Friedrich Nietzsche and Cultural Revivalism in Europe (1878-88)

By Horowitz, Michael G. | Mankind Quarterly, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Friedrich Nietzsche and Cultural Revivalism in Europe (1878-88)


Horowitz, Michael G., Mankind Quarterly


Friedrich Nietzsche is here considered an exponent of a revivalism rooted in ancient European culture. Specifically, his notion of the "overman," his (intellectual?) militarism, his derogation of Periclean democracy, and his renunciation of Christianity are regarded as based in this culture.

Key Words: Nietzsche, cultural revivalism, elitism, militarism, socialism, Christianity, Indo-European culture

"A path had been found on which one could sneak back to the old ideal... " [Re: Immanuel Kant] The Antichrist

"The good men of every age are those who dig the old ideas deep down and bear fruit with them."

The Gay Science

The assertion that Friedrich Nietzsche's work reflected a form of European cultural revivalism requires prompt lexical hygiene regarding the constructs of cultural revivalism and of pre-Christian European, or what some German scholars of the nineteenth century called "Indo-German," culture.

As a classical scholar, Nietzsche was certainly inspired by the ancient Greek ideal, and his choice of Zoroaster as a cultural model connoted regard for ancient Persian values. This is no accidental association: what is common to both the Greek and the Persian traditions is, in fact, a shared heritage, today referred to as "IndoEuropean (I-E), or sometimes "Indo-Hittite," culture.

A review of contemporary scholarship affords a picture of a traditional I-E culture shared by the early Greeks, the Persians and the Indo-Aryans of the Vedic period in northwest India (Horowitz, 1996). This is a culture dominated by its successful military - i.e., its aggressive warrior chieftains and horsemen. Consequently, it admires martial weapons - axes, swords, spears, javelins, and daggers. Spiritually, it fails to evolve a concept of an absolute, all-powerful God - initially revering the sun, stars, thunder, and lightning; but later advancing to, among other credos, Olympian mythology and Brahmanic mysticism.

Moreover, its hegemonic warrior class evolves an elitist individualism and a cosmology independent of priestly dogma. The individualism is possibly fueled by access to swift personal transportation and the haughty perspective horseback affords; it complements, in any case, the development of a privileged aristocracy excused from the dictates of common law. In ancient Greece, the cosmology leads to the humanization of deity ... then on to a secular scientific dialectic; in ancient India, to a prescient spiritual philosophy that at times anticipates modern theoretical physics. With the advent of the Upanishads in India and, later, Archimedes in Greece, I-E culture celebrates its ancient apotheosis as both spiritual philosophy envisioning a dimension beyond spacetime and a mathematics on the verge of calculus.

The European Context

No definition of cultural revivalism is possible in this case without first exploring the context of Nietzsche's argument.

Since the American and French Revolutions, Western Europe had been evolving from aristocratic to (bourgeois) public to mass culture. Although this development would not crystallize until the next century, by the time of Nietzsche's literary prime (1878-88) it had substantively affected political, economic, and religious life.

From the early 19th century, international diplomacy had sought to attenuate conflict between the various European powers, and with the exception of the Crimean and Franco-Prussian Wars had been somewhat successful. Meanwhile, social democracy - a synthesis of political and religious liberalism with concessions to socialism became increasingly attractive to the European public.

With the reform of 1867, for example, the United Kingdom had embarked on the path of universal suffrage to complement its evolution to parliamentary supremacy. Eight years later, the French finally abandoned both monarchy and Bonapartism to establish the Third Republic. Within France and Germany, meanwhile, socialist ideas regarding common ownership of property and production had been articulately advanced by Auguste Blanqui and Karl Marx since the insurgence of 1848.

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