Nietzsche Still Influences
By Roger Kimball
UPI: Entertainment and Media News
NEW YORK, March 5 (UPI) -- Of all 19th-century thinkers, perhaps
only Karl Marx surpassed Friedrich Nietzsche in his influence
on the 20th century. And not even Marx has exercised the intellectual
and spiritual fascination commanded by his unhappy countryman.
As more and more of the political regimes erected under the banner
of Marxism repudiate Marx's ideas, it becomes ever clearer that
much of what makes the modern world modern also makes it Nietzschean.
Nietzsche's glorification of power and his contention that "there
are altogether no moral facts" are grim signatures of the age.
So, too, is his enthusiasm for violence, cruelty and the irrational.
This is not to say that Nietzsche, 1844-1900, would approve of
the societies that his ideas have shaped so profoundly. On the
contrary, he would regard both the proliferation of democracy
and the triumph of mass media and popular culture with a distaste
bordering on horror.
He would abominate the widespread attack on rank, hierarchy,
and social distinction; the political emancipation of women in
particular he would reject as (to quote from his book "The Genealogy
of Morals") "one of the worst developments of the general uglification
Even the casual atheism, relativism, and hedonism of our time
-- even, that is, behavior and attitudes that might seem (in Nietzsche's
arresting phrase) "beyond good and evil" -- would earn his contempt
precisely for being adopted casually.
It was a first principle with this enemy of first principles
to make nothing easy for himself -- or for us.
With his famous announcement "God is dead," Nietzsche foresaw
the rise of anomie, the spreading sense of angst and meaninglessness,
what the Czech novelist Milan Kundera called "the unbearable lightness
of being." All this Nietzsche diagnosed under the heading of nihilism.
One of Nietzsche's greatest fears was creeping mediocrity. If
the "bermensch" represented his ideal -- the ideal of a being
strong enough to create his own values, strong enough to live
without the consolation of traditional morality -- the opposite
of the bermensch was the timid creature Nietzsche called "the
"What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?"
thus asks the last man, and he blinks.
"We have invented happiness," say the last men, and they blink.
They have left the regions where it was hard to live, for one
needs warmth. One still loves one's neighbor and rubs against
him, for one needs warmth.
One still works, for work is a form of entertainment. But one
is careful lest the entertainment become too harrowing.
No shepherd and one herd! Everybody wants the same, everybody
is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse.
The last man, Nietzsche predicted, would be one response to nihilism.
But the full implications of the death of God had yet to unfold.
"The event itself is far too great, too distant, too remote from
the multitude's capacity for comprehension even for the tidings
of it to be thought of having arrived as yet."
And when they did arrive, what certainties would not suddenly
become dispensable! -- "for example, the whole of our European
To say that Nietzsche welcomed this development would be only
half true. He thought that it meant liberation, yes: with the
death of God, Nietzsche believed that man would be free to create
values that accord more generously with human nature than do inherited
But Nietzsche also knew that the loss of religious faith also
threatened man with a terrifying rootlessness. What happens when
"the highest values devalue themselves"? Who or what will take
the place of God? What prodigies will fill the vacuum left by
a faltering morality? What unfathomed comforts will man devise
for himself in the absence of faith?
To a large extent, Nietzsche's philosophy is an attempt to live
with these questions: to probe the loss, the temptations, the
opportunities that they imply.
Nietzsche also seemed to believe that he had fashioned a novel
response to nihilism. It is not always clear, however, that his
answers are usefully distinguishable from the problems that they
are meant to address.
Nietzsche liked to think of himself as "untimely." He believed
that his solitary wanderings and meditations had brought him insights
far too advanced and devastating for most of his contemporaries.
And indeed, some of Nietzsche's writings on truth, language,
and morality seem extraordinarily prescient -- or at least extraordinarily
But Nietzsche was also very much a product of his time -- strikingly
"timely" as well as untimely.
His apotheosis of art, his "immoralism," his celebration of instinct
at the expense of reason, his attack on the middle-class, religion,
etc.: all this was part of the heady intellectual atmosphere of
the fin de sicle, in England and America as well as in France
Even as Nietzsche was suggesting that "to tell the truth is to
lie according to a fixed convention," so, for example, Oscar Wilde
was bemoaning the "decay of lying" and warning readers not to
be led astray "into the paths of virtue."
It is worth remembering, however, that attacks on virtue are
most attractive when virtue remains well established, just as
the homage to power, violence, cruelty, and the like seems amusingly
bracing only so long as one doesn't suffer from them oneself.
In 1887, such glorification of violence and "the voluptuousness
of victory and cruelty" may have been merely piquant; by the 1930s,
when the Nazis appropriated Nietzsche's rhetoric as a garland
for their murderous deeds, it had become impossible to view such
It is one of the curious features of Nietzsche's mature thought
that he wished to question the value of truth while upholding
honesty as his one remaining virtue.
Traditionally, the moral virtues have been all of a piece. For
example, Aquinas observes that "nearly all are agreed in saying"
that the moral virtues are interconnected, that "discernment belongs
to prudence, rectitude to justice," and so on.
It is worth asking whether honesty, sundered from the family
of virtues, remains a virtue -- whether, in the end, it even remains
honest. Untempered by other virtues, honesty functions not so
much to reveal truth as to expose it. Is that honest?
Nietzsche clung to honesty after abandoning the other virtues
because it allowed him to fashion the most ruthless instrument
of interrogation imaginable.
Difficulty, not truth, became his criterion of value.
Nietzsche never tired of pointing out that the demands of traditional
morality fly in the face of life. One might say, Yes, and that
is precisely why morality is so valuable: it acknowledges that
man's allegiance is not only to life but also to what ennobles
life -- that, indeed, life itself is not the highest court of
But for Nietzsche the measure of nobility is the uninhibited
pulse of life: hence his penchant for biological and physiological
metaphors, his invocation of "ascending" and "descending" forms
of art and life. He defines the good as that which enhances the
feeling of life. If "to see others suffer does one good, to make
others suffer even more," then violence and cruelty may have to
be granted the patent of morality and enlisted in the aesthete's
palette of diversions.
In more or less concentrated form, Nietzsche's ideal is also
modernity's ideal. It is an ideal that subordinates morality to
power in order to transform life into an aesthetic spectacle.
It promises freedom and exaltation. But as the German poet Novalis
pointed out some years before Nietzsche, such an ideal is really
the ultimate attainment of the barbarian.
(Roger Kimball is managing editor of the New Criterion.)
Copyright 2001 by United Press International.
All rights reserved.
CBN IS HERE FOR YOU!
Are you seeking answers in life? Are you hurting?
Are you facing a difficult situation?
A caring friend will be there to pray with you in your time of need.