Nietzsche on War (revised thoughts on themes, rhetoric and strategies of violence) V

Already in 1872, the same year as the publication of The Birth of Tragedy, the posthumously published ‘Homer’s on Competition’ suggests some horror at the cruelty of Alexander, compared even with the characteristic violence of Achilles in The Illiad, that could be taken as a distancing from Macedonian-Prussian military spirit. The Prussian army of Moltke the Elder, was not free of ugly incidents, but did not have the brutal reputation of the First World War German army in occupied Belgium, never mind the horrors that unfolded from 1939 to 1945.

Nevertheless Moltke was the agent of the transformation  of 1870, so marked an identification of Prussia, and to some dare Germany as a whole, with war as main form of politics. The Franco-Prussian war did feature a siege of Paris, followed by bombardment, part of the background to the Paris Commune, so there was a beginning to the systematic suffering of civilians who encountered Prussian and German forces, and an end to the idea that Prussian militarism was essentially part of a defensive security guarantee against larger European powers.

The role of the Franco-Prussian war in provoking a plebeian and radical intellectual revolt in Paris was not at all desirable for Nietzsche, and with this convergence of events, it is not surprising that he was to end up thinking of plebeian socialism and militarist nationalism dominating his era, with both threatening culture as Nietzsche understood it. Even The Birth of Tragedy is not suggestive of great enthusiasm for nationalism and militarism. It has an anti-political element to it in resisting the idea that the tragic chorus can be taken as the voice of the people (The Birth of Tragedy 7/Nietzsche 1999, 7), and though this is directed at democracy rather than nationalism, it seems to indicate Nietzsche’s general attitude towards politics in literature, since he resists symbolism of prince or people in tragedy at this point.

The Apolline is linked with the Doric state and the Dionysian has suggestions of plebeian chaos, with no validation of either in Nietzsche’s account. The Birth of Tragedy suggests more a combination of aesthetic tension and aesthetic harmony than a political program. ‘The Greek State’ written in parallel, but only published in Nietzsche’s lifetime as part of a presentation to Cosima Wagner, does add a political perspective which is one of enthusiasm both for slavery and war as necessary to the state and to culture. Strictly speaking slavery is necessary to society, which includes the possibility of a cultured elite, and war is necessary to the state. The most pure Doric state, Sparta, is placed as a model over Plato’s ideal state despite Plato’s enthusiasm for Sparta and his placing of soldiers as part of the guardian class in the best imaginable polity.

The fact that he [Plato] did not place genius, in its most general sense, at the head of his perfect state, but only the genius of wisdom and knowledge, excluding the inspired artist entirely from state, was a rigid consequence of the Socratic judgment on art, which Plato, struggling against himself, adopted as his own.

For Nietzsche, what Plato’s state lacks is art because he only accepts the genius of wisdom and knowledge, not of the artist. Though in one perspective Nietzsche is less militarily oriented than Plato at this point, in the same essay can also be positive about the militarist state. While the solider class has a guardian role in Plato’s Republic, it is of course subordinate to the overall guardianship of philosophers.

Nietzsche does mention just before the passage above, the archetypal military nature of the state and the importance of creating military geniuses, as in the constitution of Lycurgus, the legendary legislator of Sparta. So at this point it looks as if Nietzsche advocates some necessity for military genius in the state, but not on the same level as artistic genius.   Nietzsche builds on an idea common to Greek and Roman political thinkers, such as Plato, Polybius, and Cicero, which is that  of the military structure as central to the form of the state, as well as the basic role of the state in providing security from foreign invasion. He is extending on that thought in associating the military spirit directly with legislative genius and in a less direct way with artistic genius.

Both artistic and military genius are necessary to Nietzsche’s own ideal state at this point, with the first lacking in Plato and the second subordinated. At this point it seems reasonable to suppose that Nietzsche considered Prussian military genius in Moltke, political genius in Bismarck, and Saxon artistic genius removed to Bavaria, in Wagner, as part of the same elite culture for which the less cultured masses were mere instruments. Though given the overriding importance of artistic genius it is not surprising that Nietzsche later regards culture, so art as part of culture, as constrained and under threat from the state in plebeian socialist and militarist nationalist forms.

(to be continued)


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