Reviewed by Matt Sharpe
The extraordinary wealth and density of historical, philosophical, and political trees that thicken the 1000 pages of Domenico Losurdo’s Friedrich Nietzsche: Aristocratic Rebel (hereafter Nietzsche) make the task of any reviewer of the book extremely difficult. The significance of this book as a systematic, copiously documented challenge to the postwar, post-Kaufmanian and post-Deleuzian receptions of Nietzsche as the playful, experimental, fragmentary, anti-foundationalist, aesthetic individualist or deconstructionist, apolitical (or liberal) critic of power and challenger of grand narratives can hardly be overstated. Losurdo’s big book on Nietzsche is the heftiest counterweight against selective, contentiously unpolitical readings of the German philosopher for undergraduate students to encounter, in any course on his thought. For Losurdo, Nietzsche is a philosopher totus politicus (28.1, hereafter as here, Losurdo’s book will be cited by chapter, then section number. With direct quotes, exact pagination is added in brackets). Nietzsche’s ability to discern “slave morality” in everything from the Socratic syllogism, via the Paris commune, to the universal laws of the natural sciences outbids even Marx, albeit from the reactionary Right. He is politically an aristocratic rebel, as Georges Brandes identified, horrified by the progress being made in his time by the feminist, abolitionist, and socialist movements, “whose opponent I am […] The great laments about human misery do not move me, they do not induce me to participate in that lament” (Nietzsche 1999a, 294; at 10.2 (330)).
Since any review must be selective, it may be most helpful for readers to clearly identify here Losurdo’s two evident tasks in Nietzsche, and then the two complementary hermeneutic methodologies with which he pursues them, in the context of which certain further observations may be offered. Firstly, Losurdo’s Nietzsche offers a detailed interpretation of Nietzsche’s philosophical thought and works, spanning his entire publishing career, one which does not fall prey to the critical temptation to psychologize Nietzsche’s work (even though Nietzsche himself pioneered this approach). Secondly, Losurdo is concerned to interpret the interpretations: that is, on the one hand to challenge predominant post-war Nietzsche interpretations as an apolitical, ludic individualist artist-philosopher or critic of power, and on the other hand, to understand how it is that these mistaken interpretations emerge.
Once we step back, we can see that the importance of these two tasks shapes the ordering of the book’s seven parts. Parts 1-3 examine Nietzsche “in his times”; after a central Part on Nietzsche in comparative perspective (see below), Part 5 addresses Nietzsche “in two historical periods” (namely his own, and that of pre-1945 Europe); whilst Part 7 returns (after Part 6 explores Nietzsche’s “Philosophical Laboratory”) to Nietzsche and “us”. The book closes then by addressing the individualist and postmodernist interpretations of the German 19th century philosopher. As Nietzsche’s reclaiming by “thought-leaders” on the populist and neofascist Right today worryingly underscores, so for Losurdo Nietzsche remains a contemporary and the most brilliant, profound and radical intellectual adversary for the progressive Left.
As we flagged, Losurdo pursues these two intentions by way of two intersecting hermeneutic methodologies. These he sets up polemically against what he terms the “hermeneutics of innocence” (20.4): those readings of Nietzsche (principally Kaufman, Foucault and Vattimo are targeted, but they are representative) which avoid or deny the importance of the myriad darker passages in the German thinker’s oeuvre on subjects ranging from slavery and the fairer sex, the Jewish origins of the disastrous slave revolt in morals, to the decadence of liberalism and parliamentary democracy, to recommendations for a social Darwinist program of breeding a new aristocratic order.
The first hermeneutic methodology can be called Losurdo’s “unifying” method. One of the quotes of the epigraph, pointedly, is from Pascal: “Every author has a sense in which all the contradictory passages are harmonized, otherwise that author has no sense […]. One must therefore find a sense in which all the contradictions are reconciled” (viii). Losurdo argues that to read Nietzsche as the philosopher that he was must be to read his work steadily and to read it whole. This means not excluding important changes of orientation across different works; not excluding the different timely, political and social concerns to which he frequently recurs; and not excising the darker passages which “hermeneuts of innocence” would suppress or disqualify, despite Nietzsche’s inclusion of them in his published works and the Nachlass.
Losurdo’s Nietzsche, as more orthodox Nietzschean scholars can agree, was never static. Losurdo, following the philosopher’s own reflections in Ecce Homo, sees three major Nietzschean phases, with a fourth, transitional phase marked by the second and third Untimely Meditations (6.1-6.9). “Nietzsche 1” was the Germanomanic enthusiast of Bismarck and Wagner, convinced that the former’s victory in the Franco-Prussian war (1.6) and the latter’s total art (esp. 1.8) were ushering in a return to tragic antiquity on the soil of German kultur (1.7-8), and casting down the shallow, rationalistic, mercantile, “Latin” “civilization” of post-revolutionary modernity (1.17-18).
Rapid disillusionment with the Second Reich’s massification of education (or “popular enlightenment” (6.1) and rapid modernization under the Iron Chancellor soon ensued (7.1; 12.4). After a transitional period marked by the Untimely Meditations (6.1-7.7, 10.8), Nietzsche 2 (of the “middle period” of 1778-82, Human-all-too-Human to The Gay Science), jettisons his earlier, broadly romantic-reactionary position. Having embraced the revitalizing powers of myth in his first works, Nietzsche in this “enlightenment from above” phase (28.4) now turns to science and the incisive moral criticisms of enlighteners led by Voltaire (7.8-7.9); seeing in the latter a veritable critical arsenal to turn against the “moral sentiments” and post-Rousseauian “fanaticism” (7.8-7.9), of the progressive revolutionaries from 1789 to the Second Reich (10.2-10.3). It is this period which sees Nietzsche’s most acerbic criticisms of his German homeland (and lucid self-diagnosis of his own youthful enthusiasms) and a decisive change towards the celebration of a new Europe (and “good European”) (232-243); albeit less a European Union-style federation like today’s readers might imagine, than a conquering alliance of European peoples who would be “mistress of the earth” (Nietzsche 1988, §362) and unafraid to rule the colonies with “barbarous” means (eg: Nietzsche 1999b, 471; 372-383, 572-574).
But this phase, ending with The Gay Science, was also quickly transcended by Nietzsche (10.8). Nietzsche 3 (1883-1888/89) is the author in rapid succession of Thus Spake Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil, The Genealogy of Morals, The Anti-Christ, Twilight of the Idols, and Ecce Homo. This is the Nietzsche who is mostly (albeit, if Losurdo is right, highly selectively) celebrated today: the prophetic poet-philosopher of the Overman, the transvaluation of morals, the will to power, the criticism of “nihilism” and the “last man”, and the cynical psycho-physiological sounding out of prior philosophical and religious idols (10.8, 11.1-11.7).
What singles out Losurdo’s book at this level is his unrelenting willingness to confront the darkest, most clearly reactionary strata within Nietzsche’s text: strata which he contends underlie the real, but more passing changes between his different phases, and reflect his continuing attempt to generate an intellectual “war machine” capable of uncovering the roots of, and thereby finally overcoming, contemporary progressivism in “two thousand years” of the slave revolt (28.1), looking back to the post-exilic Jewish prophets and Pauline Christianity (12.8, 15.2). These reactionary strata include Nietzsche’s early anti-Semitism or “Judaeophobia” in the years of the Wagner circle, and the later radicalization of his claims concerning the world-historical responsibility of the Jewish prophets and priests (“the most disastrous people in world history” (Nietzsche 1990, §24; 27.1; 27.3)) for inaugurating the slave revolt in morality (GM I, 8); his repeated claims concerning the timeless necessity of slavery for any higher culture (a truth which is like “the vulture that eats the liver of the Promethean promoter of culture” (Nietzsche 2009, 5; 1.12)); his unrelenting hostility to any forms of socialism, from the Paris Commune to the progressive stances of Christian and socialist anti-semites like Stöcker and Dühring in the 1880s; the profound misogyny and anti-feminism of his mature works; and most of all, the increasingly open denial of the “right to life”, and advocacy of eugenic proposals to sterilize (Nietzsche 1999b, 479; 1999a, 401–2; 19.3), control the marriages and births of (19.3; 20.1), and even instrument the “annihilation” (Vernichtung) of “millions of the malformed” (Nietzsche 1999d, 156; 19.1; 20.1; 24.4), “those who have turned out badly” (Schlechtweggekommenen), or entire “decadent races” (Nietzsche 1999c, 69, 547) in the name of breeding a new aristocracy which could reinstate rank order between human beings, and “avoid going to ruin at the sight of the suffering created thereby, the like of which has never been seen before” (Nietzsche 1999c, 98; 11.1; 19.1-19.5).
The second methodology that shapes Losurdo’s Nietzsche, and contributes most to its critical charge, is Losurdo’s “contextualizing” method. Primarily, Losurdo reads Nietzsche’s philosophical texts in light of a recovery of the texts Nietzsche himself was reading from his times, as well as compendious documentation from Nietzsche’s Notebooks and correspondence. As for William H. F. Altman and Robert Holub (amongst others), Nietzsche is first of all a thinker of the Second Reich; and, as for Gyorgy Lukács, he is a thinker of the dying age of European colonial imperialism. To this primary mode, Losurdo however adds a second, expanded or “comparative” method of contextualizing (esp. 12.1-19.6) which above all marks out this book from other Nietzsche commentaries. Nietzsche reads the philosopher alongside a compendious cast of contemporary authors writing on the issues which occupy Nietzsche in his published texts, letters, and notebooks, whom Nietzsche himself does not always cite: from historians to eugenicists and economists to musicians, playwrights, novelists, natural scientists and political theorists.
This methodology not only enables readers to understand Nietzsche’s direct, context-bound intentions in writing his books. It gives them a (deeply valuable) sense of how his contemporaries would have read him, including revealing celebrations from early readers on the Right, and scathing denunciations from progressive reviewers (24.3-5). Above all, Losurdo’s dedicated, comparative chapters on the slave debate and colonialism in the period of Nietzsche’s adult productivity (ch. 12; 23), as well as on the debates surrounding eugenics and social Darwinism in the 1870s and 1880s (13.1-19.6), show that for Nietzsche himself and his readers, propositions which seem to us after Auschwitz to be so outlandish that no one could have seriously meant them were being widely discussed. The American Civil War, surrounding slavery, was only recently won by the North. Slavery would only cease in the colonies in the late 1880s, including through decisions in Germany passed by Bismarck and the Kaiser with which Nietzsche, tellingly, stridently disagreed, calling the latter for this Christian measure a “brown idiot” (and the Pope, a “purple idiot”), as Losurdo examines (17.3) As for eugenic proposals, Losurdo reminds us that, in the decades after Nietzsche’s madness, thirteen American states instrumented programs to sterilize criminals, long before the Third Reich, T4 and the Shoah (23.2).
Finally, in telling sections, Losurdo compares the positions of thinkers usually understood as unproblematically ideologically central in the genesis of National Socialist ideology, and celebrated by Hitler’s inner circle (Wagner, Gobineau, Houston Stewart Chamberlain), with those of Nietzsche. He notes that Wagner never entertained eugenic speculations, whilst Gobineau and Chamberlain (who did) like Nietzsche (post-1875) were pan-Europeanists. But Gobineau was anti-imperialist, and Chamberlain a champion of German “individualism”, who insisted that “the Jew is no enemy of Germanic culture” (24.4). Why then, Losurdo asks, has there been such consternation about Nietzsche’s inclusion in many accounts of the intellectual foundations of the Third Reich, and so little outrage at the like inclusion of these other figures?
Losurdo’s Nietzsche is a work reflecting decades of research into 19th and 20th century history and intellectual history, and it raises literally dozens of subjects which we cannot even mention here. It might be best to conclude this review by saying that this is a work whose extraordinary erudition shows the author’s awareness of the scale of the task of challenging the “hermeneutics of innocence” developed surrounding Nietzsche after around 1950, even as his work continues to recruit and attract readers to the cause of the political Right. For this reason, it deserves a widespread readership and critical debate.
4 March 2021
- 1988 The Gay Science trans. Walter Kaufman (London, Penguin)
- 1990 Anti-Christ, in Twilight of the Idols and Anti-Christ (London: Penguin)
- 1999a ‘Posthumous Fragments’, in Kritische Gesamtausgabe (Critical Complete Edition), Volume IX ed. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari (Berlin-New York: De Gruyter)
- 1999b ‘Posthumous Fragments’, in Kritische Gesamtausgabe (Critical Complete Edition), Volume XII ed. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari (Berlin-New York: De Gruyter)
- 1999c ‘Posthumous Fragments’, in Kritische Gesamtausgabe (Critical Complete Edition), Volume XI ed. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari (Berlin-New York: De Gruyter)
- 1999d ‘Posthumous Fragments’, in Kritische Gesamtausgabe (Critical Complete Edition), Volume XIII ed. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari (Berlin-New York: De Gruyter)
- 2009 The Greek State Tracy Strong ed., Nietzsche and Politics, 1-10 (London: Ashgate)