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Rumors: Wine, Women, and Wagner
Nietzsche is now the most often cited philosopher in the Western tradition. His name gets dropped in novels and movies, from Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf and Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being to Blazing Saddles and A Fish Called Wanda. The literature about and against Nietzsche is voluminous, but despite a great deal of good scholarship in the past half century, old myths and prejudices remain prominent in the public consciousness. The infamous ad hominem argument, "Nietzsche was crazy, so don't take anything he wrote seriously," can still be heard in some philosophy seminars. Nietzsche's supposedly right-wing political views continue to be cited and abused in intelligent street conversation, and Nietzsche's supposed hatred of women is so well established as a bulwark of patriarchy that it is accepted even by those who should know better. Nietzsche's alleged affiliation with Hitler and the Nazis survives fifty years after Walter Kaufmann debunked that vile association; and Nietzsche's imagined love of raw, brute power remains a staple of quasi-philosophical college lore.
In order to even begin to make some headway into the question of what Nietzsche really said, it is first necessary to say with some confidence what he did not say, what he did not do, what did not motivate him, what he did not think. We begin, therefore, with thirty rumors about Nietzsche, many of them prominent mainly among those who condemn him without reading him, but others common even among his more enthusiastic readers. Let us begin with:
Rumor # 1. Nietzsche Was Crazy
It is true that Nietzsche suffered from mental illness at the end of his life. For his last ten years, from 1889 until his death in 1900, he was utterly incompetent (in the clinical sense), and during this time he did not write at all. Some scholars claim to detect some craziness in his last book, Ecce Homo, but what is interpreted as impending insanity (and the key word here is impending) is much more convincingly understood as ironic, self-mocking genius. Those who attempt to make the case that Nietzsche was already mad typically interpret Nietzsche's hyperbole and bombast as indications of delusions of grandeur. For example, Nietzsche entitles the chapters of Ecce Homo, "Why I Am So Wise," "Why I Am So Clever," "Why I Write Such Excellent Books," and "Why I Am a Destiny." But Nietzsche was a masterful and uninhibited wit, and irony as a form of philosophizing had its precedents. Socrates, considering the oracle's pronouncement that he was the wisest man in Athens, announced to everyone who would listen (including the jury that would condemn him) that he was the wisest only because he knew that he was completely ignorant. Nietzsche's implicit comparison with Socrates is hardly modest, but pseudo-self-aggrandizement hardly counts as "crazy."
Nietzsche, while in Turin, in January 1889, is said to have "collapsed" into madness when he saw a horse being beaten by its driver. He walked up to the horse, attempted to protect it by hugging it, and lost consciousness. After he was taken back to where he was staying, Nietzsche wrote some peculiar letters to friends, who, consequently, became worried about his sanity. The letter that resulted in his institutionalization was written to Jakob Burckhardt, who had been Nietzsche's colleague while he was a classics professor in Basel. This letter, dated January 6, 1889, began.
In the end I would much rather be a Basel professor than God; but I have not dared push my private egoism so far as to desist for its sake from the creation of the world. You see, one must make sacrifices however and wherever one lives. . . .
Nietzsche's writing in the voice of God the Creator, who has restrained his egoism enough to be content in that role, distressed Burckhardt. He showed it to another of Nietzsche's friends, Franz Overbeck, who had also received a letter from Nietzsche, this one signed "Dionysus" and claiming "I am just having all anti-Semites shot." Overbeck went to Turin and took Nietzsche to a nursing home in Basel, eventually arranging for his hospitalization in an asylum in Jena (in the eastern part of Germany). Nietzsche was released a short while later into the care of his mother. After her death responsibility for him fell to his sister Elisabeth, who moved him to Weimar and quite literally put him on display for visitors in her efforts to develop a cult around him and his philosophy. These efforts were sufficiently successful that she later got Hitler interested in Nietzsche's writings.
Nietzsche may have been "crazy," in the vernacular sense, in the last years of his life, but this does not mean that he was mentally ill before 1889. But even if he displayed symptoms of mental disturbance (and how many of history's great philosophers have not been neurotic, at least?), one must nevertheless admit that much of what he says, though often extreme, is hardly insane.
Rumor # 2. Nietzsche Hated Women
Nietzsche's alleged misogyny is still the target of routine feminist attacks, but the truth is that Nietzsche struggled with many of the same ideas feminists today have been grappling with. He recognized the importance of education in determining the specifics of gender roles, for example, and he suggested that men and women have different perspectives that affect their understanding of the world. Because he shares a number of concerns with our era's feminists, a number of feminist thinkers are currently reinvestigating Nietzsche's ideas about sex and gender.
It is certainly true that Nietzsche shared at least some of the male chauvinism of his times, and he was no doubt influenced by his mentor Arthur Schopenhauer, who made many disparaging comments about women. Nietzsche's personal relationships with women were complex, but they do not betray signs of hatred so much as confusion. Twice he proposed marriage to women so early on in the relationship that he could not reasonably have expected an acceptance. A more likely diagnosis is that he panicked, that he sought relief rather than acceptance, that he did not really want to get married.
Despite his romantic record and his largely solitary lifestyle, Nietzsche was close friends with several women of exceptional talent. One of his would-be fiancées, Lou Andreas-Salomé, was an accomplished writer and critic in her own right, and the two developed an intimate friendship of great significance to both of them, although the romance itself lasted only a few months. In a famous photograph with Nietzsche and their mutual friend (and Nietzsche's rival) Paul Rée, Lou is perched in a wagon, holding a whip over the two men. This picture is often "Exhibit A" in the case against Nietzsche for his sexism. But Nietzsche himself posed the picture, and we should not forget who holds the whip, nor the joking spirit in which the picture was made.
The photograph with Lou may have added a dimension of private humor (most likely black humor) to a scene in Thus Spoke Zarathustra that Nietzsche wrote shortly after their estrangement. This scene presents Nietzsche's protagonist Zarathustra's reporting of a conversation with an old woman, which concluded with her comment, "You are going to women? Don't forget your whip." As in the photograph, the whip is introduced here by a woman, and the scene is far more complex than the usual out-of-context quote would reveal. Given that Zarathustra has been rhapsodizing about his own fantasies of heterosexual love, the old woman's suggestion hints that she does not think that women will participate so readily. Far from endorsing the naturalness of male control, the old woman presents the sexes as engaged in a power struggle that the male is by no means assured of winning.
Rumor # 3. Nietzsche Was a Nazi
First, the obvious: Hitler did not form the Nazi party (National-sozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei) until 1919 and he did not ascend to power with it until 1933, several decades after Nietzsche's death (in 1900). In the plainest sense, therefore, Nietzsche could not have been a Nazi. Nevertheless, there is a famous photograph ("Exhibit B") of Hitler staring eyeball-to-eyeball at a bust of Nietzsche in the Nietzsche Archive in Weimar in 1934. But let us remind ourselves that there is little to support such suspicions of "backward causation." Even if Hitler did accept or adopt some ideas of Nietzsche's (and we have no evidence that he actually read much of Nietzsche's work) it does not follow that Nietzsche is responsible for what Hitler did with those ideas. (Likewise, a philosopher such as Hegel is not responsible for the use of some of his political ideas by the Italian dictator and former philosophy professor Benito Mussolini, as Karl Marx was not responsible for the Soviet monster Joseph Stalin). To be sure, monstrous use was made of some of the ideas that Nietzsche defended for example, eugenics, the project of manipulating human reproduction to produce the most desirable characteristics. But almost every intellectual of the period took eugenics seriously (including George Bernard Shaw in England). Hitler's use of the gas chamber in the service of his own perverse plan to shape the species was not a strategy Nietzsche either suggested or imagined.
Nevertheless, it can be argued that even if Nietzsche was not a member of the Nazi party, many of his ideas and attitudes prefigured the views of the Nazis notably, his more general views about race and human inequality, his celebration of power and "might makes right," his championing of the Übermensch (super-man) and "master morality," and his condemnation of the weak. But few of these doctrines, as they were presented by Nietzsche, mean anything like what the Nazis took them to mean. Nietzsche expressed his views on race, like his views on just about everything, in an uncensored fashion. He did believe that many character traits were inherited, including some that were acquired by generations of one's ancestors adopting a certain way of life or developing a particular diet. But what he praised most was miscegenation, the mixing of the races, not the "racial purity" idealized by the Nazis. And although he thought the desirability of genetic endowments varied across the species, Nietzsche went out of his way to ridicule the Germans and their "Aryan" pretensions to racial superiority. The "blond beast" he famously refers to is just that a lion, the "king of the jungle," not the blond-haired German soldier of Nazi iconography. Whatever else he might have thought of them, Nietzsche did not think the Germans were either super-men or masters.
We will discuss Nietzsche's supposed celebration of power shortly, but let us say firmly here that it has nothing to do with the infamous "might makes right" argument that is put forward by Thrasymachus in Plato's Republic and is often associated with Niccolò Machiavelli, the sixteenth-century polemicist and consultant to princes. Nietzsche famously criticizes weakness, but it is mainly spiritual weakness that he has in mind, not political powerlessness.
Perhaps most important of all in the list of differences between Nietzsche's views and the Nazis' was the fact that Nietzsche was no anti-Semite. Indeed he became an anti-anti-Semite. (Consider the flamboyant letter to Overbeck when his sanity broke.) Nietzsche's sister, Elisabeth, is the manipulative presence behind the Nietzsche-Nazi myth. She was indeed sympathetic to the growing fascist cause and married to a notorious anti-Semite of whom Nietzsche thoroughly disapproved. (He had even refused to attend their wedding.) It was she, years after her brother's death, who invited Hitler for his "photo-op" at the Nietzsche Archive. Elisabeth took over Nietzsche's literary estate after his incapacitation, and she even published apocryphal books and "editions" of Nietzsche's notes under his by-then famous name. With her husband, Bernhard Förster, she tried to found a "pure" Aryan colony in the jungles of South America. (It failed.)
Unfortunately, Elisabeth's political views became firmly attached to Nietzsche's name, and the association survived even the exposé of her forgeries and misappropriations of Nietzsche's works. Yet we can say with confidence, that Nietzsche was no Nazi and that he shared virtually none of the Nazis' vicious ideas about the "Thousand Year Reich" and the superiority of the German race. Indeed, Nietzsche famously declared himself "a good European" and lamented the fact that his native language was German. He spent virtully his entire adult life, from his professorship in Switzerland through his voluntary exile in and around the Alps, until his last moments of sanity in northern Italy, outside of Germany. Throughout his career he ridiculed the folly of taking German military victories as signs of cultural superiority. The fact that many German soldiers in World War I carried Nietzsche's Zarathustra in their backpacks is a great and tragic irony.
Rumor # 4. Nietzsche Hated Jews
Germany has a long history of anti-Semitism, dating back (at least) to the Middle Ages. Jews were the target of hostility from the Christian majority long before Hitler and his concentration camps. It is much to Nietzsche's credit, then, living where he did and surrounded by anti-Semites, that he refused to share their intolerance and came to openly denounce anti-Semitism.
Nevertheless, Jews were the subject of many of Nietzsche's reveries. For a German Christian to speak of Jews, especially when his tone is so often ironic and cutting, is to invite charges of anti-Semitism. Nietzsche's mistaken reputation as a Nazi and a fascist aggravates the complaint, and the fact that Nietzsche is so often quoted out of context provides evidence for those who would claim that he, like many Germans of his time, hated Jews.
In fact, many of Nietzsche's comments stemmed from his scholarly, historical interests. As a philologist, he was interested in both the origins of Christianity in Judaism and the complex relation between the Jews and the Greeks, particularly around the time of Philo of Alexandria and Saul of Tarsus (Saint Paul). As a student of what we would now call anthropology, he was also interested in the comparison of societies, the "Jewish race" included. As a moral historian he was deeply interested in the role of the Jews in the development of Western morality.
Nietzsche did have mixed feelings about Jews, as he did about most peoples, including the Germans, the English, and most Christians. We should remember, however, that he often characterizes Christianity as an offshoot of Judaism. What he finds objectionable in the Jewish moral outlook he usually finds in the Christian perspective as well. Some of his seemingly negative comments about Jews can be seen as barbs aimed at Christian anti-Semites, Nietzsche turning their own slurs back on them. For example, he describes Jesus as "too Jewish," since he failed to recognize that "if God wished to become an object of love, he should have given up judging and justice first of all. . . . The founder of Christianity was not refined enough in his feelings at this point being a Jew."
In the first book of On the Genealogy of Morals, similarly, he criticizes Judaism while describing Christianity as derivative and less creative. Nietzsche unmistakably refers to Jews when he introduces the idea of resentment (he uses the more general French term, ressentiment) giving birth to "slave morality." "All that has been done on earth against 'the noble,' 'the powerful,' 'the masters,' 'the rulers,' fades into nothing compared with what the Jews have done against them." Theirs is "an act of the most spiritual revenge." Nietzsche grudgingly praises this boldly "creative" act, and he notes that any such race "is bound to become cleverer than any noble race." And if the Jews are viewed as the defenders of "the people" (or "the slaves," "the herd," or "the mob"), Nietzsche writes, dripping with irony, then "no people ever had a more world historical mission."
Nietzsche is sharply critical not only of Judaism but of the entire sweep of Western history that followed. For Jews themselves, Nietzsche shows not malice but a strange fascination:The Jews [as compared to the Romans] were the priestly nation of ressentiment par excellence, in whom there dwelt an unequaled popular-moral genius; one only has to compare similarly gifted nations the Chinese or the Germans, for instance with the Jews, to sense which is of the first and which of the fifth rank.If one is looking for anti-Semitism in Nietzsche's life, one need not look far. His sister and brother-in-law of course, but also Nietzsche's early hero, Richard Wagner all were anti-Semites. And in Wagner's case this was one of the reasons why Nietzsche turned against him.