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.



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