Written by Vladimir Moss


Friedrich Nietzsche is a writer we must get to know in order to understand the spirit of our times. Together with Darwin and Freud, he provided the intellectual foundations for the philosophy of nihilism that has conquered the modern world. Let us examine his thought in the context of his time.

Nietzsche came to maturity at the time of the creation of the First German Reich, which came into being on January 18, 1871 in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, after the defeat of France at the battle of Sedan. There twenty three German princes offered the title of emperor to the most powerful amongst them, King William I of Prussia. Richard Evans writes: “Built by Louis XIV, the ‘Sun King’, at the height of his power nearly two hundred years before, the palace was now turned into a humiliating symbol of French impotence and defeat. This was a key moment in modern German and indeed European history. To liberals, it seemed the fulfilment of their dreams. But there was a heavy price to pay. Several features of Bismarck’s creation had ominous consequences for the future. First of all, the decision to call the new state ‘the German Reich’ inevitably conjured up memories of its thousand-year predecessor, the dominant power in Europe for so many centuries. Some, indeed, referred to Bismarck’s creation as the ‘Second Reich’. The use of the word implied, too, that where the First Reich had failed, in the face of French aggression, the Second had succeeded. Among the many aspects of his creation that survived the fall of Bismarck’s German Reich in 1918, the continued use of the term ‘German Empire’, Deutsches Reich, by the Weimar Republic and all its institutions was far from being the least significant. The word ‘Reich’ conjured up an image among educated Germans that resonated far beyond the institutional structures Bismarck created: the successor to the Roman Empire; the vision of God’s Empire here on earth; the universality of its claim to suzerainty; in a more prosaic but no less powerful sense, the concept of a German state that would include all German speakers in Central Europe – ‘one People, one Reich, one Leader’, as the Nazi slogan was to put it. There always remained those in Germany who thought Bismarck’s creation only a partial realization of the idea of a true German Reich. Initially, their voices were drowned by the euphoria of victory. But with time, their number was to grow…”[1]

Nietzsche did not like the new Germany. He spoke of “the bad and dangerous consequences” of the German victory in 1871, and feared “the defeat – yes, the extirpation of the German spirit in favour of the ‘German Reich’.”[2] He broke with his former idol, Wagner, because the latter rejected his former cosmopolitanism, made peace with the new Reich, and even, in his last opera, Parsifal, affected a return to Christianity.

But Nietzsche was no revolutionary like Marx or Bakunin, and had no specifically political programme. As Golo Mann writes: “Prophesying war and glorifying power as he did, he should have been a supporter of the new Germany; this he was not at all. He loved the old Germany, the Germany of Goethe, not of Bismarck. He thought that the German nation was becoming politically conscious at the expense of it old virtues. ’The price of coming to power is even greater; power makes people stupid… the Germans – once they were called the nation of thinkers – do they think at all today?[3] The Germans are bored by intellect, politics swallow up all their interest in really intellectual matters. Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles, I fear, was the end of German philosophy… “Are there any German philosophers, are there any German poets, are there any good German books?” – I am asked abroad. I blush, but with the bravado which is mine even in desperate circumstances I reply: “Yes, Bismarck.”’ Elsewhere he says: ’This is the age of the masses, they kowtow to everything “mass”. This happens also in politicis. A statesman who raises them a new tower of Babel, some monstrosity of an empire and of power is ‘great’ to them. What does it matter that those of us who are more careful and reticent for the time being cling to the old belief that it is only a great idea which lends greatness to an action or a cause. Assuming a statesman were to put his nation in a position where it becomes involved in a grand political game for which it is by nature neither fitted nor prepared, so that it must sacrifice its old and more tested qualities for a new and questionable mediocrity; assuming that a statesman condemned his nation to become politically minded generally, though this nation has so far had better things to do and in its heart of hearts cannot rid itself of a cautious distaste for the restlessness, emptiness and noisy petulance of politically minded peoples; assuming that such a statesman whips up the dormant passions and lusts of his people, blames it for its former timidity and wish not to get involved, accuses it of hankering after foreign things and of a secret desire for the infinite, that he makes light of its dearest fancies, warps its conscience and makes it narrow-minded and nationalistic in its tastes – how can a statesman who did all these things, and whom his nation would have to do penance for all eternity, if it has a future at all, how can such a statesman be called great?’”[4]

So Nietzsche would presumably have rejected Hitler as he rejected Bismarck and Kaiser William II. And he rejected antisemitism: “How much mendacity and squalor are needed to raise race questions in today’s hotch-potch Europe.” “Maxim: no social intercourse with anybody involved in the lie of racialism.”[5] And yet it is not difficult to see why the founders of Nazism seized upon Nietzsche’s philosophy as confirming their own…

The Will to Power

Nietzsche’s political philosophy owed much to Hegel’s critique of Anglo-Saxon liberal democracy. In his early years, Hegel had regarded democracy as the best political system, but for reasons that were subtly and importantly different from those of the Anglo-Saxon theorists. These differences, according to the Harvard political scientist Francis Fukuyama, can be seen more clearly in the context of the psychological bases of the two models.

The Anglo-Saxon model is based on Plato’s distinction between three basic elements of human nature: reason, desire and thymos (anger or “spirit”). Reason is the handmaid of desire and thymos; it is that element which distinguishes us from the animals and enables the irrational forces of desire and thymos to be satisfied in the real world. Desire includes the basic needs for food, sleep, shelter and sex. Thymos is usually translated as "anger" or "courage"; but Fukuyama defines it as that desire which "desires the desire of other men, that is, to be wanted by others or to be recognized".[6]

Most liberal theorists in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, such as Hobbes and Locke, focused on desire as the fundamental force in human nature because on its satisfaction depends the survival of the human race itself. They saw thymos, or the need for recognition, as an ambiguous force which should rather be suppressed than expressed; for it is thymos that leads to tyrannies, wars and all those conflicts which endanger "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". The American Constitution with its system of checks and balances was designed above all to prevent the emergence of tyranny, which is the clearest expression of what we may call "megalothymia".

Now the early Hegel valued democracy, not simply because it attained the satisfaction of desire better than any other system, but also, and primarily, because it gave expression to thymos in the form of isothymia - that is, it allowed each citizen to express his thymos to an equal degree. For whereas in pre-democratic societies the satisfaction of thymos in one person led to the frustration of thymos for many more, thereby dividing the whole of society into one or a few masters and a great many slaves, as a result of the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century the slaves overthrew their masters and achieved equal recognition in each other's eyes. Thus through the winning of universal human rights everyone, in effect, became a master.

Hegel's philosophy was an explicit challenge to the Christian view of freedom and slavery, which regarded the latter as a secondary evil that could be turned into a great good if used for spiritual ends. "For he that is called in the Lord," said St. Paul, "being a servant, is the Lord's freeman: likewise also he that is called, being free, is Christ's servant" (I Corinthians 7.22). So "live as free men," said St. Peter, "yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God" (I Peter 2.16). But since this doctrine offended Hegel's pride, his thymos, he rejected it as unworthy of the dignity of man. And he rejected Anglo-Saxon liberalism for similar reasons, insofar as he saw liberalism’s placing self-preservation as the main aim of life and society as effete and degrading. In fact, towards the end of his life he transferred his political allegiance from democracy to Prussian autocracy…

Nietzsche took Hegel’s concept of thymos and gave it a broader meaning, encompassing all human desire. Combining it with the desiring faculty, he called it the will to power, recalling Schopenhauer’s very similar concept: “A living thing seeks above all to discharge its strength - life itself is will to power; self-preservation is only one of the indirect and most frequent results.”[7] This will to power encompassed “pride, joy, health, sexual love, enmity and war.” By subordinating everything to the full expression of this will to power Nietzsche completed a revolution in German philosophy. For Kant had emphasised the “disinterestedness” of the moral and aesthetic ideal, its basis in knowledge and independence from desire. Schopenhauer in The World as Will and Idea had then restored desire (will) to its rightful place in philosophy, and in fact gave precedence to it over knowledge. But his moral ideal was still the ascetic one of abstention from desire and its illusory pleasures. Nietzsche, who admired Schopenhauer but could not accept his attempt to renounce will through asceticism, completed the revolution in German idealism by rejecting asceticism and the whole system of values involved in it. [8]

He did this by distinguishing between the morality of the master and the morality of the slave. The morality of the master is the morality of the superman, whose superiority consists in the greater uninhibitedness of his will to power, which impresses itself upon others and forces them to acknowledge it, making them thereby his slaves. He is the aristocrat par excellence, who embraces life in its fullness, and fears neither suffering nor death. Historically speaking, he belongs to the master races that have conquered others – the Romans, the Vikings, the Aryans. “One cannot fail to see at the bottom of all these noble races the beast of prey, the splendid blond beast prowling about avidly in search of spoil and victory…”[9]

The morality of the slave is a kind of defence mechanism against the morality of the master. Based on ressentiment, that is, vengefulness against his master, the morality of the slave justifies his subservience and allows him to live with it by repressing his will to power or by sublimating it into other channels – Christian good works, for example, or a philosophy of human rights that protects the slave against his master and his fellow-slave. Thus “in every ascetic morality man adores part of himself as God [the inversion or sublimation of the will to power] and to that end needs to diabolicize the rest [the will to power itself].”[10]

And so “’love of the neighbor’ is always something secondary, partly conventional and arbitrary-illusory in relation to fear of the neighbor. After the structure of society is fixed on the whole and seems secure against external dangers, it is this fear of the neighbor that again creates new perspectives of moral valuation. Certain strong and dangerous drives, like an enterprising spirit, foolhardiness, vengefulness, craftiness, rapacity, and the lust to rule, which had so far not merely been honoured insofar as they were socially useful – under different names, to be sure, from those chosen here – but had to be trained and cultivated to make them great (because one constantly needed them in view of the dangers to the whole community, against the enemies of the community), are now experienced as doubly dangerous, since the channels to divert them are lacking, and, step by step, they are branded as immoral and abandoned to slander.

“Now the opposite drives and inclinations receive moral honors; step by step, the herd instinct draws its conclusions. How much or how little is dangerous to the community, dangerous to equality, in an opinion, in a state or affect, in a will, in a talent – that now constitutes the moral perspective: here, too, fear is again the mother of morals.”[11]

Historically, the leader in this revanche of the slave against his master was the priest, who “alters the direction of ressentiment”. The first priestly people was the Jews.[12] The Christians followed the Jews and refined the morality of the slave still further, adding to it a whole metaphysics of salvation. “All that has been done on earth against ‘the noble’, ‘the powerful’, ‘the masters’, ‘the rulers’, fades into nothing compared with what the Jews have done against them; the Jews, that priestly people, who in opposing their enemies and conquerors were ultimately satisfied with nothing less than a radical revaluation of their enemies’ values, that is to say, an act of the most spiritual revenge. For this alone was appropriate to a priestly people, the people embodying the most deeply repressed priestly vengefulness. It was the Jews who, with awe-inspiring consistency, dared to invert the aristocratic value-equation (good=noble=powerful=beautiful=happy=God-beloved) and to hang on to this inversion with their teeth, the teeth of the most abysmal hatred (the hatred of impotence), saying ‘the wretched alone are the good; the poor, impotent, lowly alone are the good; the suffering, deprived, sick, ugly alone are pious, alone are blessed by God, blessedness is for them alone – and you, the powerful and noble, are on the contrary the evil, the cruel, the lustful, the insatiable, the godless to all eternity; and you shall be in all eternity the unblessed, accursed and damned!’… One knows who inherited this Jewish revaluation… In connection with the tremendous and most fundamental of all declarations of war, I recall the proposition I arrived at on a previous occasion (Beyond Good and Evil, section 195) – that with the Jews there begins the slave revolt in morality: that revolt which has a history of two thousand years behind it and which we no longer see because it – has been victorious…

“[As for] this Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnate gospel of love, this ‘Redeemer’ who brought blessedness and victory to the poor, the sick, and the sinners – was he not this seduction in its most uncanny and irresistible form, a seduction and bypath to precisely those Jewish values and new ideals? Did Israel not attain the ultimate goal of its sublime vengefulness precisely through the bypath of this ‘Redeemer’, this ostensible opponent and disintegrator of Israel? Was it not part of the secret black art of truly grand politics of revenge, of a farseeing, subterranean, slowly advancing, and premeditated revenge, that Israel must itself deny the real instrument of its revenge before all the world as a mortal enemy and nail it to the cross, so that ‘all the world’, namely all the opponents of Israel, could unhesitatingly swallow just this bait? And could spiritual subtlety imagine any more dangerous bait than this? Anything to equal the enticing, intoxicating, overwhelming, and undermining power of that symbol of the ‘holy cross’, that ghastly paradox of a ‘God on the cross’, that mystery of an unimaginable ultimate cruelty and self-crucifixion of God for the salvation of man?

“What is certain, at least is that sub hoc signo [under the sign of the Cross] Israel, with its vengefulness and revaluation of all values, has hitherto triumphed again and again over all other ideals, over all nobler ideals...” [13]

For this reason, Nietzsche was scornful of the Christian position of his contemporary Dostoyevsky, with whom he is often compared – although he is much closer to one of Dostoyevsky’s more manic characters than the writer himself. He “held Dostoyevsky in contempt for his ‘morbid moral tortures’, his rejection of ‘proper pride’. He accused him of ‘sinning to enjoy the luxury of confession’, which Nietzsche considered a ‘degrading prostration’. Dostoyevsky was, in Nietzsche’s words, one of the victims of the ‘conscience-vivisection and self-crucifixion of two thousand years’ of Christianity.”[14]

The most common form of slave-morality in modern times has been democracy-socialism with its anti-aristocratic, herd-animal ethos: “The democratic movement is the heir of the Christian movement.”[15]

“I add immediately,” writes Nietzsche, “that in all the higher and more mixed [i.e. racially mixed] cultures there also appear attempts at mediation between these two moralities, and yet more often the interpretation and mutual misunderstanding of both, and at times they occur directly alongside each other – even in the same human being, within a single soul. The moral discrimination of values has originated either among a ruling group whose consciousness of its difference from the ruled group was accompanied by delight – or among the ruled, the slave and dependents of every degree.

“In the first case, when the ruling group determines what is ‘good’, the exalted, proud states of the soul are experienced as conferring distinction and determining the order of rank. The noble human being separates from himself those in whom the opposite of such exalted, proud states finds expression: he despises them. It should be noted immediately that in this first type of morality the opposition of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ means approximately the same as ‘noble’ and ‘contemptible’. (The opposition of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ has a different origin.) One feels contempt for the cowardly, the anxious, the petty, those intent on narrow utility; also for the suspicious with their unfree glances, those who humble themselves, the doglike people who allow themselves to be maltreated, the begging flatterers, above all the liars: it is part of the fundamental faith of all aristocrats that the common people lie. ‘We truthful ones’ – thus the nobility of ancient Greece referred to itself.

“It is obvious that moral designations were everywhere first applied to human beings and only later, derivatively, to actions. Therefore it is a gross mistake when historians of morality start from such questions as: why was the compassionate act praised? The noble type of man experiences itself as determining values; it does not need approval; it judges, ‘what is harmful to me is harmful in itself’; it knows itself to be that which first accords honor to things; it is value-creating. Everything it knows as part of itself it honors: such a morality is self-glorification. In the foreground there is the feeling of fullness, of power that seeks to overflow, the happiness of high tension, the consciousness of wealth that would give and bestow: the noble human being, too, helps the unfortunate, but not, or almost not, from pity, but prompted more by an urge begotten by excess of power. The noble human being honors himself as one who is powerful, also as one who has power over himself, who knows how to speak and be silent, who delights in being severe and hard with himself and respects all severity and hardness. ‘A hard heart Wotan put in my breast,’ says an old Scandinavian saga: a fitting poetic expression, seeing that it comes from the soul of a proud Viking. Such a type of man is actually proud of the fact that he is not made for pity, and the hero of the saga therefore adds as a warning: ‘If the heart is not hard in youth it will never harden.’ Noble and courageous human beings who think that way are furthest removed from that morality which finds the distinction of morality precisely in pity, or in acting for others, or in désintéressement; faith in oneself, pride in oneself, a fundamental hostility and irony against ‘selflessness’ belong just as definitely to noble morality as does a slight disdain and caution regarding compassionate feelings and a ‘warm heart.” [16]

However, “the slave’s eye is not favourable to the virtues of the powerful: he is sceptical and suspicious, subtly suspicious, of all the ‘good’ that is honoured there – he would like to persuade himself that even their happiness is not genuine. Conversely, those qualities are brought out and flooded with light which serve to ease existence for those who suffer: here pity, the complaisant and obliging hand, the warm heart, patience, industry, humility, and friendliness are honoured – for here these are the most useful qualities and almost the only means for enduring the pressure of existence. Slave morality is essentially a morality of utility…

“One last fundamental difference: the longing for freedom, the instinct for happiness and the subtleties of the feeling of freedom belong as necessarily to slave morality and morals as artful and enthusiastic reverence and devotion are the regular symptom of an aristocratic way of thinking and evaluating.”[17]

However, this pagan aristocratic type which is clearly Nietzsche’s ideal has been gradually worn down into the plebeian democratic and socialist type, partly (since strength or weakness of the will to power is transmitted genetically as well as culturally) by intermarriage between the master and slave races - “the slowly arising democratic order of things (and its cause, the intermarriage of masters and slaves)”[18], - and partly by the overcoming of the masters by the slaves.[19] This mixing of masters and slaves, those of strong will with those of weak will, has resulted in a sickness of the will which “is spread unevenly over Europe: it appears strongest and most manifold where culture has been at home longest [France]; it disappears to the extent to which the ‘barbarian’ still – or again – claims is rights under the loose garments of Western culture.”[20]

Intriguingly, Nietzsche found the greatest strength of will in Russia, whose triumph would stimulate Europe’s regeneration and political unification: “The strength of will, and to will something for a long time,… is strongest and most amazing by far in that enormous empire in between, where Europe, as it were, flows back into Asia, in Russia. There the strength to will has long been accumulated and stored up, there the will – uncertain whether as a will to negate or a will to affirm – is waiting menacingly to be discharged, to borrow a pet phrase of our physicists today. It may well take more than Indian wars and complications in Asia to rid Europe of its greatest danger: internal upheavals would be needed, too, the shattering of the empire into small units, and above all the introduction of the parliamentary nonsense, including the obligation for everybody to read his newspaper with his breakfast.

“I do not say this because I want it to happen: the opposite would be rather more after my heart – I mean such an increase in the menace of Russia that Europe would have to resolve to become menacing, too, namely, to acquire one will by means of a new caste that would rule Europe, a long, terrible will of its own that would be able to cast its goals millennia hence – so the long-drawn-out comedy of its many splinter states as well as its dynastic and democratic splinter wills would come to an end. The time for petty politics is over: the very next century will bring the fight for the dominion of the earth – the compulsion to large-scale politics.” [21]

The Attitude to Truth

Three further aspects of Nietzsche’s thought should be pointed out here. The first is his elevation of the psychological method of argumentation to the front rank in philosophy.

Now Nietzsche’s psychological approach to philosophy had both successes and failures. But if we are inclined to dismiss it because of the grossness of its failures (especially in relation to Christianity), we must nevertheless admit that he anticipated many of the psychoanalytical ideas, such as repression, sublimation and the unconscious, that became part of the furniture of the mind of twentieth-century man. And insofar as the Nietzschean method of psychological reductionism became the stock-in-trade of the twentieth century’s attempts to reduce God and religion to unconscious impulses and fantasies, we may accept that he was right in calling psychology the coming “queen of the sciences”[22], taking the place of the former queen, theology, in the same way that the Antichrist takes the place of Christ…

A second important aspect of his thought is his extreme individualism and disgust with mass culture. The morality of the master was the value-system of the proud individual, and that of the slave – of the masses. In essence, therefore, “Morality in Europe today is herd animal morality”.[23]

“From the sociological point of view,” writes Davies, “Nietzsche’s views may be seen as an intellectual’s revulsion against the rise of mass literacy, and of mass culture in general. They were espoused by an international coterie of artists and writers, which wished to strengthen the barriers between so-called ‘high culture’ and ‘low culture’, and hence to preserve the role of the self-appointed aristocracy of ideas. In this, they formed a suitable partner for modernism in the arts, one of whose chief attractions lay in the fact that it was unintelligible to the person in the street. ‘Mass culture generated Nietzsche in opposition to itself,’ writes a recent critic, ‘as its antagonist. The immense popularity of his ideas among early twentieth-century intellectuals suggests the panic that the threat of the masses aroused.’

“In retrospect, it is the virulence with which Nietzsche and his admirers poured contempt on ‘the masses’ that appears most shocking. ‘Many, too many, are born,’ spake Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, ‘and they hand on their branches much too long.’ In The Will to Power, Nietzsche called for ‘a declaration of war by higher men on the masses… The great majority of men have no right to existence.’[24]

Nietzsche’s extreme individualism is linked to the Nazis’ herd-morality by the fact that the universality of the herd-morality generates an overwhelming need for the heroic individual, the Führer-master, who stands out against the crowd and dominates it. “The appearance of one who commands unconditionally strikes these herd-animal Europeans as an immense comfort and salvation from a gradually intolerable pressure, as was last attested in a major way by the effect of Napoleon’s appearance…”[25]

And if this attitude to the majority is considered cruel, so be it: “Almost everything we call ‘higher culture’ is based on the spiritualization of cruelty, on its becoming more profound: this is my proposition. That ‘savage animal’ has not really been ‘mortified’; it lives and flourishes, it has merely become – divine. What constitutes the painful voluptuousness of tragedy is cruelty; what seems agreeable in so-called tragic pity, and at bottom in everything sublime, up to the highest and most delicate shudders of metaphysics, receives its sweetness solely from the admixture of cruelty. What the Roman in the arena, the Christian in the ecstasies of the cross, the Spaniard at an auto-da-fé or bullfight, the Japanese of today when he flocks to tragedies, the laborer in a Parisian suburb who feels a nostalgia for bloody revolutions, the Wagnerienne who ‘submits to’ Tristan and Isolde, her will suspended – what all of them enjoy and seek to drink with mysterious ardour are the spicy potions of the great Circe, ‘cruelty’.”[26]

But the most radical aspect of Nietzsche’s thought is his pragmatic and relativistic attitude to truth. Not to say: nihilistic, for he wrote: “That there is no truth; that there is no absolute state of affairs – no ‘thing-in-itself’. This alone is Nihilism, and of the most extreme kind.[27] This nihilism was a consequence of the proud individualism we have discussed. For if the master creates his own morality, he must necessarily create his own truth, which is not necessarily truth for anybody else. And certainly not for the slaves, who derive their morality from the herd or their priestly hierarchy. That is why the philosophers of the future, according to Nietzsche, “will certainly not be dogmatists. It must offend their pride, also their taste, if their truth is supposed to be a truth for everyman – which has so far been the secret wish and hidden meaning of all dogmatic aspirations. ‘My judgement is my judgement’: no one else is easily entitled to it – that is what such a philosopher of the future may perhaps say of himself.

“One must shed the bad taste of wanting to agree with many. ‘Good’ is no longer good when one’s neighbour mouths it. And how should there be a ‘common good’! The term contradicts itself: whatever can be common always has little value. In the end it must be as it is and always has been: great things remain for the great, abysses for the profound, nuances and shudders for the refined, and, in brief, all that is rare for rare.”[28]

There are no certainties, only probabilities. “In place of fundamental truths I put fundamental possibilities – provisionally assumed guides by which one lives and thinks.”[29] “The falseness of an opinion is not for us any objection to it… The question is, how far an opinion is life-furthering, life-preserving.”[30] “There is, according to Nietzsche, no absolute truth. The concept of absolute truth is an invention of philosophers who are dissatisfied with the world of Becoming and seek an abiding world of Being. ‘Truth is that sort of error without which a particular type of living being could not live. The value for life is ultimately decisive.’”[31] It follows that knowledge can never be completely objective, being the servant of irrationality.

This special Nietzschean attitude to truth has become dominant in recent politics. Thus Peter Osborne writes: “In the summer of 2002 the New York Times writer, Ron Suskind, met a senior adviser at the Bush White House. He was surprised to find that the aide dismissed his remarks: ‘The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community”, which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality”. I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works any more,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.’

“Hostility to a ‘reality-based’ analysis of events can be traced back to postmodernism, which has become a fashionable orthodoxy among teachers of philosophy, and indeed other academic disciplines. Postmodernism is one modern manifestation of extreme philosophical scepticism, a tradition which can be traced back to the beginnings of thought and the ancient Greek school of Pyrrho. This school despaired of the notion that truth was accessible and deduced that no ultimately stable distinction could be drawn between truth and falsehood.

“Postmodernism denies that the truth can ever be known. It holds that words like falsehood, accuracy and deception, at any rate as used in ordinary speech, have no validity. That is because it concerns itself with the competing claims of rival truths. The idea of verifiable reality, so important to the Anglo-American school of empirical philosophy, is dismissed as an absurdity.

“Postmodern thinking grew up in the astonishingly influential school of French philosophy which flourished in the 1970s and 1980s and is perhaps associated in particular with the historian and philosopher Michel Foucault and the philosopher Jacques Derrida. Truth was, for Foucault, no more than an effect of the rules of discourse, itself a highly problematic concept, and for Foucault all discourses were equally valid. Perception and truth were there to be created. Though he was famous for historical studies of sex, madness and prisons, Foucault declared, ‘I am well aware that I have not written anything but fictions.’ Foucault sometimes argued that truth was the effect of power relations, the expression of dominance, whether political, economic or sexual.

“The influential American philosopher Richard Rorty helped take the work of Foucault and Derrida across the Atlantic. Rorty shared the view of the French school that truth claims could never be incontestably grounded, and argued that an alternative way of giving weight to words was to ‘construct’ what he called a ‘narrative’. This has the effect of shifting the emphasis of argument from truths which can be verified to ‘narratives’ that can be manufactured…”[32]

The Antichrist

It follows from this attitude to truth that Nietzsche was an atheist and a nihilist. “The greatest event of recent times – that ‘God is dead’, that belief in the Christian God has become unworthy of belief – already begins to cast its first shadows over Europe… At last the horizon lies free before us, even granted that it is not bright; at least the sea, our sea, lies open before us. Perhaps there has never been so open a sea.”[33]

Fr. Seraphim Rose has described nihilism as the fundamental philosophy, not only of Nietzsche, but of the modern world as a whole. The history of nihilism, according to Rose, has three main historical stages: liberalism, realism and vitalism, which are completed by a final stage: the nihilism of destruction. Liberalism is an attitude rather than a belief, an attitude of indifference to questions of absolute truth, or a desire to believe that the answers to such questions, if they exist, are less important than living a pleasant, “civilised” life in this world. Realism is the belief that absolute truth does not exist, and that truth is to be found in science alone without any deeper metaphysical basis. Vitalism is the belief that it is not truth, whether scientific or metaphysical, that matters, but vitality, life, creativity, dynamism. The Nihilism of Destruction is not simply atheist, but antitheist; it is not content with denying absolute truth, or finding a substitute for it in a vaguely restless dynamism, but seeks to destroy that truth and everything associated with it.

“Vitalism,” writes Rose, “in the forms of Symbolism, occultism, artistic Expressionism, and various evolutionary and ‘mystical’ philosophies [including some forms of nationalism], is the most significant intellectual undercurrent throughout the half century after about 1875; and the Nihilism of Destruction, though its intellectual roots lie deep in the preceding century, brings to a grand conclusion, in the public order as well as in many private spheres, the whole century and a quarter of Nihilist development with the concentrated era of destruction of 1914-45.”[34]

Since Germany was, with Russia, the major player in the 1914-45 era of destruction, it is not surprising to find Orthodox writers laying a large part of the blame for the catastrophe on Nietzsche. Thus the First World War was, for Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich, a struggle between the All-Man, Christ, and the Superman of Nietzsche, between the doctrine that Right is Might and the opposite one that might is right. For German Christianity with its all-devouring scientism and scepticism had already surrendered to Nietzscheanism: “I wonder… that Professor Harnack, one of the chief representatives of German Christianity, omitted to see how every hollow that he and his colleagues made in traditional Christianity in Germany was at once filled with the all-conquering Nietzscheanism. And I wonder… whether he is now aware that in the nineteen hundred and fourteenth year of our Lord, when he and other destroyers of the Bible, who proclaimed Christ a dreamy maniac [and] clothed Christianity in rags, Nietzscheanism grew up [as] the real religion of the German race.”[35]

Rose continues: “Father John of Kronstadt, that holy man of God, has likened the soul of man to an eye, diseased through sin and thus incapable of seeing the spiritual sun. The same likeness can serve to trace the progress of the disease of Nihilism, which is no more than an elaborate mask of sin. The spiritual eye in fallen human nature is not sound, as every Orthodox Christian knows; we see in this life only dimly and require faith and the Grace of God to effect a healing that will enable us, in the future life, to see clearly once more. The first stage of Nihilism, which is Liberalism, is born of the errors of taking out diseased eye for a sound one, of mistaking its impaired vision for a view of the true world, and thus of discharging the physician of the soul, the Church, whose ministrations are not needed by a ‘healthy’ man. In the second stage, Realism, the disease, no longer attended by the necessary physician, begins to grow; vision is narrowed; distant objects, already obscure enough in the ‘natural’ state of impaired vision, become invisible; only the nearest objects are seen distinctly, and the patient becomes convinced no others exist. In the third stage, Vitalism, infection leads to inflammation; even the nearest objects become dim and distorted and there are hallucinations. In the fourth stage, the Nihilism of Destruction, blindness ensues and the disease spreads to the rest of the body, effecting agony, convulsions, and death…”[36]

Nietzsche despises Liberalism, and has already gone beyond Realism. He is in essence a particularly clear prophet of Vitalism, the “positive” content of nihilism. But we also see in him the totally negative, destructive nihilism that found practical contemporary expression in the anarchist revolutionary activity of Bakunin and the Paris Communards. Nietzsche argues that if God exists, and his commandments are accepted, then it is necessary to reject the world – or at any rate attach only a conditional value to it. “’The concept of God’, he says in The Twilight of the Idols, ‘was up to now the greatest objection against existence.’ And in The Antichrist we read that ‘with God war is declared on life, Nature and the will to live! God is the formula for every calumny against this world and for every lie concerning a beyond!’”[37]

But Nietzsche wants to embrace the world – in itself, for itself, and with absolutely no reference to any exterior cause, purpose or criterion of its existence, in its “ugliness” as well as its “beauty”, its “evil” as well as its “good”. That is why, in answer to the question: “What does Nihilism mean?” he replies: “That the highest values are losing their value. There is no goal. There is no answer to the question: ‘why?’”[38] For the question “why?” has no answer within the bounds of this world. It points to Him Who exists independently of the world and gives it meaning, whereas in fact there is no thing, nihil, beyond this world.

Fortunately, in Nietzsche’s view, for the majority of his contemporaries “God is dead” – that is, they have lost their faith in God. “We have killed him (God), you and I! We are all his murderers! But how have we done it? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the whole horizon? What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun? Whither does it move now? Whither do we move? Away from all suns? Do we not dash on unceasingly? Backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an above and below? Do we now stray, as through infinite nothingness? Does not empty space breathe upon us? Has it not become colder? Does not night come on continually, darker and darker?”[39]

Since men have lost faith in God, they have become, to use Fr. Seraphim Rose’s term, passive nihilists. This is “the Nihilism of the Liberal, the humanist, the agnostic who, agreeing that ‘there is no truth’, no longer ask the ultimate questions.[40] But passive nihilism, though useful in Nietzsche’s eyes, also disgusts him because of its lack of vitality. He is looking for a “stronger age” than “this decaying, self-doubting present” – an age of active Nihilism. And this active Nihilism is expressed first of all in destruction: “He who wishes to be creative must first destroy and smash accepted values.”[41] “Nihilism is… not only the belief that everything deserves to perish; but one actually puts one’s shoulder to the plough; one destroys.[42]

But human nature abhors a vacuum; while creating darkness, it longs for the light. And neither passive nor active Nihilism is the final goal for Nietzsche. Nihilism only clears the ground, as it were, for “anti-nihilism”, a “transvaluation of values”, “a counter-movement” that in some remote future will supersede this perfect Nihilism; but which nevertheless regards it as a necessary step, both logically and psychologically, towards its own advent, and which positively cannot come, except on top of and out of it.[43]

For, as Rose writes, “the corollary of the Nihilist annihilation of the Old Order is the conception of a ‘new age’ – ‘new’ in an absolute, and not in a relative, sense. The age about to begin is not to be merely the latest, or even the greatest, of a series of ages, but the inauguration of a whole new time; it is set up against all that has hitherto been. ‘It may be,’ said Nietzsche in a letter of 1884, ‘that I am the first to light upon an idea which will divide the history of mankind into two’: as the consequence of this idea, ‘all who are born after us belong to a higher history than any history hitherto’.”[44]

The master of this new age will be a man who nurtures in himself to the greatest possible extent the proud, sensual, cruel will to power. This is the true man, the superman. “Dead are all the gods,” says Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: “now do we desire the superman to live.”[45] The superman must live because he is the fittest to live in an almost Darwinian sense (although, as we have seen, Nietzsche did not believe in Darwinism). Contrary, therefore, to Tertullian’s belief that the human soul is by nature Christian, according to Nietzsche it can only be antichristian. For “I call Christianity the one great curse, the one great intrinsic depravity, the one great instinct for revenge for which no expedient is sufficiently poisonous, secret, subterranean, petty – I call it the one immortal blemish of mankind…”[46]

The appearance of the Antichrist requires, as Nietzsche writes, “a different kind of spirit from that likely to appear in this present age: spirits strengthened by war and victory, for whom conquest, adventure, danger, and even pain have become needs; it would require habituation to the keen air of the heights, to winter journeys, to ice and mountains in every sense; it would require even a kind of sublime wickedness, an ultimate, supremely self-confident mischievousness in knowledge that goes with great health; it would require, in brief and alas, precisely this great health!

“Is this possible even today? – But some day, in a stronger age than this decaying, self-doubting present, he must yet come to us, the redeeming man of great love and contempt, the creative spirit whose compelling strength will not let him rest in any aloofness or any beyond, whose isolation is misunderstood by the people as if it were flight from reality – while it is only his absorption, immersion, penetration into reality, so that, when he one day emerges again into the light, he may bring home the redemption of this reality: its redemption from the curse that the hitherto reigning ideal has laid upon it. This man of the future, who will redeem us not only from the hitherto reigning ideal but also from that which was bound to grow out of it, the great nausea, the will to nothingness, nihilism; this bell-stroke of noon and of the great decision that liberates the will again and restores its goal to the earth and his hope to man; this Antichrist and anti-nihilist; this victor over God and nothingness – he must come one day…[47]

Thus Nietzsche was in a real sense a prophet of the Antichrist – not only of the final Antichrist of Christian prophecy, but also of those forerunners of the Antichrist that were to bedevil the twentieth century. And his own descent into madness witnessed to the terrible folly of his ideal…

November 27 / December 10. 2010.

Vladimir Moss.

[1] Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich, London: Penguin, 2004, p. 6.

[2] Nietzsche, David Strauss (1873), in Basic Writings of Nietzsche, New York: Random House, 2000, p. 136, footnote.

[3] What Nietzsche prized above all in German culture was “an elevation and divinatory subtlety of the historical sense” (Beyond Good and Evil, in Basic Writings, p. 312). (V.M.)

[4] Mann, The History of Germany since 1789, London: Pimlico, 1996, pp. 239-240.

[5] Mann, op. cit., p. 240.

[6] Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1992, p. 146.

[7] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Part I, 13; Basic Writings of Nietzsche, p. 211.

[8] Nietzsche admired both Hegel and Schopenhauer, and despised the English philosophers for their absence of a historical sense. As he wrote in Beyond Good and Evil: “They are no philosophical race, these Englishmen: Bacon signifies an attack on the philosophical spirit; Hobbes, Hume, and Locke a debasement and lowering of the value of the concept of ‘philosophy’ for more than a century. It was against Hume that Kant arose, and rose; it was Locke of whom Schelling said, understandably, ‘je méprise Locke’; in their fight against the English-mechanistic doltification of the world, Hegel and Schopenhauer were of one mind (with Goethe) – these two hostile brother geniuses in philosophy who strove apart toward opposite poles of the German spirit and in the process wronged each other as only brothers can wrong each other.” (Part VIII, 252; Basic Writings of Nietzsche, p. 379).

[9] Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals, First Essay, 11; Basic Writings of Nietzsche, pp. 476-477.

[10] Nietzsche, Human, All-too Human, 141; Basic Writings of Nietzsche, p. 152.

[11] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Part V, 201; Basic Writings of Nietzsche, p. 303.

[12] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Third Essay, 15; Basic Writings of Nietzsche, p. 563.

[13] Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals, 7, Basic Writings of Nietzsche, pp. 469-470, 471.

[14] Andre R. MacAndrew, Afterword to Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground, New York: Signet, 1961, p. p. 233.

[15] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Part V, 202; Basic Writings of Nietzsche, p. 306.

[16] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Part IX, 60, Basic Writings of Nietzsche, pp. 394-395, 397.

[17] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Part IX, 261; Basic Writings of Nietzsche, pp. 397-398.

[18] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Part IX, 261; Basic Writings of Nietzsche, p. 399.

[19] “The suppressed race has gradually recovered the upper hand again, in coloring, in shortness of skull, perhaps even in the intellectual and social instincts: who can say whether modern democracy, even more modern anarchism and especially that inclination for “commune”, for the most primitive form of society, which is now shared by all the socialists of Europe, does not signify in the main a tremendous counterattack – and that the conqueror and master race, the Aryan, is not succumbing physiologically, too?” (The Genealogy of Morals, First Essay, Basic Writings of Nietzsche, pp. 466-467).

[20] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Part VI, 208; Basic Writings of Nietzsche, p. 320.

[21] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Part VI, 208; Basic Writings of Nietzsche, p. 321.

[22] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Part I, 237, Basic Writings of Nietzsche, p. 222.

[23] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Part V, 202, Basic Writings of Nietzsche, p. 305. Cf. Part VI, 212, pp. 328-329: “Today…, when only the herd animal receives and dispenses honors in Europe, when ‘equality of rights’ could all too easily be changed into equality in violating rights [a prophetic word!] – I mean into a common war on all that is rare, strange, privileged, the higher man, the higher soul, the higher duty, the higher responsibility, and the abundance of creative power and masterfulness – today the concept of greatness entails being noble, wanting to be by oneself, being able to be different, standing alone and having to live independently.”

[24] In a private letter written in 1908, D.H. Lawrence, who had just discovered Nietzsche in Croydon Public Library, actually imagined a gas chamber for the painless disposal of superfluous people: ‘If I had my way, I would build a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace with a military band playing softly, and a cinematograph working brightly; then I’d go out in the back streets and main streets and bring them in, all the sick, the halt, the maimed; I would lead them gently, and they would smile a weary thanks; and the band would softly bubble out the Hallelujah Chorus.’”

[25] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Part V, 199, Basic Writings of Nietzsche, p. 301.

[26] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Part VII, 229, Basic Writings of Nietzsche, pp. 348-349.

[27] Nietzsche, The Will to Power, cited in Fr. Seraphim Rose, Nihilism, Platina, Ca.: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood Press, 1994, p. 12.

[28] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Part II, 43, Basic Writings of Nietzsche, p. 243.

[29] Nietzsche, The Joyful Wisdom; cited in Rose, op. cit..

[30] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 4; in Rose, op. cit., p. 50.

[31] Fr. Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, vol. 7, part II; Schopenhauer to Nietzsche, New York: Image Books, 1965, p. 183.

[32] Osborne, “What’s truth got to do with it?”, The Spectator, 30 April, 2005, p. 31.

[33] Nietzsche, Joyful Wisdom (1882).

[34] Rose, Nihilism, op. cit., p. 22.

[35] Velimirovich, “The Religious Spirit of the Slavs”, in Sabrana Dela (Collected Works), volume 3, Khimelstir, 1986, pp. 221-222.

[36] Rose, op. cit., pp. 57-58.

[37] Copleston, op. cit., p. 178.

[38] Nietzsche, The Will to Power; in Rose, op. cit., pp. 31, 68.

[39] Nietzsche, The Joyful Wisdom, in Rose, op. cit., p. 72.

[40] Rose, op. cit., pp. 31-32.

[41] Nietzsche, in Rose, op. cit., p. 55.

[42] Nietzsche, The Will to Power; in Rose, op. cit., p. 31.

[43] Nietzsche, The Will to Power; in Rose, op. cit., p. 91.

[44] Rose, op. cit., p. 92.

[45] Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra; in Rose, op. cit., p. 92.

[46] Nietzsche, quoted in David Robertson, The Dawkins Letters, Fearn: Christian Focus Publications, 2007, p. 81.

[47] Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals, Second Essay, Basic Writings of Nietzsche, p. 532.

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