Nietzsche and the Politics of his Time I

Blogging has been interrupted by a mixture of travel and trying to finish a project, with spare time very much taken up by following and posting on events in Turkey on social media (Facebook and twitter @barry_stocker). The project, a co-edited book on Nietzsche and politics, is not completely ready for the publisher yet, but I’ve completed the largest parts of my work as co-editor and contributor. This post, and a few more, are adapted from draft material from my part of the introduction. I will also be posting on events in Turkey now that things are a bit calmer, for a while, and I can get a bit of distance from what has been day to day, at times hour to hour or even minute to minute drama,

So this post begins a discussion of Nietzsche’s place in the politics of his time, and then his legacy in political thought.

Nietzsche did not write a treatise of political philosophy and he dismissed the political ideologies of his time, particularly liberalism, socialism, and nationalism. He condemned the modern drive to egalitarianism, but did not support any concrete program of political reaction, that is for the restoration of the aristocratic-monarchical world as it existed before modern egalitarianism. His thought was largely directed against the religious beliefs which political reaction placed at the centre. His criticisms of slaves, or any kind of lower class, were also criticisms of the religious beliefs that the priestly products of the masters encouraged amongst the slaves. One problem Nietzsche faced, in any desire he might have had for a reactionary political process, was that it would be likely to lead him into the world of modern egalitarianism, at least in the sense of equality of individual rights.


He admired Napoleon, and may have sympathised with French Bonapartists of his time (Don Dombowsky), but Napoleon started off as a Jacobin, always claimed to carry on the values of the French revolution, which he achieved by spreading the Civil Code throughout the nations he conquered. Dombowsky  acknowledges the connection between Napoleon and the Civil Code, but claim its egalitarian liberal aspects were undermined by Napoleon’s claim to the final role in interpreting. However, the supremacy of the sovereign over judges in interpreting law is a constant of the civil law tradition going back to its origins in Roman law, and carrying on through the democratic era. In the democratic era, the sovereign becomes the national assembly rather than the monarch, but structurally that is the same and makes no difference to the citizen facing the state law courts. Though Napoleon was taken as an enemy by the leading French liberals, he was also the enemy of the conservative aristocracies and monarchies of Europe; and in the Hundred Days following his escape from Elba, he worked with Benjamin Constant on a more liberal version of Bonapartism. His nephew Napoleon III, undermined republicanism and liberal democracy, but kept many of the forms and was rater inclined to social welfare reforms. His career ended in ignominy when Bismarck tricked him into stating the Franco-Prussian War.

Nietzsche’s other obvious hero, and representative of an old aristocratic Europe was Goethe , but again we find that the nearest thing Nietzsche could find to an anti-liberal hero was entangled in liberalism in his own time, and through his later influence. Goethe stood for an old Germany of a mosaic of small and large states with all different kinds of traditional governments and laws, under the loose sovereignty of the Habsburg Emperors in Vienna, who exercised more direct sovereignty in personal  lands partly within and partly without the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, the strange and archaic sounding name for this peculiar system of multiplied traditional laws and political forms. Goethe himself was the chief minister of the Duchy of Saxe-Weimar. So we can see Goethe as the great representative of a pre-democratic, pre-liberal and pre-egalitarian Europe, but is that the sum of his influence? A glance at Ludwig von Mises’ brief book of 1927, Liberalism, intended to revive the liberals of the classical liberals, shows that Goethe appears with Schiller as the aesthetic aspects of liberalism, an appreciation of the great individual, and so of the greatness of the inner individual, and of all individuals in general. Mises note Goethe’s positive attitude to commercial life including a rather un-Nietzschean enthusiasm for double-entry book keeping (97). In Mises’ view: ‘Liberal thinking permeates German classical poetry, above all the works of Goethe and Schiller’ (Mises 196). We might take Goethe backwards into the pre-egalitarian world, but he was taken up in the egalitarian world, and he was part of its emergence.

The very idealisation of the Medieval world as one of heroic individuality and the pluralism of states, itself undermined the customary nature of that world, and the sense of belonging to a hereditary order rather than possessing a self-founding individual excellence. Nietzsche’s own thought is formed by awareness of that transition, which he projects back into Ancient Athens in The Birth of Tragedy. The bourgeois world is already emerging in Euripides and is very apparent in Meneander, the Platonic dialogue is the route to the novel,  where the insights of tragedy have disappeared under tendencies to naturalism and logical schematism.


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