Nietzsche My Frustrating Friend, A History Boy, 19/08/2013

I was going over some old notes for revisions on my ecophilosophy manuscript when I came across something I had written down about Friedrich Nietzsche. In particular, in Timothy Morton’s book Ecology Without Nature, he writes that Nietzsche’s thought is inappropriate for environmentalist philosophy because he conceived of the proper role of the most powerful people as dominating all around them. And a couple of weeks ago, I came across a facebook post by another friend of mine who considers Nietzsche a useless conservative reactionary because of his hatred for 19th century European socialism.
I consider Nietzsche the greatest philosopher
of 19th century Europe. No joke. Just praise.

I’m so sick of people screwing with Nietzsche.

Again, I’m not going to get everything I think and have thought about Nietzsche in a single blog post. The first essay I wrote that was published (not the first to be published, but the first successful submission) was about Nietzsche's concept of the übermensch and how this figure grows beyond the need for resentment. Check it out. I'm chapter 22.

But I can certainly complain about the way he’s so often misinterpreted as a worse thinker than he really was. Given my fight over my interpretations of Hegel last week, you might want to call me on some hypocrisy here. And you’d have sort of an angle, but I think the reading of Hegel that I defend and find most productive for my utopias project is of a very different kind than the kind of thoughts about Nietzsche that upset me.

Because while my interpretation and appropriation of Hegel may not fit with what some of my friends think is most interesting about the philosophy, I never disrespect Hegel. I think that some implications of his concept of world-spirit are philosophically problematic and that his account of the histories of Asian, African, and indigenous peoples are loaded with orientalisms. But he’s never worth dismissing. If I thought he was worth dismissing, I would never have included him in my research.

It makes me so sad to hear Nietzsche dismissed easily, regarded as if nothing he wrote was of any value. He’s a profound thinker who used his critiques of his era’s mainstream Christian morality to bridge legitimately into a set of ontological concepts that were on the philosophical cutting edge. If you ever read Gilles Deleuze's book about Nietzsche, it'll teach you a lot in very clear (if sometimes pretentious) language about the subtleties of his system. While I find Brian Leiter's and Maudemarie Clark's work on Nietzsche defangs him a little too much, I'd recommend that too. Also recommended is anything by Barry Allen (the philosopher), and not just because he was my doctoral supervisor. When my friend K eventually publishes some of his Nietzsche scholarship, you'll be able to learn incredibly interesting things about how he incorporated innovative ideas in the science of his time into his ontology.

Morton’s and my friend’s naughty things to say about Nietzsche are related in an interesting way, however. Both of their dismissals are based on reading Nietzsche’s sense of ‘aristocracy’ as referring to the actual aristocrats of the 19th century. But it wasn’t by a long shot. Nietzsche’s conception of aristocracy referred to a type of person who was actually the most noble, remarkable, and brilliant. This description didn’t fit the aristocracy of his time at all, who were inbred, imperialist, anti-semitic nincompoops. These people thought of domination as might makes right.

Nietzsche didn’t. To Nietzsche, domination was a function of how well you lived in the world, how well you adapted to the changing conditions of your world. Domination was a function of intelligence and cunning to preserve your own life. Nietzsche respected the 'might makes right' style of domination, which he saw exemplified in ancient Greek ideals of heroism. But that style of domination had already been defeated by the cunning resentfulness of Christian morality. He wasn't about to advocate its return if for no other reason than that it would always be vulnerable to Christian moral critique. A proper Nietzschean aristocrat develops a cunning nobility, and is an intelligent person who forges their own way of living wisely. 19th century Europe had quite a deficit of this kind of person. Even Nietzsche often admitted that he rarely lived up to his own ideals.

Cunning nobility. A trickster and a liar who treats his friends with the deepest love and keeps his promises. Why do you think the first essay I wrote to get published basically said The Doctor was a paradigm übermensch?

Both the aristocrats and the proletariat leaders of Nietzsche’s day could never have been called wise. His assessment of the actual aristocratic class was that they were a bunch of self-entitled greedy fools. His assessment of the proletariat class was that they were jealous and resentful. Their resentment was deserved, because of the hideous conditions of their working lives. But it was still a resentment, a mind-set that pollutes and damages people, making them petty and vengeful. The vision of equality that came out of the socialism of the 19th century was couched in propaganda that made equality petty. "From each according to his abilities; to each according to his needs," was the slogan, but Nietzsche was sensitive to the idea that a good human life amounts to more than the satisfaction of needs alone. 

The politics of 19th century Europe really had no alternatives to endorsing the life of either the robber baron or the drone. The socialist movements of the day were admirable in that they fought poverty, but there didn't seem to be a place in the genuinely public (not just aristocratic intellectual) debate on socialism that considered the working class as capable of anything beyond the supposed dignity of a hand-to-mouth existence. The problem of labour in 19th century Europe was that so few people even had that. The socialist perspective Nietzsche railed against was the one that saw hand-to-mouth existence as all that anyone should have. Whatever might have been the subtleties of Marx's and Engel's texts never filtered to the daily activity of socialist agitation. Nietzsche wanted and needed nuance, but lived in a culture where everyone else thought in extremes and absolutes. 

We can learn a lot from Nietzsche, even if you might have some serious critiques of him. But he’s someone who should be respected.

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