Nietzsche and the Politics of his Time II

Looking at other anti-egalitarian heroes in Nietzsche we find Julius Caesar (Twilight of the Idols Expeditions of an Untimely Man 38), whose power was based on a kind of democratic dictatorship, which sounds peculiar writing now when democracy is so associated with liberalism and separation of powers. However, it used to be widely thought that there was a complicity between the power of the democratic mob and the absolute ruler who ignores the restraining power of the aristocracy, laws and ancient offices, as when Caesar subordinated the senate and other republican institutions to his will. There was an element of democratic revolution in Caesar’s rise to power, and the institutionalisation of his power by Augustus, at least in the sense that the will of the Roman poor was given more weight than in the republican system compared with the senatorial class. Some of Nietzsche’s remarks about aristocracy and the virtues of Rome, might lead us to think that he admired the aristocratic power of the republican period, but even if we do accept this then we have a model for Nietzsche in the Roman Republic, which was the model for both the French and American Revolutions.

Nietzsche quotes Charles the Bold of Burgundy, referring to his enemy Louis XI of France as the universal spider, in the context of the hubris of self-examination (On the Genealogy of Morality III 9), the universal spider with which Nietzsche contended in politics was not a king, but was democracy, in the sense of equality and of political participation, which he could not resist and which he contributed to in resisting. If that sounds like a strange claim, let us look at some of the words of the great prophet of democracy, of its virtues and its vices, Alexis de Tocqueville, in the Introduction to the first volume of Democracy in America.

Once the work of the mind had become a source of power and wealth, every addition to knowledge, every fresh discovery, and every new idea became a germ of power within reach of the people. Poetry, eloquence, memory, the graces of the mind, the fires of the imagination and profundity of thought, all things scattered broadcast by heaven, were a profit to democracy, and even when it was adversaries of democracy who possessed these things, they still served its cause by throwing into relief the natural greatness of man. Thus its conquests spread along with those of civilisation and enlightenment, and literature was an arsenal from which all, including the weak and poor, daily chose their weapons. Running through the pages of our history, there is hardly an important event in the last seven hundred years which has not turned out to be advantageous for equality. The Crusades and the English wars decimated the nobles and divided up their lands. Municipal institutions introduced democratic liberty into the heart of the feudal monarchy; the invention of firearms made villein (villain) and noble proud on the field of battle; printing offered equal resources to their minds; the post brought enlightenment to hovel and palace alike; Protestantism maintained that all men are equally able to find the path to heaven. America, once discovered, opened a thousand new roads to fortune and gave any obscure adventurer the chance of wealth and power. If, beginning at the eleventh century, one takes stock of what was happening in France at fifty-year intervals, one finds that each time a double revolution has taken place in the state of society. The noble has gone down in the social scale, and the commoner gone up; as the one falls, the other rises. Each half century brings them closer, and soon they will touch. And that is not something peculiar to France. Wherever one looks one finds the same revolution taking place throughout the Christian world. Everywhere the diverse happenings in the lives of peoples have turned to democracy’s profit; all men’s efforts have aided it, both those who intended this and those who had no such intention, those who fought for democracy and those who were the declared enemies thereof; all have been driven pell-mell along the same road, and all have worked together, some against their will and some unconsciously, blind instruments in the hands of God.

Nietzsche himself fits well into much of what Tocqueville discusses. Nietzsche’s own claims to represent an aristocratic point of view, this son of a provincial pastor, is an effect of the coming together of noble and commoner status to which Tocqueville refers. The works of written imagination referred to by Tocqueville celebrate aristocracy in the first place, but then as he says are taken to cover the natural greatness of man, a greatness that can be inside anyone. Nietzsche’s father was a Lutheran pastor, and as Tocqueville says it is Protestantism that spread the idea that all humans are equal in finding a way to salvation.

To be continued


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