Frederick Nietzsche
Frederick Nietzsche
prophet of the modern


      "Why so hard?" the kitchen coal once said to the diamond. "After all, are we not close kin?'
      Why so soft? O, my brothers, thus I ask you: are you not after all my brothers?
      Why so soft, so pliant and yielding? Why is there so much denial, self-denial, in your hearts? So little destiny in your eyes?
      And if you do not want to be destinies and inexorable ones, how can you one day triumph with me.
      And if your hardness does not wish to flash and cut and cut through, how can you one day create with me?
      For all creators are hard. And it must seem blessedness to you to impress your hand on millennia as on bronze-harder than bronze, nobler than bronze. Only the noblest is altogether hard.
      This new table, O my bothers, I place over you: become hard!

Frederick Nietzsche
Zarathustra, III .29


"I am absolutely convinced that the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Maidanek were ultimately prepared not in some ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and in the lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers."
Viktor Frankl
The Doctor and the Soul

"[In place of religious belief] Nietzsche rightly perceived that the most likely candidate would be what he called the "Will To Power," which offered a far more comprehensive and in the end more plausible explanation of human behavior than either Marx or Freud. In place of religious belief, there would be secular ideology. Those who had once filled the ranks of the totalitarian clergy would become totalitarian politicians. And, above all, the Will to Power would produce a new kind of messiah, uninhibited by any religious sanctions whatever, and with an unappeasable appetite for controlling mankind. The end of the old order, with an unguided world adrift in a relativistic universe, was a summons to such gangster-statesmen to emerge. They were not slow to make their appearance."
Paul Johnson
Modern Times

Nazi torturer
The SS cultivated and honored the ability to kill human beings en masse without any remorse for the greater glory of the Nazi cause.

      Let us acknowledge unprejudiced how every higher civilization hitherto had originated! Men with a still natural nature, barbarians in every terrible sense of the word, men of prey, still in possession of unbroken strength of will and desire for power, threw themselves upon weaker, more moral, more peaceful races (perhaps trading or cattle-rearing communities), or upon old mellow civilizations in which the vital forces was flickering out in a brilliant fireworks of wit and depravity. At the commencement, the noble casts was always the barbarian caste: their superiority did not consist first of all in their physical, but in their psychical power - they were complete men (which at every point also implies the same as "more complete beasts").

      It is impossible not to recognize at the core of all these aristocratic races the beast of prey; the magnificent blond brute, avidly rampant for spoil and victory; this hidden core needed an outlet from time to time, the beast must get loose again, must return into the wilderness - the Roman, Arabic, German, and Japanese nobility, the Homeric heroes, the Scandinavian Vikings, are all alike in this need... They enjoy their freedom from all social control, they feel that in the wilderness they can give vent with impunity to that tension which is produced by enclosure and imprisonment in the peace of society, they revert to the innocence of the beast-of-prey conscience, like jubilant monsters, who perhaps come from a ghostly bout of murder, arson, rape, and torture, with bravado and a moral equanimity, as though merely some wild student's prank had been played, perfectly convinced that the poets have now an ample theme to sing and celebrate.

Frederick Nietzsche
The Genealogy of Mortals

Holocaust dead
Holocaust victims of Adolf Hitler's Third Reich lay piled on top of one another.

(This correspondence between Rich Geib and John Barich deals with whether or G.W.F. Hegel and Frederick Nietzsche had anything to do with the rise of totalitarian governments in the 20th century.)

"Take but degree away, untune that string,
And hark, what discord follows! each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy:...
Then every thing includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite."
William Shakespeare

Los Angeles, California
April 15, 1995

      Dear John,

      One could say that the most deadly threat a prophet or philosopher runs is the risk of being misunderstood or misinterpreted. And understood in a vacuum, religion is one of the most noble and uplifting of the human discourses, undoubtedly a support and consolation to untold numbers. However, perhaps no other single source has caused more bloodshed and misery in human history. Untold numbers of atrocities have been committed in the name of religion, with the perpetrators firmly convinced that what they were doing was sanctioned in the eyes of God. Perhaps it is a paradox of mankind that so many of the beautiful ideas and moral laws invented by the mind of man have been so corrupted and misshapen in their application in the world of men. Notwithstanding the daily importance of religion to so many, I tend to share the view of Lucretius: "Religion is a disease born of fear and a source of untold misery." And although ideas may be born in the antiseptic world of thought and contemplation, they have consequences out in an imperfect world replete with messiness, strife, and evil.

      I grant you the argument that to personally blame Frederick Nietzsche or G.W.F. Hegel for the sins of 20th century Germany is a mistake, as well as a gross oversimplification. Both were men of letters who surely would have shirked from naked violence and cruelty. Understood in the correct historical context, their philosophies both seek to bring about what they individually saw as a greater good. The Nietzschian "superman" and the Hegelian concept of the unity of the Absolute Idea are both arguments for a mankind that is improved and enlightened. The problem is that these highly sophisticated philosophers and their ideas are to be read and interpreted by men who will see in them what is important to them. In their enactment in the world of man, "pure" ideas are often distorted and used for self-serving purposes. This is a key problem of intellectuals: they lack a common sense in the world outside of the mind, and ideas are all too vulnerable in the context of money, war, and power. In taking thought out of the ordered world of the intellect and trying to enact it in the flawed world of mankind, too often the spirit of the thing is killed with disastrous results. As Pinkerton (in my opinion) accurately states in his article, "Ideas may start in ivory towers, but they have consequences for real people."

      To read Nietzsche is to come under his spell. His peculiar power may come from his fusing the power of the prophet with the epic lyricism of the poet. His writing is pregnant with image and an emotive power that is dangerous for a philosopher and there is a glorification of the heroic and spontaneous which calls to something deep in the primal heart of man the animal. Can we be surprised that so much of what he wrote appealed to the worst in mankind?

Nietzsche called for the Superman. Mussolini and Hitler answered the call. It does not matter that in all probability Nietzsche would have scorned them as perverters of his doctrine, would have opposed them bitterly. It does not even matter that had Nietzsche never written these men would in all probability have come to power much as they did. They have found a use for Nietzsche, a use he probably never intended his words to provide.

Crane Brinton, Nietzsche

As you noted, Nietzsche was an unparalleled master at dissecting what was wrong with European Christianity: how people simply mouthed the slogans without believing in them ("God is dead"). And it is true that his ideas landed like bombs among the comfortable bourgeoisie of the liberal democracies.

      But in attacking so powerfully what was wrong with the "slave morality" of Christianity, Nietzsche opens the way for disaster by glorifying so powerfully a radical individualism and self-assertiveness. A university professor might argue this point by arguing the historical context and author's intent, but I argue that in the real world of mankind - full of brooding souls with animal passions residing just below the veneer of civility - there exists dangerous forces that when not controlled can lead to disaster. Nietzsche must be understood as against Christianity; to see him as ultimately in favor of anything else definitive is to mistake his intent and enter perilous territory. He simply argues the Will to Power, for the unleashing of the Dionysian spirit to run joyfully upon the earth. In real life, this all too often means slaughter and domination. It is precisely the Christian precepts of love of neighbor and humility which serve as a check to the darker side of man. What does this instinct to Power inflame in the breast of man? The best or the worst? To what end should power ultimately serve? Nietzsche does not directly address these questions, although one may assume and draw inferences. I argue that in real life such fever-pitched emotional pleas for assertiveness and unbridled individualism speak directly to what can be worst in man, unleashing his animal side unchecked. You mentioned that a Christian country (the United States) defeated a Nazi Germany embodying such rabidly aggressive values. But you forget the Germans were fighting almost the whole world. And they almost won.

      Frederick Nietzsche was a man of books and universities who grew up surrounded by doting female love in a strictly pious Christian household. Professionally, he was first a university professor and then a recluse writer/philosopher who never had a family, nor love affair worthy of the name. In short, he never was much of an active participator in the world of men. So much of what he writes glorifies the Dionysian aspect of mankind, the man of destiny impressing his will upon the wax of history. This is one thing in the sanitary world of pure thought, and quite another in the world of politics, war, and power. Nietzsche never served as a soldier, never killed anyone, nor watched anyone die a violent death. If he had, he may have been more cautious in extolling the virtues of the strong and the powerful (understanding better the price and the pain). And the feverish and intemperate tone of Nietzsche's prose is as important as what he says - can people hardly be blamed for misinterpreting him?

      The "superman", in real life, finds its more likely incarnation in Napoleon in the 19th century and more dynamic dictators in the 20th - an age, in part due to the prophet Nietzsche, where traditional ideas of history and justice were turned on their head and everything was permitted. The Good, the True, and the Beautiful were cast aside with contempt as questions of power and politics became pervasive and all-important. The modern era began with the person of Napoleon, claims French historian Jean-Richard Bloch, and it is an age defined by its unlimitedness, its concept of power without religious or moral counterweight. It has seen a vigorous rejection of reason and liberalism and a consequent return to the older and darker worldview of Hobbes where mankind suffers "a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death." I look at the old black and white newsreels from the inter-war period of the 1930s punctuated with speechifying jackbooted thugs gesticulating wildly appearing to bark gunpowder, and other machine-like leather jacketed revolutionaries grimly promising death to "class enemies" everywhere around the world, and my hearts sinks through my shoes. Humanity seemed on the verge of plunging into a new Dark Age of ubiquitous violence and cruelty! Was this progress?

      When I read Nietzsche, I am reminded of watching a training film in the Sheriff's Academy where a prison gangmember tells of stabbing another inmate to death. Standing triumphantly over the dying man and watching his life blood flow out, the gangmember seems to transcend his own mortality: "Man, I felt like a God!" Flush with the power to take a life, to play God on earth, unrestrained by moral constraints, indomitable and immortal; when Nietzsche preaches so eloquently in favor of the Will to Power in his writings, he preaches precisely to this aspect of humanity in real life. Once more: to read Nietzche is all too often to fall under his strange spell; his prose possesses a beauty and power unrelated to the logic of his philosophy, it being so strident with the spirit of poetry. As a philosopher Nietzche writes perhaps too well for his own good - one is captivated by his passion and emotion almost more than by his reasoning. Nietzsche is spiritually akin to Homer, praising the mighty Odysseus with Priam and his family murdered at his feet. Yet no matter what the reason or need, for those possessing a moral sense and an active conscience the killing of another human being is always a grave and tragic thing.

      To question religion and the existence of God is one thing. To take it a step farther and call into question any morality we may have inherited from our Judeo-Christian heritage is another more dangerous step which has led to barbarism and spectacular crimes in the 20th century, in my opinion. While rejecting and attempting to destroy the "degenerate" bourgeois order of the late 19th century, Nietzsche never put much up in way of an alternative. Like the baby-boomers of America in the 1960s, Nietzsche broke down traditions without establishing anything in their place. Nihilism was the result, and new unscrupulous forces rushed in to fill the vacuum. As Walter Lippman observed, "When men can no longer be theists, they must, if they are civilized, become humanists." With his call for mankind to transcend its "weakness," can Nietzsche call himself a humanist?

      I agree with T.S. Eliot when he talks of a certain "wisdom of our ancestors"; and we reject en masse this wisdom at our own peril, in my opinion. Realistic and effective control of evil and disorder, Milton wrote in Aeropagitica, depends heavily on "those unwritten, or at least unconstraining laws of virtuous education, religious and civil nurture." This sense of tradition and custom, as Plato recognized, are "the bonds and ligaments of the commonwealth, the pillars and sustainers of every written statue." When a society cuts itself off from the past by seeking its transcendence, it stands poised to plunge into the abyss. As the French and Russian Revolutions, Nazi dictatorship, and many other instances of political violence in the last two hundred years have shown, the dream of burning everything down to build up a "new society" or "new mankind" on its ashes has proven a nightmare.

      As for my part, I will love man as I find him: both hard and soft, good and evil, infinitely complex and ambivalent - and not something to be "overcome." And unlike Nietzsche, I have seen people die violent deaths in pain, screaming and crying. I have seen many die this way - as well as meet the people who murdered them in what might be the most humbling and sobering experiences of my entire life. For this reason, I cannot help when I read Nietzsche to feel a certain disgust and contempt. We are all flawed and frail creatures, including Nietzsche. Christian compassion and charity starts from exactly this point of reckoning.

      Also a university professor, G.W.F. Hegel suffers from some of the same defects as Nietzsche. Hegel was not the first nor the last intellectual to see in the victories of Napoleon over the old aristocratic order of Europe the dawning of a new age defined by the principles of liberty, fraternity, and egalitarianism enunciated during the French Revolution. And in the context of late-18th century Germany full of tiny backward and decadent fiefdoms, the phenomenon of a powerful unified State under the direction of an enlightened ruler seemed a desirable idea. Hegel held that the Enlightenment principles of reason, liberty, and freedom could be propagated upon a superstitious and ignorant world by a powerful centralized government animated by beneficent motivations. It is easy to see the superficial attractiveness of this specious reasoning.

      Yet it is well to examine what happened to so many of the Romantics after the fall of Napoleon: the sense of betrayal by embittered writers and artists disillusioned by Napoleon's crowning himself Emperor, his violating the principles of the French revolution, and Europe left yet again bloodied and in rubble in the name of tyranny and a greed for power. No matter the casuistry or noble intentions of his thought, Hegel is fundamentally flawed in constructing a theory of history placing the State in so central a place in the unraveling of world history. Hegel argues for a time in the future when conflicting Ideas (the "dialectic") will end in a fusion of the "Absolute Idea" - a sort of unity of all rational ideas equaling the totality of all human experience and knowledge. Truly only a paradise that a philosopher could love, Hegel writes of a type of utopia brought about under the aegis of the Nation-State where mankind is to be united as a whole in the Absolute Idea. The heaven of Hegel is to be a state of mind where reason and pure thought reign supreme, and the mind of man is finally unified in the One. Hegel rejects individualism and political democracy as producing alienation and a lack of community in man; the important is the culture of a race ("volksgeist") embodied in the State during a particular stage in the unfolding of human history moving towards the One. "All the worth which the human being possesses in all spiritual reality, he possesses only through the State...," Hegel writes, "The basis of the State is the power of reason actualizing itself as Will." Wrong. In a totalitarian country, the basis of the State is naked power - the propagation and corroboration of power, and the accumulation of more power. In defining the State as the principal actor in the flow of history and the key to a future union with the Absolute Idea, Hegel makes the argument in real life for totalitarian government.

      More damaging still is the powerful influence Hegel had on Karl Marx and his subsequent development of communism, having such profoundly damaging effects on world history. How many people have been slaughtered by communist state organs under the ideological justification that the Party need perform its historical role in bringing about the end of the human "dialectic" ushering in the ensuing paradise that is consequently promised? How many millions of Communist Party faithful were weaned on the sustenance of "scientific socialism" and "objectively historical laws," deriving the germ of its idea from the philosophy of Hegel? I am not arguing that Hegel is directly responsible for the crimes of communism throughout history. I am simply arguing that through naiveté and a lack of common sense Hegel indirectly helped to construe a political system whose natural application in the real world was a poison the world has only just begun to expunge from its system. Hegel was in effect one of the first modern constructors of the totalitarian ideology. The mixing of an impersonal ideology with the awesome power of an aggressive modern State was an idea unfortunately whose time had truly arrived in the 19th and 20th centuries. With perfect 20/20 hindsight, today we see clearly that in giving such unlimited power to the State we are paving the way to unmitigated disaster.

      It is through the practical genius of such political thinkers as John Locke and the Baron de Montesquieu that was conceived a State with divided powers and checks and balances. It is an ideology of limited government that is structurally designed to resist tyranny with certain "inalienable rights" encoded in law. Encapsulated in the United States Constitution, this has provided a success in real life that none of the totalitarian governments has enjoyed. Enlightenment Anglo-Saxon and French political thought moved to praise and protect the individual and the minority rights of citizens. It is the freedom from government oppression and tyranny.

      On the other hand, the Germanic romantic thinkers such as Hegel, Fichte, Schiller all stressed the importance of the individual's duty to the collective. Individual success is defined in the success of the collective, and concepts such as obedience, loyalty, and devotion are idolized. The highest calling an individual has is to the State, in serving the needs of the State; it is the freedom to obey the State. They do not concern themselves with individuals as such, but rather look at nations as individual actors with their respective roles in the historical process. Nations and cultures are the important organisms of this world view, possessing their own unique personalities and psychologies. Not surprisingly, the premier people - or "volk" - was the Germanic one, supposedly possessing a special role in the unfolding of world history. A role, of course, they did play - albeit a bloody and ignominious one. How far is it from such early Prussian nationalist rhetoric to Adolf Hitler and his creed: "Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer?" (One people, one empire, one leader.) Is Hitler an aberration, or is he a uniquely German creation?

      You wrote to me, "A democratic state may have evolved in Germany if not for its late unification and tragic leap into World War I..." Where are the intellectual roots for a liberal democracy in German intellectual thought? Was democracy ever very strong in Germany before the end of World War II? Extreme nationalism in the 19th century was not a purely German phenomenon, and was powerful throughout Europe. But the all too common outgrowth of nationalism, totalitarianism, found powerful ideological justifications in such early 19th century German romantic thinkers like Hegel. I have no doubt that Hegel would have been shocked and dismayed to see the legacy of his philosophy. Yet it is precisely Hegel's flawed judgment in calling for the establishment of an all-powerful State that helped to create a basis for subsequent political ideologies such as communism and fascism. And it is directly the proliferation of such ultra-authoritarian States that has precipitated so much of the rape of the individual by the collective that so besmirches our age. As George Orwell so poignantly put it in his quintessentially 20th century novel, "1984": "If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face --- forever."

      "Conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius," wrote historian Edward Gibbon of another philosopher (Mohammed), just a short period before the rise of Napoleon and the dawn of the Modern Age. It is from the realm of pure thought that man has sought to understand the movement of the stars overhead, unleash the power of the atom, and conceive of a moral law which separates us from the animals. Yet the ordered and logical world of pure thought is much different from the world one finds in the society of man. All too often in formulating their theses, intellectuals (like Nietzsche and Hegel) have come to show themselves as intensely brilliant in the former and spectacularly ignorant in the latter.



"Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without... men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters."

Edmund Burke

from Betrand Russell's "A History of Western Philosophy"

"But egoistic passions, when once let loose, are not easily brought again into subjection to the needs of society. Christianity had succeeded, to some extent, in taming the Ego, but economic, political, and intellectual causes stimulated revolt against the Churches, and the romantic movement brought the revolt into the sphere of morals. By encouraging a new lawless Ego it made social cooperation impossible, and left its disciples faced with the alternative of anarchy or despotism. Egoism, at first, made men expect from others a parental tenderness; but when they discovered, with indignation, that others had their own Ego, the disappointed desire for tenderness turned to hatred and violence. Man is not a solitary animal, and so long as social life survives, self-realization cannot be the supreme principle of ethics."

Buddha versus Nietzsche
as envisioned by Betrand Russell