Paul Elmer More offered one of the single best critiques of Friedrich Nietzsche, delving deeply into the essence of his thought, in both attraction and repulsion, finding that it is in the attempt to reconcile the love and apprehension about Nietzsche that best allows one to understand him.
“Who has ever been concerned for me with even the slightest degree of passion and pain! Has anyone had even an inkling of the real cause of my long sickness, which I have perhaps mastered now, in spite of everything? I have forty-three years behind me,” the mad philosopher admitted, “and am alone as if I were a child.”
When a historian of the twentieth century looks back from four to five hundred years into the future, he will consider those greats (meaning important, not good) who did so much to define the century before it and pave the way for totalitarian butchery. Of those nineteenth century thinkers—whether innocent or guilty of particular crimes and intellectual honors and dishonors—he will certainly include that master of all things evolutionary, Charles Darwin; that master of all things material, Karl Marx; that master of all things selfish, Herbert Spencer; and that master of all things psycho-sexual, Sigmund Freud. None of these men will compare—at least as I see it now—in influence or importance or, even, depth to the fifth figure, Friedrich Nietzsche. It was, after all, Nietzsche who completed that thought begun by Machiavelli that, whatever our desires, wishes, and longings, it is power and not love that moves the world.
An outrageous and extreme individualist, Nietzsche captured the zeitgeist of the late nineteenth-century, even (and maybe especially) in his syphilitic haze. His thought hovers and lingers and pervades the good and the bad of the twentieth century. He is sickness, pain, misery, confusion, and self-absorption personified. “Within my writings my Zarathustra stands by itself. I have with this book given mankind the greatest gift that has ever been given it,” Nietzsche wrote in his autobiography, Ecce Homo. “With a voice that speaks across the millennia, it is not only the most exalted book that exists, the actual book of the air of the heights—the entire fact man lies at a tremendous distance beneath it—it is also the profoundest, born out of the innermost abundance of truth, an inexhaustible well into which no bucket descends without coming up filled with gold and goodness.”
To be certain, almost every person The Imaginative Conservative admires—from Irving Babbitt to Christopher Dawson to Eric Voegelin to Willa Cather—book issue with Nietzsche as a man and as a thinker.
Among them, though, Princeton’s Paul Elmer More offered one of the single best critiques of the man, delving deeply into the essence of Nietzsche’s thought, in both attraction and repulsion. “One may begin the perusal of the life of Nietzsche with a feeling of repulsion for the man—at least that, I confess, was my own experience—but one can scarcely lay it down without pity for his tragic failures, and without something like admiration for his reckless devotion to ideas.”
Yet, it is in the attempt to reconcile the love and apprehension about the man that best allows one to understand him. In his radical individualism, he was, personally, a chaotic person, never able to settle down to any one thing. Whether studying philosophy under another’s tutelage, maintaining a friendship with Richard Wagner, serving in the Prussian army, or living the life of a professor, Nietzsche simply could not find peace and stability. Not surprisingly, More judged, “the end was unrelieved darkness.”
Nietzsche, More concluded, hated not just the present, but he absolutely despised the past, armed with a “violent antipathy.” Even the successes of such conquerors as Alexander the Great—who might very well be, at first glance, someone Nietzsche might admire as an Übermensch—received little but scorn. In his conquering, Nietzsche complained, Alexander did little but make a conformist mess of the ancient world, painting all things with the Greek brush of sameness. Likewise, Jesus of Nazareth might have become another great conqueror, but, in His successes, He merely made the world tepid and effete. More often than note, Nietzsche simply projected his own personal confusion upon the world and the past, decreeing it unworthy, purposeless, and futile.
More’s most interesting criticism comes, however, from his placing of Nietzsche and Nietzsche’s thought within the long context of early modern and modern political theory, from Thomas Hobbes to John Locke to Immanuel Kant to the Scottish Common Sense philosophy of David Hume and Adam Smith. While many current scholars, for example, find Hume and Smith hard to accept, seeing in their philosophy unbridled selfishness, Nietzsche found their ideas all too self-less. Humian and Smithian “sympathy,” the mad German thought, society would merely continue its purposeless drift toward conformity, equality, softness, mediocrity, and mere sentimentality. When taken together, early modern and modern philosophy—as expressed by Hobbes through Smith—would only lead to a more universal and soft Christian-lite society, romantic but diseased.
Only, perhaps, have certain individuals found real dignity in the Nietzschean ideal(s). The “true” philosopher, More argued, attempting to understand Nietzsche, is the “Superman, the Übermensche. He has passed beyond good and evil, and Nietzsche often describes him in language which implies the grossest immorality; but this is merely an iconoclast’s way of emphasizing the contrast between his perfect man and the old ideal of the saint, and it would be unfair to take these ebullitions of temper quite literally,” More claimed. “The image of the Superman is, in fact, left in the hazy uncertainty of the future.”
And this is all Nietzsche could give to mankind by his Will to Power and his Transvalution of Values: the will to endure the vision of endless, purposeless mutation; the courage to stand without shame, naked in a world of chance; the strength to accomplish—absolutely nothing. At times he proclaims his creed with an effrontery of joy over those who sink by the way and cry out for help. Other times pity for so hapless a humanity wells up in his heart despite himself; and more than once he admits that the last temptation of the Superman is sympathy for a race revolving blindly in this cycle of change. . . . The end of it all is the clamour of romantic egotism turned into horror at its own vacuity and of romantic sympathy turned into despair. It is naturalism at war with itself and struggling to escape from its own fatality.
Whatever his errors, Nietzsche does provide us with something critical. Even in his most agonized thought, he is far more interesting than Darwin, Marx, Spencer, or Freud ever even pretended to be.
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The featured image is a photograph of Friedrich Nietzsche, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.