Nietzsche’s ‘Nasty’ Thoughts about Politics: Caught between Sparta and Athens

I’ve emphasised Nietzsche’s ‘nice’ thoughts about politics, that is where he leans towards liberalism, republicanism and democracy, on various occasions when blogging.  So it’s time to talk about ‘nasty’ Nietzsche, and I’ve just been looking at a passage which is as ‘nasty’ as any he wrote, which I found in Nietzsche: Writings from the Early Notebooks (translated by Ladislaus Löb, Cambridge University Press, 2009), Notebook 10 [1], 1871.  Click here  to go to the online German text at Nietzsche Source.  

The nasty thoughts in that note, which is an extension of Birth of Tragedy (according to both editions mentioned above).

Slavery was necessary to the great art of the Ancient Greeks and is necessary to art now.

Slavery is necessary to society and war is necessary to the state.

The state is the necessary condition for art, as it provides a focus and direction for genius,

The state emerges from violence and must be a hierarchy, in which slaves at the bottom labouring to live enable those at the top to develop the need to create art.  

Liberalism, like Communism and Socialism of which it is a pale version, are all against art.

Compassion is against art.

Direct anti-French nationalism and German chauvinism in attacks on French Enlightenment and Liberalism.  

Implicit anti-semitism in his attacks on rootlessness and societies based on money.


First, it must be emphasised that Nietzsche dropped the German chauvinism, Gallophobia and anti-Semitism by the end of the decade.  The rest could probably have been said by Nietzsche at any time, particularly as my summary has stripped out the Shopenhauer influences very evident in early Nietzsche, and the emphasis on the Dionysian and the Apollonian.  

Without I hope merely covering up ‘nasty’ Nietzsche, it is well worth thinking about how Nietzsche’s argument unravels, deliberately  or otherwise, when studied closely.  I’m not going to to do an explication of the text here, but I think and hope the points I make would seem justified to most, if not all readers, on careful study of the text.  The unravelling does not lead to a ‘nice’ Nietzsche, but it should lead us to think about what is being communicated when Nietzsche seems to be in ‘nasty’ mode, again the emphasis is on the consequence of reading, not speculating on Nietzsche’s intentions.  The two activities can not be completely separated, but some effort should be made in that direction.

The enslaved lower orders are themselves poetic, particularly the complex legal and moral relations of Medieval serfs with their master, and in the narrowness of their lives.  This idea of the aesthetics of the complex unity of society is itself part of German liberal tradition, at least in its more philosophical-aesthetic aspect, which was its most notable aspect in its early years.  Certainly in the comparisons Friedrich Schlegel makes between chemical relations, poetic creation, philosophy, and political republicanism; also in Wilhelm von Humboldt’s thoughts about the beauty of social interaction and of long sustained self-contained rural communities.  The aestheticism of Schiller’s understanding of freedom, and Goethe’s tendencies to a romantic Medievalism of free heroes, are all consistent with this.  As Carl Schmitt (arch authoritarian conservative) argues in Political Romanticism, this had a strong tendency to end up in conservative enthusiasm for maintaining organic complexity and and continuity in society.  Nevertheless, it also fed into all of 19th century liberalism through Kant and then through the reception of Humboldt, particularly in John Stuart Mill.

So maybe Nietzsche is  producing a kind of proto-Schmittian argument for the inevitably of a strictly ordered society and an authoritative state.  There is certainly an element of that.  But if we look at how he relates all this to the Ancient world, he takes it back to the Spartan, with reference to Lycurgus, the legendary founder of Sparta’s laws.  It is not Sparta though that produces the art that Nietzsche suggest was produced by, and was justified by the Greek state.  it was Sparta, where the hierarchy and the state was under challenge in the greatest period of aesthetic and philosophical creativity.  We should also note that Pharaonic Egypt, which Nietzsche gives as an example of a society where religion stopped art, is an example of a slavish society and a very ordered hierarchical society.  

The oppositions he establishes keep unravelling.  Particularly when we consider that the Birth of Tragedy is concerned with the struggle between the Apolline, linked with the Spartan state, and the Dionysian, linked with mass movements.  The unity of the Apolline and the Dionysian is found in its purest form in the tragedies of democratic and commercial Athens.  Nietzsche also suggests that the decline of tragedy in Euripides and in Socrates, is part of the democratic spirit, but this is a distinctly ambiguous suggestion since clearly tragedy comes from democracy, and it does not look like Socrates was an enthusiast for Athenian democracy, though possibly he was less critical than his student Plato.  Nietzsche makes Plato, who is a major antagonist in Birth of Tragedy and later, the writer who catches the spirit of hierarchy and authority in the Greek state in its purest form.  So the slavish hierarchical Greek state is given an essence by Nietzsche’s major object of criticism.  Some of that comes from Plato’s dislike of war, but then he equates war with democracy, and again the opposition Nietzsche sets up has become blurred.  

Nietzsche refers to poetry and art as the products of an aristocracy in a slavish society, where the slaves exhaust themselves in order to live so that the aristocracy can live for art.  But, what Nietzsche says also suggests that the aristocracy do not admire art and poetry.  It is a form of production, and therefore a life of far less value than that of a god or a hero (obvious idealisations of the antique aristocracy).  The artists can only be a minority in the aristocracy who come close to the slaves in their subordination to production.

On a contextual historical issue, by the early 1870s the life of industrial workers had improved substantially over the conditions of the earlier stages of industrialisation and urbanisation, and continued to so, on the whole, during Nietzsche’s life as a writer (since we must acknowledge that the last 11 years of his life were spent without writing, or as far as I know verbal communication of any kind).  So Nietzsche’s suggestion of the necessity of slavishness was already being modified by an external reality in which the ‘slaves’ had improving living standards and education.  A tendency over history that had already been noted in the 18th century.  Did Nietzsche write in complete ignorance of this?  I doubt it.  Did he reject this process?  I have not seen any indication that he disliked living standards though he did early on express scepticism about the benefits of increasing education.  

Before determining how much of a fan of slavery and rigid hierarchy Nietzsche was, and I’ll leave that aside for the moment, I would say that a major thought in Nietzsche is the value of tension, opposition and difference, of the value of a unity which rests on opposing forces.  This in itself undermines any doctrinaire system in Nietzsche of productive slaves and artistic aristocrats.  

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