Nietzsche and the Politics of his Time III

Nietzsche referred to a family legend of aristocratic Polish origins (Frenzel 1966, 10), but there is no independent confirmation, and the whole idea is really a fantasy belonging to an age in which the common-noble status distinction is questioned. Thomas Hardy’s novel of 1891, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, refers in its title to a rural lower class family which decides that it should replace its plebian name of Durbeyfield with d’Urberville like a local aristocratic family, because of a rumoured Norman aristocratic ancestry deep in the Middle Ages. The comical self-elevation to the aristocracy is followed up the by trauma of Tess’ rape by the son of a family which has purchased the d’Urberville name, as part of its own self-elevation from merchant class to aristocracy. Hardy was both a very philosophical novelist, and part, as as a great social observer amongst writers, and does capture with some wit and some pathos, the reality of the lower and middle class wish to approach aristocratic status in the nineteenth century. Hardy himself was a reader of Nietzsche. Though there seem to be positive echoes of Nietzsche’s philosophy in Hardy’s literature, his direct remarks on the subject were mostly critical, and he was one of those who thought Nietzsche to blame for Prussian-German militarism  and nationalism (Williamson 1978). There’s no reason to believe he was aware of Nietzsche’s own tendency to assume aristocratic antecedents, but he would probably have been amused to have accidentally satirised them in Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

Following Tocqueville’s classic account, Nietzsche’s own criticisms of democracy add to the growth of democracy, as his own poetic exploration of inner individuality is itself serving the democratic ideal of the individual. As Tocqueville argues in Democracy in America, democracy both brings about a respect for the rights of the individual and a self-centred individualism which threatens the moral coherence of the democratic society. In some respects, Nietzsche’s exploration of immoralism and self-determining individuality is an example of that dangerous individualism, though it has a concern with the cultivation of the self and self-mastery, distinct from the vulgarity that Tocqueville associates with democratic individualism.

The aristocratic feudal world of the Middle Ages itself creates the conditions for democracy through the growth of cities with political institutions of self-government, wars which undermine the nobility, a church which promotes spiritual equality and provides a career path for poor but clever children. The culture of that world, including the spread of imaginative literature spills over into all parts of society, so that those who are below the aristocracy become part of the world of literary culture, which itself tends to cultivate empathy and egalitarian individualism, even if it does begin with the adventures of knights.  It is in this context that we should think of Nietzsche’s enthusiasm for Goethe, the poet and thinker who stood between feudalism and liberalism. Nietzsche himself notes the growth of empathy, of concern for the welfare and sensitivities of others, for example with what he suggests is a changing attitude to the sufferings of Don Quixote in Cervantes’ novel (GM II 6).  The main topic of On the Genealogy of Morality II is of how morality and legal codes are descended from customs and codes requiring punishments of extreme physical cruelty, and it is surely hard not to see Nietzsche as repelled as well as fascinated by that cruelty itself, and in any case preferring the individual who rises above by urges for cruelty  which are the source of ressentiment.

Who does Nietzsche look to as his heroes in the era of growing democracy and equality. Is it a list of ultra-reactionary conservatives, or at least conservatives suspicious of democratic enthusiasm? In such a case we would expect an appreciation of Edmund  Burke and Joseph de Maistre on the literary side, and an appreciation of Klemens von Metternich and Otto von Bismarck on the political leadership side. Burke and de Maistre are completely absent from Nietzsche’s writings, as is Metternich. Only Bismarck gets any attention (M 167, FW 104), and that is of a negative kind, since Nietzsche does not support the German nationalist aspects of Bismarck’s politics, or Bismarck’s style of government. For Nietzsche, Bismarck was a symbol of vulgarity and opportunism. One monarch of Nietzsche’s time gets some appreciation, and that is the briefly reigning Kaiser Friedrich III (EH Zarathustra I), the one Hohenzollern Emperor who favoured the liberals at home and Anglophile policies abroad. The first edition of Human, All Too Human was dedicated to Voltaire, who Nietzsche finds to be an Olympian alternative to Rousseau (MA 463), but who nevertheless was a popular hero of his time due to his defiance of monarchical absolutism. Mirabeau the Younger, a prominent figure on the moderate liberal side of politics in the early stages of the French Revolution, is mentioned with admiration (GM I 10). Another French revolutionary, the rather more resolutely republican Lazare Carnot, gets an admiring mention (M 167). Carnot survived into the Empire period as a senior figure in the state, but kept his distance from the Emperor system.

To be continued


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