, but it also creates great psychological and moral difficulties. The unquestionable belief that killing oneself will enable for an ascension to some higher plane demonstrates a remarkable untapped power of belief in man, which only true religion and absolute belief can achieve – that is not to say it is right. The people who laugh on religion, are those who do not what religion offers – a whole new means of seeing the world, of confronting death and loss and finding new truth and a powerful means of escapism. Of course, many of the greatest thinkers throughout history were deeply religious – to consider science and religion as oppositions in a way is a special kind of foolishness. The ancient Greeks too, the very founders of modern mathematical and scientific thought, the origin of so much knowledge that still remains foundational, and some even a mystery to the greatest minds of modernity, were from cultures of deep-rooted, omnipresent faith. Pythagoras himself founded a religion and his system of mathematics in unison – and the two were seen and proving one another’s truth – a religion fuelled by truth and scientific law. Religion gave the greeks inspiration and access to their greatest potential – and an originality and galvanisation of knowledge that we can never hope to come close to. There are some who come close in modernity: the mathematical genius Ramanujan formed, solved and resolved mathematical problems the likes of which no Western mathematician had ever seen whilst in his shanty in India under the divine inspiration of private Hindu gods. The greatest mathematicians of the age frantically stumbled over one another to catch a glimpse at just a few lines from his thousands upon thousands of pages of notes, these profoundly brilliant unforeseen formulas which would take most others a lifetime, were for these mathematicians as close to proof of divine inspiration as anything on earth. Surely only mystical belief in its truest form can grant an individual such powers. Such then undoubtedly grants individuals higher meaning and significance, taps into some level of personal, unconscious law, superegoic law, which is situated beyond, and in no necessary relation to all reason and outward apparency. Here then we locate the root of the paradox: Zarathustra is a profoundly theological text – ‘everything happens involuntarily in the highest degree but as in a gale of a feeling of freedom, of absoluteness, of power, of divinity’ (EH: Zarathustra) – of course done with total knowledge and intent, without any hint of irony, this because Nietzsche is aware to the immense power religion holds over the individual, and provides perhaps the only (proven) means of tapping into it. He once declared of Zarathustra- ‘here no “prophet” is speaking, none of these gruesome hybrids of sickness and will to power whom people call founders of religions’ (preface to Ecce Homo). Here is where the common misreadings and the misbelief that Nietzsche holds fascist ideas emanates; the crux where so many get lost and ‘abandon faith’. It is this seemingly quite simple boundary between laws that are erected by oneself and those by an outside force. Great fear and anger and apprehension materialise when there is talk of ‘laws’ brought about by the inner world of an individual and not by way of some external agency – they are immediately seen as immoral, a sign of some burgeoning madness, and they as highly dangerous individuals (this is seen as the realm of the sociopath). when Nietzsche underlines this ‘gruesome sickness’ here, he is talking of figures who are erecting ideological walls and laws which inhibit the subject in some fundamental sense (think of chastity as a simple example): Zarathustra staunchly opposes such and rather promotes individual laws, as do some religions such as Buddhism, which Nietzsche confides, ‘should rather be called a kind of hygeine, lest it be confused with such pitiable phenomena as Christianity: its effectiveness was made conditional on the victory over ressentiment” (‘why I am so wise’).
In many respects that term which Nietzsche assigns such an individually empowered mentality, which has garnered particularly negative implications over time, the superman or ‘Ubermensch’, and which is very closely tethered to that other fundamental Nietzschean ideal, will to power, is nothing more than the individual ability to tap the ‘superego’, very much in a Freudian sense of the word. This is to escape a consigned ideology and morality and set ones own boundaries and ideals, to be given the ability to tap the superego, to fomulate subjective laws, and so to relieve the huge weight of submission by christianity:- “overthrowing idols (my word for ‘ideals’) that comes closer to being part of my craft” (preface to Ecce Homo). In Drochon’s article, he describes psychologist Jordan Peterson’s view and seems to advocate his view of the incapacity for such a subjective ability to tap into this ‘law-giving’ state of mind: ‘Peterson agrees we are living in an age of nihilism, but rejects Nietzsche’s view that what is left for us is to create our own values – “We cannot invent our own values, because we cannot merely impose what we believe on our souls” – We have a nature that must be discovered, and we need rules for our life so chaos doesn’t overwhelm order’ (Brochon, 2018). But this again neglects the crucial driving paradox of Zarathustra – that only a religious state of mind can give the individual access to the superman, and this is exactly what Zarathustra provides.
To those who believe Nietzsche may have held fascist, beliefs, you might only consider how frequently he attacked the German people, he also abhorred anti-semitism and in Beyond Good and Evil, declared, joyfully, ‘”LET NO MORE JEWS COME IN!”… thus commands the instinct of a people whose nature is still feeble and uncertain… the Jews are beyond all doubt the strongest, toughest, and purest race [eat that Hitler, and all you other dumb fascist fucks!] at present living in Europe, they know how to succeed even under the very worst conditions’. I shall end with the question with which Drochon began: “Is Nietzsche doomed to be abused and misunderstood?”. Nietzsche knew the power of his ideas, knew that they could and would be used to bolster ideals which in no way matched his own, as epitomised in one of his most oft-quoted aphorisms: ‘why I am dynamite: one day my name will be associated with the memory of something tremendous – a crisis without equal on earth, the most profound collision of conscience, a decision that was conjured up against everything that had been believed, demanded, hallowed so far’. There are two ways to read this: that this eerie prediction proves his philosophy dangerous and morals questionable, or that he has provided us with something with which we are still not yet able to fully grasp – the gift of a seedling philosophy so empowering and invigorating and affirmitive of all human potentials that we can only wish that someday it might be understood and taken up by the masses…
(NB: feature image is Edvard Munch’s Nietzsche (1906))