Nietzsche’s Influence on Political Thought IV

We can find some direct indications in Nietzsche that he is concerned with a contrast between heroic antique republican liberties modern liberties of comfort. He gives a big indication that is the way he is thinking in On the Genealogy or Morality I, when he quotes from the Funeral Speech of Pericles to the ancient Athenians (GM I 11), as recorded and possibly to some degree invented by Thucydides. Nietzsche quote favourably from Pericles on his pride in how the wickedness of the Athenians is known to the world as well as their goodness. That is in the middle of a speech which is in praise of democracy as it appears in Athens. This is an instance of the heroic republicanism of the ancients, heroism in the sense that is disturbing to the moderns of pride in how the power of a people, its toughness and unity of will, may be known to other peoples in painful ways, though maybe that pride is still there in more submerged forms.


Pericles represents the opposite pole to Platonic philosophical rule on the face of it. He was elected constantly by the Athenian people to provide military and governmental leadership in a democracy where all free men who were descended from Athenians on both sides had the votes, so an electorate where day labourers and the owners of tiny farms had more votes than aristocrats and philosophers combined. Plato, however, appears to have respected Pericles as a leader and an individual, and since he was a man of great culture, connected with the most famous families in Athens, he had some of the qualities of Plato’s ideal ruler. That raises the question of how far democracy is the opposite of Platonic philosopher rule. Of course Plato, like other aristocrats and oligarchs of the time, identified democracy with irrational passions, economic greed and corruption of the law, but even so the Laws at least makes some gestures to participatory government, as does Aristotle in the Politics. Even these critics of democracy found that it often had to be tolerated in at least limited form in order to establish an enduring state, and that idea was fully developed by the later Roman republican, Polybius and Cicero. Polybian and Ciceronian republicanism aims to combine democracy with aristocracy and monarchy, in a mixed state, extending on the ideas of Plato and Aristotle.


Moving into Nietzsche’s own time, enthusiasm for democracy could be combined with aristocratic suspicion of the uneducated majority, and of uncontrolled majorities in general. Those anxieties were expressed in the idea of the tyranny of the majority in Tocqueville (1988) and then in John Stuart Mill (On Liberty). For Mill, democracy had to be combined with education of the poorer classes and barriers against abuse of power by temporary majorities, driven by plebian ignorance and indifference to liberty (Considerations on Representative Government). Despite the scorn heaped on Mill by Nietzsche, there was much in common between them. Dana Villa discusses the relation between Mill, Nietzsche, Max Weber, Leo Strauss, and Hannah Arendt with regard to antique citizenship focused on Socrates in Socratic Citizenship, showing the best way to deal with Nietzsche’s place in political philosophy, unless we wish to consign him to some place irrelevant to nearly all political thought, that of a very reactive nineteenth century ultraconservative railing against democracy and equality, with no contribution to make to the design of modern political institutions, modern political thought, and modern political culture. Even if we are to take Nietzsche’s most elitist and pro-slavery comments as definitive of his political thinking, he was concerned with liberty, in a manner focused on the maximum flourishing of the highest kind of self, and concern with liberty for a few tends to spill over into ideas of liberty for all. That is all part of the process Tocqueville describes of the inevitable step by step triumph of democracy. John Locke wrote from the point of view of the Whig aristocracy, but his political theory was taken as an inspiration for democratic revolution. The English barons forced King John to sign Magna Carta for their own selfish reason in 1215, but demanded rights for all free men within England, rights which eventually applied to the lowest in status as velleinage, a form of serfdom, declined and disappeared. This spill over from an elite to the whole population in mass democracy has been repeated many times over, and when Nietzsche writes about the Overman, the man free from self-restraints he provides a model, willingly or not, for citizenship in a mass democracy, in the forms of political engagement suggested by Foucault, Deleuze and Derrida. We can think of Nietzsche’s famous comment about liberal institutions betraying liberty in Twilight of the Idols (GD Streifziege eines Unzeitgemässen a38) , and reflects on how that applies to the liberty of all members of a political community. On this context it is particularly important to reflect on his friendship with Jacob Burckhardt, and the kind of aristocratic liberty Burckhardt discusses in Ancient Greece  and the Renaissance, which itself includes an awareness of the cost for the lowest classes in the formation of aristocratic dominated political communities, and that has been compared with the liberalism of Mill and Tocqueville (Alan S. Kahan, Aristocratic Liberalism, 1992). Hannah Arendt is a prime source of thought about how antique and aristocratic concepts of liberty can becomes part of a participatory mass democracy, and therefore an important source of thought about how to take up Nietzsche’s political theory, as Dana Villa suggests. In the field of Nietzsche commentary, the key references here, part from Villa, are Lester Hunt in libertarian thought and William E. Connolly in egalitarian liberal thought. Further discussion and references can be found in Stocker’s contribution to the present volume, on how Nietzsche cam be contextualised with regard to liberal, and liberty oriented, political thought.



Nietzsche’s Influence on Political Thought III

[An unintended long gap since the last post. The transition from a full and busy summer ‘vacation’ to a new semester with a full teaching schedule and revisions to course syllabi to match current research interests has been particularly tough. Hopefully I’m now getting into a new rhythm]

Derrida, unlike Foucault and Deleuze, did write directly on the political aspects of Nietzsche’s thought, most significantly in Politics of Friendship (1997)


Shall we say that this responsibility which inspires (in Nietzsche) a discourse of hostility towards ‘democratic taste’ and ‘modern ideas’ is exercised against democracy in general, modernity in general; or that, on the contrary, it responds in the name of a hyperbole of democracy or modernity to come, before it, prior to its coming — a hyperbole for which the ‘taste’ and ‘ideas’ would be, in this Europe and this America then named by Nietzsche, but the mediocre caricatures, the talkative conscience, the perversion and the prejudice — the ‘misuse of the term’ democracy? Do not these lookalike caricatures — and precisely because they resemble it — constitute the worst enemy of what they resemble, whose name they have usurped? The worst repression, the very repression which one must, as close as possible to the analogy, open and literally unlock? (Derrida 1997, p. 38)


So Derrida presents two ways of taking Nietzsche’s criticisms of democracy and modernity: we can take them straight and literally; we can take them as a strategy for attacking the bad imitations of democracy and modernity. When Derrida states two apparently opposing options, a common gesture of his (Stocker 2006, ch. 8), he prefers the second option, but always argues that the two options can never be completely separated from each other, and there can never be a complete triumph of the one over the other. So Derrida offers us a model for interpreting Nietzsche on democracy, which is that he is both the harshest critic of bad democracy and the greatest admirer of the real thing. Other passages from Politics of Friendship look at how for Nietzsche this is an alternative between the relation that neighbours and the relationship that friends have, to be found in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The relation between neighbours is a relationship of mutual dependency between the mediocre, which is non-conflictual to the point of banality. The relation between friends is one of tension between two isolated individuals seeking their own elevation in character through struggle. This is such an ideal and difficult relationship to find that Derrida puts it in the context of the idea, going back to antiquity, that there is no such thing as a friend (1997). He traces it back through the republican thinkers Montaigne and Cicero to Aristotle, so that the ideal of the friend is embedded in the ideal of the republic, which is appropriate to antique republicanism, the precedent for modern ideas of republicanism, democracy and liberty.

The implication of what Derrida says is that we take Nietzsche as someone contrasting the heroic republicanism of antiquity with the modern imitations, which even fail to be modern in their weak forms of repetition as poor imitation. There is a lot Derrida leaves unsaid here, even throughout the book as a whole, as he concentrates on the typically deep engagement with, and interlacing of, particular texts by Nietzsche, Aristotle, Montaigne, Blanchot and so on. What is left unsaid includes the whole field of the relation between what Benjamin Constant referred to as the liberty of the ancients and the liberty of the moderns . Constant thought of ancient liberty as more concerned with citizenship of a republic with shared institutions and customs, independent of external powers; and considered modern liberty to be defined by individualism, freedom from the state and commercial life. The essay in this volume on Humboldt and Nietzsche (Stocker 2014) explores some of the issues around the way that modern liberalism emerges from this sense of a less heroic more self-centred version of the heroic forms of liberty in the past based on constant existential struggles with tyrants, enemy states, nature itself and divine forces. Alternatives to “egalitarian liberalism” within current political theory such as “communitarianism” and “republicanism”, itself are still formed within that contrast, and the same applies even for “Marxism” in modern theory, which has often become an attempt to reconcile egalitarianism and collectivism with capitalist political economy and individualism, particularly under the label of “Analytic Marxism”, but also “post-Marxism”.

To be continued