“First published in Italy, [Nietzsche, The Aristocratic Rebel] has finally been translated into English by Gregor Benton and released as part of the Historical Materialism Book Series with Haymarket Books.”
“The great majority of men have no right to life, and serve only to disconcert the elect among our race; I do not yet grant the unfit that right. There are even unfit peoples.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will To Power
1886 work Beyond Good and Evil, which had an effect that is something close to what I imagine getting struck by lightning must feel like. Here was someone who not only spoke from the gut but seemed to delight in undermining or even lampooning everything I had hitherto believed and considered sacred. Not only that, Nietzsche did it with a frankness that put to shame all the dry scholasticisms I had begun to believe was philosophy’s house style.ike many of his readers, I came to Nietzsche young and eager. I was 18 years old, was wavering in my Catholic faith, and wanted something that spoke to my (admittedly myopic) yearning for a sense of meaning. Philosophy seemed like the cure, but flipping ignorantly through a few books by Descartes, Aristotle, and Hegel did not do the trick. Then I picked up Friedrich Nietzsche’s
Here was a thinker whose energy and vitality seemed to leap from page after page of sparkling aphorisms and profound thought. Imagine my surprise then to find out that Nietzsche was also a favorite thinker of some of the most sinister figures and political movements of the 20th century. Reading Walter Kaufmann’s apologias, where he pointed out the many ways Nazi and far-right authors distorted his thought, temporarily settled the conscience. Like too many of Nietzsche’s readers, my eyes became trained to glance over the more bombastic and seemingly unworthy passages where he waxed nostalgic about slavery, described going to women with a whip, or dismissed the vast majority of humankind as little better than herd animals. Brought up in an academic environment where he was touted as the godfather to post-structuralist critiques of power, my Nietzsche was somewhere between a metaphysically inclined but mostly apolitical individualist and a radical pluralist.
Domenico Losurdo’s epoch-making 2002 book Nietzsche, the Aristocratic Rebel: Intellectual Biography and Critical Balance-Sheet is the necessary corrective to these naïve interpretations. First published in Italy, it has finally been translated into English by Gregor Benton and released as part of the Historical Materialism Book Series with Haymarket Books. The book provoked substantial controversy when it was first released, but it now appears prophetic in anticipating the recent wave of works reinterpreting Nietzsche’s reactionary politics—including Malcolm Bull’s 2014 book Anti-Nietzsche and Ronald Beiner’s 2018 book Dangerous Minds: Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the Return of the Far Right.
All of these authors insist we not indulge what Losurdo, who died in 2018, calls the “hermeneutics of innocence” by simply assuming, or perhaps insisting, that Nietzsche did not mean what he said when he revered “caste order, the most supreme, domineering law” and contended the lower castes need not even be educated since they were fit only for hard labor or even slavery. These authors present us with a Nietzsche who was very far from being a light hearted bohemian amoralist or even an existentially-withdrawn analyst of nihilistic secularism. Their Nietzsche is a thoroughly political animal, who saw modern democracy, socialism, and the more humanitarian forms of liberalism as signs of decadent decline emerging from the carcass of Christianity’s leveling impulse. Not content with mere conservatism, only an “aristocratic radicalism” would suffice to combat the fallenness of the modern world. This Nietzsche is naturally one who is far less friendly and deeply more disturbing than the joyful dancer many of us like to imagine; however, over 1,000 pages, Losurdo makes a devastating case that he was closer to the real deal, and it is time for us to get over it.
Nietzsche’s Reception and the “Hermeneutics of Innocence”
Like all great philosophers, Nietzsche is an engine for thought, and consequently there are many different takes on his work. Unfortunately, aside from two brief essays included in an appendix, Losurdo rarely engages with other interpretations and reconstructions of Nietzsche head on, preferring to stick as close to the primary texts and the scholarship around them as possible. For our purposes, we can discuss three broad interpretive approaches, which broadly align with the narrative Losurdo wishes to convey.
During his own life, Nietzsche’s works did not sell, and he was widely seen as a “has-been,” who threw away a sparkling career as a philologist to peddle unscholarly books of aphorisms whose grandstanding tone seemed increasingly removed from reality. But very quickly Nietzsche’s work became famous—so famous that copies of his 1883 work Thus Spoke Zarathustra were given to German soldiers during the First World War to inspire them. His work was especially well received on the far-right, where he seemed to offer the first or at least best intellectual ammunition against burgeoning progressive movements which did not rely on turning to increasingly discredited throne and altar conservatism. This culminated with his appropriation by the Nazis, with film director Leni Riefenstahl famously depicting Adolf Hitler as a kind of modern day Zarathustra descending from the clouds by airplane in her 1935 film Triumph of the Will. Consequently, Nietzsche’s work was widely disdained or discredited in liberal countries as proto-Nazi propaganda. Bertrand Russell’s plithy dismissal of Nietzsche’s philosophy as boiling down to King Lear’s declaration that he “will do such things—What they are, yet I know not, but they shall be—The terrors of the earth” is representative.
This take was obviously deeply problematic, particularly since it ignored the many parts of Nietzsche’s work that endorsed pan-Europeanism and were critical of German nationalism and anti-Semitism. In the mid-20th century, thanks largely to the spread of existentialism in Europe and North America, Nietzsche was depoliticized and transformed into one of the founding figures of the movement. Walter Kaufmann’s seminal translations of his books into English, along with his influential monograph resisting political appropriation and defending Nietzsche as first and foremost a kind of existential psychologist, is just one obvious example. One still sees continuous echoes of this interpretation, for instance in the work of Jordan Peterson, whose popular self-help books largely present Nietzsche as offering a psychological response to the problem of nihilism in a post-religious world.
By the 1960s, however, another, more political Nietzsche emerged—not one he, himself, would have liked. This was the Nietzsche of the post-structuralist turn, who influenced Jean-François Lyotard, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida. Each of them found in Nietzsche’s writings various intellectual tools to criticize; they deconstructed and mocked the pretensions of grandiose “meta-narratives” and discourses which sought to present themselves as timeless, universal, and objectively valid. Typically the goal—rarely made explicit (these were post-structuralists, after all)—was to provide a kind of negative support to progressive anti-moralism, which resisted the efforts of social conservatives and liberals to justify the suppression of dissent and the marginalization of difference. This would have the effect of loosening rigid modes of thinking and creating more space for distinct and culturally-rich forms of life to resist the disciplinary homogenizing of modernity.
As was mentioned, it was some fusion of the second and third Nietzsche that many of us were brought up with, and many of his interpreters went to great lengths to criticize or even dismiss the far-right take as borderline nonsensical. This transformed Nietzsche into an apolitical existentialist at worst and an idiosyncratic progressive fellow traveller at best. But as Losurdo points out, this involved shutting one’s eyes to the fact that Nietzsche frequently referenced political and social issues in his work, and it was almost always with the intention of criticizing hated egalitarian movements and calling for a radical retrenchment of social hierarchies. This is ironic not only because it transforms Nietzsche into just the kind of vanilla humanist he would have despised, but also because it runs counter to his insistence on treating other authors with a probing suspicion and tough-mindedness Nietzsche’s own interpreters seem to lack.
Understanding Aristocratic Radicalism
Losurdo interprets Nietzsche’s politics as a kind of “aristocratic radicalism,” citing the philosopher’s approving characterization of his thought along these lines by a friend, as well as his consistent praise of caste, aristocracy, and hierarchization. Indeed, Losurdo notes that Nietzsche held to these convictions from the very beginning of his intellectual life, when he signed up to fight in the Franco-Prussian war. Initially embracing the Second Reich as an antidote to the influence of perennially revolutionary France, Nietzsche became ever more disgusted by the German Empire’s concessions to militant democratic and even socialist movements.
This convinced Nietzsche that the Germans lacked the stomach for the kind of full threaded aristocratic radicalism he wanted. He was also increasingly suspicious of the conservative effort to defend the Ancien Régime through appealing to Christian traditionalism. Catholic reactionaries like Joseph de Maistre traced the intellectual origins of modernist egalitarianism to Descartes and to the insistence that all human beings were equally rational beings capable of thinking critically for themselves. But Nietzsche, ever a thinker motivated by his nostrils, smelled something fouler and became convinced that its deepest roots, in fact, lay in Christian teachings—culminating with socialism or “the residue of Christianity and Rousseau in a de-Christianized world.” He gave a number of sophisticated philosophical explanations for this position; one of the most important that Losurdo draws our attention to is the leveling egalitarianism of Christian metaphysics, which held that all human beings are equal before the throne of God. But, of course, his most infamous argument is a genealogy of decline from antiquity, defined by the health and nobility of aristocratic metaphysics, to the slave revolt of Christianity, which inverted all the noble qualities through a resentful effort to present the hated superior man as somehow not just frightening but wicked and sinful. According to Nietzsche, these same resentful pathologies lay at the root of the modern revolutionary period, which gradually sought to erode all distinctions of class and status down to the same mediocre level.
What makes Losurdo’s take especially enlightening is how it compels us to interpret Nietzsche’s historicism and perspectivism in fresh political lights. For a long time, the dynamics of our interminable culture war seemed to set a militantly universalistic political right against an almost cheerfully particularistic and skeptical left. Seen from this perspective, it is easy to understand why the author of “On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense,” who described truth as nothing more than a “moving army of metaphors,” might be taken as a radical thinker. And indeed he was; however, as Losurdo reminds us, it was a radicalism of the right. Nietzsche associated the leveling impulse of modern egalitarian movements, from socialism to democracy, with a kind of secularized Christian impulse to tear down the superior man who shines in his specificity.
Seen in this light, the French revolutionaries’ arguments on behalf of universal reason and emancipation make more sense. Conceived as universal, reason is possessed by everyone, which consequently undercuts the argument that anyone deserves more status or power over the other. This is an argument whose roots could be traced back even to Plato, whose thought Nietzsche took as the basis for Christianity or “Platonism for the masses.” In the Meno, Plato demonstrates how even a slave shared an a priori understanding of basic geometry with more intelligent human beings and so was entitled to a degree of dignity. By contrast, Nietzsche insists on the fundamental differences in human ability, taste, and, consequently, worth.
Through critiquing reason and reducing questions of value to aesthetics and psychology, Nietzsche was able to insist that the yearning for equality was just one, particularly crass, value system among others. By then pathologizing it as flowing from resentment, Nietzsche could present the egalitarian impulse as not only a faux universality propping itself up pretentiously as reasonable but also as a kind of sickness belonging to the lowest dregs of society.
Sadly, one of the weaknesses of Losurdo’s otherwise expert analysis is not following through with this insight and comparing Nietzsche’s anti-universalism to comparable strands of reactionary thought. There are some fascinating sentences where Losurdo compares Nietzsche to Edmund Burke and to de Maistre, who also uncoincidentally decried the emergence of mass society and the loss of particularity to the herd. But these are few and far between. Nevertheless, he reminds us that the clichés of today’s political dynamics—with a post-modern and particularistic left pitted against a militantly universalistic right—are just that and, in fact, run contrary to the typical configurations seen in intellectual history.
This is very clear now when we see the rise of distinctly post-modern conservative figures such as former President Donald Trump. Aristocratic radicalism shared with Foucault and Lyotard a disdain for grand narratives and an interest in contrarian ways of life but insisted that this would be the purview of the few at best. The majority were fit only for servitude, and indeed Nietzsche claimed they may even be happier that way. To be a genuinely free spirit was the entitlement of the rarefied and particular man. This also demonstrates why Nietzsche tended to pathologize and aphoristically disdain his philosophical and political opponents rather than engage in a scholarly argument point by point. The superior man does not descend to argue with the herd or even grant it the right to complain.
Losurdo’s book is not without serious problems. As I mentioned, its tendency to be eagle-eyed in focusing on primary texts does mean the book compiles a mountain of textual evidence to make its case. But it would have been nice for him to take some time to situate the discussion in a broader political context through more comparisons between Nietzsche and other right-wing thinkers or, on the flip side, spending more time breaking down what is wrong with the specific “innocent” interpretations of Nietzsche Losurdo dislikes. The book also does not do much to explain how right-wing political movements appropriated and reinterpreted Nietzsche’s work in the future and which of these interpretations were true to the spirit of his thought.
And, finally, Losurdo draws some disturbing parallels between the anti-egalitarianism or aristocratic radicalism and the more elitist forms of liberals advanced by figures like John Locke and Bernard Mandeville. This challenges the interpretation of Nietzsche as an illiberal thinker in an interesting way since it implies that he was, in fact, being true to the spirit of a certain kind of liberal individualism committed to freedom for some but despotism for most. These themes would later take up the bulk of Losurdo’s interesting 2005 book Liberalism: A Counter-History but are not systematically fleshed out in Nietzsche, The Aristocratic Rebel. Nevertheless, these are slight problems with what amounts to a magisterial opus. Losurdo’s book is untimely in the sense that many of us who remain attracted to the Nietzsche of our youth will resist it. But one knows what they say: Whatever does not kill us will make us stronger.
Matt McManus teaches at the University of Calgary and is the author of A Critical Legal Examination of Liberalism and Liberal Rights and the forthcoming The Emergence of Postmodernity, among other books. He can be found on Twitter @mattpolprof