Reading Nietzsche: Enemy of the State

Due to his sister’s fabrications (and to the fact that people don’t read his work), Nietzsche is often thought of as not just a statist but as a particularly pro-German one. Most assume the “will to power” (which he never wrote) is to be understood in a Machiavellian, partisan manner: those who rise to the top of the political hierarchy deserve to be there, and those states with the strongest military deserve consequently to rule the world. But as with many things assigned to Nietzsche, this idea couldn’t be further from what he actually wrote.

For example, in writing about the worth of the contest in classical Greek society, Nietzsche extolled not the domination of one over many but the continual rotation and renewal of the struggle to be the victor, writing in Homer’s Contest:

“Why should no one be the best? Because then the contest would come to an end and the eternal source of life for the Hellenic state would be endangered. …Originally this curious institution is not a safety valve but a means of stimulation: the individual who towers above the rest is eliminated so that the contest of forces may reawaken–an idea that is hostile to the ‘exclusiveness’ of genius in the modern sense and presupposes that in the natural order of things there are aways several geniuses who spur each other to action, even as they hold each other within the limits of measure. That is the core of the Hellenic notion of the contest: it abominates the rule of one and fears its dangers; it desires, as a protection against the genius, another genius.”

The idea is never to dominate, but rather to constantly challenge oneself to improve—not by force, but by fair play and open competition. The will to power is thus a striving for self mastery, not some plan for global domination.

Here are some other choice quotes from Nietzsche on this topic:

“Deification of success is truly commesurate with human meanness.”

“The political defeat of Greece was the greatest failure of culture: for it has brought with it the revolting theory that one can foster culture only when one is armed to the teeth and wears boxing gloves. The rise of Christianity was the second great failure: raw power there and the dull intellect here became victors over the aristocratic genius among the nations. Being a Hellenophile means: being an enemy of raw power and dull intellects.”

“And perhaps a great day will come when a people, distinguished by wars and victories and by the highest development of a military order and intelligence, and accustomed to make the heaviest sacrifice for these things, will exclaim of its own free will, ‘We break the sword,’ and will smash its entire military establishment down to its lowest foundations.”

“Rather perish than hate and fear, and twice rather perish than make oneself hated and feared–this must someday become the highest maxim for every single commonwealth too.”

“Let us consider the contribution of culture in general made by Germans in the first half of this century with their spiritual labor, and let us first take the German philosophers. They have reverted to the first and most ancient stage of speculation, for they have been satisfied with concepts instead of explanations, like the thinkers of dreamy ages; they revived a prescientific kind of philosophy.”

Deutschland Deutschland über alles, this is the end of German philosophy.”

“The stronger the state, the fainter is humanity.”

So yes, one might rightly say that he was an elitist, but to say he was pro-state, or even pro-German, is quite a stretch. I think the most immediate and kindest critique that Nietzsche would make of any state is that it’s ultimately boring in its forced homogeneity. Nietzsche was at heart an enemy of conformity, after all.

Why is this critique important today? Well as the state crumbles (bridges collapse, roads go into disrepair, water systems fail, etc.) we will need to have ready-made communities of support in order to handle complex tasks and uphold public health and safety. Shit, we will need these networks just to be able to find food, since most people believe that food comes from super markets and isn’t affected by seasons. The more people begin to become disinvested in the delusion of the all-powerful state, and the more they seek and practice alternative systems, the better off we’ll be when water ceases to run out of the tap on command. Nietzsche was/is, as usual, challenging his readers to not take the nation-state as the default, since it’s just as arbitrary and coercive as the feudal manor or the provincial castle.

Rome still exists in the minds of people, and indeed, many people think the US is just a modern incarnation of the same empire. The literal foundations of this empire are weakening (Roman concrete was stronger than our own is today, ironically), but the danger is that the ideological foundations will remain steadfast, even in the face of patent evidence of decline—and of ecological catastrophe. In light of that danger, it’s important to constanstly remind people that there are individual plants older than civilization, and that our state, like all states before it, will eventually fail. The difference is that when our state fails, it’ll take all other states—and most of the living planet—down with it. For a chance of any humans surviving to exist, we must begin now: doing both the mental and physical work needed to see it through.

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One thought on “Reading Nietzsche: Enemy of the State

  1. Pingback: Reading Nietzsche: On Fires, Literal and Figurative | Coming Soon: A Vast Desert

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