Reading Nietzsche: The Will to Power

One of the things anti-Nietzsche people love to throw in my face all the time is the idea of the “will to power,” which, they say, proves that Nietzsche really was as bad as his sister wanted him to be (for her own twisted benefit). My go-to response is, I think quite sensically, to send these usually well-intentioned folks some actual text. Take this snippet, for example, from a draft for a preface to the oft-cited work, penned in 1885:

A book for thinking, nothing else: it belongs to those to whom thinking is a delight, nothing else. That it is written in German is untimely, to say the least: I wish I had written it in French so that it might not appear to be a confirmation of the aspirations of the German Reich. The Germans of today are not thinkers any more: something else delights and impresses them. The will to power as a principle might be intelligible to them. Among Germans today the least thinking is done. But who knows? In two generations one will no longer require the sacrifice involved in any nationalistic squandering of power, and in hebetation. (Formerly, I wished I had not written my Zarathustra in German.)

The fact that The Will to Power was never published by Nietzsche—and, indeed, wasn’t even a full work, but instead a collection of cobbled-together notes, written by Nietzsche as he descended (or ascended?) into insanity, and marketed by his sister as a philosophical justification for proto-fascist German nationalism (as if it needed one)—illustrates that citing it, let alone citing just the title of it, is not a very substantive critique.

But even if it had been finished and published by Nietzsche himself, it would’ve been a work about personal will, about power over the paralysis of despair, and about the constant need to laugh at one’s self—and not, as is inferred incorrectly by the title, a work about seizing political power as a party and ruling with capriciousness and impunity just for the sake of it, or, for that matter, a work about using some kind of Machiavellian playbook to manipulate people in one’s climb to the top.

Here’s one of the last official things Nietzsche wrote while “lucid,” from the end of Nietzsche Contra Wagner, written in 1888 and published seven years later:

No, if we who have recovered [from the “educated” class’ version of art] still need art, it is another kind of art—a mocking, light, fleeting, divinely untroubled, divinely artificial art, which, like a pure flame, licks into unclouded skies. Above all, an art for artists, for artists only! We know better afterward what above all is needed for this: cheerfulness, any cheerfulness, my friends. There are a few things we now know too well, we knowing ones: oh, how we learn now to forget well, and to be good at not knowing, as artists!

When’s the last time you heard a sociopathic wanna-be dictator insisting on the need for cheerfulness? That’s right: never. And contrary to popular belief (which would be a good name for a Nietzsche biography, come to think of it), Nietzsche was not even a statist, let alone a German statist. He espoused a sort of Dionysian (and, later, Camusian) revolt: a defiant search for real, human meaning in the indifference of the universe and the absurdity of our existential condition, a search that should be fueled by spontaneity, wonder, dancing, laughing, and cheerfulness.


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