May 9, 2010


Nietzsche: A Philosophy in Context: a review of FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE: A Philosophical Biography By Julian Young (FRANCIS FUKUYAMA, NY Times Book Review)

The most serious issue raised in this or any other study of Nietzsche concerns the nature of his politico-cultural program, the “transvaluation of all values,” that was to take place in the wake of the death of Christianity. Young properly criticizes attempts by the Nazis to appropriate Nie­tzsche as one of their own. He points out that despite some casual anti-Semitism in his early years, the older Nietzsche became a principled anti-anti-Semite, an opponent of Bismarck and a critic of the German chauvinism that emerged after the Reich was unified in 1871.

Nietzsche, however, hoped for a future hierarchical society in which the labor of the many would support the greatness of the few, one in which the cultural cacophony of contemporary liberal societies would be replaced by the solidarity of a single, common culture. Young argues that this was not really a political project, and that the Übermensch at the top of the pyramid should be thought of less as a Hitler-like dictator and more as a spiritual leader, whom he compares variously to the Dalai Lama or Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei. Cultural conformity was not, for Young’s Nietzsche, something to be enforced through political power, but rather something generated spontaneously through communal participation in art, much as the ancient Greek polis had been bound together through the common performance of tragedy.

This then explains the central role that music played in his philosophy. Nietzsche, a talented pianist and occasional composer, had great hopes that Richard Wagner’s music might somehow serve as the foundation for a refounding of German culture on the basis of a unifying art, and for that reason he entered eagerly into the circle of Wagner and his wife, Cosima. He broke with the composer not because he ceased to believe in the project, but because he felt that Wagner himself was too crude an individual to implement it.

But understanding Nietzsche’s project as a cultural rather than a political one should not blind us to its terrible implications. For while one might be able to create a small-scale community based on common and voluntary commitment to art, as Wagner sought to do in Bayreuth, scaling up such a project to society as a whole, with all its de facto diversity, would require dictatorial political power. The mystical origins of Nietzsche’s Dionysian community are an open invitation to the unleashing of irrational passion that is perfectly happy to squander the life of any individual standing in its way. Ayatollah Khamenei is indeed a much better model of Nietzsche’s future leader than the power­less Dalai Lama.

Young’s biography illustrates concepts from Nietzsche’s books with examples drawn from the contemporary world, so one finds Diana, Princess of Wales; “The Truman Show”; and the Iraq war popping up in incongruous places. Some of these are helpful, but many simply detract from the book’s seriousness, like the dozen or so references to global warming scattered through the text.

Whether we acknowledge it or not, we continue to live within the intellectual shadow cast by Nietzsche. Postmodernism, deconstructionism, cultural relativism, the “free spirit” scorning bourgeois morality, even New Age festivals like Burning Man can all ultimately be traced to him. There is a line running from “Beyond Good and Evil” to Justice Anthony Kennedy’s assertion (in Planned Parenthood v. Casey) that liberty is “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and of the mystery of human life.”

Perhaps the ugliest words ever written by a justice.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 9, 2010 8:06 AM
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