HISTOIRE DE LA PHILOSOPHIE OCCIDENTALE, par Bertrand Russell, © 1945
III.2.8 : NIETZSCHE
NIETZSCHE ( 1844-1900) regarded himself, rightly, as the successor of Schopenhauer, to whom, however, he is superior in many ways, particularly in the consistency and coherence of his doctrine. Schopenhauer's oriental ethic of renunciation seems out of harmony with his metaphysic of the omnipotence of will; in Nietzsche, the will has ethical as well as metaphysical primacy. Nietzsche, though a professor, was a literary rather than an academic philosopher. He invented no new technical theories in ontology or epistemology; his importance is primarily in ethics, and secondarily as an acute historical critic. I shall confine myself almost entirely to his ethics and his criticism of religion, since it was this aspect of his writing that made him influential.
His life was simple. His father was a Protestant pastor, and his upbringing was very pious. He was brilliant at the university as a classicist and student of philology, so much so that in 1869, before he had taken his degree, he was offered a professorship of philology at Basel, which he accepted. His health was never good, and after periods of sick leave he was obliged to retire finally in 1879. After this, he lived in health resorts in Switzerland; in 1888 he became insane, and remained so until his death. He had a passionate admiration for Wagner, but quarrelled with him, nominally over Parsifal, which he thought too Christian and too full of renunciation. After the quarrel he criticized Wagner savagely, and even went so far as to accuse him of being a Jew. His general outlook, however, remained very similar to that of Wagner in the Ring; Nietzsche's superman is very like Siegfried, except that he knows Greek. This may seem odd, but that is not my fault.
Nietzsche was not consciously a romantic; indeed he often severely criticizes the romantics. Consciously his outlook was Hellenic, but with the Orphic component omitted. He admired the pre-Socratics, except Pythagoras. He has a close affinity to Heraclitus. Aristotle's magnanimous man is very like what Nietzsche calls the "noble man," but in the main he regards the Greek philosophers from Socrates onwards as inferior to their predecessors. He cannot forgive Socrates for his humble origin; he calls him a "roturier," and accuses him of corrupting the noble Athenian youth with a democratic moral bias. Plato, especially, is condemned on account of his taste for edification. Nietzsche, however, obviously does not quite like condemning him, and suggests, to excuse him, that perhaps he was insincere, and only preached virtue as a means of keeping the lower classes in order. He speaks of him on one occasion as "a great Cagliostro." He likes Democritus and Epicurus, but his affection for the latter seems somewhat illogical, unless it is interpreted as really an admiration for Lucretius.
As might be expected, he has a low opinion of Kant, whom he calls "a moral fanatic à la Rousseau."
In spite of Nietzsche's criticism of the romantics, his outlook owes much to them; it is that of aristocratic anarchism, like Byron's, and one is not surprised to find him admiring Byron. He attempts to combine two sets of values which are not easily harmonized: on the one hand he likes ruthlessness, war, and aristocratic pride; on the other hand, he loves philosophy and literature and the arts, especially music. Historically, these values coexisted in the Renaissance; Pope Julius II, fighting for Bologna and employing Michelangelo, might be taken as the sort of man whom Nietzsche would wish to see in control of governments. It is natural to compare Nietzsche with Machiavelli, in spite of important differences between the two men. As for the differences: Machiavelli was a man of affairs, whose opinions had been formed by close contact with public business, and were in harmony with his age; he was not pedantic or systematic, and his philosophy of politics scarcely forms a coherent whole; Nietzsche, on the contrary, was a professor, an essentially bookish man, and a philosopher in conscious opposition to what appeared to be the dominant political and ethical trends of his time. The similarities, however, go deeper. Nietzsche's political philosophy is analogous to that of The Prince (not The Discourses), though it is worked out and applied over a wider field. Both Nietzsche and Machiavelli have an ethic which aims at power and is deliberately anti-Christian, though Nietzsche is more frank in this respect. What Caesar Borgia was to Machiavelli, Napoleon was to Nietzsche: a great man defeated by petty opponents.
Nietzsche's criticism of religions and philosophies is dominated entirely by ethical motives. He admires certain qualities which he believes (perhaps rightly) to be only possible for an aristocratic minority; the majority, in his opinion, should be only means to the excellence of the few, and should not be regarded as having any independent claim to happiness or well-being. He alludes habitually to ordinary human beings as the "bungled and botched," and sees no objection to their suffering if it is necessary for the production of a great man. Thus the whole importance of the period from 1789 to 1815 is summed up in Napoleon: "The Revolution made Napoleon possible: that is its justification. We ought to desire the anarchical collapse of the whole of our civilization if such a reward were to be its result. Napoleon made nationalism possible: that is the latter's excuse." Almost all of the higher hopes of this century, he says, are due to Napoleon.
He is fond of expressing himself paradoxically and with a view to shocking conventional readers. He does this by employing the words "good" and "evil" with their ordinary connotations, and then saying that he prefers "evil" to "good." His book, Beyond Good and Evil, really aims at changing the reader's opinion as to what is good and what is evil, but professes, except at moments, to be praising what is "evil" and decrying what is "good." He says, for instance, that it is a mistake to regard it as a duty to aim at the victory of good and the annihilation of evil; this view is English, and typical of "that blockhead, John Stuart Mill," a man for whom he has a specially virulent contempt. Of him he says:
"I abhor the man's vulgarity when he says 'What is right for one man is right for another'; 'Do not to others that which you would not that they should do unto you.' (* I seem to remember that some one anticipated Mill in this dictum. ) Such principles would fain establish the whole of human traffic upon mutual services, so that every action would appear to be a cash payment for something done to us. The hypothesis here is ignoble to the last degree: it is taken for granted that there is some sort of equivalence in value between my actions and thine."(In all quotations from Nietzsche, the italics are in the original. )
True virtue, as opposed to the conventional sort, is not for all, but should remain the characteristic of an aristocratic minority. It is not profitable or prudent; it isolates its possessor from other men; it is hostile to order, and does harm to inferiors. It is necessary for higher men to make war upon the masses, and resist the democratic tendencies of the age, for in all directions mediocre people are joining hands to make themselves masters. "Everything that pampers, that softens, and that brings the 'people' or 'woman' to the front, operates in favour of universal suffrage--that is to say, the dominion of 'inferior' men." The seducer was Rousseau, who made woman interesting; then came Harriet Beecher Stowe and the slaves; then the Socialists with their championship of workmen and the poor. All these are to be combated.
Nietzsche's ethic is not one of self-indulgence in any ordinary sense; he believes in Spartan discipline and the capacity to endure as well as inflict pain for important ends. He admires strength of will above all things. "I test the power of a will," he says, "according to the amount of resistance it can offer and the amount of pain and torture it can endure and know how to turn to its own advantage; I do not point to the evil and pain of existence with the finger of reproach, but rather entertain the hope that life may one day become more evil and more full of suffering than it has ever been." He regards compassion as a weakness to be combated. "The object is to attain that enormous energy of greatness which can model the man of the future by means of discipline and also by means of the annihilation of millions of the bungled and botched, and which can yet avoid going to ruin at the sight of the suffering created thereby, the like of which has never been seen before." He prophesied with a certain glee an era of great wars; one wonders whether he would have been happy if he had lived to see the fulfilment of his prophecy.
He is not, however, a worshipper of the State; far from it. He is a passionate individualist, a believer in the hero. The misery of a whole nation, he says, is of less importance than the suffering of a great individual: "The misfortunes of all these small folk do not together constitute a sum-total, except in the feelings of mighty men."
Nietzsche is not a nationalist, and shows no excessive admiration for Germany. He wants an international ruling race, who are to be the lords of the earth: "a new vast aristocracy based upon the most severe self-discipline, in which the will of philosophical men of power and artist-tyrants will be stamped upon thousands of years."
He is also not definitely anti-Semitic, though he thinks Germany contains as many Jews as it can assimilate, and ought not to permit any further influx of Jews. He dislikes the New Testament, but not the Old, of which he speaks in terms of the highest admiration. In justice to Nietzsche it must be emphasized that many modern developments which have a certain connection with his general ethical outlook are contrary to his clearly expressed opinions.
Two applications of his ethic deserve notice: first, his contempt for women; second, his bitter critique of Christianity.
He is never tired of inveighing against women. In his pseudoprophetical book, Thus Spake Zarathustra, he says that women are not, as yet, capable of friendship; they are still cats, or birds, or at best cows. "Man shall be trained for war and woman for the recreation of the warrior. All else is folly." The recreation of the warrior is to be of a peculiar sort if one may trust his most emphatic aphorism on this subject: "Thou goest to woman? Do not forget thy whip."
He is not always quite so fierce, though always equally contemptuous. In the Will to Power he says: "We take pleasure in woman as in a perhaps daintier, more delicate, and more ethereal kind of creature. What a treat it is to meet creatures who have only dancing and nonsense and finery in their minds! They have always been the delight of every tense and profound male soul." However, even these graces are only to be found in women so long as they are kept in order by manly men; as soon as they achieve any independence they become intolerable. "Woman has so much cause for shame; in woman there is so much pedantry, superficiality, schoolmasterliness, petty presumption, unbridledness, and indiscretion concealed . . . which has really been best restrained and dominated hitherto by the fear of man." So he says in Beyond Good and Evil, where he adds that we should think of women as property, as Orientals do. The whole of his abuse of women is offered as self-evident truth; it is not backed up by evidence from history or from his own experience, which, so far as women were concerned, was almost confined to his sister.
Nietzsche's objection to Christianity is that it caused acceptance of what he calls "slave morality." It is curious to observe the contrast between his arguments and those of the French philosophes who preceded the Revolution. They argued that Christian dogmas are untrue; that Christianity teaches submission to what is deemed to be the will of God, whereas self-respecting human beings should not bow before any higher Power; and that the Christian Churches have become the allies of tyrants, and are helping the enemies of democracy to deny liberty and continue to grind the faces of the poor. Nietzsche is not interested in the metaphysical truth of either Christianity or any other religion; being convinced that no religion is really true, he judges all religions entirely by their social effects. He agrees with the philosophes in objecting to submission to the supposed will of God, but he would substitute for it the will of earthly "artist-tyrants." Submission is right, except for these supermen, but not submission to the Christian God. As for the Christian Churches' being allies of tyrants and enemies of democracy, that, he says, is the very reverse of the truth. The French Revolution and Socialism are, according to him, essentially identical in spirit with Christianity; to all alike he is opposed, and for the same reason: that he will not treat all men as equal in any respect whatever.
Buddhism and Christianity, he says, are both "nihilistic" religions, in the sense that they deny any ultimate difference of value between one man and another, but Buddhism is much the less objectionable of the two. Christianity is degenerative, full of decaying and excremental elements; its driving force is the revolt of the bungled and botched. This revolt was begun by the Jews, and brought into Christianity by "holy epileptics" like Saint Paul, who had no honesty. "The New Testament is the gospel of a completely ignoble species of man." Christianity is the most fatal and seductive lie that ever existed. No man of note has ever resembled the Christian ideal; consider for instance the heroes of Plutarch's Lives. Christianity is to be condemned for denying the value of "pride, pathos of distance, great responsibility, exuberant spirits, splendid animalism, the instincts of war and of conquest, the deification of passion, revenge, anger, voluptuousness, adventure, knowledge." All these things are good, and all are said by Christianity to be bad--so Nietzsche contends.
Christianity, he argues, aims at taming the heart in man, but this is a mistake. A wild beast has a certain splendour, which it loses when it is tamed. The criminals with whom Dostoevsky associated were better than he was, because they were more self-respecting. Nietzsche is nauseated by repentance and redemption, which he calls a folie circulaire. It is difficult for us to free ourselves from this way of thinking about human behaviour: "we are heirs to the consciencevivisection and self-crucifixion of two thousand years." There is a very eloquent passage about Pascal, which deserves quotation, because it shows Nietzsche's objections to Christianity at their best:
"What is it that we combat in Christianity? That it aims at destroying the strong, at breaking their spirit, at exploiting their moments of weariness and debility, at converting their proud assurance into anxiety and conscience-trouble; that it knows how to poison the noblest instincts and to infect them with disease, until their strength, their will to power, turns inwards, against themselves--until the strong perish through their excessive self-contempt and self-immolation: that gruesome way of perishing, of which Pascal is the most famous example."
In place of the Christian saint Nietzsche wishes to see what he calls the "noble" man, by no means as a universal type, but as a governing aristocrat. The "noble" man will be capable of cruelty, and, on occasion, of what is vulgarly regarded as crime; he will recognize duties only to equals. He will protect artists and poets and all who happen to be masters of some skill, but he will do so as himself a member of a higher order than those who only know how to do something. From the example of warriors he will learn to associate death with the interests for which he is fighting; to sacrifice numbers, and take his cause sufficiently seriously not to spare men; to practise inexorable discipline; and to allow himself violence and cunning in war. He will recognize the part played by cruelty in aristocratic excellence: "almost everything that we call 'higher culture' is based upon the spiritualizing and intensifying of cruelty." The "noble" man is essentially the incarnate will to power
What are we to think of Nietzsche's doctrines? How far are they true? Are they in any degree useful? Is there in them anything objective, or are they the mere power-phantasies of an invalid?
It is undeniable that Nietzsche has had a great influence, not among technical philosophers, but among people of literary and artistic culture. It must also be conceded that his prophecies as to the future have, so far, proved more nearly right than those of liberals or Socialists. If he is a mere symptom of disease, the disease must be very wide-spread in the modern world.
Nevertheless there is a great deal in him that must be dismissed as merely megalomaniac. Speaking of Spinoza he says: "How much of personal timidity and vulnerability does this masquerade of a sickly recluse betray!" Exactly the same may be said of him, with the less reluctance since he has not hesitated to say it of Spinoza. It is obvious that in his day-dreams he is a warrior, not a professor; all the men he admires were military. His opinion of women, like every man's, is an objectification of his own emotion towards them, which is obviously one of fear. "Forget not thy whip"--but nine women out of ten would get the whip away from him, and he knew it, so he kept away from women, and soothed his wounded vanity with unkind remarks.
He condemns Christian love because he thinks it is an outcome of fear: I am afraid my neighbour may injure me, and so I assure him that I love him. If I were stronger and bolder, I should openly display the contempt for him which of course I feel. It does not occur to Nietzsche as possible that a man should genuinely feel universal love, obviously because he himself feels almost universal hatred and fear, which he would fain disguise as lordly indifference. His "noble" man --who is himself in day-dreams--is a being wholly devoid of sympathy, ruthless, cunning, cruel, concerned only with his own power. King Lear, on the verge of madness, says:
I will do such things-What they are yet I know not--but they shall be The terror of the earth.
This is Nietzsche's philosophy in a nutshell.
It never occurred to Nietzsche that the lust for power, with which he endows his superman, is itself an outcome of fear. Those who do not fear their neighbours see no necessity to tyrannize over them. Men who have conquered fear have not the frantic quality of Nietzsche's "artist-tyrant" Neros, who try to enjoy music and massacre while their hearts are filled with dread of the inevitable palace revolution. I will not deny that, partly as a result of his teaching, the real world has become very like his nightmare, but that does not make it any the less horrible.
It must be admitted that there is a certain type of Christian ethic to which Nietzsche's strictures can be justly applied. Pascal and Dostoevsky--his own illustrations--have both something abject in their virtue. Pascal sacrificed his magnificent mathematical intellect to his God, thereby attributing to Him a barbarity which was a cosmic enlargement of Pascal's morbid mental tortures. Dostoevsky would have nothing to do with "proper pride"; he would sin in order to repent and to enjoy the luxury of confession. I will not argue the question how far such aberrations can justly be charged against Christianity, but I will admit that I agree with Nietzsche in thinking Dostoevsky's prostration contemptible. A certain uprightness and pride and even self-assertion of a sort, I should agree, are elements in the best character; no virtue which has its roots in fear is much to be admired.
There are two sorts of saints: the saint by nature, and the saint from fear. The saint by nature has a spontaneous love of mankind; he does good because to do so gives him happiness. The saint from fear, on the other hand, like the man who only abstains from theft because of the police, would be wicked if he were not restrained by the thought of hell-fire or of his neighbours' vengeance. Nietzsche can only imagine the second sort of saint; he is so full of fear and hatred that spontaneous love of mankind seems to him impossible. He has never conceived of the man who, with all the fearlessness and stubborn pride of the superman, nevertheless does not inflict pain because he has no wish to do so. Does any one suppose that Lincoln acted as he did from fear of hell? Yet to Nietzsche Lincoln is abject, Napoleon magnificent.
It remains to consider the main ethical problem raised by Nietzsche, namely: should our ethic be aristocratic, or should it, in some sense, treat all men alike? This is a question which, as I have just stated it, has no very clear meaning, and obviously, the first step is to try to make the issue more definite.
We must in the first place try to distinguish an aristocratic ethic from an aristocratic political theory. A believer in Bentham's principle of the greatest happiness of the greatest number has a democratic ethic, but he may think that the general happiness is best promoted by an aristocratic form of government. This is not Nietzsche's position. He holds that the happiness of common people is no part of the good per se. All that is good or bad in itself exists only in the superior few; what happens to the rest is of no account
The next question is: How are the superior few defined? In practice, they have usually been a conquering race or a hereditary aristocracy --and aristocracies have usually been, at least in theory, descendants of conquering races. I think Nietzsche would accept this definition. "No morality is possible without good birth," he tells us. He says that the noble caste is always at first barbarian, but that every elevation of Man is due to aristocratic society.
It is not clear whether Nietzsche regards the superiority of the aristocrat as congenital or as due to education and environment. If the latter, it is difficult to defend the exclusion of others from advantages for which, ex hypothesi, they are equally qualified. I shall therefore assume that he regards conquering aristocracies and their descendants as biologically superior to their subjects, as men are superior to domestic animals, though in a lesser degree.
What shall we mean by "biologically superior"? We shall mean when interpreting Nietzsche, that individuals of the superior race and their descendants are more likely to be "noble" in Nietzsche's sense: they will have more strength of will, more courage, more impulse towards power, less sympathy, less fear, and less gentleness.
We can now state Nietzsche's ethic. I think what follows is a fair analysis of it:
Victors in war, and their descendants, are usually biologically superior to the vanquished. It is therefore desirable that they should hold all the power, and should manage affairs exclusively in their own interests.
There is here still the word "desirable" to be considered. What is "desirable" in Nietzsche's philosophy? From the outsider's point of view, what Nietzsche calls "desirable" is what Nietzsche desires. With this interpretation, Nietzsche's doctrine might be stated more simply and honestly in the one sentence: "I wish I had lived in the Athens of Pericles or the Florence of the Medici." But this is not a philosophy; it is a biographical fact about a certain individual. The word "desirable" is not synonymous with "desired by me"; it has some claim, however shadowy, to legislative universality. A theist may say that what is desirable is what God desires, but Nietzsche cannot say this. He could say that he knows what is good by an ethical intuition, but he will not say this, because it sounds too Kantian. What he can say, as an expansion of the word "desirable," is this: "If men will read my works, a certain percentage of them will come to share my desires as regards the organization of society; these men, inspired by the energy and determination which my philosophy will give them, can preserve and restore aristocracy, with themselves as aristocrats or (like me) sycophants of aristocracy. In this way they will achieve a fuller life than they can have as servants of the people."
There is another element in Nietzsche, which is closely akin to the objection urged by "rugged individualists" against trade-unions. In a fight of all against all, the victor is likely to possess certain qualities which Nietzsche admires, such as courage, resourcefulness, and strength of will. But if the men who do not possess these aristocratic qualities (who are the vast majority) band themselves together, they may win in spite of their individual inferiority. In this fight of the collective canaille against the aristocrats, Christianity is the ideological front, as the French Revolution was the fighting front. We ought therefore to oppose every kind of union among the individually feeble, for fear lest their combined power should outweigh that of the individually strong; on the other hand, we ought to promote union among the tough and virile elements of the population. The first step towards the creation of such a union is the preaching of Nietzsche's philosophy. It will be seen that it is not easy to preserve the distinction between ethics and politics.
Suppose we wish--as I certainly do--to find arguments against Nietzsche's ethics and politics, what arguments can we find?
There are weighty practical arguments, showing that the attempt to secure his ends will in fact secure something quite different. Aristocracies of birth are nowadays discredited; the only practicable form of aristocracy is an organization like the Fascist or the Nazi party. Such an organization rouses opposition, and is likely to be defeated in war; but if it is not defeated it must, before long, become nothing but a police State, where the rulers live in terror of assassination, and the heroes are in concentration camps. In such a community faith and honour are sapped by delation, and the would-be aristocracy of supermen degenerates into a clique of trembling poltroons.
These, however, are arguments for our time; they would not have held good in past ages, when aristocracy was unquestioned. The Egyptian government was conducted on Nietzschean principles for several millennia. The governments of almost all large States were aristocratic until the American and the French Revolutions. We have therefore to ask ourselves whether there is any good reason for preferring democracy to a form of government which has had such a long and successful history-or rather, since we are concerned with philosophy, not politics, whether there are objective grounds for rejecting the ethic by which Nietzsche supports aristocracy
The ethical, as opposed to the political, question is one as to sympathy. Sympathy, in the sense of being made unhappy by the sufferings of others, is to some extent natural to human beings; young children are troubled when they hear other children crying. But the development of this feeling is very different in different people. Some find pleasure in the infliction of torture; others, like Buddha, feel that they cannot be completely happy so long as any living thing is suffering. Most people divide mankind emotionally into friends and enemies, feeling sympathy for the former, but not for the latter. An ethic such as that of Christianity or Buddhism has its emotional basis in universal sympathy; Nietzsche's, in a complete absence of sympathy. (He frequently preaches against sympathy, and in this respect one feels that he has no difficulty in obeying his own precepts.) The question is: If Buddha and Nietzsche were confronted, could either produce any argument that ought to appeal to the impartial listener? I am not thinking of political arguments. We can imagine them appearing before the Almighty, as in the first chapter of the Book of Job, and offering advice as to the sort of world He should create. What could either say?
Buddha would open the argument by speaking of the lepers, outcast and miserable; the poor, toiling with aching limbs and barely kept alive by scanty nourishment; the wounded in battle, dying in slow agony; the orphans, ill-treated by cruel guardians; and even the most successful haunted by the thought of failure and death. From all this load of sorrow, he would say, a way of salvation must be found, and salvation can only come through love.
Nietzsche, whom only Omnipotence could restrain from interrupting, would burst out when his turn came: "Good heavens, man, you must learn to be of tougher fibre. Why go about snivelling because trivial people suffer? Or, for that matter, because great men suffer? Trivial people suffer trivially, great men suffer greatly, and great sufferings are not to be regretted, because they are noble. Your ideal is a purely negative one, absence of suffering, which can be completely secured by nonexistence. I, on the other hand, have positive ideals: I admire Alcibiades, and the Emperor Frederick II, and Napoleon. For the sake of such men, any misery is worth while. I appeal to You, Lord, as the greatest of creative artists, do not let Your artistic impulses be curbed by the degenerate fear-ridden maunderings of this wretched psychopath."
Buddha, who in the courts of Heaven has learnt all history since his death, and has mastered science with delight in the knowledge and sorrow at the use to which men have put it, replies with calm urbanity: "You are mistaken, Professor Nietzsche, in thinking my ideal a purely negative one. True, it includes a negative element, the absence of suffering; but it has in addition quite as much that is positive as is to be found in your doctrine. Though I have no special admiration for Alcibiades and Napoleon, I, too, have my heroes: my successor Jesus, because he told men to love their enemies; the men who discovered how to master the forces of nature and secure food with less labour; the medical men who have shown how to diminish disease; the poets and artists and musicians who have caught glimpses of the Divine beatitude. Love and knowledge and delight in beauty are not negations; they are enough to fill the lives of the greatest men that have ever lived."
"All the same," Nietzsche replies, "your world would be insipid. You should study Heraclitus, whose works survive complete in the celestial library. Your love is compassion, which is elicited by pain; your truth, if you are honest, is unpleasant, and only to be known through suffering; and as to beauty, what is more beautiful than the tiger, who owes his splendour to his fierceness? No, if the Lord should decide for your world, I fear we should all die of boredom."
"You might," Buddha replies, "because you love pain, and your love of life is a sham. But those who really love life would be happy as no one can be happy in the world as it is."
For my part, I agree with Buddha as I have imagined him. But I do not know how to prove that he is right by any argument such as can be used in a mathematical or a scientific question. I dislike Nietzsche because he likes the contemplation of pain, because he erects conceit into a duty, because the men whom he most admires are conquerors, whose glory is cleverness in causing men to die. But I think the ultimate argument against his philosophy, as against any unpleasant but internally self-consistent ethic, lies not in an appeal to facts, but in an appeal to the emotions. Nietzsche despises universal love; I feel it the motive power to all that I desire as regards the world. His followers have had their innings, but we may hope that it is coming rapidly to an end.