Lindsay Perigo
Lindsay Perigo

Flirting with Friedrich

"Be Thou Thyself, that which thou art!"

Thus speaks Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche's symbolic personification of his own philosophy. "One must learn to love oneself with a wholesome and healthy love, so that one can bear to be with oneself and need not roam."

What free spirit wouldn't be tempted by Friedrich — and his dancing, laughing, mocking, free-thinking Zarathustra? A flirtation with Friedrich seems, at first glance, like a summons to greatness, a taunting invitation to fly away from the dank dance-floors of church hall and nightclub, and swirl feverishly to new disco by old Dionysus. A dazzling, daring pas de seul will defy you to conquer it. From frenzied heights, Friedrich will bid you look down on the plodding folk-dancers you have left behind. In the majestic madness it will often seem that you have mastered his mayhem and are in tune with it. But when Dionysus is spent and respite comes, you will see that Friedrich has deceived you. Not his routine, but his costume has captivated you; and on closer inspection you will see that it is simply the plodders' uniform turned inside out. When the moment of seduction is nigh, more in sorrow than in anger, you will speak to him Zarathustra's words, "I part from you; the time is up." But much enchantment and exhilaration will linger, for verily, he woos with tantalising taunts.

Conventional morality, says Nietzsche, is for slaves and shopkeepers, an idiosyncrasy of degenerates. Altruism is its name — sex, lust to rule, and selfishness shall be its antidotes. Christianity is the greatest misfortune of history, a hybrid product of decay and contradiction in which "all the instincts of decadence, all cowardices and wearinesses of the soul find their sanction"; it is a brain affliction of sick web-spinners and cross-marked spiders. One is not converted to Christianity, one has to be sick enough for it. Immanuel Kant, the saviour of altruism and religion, the "underhand Christian," is a "catastrophic spider," the "most deformed concept-cripple of all time." The state is the coldest of all cold monsters; everything it says is a lie, whatever it has is stolen, even its entrails are false. Democracy is degeneracy. Rousseau, democracy's prophet, is a "miscarriage." Socialists are the voice of the rabble: the all-too-many, the botched and bungled, the superfluous, the dappled and motley, maggots in the bread of life, a bungled, gloomy brood who are always sick; they vomit their gall and call it a newspaper. Public opinions are private lazinesses. A letter is an impolite incursion. "One ought to have one hour in every eight days for receiving letters, and then take a bath." Woman is a mobile stormy film over shallow water; she must obey and find depth for her surface; man, in dealing with woman, should forget not his whip. Poets are unclean; they muddy their waters to make them appear deep.

And so on. Who could fail to be enchanted by this Oscar Wilde of philosophy? And are these not the bon mots of an individualist, a fearless slayer of sacred cows?

In Issue #2 of this journal, I stated my opinion that Nietzsche was not really an advocate of individualism, and therefore not an ally in the fight for freedom. That will be my position in this essay. There is more to individualism than colourful iconoclasm, more to freedom than disdain for the herd. Nietzsche is often accused of providing grist for the mills of fascism and Nazism; certainly, it is not difficult to see how the promoters of these anti-freedom doctrines could, and did, seize upon certain of his utterances and claim him as their in-house philosopher.

To answer the question, was Nietzsche an individualist?, it is necessary first of all to remind ourselves what individualism is. It is the doctrine that the individual is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others; that he is sovereign over his own life, and may be constrained only when he threatens the sovereignty of someone else. It is the view that one should live by one's own judgement and respect the right of others to do the same. It upholds the paramountcy of the individual over the group — it treats the individual and his rights as the starting point in all issues.

Is this what we get in Nietzsche? Hardly!

Nietzsche's unvarying starting point and abiding concern throughout his writings is the human race as a whole. The particular is always despicable, he tells us; it is only in the whole that everything is redeemed. In humanity's case, however, the whole too has become despicable, a sickly, tainted morbidity, made so by Christianity, with its emphasis on the lowly virtues — weakness, humility, pity, equality, etc. "Christianity," he says, "is a rebellion of everything that crawls on the ground against that which has height." It is a denial of the Will to Power that lies at the very heart of life, the urge to dominate that all healthy living things manifest in their highest behaviour. "Christianity has sided with all that is weak and base, with all failures; it has made an ideal of whatever contradicts the instinct of the strong life to preserve itself." What, then, is good? "Everything that heightens the feeling of power in man." What is bad? "Everything that is born of weakness." What is happiness? "The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome. Not contentedness, but more power; not peace, but war; not virtue, but fitness." Man as he is, Nietzsche tells us repeatedly, is something that must be overcome. He must prepare the way for the Overman, attain the virtues of the Lion: "hungry, violent, lonely, godless...fearless and fear-inspiring." God is dead, and man must become godlike himself. The individual has significance to Nietzsche only as part of an ascending line to this Overman status, or a descending line away from it:

"If he represents the ascending line, then his worth is indeed extraordinary — and for the sake of life as a whole, which takes a step farther through him, the care for his preservation and for the creation of the best conditions for him may even be extreme. The single one, the nothing by himself...he is the whole single line of humanity up to himself. If he represents the descending development, decay, chronic degeneration and sickness...then he has small worth, and the minimum of decency requires that he take away as little as possible from those who have turned out well. He is merely their parasite."

The first principle of his love of man, Nietzsche informs us, is that "the weak and the failures shall perish...and they shall be given every possible assistance."

Not much evidence here of treating the individual as an end in himself. Not even a bracing admonition to shape up or ship out, which a libertarian could endorse. What Nietzsche is saying is — "shape up or be shipped out."

Or stay where you are and do what you are told: "In a better arrangement of society, hard labour and the troubles of life will be meted out to those who suffer least from them; hence to the most obtuse, and then, step by step up to those who are the most sensitive to the highest and most sublimated kinds of suffering and who thus still suffer when life is made easiest." Whoa! Can it be that this paragon of individualism is advocating that epitome of collectivism, the caste system, where each individual has a fixed, pre-determined station in life, a pre-assigned group membership, over which he has no say? Indeed it can. The order of castes, we are informed, has the sanction of nature; no modern idea to the contrary has any power over it. In every healthy society, there are in fact three castes: those who rule, the strongest and most spiritual; their right-hand men, the warriors, judges, kings, etc, who see to order and security; and the mediocrity — everybody else — whose only possible kind of happiness is to be "a public utility, a wheel, a function." There is nothing arbitrary in this division, Nietzsche insists: "The order of castes, the order of rank, merely formulates the highest order of life; the separation of the three types is necessary for the preservation of society, to make possible the higher and the highest types. The inequality of rights is the first condition for the existence of any rights at all." Not for this man the Declaration of Independence. Plato's Republic, more like it. (Whatever happened to the depiction of the state as the coldest of all cold monsters, etc.? Nietzsche's likely response would be: don't prattle on about inconsistencies to me — I'm not into system-building. Systems are a brain affliction of sick web-spinners.)

One can see Nietzsche's credentials as an individualist rapidly evaporating. Individuals, in this view, are simply servants of destiny; they should know their role and play it; they should know their place, and stay in it. The self-abasing, self-sacrificing virtues of Christianity that Nietzsche affects to have banished are back — the individual is not an end in himself after all; he is a means to the Overman and His precursors, the "higher" types. "Mankind in the mass sacrificed to the prosperity of a single, stronger species of man — that would be an advance," Nietzsche cackles. Not for him the flourishing liberalism (classical, not modern) of his time which sees all individuals as free agents able to transcend accidents of birth, sovereign entities who should be left alone to make of life what they will, glorying in the epochal increase in material prosperity and creature comforts that their freedom brings. That sort of freedom Nietzsche regards as a calamitous new version of the old decadences: a view he makes chillingly explicit when he comes to explain his own conception of the term: "For what is freedom? That one is prepared to sacrifice human beings for one's cause, not excluding oneself. Freedom means that the manly instincts which delight in war and victory dominate over the others, such as pleasure. The human being who has become free — and how much more the spirit who has become free — spits on the contemptible type of well-being dreamed of by shopkeepers, Christians, cows, females, Englishmen and other democrats. The free man is a warrior."

Thus do we have it from the horse's — or, as he would prefer, the Lion's — mouth that altruism, the ethic of sacrifice, is OK after all: just so long as it's the rabble being sacrificed for the elite. ("The plodders' uniform turned inside out.") Nietzsche's problem with Christianity is not altruism, it turns out, just the Christian version of it — the elite being sacrificed for the rabble. If that hasn't got your blond mane standing on end, Nietzsche goes on to claim that, historically, peoples who attained any value worth talking about "never attained it under liberal institutions... Once we have lost all the instincts out of which institutions grow, we lose institutions altogether because we are no longer good enough for them...In order that there may be institutions, there must be a kind of will, instinct or imperative, which is anti-liberal to the point of malice: the will to tradition, to authority, to responsibility for centuries to come, to the solidarity of chains of generations, forward and backward ad infinitum. When this will is present, something like the Roman Empire is founded; or Russia, the only power today which has endurance, which can wait, which can still promise something."

Well, wouldn't you know it? — the closest thing to Friedrich's social ideal in his time is: Tsarist Russia. Feudal, aristocratic, Tsarist Russia, where the meek (the serfs), in spite of Christianity, know their place and stay in it. None of that nonsense about inheriting the earth there! Here in the West, on the other hand, snivelling weaklings that we are, we have lost the instincts that create enduring institutions and succumbed to decadent ones. Why, people are even marrying because they love each other. Impertinent degeneracy! "Never, absolutely never, can an institution be founded on an idiosyncrasy; one cannot, as I have said, found marriage on love." Damn it all, these people should be purged of this balderdash: "Today, the individual still has to be made whole by being pruned." But, confound it: "The reverse is what happens: the claim for independence, for free development, for laisser aller is pressed most hotly by the very people for whom no reins would be too strict...our modern conception of freedom is one more proof of the degeneration of the instincts."

Is it so far from that to this, from Mussolini: "And if liberty is to be the attribute of the ideal man, and not of the scarecrow invented by individualistic liberalism, then Fascism is for liberty. It is for the only kind of liberty that is serious — the liberty of the state." "The man of fascism is bound into a tradition and a mission, suppressing the instinct for a life enclosed within the brief round of pleasure in order to restore within duty a higher life free from the limits of time and space." ??

Ultimately, to uphold individualism and freedom, one must also uphold reason and free will: the capacity to think, and the capacity to choose to think; for if these be illusory, then individualism and freedom are impossibilities. Ultimately, Nietzsche upholds neither. He explicitly rejects free will ("the foulest of all theologians' artifices") and warns repeatedly of the dangers of over-estimating reason and letting it cloud the instincts. "All that is good is instinct." Reason (he reasons), has a fatal weakness for seeking out facts, and "there are no facts" (he states as a fact), "only interpretations." "Truths are illusions," (he claims as a truth), "about which one has forgotten that that is what they are." (This from the man who despised Kant!) There is no firm reality as such, just a Heraclitian flux of quanta — competing bundles of energy driven by the Will to Power. Human individuals are simply competing bundles of (inherited) quanta, with the strongest — they whose quanta are best in sync — winning.

Human beings, then, are the involuntary custodians of a biological mission. They should not try to determine their fate; rather, to discover and accept it. "Be thou thyself," reduces in the end to: "Love your fate" — Nietzsche's motto.

Is it so far from that to this, from Adolf Hitler, in 1937: "However weak the individual may be when compared with the will of Providence, yet at the moment when he acts as Providence would have him act he becomes immeasurably strong. Then there streams down on him that force that has marked all greatness in the world's history. And when I look back on the five years that lie behind us, then I feel I am justified in saying: This has not been the work of man alone." ??

Did Mussolini and Hitler see themselves as harbingers of the Overman, or even, perhaps, as actual Overmen? Or was this Hegel speaking? Commentators differ about the extent and source of philosophical influences on these two arch-totalitarians, but one thing we do know for certain: Mussolini was an avid reader of Nietzsche, and the Fuehrer, knowing this, gave him a set of Nietzsche's complete works as a gift in 1938.

Let us remind ourselves in conclusion that individualism, in denying that the individual is a means to an end, subsumes the corollary principle that no end ever justifies coercive means. What is especially troubling in Nietzsche is his sanguine acceptance of cruelty and violence as facilitators of the great biological mission. "The beginnings of everything great on earth," he says, are "soaked in blood thoroughly and for a long time." "Those of man's abilities which are terrifying and considered inhuman may even be the fertile soil out of which alone all of humanity can grow in impulse, deed and work. Thus the Greeks, the most humane men of ancient times, have a trait of cruelty, a tigerish lust to annihilate that must really strike fear into our hearts if we approach them with the flabby concept of modern humanity."

But I have laboured the point enough. By now it should be tragically clear that this self-styled free spirit is no Free Radical.

Alas, dear Friedrich, I liked you once.

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