Friedrich Nietzsche, the original culture warrior
Friedrich Nietzsche is one of those philosophers you just can’t kill.
He’s been in his grave since 1900, having been silenced by insanity many years before. In 1898, The New York Times ran an article headed, “Interesting Revolutionary Theories from a Writer Now in the Madhouse.” He’s read, as he was then, only by a small minority, many of whom it would be flattering to call eccentric.
Nevertheless, he runs through our social bloodstream. Francis Fukuyama’s remark has the sound of truth: Whether we like it or not, “We continue to live within the intellectual shadow cast by Nietzsche.”
Our political leaders are Nietzschean heroes, fuelled by the will to power. In popular fiction and journalism we eternally reinvent the drama of Nietzschean characters who scorn tradition and prove their bravery by setting their own course, as he urged. Defiant originality is sanctified everywhere from art galleries to the business pages. Steve Jobs was perhaps the world’s most renowned Nietzschean character type.
Nietzsche might recognize the tone of current American politics. In the Republican primaries politicians struggle against inherited dogma (big government) while Democrats pledge to fight the ideology they fear (capitalism). But of course both parties maintain a respect for Christianity that would make Nietzsche decide he had lived in vain.
We don’t know it but Nietzsche scripted many of our conversations, putting words in our mouths. When we talk about culture (the culture of this, the culture of that) we echo him. Anyone who discusses “values” (instead of, say, ethics) is talking Nietzsche-talk.
People who claim to be in a state of “becoming” are Nietzscheans, knowingly or otherwise. He believed (now everyone believes) that we are all constantly reconstructing ourselves. In Nietzsche there’s no such thing as a permanently stable personality.
He was the original culture warrior. He laid the foundation for the struggle between traditionalism and modernism, an enduring battle. The more important a tradition, the more he wanted to see it challenged.
Through his books and articles Nietzsche’s ideas conquered America just as American influence was conquering the world. How this event in intellectual history happened is the concern of American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas_ (University of Chicago Press), a first-class academic book by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, a University of Wisconsin historian.
Nietzsche seems formidable from a distance but turns out to be surprisingly easy to read. That’s deceptive, because understanding him is hard. He’s endlessly, infuriatingly contradictory. One day he leaves us in despair about the future of humanity. On another he says the potential for liberated humanity is limitless. His tone ranges from insistent to hysterical.
Not everyone likes it. In fact, he’s as often despised as adored. Casual cruelty runs through his work, above all in his belief that most people don’t count. He callously described the common “herd” of humanity.
Fascists liked him. Decades after Nietzsche’s death Hitler claimed him as a chum even though Nietzsche maintained that anti-Semitism was a stupid German fantasy. Sadly, his sister, Elizabeth Forster-Nietzsche, having inherited control of his reputation, let the Nazis use his name.