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

On the question of regard for the instrumental masses though, Nietzsche does argue that Medieval serfs were better off than their descendants learning to enjoy universal suffrage: ‘What an elevating effect on us is produced by the sight of a Medieval serf, whose legal and ethical relationship with his superior was internally sturdy and sensitive, whose narrow existence was profoundly cocooned—how elevating—and how reproachful!’ (Nietzsche 1994, 180).

Without wishing to defend this as an adequate account of the welfare and rights of those not born into elite status, it does suggest that Nietzsche was not willing to go so far as to define the uncultured lower orders as completely expendable and beyond any moral concern whatsoever. The tendency of the most cultured Greek republic, Athens, to extend rights beyond a narrow aristocracy, and the role of war in that, as in the way democracy was strengthened by the role of labourers in rowing the naval triremes that were the most powerful military asset of the Athenian state, is apparently rather overlooked by Nietzsche, but maybe played on his mind, and is part of the background to his critique of Euripides as rationalist in The Birth of Tragedy.

The movement away from Prussia, Bismarck, and Moltke, may owe something to the realisation that if military republicanism in antiquity could lead to not just the full citizenship of all males above slave status, but their direct participation in government and law making, the same could happen in Nietzsche’s own time in a monarchist-imperial state relying on mass conscription to form itself through war. The dismissive tone soon afterwards in the first untimely meditation towards Bismarck, Moltke, and Macedonian-Prussian militarism may owe something to that realisation. Ancient Macedonia did not promote democracy, but the political balance that allowed the formation and survival of the German Empire, included universal male suffrage, if qualified in the most important of the Empire, Prussia, by a system of voting in classes, which entrenched the power of the landowning officer class. Bismarck night now must seem to Nietzsche like another compromising politician at the head of a bureaucratic machine, and Moltke might seem like  the head of the military part of that machine. This is what we must presume if we compare Nietzsche’s distancing from them with his general remarks on the state, most clearly expressed in Human, All Too Human.

Letters to Richard Wagner and Elisabeth Nietzsche in 1875 indicate that Nietzsche met the Moltke family at Lake Lugano, though not the famous general himself. There is no indication of disenchantment with the Prussian Military genius there though, rather a quiet assumption of an exciting brush with greatness. Looking at Nietzsche’s evolving attitude to Moltke and Wagner, there may well be considerable evasion here and a suggestion that Nietzsche talked in a ‘Prussian’ way in certain company even while separating himself from ‘Prussianism’ in print. ‘Homer on Competition’ is another text in the collection presented to Cosima Wagner, (in Nietzsche 1994). It was written after ‘The Greek State’ and suggests a growing wariness of military glory, a sense that the Homeric epics showed a limitation on absolute violence in Greek culture, which was eroded in the cruelty of Alexander, along with the sense that Greek greatness was tied up with competition  between states.

[E]ven the finest Greek states perish in the same way as Militates when they, too, through merit and fortune have progressed from the racecourse to the Temple of Nike. Both Athens, which had destroyed the independence of her allies and severely punished the rebellions of those subjected to her, and Sparta, which after the battle of Aegospotamoi, made her superior strength felt over Hellas in an even harder and crueller fashion, brought about their own ruin, after the example of Miltiades, through acts of hubris. This proves that without envy, jealousy and competitive ambition, the Hellenic state like Hellenic man, deteriorates. It becomes evil and cruel, it becomes vengeful and godless, in short, it becomes ‘pre-Homeric’—it then takes only a panicky fright to make it fall and smash it. Sparta and Athens surrender to the Persians like Themistocles and Alcibiades did; they betray the Hellenic after they have given up the finest Hellenic principle, competition: and Alexander, the rough copy and abbreviation of Greek history, now invents the standard-issue Hellene and so-called Hellenism.—

(Nietzsche 1994, 194)

This implicit rebuke to Macedonian dominance and Alexander the Great, does not exactly contradict The Birth of Tragedy as it builds on the aesthetic evaluation there, but does show an increasing tendency to criticise Spartan and Macedonian hegemony (that is the precursors of Prussia as militaristic states) in ancient Greek history and to separate politics from culture, with culture as the superior aspect.

(to be continued)

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