The Uses and Abuses of Nietzsche
From Richard Spencer’s Vanguard Podcast (audio, transcript)
This is the transcript by V. S. of Richard Spencer’s Vanguard podcast interview of Jonathan Bowden about Nietzsche. You can listen to the podcast here.
Richard Spencer: Hello, everyone! It’s a pleasure to welcome back to the program Jonathan Bowden. Jonathan is a renaissance man in our movement. He is a political and cultural commentator, a novelist, a painter, and an orator. If you’d like to find out more about Jonathan you can visit his personal website, which is jonathanbowden.co.uk [now defunct].
So, Jonathan, welcome back!
Jonathan Bowden: Yes, hello! Nice to be back!
RS: Well, I hope you had a joyful Yuletide and Christmas and New Year’s holiday.
JB: Yes, it was good, but you can’t but not want to pick up the reins again.
RS: That’s true. Today we’re going to talk about a thinker of immense importance for our movement and the world and that is Friedrich Nietzsche. In the allotted amount of time, there’s no possible way to cover all of the ground of Nietzsche’s thought. However, I thought a good place to start for our purposes would be with the contemporary consciousness of Nietzsche. That is, what do people think of him today, educated people and maybe even average people, and how is that idea of him false and so on and so forth? I think that’s a good place to start and then maybe we could go a little deeper later on in the interview and get at the core of Nietzsche’s thought and spirit.
But just to set everything up, it’s worth mentioning that Nietzsche is certainly a famous and infamous, greatly admired and also notorious philosopher. He’s also one of the precious few philosophers that an average American would have heard of, and I think it’s probably the same in the UK and maybe a little bit different on the continent. But they’ve probably heard of Plato and Aristotle, maybe Descartes, but they’ve also heard of Nietzsche, and they know him mostly through his maxim “God is dead,” which of course may inspire some and infuriate others.
Also, there’s an interesting point that Jonathan actually mentioned off-air and that is he’s one of the only philosophers who one could call a radical traditionalist or archeofuturist or someone connected to the New Right who is actually taught and indeed embraced in the Leftist academy. So, people like Spengler or, for an example, Lothrop Stoddard or some of these interesting figures whose spirits are certainly akin to Nietzsche’s are dismissed or ignored or ridiculed. However, Nietzsche is someone who is embraced by Leftist academics as a kind of brother of Foucault and Descartes and so on and so forth.
After I’ve set the table there, Jonathan, why don’t you talk just a little bit about Nietzsche today. What does he mean for the average person? What does he mean for an educated person who’s gone through a Nietzsche course at his university?
JB: Yes, I think those are two very radically different things. To turn it around slightly and begin with the educated echelon first, there’s a Nietzsche that survives today which is in some ways a misreading of his actual texts, because his own texts are so multiple and binary piled upon binary rhythm that you have a sort of concatenation of viewpoints and philosophical tendencies which makes it very difficult to grasp him and to present him in a whole or holistic manner.
But nevertheless there is a Left-wing Nietzsche which is around today, and this celebrates his tearing down, the fact that he tore down the curtain of Christianity, that he’s not a metaphysical traditionalist at the level of pure philosophy in certain respects. The way into a Left-wing interpretation of Nietzsche, as in Deleuze and Guattari’s book Nietzsche and Philosophy, which is a sort of hint towards a Left-wing version, a Left-wing shadow version of him, is to concentrate on epistemology, which is thinking about thinking.
You could argue that Nietzsche is a radical subjectivist at one level and also that he doesn’t believe that there are totally objective cosmic standards outside time, history, place, and circumstance. This renders him a relativist by some accounts, and he can then be used to engage in exercises of moral relativism, particularly in relation to traditional religiosity. All of this in Deleuze and Guattari’s version is filtered into discourse against Christianity. That’s one of their primary goals. It’s almost as if Christianity hasn’t been kicked enough, but of course in North America Christianity is very powerful in a way that is not the case in Europe, certainly not in Western and Northern Europe. It’s a bit sacrilegious in a way. It’s a bit like kicking a corpse. It’s regarded as unfair or slightly like kicking a man when he’s down on the ground in a field game.
In Western Europe, there is this view of Nietzsche that he’s one of the great destructive philosophers, that he bulldozes an enormous amount of prior — by which they mean traditional or archaic or hierarchical or conservative — ground and this prepares the way for a new sunny upland and a new beginning post-Christianity. So, this is one of the many ways in which he’s interpreted now.
He’s seen also in the light of contemporary literary theory, which is very fashionable in the Western academy and has been for the last 40 years. These are theories called post-structuralism and the later version of the same thing called deconstruction whereby manuscripts and texts are taken apart in a sort of New Left scholasticism drawing on quite a lot of the thinking of the Middle Ages about language in a strange sort of way. The text is then considered to be independent of its own author and to be a thing in its own right and to be studied in a deep way which brings forth all its manifold contradictions to such a degree that no one can affirm anything. This is related to Nietzsche’s force-field way of writing whereby one point will lead to another which often overturns it, and then he flips back upon himself and, although there are constant returning themes, it’s sometimes difficult for some people to grasp what he’s actually trying to say, because his method is always one of attack rather than defense. Attack being the best form of defense, if you like.
So, there is this Left-wing interpretation of Nietzsche which has gained quite a lot of ground and has provided a shield to many critics in the center and on the Left who would point to Nietzsche’s unswerving political incorrectness in all sorts of areas: his hostility to feminism, his hostility to human equality, his advocacy of human inequality of quite a radical type, the suspicion that he entertained certain racial or national views which are sublimated, in other words he’s not a German nationalist but he’s a European one, and so on, which never quite leaves the liberal Zeitgeist and always means there’s a smell around him of some sort or another. His hostility to democracy, which is one of the most scandalous aspects of his thought and which is largely overlooked. It’s just thought that he was a creature of his time. The aristocratic attitudes of the late 19th century were anti-democratic, and he’s parceled up historically in that way. That’s because people who wish to preserve him for other reasons overlook tendencies in his thought which they wouldn’t overlook otherwise.
So, first of all, there’s this Left and center-Left interpretation of him which is a reinterpretation. It’s a form of cultural revisionism actually, although none of the people involved with it ever say so.
RS: I might just add real quickly that there’s certainly a kernel of truth or a basis for this interpretation in the sense that Nietzsche did want to deconstruct, if you will, the worldview and the epistemology of a lot of prior thinking. He did say things like, “There’s no one objective standard. It’s always perspectives around an object” and so on and so forth. So, obviously, there is a basis for that, but I guess they want to hold onto that aspect of him that you can find in maybe some works like The Genealogy of Morals and earlier works, but then they want to totally disregard the radical aristocratic nature of his thought.
JB: That’s right. It’s à la carte. It’s a smorgasbord where you take the bits you like and reject or silence or refuse to comment on the bits that you detest or don’t otherwise care for. I think that interpretation only goes so far though, because although he tore down for half his career up until about Zarathustra and most of his philosophical writing is a priori destructive after that he constructs. He’s very unusual in that he’s a very constructive philosopher once you get past the wreckage of what he considered to be late 19th-century civilization and its antecedents. So, then you have constructive Nietzsche where he basically puts a whole new Western philosophy or ideology or semi-metaphysic in place, which are his own teachings really. His own quasi-Bible, Thus Spake Zarathustra, which is a sort of combination of the Psalms and the 1611 authorized version of the Bible, the King James Bible, totally reworked in his own language and in his own meta-ethic and using his own style, but it’s meant in some ways to be a heretical holy book whereby the new philosophy, the philosophy of the superman and of the future will be laid out. With that, there are other corollaries, other runners such as On the Genealogy of Morals, which although it appears to be a speculative and relativist work up until a point is really a desire to return to the morality of the ancient world, to return to the morality of the pre-Christian world and a sort of aristocratic attitude or logos that was contemporaneous with that.
So, he constructs as much as he destroys, which is rather unusual because most contemporary philosophy only pulls down or pulls apart prior to the prospect of just reconfiguring it as a part of that gesture, but it doesn’t really construct anything. There are few great constructers in philosophy today. In fact, there are hardly any. Structuralism is just analyzing through various means what exists. It’s a rather passive version of what the contemporary media says it does, which is just reflect society rather than the ’60s idea that there was any intention to change it. That’s tendentious in the case of the media, but in Nietzsche’s case there’s a total new philosophy which is pushed out and made to do service and on a whole that’s dealt with in a slightly embarrassed silence by all these Left-wing post-structural and deconstructionist champions. They leave that on one side.
As to the common man’s view of Nietzsche, he’s thought of as the great philosopher of atheism and of 20th-century existentialism whereby man is cast in an anxious guise waiting for death and not knowing if there are any ultimate truths or not. I think in relation to this sort of common person who’s heard some intellectual talk but no more, possibly through the higher end of television and radio type of media and the few things they partook if not at college then in high school or the equivalent in Western Europe, they would upon Nietzsche as somebody who was the great coping stone of 19th-century doubt and skepticism about prior religious truths and possibly came up with some alternative truths of his own, which is very much how he was packaged in the 1950s and 1960s when prior to post-structuralism and deconstruction, existentialism, which is one of the intellectual vogues of the last century and which is not a purely Marxian vogue at all actually (it contains strong elements which are religious in origin), looked to Nietzsche as one of its founding gods, one of its founding anti-gods.
A person who’s slightly skim-read an Albert Camus novel, a person who’s vaguely aware of the currents which run into intellectual atheism, I think those are the ways in which he’s perceived in a common way and also in a stereotypical way as a philosopher who in some way linked up with German National Socialism or Nazism and somehow, in a complicated way, is a philosopher who goes with that and yet at the same time repudiates it. One and the other, so he retains a negative, demonic cachet by virtue of the affiliation and yet at the same time isn’t regarded by elite opinion as in any sense a philosopher of National Socialism. I think that mélange of a sort of sinister figure, the surviving one of the triumvirate Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, the three big thinkers who come out of the 19th century, early 20th century in Freud’s case, yet Nietzsche’s the only one left standing.
RS: That’s quite true. Let’s actually put a little pressure on what you were talking about before in terms of Nietzsche’s construction of a new philosophy. I want to talk specifically about morality and I think this also touches on another important point that you brought up which is that you can find plenty of lines in Nietzsche in which he repudiates German nationalism. He thinks it’s stupid and for beer-drinkers and so on and so forth, but anyone who’s read him, who’s really experienced him and not just an interpretation of him knows that there’s this almost demonic or radical traditionalist, Right-wing, in a crude manner, spirit to Nietzsche. Aristocratic radicalism is one of the terms that I like.
Maybe you could talk a little about that in terms of morality, because in On the Genealogy of Morals, certainly one of his best works . . . I remember reading it for the first time when I was a young person. I was probably around 20 years old. His differentiation between the ancient world’s good and bad and the Christian world’s good and evil, to use a colloquial phrase, really blew my mind. It really made me reconsider some of the most basic precepts of my own worldview. Maybe you could talk a little about that, because I think it brings all these threads together in terms of someone who is both deconstructive, someone who’s willing to pull the rug out from under the post-Christian worldview of his time, but then also someone who’s trying to revive and reinvent an older morality.
JB: Yes, that’s right. I think probably in terms of morals and ethics, that part of philosophy that deals with them, he’s one of the most revolutionary thinkers of the last 200, 300, 400, 500 years, and in some respects his views on morality have not been totally taken on board because they can’t be in a liberal, democratic, humanist, and egalitarian age. His views on morality are regarded as “interesting” academically in inverted commas, but that’s because they must be kept rather like a germ or some sort of antibody locked up in the laboratory.
He’s an anti-humanist, and he’s an inverse Christian, and he’s a pagan, with a small “p” maybe, of a very extreme sort. He wishes to return in a stylized way via the Renaissance of the Borgias to the morality of what he perceives as the aristocracy or the ruling class of the ancient world, and he wishes to miss out completely the morality that Christianity put in place and which is considered even by many people who’ve repudiated Christianity to be the basis for human morality. In the course of doing that, he repudiates a significant proportion, but not all, of Jewish morality, humanist and not so humanist at all, and also Islamic morality as well.
So, in a way, the three great moral lexicons of the Abrahamic tradition are repudiated in one fell swoop, and you have a return to, put very crudely, to go back to the idea of the common against the more elite reader, a might is right philosophy. But that’s a very crude way of looking at it because the might is right doctrine as epitomized by social Darwinian texts like Ragnar Redbeard’s of that name and so on is the lowest level of moral reality as far as Nietzsche’s concerned, that of sheer domination and what is being called by some the “morality of the dosshouse,” of “each against all,” and “no one is the master of the strongest man.” That, in a crude sense, certainly in a crude anti-Nietzschean Left-wing sense is what Nietzsche’s moral discourse amounts to.
But that’s the lowest form of morality as he advocates it, but also as he believes it exists biologically and in nature. What happens is the more advanced forms, like human beings, sublimate these things, and they self-overbecome them so that what is crude and violent and sterile and sort of semi-criminal as it could be configured at one level is cast adrift and becomes something more noble as it is hierarchicalized and spiritualized and as it’s taken up from its more crudely lethal and sort of “each against all” and Hobbesian points of departure.
Now, when he considers aristocratic morality he does so against almost all the currents that were then bubbling away at the end of the 19th century and would become dominant and hegemonic in the 20th century. And yet he survived having done this because usually someone is condemned by their morality. I think it’s because he cast his morality not in terms as a return to barbarism but in a return to the ancient world which contained a barbaric sliver far greater than the modern or the medieval one. The paradox is, of course, that much of early modern life, much modern life, and all of medieval life was run exactly along Nietzschean lines of moral constraint or the absence of such constraint. It’s a Christian myth, of course, that the Christian centuries are in accordance with Christian morality. As all deeply moral Christians know, Christian morality is so hard to live it’s almost an impossible standard to which humans have to aspire and only one man could ever reach it, and he wasn’t a man anyway in the course of that theology.
So, Nietzsche’s morals are probably the most revolutionary part of his entire discourse. I think what’s happened is that because he’s perceived as a relativist in some way you can adopt a relativistic standpoint about his morals and say, “Oh, well, that’s his view and he’s got these aristocratic and particularist attitudes and he wants to go back and he doesn’t understand the progress that we’ve made in the moral area.” Therefore, you can take his epistemology, and you can take his critique of modernity, and you can take his critique of decadence, and you can take his critique of German nationalism, and you can take his lauding of Wagnerism, and you can take his extreme critique of Wagnerism, and you can take all of his bits that you want, and relativize the morality out.
But morally his view is hierarchical rather than either/or. Jewish, Christian, and Islamic moralities tend to be either/or, good or evil or some synonym for evil, whereas his morality is hierarchical. It depends what’s being done to somebody and why it’s being done, and it depends on who they are and it depends on the level of suffering which is engendered, and it depends on whether they were born for a higher level of suffering or not, because life isn’t equal and suffering is a part of life. You can’t have the birth of a child without intense suffering on the mother’s behalf.
Therefore, his attitude towards morality is partly less pre-configured, less a priori, less sentimental, less humane, more aesthetic. It’s an aesthetic morality as much as anything else, and that’s deeply shocking. It’s still even deeply shocking today. There’s also elements of it which confound conservatism as perceived and goes outside conservatism. I’m thinking particularly about the chapter about the pale criminal in Thus Spake Zarathustra when Nietzsche says the criminal in the dock who looks pale and ascetic and who is a fanatic and is in some ways a moral retard and about whom everyone adopts a moralizing attitude. He should very possibly be hanged or done away with or whatever the form of execution would have been in the Germany of his time, but at the same time don’t make such a moral fuss about it. Don’t compute that he’s a different species to you, that he’s a desperate individual who committed a desperate act in a particular time that had its own form of vainglorious courage but that is anti-social to the degree that it can’t be tolerated if humans are to live together.
So, that comes quite close to a relativist excuse for certain signs of vicious criminality that you often hear on the New Left more on the New Right. And at the same time it immediately snaps back into the fact that by carrying out those actions the individual has opened himself up to a ferocious retribution by the state and its authoritarian power. He sees nothing wrong with that, because that’s how things have always been.
RS: There are two important points that come to mind. The first one is that there’s a continuity with what you’re saying with Nietzsche’s first book from 1872, The Birth of Tragedy, and that is the dialectic he establishes between the Dionysian and Apollonian worldviews.
In many ways, the Dionysian could be thought of as drunkenness in some sense, but it’s pure frenzy. It’s maybe even the darkest possible concept of life. It’s better that we’re not even born. Life is suffering and unadulterated emotion and so on and so forth. Maybe even sexual frenzy could be added in there.
Then there’s the Apollonian worldview, which is one which he associates with sculpture and that is involved with things like the state and the artist, but it’s a way to give life an order and a meaning.
To go back to his image of the criminal, I think they both work together in the sense that even the great artist who is admired and does life-affirming works of art, he has to have a little of that frenzy underneath it that he can contain and maybe even channel into more productive aspects. But he’s not fundamentally different than the cruder criminal who lacks that Apollonian component to his soul to channel those dark forces.
JB: Yes, that’s quite true, and he doesn’t see life compartmentalized in that sense. He sees binary and other than binary oppositions in life which go together, because of course he does correlate to Freud and Marx in certain respects. Not many, but one of them is the resolution of the tension between opposites. For him, opposites are necessary or things which are in partial opposition to each other synthesized and fused together to give new forms of meaning and to open up the prospect of a reversal, which will be a transvaluation of all values and which will be moral, aesthetic, legal, civic, political, structural, linguistic, musical, and all sorts of other things.
In the sort of dualism between the classical urge, the urge to classicize, the Apollonian urge from The Birth of Tragedy and the Dionysian urge, which is the undercurrent of tragedy in all forms of life, other things can be cut, whether they’re crude like the gibbering of the criminal in the dock and the plaintive excuses of his barrister or whether they’re much more exulted like the man who lies on his back to paint and the lead that’s dripping down on him from the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling. The one and the other are connected, because there has to be a fire in the belly to do something like the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and although it’s hardly dared to be associated with something like criminality there is a semblance of uniformity in the passions out of which all of these things stem. It’s the level of sublimation. It’s the level to which things are hierarchicalized. It’s the level to which they’re taken away from the sort of sulfurous origins that they all share. This is why morality is a matter of distancing. It’s a matter of the pathos of difference between one form and another, between one action and another, between one man and another.
Morality is therefore discriminatory, and in present parlance there’s nothing worse than discrimination, because discrimination is the basis of all equal moral worth, whereas his view is discrimination is the basis of morality because everything that one chooses from a sort of clean item of food to a sort of dirty item of food that one wishes not to cut with one’s knife and fork, everything is a matter of discrimination. That goes for individuals, for cities, for cultures, and for all of the contemporary discriminations, which you now have to sign forms if you want a job in the Western world to say that you won’t engage in and which the employer sort of goes along with and so forth.
Now, those are minor forms of discrimination in a way, but he would regard them all as attacks on the nature of the aristocratic that immediately hierarchicalizes everything into different orders of meaning depending where they are in a particular hierarchy, and the eye that judges where things are in a hierarchy will change from individual to individual of an august type. Maybe their ranking will be rather prior ordained to a degree, but there is a degree to which the ranking is not completely superimposed. So, certain standards that certain people might think are very high might be judged less so by another august spirit. That’s the danger that you take with rather individualistic, cantankerous, and aristocratic morality that not everything will work out to be the smoothest possible run in all possible worlds. But “who wants a life like that?” is his view. It’s rather like the end of Brave New World, the dystopian satire on the welfare state by Aldous Huxley, when the savage is told by one of the controllers, “You basically want the right to be unhappy or you want the right to unfold tragedies as part of life’s plentitude.” And that’s the case, you see? If life is to resemble more of a Greek tragedy than an episode of The Simpsons then you have to allow for all sorts of things which are knotty and gnarled and irresolvable and not capable of moralization.
This is one of his key points. One of the key points about liberal humanist discourse and Christian morals is that he would consider, as I dare say we would in many ways, that Christian morality and secular liberal humanist morality are very close. The one is a secularization of the other to a large degree.
But he would consider their type of morals to be universalizing and platitudinous and also capable of far too wide a remit and extent, because this morality essentially judges everything morally from the perspective of “Is anyone harmed?” or “Is the rubric of egalitarianism run through properly and efficaciously?” Political correctness is just a shorthand to corral the instincts to make sure that those standards are observed.
But he’s very much against the moralization of much of morality. Morality is a very specific thing that accords with certain honor codes and certain standards of behavior, and he doesn’t believe in a blanket moral unction and a blanket moral response to life. In some ways, his response to life is not moral in the accepted sense. It’s a morality which is aesthetic and nuanced and hierarchical and poetic, but it is not really a moral view of life that regards every statement from an abstract moral position. That’s why he would have contempt for people being judged by their occasional remarks, particularly if they were “outrageous” because he always likes making outrageous throw-away remarks because they’re parts of one’s individuality.
RS: I agree. I think it’s worth putting a little more pressure on this point and that is that the secular humanist or post-modernist academics and moral thinkers and so on are, from a Nietzschean standpoint, still in the Judeo-Christian wake, so to speak, in the sense that even if they don’t believe in God themselves, even if they embrace all sorts of sexual deviations and so on and so forth, they still do have that similar moral worldview that wants to judge everyone as equal before some kind of abstract morality that in some ways sees the violence of greatness or the pathos of distance as something that’s terrible and needs to be brought back into an equality.
So, in some ways, despite the fact that the contemporary American elite have totally abandoned the medieval Christian heritage and things like that, they’re still thinking in that way from a Nietzschean perspective.
JB: Yes, they are, and possibly because they’ve dumped the religion in their own hearts they’re thinking in a more radical way, because Christianity has a transcendent element which is genuinely religious and which therefore creates a pathos of difference between forms. This enables many Christians to be, without knowing it particularly, partly Right-wing by default. And therefore many Christians aren’t that Christian in their morals in a strange sort of way. Their morals are often much harsher, by which I don’t mean just puritanical. Their morals are much more realistic than the religion would give you a tendency to think would be likely. Whereas when you get rid of the religion you get rid of that hieratic, that steeple-chasing or exalted element and you close down the discourse pretty much to its morals and what is the moral unction, which of course many Christians themselves have been aware of.
There was a Methodist and a socialist soapbox orator here in the middle of the 20th century called Lord Soper, who is forgotten now but he was notorious during his life, and he once said that the part of Christianity he was loyal to was the New Testament. He didn’t like Old Testament and he wasn’t making some remarks about Judaism as a faith. What he didn’t like about the Old Testament was that the Old Testament was too brutish, too pagan in terms of a specific people and its rights, too violent, too unredeemed by the compassion that the New Testament would bring to it. But then of course Christianity works because it’s a dialectical discourse, because the humanism seen in divine terms and the charity of the New Testament balances the patriarchal fury of the Old Testament, and together they form an oneness. If Christianity had no harsh side at all it would have never gotten anywhere and would have collapsed, because it would have been too mono-dimensional to construct a faith.
All faiths have this. Judaism is essentially just a faith for one specific people and a few individual converts. It doesn’t seek conversion as a maxim. Islam, which seeks the maximum conversion of all, even beyond Christianity to a degree, retains a pagan dimension. So, when you get rid of religion, you don’t get rid of many of these complexities you just elide them into another form.
There’s an added complexity in the United States, because the elites still give ritualistic obeisance to forms of normative Christianity as we discussed last time. The elite in the United States worships in a Christian way which the elite in Western Europe does not and does not feel the need to. But you’re right in thinking, as I would, that that’s largely synthetic now and it’s got to the point where it’s only because of popular pressure and a form of conformism that they go along with this social Christianity, which they’ve long since ceased to believe in.
But in relation to Nietzsche’s morals, Nietzsche’s morals are a total refutation of radical Christianity, something like Quakerism in the middle of Christianity begins to leave off of itself, and secular humanist norms. It’s a reversal of all of those, and that’s why Left-wingers who dislike Nietzsche will retreat into saying he’s a fascist, and he’s an anti-humanist, and he’s somebody who really advocates the brutality of strength, and he’s somebody who’s got no time for the weak at all, and thinks that the weak enjoy and have no rights. When, of course, he does! He thinks the weak have the right to be dominated.
RS: I completely agree. Just to add one quick thing on top of that in terms of the loss of the religiosity of Christianity and its dissolution into abstract morality. It’s worth saying that someone like Charles Martel, his idea of the Christendom that he was defending was a very particularist kind of thing. He was defending his people, his way of life, Europe as a whole, and once we’ve lost those things either through the postmodern consumerist world or through political correctness that Christianity becomes something altogether different and something that might even be anti-civilizational on some level.
Without going further into that, I’d like to bring our conversation to a close in a somewhat more speculative fashion and that is to talk a little bit about Nietzsche’s political philosophy, even though he never codified that in the way that he did his moral philosophy and epistemology.
Let me just throw out a couple of ideas here that have always struck me as interesting. As I mentioned earlier in our conversation and you mentioned too, Nietzsche had a kind of contempt for German nationalism and anti-Semitism. He thought it was provincial and stupid and worthy only of beer-drinkers, but he was hardly some citizen of the world or a libertarian or anything like that.
He had this concept of a European empire arising in the future and certainly if you look at his later works like Ecce Homo, his autobiography, he sees his political philosophy as arising in some kind of apocalyptic explosion of hurricanes and earthquakes. He uses all of those words and you can see something even with the will to power he’ll speculate about major eugenics projects and he talks in some letters, “I like the idea that Europe is rearming. There’s going to be a cataclysm.”
So, Jonathan, I think all of these ideas are quite exciting. Just talk a little bit about what you thought Nietzsche’s political vision or metapolitical vision was for the future. This idea of Europe and also this idea of a Christian European civilization self-destructing and almost destroying itself, which is of course a quite prophetic thought on his part. So, talk a little about that, Nietzsche’s metapolitics.
JB: Yes, I think it’s important to stress it’s a metapolitics, because, as you say, he never adumbrated clearly a political stance or political profile. Most philosophers do sketch in a political philosophy even if they disregard it or even if they regard it as a minor part of their vision. You can regard Heidegger’s involvement in a very controversial type of politics, if only for a brief moment, as part and parcel of that.
But although he didn’t sketch out a narrowly drawn politics, metapolitically, Nietzsche’s ideas in many ways are quite clear. There’s a famous chapter on Nietzsche in Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy in which Bertrand Russell, who disliked Nietzsche intensely, looked up and could hear the German aircraft overhead because it was during the Blitz and said, “Nietzsche’s children are bombing me even as I write these paragraphs about him.”
There’s a degree to which, although Russell later apologized for the crudity and propagandistic worth of that chapter, there are metapolitical elements of truth there even in its falsehood. It’s true and false at one and the same time. Indeed, one of the things one can say about Nietzsche’s politics and political stance, metapolitically derived, is true and false simultaneously. It’s like there was a famous pamphlet about him during the First World War by a classicist, I think Barker of Oxford University, who talked about Nietzsche being the great philosopher of the German Reich and the German authoritarian militarism and Kaiserdom and Prussianism, by which of course he meant the forces of the Second Imperial Germany which Britain was then waging war against with France.
So, there’s always been this misinterpretation at a callow level that Nietzsche is a fundamentally Germanic thinker who represents, if you like, Germandom and a German nationalist desire for dominion, when the spirit of Nietzsche probably does represent that but the textual facts do not. Nietzsche was in rebellion against the center-Right and Right conformist attitudes of his era as particularly epitomized in his own family by his brother-in-law Förster, who he regarded as a blockhead or a Dummkopf, and he had all of the views that Nietzsche’s liberal supporters enabled Nietzsche to escape from in the middle of the 20th century, because without the Walter Kaufmanns of this world, without their revisionist cultural job on Nietzsche, Nietzsche might have gone down the memory hole.
A lot of liberal thinkers who admire Nietzsche for different reasons of their own — either because they weren’t Christians or because they had pagan attitudes or because they just liked dissident non-conformity for its own sake or because they realized he was a complicated thinker who shouldn’t be politically traduced, whatever the reasons — people like R. J. Hollingdale, who did many of the translations of Nietzsche in the middle of the 20th century in the British Isles, and Kaufmann in the United States, who did likewise, were important for preventing him from going down the memory hole.
Just because he’s a great philosopher, there’s no reason why that couldn’t have happened. It could have happened very, very easily when his views were conflated in a complicated way with those of his brother-in-law, and he would have been thought of as just a German nationalist.
With everything in Nietzsche, one comes up against sublimation. You come up against exteriorization, the casting of a new thing beyond itself to create larger and large lines of force. So, he’s not a German nationalist or a nation-state nationalist, but he’s a European nationalist, and he’s a Western nationalist, and he’s a civic nationalist of Western culture. So, what would be national in another person is transliterated into something broader and bolder and in some ways more august, in some ways more religious — given his sort of obvious irreligiosity of temperament at least at one level.
It’s the same with the vexed issue of what is called anti-Semitism and what is not. From a literal perspective, Nietzsche is the least anti-Semitic of thinkers, particularly in the Germany of his era. Again, he reacted very badly against his brother-in-law’s völkisch anti-Semitism of that era. And yet, of course, the extremity of Nietzsche’s anti-Christianity, the radicalism with which he belabors the Christian religion, the degree to which he holds it in contradistinction to a European ethic of man or a European aesthetic of man has given rise for some thinkers who see that his anti-Christianity is a form of anti-Semitism, because although he never curses the Jews for creating the circumstances out of which Christianity arose, there is a degree to which he considers Christianity to be poisonous in relation to the European inheritance.
So, put rather tendentiously, what in a cruder or more basic character might have been German völkischness and anti-Semitism, in him is civilizational Europeanness and anti-Christianity. So, it’s almost as if he won’t be hidebound by the forces of lesser men. He’s rather a similar figure to Ernst Jünger later in the 20th century and, although he’s complicit with all sorts of things, he was never entirely of them, and therefore he remained apart, aloof, and alone, and there’s this sort of lonely demi-god trajectory outside of things.
To come back to the idea of a cataclysm and things changing. Certainly, he was aware of all the nationalistic tensions in Europe building from the defeat of France at Sedan in the Franco-Prussian War, which he of course took part in as a medical orderly, as an ambulance driver. He was well aware that a combustion was coming, and he could sense the energies which would lead up to the First World War, this great outpouring of force between the European peoples as they battled in alliance with each other for supremacy.
He could also probably understand some of the tremors which would shake the world in relation to what later would be the Bolshevik Revolution and attendant revolutions. Certainly, he never quite said it, but you can imagine if he had lived longer he would have realized that one of the masks that Caesarism would wear in the 20th century would be a mass mask, whereby the masses would be enslaved all over again by an ideology such as Communism which said it was seeking nothing but their liberation. Because his view of life was paradoxical and he loved paradox which is the essence of tragedy, and he saw life in tragic terms or tragic hues.
Therefore, a Nietzschean analysis of the entire prognosis of Communism, whereby you have in the 1870s a purely idealistic ideology which by 1917–18 has taken over one of the foundational European states and created a charnel house which will later become a slave labor society which will then also fire and harden until liberals from within that system take it over at the end and resolve it peacefully from within. Something that was not discernible earlier on, by any means. And now it’s collapsed into history and you wonder, even though it was only 20 years back, if it was ever there. That’s one area about which he couldn’t comment, because it lay after his death, but it’s part and parcel of these cataclysms that he senses are coming.
He’s not definitive in relation to a new Caesarism in the way that Spengler is at the end of The Decline of the West when Spengler says that although we’re living in an era of decline there will be revanchists. There will be attempts at counter-intuitive thrusts against the prospect of decline, of which Caesarism in Europe will be one.
But he certainly thought that the masses can’t lead a civilization, which means they have to be led. You either dupe them by saying that you’ll lead them on behalf of their own ideology – in other words, you’re doing it in the interests of the masses and you’re doing it in the name of vouchsafed their quality of worth and purpose – or you do it with something harsher and essentially stentorian and more Old World against the interests of the masses. Some people, of course, would think that his mental illness, which was catching up with him towards the end of his life, particularly in texts like Ecce Homo where there’s much talk of philosophizing with a hammer and that sort of thing and in certain sections of Will to Power, are catching up with him in his talk of cataclysms and bursting dams and cyclonic frenzies and such like. But there’s a degree to which I think these are emotional rhapsodies which are musical in a way just as his first book was heavily impregnated with Wagner’s presence and was heavily to do with music.
Music was a key art form for Nietzsche, because you can lose yourself in music and become something else. The idea of enclosure: someone who listens to Beethoven becomes, if only for a couple of moments, Beethoven or analogous to the spirit of Beethoven, and somebody who intoxicates themselves with Europe’s future can in language become part of that very forward progression into the future which none of us can entirely chart but which we all have a glimpse of.
I think, in relation to the current state of present modernity, the fact that he survived, the fact that Freud and Marx have worn far less well, is a notable and interesting point for the future. I also think that any Right that’s got a future will have to partly base itself around Nietzsche’s thinking as I have always done. This is very difficult electorally, because there’s so much of a charge left in Christianity, so much of a condenser cell battery with a big charge on it left there in terms of practical politics, particularly in a society like the United States. But I think the sad truth is that for an elite Nietzsche’s way, without antagonizing Christianity too much by a bit of sleight of hand where texts like The Anti-Christ can be put down towards the bottom of the pile and texts like Thus Spake Zarathustra can be put on top, so a few games may have to be played just as Left-wing interpretations of Nietzsche by Deleuze and Guattari and others are also playing their own games . . . may have to be done. But I do think that a New Right that calls itself such will have to base itself around the greatest thinker of the non-Left that can be found who is visible, who is determined to exist in this current time on his own terms as well as that of his more shallow conspirators and detractors.
And also, the very fact that he’s there and is admired and is partly revered by all sorts of people who have no time for a proportion of his views — we haven’t even discussed his views about feminism, for example, which are so out of sync with this current era as to be almost sort of obsolete forms of 19th-century pastiche, because he wouldn’t have even given women the vote, he wouldn’t have even tolerated female involvement in practical politics. There’s a great silence about his attitudes on all of those fronts, so the very fact that in the “Reclaim the Night” campuses in North America one of the “most sexist philosophers of all time” can be worshiped as a bit of a demi-god is itself an interesting conundrum. It also shows you how far people can go to avoid things about somebody that they otherwise admire.
RS: Yes, I think that’s true. To bring this conversation to a close and to sum up what you’re saying in this last passage, Nietzsche’s day hasn’t come yet. He is not reducible to German nationalism and, in a way, in his kind of European nationalism or his concept of a European empire, he is very much with us on the avant-garde of Right-wing thinking today. I think if there is a vanguard in our movement — you think of someone like Guillaume Faye and others — we’re saying that the provincial nationalism can have its problems and in our current geopolitical situation a concept of Europe and European nationalism is the one that is most relevant and is the one that can defeat our enemies. So, hopefully, Nietzsche’s day will come.
Jonathan, I’d certainly like to have another hundred conversations with you about Nietzsche and other topics, but I think we should put a bookmark in this conversation for the time being. I think we ended up at a very interesting place. But thank you for your time and your insight to Nietzsche. I’d love to have you back on the program again soon.
JB: Yes, thanks very much! I’d welcome it very earnestly. Thanks again!