Philosophy as Dynamite: A Response to Warren Hynson on Nietzsche

Kevin Kennedy is PhD student at the University of Potsdam, where he is writing a history of Prussian-Pietist orphanages in the eighteenth century. He received his M.A. from the University of New Hampshire in 1995, where he wrote his thesis on Nietzsche's political thought.

You should love peace as a means to new wars. And a short peace more than a long one.

Friedrich Nietzsche
"Of Wars and Warriors”
Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Amidst the media hype following the tragic shooting in Tucson, Arizona, many journalists, bloggers, and self-styled experts pointed to the literature found on the accused shooter Jarod Loughner’s bookshelves as possible sources of inspiration for this horrific deed. One of the writers quickly accused of posthumously aiding and abetting Loughner was the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). HNN recently published a defense of Nietzsche by Warren Hynson, who correctly demonstrated that Nietzsche’s central philosophical project was the creation of new values in a godless universe. Nietzsche was not a nihilist and he bears no responsibility for the actions of those who fail to understand the nuances of his thought. Friedrich Nietzsche would be appalled by the likes of Loughner (not to mention greater criminals like Adolf Hitler, whose crimes were also once attributed, at least partly, to Nietzschean philosophy). But one also has to wonder what Nietzsche would make of apologists like Hynson. For in their attempts to absolve Nietzsche of culpability in such matters, they also deny the celebration of certain kinds of violence, cruelty, and exploitation that make up such an important part of Nietzsche’s philosophical corpus.

According to Hynson, one fundamental mistake Nietzsche’s current detractors make is to take him out of his historical context. But the very same charge could be leveled against Hynson himself. Apart from a brief mention of the Holocaust, Hynson makes no attempt to historicize Nietzsche’s work, reiterating instead that Nietzsche was primarily concerned with aiding alienated individuals “freely drifting on the open seas of morality.” This interpretation of Nietzsche fails to consider the intellectual climate that dominated Nietzsche’s own life and times. Although Nietzsche lays good claim to being the most original thinker of modern philosophy, his thoughts did not develop in a vacuum. Nietzsche, too, was influenced by others, such as Arthur Schopenhauer and Charles Darwin, even if their influence served chiefly to inspire Nietzsche to his own ideas. Moreover, Nietzsche was not immune to the thoughts, events, and developments of his age, the late nineteenth century. The industrial revolution and its attendant social problems, the rise of mass society, Europe’s wars at home (few and brief as they were) and its imperial expansion abroad all left their marks on Nietzsche’s writings. The most glaring omission in Hyson’s defense of Nietzsche, however, is the absence of any mention of social Darwinism. For at the core of Nietzsche’s thinking concerning political and social matters (which did concern him as well) is the conviction, common to his era, that life on earth is a struggle between the strong and the weak for mastery of both man and nature. Although Darwin himself never postulated that life on earth was a conflict for the “survival of the fittest” (that was Herbert Spencer), he did assume a “war of nature” at work behind the process of natural selection. And while Nietzsche himself rejected the theory of evolution as it was then understood, (claiming in the section “Anti-Darwin” from Twilight of the Idols, that a social conflagration would leave the weak victorious, because of their sheer numbers and their greater cleverness) he, too, assumed violent conflict as the driving force of history, a universal conflict for power. Nietzsche’s apologists are quick to point out that the conflicts Nietzsche praised were more of an intellectual, psychological, and artistic nature, a revival of the ancient Greek agon that produced cultural arête or excellence. But Nietzsche also propounded a doctrine of social exploitation and war.

Like Martin Luther, who himself was mainly concerned with individual salvation, Friedrich Nietzsche also believed that his philosophy of values-creation required a certain social-political framework. Luther argued that the cultivation of individual piety demanded a strong state to provide the necessary security in which religious life could flourish. Nietzsche’s writings, taken as a whole, make clear that he believed that the great individuals who would create new values could only flourish at the apex of a “slave-society,” which would allow the superior beings the leisure required for their endeavors. “The essential nature of a good and healthy aristocracy,” he wrote, "is not that it feels itself to be a function (be it of the monarchy, be it of the community), but to be its meaning and its highest justification—that it therefore accepts the sacrifice of countless people with a good conscience, which, for their sake, are degraded and lessened to incomplete human beings, to slaves, to instruments. . .” (Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 258). Moreover, Nietzsche taught that periodic wars were necessary to renew the barbaric energies that underlie all human greatness: “War as a cure—peoples who have grown tired and pathetic should have war recommend to them as a cure, if they desire to continue their existence: for there also exists for nation-tuberculosis a brutality cure” (The Wanderer and His Shadow, Aphorism 187).

The first few generations to become acquainted with Nietzsche’s philosophy certainly understood him to be glorifying violence. One can easily confirm this by perusing the diaries that the twentieth-century German writer Ernst Jünger (1895-1998) kept during his time at the front during the First World War. Jünger, who later became a leading figure in the “New Conservative” movement of radical right-wing intellectuals sworn to the destruction of the Weimar Republic, proclaimed a decisionist philosophy of life that celebrated violence for violence’s sake. His own understanding of the Fronterlebnis (“front experience”) in the trenches was largely structured by the ideas and vocabulary he found in Nietzsche’s books. Jünger viewed the battle-hardened soldier as the personification of Nietzsche’s Übermensch. Jünger later transformed his combat experiences into the best-selling novel “Storm of Steel,” in which the blood, gore, and sheer terror of combat become an ecstatic experience, and war, no matter what the cause, becomes that which gives meaning to human existence. Jünger was not alone in his crypto-fascist reading of Nietzsche. Although he and many other “New Conservatives” later rejected Adolf Hitler and National Socialists, their Nietzsche-inspired loathing for liberal democracy, socialism and pacifism helped chip away at the fragile edifice of democracy in Germany in the 1920s.

This militant reading of Nietzsche is now making something of a comeback. The Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld, for example, argues that understanding the new nature of war requires that a new Nietzschean paradigm replace the traditional narrative going back to Clausewitz (See The Changing Face of War, 2008). Clausewitz held that all military conflict must ultimately be resolved by political means. Van Crefeld, however, contends that we must now accept war has become the preferred solution to today’s political problems. (Van Crefeld doesn’t approve of this development, to be sure, he merely point out what for him is an undeniable fact.) Post-modern, low-intensity warfare has created the situation where, just as Nietzsche feared, the multifarious weak can indeed defeat the few strong. For Van Crefeld, Africa has become prototypical of the kind of warfare the West, too, must one day face. Warlords fight one another for power and control of scarce resources, with battle taking on a life of its own and providing the combatants with a new meaning for their lives. The smallest band of fighters can now, theoretically, defeat the largest of the traditional great powers. Van Crefeld describes this scenario as “naturally pure Nietzsche.” (1)

Nietzsche scholars like Warren Hynson should continue to call attention to such perverse distortions of Nietzsche’s thought as we have recently seen after the Tucson shooting. To reiterate, Hynson is on solid ground when he interprets Nietzsche as primarily concerned with the problem of values in a disenchanted world. Indeed, Nietzsche is still an invaluable source of inspiration for the existential examination of our own individual lives. But we cannot overlook the disturbing social and political overtones of Nietzsche’s philosophy, such as his praise of violence, his contempt for all ideologies of democratic equality and social justice, and his categorical rejection of all attempts to establish world peace (not to mention his flirtation with eugenics and euthanasia, two more themes popular with many late-nineteenth and early twentieth century intellectuals). The more odious aspects of Nietzsche’s writings remain nonetheless important challenges, causing us to reflect on how we can still justify our own democratic convictions and humanist values. Still, it remains the case that the philosopher who proclaimed, “I am not a man. I am dynamite!” would not be flattered to find himself reduced to the level of a self-help guru.

(1)Frankfurter Rundschau, 26. October 2000.

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