Nihilism's Conscience: On Nietzsche's Politics of Aristocratic Radicalism

By Osborn, Ronald E. | Modern Age, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Nihilism's Conscience: On Nietzsche's Politics of Aristocratic Radicalism


Osborn, Ronald E., Modern Age


In aphorism 523 of Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality, Friedrich Nietzsche urges his readers to embrace a critical intellectual stance he refers to as Hinterfragen, which might be loosely translated as "questioning from behind." "Whenever a person reveals something," he declares, we should always ask the question: "What is it supposed to conceal? From what is it supposed to divert the eyes? What prejudice is it supposed to arouse? And additionally, how far does the subtlety of this dissimulation go." (1) Despite Nietzsche's praise of the hermeneutics of radical suspicion, however, many of his readers have proven unable or unwilling to submit Nietzsche's own philosophy to the criterion of Hinterfragen. My goal here is to pursue a more Nietzschean reading of Nietzsche, calling attention to essentialist, questionable, and arbitrary aspects of Nietzsche's political project in existential and aesthetic perspective. My purpose in applying some of Nietzsche's techniques and categories to Nietzsche himself is not, however, to elevate his hermeneutics of suspicion to a still higher level of critical importance, but to demonstrate that there are reasons to suspect suspicion. My reading of Nietzsche therefore requires, somewhat paradoxically, that we approach his politics of aristocratic radicalism (as Bruce Detwiler refers to them (2)) through more "naive" eyes than some of Nietzsche's interpreters would allow.

There is a long line of Nietzschean interpretation-beginning with Nietzsche himself (3) -warning of the dangers of any surface reading of his work. We must not naively assume, many scholars remind us, that Nietzsche ever means what he appears to say. Rather, we are told, the key to understanding Nietzsche lies in cultivating an appreciation for the subtlety, the plurality, and above all the irony of his writings. By resisting the temptations of credulous literalism we may thus locate the Nietzsche who sought to instill bracing lessons in nonconformity to courageous spirits battling the tide of European nihilism, all the while tragically aware that his vision would be misunderstood and misappropriated by the very mass ideologies he sought to oppose. Nietzsche's parable of the madman in The Gay Science suggests, however, that one of the tragic implications of his philosophy is that none will dare to comprehend him precisely when he means exactly what he proclaims. (4) In an already ironic and disbelieving age, the perfect disguise will often be an inverted irony: the cloak of appearing not to mean what one says by saying what one means. The greatest irony of Nietzsche as a political thinker may lie less in the hidden depths of his works, such as they may be, than in the attempts by his admirers to mine subterranean progressive truths from his writings, when Nietzsche has left many of his most profound truths on the surface for all to see.

I should make clear from the outset that I claim no novel theoretical insight into Nietzsche's life or work. These are the reflections of a reader concerned with the task of recollection in a forum of ideas rather than with the pursuit of particularly new discoveries, although to recall something that has been lost or forgotten can of course also be a kind of discovery.

Nietzsche's Political Admirers

Nietzsche's political philosophy, William Connolly writes, was marked by an undeniable "disdain for democracy," yet Nietzsche remains, in Connolly's reading, a "protean" thinker whose ideas may yet be pressed into the service of a "theory of agonistic democracy." (5) Although "Nietzsche was an adversary of democracy," Connolly declares, "a politicized left-Nietz-scheanism unearths building stones in the democratic edifice all too easily buried." These "stones" can be used to advance liberalism's egalitarian agenda, "even if they make the entire structure less smooth, regular, even, and ratic [sic]" (6) Connolly's goal is "not to offer the true account of the true Nietzsche hiding behind a series of masks, but to construct a post-Nietzscheanism one is willing to endorse and enact. …

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