This is what remains of a book I first wrote in 1974, and periodically revised over the following few years. I tried to find a publisher without success. Although I would no longer express myself in quite this way, it may have some interest as an introduction to Nietzsche's ideas.
  INTRODUCTION TO NIETZSCHE by John S Moore Considering that so much has been published over the years about Nietzsche and his ideas, it might be thought there is little more to be said on the subject. It is not as if such studies seem to make any generally recognisable progress. There continues to be wide disagreement both about what Nietzsche was saying, and about its importance. It is the very scale of this disagreement that suggests there is still a place for books about Nietzsche, rather than mere exhortations to read him. While he himself makes far more interesting reading than any of his commentators, his work as it stands still leaves unsettled questions.

Nietzsche has a strong fascination for some people, and some of the judgements made about him, even by some of his most sympathetic critics, can seem provocatively misguided and in need of correction. In Anglo-Saxon countries at least, Nietzsche's advocates cannot be said to have been so far successful, if we may judge from the number of slighting and disparaging references to be found in the literary columns of newspapers and magazines. Nietzsche was well versed in English writers, and would have rejected the imputation that he belonged to an alien culture and that his well considered criticisms could be lightly disregarded.

For those who believe, as many do, that Nietzsche's thought offers the best key to the understanding of what has been happening to western civilisation for the past two centuries or so, the setting right of such misunderstanding presents itself as an uncompleted and still important task. Some misunderstanding is excusable, since even to decide what is being said is in some respects to take sides, to make assumptions as to the possible limits of controversy. Nevertheless, there are degrees of incomprehension, and Nietzsche has suffered badly from it, at the hands both of the general public, and of many who ought to know better.

A somewhat unfavourable image of him persists in the minds of many of those with some interest in literature or ideas. Many people know that he was a philosopher genius who went mad, and have heard of his doctrine of the superman, which they may perhaps envisage as some cruel conquering hero, gazing ruthlessly over vast horizons, to the accompaniment of Siegfried, or some other Wagnerian piece. Some people think of him as the advocate of the vicious idea of the master race. In modern folklore, Nazism has become the great archetype of wickedness receiving its just deserts, and Nietzsche is sometimes seen vaguely as the philosopher of that wickedness, a man who intoxicated himself with grandiose delusions, (hubris) with the natural consequence of total insanity (nemesis). According to one writer, the villain Nietzsche has passed into literature as the villain Moriarty, greatest adversary of Sherlock Holmes, himself a figure possessed of certain Nietzschean qualities. Nijinsky, in his Diary, expressed one popular view, when he wrote that 'Nietzsche lost his reason because he thought too much'.

Bertrand Russell, in his 'History of Western Philosophy', characterises Nietzsche's philosophy as the product of hatred and fear, and Nietzsche himself as a rather unpleasant person. The Soviet Encyclopaedia of philosophy interprets him as the theorist of reaction, one who perceived the rising tide of socialism and tried to dam it with an elitist, proto fascist doctrine. One conservative, Christian view, is to see him as a dangerous romantic, and heir of Rousseau in the extremity of his self assertion, a striking illustration of the peril and folly of abandoning those norms of moral and spiritual authority that alone make for stable society and decent living. Such a position may be associated with the traditional reactionary or High Catholic attack on the principles of the French revolution, as enunciated by Joseph de Maistre. Then there are those literary intellectuals who, despite a deep immersion in much of that twentieth century culture on which Nietzsche's influence has been most decisive, persist in regarding him as overrated and unimportant. Such was the often stated view of the late Philip Toynbee, for many years leading book critic for the 'Observer'. The Oxford professor John Carey, leading book critic for the 'Sunday Times', wrote a vitriolic attack on Nietzsche in his book 'The Intellectuals and the Masses'. Another Oxford don, A.L. Rowse, reviewing this asked contemptuously of Nietzsche, 'who cares what he thought?'. There remain many who, for various, often quite different reasons, continue to respect him as a very important and challenging thinker. Even in England, his 'Zarathustra' sells so well that it has long been recommended by Penguins as basic bookshop stock. In France some acquaintance with his ideas is said to be part of the syllabus for the baccalaureate.

His writings have the power to disturb complacency, and critics are concerned to reconcile his obvious attraction with all kinds of previously held positions. Numerous well researched books on Nietzsche have appeared which suggest that he is to be taken at something other than face value.

Janko Lavrin appears to suggest that Nietzsche's ideas should always be seen in the context of his struggle against ill health, and that we are to extract a message from the extent to which he was enabled to feel better by thinking thoughts inevitably related to his own special condition. This is held to make him an existentialist, a case history like Pascal, attempting to live by a creed, rather than an objective critic whose ideas stand or fall on their own merits.

On the continent, since the war, existentialists, structuralists, and deconstructionists, have honoured him highly. I do not mean to deny the interest of such interpretations, but they mostly do not seem to me to elucidate what was most solid and original in his achievement. Besides an existentialist or a deconstructionist, plausible cases have been made for treating him as a precursor of the later Wittgenstein, or of the Bertrand Russell school of logical analysis. On the level of academic philosophy, it would seem that Nietzsche's ideas are found to be compatible with a number of different positions.

My position is that on certain important issues, Nietzsche makes a good claim to being entirely right, and that he offers a radical alternative to many current beliefs and ideals. This raises questions as to how it is possible for a thinker in such a field to be 'right'. There are Nietzscheans who think Nietzsche was right, Freudians who think Freud was right, Marxists who think Marx was right, once there were humanists who used to say the same for T.H.Huxley and so on. I shall first try to explain what I mean by putting him in some very general historical perspective.


The inrush of Greek scholars to the west, following the collapse of the Byzantine empire, helped stimulate the new spirit of enquiry that was felt in Europe at the renaissance. The mediaeval synthesis, built of a union of Catholic dogma and Aristotle's science of qualities, was discovered to be inadequate, and it was now felt that far more could be satisfactorily explained than had hitherto been thought possible, that perhaps all mysteries could be penetrated with the aid of reason, and made clear to the understanding. One of the forms taken by this movement was an interest in esoteric philosophies such as neoplatonism, and the writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, according to which the understanding of the workings of nature is inextricably involved with the individual's quest for perfection. Art magic and science, or rather a union of all three, were the key to the secrets of the universe, to learn which was to attain to perfection within it, to reach maximum individual fulfilment, even godhood. At the least, by studying the nature of the cosmos, a man might discover his innermost will, dispensing with the need for blind faith and obedience to hallowed authority. Truth was rational, but not to be acquired by exclusively intellectual methods. The will to perfection was to find its way as much by intuition as by logical demonstration, and would often express itself in obscure, symbolic terminology.

In many respects this was highly invigorating attitude, and it had a seminal function in the genesis of modern science, and also political theory. Grand utopian programmes were conceived on the basis of esoteric wisdom, and Europe buzzed with hope for the future. However, with the discrediting of astrology, and the correct dating of the Hermetic writings, the direct connection between macrocosm and microcosm, the truths of nature and the whole will of man, became harder to maintain.

The movement known as the enlightenment can usefully be seen in relation to this earlier, Hermetic movement, which it largely superseded. Many of the ideals of the older outlook were retained in a modified form, and helped to give impetus to rationalism as a social and cultural force. Rationalism, understood in a broad sense, as an outlook on life, occurs to a greater or lesser degree at various points in history, when the influence of dogmatic religion is low, and reasoned argument is seen as the surest foundation for all beliefs and institutions. Esoteric religion is not rationalistic, because it gives to intuition an authority which the rationalist would not allow, it makes understanding depend upon inner experiences. One of the principal developments characterising the thought of the European enlightenment was the clear separation of the knower from the known, classically expressed by Descartes' dualistic theory of the relation between mind and matter. These were now interpreted as two entirely independent substances, and the material universe was to be explained in purely mechanistic terms.

The mechanistic hypothesis proved remarkably fruitful, and having apparently been vindicated by the discoveries of Newton, all other models of the universe fell into disrepute. Here was a type of explanation to which the will of man was irrelevant, and which was in no sense esoteric, but as clear as the language in which it was expressed, a science in which every step could be made quantitatively exact, and which could produce striking, and publicly verifiable results. This had been achieved by chopping away what was seen as the debris of mediaeval obscurantism. We may speak of two great currents in enlightenment rationalism, the rationalistic, in the narrower sense, typified by the followers of Descartes, and the empirical, typified by the followers of Locke; the former laying more stress upon deductive logic, the latter upon sense experience. All our knowledge was to be based upon reason and sense experience; the relative importance of these, and the different ways of stating it, helped to provide the material for the problems of philosophy.

In eighteenth century France, the writers known as the Philosophes, usually seen more as popularisers than profoundly original thinkers, helped to transform this outlook into a complete way of life. Reason, as something available to all, was elevated to the supreme position that it held for Socrates, and as much as possible was brought under its sway. It was briefly granted the status of a goddess at the time of the French revolution, in the form of a young girl, at a ceremony in Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. Questions of values were included in this synthesis, and ethical systems were devised, like Kant's, which judged of motives insofar as they met up to a standard of rational consistency.

The outward style of the enlightenment drew inspiration from the art and culture of ancient Rome. One of the marks of a rationalistic culture is the desire for clarity and concision in all spheres. It is a commonplace that the Romans were not as creatively original as the Greeks, that they produced no original philosophy, little in the way of new art forms, and there is an opinion that, except in legal and political matters, they were essentially imitators. This ignores their immense contribution to precision of language, something later taken for granted, and hence to precision of thought and expression. With its consolidation of the inspired, but often erratic achievements of the self destructive Greeks, its absence of dogmatic religion, its freedom of thought, and its values of order and clarity, pagan Rome became something of a model for the men of the enlightenment.

The vast claims made on behalf of reason at this period, meant that man was expected to adjust his expectations in accordance with it. What was, by the standards of the time, unreasonable, seemed pointless, and therefore there were large areas of possible experience which tended to be dismissed as unsusceptible to reason and science.

The romantic movement was to a large extent, a reaction in favour of all that the enlightenment synthesis had left out. There was a renewed interest in the lands of the counter reformation, notably Italy and Spain, which did not experience the full force of the age of reason until Napoleon, and which often struck the eighteenth century northerner as the home of the sinister and the strange, of dark irrational passion. Gothic novels like 'The Monk', portrayed the sensuality, superstition and aristocratic villainy of the south with fascinated horror, but it took Byron to turn this obsession with the perverse into positive enthusiasm and approbation.

Romantic art and literature expressed all kinds of apparently irrational forces and anarchic instincts, which the previous era had preferred to ignore, and thus implied the inadequacy of the rationalistic schemes as a whole account of human nature. The common distinction between 'classical' and 'romantic' can be a confusing one. It might be said that there were many 'romantic' elements in classical civilisation. Many of the leading romantics, Rousseau, for example, and Keats and Shelley in England, were among the most enthusiastic admirers of the ancient world. Phenomena from the French revolution to twentieth century literary or artistic movements, interpreted by some people, whether approvingly or otherwise, as classical, are seen by others as romantic, and vice versa.

It is probable that it was not so much the enlightenment that killed the esoteric tradition as romanticism. The culture of the enlightenment was aware of such ideals, much as it might have opposed them; the romantics turned to them second-hand, as to something opposed to rationalism, and contaminated them. Romanticism was the victory of enlightenment culture, the first movement to presuppose it. Everything outside it was treated as bizarre and exotic, and the reasons for desiring the bizarre and exotic were perfectly rational and intelligible. As romanticism matured, it developed into the so called decadent movement of the late nineteenth century. Late romantics like Baudelaire, Flaubert, Lautreamont, Swinburne, even Dostoyevsky, pursued bold experimental journeys into some of the stranger reaches of possible experience, taking the interest in the perverse to extreme, sometimes destructive, limits.

Confronted with the obvious appeal of all this apparent irrationalism, how are the advocates of reason to react? They might dismiss it as mere atavism, but once atavism begins itself to use the weapons of reason, enlightenment itself seems to be in serious danger. Nietzsche's precursor, the Marquis de Sade, in many volumes of extreme and savage irony, exposed the limitations of eighteenth century rationalism, not from the viewpoint of the bankruptcy of reason, but from that of a clearer and more honest usage of it. Men like De Sade and Nietzsche were no more proponents of the irrational than was Socrates, and the same can be said, if less obviously of a renaissance Hermeticist like Giordano Bruno, or a poet such as William Blake. All are joined in a common opposition to obscurantism and dogmatism, united in the belief that the most sacred mysteries are directly accessible to the human understanding. Instead of conceding defeat when faced with the 'irrational', one can attempt a more plausible account of human nature than that propagated by traditional rationalism.

As the heir of the enlightenment, Nietzsche may be thought of as bringing certain ideas and attitudes which have, in some form or other, been perennial throughout human history, to a new level of clarity. In a less rationalistic culture his aspirations might have found an outlet in channels more secret and obscure, perhaps he might have been a magus or a Sufi. Schopenhauer had identified Giordano Bruno and the Sufis as intellectual and religious exemplars of the life affirmation which Nietzsche was to make so much his own cause. To speak of periods intellectually closer to our own, the teachings of Heraclitus in Greece, and Chuang Tsu in China, show significant resemblances to his own.

Nietzsche was unique in the way that Newton, Darwin and Beethoven were unique, he perceived and explored certain relations with unprecedented clarity and penetration. That this was possible had much to do with the time at which he lived. Science and scholarship had recently made huge advances, scholars were discovering and translating the wisdom of the orient, and in literature the novel was exhibiting an ever increasing psychological power. New standards of scientific and rational rigour had been set, and Nietzsche's task was to apply these to fields where they had previously been thought inapplicable, turning the searchlight of reason and science onto those questions of value where prejudice maintains its strongest hold, and where he would be most likely to meet with impassioned opposition. We may think of his work as the true flower of the enlightenment, the crowning achievement of the rationalistic outlook; with him rationalism attains the comprehensiveness of a major religion.

He concluded that what was required was a 'transvaluation of values', and this meant a radical hostility to Christianity. He saw his discoveries as the basis for a thoroughgoing critique of civilisation, art, politics, religion, and many other subjects. He was led to an admirably clear and concise understanding of some of the most significant features of modern western civilisation in terms of what he described as decadence.

Even when he seems to ignore important aspects of a complex problem, we may still perceive his consistency. The inconsistencies in his conclusions are usually superficial, often only apparent. He saw the kind of consistency that insists on surface unity at the expense of inner conviction as a serious impediment to honest thinking. That is why he writes that 'the will to a system is a lack of integrity'. There is nevertheless a unifying thread, a common viewpoint or method, behind all his judgements, and it is quite misleading to interpret them as a collection of random prejudices or clever observations, to be embraced or rejected only insofar as they chime with our immediate predilections.

The freedom with which he dispenses judgements is not a sign that he sees himself as some journalistic pundit, delivering opinions on all subjects for the guidance of his readers. Such judgements which must often appear dogmatic, are part of his philosophical style. They are the illustrations and examples through which he develops and communicates his underlying moral and psychological discoveries. Either to dismiss them lightly, or to take issue with him over them as if they were the real substance of his thought, is to miss the point.

People of many different persuasions can find much in him that is attractive. A strictly edited Nietzsche was used as support for the official Nazi ideology; from seemingly the other end of the political spectrum, Herbert Marcuse takes out of him what he finds suitable, and rejects much else as a reactionary hangover from which the philosopher was not sufficiently advanced to emancipate himself. Others, Hermann Hesse for example, have upheld him as the champion of liberal values against totalitarian oppression. Nietzsche's overt anti Christianity and atheism have been no barrier to Christian traditionalists claiming him for one of their own. It was suggested, for example, by the English translator of the fountainhead of Christian mysticism, Pseudo-Dionysius, that had Nietzsche known these mystical writings he would never have felt obliged to leave the Christian 'fold'. More recently, Don Cuppit has written that "His teaching was in fact a naturalistic version of the Protestant gospel of salvation by faith alone". ('Life Lines' p.157)

The situation is complicated by the fact that Nietzsche's thought was in a constant state of development, right up to his final breakdown, as his ideas, and their implications became ever clearer to him. Towards the end, he became ever more radical and shocking, also far less tolerant of some things. In this book I shall attempt to clarify some of his characteristically original discoveries, contrasting his ideas with other widely canvassed points of view, and looking at one or two of the further issues he raises, and which others, after his death, were to try to tackle systematically and in greater detail.


The antitheses of which I have spoken in the introduction, often misleadingly referred to as the classical versus the romantic, were Nietzsche's preoccupation in his first book, 'The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music', which he dedicated to his friend Wagner. The book is different in style and conception from his later masterpieces, but is a jewel in its own right, brilliant original and inspiring, and even if he had written nothing else, he would be honoured for this. Whatever the literal truth of his theory of the origin of Greek tragedy, his ideas are of great psychological interest.

The problem of tragedy is one that has fascinated for a long time; not so much the origin of it, as the source of its great power and effectiveness, the peculiar exhilaration that is inspired by the 'Agamemnon', 'Oedipus Tyrannus', 'Hamlet', or 'Othello'. Tragedy replaced epic in critical esteem as the highest form of literature, and many feel that perhaps the central riddle of life comes closest to expression here than in any other art form. Tragedy focuses on the point where all guiding principles break down, showing how even that which is most unacceptable has a logic to it and can be assimilated. Thus it has been seen as an alternative to philosophy, resolving the deepest and most essential of life's perplexities. Aeschylus, for example, in portraying the type of all error, and the worst of our fears, is seen as having somehow rendered irrelevant all consciously formulated philosophies of life.

Aristotle's theory was that the life enhancing effect comes about by a process of catharsis, or purging, of negative emotions such as pity and terror, which it excites to an extreme pitch. Left without any proper outlet, these emotions are liable to seethe within us and do harm. Tragedy has the effect of a psychological enema, removing the spiritual poisons and waste products from the system. Nietzsche still considered this worth arguing against.

Many other writers have concerned themselves with this problem. R.G.Collingwood argued that Aristotle misunderstood the seriousness of early tragedy, producing what amounted to a defence of the essentially decadent amusement art that had been attacked by Plato. Aeschylean tragedy Collingwood saw as a form of 'magical' art, aiming to evoke certain emotions intended to be usefully discharged in the activities of everyday life. Freud had a theory that, like all important religious developments, tragedy was an attempt to resolve the deep seated conflicts in the human psyche deriving from memory of past guilt (the murder of the primal father). Its liberating effect comes from the release into consciousness of repressed material. Kitto sees tragedy as demonstrating, in an unanswerable fashion, some of the most basic moral truths about the human condition, and analyses a number of plays from this viewpoint. In elucidating the nature of tragedy we are to use moral language, make moral judgements, speak of right and wrong and how we ought to behave in certain situations. Schopenhauer wrote that tragedy is the summit of poetic art because it reveals the terrible true nature of the world, the horrible self antagonism of the thing in itself, the will, at the highest grade of its objectivity. With such complete knowledge comes true wisdom, complete resignation, abandonment of the will to live.

In his first book, Nietzsche analyses tragedy in terms of the interaction of two principles, which he calls the Apollonian and the Dionysian, and which correspond very roughly to the traditional antitheses of classical versus romantic. The Dionysian spirit is the force of unrestrained instinct, uninhibited libido, orgiastic, amoral, and destructive of all social conventions. The wildness of Dionysus worship is portrayed in the 'Bacchae' of Euripides, where it appears as a frenzy or madness inflaming the women of the land, a primaeval savagery overturning all the standards of civilisation.

The festivals at which Greek tragedy first appeared were celebrations held in honour of Dionysus, where music was performed as the direct expression of the spirit of the god. The choral ode, out of which tragedy developed, was a celebration of his power. In contrast to Dionysus, ecstatically exalting the forbidden, stood Apollo, representing order, form, clarity and civilisation. On its own, the Apollonian is a sterile force, just as the other is too disorganised for sustained creation. According to Nietzsche, it was the Dionysian energy, modified and qualified by the Apollonian sense of form, that produced tragedy, and was furthermore the driving force behind Greek civilisation.

We may say that as Dionysus stood for intoxication, for wine, so Apollo stood for dream, for opium perhaps, and as Apollo was the god of the plastic arts, so Dionysus was the patron of music and dance. The gradual disciplining of the irrational was to result in the highest standards of art and civilisation, so long as the tension remained, but when the Apollonian fully gained the upper hand a period of decline set in. The curbing of the Dionysian, the spread of rationality, especially since the time of Socrates, up through the Alexandrian era, led to a progressive weakening of the springs of creativity, to decadence, shallow rationalism, and the eventual demise of the Hellenic spirit. A similar process was occurring in modern western culture, as the one-sided rationalism of the enlightenment culminated in such shallow schemes as utilitarianism, with its bland disregard of the instinctual basis of life.

Because reason is a purely Apollonian force, it cannot on its own offer hope of salvation. We can only be saved from the complete enervation and trivialisation of our culture by a strong infusion of the spirit of Dionysus as manifested in music. The conception of Dionysus gives an affirmative twist to Schopenhauer's pessimism. Tragedy, conceding all the pain and frustration of life emphasised by the pessimists, involves the 'affirmation of life in its most difficult problems', and is the mark of exuberant vitality, whereas conventional 'optimism' is shallow, rationalistic and late.

The hope for the future lies in German music, a rebirth of the Dionysian spirit, rendered bearable by an Apollonian framework of myth, which has found its strongest expression in Wagner. It is at this point that the book becomes least plausible. Aubrey Beardsley caricatured an audience of self satisfied Wagnerites, Rupert Brooke wrote a comic poem on the same theme; it is hard to envisage such people as the vanguard of a spiritual revolution destined to regenerate civilisation. Nietzsche himself came to regard his early enthusiasm for Wagner with irony, and Wagner himself as a typical decadent. It is hardly plausible that a decadence springing from an excess of reason and refinement could be cured by the efforts of that small elite which produces and enjoys classical music. The spirit of Dionysus is supposed to represent the socially subversive primaeval energy, the hatred of order and restriction. Where can this come but from below, perhaps from outside, as the god himself originated among the barbaric Thracians?

Perhaps we can find Dionysian music in Nietzsche's sense, whether or not it would be capable of effecting the regeneration he had in mind. Several people have suggested jazz. Kenneth Clark, referring to a different myth, spoke of the "wail of the saxophone" as "the revenge of Marsyas", certainly implying that the anti-Apollonian movement has gone too far. Jazz has tended to be rather a specialised taste in western society, those who are profoundly affected by it forming something of a minority subculture. This cannot be said of rock and roll. The music, produced in the sixties by the Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones or Jimi Hendrix, seemed to answer admirably to Nietzsche's requirements; it appeal was both wide and in some ways revolutionary. It is violent, sensual and antinomian, redolent of many forms of intoxication, and of the same sexual ambiguity that characterised the god Dionysus himself. This could hardly be said of Wagner's music, at least not so obviously. Rock music has had an effect on social mores, and for long inspired great hopes. It is fair to say that a yearning for the Dionysian does exist among the intellectual classes, and as late as the punk movement the nihilistic revelry of the rebellious adolescent was hailed as something of high cultural significance. More recently, the cult for violent and criminally inspired rap music from the black ghettos of America suggest that exploitation of the Dionysian is now a recognised commercial principle.

Nietzsche later came to believe that in this book he had oversimplified an great deal, and he noted a suspiciously Hegelian flavour to it, with the thesis and antithesis of Apollo and Dionysus synthesised in the tragic impulse. As a mirror of reality, Hegelian dialectic was a meretricious blind alley. One crucial change in symbolism he made concerned the meaning of 'Dionysus' in his thought. Instead of uncontrolled energy, untempered by the Apollonian, it came to mean something close to what he originally meant by the harmonious interaction of these two principles, energy harnessed and directed, as in Greek art at its best. Far from being a mere matter of terminology, this change clearly differentiates Nietzsche from Freud and others. Instead of two basic principles, he now had only one, conceived as the expression of the will to power. There is an incompleteness in the original two principles; if they are to interact successfully they presuppose an end beyond them both. An illustration of the danger of complete surrender to the original Dionysus principle is the tendency of a total revolution to follow absolute anarchy with absolute tyranny. Many remain attracted, in an almost religious sense, to the idea of violent revolution as if to a festival of Dionysus, a Bacchanalian riot, identifying the spirit of revolution with the true life force, and everything that opposes it with death. Only on such ephemeral occasions, it is felt, are the people really free. Elements of this attitude are to be found in Blake, who spent much of his life exploring the dangers and contradictions to which it gave rise. There is a tendency in Nietzsche's original antithesis, which became developed in Freud, to identify the Dionysus principle, the anarchic libido, with the drive to happiness, and all order with necessarily irksome restraint.

In contrast, Nietzsche came to hold that what he had identified as the raw, Dionysian, instinctual energy is mere material for the will to power, which is the real key to happiness and fulfilment, and which requires a measure of discipline and order for its continuing success. Against this, we have the possibility of demoralisation, marked by a readiness to put up with far less than is potentially ours. The 'healthy neurosis' that he praises in the Greeks, may thus be interpreted as a form of discontent that is potentially the birth pang of a more intensely satisfying mode of experience than most people usually admit to be possible.

Nietzsche is very interested in what he believed to have been the higher quality of life that prevailed in certain periods of history, such as the Italian renaissance, the classic era of the Greeks, Moorish civilisation in Spain. Russell suggests one interpretation of Nietzsche's ideas as the statement 'I wish I had lived in the Athens of Pericles, or the Florence of the Medici'. Nietzsche is presented as one who, having a taste for certain ideals, for certain kinds of art, for military glory, a high standard of craftsmanship, aristocratic living and suchlike, tries to work out the conditions that would best promote them. Nietzsche certainly believed himself to be saying more than this, feeling that where he sensed what to him was a higher quality of life, human potential was, as a matter of psychological reality, that much more fulfilled. He does not admire human greatness as a communist might, as a sacrifice to the common good, but sees it as having a direct relevance to the individual in his efforts to get most out of life, an objective, rather than a merely subjective relation to the human will.

The source and continuing inspiration of much of Nietzsche's philosophising was a love of art, a motive which it would be quite wrong to dismiss as crudely literary. The conclusions he reached in elaborating some of his almost poetic intuitions have a remarkably explanatory and satisfying character, with progressive elucidation they transcend the realm of poetry and enter that of science.


Nietzsche's thought divides conventionally into three periods. 'The Birth of Tragedy' had expressed the fundamentals of an outlook that was to be further and further clarified throughout his career. He soon found the neat Hegelian formula of this book to be inadequate and unsatisfactory, and after the publication of his 'Thoughts out of Season', essays still written under the influence of Wagner and Schopenhauer, was led onto the middle period, predominantly one of experimentation, the search for what he expressed in the title of one of his books as a 'frohliche wissenschaft', variously translated as 'The Gay science' (from 'gaya scienza', also his own expression) and 'The Joyful Wisdom'.

The joyful wisdom is meant to fill the gap created by the loss of religion, the 'death of God, in Nietzsche's famous phrase, and involves the most complete affirmation of life combined with the most searching honesty in all fields, the qualities he had discovered in Greek tragedy. By many nineteenth century writers, the loss of religious faith was felt to involve, if not an impoverishment of the world, at least an emancipation from pleasing illusions. Nietzsche's programme is a comprehensive critical outlook showing how we may have our cake and eat it. This brought him into the field of human values, a search for those moral forces and ideas which demoralise and weaken, and an understanding of how they operate. The results of this programme were the books he wrote shortly before his mental collapse, displaying an ever increasing clarity and radicalism of thought.

Despite the fact that to read only the books of the middle period, 'Human All Too Human', 'Daybreak', and most of 'The Joyful Wisdom', would give am impression of Nietzsche as rather an acute critic than someone with a finished system of thought, some commentators have held these to be superior to his later work. Part of the reason for this is that here Nietzsche was concerned to show the compatibility of his ideas with humane and liberal values; with the progressive specialisation and concentration of his later works this ceases to be a task that he performs for his readers.


With 'Thus Spake Zarathustra, a book for everyone and no one', he initiated this third stage of his philosophy. Many would dispute his own claim that it is the best of his books, at one point he asserted it to be the most profound book possessed by humanity. Judging by its wide appeal, we might be tempted to view it as his great popular work, the one where he deliberately addresses himself to a larger audience and dramatises his ideas, almost a work of propaganda.

Zarathustra, better known under his Greek name Zoroaster, was the ancient Iranian prophet who founded a religion in which the principal feature is a cosmic dualism involving two warring principles of good and evil. Somewhat impertinently, one might think, Nietzsche decided that this ancient error of the good versus evil antithesis must be set right by the one who originated it, and chose the oriental sage as the mouthpiece for his own philosophy.

The book is partly in the form of a dithryambic kind of poetry, and relies strongly on emotional effect. In the manner of a Hebrew prophet, Zarathustra delivers a number of inspired monologues on various topics, and expounds revolutionary new doctrines, notably those of the superman and the eternal recurrence. Nietzsche presents his own tastes, desires and aversions, with much colourful imagery, as a form of revealed truth, and a total vision of life. For Nietzsche it was a kind of source book. In placing all his emotions and prejudices on paper, so to speak, often writing in a mood of intense agitation and excitement, he provided himself with a rich fund of inspiration for his more critical, considered work, which largely grew from a clarification of emotions and intuitions.

It is easy to find fault with 'Zarathustra', which is too chaotic to be a great work of art in any usual sense. The tone sometimes appears shrill, the prophet goads and exhorts us to make some tremendous effort, to work towards distant ideals, great goals, and this can be tiresome. It seems to lack a sense of humour, despite the constant insistence on the importance of laughter. It is full of contempt, of a strong emotional revulsion for the pettiness of the modern world.

In its luxuriant style, it is closer to oriental literature than the western tradition, a sacred book with a teaching, such as the Koran. Zarathustra has the assurance of a divinely inspired prophet, and we can extract a mature and consistent message, or 'weltanschaung', from his exhortations. He denounces ascetic values and preaches contempt for the rabble, praises the pleasures of the body, and the virtue of a proud, ambitious selfishness, the clean fresh air of the mountains contrasted with the flies of the market place. These are aristocratic, pagan values, raised to a level of articulate intensity that gives them the force of a religion. Zarathustra is distinguished from such pacific hedonists as Epicurus or Omar Khayyam by his renunciation of harmlessness, and his great sense of urgency.

In the dedication, 'a book for everyone and no one', is a clear hint that the form and style of 'Zarathustra' perhaps conceal a deeper meaning than is at first apparent, and are not to be taken at face value. To penetrate this, we have to consider why Nietzsche needed to write such a book in such a style, and we are led to his anti-Christianity. 'Zarathustra' is Nietzsche's answer to the Bible, sometimes almost in the sense of a parody, and it often echoes biblical language.

It was Christianity that destroyed, or at least replaced, the pagan civilisation of antiquity, with which Nietzsche to a great extent identified himself. Against the cool, rational methods of the ancient philosophers was pitted the fire of prophetic inspiration, and against the accumulated wisdom of the Graeco-Roman world was set the Bible, holy scripture, received by revelation. Lacking the advantage of a sacred book, paganism could claim no such authoritative contact with the sources of ultimate truth. In comparison, it was argued by the church fathers, with the sublime certainties of Jesus and the Hebrew prophets, paganism was all doubt and darkness, offering nothing in the way of spiritual comfort but some dubious old myths, and the at best merely probable speculations of philosophers. Homer did not quite count as a prophet, he was a poet, a man from Halicarnassus, inspired by the muses no doubt, but those were not such authoritative figures as Lord God Almighty.

Nietzsche took up the challenge. He would produce a vigorous affirmation of his own, anti-Christian values in the oriental prophetic mode, effect a momentous counter revolution using the methods of the enemy. So inevitably Zarathustra exudes something of the intense moral earnestness and reforming zeal that characterised the prophets of Israel. Any relaxation in mood would be a lapse from the level of inspiration that is to be attained. Now the atheist and anti-Christian can proclaim his message, for everyone, with all the poetic force and inspired assurance that is admired in the Bible. However, Nietzsche is aware of the limitations of that approach, and would not wish to base his case upon it, so strictly speaking the book is for no one. To understand it properly, he says, one must have been both deeply moved and deeply offended by it, which perhaps overstates the case.

'Zarathustra' is attuned to an emotional state of great enthusiasm and excitement. In its lyrical exaltation, and its condemnation of the pettiness of ordinary life, it does convey the prospect of a mode of experience very much more enjoyable and satisfying than that to which most people are accustomed, and it goads us to set about achieving it. Viewed from a lower emotional pitch, these exhortations can seem irksome, even hysterical. Nietzsche restores the balance in his autobiography 'Ecce Homo', the title obviously inviting comparison of himself as man and teacher with Christ. In the chapters 'Why I am so Clever', and 'Why I am so Wise', he pours scorn on the Faustian ideal of ceaseless striving, and attributes much of his own success to good fortune, diet, and an essentially lazy disposition. Again, we could hardly find a more complete contrast to the urgency and grandiosity of 'Zarathustra' than Lawrence Sterne's 'Tristram Shandy', once described as the apotheosis of the inconsequential, yet in a rejected passage for 'Ecce Homo', speaking of the books that have most lastingly influenced him, he describes this as one of his earliest favourites.

It is with such considerations in mind that we must understand the doctrine of the superman.

'I teach you the superman. Man is something that should be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?

'All creatures hitherto have created something beyond themselves: and do you wish to be the ebb of this great tide, and return to the animals, rather than overcome man?

'What is the ape to man? A laughing stock or a painful embarrassment. And just so shall man be to the superman a laughing stock or a painful embarrassment'.

The superman in Zarathustra's religion is analogous to the Messiah (incidentally a doctrine said to be derived from the Sasoshyant of Zoroastrianism) in Isaiah's. As an ideal he is very different from Jesus.

The superman seems to be the central plank of Zarathustra's teaching. What kind of being is he? For one thing, presumably, he possesses to a high degree those qualities which Nietzsche admired in men, creative originality, egoism, pride, strength of will and the like. From a list of those whom he held to be the greatest, beside these two, such figures as Julius Caesar, Michelangelo, Cesare Borgia, Francis Bacon (whom he believed to have been the real author of Shakespeare's plays), the Emperor Frederick II, the Persian poet Hafiz, some might conclude that for him worldly achievement was the highest value, as it appears to be for Cicero in 'The Dream of Scipio'. Cicero portrayed personal immortality, in a world beyond the spheres, as the special reward only of those who have won eternal fame for themselves and brought credit to their native lands. Such a doctrine might be highly useful to the state, but Nietzsche was no admirer of the state, nor was his prime concern with some 'general good'. His superman has a quality of unpredictability and dangerousness and he is above ordinary morality.

We might think of Achilles, magnificent for all his vices, rejecting the chance of a life of peace and happiness, and choosing instead suffering and death, partly for the promise of eternal fame that is offered him. But Nietzsche does not set supreme value upon worldly acclaim, and he was scathing about the hero worship advocated by Carlyle, another ingredient in the eclectic ideology of fascism. The conquering hero is admired not so much for what he does as for what he is and represents. He is emblematic of the state of the will that Nietzsche considers desirable.

Just as the Christian ideal is not to be thought of as fulfilled only be famous saints, though these may provide the aptest illustration of it, so with Nietzsche's great achievers. The famous and the politically powerful offer perhaps the best symbols of the nature of power and will, the overcoming of obstacles, but the emancipated will is not so constrained as to feel obliged to strive for fame or political power. Nietzsche's ideal is an egoistic one, and an asocial drop out such as a perfected Taoist sage might well embody it, while not exactly the suitable image for Zarathustra's purpose.

Sometimes Nietzsche speaks of the possibility of breeding the superman, toying with the principles of racialism and eugenics. Spengler argued that for such eugenic measures to be possible would entail a degree of state control that could only mean socialism; therefore, he maintained, the great counterrevolutionary turns out as a socialist in spite of himself. Spengler considered G.B.Shaw to be Nietzsche's natural successor. Shaw was an enthusiastic populariser and policy maker, and he helped to popularise certain ideas derived from Nietzsche. The devising of political programmes, even in Shaw's perhaps rather frivolous sense, was not Nietzsche's concern; he wrote of politics as an ephemeral chatter, a passing shadow play of little more relevance to his real preoccupations than any other subject. For him there was a clear distinction between the abstract consideration of possibilities, and the conditions of certain possible effects, and the formulation of programmes and policies.

Conceding this, persistent and inevitable criticisms have been levelled against the profession of detachment. Contempt for politics, it is argued, was a common motive in German culture, and bears a large measure of responsibility for the catastrophe of nazism. Whether or not this is true, it does not mean Nietzsche's ideas as such are incompatible with democratic political engagement. They belong to a quite separate field of concern. If western culture were to come to terms with Nietzsche's insights, it would presumably be in the context of a democratic society, and there should be no difficulty with this.

Nietzsche does make Zarathustra say some things which seem to contradict not only his claim to detachment, but even some of his basic principles. He speaks of the superman as something which has never yet been achieved, and to which everything else must be sacrificed. If this is seen as some kind of utopian ideal it appears to go against his egoistic morality. Why should I sacrifice myself for some creature as yet unborn? The doctrine of the superman, by a curious paradox, seems to advocate self abnegation:-

'I love him who works and invents that he may build a house for the superman and prepare earth, animals and plants for him: for thus he wills his own downfall'.

Such an ideal could presumably be used by the weak as a weapon against the strong in precisely the manner that Nietzsche abhors. 'Man has his justification in the superman', says Zarathustra. It was Trotsky, for whom we may be fairly sure that Nietzsche would have had little sympathy, who spoke of raising average humanity to the level of an Aristotle or a Goethe, above which standard new peaks of human glory and greatness would soar.

It is plain from almost everything he says that Nietzsche is not here talking about eugenics, or a utopian ideal, but about something of far more immediate impact. His interest is in values, and for a revolution in values, what would happen after that is left an open question. Zarathustra is urging us to replace the Christian ideal by that of the superman.

Many write as if this ideal is merely the reflection of personal taste on Nietzsche's part, that he admires such men as he does for the same reason that Swinburne admired sadistic women like Dolores, because he likes to contemplate them. If this were true, he would indeed be little more than a poet, a Byron or a Swinburne, turning a romantic attitude into a philosophy, reversing moral values to the end of moulding society more in accord with his preferences. It is true that he was inspired by his emotions, his love of art and his classical ideals, but this no more resulted in a mere justification of his taste than the inspiration which Socrates and Plato received from the physical beauty of boys led to mere rationalisation of pederasty.

So if it is not just a matter of taste, what is it? There is a clue in the formula 'man is something that must be overcome'. This is an answer to the question 'what is man?', not 'what ought man to be?' Far from being a distant ideal, the superman is already here in potential, and as a possibility is vital to the explanation of man as he is.

The superman is not simply stronger, more talented, more powerful, more intelligent, than the average citizen, his life is vastly fuller and richer. If it were not for the possibility of this fuller, richer life that exists in each of us, we should never do anything at all. In propounding the superman, Zarathustra is not inventing something new, merely reminding of permanently present potential. Otherworldly religions place the better life in Heaven after death; Zarathustra brings it down to earth and unites it with knowledge.

He opposes that conception of man as malleable being which was to be elaborated into the system of behaviourism, as advocated in the following passage by J.B.Watson, from his book 'Behaviourism', 1930:-

'I wish I could picture for you what a rich and wonderful individual we should make of every child, if only we could let it shape itself properly and then provide for it a universe in which it could exercise that organisation - a universe unshackled by legendary folk lore of thousands of years ago; unhampered by disgraceful political history, free of foolish customs and conventions which have no significance in themselves but which hem the individual in like taut steel bands'.

Give man the chance to fulfil himself, Nietzsche maintains, and he will be perverse and unpredictable. The superman is in a manner the driving force of us all, the image of where the energies that propel us would lead us if they were allowed full range. The behaviourist ideal, that of Watson and the typical humanist optimist from Auguste Comte to most modern educationalists and social planners, is covered by what Zarathustra says about the 'last' or 'ultimate' man.

"Behold I show you the last man....

"What is love? What is creation? What is desire? asketh the last man and he blinketh!

"Then will earth have grown small, and upon it shall hop the last man, who maketh all things small. His kind is inexterminable like the ground flea; the last man livest longest.

"We have discovered happiness", say the last men, and they blink.

"They have left the regions where it was hard to live, for one must have warmth. Man still loveth his neighbour and rubbeth himself against him; for one must have warmth.

"Sickness and mistrust they hold sinful. They go warily.

A fool is he that yet stumbleth over stones and men!

A little poison now and then: for that causes pleasant dreams.

And much poison at the last for an easy death.

They still work, for work is a pastime. But they take heed, lest the pastime harm them.

They grow no longer poor nor rich; it is too troublesome to do either. Who desireth to rule? Who to obey? both are too troublesome.

"No shepherd and but one flock! All men will alike, all are alike; he that feeleth otherwise goeth voluntarily to a madhouse.

"'Once all the world was mad', say these refined ones, and they blink.

"They are clever and know all that hath come to pass, so that there is no end of mockery. They quarrel yet, but are soon reconciled, lest their stomachs turn.

"They have little lusts for the day and little lusts for the night; but they have respect for health.

"'We have discovered happiness', say the last men, and they blink".

To say that man is something that must be overcome, is to deny the possibility of this form of contentment to anyone who understands what really drives him, and life's true potential. To understand this is to become inescapably involved in an imperative, the struggle against those limitations and resistances, moral and mental, that beset us.

Zarathustra's view on the comparative worth of human beings finds an echo in a speech by Don Quixote to his housekeeper and niece, at the beginning of the second volume of his adventures, where he concludes:-

"As for the vulgar, I say nothing of them, more than that they are thrown in as ciphers to increase the number of mankind, without deserving any other praise".

A natural objection to Nietzsche's ideas at this point is as follows. People like Nietzsche, it is argued, make people dissatisfied with their lots, and so increase the unhappiness in the world. Given his assumptions, the ordinary business of life can become tedious and intolerable, stimulating intense, and nearly always frustrated, ambition. The attractiveness of what he considers to be the fuller, richer life, depends on the revulsion he makes us feel for ordinary living, and thus, instead of expanding our choice, he has narrowed it down. Perhaps we should all be happier if we followed the ethical principles of Kant or of Schopenhauer, in which case Nietzsche's observations about morality might have some historical interest without making any difference to the practical values of everyday life.

One defence might be to invoke Darwin and argue the superman ideal is primordial and innate. It is not inconceivable that the survival of the species might at one time have depended upon valuing the strong, creative and original spirits far more highly than the ordinary mass who greatly outnumbered them, and that these values have become instinctive, so that to repress them leads to individual unhappiness. But this is dubious, and except as a counterbalance to other doctrines, largely irrelevant. It focuses on the happiness of believing in the superman, rather than the happiness he enjoys. Seeing man as a compressed spring, the superman is the image of what to expect if we released the spring.

It is not Nietzsche's object to provide some competitive standard, or measure of success in life. He does not see frustration, or even failure, as the evils to be primarily avoided. We produce enjoyment by struggling against resistances, that is against certain kinds of pain. If there is no discontent, there is no resistance, and no possibility of satisfaction. The enjoyment he calls affirmation is something that is generated in struggle, this is the point of life. The object of striving is nothing in itself, apart from the joy to be felt in its pursuit and attainment. To say that happiness does not lie in the pursuit of inclination but in overcoming the deeper resistances that beset us, does not mean that it is impossible until we have overcome all of these, or that not to have done so is to be flawed or inadequate. Our own happiness is not located in the unattainable ideal, but in overcoming the resistance it inspires.


Eternal recurrence is the other main plank of Zarathustra's message, what we might call his cosmology, the cosmology, if that is the right word for it, which prevails today in what used to be Christendom, that time is an endless progression and death an eternal extinction, is only one of a great number that have predominated at various points in history. There is the Judaic, Christian, Muslim type, a view of time as a drama, with a definite plot, a beginning, a middle and an end. Then there is the Hindu theory of kalpas and mahakalpas, a mahakalpa being an immense span of time at the end of which the cosmos returns to its original state, the night of Vishnu, before repeating itself. Then there is the Maya doctrine, a philosophy of the unreality of time, together with the whole world of appearances.

Whatever cosmology we adopt has the power, if we take it seriously, radically to determine our view of ourselves. Of particular relevance to Nietzsche is the Buddhist scheme, to which he was introduced by Schopenhauer, who had his own interpretation of it. The central idea of Buddhism is how to escape the endless series of births to which we seem inevitably condemned, and enter Nirvana. Orthodox Buddhism as an outlook on life seems to presuppose world weariness, and the problem is how to escape from suffering into a condition in which all desire, the cause of suffering, is extinguished. The urgency of this problem is greatly magnified in the light of the cosmology, since on the Christian, or extinction theories, the suffering of life is of strictly limited duration.

Nietzsche was not world weary, and he wanted an ideal which asserted the positive value of life. Christianity he despised, Buddhism he respected, despite his disagreement, and in fact there are what we would now call Nietzschean elements in much Buddhist culture, tantrism for example. In its later elaborations, Buddhist philosophy and culture, like Christianity, acquired elements which went far beyond the simple pessimistic scheme that Nietzsche saw as its heart and which Schopenhauer and other nineteenth century Europeans found so attractive.

Allan Bennett, an acute and much respected English Buddhist monk, who had previously taught magic to Aleister Crowley, wrote a book called "The Wisdom of the Aryas", in which he criticises Nietzsche as encouraging egoism such as to obscure the Buddhist's doctrine of Anatta, or egolessness. This seems an oversimplification. The differences between the Buddhist position and the Nietzschean are often seen as far greater than they are, partly because of Christian preconceptions as to what all religion must be like. Schopenhauer himself sometimes goes beyond Buddhism to advocate the extreme life hatred of some of the more morbid Christian mystics. There is also a radical ambiguity surrounding such terms as 'egoism', 'egolessness', 'self, 'selfish', 'subject' etc.

In saying that Nietzsche had an egoistic morality, the point is to contrast this with values and ideologies that oppose the interests of self, that, for example, inhibit the pursuit of selfish impulses by the deliberate inculcation of guilt feelings. Talk of heavenly rewards and punishments disguises the nature of an ideology that can be generally hostile to the direct interests of the subject.

This is not the point of the Buddhist doctrine of Anatta, a sophisticated philosophical idea that is psychologically related to a commonplace of mystical expression in various different cultures. Losing the ego, as it is vulgarly described today, is something different from the Christian ideal of self sacrifice and humility, which has passed over into the guilty conscience of the modern 'wet liberal'. The point of 'egolessness' is escaping the limitations of the obsession with self as a concept, the restrictions involved in the idea of the personality, the ego, the subject. Too much consciousness of self is an obstacle to certain valuable forms of experience. For all his egoistic triumphalism, perhaps even as a consequence of pursuing that impulse to its limit, as it were, Nietzsche, like Blake before him, became concerned with the prospect of overcoming the traditional concepts of selfhood and personality. A section of 'The Will to Power' is devoted to this question.

"Subject; this is the term we apply to our belief in an entity underlying all the different moments of the most intense reality: we regard this belief as the effect of a cause, - and we believe in our belief to such an extent that, on account alone, we imagine 'truth', 'reality', substantiality. - 'Subject' is the fiction which would fain make us believe that several similar states were the effect of one substratum: but it was we who first created the 'similarity' of these states; the similising and adjusting of them is the fact - not their similarity (on the contrary, this ought to be denied)".

This is a line of investigation which later thinkers much influenced by Nietzsche, such as Foucault, have pursued in detail. This idea modifies our understanding of the doctrine of the radical inequality of human personalities, and mitigates something of its exclusivity.

Nietzsche saw the main difference between Buddhism and himself as one of mood, world weariness versus amor fati. A Buddhist might criticise his philosophy by saying that he has evidently not advanced to the point of disillusion, that he is still in love with life, essentially because he has not had enough experience, or rather conscious, remembered experience. He would be advised to continue in his path in the confident expectation that it would eventually turn sour on him, and that, perhaps after a few more lifetimes, he would become world weary and don the yellow robe. The comprehensive disillusion that is the beginning of the road to enlightenment can come only to those who have understood the best that life has to offer, and experienced the full force of the 'obscuring passions', which for that reason are classified in Buddhist scripture as among 'those things not to be avoided'. ('Precepts of the Gurus', V3, in 'Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines', ed. W.Y.Evans Wentz). This would be a sympathetic criticism. Perhaps there are Buddhists, as there are many Christians, temperamentally disposed to see him as the arch enemy of all truth, the ally of Mara, the Evil One.

Nietzsche's criticism of the Buddha would be that for certain physiological reasons, perhaps added to a degree of demoralisation resulting from overintellectuality and an oversensitive conscience, he had lost the capacity to enjoy the world properly. 'Never mind', he would say, 'such conditions may be curable'. D.H.Lawrence, in his short story 'The Man Who Died', envisaged Jesus, having survived crucifixion, being cured of his otherworldliness by the love of an Egyptian priestess. Perhaps something of the sort could be done for Buddha.

There is a great gulf separating the optimism of Nietzsche from what normally passes for such. He is as conscious of the pain and suffering of life as any Buddhist, and yet he affirms it, making him appear to some as a monster. He is as far from the healthy minded, indiscriminate affirmation of Walt Whitman, as he is from the positivist faith in inevitable and permanent human progress. All such attitudes, in his view, greatly underestimate the significance of certain forms of suffering, states of disillusion, misanthropy, frustration and fear. It has been said that he means to go all the way with pessimism in order to advance beyond it.

To Nietzsche, Buddhism was, in its essence, an eminently honest, practical philosophy of life, with which he was nevertheless in fundamental disagreement. Unlike Christianity, Buddhism was perfectly intelligible without any presumptions as to what lies behind the natural world. From the earliest surviving Buddhist scriptures may be extracted what can pass for a basically practical ethical philosophy, without speculative or dogmatic trimmings. The aim is that 'this suffering' should end, desire is the cause of suffering, desire must be destroyed. Yet beyond what Nietzsche sees as the rationalistic core, the elaborated system provides a wonderfully dramatic expression of negation. The Buddhist looks at the wheel of birth, the prospect of continued existence without end, and finds it so appalling that he wants to opt out, he seeks moksha, release, liberation, nirvana.

To understand why Nietzsche needed such a plank as the eternal recurrence in his philosophy, we have to see that, even as a sceptic, he wanted a comparable test of affirmation. From the oriental viewpoint, perpetual existence, up and down the grades of being, incarnation after incarnation, is an intolerable thought. Men desire immortality, but not this purposeless continuance.

Nietzsche's eternal recurrence, repetition of precisely the same life, over and over again for all eternity may seem an even drearier thought. There is to be no rest, even in the grave, for the innumerable aeons in which I do not exist will be nothing to me on my time scale, and I consequently always exist, at some point or other on this same life span, endlessly repeated. I will have to go to school again, endure all the same humiliations, with no possibility of ever evolving into any wiser state. This horrible prospect is Nietzsche's test of affirmation. When I not only desire the eternal recurrence to be true, but embrace it with unreserved enthusiasm, then I can say that I truly affirm.

Nietzsche seemed to think the principle of eternal recurrence was literally true; he had an argument for it which very few people would find completely convincing. Metaphysical arguments are, on the most sympathetic view, seldom conclusive, and this one is metaphysical throughout, for one thing it makes all kinds of assumptions about the nature of personal identity. It is not as if the only alternative is the death as extinction theory; neither science nor philosophy have proved the inevitability of that picture. Many of the ancient Greeks, and a number of other people, seem to have held the theory of eternal recurrence, but never with the passionate urgency of Nietzsche.

Leaving aside the question of its truth, we may consider it as a test of amor fati, intensifying as it does the significance of this life, in all its good and bad aspects, by multiplying it to infinity. It is arguable that the extreme form of Calvinist Antinomianism portrayed in James Hogg's 'Confessions of a Justified Sinner', offers an incomparable sink or swim test of affirmation. Come through to the sense of being one of the elect, free from all danger of Hell, and you are above all moral law, freed from all rules and obligations. For waking people up to the importance of living in a certain way, nothing has been found so effective as the threat of Hell. The poet Rilke, much influenced by Nietzsche, and after him the philosopher Heidegger, made much of the liberating, transforming power of the thought of death, conceived as annihilation.

A serious objection to basing a test for affirmation on the possibility of sometimes achieving a certain state of consciousness, is that among those who pass it most successfully are likely to be the mentally ill. How is Nietzschean affirmation to be distinguished from manic elation?


Value equality, as explicit in behaviourism and implicit in certain kinds of liberalism, is allied to a model of scientific explanation that is generally considered to be obsolete. Taking into account the changing model of what was required of a scientific explanation, Nietzsche's programme comes to seem more of a feasible one.

The principles of associationism go back to the eighteenth century and beyond, they provided the kind of explanation that was demanded by the science of the time. Eighteenth century science was connected with the movement known as deism. The orderly, law governed universe that science was discovering, was conceived like a clock which moved according to immutable principles, though why those principles rather than others, it was hard to say. God was in effect removed from the picture; the workings of the world could be admirably explained without the doctrine of divine interference or final causes. The solar system operated according to Newton's laws of motion, and human action was governed by similarly fixed laws, association and the pleasure principle; why this should be was unknown. The universe seemed, for the time being, to be an extremely well organised rational system, but to explain the origin of the laws governing it was still found useful to invoke the idea of God. 17th and 18th century science still left a great deal unexplained, and even a perfectly working mechanical system such as the universe was conceived to be, presupposes someone who made the machine, albeit that it now works so perfectly that he has no further reason to interfere, even to continue to exist.

As scientific knowledge expanded, this picture of the universe became less compelling. The world came to seem a far more complex place than Newton's picture suggested, and yet, despite this increasing complexity, it was becoming more explicable in detail. The cosmos was coming to look less like the orderly machine of Newton, and more like the world described by Lucretius, where the operations of chance manage to produce a semblance of order and regularity. Atomic theory reduces the problem of the diversity of substances, but introduces new mysterious entities, the atoms.

Darwin introduced a new model of scientific understanding, and delivered the death blow to so called 'natural religion'. Henceforth the universe was not to be conceived as a static system operating according to immutable mechanical laws, but as evolving, from which standpoint it was far more susceptible to scientific explanation. The mechanistic hypothesis no longer provided the only acceptable model of rational explanation, whatever its continuing success in many fields.

Darwin explains the origin of man in terms of variation and natural selection, which might be thought to dispense with will and motivation altogether. However, Darwinism does speak of a 'struggle to survive', or 'instinct of self preservation', that has been, in a sense, the motive behind evolution, and it is here that is its main interest to Nietzsche.

Nietzsche had some disparaging things to say about the quality of Darwin's mind, but he did not altogether deny the value of his achievement, holding that certain types of discovery are best made by mediocre minds. It might therefore seem strange that he should have felt moved to attack someone who, to most people's mind, was an inoffensive natural scientist. What he disliked about Darwin was the same thing Marx liked about him, namely his ideological associations with the school of Manchester economics. Like many nineteenth century critics, Nietzsche disliked industrial society, and especially those ideologues who believed that the unhindered operation of economic laws would bring about inevitable and uninterrupted progress towards the millennium. He held in common with such writers as Carlyle and Matthew Arnold, the view that the excessive importance placed on the economic motive, especially in nineteenth century England, had helped to create a society in many respects ugly and philistine. Darwin, whose inspiration was partly in Malthus and other economic writers, and who in turn inspired a virulent form of the progress heresy called 'social Darwinism', shared in the odium.

It is possible to state Darwin's theory behaviouristically, without reference to will, but so long as we grant that science need not restrict itself to measurable quantities, there persists a feeling that talk of will can add something to our understanding. The pleasure principle and the law of association, too, are not materialistic but mentalistic forms of explanation; as an account of why human beings are as they are, they go far beyond a clinical description of behaviour. The will to survive, assumed to be an innate drive which is inherited, is a psychological law which is more specific than the pleasure principle, and which explains more things. However, it is less mechanistic than the associationist account and may therefore be thought by some to be less scientific. Mechanistic materialism dispenses with will, or at least relegates its explanatory function to a very subordinate role. Evolution is in a sense teleological, since the qualities that characterise life forms may be thought of as having a very definite purpose without which they would have disappeared.

Lamarck's theory of evolution, later adapted by Bergson, presupposed a will to evolve into higher forms. Darwin dispensed with this. It would be difficult to explain the origin of a will to evolve, whereas it is easy to account for a will to survive on the principle of natural selection. Biologically, the development of a will to survive, something presumably not present in plants, would be a beneficial mutation, favouring survival. It would work through the pleasure-pain mechanism; as the acts of eating and mating bring pleasure, so the prospect of death brings pain. Thus originate the instincts, which apart form those concerned with reproduction are all concerned with individual survival.

So pleasure and pain, rather than generating the will to survive by the law of association, can be said to presuppose it, since otherwise their origin would be inexplicable. While it may be possible to divert the will behaviouristically into courses unconducive to survival, this would be a form of perversion, rather like training a tree to grow in an unnatural fashion.

Nietzsche argued against Darwin that we only perceive an explicit will to survive in exceptional circumstances, as when resources are scarce and we have cut throat competition within species. Normally, he says, nature is distinguished by abundance of resources, and this means that most of the time there is no struggle to survive. Darwin's picture recalls the ruthless competition of nineteenth century industrial society, where in some quarters economic survival came to be seen as the main object of life, and the will to that end as the source of all good. Nietzsche agrees with the usefulness of the concept of will in an explanation of human nature, but holds that the idea of the will to survive as the mainspring of life is grossly inadequate.

As I sit here now, listening to the breathing of Gerda asleep, the ticking of the clock and the roar of the traffic outside, wondering what to write next, whether to break off and read a book, or roll out my sleeping bags and go to sleep, my immediate survival is not in question. It seems far fetched to try to make a direct 'will to survive' cover all this, since the energy imparted would hardly be great enough.

Nietzsche claims that the will to survive is merely one case of the operation of the will to power, which is his unifying principle, a position even more incompatible with associationism. If the will to power is primary, efforts to redirect the energies to various arbitrarily chosen goals can only succeed by diverting the will from its natural course, by putting obstacles in its path. The will to power philosophy implies always an end beyond that already achieved, that things could be very much better for me if I had more power. It is argued that were it not for the possibility of something very much better than ordinary life, the force of the will would not be sufficient to account for the luxuriant variety of human behaviour and experience. Associationism denies this, arguing that I live purely for pleasure, and have become accustomed to seeking it from certain accustomed paths. If I seek power, that is not so much a search for anything better, as a mark of the conditioning to which I have been subjected.

According to associationism, the will is like a balloon in the wind, and the task of psychology is to learn how to direct it rationally, by means of sails and the like; according to the will to power theory it is like a river whose natural course is to flow down to the sea, and to alter its course one has to place dams to make its journey longer and more difficult, or alternatively speed up its progress by cutting channels.

On the principle of Ockham's razor, the river hypothesis would seem to be preferable, since it involves only one force, that of gravity, whereas the balloon theory is much more complicated when we think about it. Even on the clockwork analogy, dear to the eighteenth century, the concept of the will to power makes human behaviour more explicable. A clock works because it is wound up, that is it works on a spring, or by means of weights. What could be more unreliable than a clock worked by stray magnets in the outside world? While the clock is working, the force pressing within the mechanism is usually much greater than is required to move the hands say, an hour or a minute. Remove all the resistance and the spring would unwind, or the weights fall in no time at all. A will to power assumes a motive force greater than that required to perform any particular act of will. Unhindered, its action would be unpredictable, and possibly very destructive.

There is evidence for the river, as distinct from the balloon hypothesis, in the ineradicable perversity of human nature, that which makes the behaviourist's programme implausible. Skinner's proposals to mould the behaviour of mankind suffer from the same unresolvable hiatus that is noticed in Bentham, that of quis custodiet custodes, who is to condition the conditioners, and how we can be sure that their power will not be abused. On the associationist thesis it ought to be relatively easy to precondition behaviour, but in experience it is not, and those who possess power tend to use it unpredictably. Remove constraints, and the will pursues its own course, as surely as a river flows towards the sea, suggesting that the propelling force behind it is something internal like weight, rather than external, like attraction. Such a force is insufficiently explained by a mere will to pleasure, which upon examination says too little, reducing simply to will, and to speak merely of will as the motivation behind all action says nothing about goals, it is not a unifying explanation.

The concept of the will to power brings the diversity of human aims and values under a single unifying principle, and provides a standard by which they might be compared, while associationism leaves this diversity very much under the rule of chance. Nietzsche offers a psychological formula with the capacity to bring together, in a convincing explanation, a vast amount of diverse material in the form of human ideals and values. Of course many people remain unconvinced. Nietzsche's theory can be looked on as a grand co-ordination of psychological insights. These are not the sort of thing that can be demonstrated mathematically, and there are some minds that are, for various reasons, not receptive to them. Such insights, however, have always been produced, and are usually considered to express a form of truth, public and recognisable, though not involving measurable quantities. It is not unreasonable to assert that Nietzsche is a great psychologist and his perspective a true one, that it satisfies most of the criteria of a successful scientific theory, comparable, for example, with Darwin in biology, or Adam Smith in economics. If various alternative psychological systems, of which associationism is but one, possess a powerful charm and fascination of their own, the same can be said for many of the countless discredited cosmologies and biological or physical theories with which the history of science is littered. I hope to show that the expression 'will to power', however open to misrepresentation, is, under the circumstances, the most appropriate that he might have chosen.

The contrast between the will to power theory and associationism has far reaching moral and psychological consequences. For those under the influence of the latter theory, little meaning can be attached to the concept of a life that is very much more desirable and fulfilling than the one probably led already. It is hard to see how anything can be desirable apart from what is in fact desired. So art, for example, tends to be seen in an essentially hedonistic, consumerist way, and there is held to be no method by which rational thought can lead to an understanding of a fundamentally deeper or richer existence than the apparent social norm.

While philosophy cannot disprove, to everybody's satisfaction, the validity of any set of values, even the most superstitious and peculiar, it is plain that values and ways of living may be profoundly influenced by the philosophy and science of the time. The supposed demands of intellectual consistency may interrupt common sense, or the received wisdom of the human race. The associationist theory can act as a rationalistic block against experience, notably against the insights on which Nietzsche draws for his conclusions. A long way from the striving for perfection of the renaissance scholar, we have come to the doctrine that we are as we are and that there is no real reason why we should be any different. The result is a bifurcation of thought and life, that encourages many people in the idea that reason and the intellect are hostile to energy and vitality.

Given the view that average everyday life is fully meaningful and satisfactory as it is, there is no place for Nietzsche, whose entire mission is seen as an irrelevance and an aberration; and this has ramifications throughout our culture. True profundity may be seen predominantly in such works of literature as insist on the need for compromise, like the novels of the later Tolstoy, or E.M.Forster, adjusting to, rather than resisting, the pressures of mediocrity. Struggle against the grey forces is left to artists and other rebellious irrationalists who persist in believing in that higher potential the denial of which has become a mark of the rational mind.


Instead of the will to power, and instead of the behaviourist idea of the conditioned reflex, the psychologist Hans Eysenck holds to a theory of what we may call genetic potentials. This has similar ethical implications to behaviourism in that it likewise refuses to postulate an end beyond those behaviour patterns that are statistically measurable within society.

The varieties of human behaviour are to be explained, to a far greater extent than strict behaviourists allow, by the action of predetermining genes. For the purpose of research, human potential is treated in terms of financial and social success, something that can be statistically, and therefore 'scientifically' measured. While much of this may well produce a body of verifiable scientific data, Eysenck goes beyond it in drawing conclusions which would seem to rule out Nietzsche's conception of the will to power. Whatever the use of his theory in explaining differences of individual achievement within society, it is quite another matter to extend its application and present it as an explanation of the mainspring of human behaviour.

Nietzsche would see differences in human character as due, to a greater extent than is normally thought, to the effects and frustrations of the will to power. Genetic determinations, insofar as they existed, would be essentially tools in the service of the will to power, strengths and weaknesses, which while operating in predictable ways, are not to be looked on as in any sense final causes. Eysenck tends to treat them as if they were final causes, taking the present state of society as given. Instincts are acknowledged, but because their aims and objects are argued back from behaviour that is normally observed to occur, it is concluded that this is how they are best satisfied, except where we have the kind of discontent that would show up on a statistical survey. Thus a general conformity of behaviour can appear to be a desirable social end. Deviance is untidy, for one thing, and most genetic predispositions can seem to have some kind of social fit. On the will to power theory, deviant responses, whatever their rarity, might be especially instructive, they might represent the effort to surmount socially normal behaviour for the sake of something more satisfying. On Eysenck's thesis, this is unintelligible, and he is driven to speak of square pegs in round holes.

Human objectives presuppose a context, an order of things. While an explicit desire to change the order of things may not present, certain changes might yet produce great satisfaction. If we restrict our explanations to conscious desires, we explain such satisfaction when it occurs by saying that a passion, hitherto absent, has come into being. At any given moment there are a number of conscious impulses. If these are actual, others are potential. A thesis like Nietzsche's holds that the actual is insufficient to explain what actually does occur. Certain desires fail to find expression because they are unrealistic, that does not mean that the will ceases at those points, or that we should not take account of such repressed, or stopped, desires. To limit our conception of the will of man to what is realistically possible to him in his given setting is deeply restrictive as an attempt to explain why he is as he is, or how happiness and satisfaction are best to be attained.

To count the appetite for art as just another impulse or appetite is to distort the emotional map, the whole system of the mind, much as if one were to write about the human body as a series of separate functions, without mentioning the way in which they work together as a system.


To see more specifically what Nietzsche means by power, we may look at what he says about happiness. 'What is happiness?' he writes, 'the feeling that power is increasing, that resistance is being overcome'. This harmonises with the axiom, common to Freud and Buddha, that the desire which motivates action can in all cases be thought of as an 'unpleasurable tension', to overcome which is to experience pleasure, or at least a lessening of pain. In overcoming the resistance presented by any desire, one gains power. But power and resistance may be spoken of, without radical change of meaning, in less private senses. Beyond the resistances presented by momentary desire, with the transient satisfactions it offers, there are levels of resistance more permanent in nature, to overcome which means a substantial and lasting gain in power.

Santayana's contention that by 'power' Nietzsche meant primarily military and financial power appears crudely ill informed. Money can be but one motive among many, and love, for example, is a manifestation of power insofar as it involves the overcoming of a resistance. Since we are speaking of a principle which is supposed to underlie every conscious action, it is obviously wrong to interpret it narrowly as meaning exclusively power over other human beings, indeed it is so extensive a concept that it might be wondered how it can avoid triviality and add anything to our understanding of human motivation. Nietzsche's answer to this would presumably be that in respect of human psychology it restores a correct perspective in a sense that a new jargon word like the Freudian 'libido' could never do. To see this we have to see how it is possible for a natural perspective to become distorted.

The will to power is taken as basic to all life, but we are particularly concerned with its relevance to human psychology and to morality, that is to say values. The concept includes power in its most obvious human senses, and it is not loose thinking to try to elucidate it from this viewpoint. Those who possess a lot of power will tend to have different values from those who have little. Beginning with a distinction between what he calls master morality and slave morality, the values of the powerful and of those most subject to such power, he introduces some order into the conflicting diversity of values that are found.

The original concept of goodness, the ex professor of philology tells us on sound etymological grounds, by no means entailed the altruism which is its received sense today. Instead of the good-evil antithesis, we had the good bad, which is something quite different. The good man was like a Homeric hero, proud, sensual, ambitious and passionate. He was able to find wide scope for the fulfilment of his instincts, and his morality was directed to maintaining and increasing his power. 'Bad' meant what was plebeian and base, weak and mean. We can make most sense of the history of morals if we imagine back to a time in our own savage or barbaric past, when might was right and there was no moral argument. Moral superiority was hardly thought of as distinct from external power, and so power was a unity in this sense. Then came priests and witchdoctors, with claims to special knowledge of the supernatural, taking a degree of power away from the chiefs and kings. In Homer, as in ancient Greek culture generally, the role of priests was unimportant, which was not the case with most other contemporary civilisations.

What Nietzsche called the slave revolution in morals, brought about by Christianity, consisted in something far more radical than this, for kings and priests at first belonged to essentially the same class of people. Ancient civilisations were mostly based on slavery, with the notable exception of the Indian, which made do with the caste system instead. There are certain virtues appropriate to a lowly situation in life, which enable the oppressed and the suffering best to gain such happiness as is possible to them. The slave revolution in morals meant the appropriation of moral superiority on the part of the weak, and the eventual conversion of the strong to this evaluation. Of the Christian God it is intoned 'He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and meek'. The permanent effect of this revolution was an alteration in the concept of moral goodness, so that it has now become largely synonymous with altruism and self sacrifice.

So power, in its plainest external sense is an essential factor in the generation of values, by which one understands beliefs about the world, psychological beliefs, religious, moral and political ideals and suchlike. There are only certain kinds of values, however, which have an interest in acknowledging this truth, and are compatible with full honesty concerning human motivation. This is vividly illustrated by the history of Greek moral ideas in the classical period.

Traditional Greek morality was a collection of taboos serving to protect the unity and domination of a class. Values were uncompromising and egoistic, the ideal was courage, the refusal to submit to intolerable conditions, and required a strength beyond that available to the mass of ordinary people. This morality understands self sacrifice in terms of an egoistic motive like honour, or glory, or patriotism. Christian humility, which centuries of conditioning have forced us to admire, with its insistence on self mortification and suppressing the passions, and its condemnation of that spiritual pride which might alone make such behaviour sympathetic to a pagan, as the worst sin of all, would have been found incomprehensible and repellent. There is plenty of guilt in Greek literature, but mostly in the form of outrage to natural feelings, a wife killing her husband, a son his mother, conflicts of feelings, contradictions and dilemmas. Conscience is recognised as emotion, the gods are personifications of natural forces, there is no criticism of the human passions, only conflict between them. Those who do wrong are liable to come to a bad end mainly because they are unable to support their deeds. Clytemnestra, for example, is an unhappy woman, and her actions set forces in motion which destroy her, but not because she has 'sinned' in the Christian sense.

Aeschylus presents an evolving conception of justice; man is to make his own laws, and the Prometheus myth is a challenge to the idea of an omnipotent God and an unalterable law of righteousness. Aeschylus was by the standards of his country, a religious man, yet he repudiates the concept of a divine law set up against, and in judgement of, human passions.

Greek myth was a prescientific, prephilosophical kind of thought, and despite its beauty and power it eventually came to be considered an intellectual encumbrance by many educated men; those wishing to dispense with it were said to 'disbelieve' in the gods, something which the early Christians were far from doing, rather turning them into demons (see I Cor. x 20).

Once such a step has been taken, one is intellectually free from those taboos and pieties of traditional morality which inhibit the formulation of a science of behaviour. A traditional morality finds it difficult to allow for relativity of values, and this, for one thing, may make for discomfort in a period of rapid social change and expanding horizons. The dramatic use made by Aeschylus and Sophocles of religious myth, reveals an impressive insight into human nature. Nietzsche saw what he considered as the sophist culture as the continuation of this wisdom, an attempt to make it systematic and scientific, detaching moral psychology from its mythological framework.

The sophists were travelling teachers who instructed in the art of success in life, particularly in rhetoric, but many of them had distinctive philosophical ideas of their own. They were perhaps the first to apply rational critical methods to moral questions, and in the main they were relativists. Protagoras said that 'man is the measure of all things, of things that are that they are, and of things that are not that they are not'; Gorgias apparently expressed a sceptical, even nihilistic view, saying that there is nothing and even if there were anything we could never know it. Many of them were in favour of the uninhibited pursuit of instinct, which they advocated with a frankness that would in most circumstances be self defeating. Nietzsche had especial admiration for the historian Thucydides, whom he regarded as one of the finest flowers of sophist culture, thinking of the clear insight into human motivation, and the freedom from moral prejudice, evinced in his history of the Peloponnesian war, which tore Greece apart in the fifth century.

Traditional Greek values were aristocratic and unrationalised. The movement towards more popular forms of government, democracies and tyrannies, put the aristocratic ethos under threat. Not that any of the leading representatives of the sophist culture, despite their frequent adherence to anti aristocratic parties, would have allied themselves directly to any force opposed to that ethos, but their considerable moral cynicism threatened cultural disintegration. Many of the Greeks of the time were inordinately individualistic and ambitious. A common ideal of those influenced by the sophists was to become an amoral tyrant, a not altogether unfeasible ambition in the light of the great number of independent city states and the fluid state of contemporary politics.

In overthrowing the taboos of conventional morality, and looking honestly at human motivation, there was an obvious tendency to undermine the concept of moral standards altogether. Thrasymachus, in Plato's Republic, brashly declares that 'justice is the interest of the stronger', a cynical position, which however rooted in an urge to uncompromising honesty, seems to render all moral language redundant. If the aristocratic ethos had come to this, it was likely that 'the stronger' would ultimately turn out to be the democratic ethos, effectively the prejudices and principles of the mob. Plato was opposed to this, but felt that traditional values were obsolete. He wanted to create a new rational basis for aristocracy. Judging by what was to eventually happen, it would seem that he failed, unless one sees as a partial success the survival of a Platonist, or neoplatonist, element in the Christian religion. In speaking of Socrates, I mean the Platonic Socrates, but follow Nietzsche in treating him only as the ethical teacher, not the metaphysician or political utopian.

On Nietzsche's view, the supreme cultural achievements of fifth century Athens culture are to be valued as the expression of mankind at the highest expression of his powers. Rather than viewing them in the manner of the eugenicist Francis Galton, as the result of a unique concentration of very high natural intelligence, he sees them explicable in terms of an exceptional freedom from taboos and superstitious ideals. Life was then valued for what it was, and there was an unparalleled intellectual honesty in all fields. Athens was not merely excellence, but by Christian standards, immorality triumphant. We have a view of a full social world unshackled by so many of the inhibitions that restrain us. It was the peak of classical culture, and if we know the reasons for its supremacy we may know where to look for the reasons for the decline and ultimate collapse of classical civilisation several hundred years later.

There were many at the time who felt that it was rationalism itself that was destructive and dangerous, as men forsook the wisdom enshrined in tradition for the uncertainties of speculation. Socrates, himself associated with the sophist movement, was put to death for impiety and corrupting the morals of Athenian youth. Nietzsche saw him as the initiator of a decadent movement in a different sense, the subverter of the brilliant sophist culture, yet nevertheless perhaps the saviour of Greek civilisation which had been set on a self destructive course.

Socrates took on the task of correcting the dangers of individualistic excess, not by a return to the traditional order, but by means of rational argument. He criticised the traditional wisdom of the poets, saying, 'not by wisdom do poets write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration'. In turning the sophisticated methods of Greek philosophy onto ethical questions, he established a reputation as one of the most original and seminal minds in history.

Nietzsche saw him as trying to curb the violence of instinct by means of rational argument. The identification of knowledge and virtue is the foundation of Greek ethics, and Socrates argued that the pursuit of socially desirable moral virtue necessarily follows from a direct understanding of one own real interests, which turn out to be incompatible with the unrestrainedly egoistic passion which governed many of his contemporaries. Nietzsche saw one effect of this as to set up an artificial ideal by which real life was to be judged and found wanting, and which was eventually to open the door to the extreme otherworldliness of Christianity. The underlying motive of such an ideal was to alter some of the power relationships, what we might call the pecking order, of society. Those who criticise established values may generally be thought of as suffering, in some way or other, from the existing order, and aiming at a transfer of the moral power and self confidence associated with the old values to others more personally advantageous and congenial. Nietzsche lays stress on Socrates' physical ugliness and plebeian descent.

Socrates is not necessarily to be condemned for complicating the game in this fashion; at the very least, Nietzsche suggests, such complexities help to make life interesting. As Plato portrays him, he is far superior in reasoning ability to his sophist opponents, and he seems to have raised rational discussion to a new level of effectiveness. Nietzsche says that he invented a new 'agon', a contest, an intellectual form of chariot racing. The aristocratic happiness hymned by the poet Pindar was that of the Olympic victor, a conscious power ideal, achieved through formalised athletic contest. In the modern world we still have Olympic victors, as we still have dictators. We still have athletes who value athletic triumph above life and health. But such triumph palls beside that of a winner of minds by rational persuasion, such as Socrates. His standard of reference was always reason, never traditional dogma, and his claim to our respect is based on his power of argument.

Nietzsche himself does not use the Socratic method of closely reasoned (if often fallacious) argument. He is rational but not dialectical. In presenting his case he is not concerned to argue each individual assertion against all possible objections. Given his style of thinking he would hardly have time to do so, but he has the same commitment to complete rational defensibility.

It might on the face of it seem an obviously excellent thing that the ability to defend one's position logically should have become, with Socrates, a newly important factor in determining power and status. As with the older shift in power from chief to witchdoctor, it might seem highly desirable that power should be in the hands of the intelligent rather than the merely strong, rich and brutal. Nietzsche argues that there can be dangers in setting up an ideal standard in criticism of what appear to be natural human responses and reactions. It may obscure the psychological understanding that can grow from the perception of the roots of moral valuation in the will to power, such as Nietzsche discerned in some of the sophists, and in such later writers as Machiavelli, La Rochefoucauld and certain novelists. Those who lay claim to inherent moral superiority based on virtue, find it hard, for fear of undermining that claim, to acknowledge motives such envy and resentment to which they might be subject. Only master values can frankly admit the primacy of the will to power. In proposing an alternative standard of right and wrong to that which was accepted in a society singularly free from traditional prejudices, Socrates leaves the door open for the conception of a 'real world', superior to the apparent, which was to become developed in Plato. To admit the roots of this in the will to power would be to concede the logical priority of the old values, which would be unacceptable. Once it is presumed to exist, this 'real world' can become the vehicle for all kinds of dogmatic and coercive assertions, and is particularly useful for revolutionaries and those with an interest in falsifying psychological reality.

Given the Socratic reform, the requirement for rational justification, there is a danger that those in a weak position should succeed, by means of propaganda and dialectic, in so exalting the virtues and values of weakness as to paralyse the natural expression of strength. One reason, Nietzsche says, why Socratic dialectics cannot work as a cure for decadence is that Socrates personally was himself extremely decadent, plagued, on his own admission, by abnormally vicious instincts, which he needed to bring under close control.

Whatever values I acknowledge, insofar as I cannot live up to them, my morale is correspondingly low. Persuade myself that they are wrong and it rises. There are fundamentally two different kinds of values, those of the powerful and those of the powerless. We speak of master and slave morality, because the power of a master over a slave is the most effective symbol of other forms of power, or of power relationships generally. It presents these relationships, of universal application, in a particularly vivid and easily graspable form. This was well understood in the ancient world, where one of the most basic distinctions was between slave and free, between those who were to use their energies serving others, and those who were to use them serving themselves. In modern terms, Nietzsche suggests at one point that anyone who does not have at least two thirds of his time to himself might be considered a slave.

Being anyway debarred from the satisfaction of certain instincts, the powerless come to assert that the instincts are themselves evil, and the satisfaction of them wrong. In this they seemingly have nothing to lose, and at least relief from a depressing feeling of inferiority to gain. The idea of what ought to be also, it is hoped, succeeds in demoralising the strong, so that established power is no longer understood as a guarantee of moral rightness. So slave values are to be understood in terms of opposition to master values, rooted in an unexplicit desire for power, for an immediate gain in morale, and also the hope of eventual material success.

The interests of groups and individuals inevitably conflict, so in striving to satisfy myself I am necessarily involved in a struggle against other human beings, who while they may not threaten my survival, do threaten my power, including the value I might want to set on myself. Such power is not just a matter of telling other people what to do; much is needed simply to enjoy oneself in peace. Even an idealistic revolutionary, seeks it not simply for the pleasure of having other people serve him, but to remake his moral environment, removing the features he finds objectionable and remodelling society after his heart's desire.

It should not be thought that power in Nietzsche's sense could be easily quantified. To think of it purely in terms of money or social status would be grossly crude. It is not even the possession of power that is worth having so much as the enjoyment of it increasing, the overcoming of resistance. The subjective significance of any theoretically measurable quantum of power would vary tremendously from person to person, and it is this that determines the enjoyment or happiness received from it. To accuse someone who sees the will to power as the motive behind even the most refined and cultivated of human experiences, even, presumably dreams, as denigrating those experiences in favour of the life ideals of press barons, unscrupulous politicians and careerists of all kinds, is a serious misinterpretation. Power seeking in the vulgar sense, however, is of interest to him, especially when it exhibits human nature stripped of the veil of moral prejudice which normally obscures it.

Many would agree with the interpretation of desire in terms of resistance to be overcome, but would normally understand this in a trivial sense. On Nietzsche's view, it is not just the desire itself that creates a resistance. Resistances pervade the outside world, and among the most important are those presented by the wills and desires of other people. The instinctual driving force of the will is in continual opposition to these.

According to Nietzsche it is not the satisfaction of any particular drive that is important in an act of will, but the overcoming of resistance. In his account of the variations of human values, he isolates some of the characteristic resistances with which the will is faced, and so manages to correlate a lot of disparate phenomena. If all human beings were solitary, and equally free and independent, if they were more like cats, it might not be helpful to speak of this in terms of power, not because happiness would not then seem like power, but because there would be little motive to deny it.

There are a number of related reasons why the word 'power' is so appropriate. One is the psychological observation as to what the feeling of happiness is like, "the sense that power is increasing, that resistance is being overcome". It also focuses on an important truth, that just as people are, in general, quite obviously deprived of power in a very plain sense, so are they deprived of potential enjoyment and satisfaction, far more than they generally care to admit. One may talk of power over the natural world, but the world of the human and the social is permeated with power relationships. Living together as social animals, human beings set up all kinds of resistances to each other's wills. Among the resistances set up is a deliberate obscuring of psychological reality, confusion implanted in the mind as to the effects of certain actions in securing happiness. The initially very obvious fact that happiness is closely related to the sense of increasing power is denied and obscured. The reason for this is closely bound up with external power relationships in society, the motive behind 'slave values' and the 'morality of the weak'.

The concept of the will to power is an appropriate characterisation of what would be more widely recognised as the ordinary facts of human nature were it not for the effects of a widespread interest in falsification deriving fairly directly from an experience of powerlessness in relation to the strong and successful. With the word 'power' we break the mystique, assert what is most importantly denied, namely the existence of the falsifying motive itself.

To speak simply of instinct, libido or will, rather than will to power, would make it easy to disregard the vital fact that in any conceivable form of human society the instinctual energy of different individuals must clash. There is a very powerful interest in denying this fact. Those whose interest it is to render man harmless, falsify human nature. Only those who live by master values are strong enough not to need to defend themselves thus. Master morality may make a virtue of truth for its own sake; it is the only position which has no interest in self deception, that does not see reality as something to be feared, perhaps threatening a hostile judgement. Truth is in the interest of those who live by master values, they want to know how they may put the world to use for their own purposes; the interest in falsification comes from those who see the truth as dangerous in the use that the stronger may make of it, and who need to defend themselves against it. Aleister Crowley expressed Nietzsche's point succinctly in the 'Book of Lies'. "White is white is the lash of the overseer, white is black is the watchword of the slave".

In answer to the ancient question of what life is about, revealed religion introduces a complication in the form of an antiegoistic moral dimension, which moves us further away from the truths of human nature expressed in pagan myth and art. So the good, meaning ultimate happiness) has to be mediated through this moral dimension, whose original significance was to enable the underdog classes to participate in what good is available. It is proclaimed that you cannot be happy unless you are 'good', that is unless you observe the many restrictions demanded by the religion. Christian values of neighbourliness and forgiving enemies sprang originally, he says, from women and slaves, oppressed classes for whom it was the supreme interest to create a 'harmless' type of humanity.

In the nineteenth century, especially in Germany, the concept of morality was far more in the forefront of intellectual discussion than it is today. Kant raised the idea of the 'ethical' life to a supreme status, and was followed in this by Fichte and others. Nietzsche describes Kant as deriving this ideal ultimately from the ancient Stoics, via Rousseau. Such an explicit position Nietzsche could clearly attack as a falsification of human nature, a tendentious distortion of human motivation and the psychology of happiness. That this self consciously ethical life however, is no longer so widely proclaimed a philosophy, does not mean that moralistic distortion is any less a feature of modern culture, though it may take less obvious forms.

An explicitly moralistic account of human nature is often superseded by a quasi-medical one, making of mental health a comprehensive ideal parallel to bodily health. Unlike the will to power theory, this may present some or other fairly specific set of values, attitudes and behaviour patterns as objectively and medically desirable, thus imbuing them with a power equivalent to moral rightness. Some such model, rarely subjected to philosophical scrutiny, is frequently upheld by psychiatrists and social engineers, with all their sophisticated techniques for making people conform to orthodox patterns of life. The moralistic concept of wickedness gives way to a medical concept of sickness. Both aim to weaken the deviant's egoism, his confidence in his own will.

Medical models may be used to promote personal hobbyhorses as fundamental truths of human nature. Those who maintain that some particular drive, such as the sexual, or even the hunger drive, must be satisfied before any degree of fulfilment is possible, might be said to attach a higher degree of importance to that drive than is reasonably necessary. Wilhelm Reich, for example, managed to reduce religion to sex, but only, it might be thought, because he himself devised what amounts to a religion of sex, with the place of God taken by the orgasm. It is a possible religion, but to adopt it is to attach a significance to sex which is even greater than that given by most people, and which makes it stand for more things.

The will to power theory does not promote any one set of values against another in such a question begging manner, it unifies by seeing every specific attitude in context as the necessary expression of the will to power, given all circumstances. It has been suggested that it is morally biased because it has the effect of demoralising the weak. It is felt that it gives moral strength to those already in a position of strength by reducing all human differences to a power hierarchy against which there is no appeal. It must be stressed that this theory says nothing about the possible validity or invalidity of any value judgement whatever, and I am under no more of a obligation to respect the established order than to reject it, and may make what judgements I will.

Of course, each alleged falsification claims to correspond with the facts of human nature as much as Nietzsche does. In expounding Nietzsche it would be easy enough to treat him as a purely experimental thinker with whom we are invited to take issue at every point, or to give various examples of power and say that this is what he thinks we are all after. We can look for a greater degree of coherence than that. The point is not so much to do with what people in fact desire, but is concerned with the whole process of willing, desiring acting and imagining. The conception of the will to power offers a hypothesis which links up and accounts for what Nietzsche describes as the huge variety of moral attitudes we find at various places and times, and an explanation of some of the ways in which values may alter over the course of time.

The positing of a largely unconscious motive, to explain why people hold the beliefs and values they do, is not something to be introduced lightly. The will to power is something different from what people would usually offer as an explanation of their behaviour, it goes beyond a simple explication of their beliefs and desires. We are explaining people's beliefs and values in terms other than they would probably use themselves. The justification for the concept can only be that it makes clear what would otherwise be obscure. However accurately we describe what someone believes, it is still often perplexing why he should believe it. People may believe things we find not only incredible but deeply repellent. Where there is verbal understanding, psychological sympathy may yet seem impossible. Wittgenstein spoke of different values and beliefs in terms of different 'forms of life'. Yet insofar as we are all human, it is felt, we are one form of life, and should be mutually comprehensible.

A concept such as the will to power has more specific content than that of forms of life, but only enough to make sense of the diversity. It is the generality of the will to power theory which some people find offensive; they want something far more particular, for reasons that are not hard to identify. I like to feel that my own values are the norm from which other people have deviated; if I can persuade others of this then I gain moral power. The will to power theory offers no such norm, nothing to use as a protection against others, no specific statement of what is right or healthy. Nietzsche by no means subscribed to a doctrine that might is right. Concepts of rightness and wrongness may vary according to how much power we possess, but insofar as power is a fact of nature its moral rightness or wrongness is not a question, and all that is asked is that we be strong enough to look these facts in the face.


Modern morality of a seemingly egoistic cast finds expression in the qualification 'so long as you don't hurt anyone else' to the old adage 'do what you will'. There is usually an assumption that egoistic fulfilment is possible without infringing on the egoism of others. This supports an ideology of atomistic, individualistic hedonism, or egoism without will to power. From the Nietzschean viewpoint the assumption is unacceptable. Such an ideology may purportedly be practised, but one would look for hidden motives in the way it would actually operate. From the viewpoint of the conscious will to power, the limitation in the psychology means a limitation in the fulfilment offered. The doctrine will be seen as restrictive. From a less enlightened point of view, however, the results may be more satisfying. The will to power will operate unconsciously, and the doctrine, far from restraining, or holding up its operation, provides the framework of its ambition. Any ideology can produce a highly competitive motive. The prospect of success within it can provide a strong emotional challenge, offering a great sense of power once it is attained. Such a motive is in conflict with the simplicity of the explicit ideology, and will tend to be concealed. In the case of a second rate ideology, those who can identify most strongly with it, and therefore become most successful within its terms will be the second rate minds. It will be the second rate that has all the confidence and restrains and oppresses the excellent.

The seventeenth century French aphorist La Rochefoucauld, was an explorer of such hidden motives, of the operations of what he calls 'Self Love'. 'Whatever discoveries have been made in the land of self love', he writes, 'many regions still remain unexplored'. Nietzsche expressed agreement with the general outlook of his book of 'Maxims', or psychological observations, usually regarded as cynical (e.g. 'there is something in the misfortunes of our closest friends that does not displease us'), though he repudiates his pessimism, which is to say that he refuses to find such truths objectionable, or to be depressed by them. The more power a human being acquires, the more he will tend to behave in a manner which is unpredictable, and liable to be regarded as immoral or dangerous. This is not meant as a value judgement, but as a factual observation. The truth of human nature is immoral, by Christian and conventional standards, and accordingly the path to happiness and fulfilment is an immoral one. Much opposition to Nietzsche springs from this.


Russell suggests that Nietzsche misunderstood human nature since he was motivated by 'near universal hatred and fear', an absurd charge if taken literally. Russell and Nietzsche, as humanistically educated philosophers, interested in many of the same things, are less divergent emotionally as the former would seem to believe, and Nietzsche was no more immune to pity, even if he did regard it as sometimes a dangerous temptation, than anyone else.

Seeing that the argument has become personal, we may look at what might be conjectured about Russell himself. He was often criticised for extreme emotional deficiency, and has been described as "all brains and balls". Nevertheless he writes in his 'Autobiography' of a desperate need for love as one of the three great passions which have ruled his life, a passion which it is easy to imagine as distorting the apprehension of certain kinds of truth. A passionate hunger for love is hardly calculated to ensure emotional objectivity. To be as unfair as he is, one might speculate that his defective emotional makeup influenced his opinion of Nietzsche. Many consider that, for all his brilliance of mind, Russell's judgement in certain fields, politics for example, was occasionally very misguided.

We must ask whether motives like hatred, fear, envy and resentment could possibly have had the effect of distorting Nietzsche's understanding. In a sense, his position is like that of Socrates, he is setting up an ideal standard of values in condemnation of that which is established. However, insofar as master morality is not to be taken as meaning necessarily the values of those in power at any given time, envy and resentment are not inevitably to be condemned as motives. The term envy has a certain ambiguity. When Nietzsche denounces the values that spring from envy, he is thinking of something like the deadly sin denounced by the mediaevals, a miserable, destructive passion to spoil and destroy. People also describe as envy something that expresses itself as a frankly competitive spirit, and this, what Nietzsche described as Hesiod's good Eris, he saw as an entirely acceptable motive, the kind of thing that inspired the great Greek tragedians. Aristotle wrote of the envy that incites us to emulation and high achievement as a positive virtue. Inspired by discontent, one may be led to question the established order, feeling more strongly than a satisfied person the force of an oppression it might be advantageous to overthrow. The resentment Nietzsche claimed to have characterised Socrates was not meant as an argument against him, and perhaps what resentment destroyed resentment may restore. The important point is whether Nietzsche's supposed resentment led him to distort or misunderstand. The objection is that his conceptions of power and master morality are only expressions of his own frustration, that dispassionate intelligence does not come to his conclusions, and that he claims his own, rather limited personality as the model for all human nature.

Nietzsche's main passion was for clear insight, and in allowing personal motives of fear, envy or hatred to obscure his understanding of psychological reality, his entire work would be self refuting. In view of his stated aims, and his undoubted intellectual capacity and psychological penetration, only an overwhelming interest in falsification could have led him into such a monumental blunder. His personal will to power was in opposition to any such interest.

Admittedly there is much in what he says that is personal in origin, springing from his individual reaction to the forces bearing upon him, but such judgements are not to be taken as his essential message, only his application of it to his own situation. As he is essentially a rationalist, he does not expect to be taken on faith. In this he cannot be fundamentally opposed to any other rationalist, from Buddha to Socrates to Russell, all are engaged on a common quest for truth, using essentially the same methods.

Amid a wide range of other moods, there is vehemence and contempt, and what looks like anger and hatred in his books, but anger is a stage in overcoming, and he says he would be disappointed if he did not occasionally antagonise even his most sympathetic readers. His hostility is rather to ideas than to persons, and even here we need to distinguish between different aspects and interpretations. When he vents his hostility in polemic, as he does with Wagner, he can be very witty and penetrating.

If we are to arrive at understanding, we must be uncompromisingly hostile to that which opposes it, but this is hardly ever likely to be something that can be unquestionably encapsulated in any simple formula. Sometimes the effort may result in what appear to be lapses of thought or style. Nietzsche wrote in Human All Too Human (I 155).

"The good artist's or thinker's imagination is continually producing things good, mediocre and bad, but his power of judgement, highly sharpened and practised, rejects, selects, joins together...All great men were great workers, untiring not only in invention but also in rejecting, sifting, reforming, arranging".

Wittgenstein commented on this "It is not quite like that. It's true that a gardener, along with his roses keeps manure and rubbish and straw in his garden, but what distinguishes them is not just their value but mainly their function in the garden. Something that looks like a bad sentence can be the germ of a good one".

As an example of Nietzsche's apparent lapses we make take the sweeping generalisations about nations and races in the section 'Peoples and Fatherlands' in "Beyond Good and Evil". He makes an admission that "we good Europeans" allow ourselves our hours of "patriotic drivel", then, after some remarks about the future, homogenised, democratic Europe, launches into a strongly francophile account of the virtues and vices of the Germans, French, English and Jews. It is natural to read this section with dismay. After what he has been teaching us, we feel, about values, religion and higher culture, that he should revert to this crude level seems deplorable. Nevertheless, such thoughts have helped to inspire him, and can likewise be instructive to his readers. We are stimulated to emotional responses as a necessary part of understanding, to qualify them to the point where they are always quite fair, would be never to express anything at all. We do not have to like Nietzsche, but we misjudge him if we take all his prejudices at face value.

Even his celebrated hatred of Christianity is by no means as simple as it might appear at first sight, since Christianity takes many different, often mutually contradictory forms. Even, however, if the word for him means no more than what he wants it to mean, this would not much affect his case. We all take up attitudes based on oversimplifications; to refuse to simplify would be to paralyse our minds. Though the free spirit is never bound by such categories, he must make use of them in order to find his way around in the world. Simplifications supply the standards on which any society bases its culture, and it is more than likely that some popular prejudices are harmful and ought better to be replaced by others, no more true, but perhaps more fruitful.

I do not mean to apologise for Nietzsche on this matter, he certainly desires to offend in many cases. A large part of his appeal is to impulses which centuries of conditioning have led us to fear, or to think of as wrong. According to him, we are far more beset by preconceptions and transient, mutable, presuppositions than most people realise, and if he is right, not only private morality but much of our psychiatry, education, political thought and sociology for instance, are contaminated with dubious principles. Nevertheless, there is an element of ambiguity behind even his most adverse judgements. One might compare his approach to intellectual discovery with Hegel's dialectic, though the use which Hegel makes of his method is repugnant to Nietzsche as an egoist.

It is easy to misunderstand him if we imagine that he identifies himself with each of his particular judgements, or conclude from his hypercriticality that he is setting impossibly high standards. If he sometimes flatters his readers ('we Hyperboreans'), sometimes he likes to make them feel uncomfortable, jolting them out of accustomed patterns of thought and feeling. The pride he believed in was more of the aristocratic than the bourgeois kind, he was out to destroy unjustified conceit, holding that to be assaulted with prejudices is often a valuable antidote to complacency.


The natural Marxist objection to Nietzsche's psychological position, which needs to be mentioned because it is so persistently put forward, is that conflict between men, and hence the type of egoism analysed by Nietzsche and La Rochefoucauld, sprang from a particular order of society, Versailles court life in La Rochefoucauld's case, and nineteenth century capitalism in Nietzsche's. It is the Marxist's way to reduce the psychological to the economic, insisting on interpreting psychological questions as economic ones. They may point out models of society based on co-operation. There is perhaps no intrinsic reason even on Nietzsche's view, why it should not be possible to have a society, albeit a primitive one, based purely on co-operation, in which the will to power of each is kept in harmonious and mutually acceptable balance. Explicitly recognised, or practicable interests, may or may not conflict. The will to power theory is concerned with the instinctual energy, or theoretical interest, including the imaginative possibilities open to each individual, irrespective of particular circumstances. Even in more sophisticated societies, the recognised interests of a peasant and a king (as of a worker and a commissar) might coincide precisely, given the peasant is happy as such, and so long as he does not get it into his head that he ought to be able to able to realise his inner potential of being a king.

On Nietzsche's position, psychology is more fundamental than economics. It is hard to envisage any realistic model of human society in which human nature would be radically different from the way in which he conceives it, or which casts any doubt on the conception of the will to power. That people might come to believe it to be otherwise, under the effect of what amounts to a religious dogma, is a different question.


On the basis of his discoveries, Nietzsche sketches out a programme for the critical reassessment of civilisation. The major ideological force to which he opposes himself is Christianity, and the arch villain is St. Paul, to whom he applies the epithet 'dysangel', or bearer of bad tidings, virtually the quintessence of everything to which he is most hostile. The religion of 'the crucified', was the principal, indeed the essential historical movement consciously ranged against that cluster of ideals and values with which Nietzsche identified his life's work.

Christianity was accused of destroying the Roman Empire and the higher values associated with it. He is here primarily concerned with enlightenment, with an enlightened culture, rooted in understanding, and the urge to freedom of the mind and spirit, and here the ineptitude of the accusation that his interest was primarily in political and military power, is quite obvious. Of the scandalously open lust for these things there was no lack in the early Christian church, and some of the nineteenth century decadents turned to the church for this very reason, seeing in the triumph of Christianity a return to the exciting oriental barbarism hymned by Flaubert in Salammbo'. The mobs of Alexandria and Constantinople, always prone to riot, were easily dominated by unscrupulous bishops, and early theology, hair splitting disputes about minute points of definition, offered the pretext for the most acrimonious and often violent quarrels between different contenders for the power of leading the faithful, with all the wealth and splendour that went with it.

The classical civilisation of Rome, as Nietzsche saw it, was heir to most of what was best in the preceding eras. It had absorbed and assimilated the culture of the ancient world, and for centuries had been laying the foundations of a future civilisation animated by principles that were fundamentally sound, a rational, scientific, egoistic outlook. Rome fell, and the high civilisation of antiquity was all but lost for a thousand years.

"All the labour of antiquity in vain. I have no words to express my feelings at such a catastrophe". (Antichrist)

To give some perspective I shall mention a few varying opinions on the collapse of Rome and the fall of civilisations in general.

The reason given by Gordon Childe, in 'What Happened in History', is primarily economic. The Roman Empire fell, he says, because its political structure was outmoded, given the new economic forces that were at work. In much the same way, the bronze age civilisation had been outmoded by the classical, and had it hoped to survive, classical civilisation should have broadened its base of support by an economic revolution.

Gibbon wrote in immense detail of the decline of Rome, which he attributed, though tentatively, to a multitude of factors, one of which was a decline in the moral qualities of the Romans. Certainly Christianity had a part to play in this, though whether as an effect or a cause, it is hard to determine.

Burckhardt maintained that the fundamental religion, therefore the essential driving force, of classical antiquity, and one for which it never found a satisfactory replacement, was the worship of the city state. Empire having put an end to this political form, by the time Christianity took over classical civilisation was already dead. This view, which is also put forward by Toynbee, is by no means universally accepted. Some classical scholars see the paradigm of this extreme city state nationalism, ancient Athens, as a populist aberration from the aristocratic loyalties and traditions that were long central to Greek culture.

James Frazer seems sympathetic to the Burckhardt view when he describes the decline as due to otherworldliness, an increasing concern with the afterlife, which meant a neglect of the individual's duty to the state, hitherto all important.

Burckhardt's religion of the city state is also meant to explain the cultural supremacy of fifth century Athens. The idea, which was not Nietzsche's, that what marks a time of high creative achievement is the all pervasive intrusion of the state into all details of its citizens' lives, provided one powerful impulse towards twentieth century totalitarianism. A comparison of such civic monuments as the Parthenon in Athens with those of Hitler's Germany or Stalin's Russia, would not seem to bear out such hopes.

Mahatma Gandhi argued that Rome fell because its civilisation was based on fundamentally unsound principles, here comparing unfavourably with the Indian, which has survived to this day. Western civilisation, based on the classical model, was doomed to share its fate.

Spengler held that each civilisation has a fixed life span. Classical civilisation, grown old and ossified by natural causes, was superseded by the vigorous young 'magian' culture, of which early Christianity was one expression.

R.G.Collingwood, in his 'Essay On Metaphysics', argued that classical civilisation made the fatal mistake, inevitably leading to sickness, decadence, and the breakdown of institutions, of misinterpreting the presuppositions of its own science, which is another way of saying that its metaphysics were inaccurate. Christianity was a successful attempt to correct this metaphysical error, and the bizarre creed of Athanasius is in reality a sound piece of historical analysis.

Georges Sorel conceded that Rome had become morally bankrupt, in much the same way as Nietzsche understood it, but he saw Christianity as a revolutionary movement, fanatical and full of energy, which could have had the power to regenerate. Unfortunately the church in the west took over the economic system of the pagan empire, and thus became inextricably involved with decadence; the point not being that the economic system was rotten in itself, but that such economic interdependence with the enemy, and the inevitable compromise with his institutions, fatally diluted the revolutionary zeal that afforded the one hope of cure. He saw a corresponding regenerative hope for the west in socialism, with the same threat of failure were it to succumb to parliamentarianism rather than remaining revolutionary.

Another viewpoint is Gobineau's racialist theory, according to which, high cultural achievement, a great civilisation, is the unique product of the racial mixture of a master race with a lesser one, not too distantly related. Ultimately decadence results from the uniform mediocrity brought about by complete racial intermingling. The blood of the master race, which Gobineau considers essential for high a standard of culture, becomes so mixed up with that of more servile peoples that the capacity for high achievement is destroyed. Thus the decline of classical antiquity is comparable to the deterioration of the blood of racehorses.

Simone Weil saw Rome as a tyrannical, irreligious Beast, a kind of atheistic monster, destroying all the fine, spiritual cultures of the ancient world in the interests of naked power. Christianity was a revolution of the spirit, restoring religion once more to its rightful place in the forefront of human consciousness.


What Gibbon thought of Christianity is well known. Measured by the standards of culture and enlightenment that had become widely diffused among the educated classes throughout the pagan empire, Christianity was a lapse into primitive modes of thought, almost savage in their credulity. Mingled with much morbid psychology, there was some thought of high intellectual calibre in the writings of the church fathers, much of it derived from neoplatonism, if serving an end which pagan neoplatonists regarded as uncouth. However, this usually went with a naive belief in preposterous miracles, constantly being performed by the ever swelling army of saints and their relics, a taste for sensational, blood curdling tales of generally fictitious martyrdoms, and disputes about theological points of stunning triviality.

There can be little doubt that in many respects early Christianity represented a monstrous fall from the standards of judgement that had previously prevailed. The easy going pagan tradition of religious toleration was replaced by the fierce fanaticism of inspired mobs. Paganism itself was banned, as were the games, though Tertullian promised Christians the supreme pleasure in Heaven of watching their opponents suffer the unspeakable torments of eternal damnation. [footnote - This became part of Catholic orthodoxy, and is to be found in Aquinas - Beati in regno caelesti videbunt paenas damnatorum, ut beatitudo illis magis complaceat]. Science was neglected, and the preservation of civilisation came to seem a thing of small importance.

What might seem surprising is how so many historians write so favourably of early Christianity, attacking Gibbon for his anti-Christian bias. A common opinion on the early church is that it represented religion against mere materialism, the sense of the spiritual as against the merely earthly appetites of a godless age. Thinking, perhaps one-sidedly, of the irreligious masses of the modern world, apparently obsessed with consuming more and more, people tend to see Christianity as a ray of light, adding a hitherto lacking dimension of meaning to life.

Part of the reason for this is the effect of our long Christian heritage in predisposing our minds. Whatever historical criticism might show of the real nature of the gospels, however unoriginal, and however many inhumane sentiments they may be shown to contain, they speak so strongly to so many people as to create a prejudice in their favour which is very hard to break. This is naturally because Christianity has for so long possessed a complete monopoly of religious feeling in the western world. Religion permeated pagan civilisation, and intense religious feeling was widespread and diverse, and available to everyone. What was unique in the new religion was not the spirituality it conveyed, but its unprecedented intolerance, explicable without needing to postulate any unique property of putting us in touch which what has been called 'the numinous'. Even late paganism was rich in religious experience, by most standards much healthier than the gloomy asceticism of the Christians. Compare the spiritual atmosphere of 'The Golden Ass' of Apuleius with that of St. Augustine's 'Confessions'. Even what is most mystical in Christianity often has pagan roots in Plato and Plotinus.

Gibbon's main explanation for the success of Christianity is precisely this unique intolerance, which allied to the church organisation made for an ideal revolutionary movement.

Adherents of a progress theory of history sometimes argue that since Christianity arose out of certain well defined motives, such as the desire for a universal creed, which it fulfilled, and provided the foundation for the success of the Byzantine Empire, it must be judged a progressive force. The desire for a universal creed sprang partly from the economic motive of the various temples throughout the newly unified Mediterranean world, split between innumerable different cults, in putting up a united front. Christianity, for different reasons, was popular with the masses, and so it came to be chosen as the creed of the empire. It is understandable if, for sentimental reasons, many people should view the early church primarily as the source of a great tradition of art and culture, and therefore as wholly good, disregarding the essential message it embodied.

Nietzsche isolates what he considers to be the central message of Christianity and finds it utterly repugnant. He quotes from 'Corinthians'.

"Hath God not made foolish the wisdom of this world? For after that, in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.....not many wise men after the flesh, nor many noble are called. But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the things which are mighty. And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to naught things which are: that no flesh should glory in his presence".

He attempts to disentangle the various threads that went into the making of the composite figure that is the Jesus of the gospels. There is the God, there is the mouthpiece of traditional proverbial folk wisdom, and somewhere perhaps the original personality of the man himself, which Nietzsche believes can be reconstructed, certainly as a possible type, the oriental sage that one supposes originally impressed the first disciples. Nietzsche was also impressed by what he saw of this sage, and his message as he understood it. He saw him as the founder of a Buddhistic peace movement, indifferent to all external forms and conventions, social or religious. He saw the key to the gospels as the injunction 'resist not evil', an extreme form of religious pacifism, the route to the highest happiness possible to certain morbid natures, an irresponsible childish joy. Arguably Nietzsche was unfair to this teaching, which far from being addressed to the whole of mankind seems no more than the perennial philosophy of the religious dropout, from Morocco to Siberia, India to China, and describes the necessary preconditions of a way of life that will never be chosen by more than a very small minority.

The idea that St Paul perverted Jesus's teachings is ancient, and is traditional among Muslims. Rumi tells a remarkable tale about a man, generally identified with Paul, so inspired by hatred for the Christian religion that he pretends to become a convert, and has himself cruelly martyred in order to introduce distortion into the very heart of it.

Some modern scholars have suggested that the cluster of ideas originally associated around the figure of Jesus were Gnostic in character. This would suggest an early Christianity perhaps considerably more sympathetic to Nietzsche than what he makes of the oriental sage. Gnosticism, with its aristocratic spiritual attitude, and its emphasis on knowledge, rather than faith or morality, could be seen as an attempt within the tradition of Jewish culture, to come to terms with the impact of the wider classical world, and overcome the bigotry and exclusivity of orthodox religion. Only later, on this interpretation, was the Christian formula seized upon by the revolutionary rabble, who saw its subversive possibilities.

St. Paul, Nietzsche maintains, was the dysangel, the bearer of bad tidings; he it was who grafted the subterranean cults of the dying and resurrected god onto the Christian message, and turned it into a matter of belief in the incarnation and resurrection. He made use of this fringe movement of Judaism as a tool in his conscious plan for the subversion of Roman civilisation. He built up a movement from the dregs and scum of the empire, from women and slaves, those who felt they had no interest in the achievements of civilisation, in the high culture and enlightened outlook which were spreading as never before. These elements saw it as their interest to weaken the strong, to exalt those things which had been held in contempt, to reverse values and drag down what was previously admired, to infect the strong with feelings of guilt, and give the downtrodden, most stupid and vulgar elements of the mob, those who could not even make good use of power if they possessed it, a reason to feel superior.

Mixed in with the glad tidings brought by Jesus are the ideas of the moral superiority of the weak, of sin, and of salvation by faith. In place of a practicable, and basically honest programme for a feasible way of life, we were given the promise of happiness to be enjoyed after death, guaranteed by faith in the barbarous concept of the ritual sacrifice of the son of God, commemorated by a symbolic cannibal feast; something as alien to orthodox Judaism as it was to classical paganism. Nietzsche points out that Lucretius's dismissal of religion as gloomy superstition, obsessed with fear and Hell, is not a characterisation of the paganism we understand from Homer and Aeschylus, but of the morbid, subterranean cults that were latent Christianity.

The victory of Christianity was thus not a case of the best minds turning to Christianity, as the Jesuit tradition asserts, but rather one of all kinds of morbid elements coming out on top. The essence of the faith is a doctrine of hatred and resentment, drawing strength from the revolutionary principle that "everything the enemy loves I hate, and everything he hates I love". Such a motive is familiar to the modern world, and finds admirable expression in a short book by Josef Stalin called 'The Foundations of Leninism'. From the point of view of someone who feels he has anything whatever to lose, it is an odious doctrine, and as such the enlightened rationalist must oppose it vigorously. As for its superior humaneness, that is an illusion, ironical in view of the fact that it deliberately creates new modes of suffering, forms of sin and guilt, which never existed before. Nietzsche holds that Christianity was originally a deliberate lie on the part of Paul, and has much to say about the origin and purpose of such a lie.

"Could not the lie be among those embryonic forms of conviction?- Sometimes it requires merely a change in persons: in the son that becomes a conviction which in the father was still a lie: I call a lie wanting not to see something one does see, wanting not to see something as one sees it; whether the lie takes place before witnesses or without witnesses is without consequence".

A conviction as bizarre as the Christian faith must have seemed in the early centuries is wide open to rational attack, and the next stage is to produce philosophical justification for it. He delineates such a philosophical position as follows:-

"There are questions whose truth or untruth cannot be decided by man, all the supreme questions, all the supreme problems of value are beyond human reason....To grasp the limits of reason - only this is true philosophy....To what end did God give mankind revelation? Would God have done anything superfluous? Mankind cannot know of itself what is good and what evil, therefore God taught mankind his will....Moral: the priest does not lie, the question 'true' or 'untrue' does not arise in such things as priests speak of: these things do not permit of lying at all. For in order to lie one would have to be able to decide what is true here. But this is precisely what mankind cannot do; the priest is thus only God's mouthpiece". (Antichrist).

This kind of argument is still common among present day Christians, who sometimes express a strong suspicion of human reason, maintaining that it leads inexorably to holocaust and disaster, unless it accepts these religious limits.

Nietzsche goes on to say that what is important is not so much the fact that a lie has been perpetrated, as the end it has been made to serve. The myths contained in 'The Laws of Manu', Hindu scriptures of the second century AD served what he considered to be on the whole a worthy end. As well as promoting social order, they helped to conserve the distilled wisdom of a period of experimentation. The three 'twice born' castes represent the three natural divisions of humanity, also present in Plato's 'Republic', where the expression "holy lie" is first used. The Brahmins are the spiritual elite, those who would most benefit from Nietzsche's philosophy, people such as Nietzsche himself. Their role in life is the higher kind of enjoyment, the most refined expression of the will to power, and they will amuse themselves with what to others would be dangerous, even deadly. Then there is the warrior caste, the physical elite, presumably the holders of direct political power, and, last of the Aryan castes, the vaisya, the mass of ordinary humanity, who form the solid and necessary basis of all higher achievement.

So here is a religion which can be regarded as a beneficent holy lie, aimed at the preservation of higher values. There are some who see Christianity as a lie of this sort, as a protection against the rabble and a bulwark in defence of culture and civilisation. Is this, rather than political expediency, what an erstwhile Nietzschean like Enoch Powell means by his attachment to the Church of England?

Repudiating any such compromise, Nietzsche in the 'Antichrist' shows a vitriolic hatred towards Christianity so extreme and fanatical as to seem in places positively unbalanced. After all, as Spengler pointed out, what the religion meant in western culture was by no means the same as what it meant to St. Paul. Such hatred might indeed be an admirable reaction if Christianity means only what Nietzsche made it mean, and if everything most admirable in our heritage, such as the paintings of Raphael, is interpreted as really anti-Christian and pro life. But in the last sections of the book he seems to lose sight of all proportion, almost as if he is denouncing everything which appears under the Christian imprint, excepting something so blatantly pagan as the renaissance papacy. Therefore most of his commentators have given the impression of modifying his vehemence.


The symbolism of Christianity, once established, is open to a huge variety of possible interpretations, and there are some forms of it, that of William Blake, for example, that are strikingly close to Nietzsche's own position. All kinds of natural instincts present themselves in a Christian guise. In Shakespeare's 'Henry V', a pagan lust for power and military glory appear unashamedly in the framework of high-minded Christian piety. The Christian virtues portrayed in Spenser's allegorical poem 'The Faerie Queen', are not quite the same as those which a later age would approve. Where Christianity was universal, and the necessary background of all cultural activity, so that being a pagan or an atheist were hardly live options, Christian ideas could take on quite a varied significance. Seemingly there would have been enough latitude within orthodoxy for many a mediaeval with a proto-Nietzschean disposition to find a niche for his values without open heresy.

The origins of the major reformist religions have been various, but they have all expanded into vast popular constructions which conceal, rather than accentuate their fundamental differences. If Judaism metamorphosed from the ruthless militarism of hill dwelling pastoralists into the will to survive of a people deprived of direct political power, and Islam began as the ideology of conquering nomads, Buddhism arose amid the subtle philosophising of an intellectual aristocratic caste. In China, Confucianism was originally a code of gentlemanly ethics, and Taoism the speculations of asocial dropouts. Many people today think of 'religion' as all of a piece, even Christianity and paganism as unimportantly different variations of the same thing, and it is often said that Christianity as practised, especially Roman Catholicism, has much paganism in it.

Nevertheless, within each religion, Nietzsche believes, one may isolate a radically important tendency, an essential idea, which distinguishes it from all others, and colours whatever civilisation to which it gives rise. However many there are who are able to rise superior to the sin and guilt that are at the very heart of the Christian religion, it continues to provide ammunition for use against the fortunate. While a few strong souls, Miltons and Blakes, may interpret it differently, to fit a life affirming mental constitution, the poison must presumably last as long as the religion itself. Nietzsche cites Pascal as one of the most notorious examples of the harm done by Christianity.

Unlike certain other tormented souls, such as Kierkegaard or John Donne, whose Christianity might be thought to be an expression of their torment rather than its cause, Pascal's religion took a very literal and very intellectual form. He thought up arguments in defence of it which are highly ingenious, brilliant even, but which unquestionably have been rendered implausible by the subsequent progress of science and scholarship. What he believed, and what upset and troubled him so much, is from today's vantage point mostly quite mistaken. But we cannot see him simply as a gloomy religious maniac; he turned all the brilliance of his powerful intellect into following through the full logical implications of the Christian scheme. Perhaps not every rationally coherent form of Christianity is so morbid and depressing as this, but few minds that have applied themselves to this question have been so well equipped logically as Pascal. His state of mind is the logical result of the ideas that he has put into it, and these come directly from his reflections on the Christian message. So despite the alleged tragedy of the waste of his mathematical genius, Nietzsche thinks it was perhaps worth it, even, that he should sacrifice himself thus, as an example and a warning.

Nietzsche holds that the distinguishing essence of Christianity is unwholesome; and that in view of the crimes for which it has been responsible, the intellectual dishonesty, the unscrupulous exploitation of the weak moments of the strong, of which Pascal is such a fine example, it is no longer decent to call oneself a Christian. While it would be unbalanced to slander everything that merely goes under the Christian name, this does not affect the case for relentless opposition towards what he considers to be the inner nature of the teaching. For that, given his premises, no loathing can be great enough.

"I consider pagan everything that says 'Yes' to life", he writes, and his task is to help cure the sickness and restore paganism. To achieve this end, we need to know how to sort out the moral impulses involved in our ideas and attitudes, and he offers the conceptual tools for separating the wheat from the chaff.

It is a mistake to see his anti-Christianity as springing from his morality of self assertion, as if it were the anti-individualism of the religion that repelled him, and that therefore he must have been opposed to mysticism, with all its tangible delights. There is no reason why a Nietzschean outlook should be incompatible with mystical experience, in fact certain oriental forms of it seem to have met with his enthusiasm. His quarrel has nothing to do with mysticism, which may itself be an admirable expression of the joy of life. Naturally, however, the Christian variety is generally tainted with Christian morality. Set beside the poetry of the great Persian Sufis, the agonies of St. John of the Cross can seem unnecessary and perverted. Mysticism as a phenomenon is not tied to any one religion, and the self denial of the mystic is essentially a different matter from the repressive tendencies of the real Christian message, a means to an end not intrinsically incompatible with the higher drives of egoism. Schopenhauer, committed to life negation, recognised this, and saw the Sufis as deplorable life affirmers, while he favoured the suicidal, self hating impulses of the more extreme Christian mystics. The point of an egoistic morality is not a conscious obsession with self and its achievements, but the removal of obstacles to instinctual enjoyment. The harmfulness or otherwise of such values and institutions as monasticism, celibacy, individualism, are practical questions to be settled after sound basic principles have been established. Unsound basic principles will give rise to misleading solutions.

Suppose that 'Zarathustra' were to become a holy book, in replacement of the gospels, that Nietzsche were read from church pulpits and sermons delivered on his ideas; there is little reason to assume that religious or spiritual experience would then be less rather than more widespread than it is at the present time. Nietzsche's outlook is characterised by an openness to experience, including that usually associated with religion. This would, however, be described in language other than that of orthodox Christianity.


It may seem strange that Nietzsche has been popular among idealistic and egalitarian socialists, as he was among the Fabians at the beginning of the century. Even a communist like Gorky was attracted to some of his ideas. A tendency in the movement known as the new left, which came to prominence in the later sixties, was to try to unite Nietzsche's ambitious conception of the possibilities of life with a comprehensive form of utopian egalitarianism, the idea that everyone should be able to get as much out of life as anyone else. According to Nietzsche, these two aims necessarily contradict one another, and certainly a Nietzschean conception of life seems on the face of it to be incompatible with this kind of equality.

The traditional left this century has on the whole been anti Nietzschean and anti egoistic, and as such rather Christian. Communism, especially in its more puritanical and repressive features, could with but a little exaggeration be looked upon as a Christian heresy. The new left resembled traditional anarchism in its enthusiasm for a communism stripped of its repressive elements; it has tended to be pagan and genuinely anti authoritarian. The views of someone like R.D.Laing, for example, are in some ways far closer to Nietzsche than are those of some of the supposed defenders of cultural standards. Anarchists usually appear sincerely concerned with the freedom of the individual, unlike those socialists who produce unconvincing reconciliations of liberty with equality, being really only concerned with the latter.

Both the anarchist and the revolutionary socialist programmes for bringing about a regime of harmony and co-operation, general happiness and fulfilment, and an end to frustration and all avoidable suffering, are incompatible with Nietzsche's interpretation of the facts of human nature. The orthodox communist left, whenever it has come to power, has tried to silence criticisms of its basic premises by enforcing uniformity of opinion. The apparent disharmony between ideology and reality is resolved by universally imposing the opinion that there is no such disharmony. Closer to home, much of the heady dionysian enthusiasms of the new left in the late sixties turned sour as a very disagreeable note of moral puritanism and mental coercion made itself felt through feminism and various other increasingly fashionable causes.

One might suggest, on Nietzschean lines, psychological explanations for the appeal of a mixture of libertarian anarchism, Nietzsche and Marx. Nietzscheanism itself could become part of the expression of a morality of the weak. For example, it might attract certain elements in the mediocre mass, particularly the mass of insecure, gregarious youth, what has been called the lumpenintelligentsia. These, inspired by clear motives of resentment, might want the sense of moral superiority which comes form the feeling that that there is nothing they are missing out on. Nietzsche would be for them a self indulgent fantasy, the enjoyment of which would not interfere with the conscious deployment of these very moral poisons which it was his life work to diagnose.

Alternatively, perhaps, this ideal may be espoused in a more Nietzschean spirit by someone with no sense of personal inferiority, who is principally opposed to mediocrity and inferiority such as appear to be in positions of undeserved authority. Failing to perceive the element of personal will to power in his satisfaction with his ideas, his error may be one of naive and mistaken idealism in believing such happiness could be universalised. Any programme for increasing the general happiness of mankind, from social credit to orgone therapy, is a possible source of power, and a taste of power will tend to make the world so pleasant that the theory appears to be working.

Again, the ideal might sometimes be thought of as a piece of covert elitism or priestcraft, an interpretation which hostile critics have applied to the New Leftism of Marcuse, who was fired by a pronounced hatred of the prosperous rabble of the United States. The underlying aim of someone like this would perhaps be to establish a new order of rank, based on the understanding of his own ideas, a kind of spiritual elite, like a priesthood.

Whatever the psychological explanation, intellectually the idea that even the most blatant contradictories can be reconciled receives support from the philosophy of Hegel, according to which a contradiction is something that can be surmounted in a higher synthesis. If it is desired hard enough to believe something, some people, at least, can usually find a way of doing so. For Nietzsche something is not made true simply by being believed. Insofar as Hegelian idealism seems to question this, it offers a logical justification for the utopianist synthesis, as indeed for any idea, religious or secular, that can manage to achieve historical ascendancy.

As it is a Christian axiom that everyone is better off since Jesus came into the world, as all now have the a chance of salvation, so after the expected revolution it could conceivably be made an axiom that Nietzsche style fulfilment has now become available to everybody, however much of a travesty some might think this. Though Nietzsche is not an academic philosopher in the traditional sense, and does not argue in much detail on such questions of pure philosophy as the merits of idealism versus materialism, or realism, his insistence that the concept of the will to power represents scientific truth, and is something more than an idea invented in the mind, makes him the opponent of Hegelian historical relativism, with its conscious attempt to subvert the authority of 'the understanding consciousness'. To Hegelianise Nietzsche is to produce a truncated and distorted version of his philosophy.


It would be wrong to assume from Nietzsche's criticisms of socialism that he was trying to warn his followers against it, to advocate means of resisting it politically, or even to prophesy its overthrow, as Spengler did with his concept of Caesarism. He was far from thinking his writings could have such a salutary effect. He did not see himself as in any position to attempt to control the tide of history. That his ideas might have a bad, or an evil effect, was a different question.

With an observer's interest in the operation of the will to power in history, he had a similar interest in the present and the future. He speculated on changes that were likely to occur over the following decades, and the opportunities for the exercise of power that new conditions would throw up. Some of these conditions would be very different from those of his own day. To maintain perspective, it is necessary to preserve emotional detachment. If disaster threatens, it is less to be resisted than to be observed.

He is more concerned with discerning the forces at play in any future cataclysm, than with trying to oppose it at the risk of identifying himself with some doomed order. Such detachment implies irresponsibility. He is not concerned to use his position as a writer to promote 'socially valuable attitudes', whatever they might be. In his enthusiasm he could say things that could give support to destructive, even catastrophic, forces, and he glories in this as sign of his freedom. His free spiritedness is an immediate value, and not a proposal for a political order dominated by likeminded free spirits. Some such order might nonetheless offer material for speculation. So might other possible orders. To classify him straightforwardly as a right winger because he is not a committed socialist could be to misread his objectives.

Two Marxist points might be made. One that whatever his philosophy it must express the interests of the class to which he belongs, because philosophy cannot do otherwise. Two that his philosophy must be bourgeois, that is supporting the antisocialist type of society dominated by and run for the middle class, because he is not a committed socialist, and detachment is impossible, there being no third alternative. Anyone who claims to be detached from politics, it is said, reveals himself to be of the right, possibly a crypto fascist.

He had some things to say about Marxian socialism. He thought that it would not prevail in western Europe, because the propertied classes were too numerous to allow it to happen. However, he said it would be a good thing if the socialist experiment were to be tried in one country, that it might be thoroughly discredited. The conflicts aroused by socialism might stimulate certain virtues, and might have the valuable effect of putting off the threat of the marasmus femininus that hung over Europe.*{footnote}

If one wants to call Nietzsche's philosophy a bourgeois ideology, it should be recognised that this fails to distinguish it from doctrines designed to promote the interests, or preserve the position of, that class. Nietzsche had a clear aversion to socialism. To say that whatever ideas he comes up with serve the counterrevolutionary cause, even when he himself is clear that they miss that particular mark, seems perverse.


In the period between the French revolution and Nietzsche's death, a number of people, often more artists and poets than philosophers, independently expressed ideas strikingly close to aspects of Nietzsche's psychological and cultural analysis. I list a few, though any detailed discussion of their work is outside the scope of this book.

There was De Sade, who managed to managed to see clearly behind many of the presuppositions and taboos of the enlightenment. There was Max Stirner, whose philosophy of egoism expounded in his masterpiece 'The Ego and His Own' arises from a radical rejection of Hegel's concept of Spirit. There is the poetry of William Blake, whose Marriage of Heaven and 'Hell' in particular suggests many of Nietzsche's ideas in aphorisms so concise one imagines Nietzsche would have envied them. There are the novels of Dostoyevsky, to whom Nietzsche came too late to be seminally influenced by, but of whose psychological understanding he spoke in the highest terms. There was the English novelist George Gissing, who treated of themes of demoralisation in the face of the rising forces of democratic egalitarianism and mass mediocrity.


Nietzsche's influence on various aspects of twentieth century culture has been vast and not always beneficial. He has been open to easy vulgarisation but was also the source of much work of genius. The period from his death in 1900 to the outbreak of the first world war was one of great interest in his ideas, some intelligent, some less so. Insofar as we can hold that these ideas were in an important respect right, we might speak of a time of enlightenment, a level of understanding from which we have since fallen. The effect was not that his ideas were generally accepted, but that they were used as the springboard for a tremendous burst of creative activity.

A number of artistic movements took direct inspiration from Nietzsche, notably surrealism, expressionism, and futurism. Surrealism and expressionism achieved a lasting popularity which transcends the changing fashions of art criticism. Surrealism may be thought of as giving the pessimistic dream art of the nineteenth century decadents, itself the tail end of romanticism, an infusion of invigorating Nietzschean affirmation. Expressionism in its original form, used art essentially as the expression of emotional tension or conflict, as part of an urge toward fulfilment and overcoming. This is seen vividly in such early expressionists as the painter Munch and the dramatist Strindberg, both of whom were very interested in Nietzsche. German expressionist painters between the wars were strongly conscious of the oppressiveness of orthodox society, and prone to madness and suicide. More recently such methods have been used to express states of mind which lack that driving force of clearly focussed frustration. Painters in the USA, after the Second World War, developed abstract expressionism, a movement accused by opponents of a surrender to arbitrariness and vacuity. The beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who has been classified as a late expressionist, writes to attach significance to whatever state of mind he happens to be in. The Nietzschean element has faded, and it may be significant that Ginsberg was at one point led into Buddhism. Surrealism too, lost much of its original power when its techniques joined the standard armoury of the modern advertising industry.

Futurism was a reaction against romantic pining. Against the aestheticism of the nineties, the futurists took from Nietzsche the importance of energy, emphasising the kind of masculine things that appeal to little boys, joy in machines, war, violence and motion. They spoke enthusiastically of the beauty of exploding shells, and of the first world war as a gigantic futurist exhibition. The fin de siecle decadents and aesthetes had considered themselves as belonging to a world that was dying, a culture soon to be destroyed by forces alien to it, an attitude that was partly a natural reaction to the vulgarity of nineteenth century progress enthusiasts. Nietzsche's philosophy was an answer to the element of defeatism in those values. While it may be sometimes satisfying to toy with the idea of sickness and imminent death, from a more comprehensive viewpoint, it is generally thought better to survive and prosper, so long as life can be made worth living. The philosophy of the will to power implies that there need be no contradiction between energy and survival on the one hand, and aesthetic sensitivity on the other. What seems an impossibility to one generation may easily be managed by the next. A new kind of art was called for, and the futurists tried to resolve the contradiction by identifying the beautiful with the more virile and aggressive aspects of technological progress. In its heyday, the movement had a stimulating effect on a lot of people, advocating a return to heroic master values, and a contempt for weakness, but it may be thought that it lost out somewhere on aesthetic sensitivity, on beauty as more calmly and contemplatively understood.

Of the two main wings of this movement, the Italian and the Russian, the one converged into fascism, while the other was originally associated with bolshevism, but then suppressed. It has substantially influenced modern society, particularly in the field of architecture and political propaganda, even if little of Nietzsche remains in it. As a movement generated on Nietzschean principles to counteract the effeteness of late romantic decadence, its primary purpose was soon accomplished.

D.H.Lawrence saw virtue in the energising quality of futurism, despite its obvious limitations. He himself reveals an obvious Nietzschean influence, and has possibly been the main channel through which these ideas have penetrated the consciousness of the English. In his "Apocalypse", he reveals himself to be as passionately anti Christian as Nietzsche, and for much the same reasons. His novels were written from a largely Nietzschean viewpoint, as were those of other twentieth century novelists, too numerous to catalogue.

Existentialism, fascism, Oswald Spengler, Hermann Hesse, Henry Miller, Yeats, Rilke, Shaw and the rest of the fabians, beatniks, Colin Wilson, Herbert Marcuse, Freud, Celine, on all of these, apparently Nietzsche was a seminal inspiration. Then there was Aleister Crowley, the twentieth century magus, whose life was an investigation on Nietzschean principles into all manner of oriental and esoteric systems of thought and modes of experience that are generally shunned by the modern age. In his youth, he writes, he saw Nietzsche virtually as a young god.

Very few thinkers have had this range of influence, and what it goes to show is that Nietzsche bestows the feeling of power, he makes his readers feel well, and confident in themselves, even if they feel it their business to construct moralistic ideologies. He stimulated the creative impulses of countless people in the earlier part of this century, some of which had admirable results, some deplorable. He forged the tools for the breaking down of all kinds of moral and intellectual barriers, and self assertion regained a good conscience, but the fact that so many of the cultural influences of this century owe their inspiration to him is not to say that they embody his ideas. He may be used as a personal inspiration, and he has influenced a lot of the cultural forces that directly affect us today, but his direct influence on the way people think and live is minimal. Like Wittgenstein, who might have been copying him on this, he claimed to speak primarily to future generations. While creative people have found him a powerful source of morale, what they have transmitted to us, with very few exceptions, are not his ideas but their own creations. On the continent he is much studied, but often overlaid with ideas such as Hegelian concepts of intellectual history, that are quite alien to him. His insights have been used as starting points for productions which more often than not have nothing whatever to do with him or what he stood for, and this in a way is a confirmation of the truth of his ideas.

If the will to power is a valid concept, then it applies to everybody, not just those who share a certain outlook and it is natural that those who feel it impelling them towards some creative achievement should think themselves followers of Nietzsche. There are doctrines and philosophies, some varieties of existentialism, for example, which were obviously felt by their originators in Nietzschean terms as a triumph of resistance overcome, and which therefore claim to be developments of his ideas. Nietzsche's message, I have tried to argue, is something far more comprehensive than this energising of the individual in his creative efforts.

Nevertheless, none of this would have been possible, if there had not been, at the time of the Edwardian enlightenment, a degree of genuine understanding of what he meant. The integrity of western culture was disrupted by the cataclysm of the First World War and what followed. A high point of understanding had been reached by a few people; the forces of mass mediocrity were present, but so were the counterforces, or antibodies.


It now remains to review some of the main objections that have been levelled against Nietzsche.

Some objections seem to spring from a misunderstanding of his vocabulary, which is not to say that they are unworthy of consideration on this account. Every complex system of thought has to invent, to some extent, is own vocabulary, which means, not the need to come up with some new jargon like Heidegger, but rather having to use ordinary words in a special, more precise sense. The elegance and concision of Nietzsche's German style as been praised as something hitherto thought impossible in the language. However, ordinary language inevitably contains elements of ambiguity, and he does not always employ even his keywords in exactly the same sense. This does not mean he is unclear or imprecise, his meaning is usually clear from its context, but it can present problems to someone trying to produce a summary of his thought.

But here is more to it than this. Every important new philosophy it seems, will deliberately have to misrepresent other systems of thought; each entails a kind of filter mechanism, for to allow all the infinite shades of meaning that might seem possible at this level of precision would be hopelessly confusing. Words like will, desire, self, individualism, religion, decadence, power, reason, are profoundly ambiguous, and can mean all sorts of things, but we need not and do not respect all the specialised usages of those we dislike. If all life is a dispute about taste, then it is also a dispute about symbolism, and the way in which we think words should be used. Anyone is entitled to disagree with Nietzsche's use of words, though I have tried to suggest reasons why we should make a particular effort to understand him.


I have already spoken of those who try to turn the tables on Nietzsche by claiming that his own philosophy springs from envy and resentment. The values of the powerful, it is argued, are simply those of the party in power, and those out of power are liable to become revolutionaries of one kind or another largely out of envy and frustration. On this argument, Nietzsche's revolutionary stance is rooted in the fact that he does not sufficiently benefit from the existing power structure, and this is supposed to invalidate his conclusions. The premise seems to be that values are so totally relative to the individual that objective judgements are meaningless.

There are those who maintain that Nietzsche's concept of instinctual fulfilment applies to no one but himself and those like him, that it results from envy and resentment due to adverse childhood conditions, or emotional or sexual inadequacy. The prevalent morality of today sets a high value on social and sexual integration, and sub Freudian techniques are used to belittle eminent figures in the eyes of the public by focussing on their supposed personal inadequacies. This conception of resentment is a different one from Nietzsche's and is based on a different psychological theory. Even if it were proved that his personal life were dominated by resentment, which is extremely dubious, it would still have to be proved that this is a disqualification for psychological insight. A case could be made for the converse. One who has experienced a lot of instinctual frustration, perhaps in his early upbringing, will have an acute and vivid sense of the harm done to instinct by thwarting and repression. Those moderately happy will perhaps acquiesce in a basically unsatisfactory state of affairs, while those who feel deeply frustrated sense the very much more intense satisfaction that could be available if certain conditions were different. It is obvious that only those who are to a substantial degree dissatisfied with what they have already will feel strongly motivated to struggle for something better.

There is a suggestion by Mario Praz in 'The Romantic Agony' that what Blake, De Sade, Nietzsche, Swinburne, Dostoyevsky, Gide, essentially have in common is that they were all sadists, sadism being at best a mere psychological quirk of certain personalities . But then it could well be that the kind of temperament here labelled 'sadistic' is the best equipped for the kind of insight that is at issue.

It was to be expected that Nietzsche's attack on the morally motivated falsification of reality would not go unchallenged, and he himself is accused of falsifying reality through the sickness of his emotions. We have to decide which account is more consistent and explanatory, Nietzsche's or such purportedly scientific teachings as those of the psychotherapy industry, which one would naturally expect to express the values of the crowd to some or other level of refinement. It might seem unlikely that one of Nietzsche's intellectual powers, given the aims he set himself, could make such a fundamental mistake simply because of inability to detach himself from his more personal emotions.

The modern use of the concepts of mental health and sickness has become a standard way of making value judgements. The eccentric personality may be spoken of as a 'sociopath' a word coined on analogy with the word 'psychopath', reflecting the unremarkable observation that people of an adventurous disposition are more likely to run into various kinds of trouble than those who conform. More recently he may be described as having some or other form of 'dysfunction'. Many such judgements are becoming deeply engrained in our culture. The prevailing prejudices of the day are often exceedingly difficult to shake off, and it may well require a certain perverseness of character, which some describe as sociopathy, others as sadism, to identify some of them.

Whatever it may be, the temperament appropriate to Nietzsche's achievement is not an argument against it. The norm of any particular society is not to be taken as the standard of final truth, even though it naturally assumes the status of morality, and those who oppose it are treated as immoral or sick, or both.

Every form of human society presupposes a scale of values and moral judgements in accordance with which certain 'forms of life' are praised and encouraged, and others are disvalued and demoralised. It is true that values tend to be changed by those who tend not to benefit from the established order, and who therefore might possibly be said to be actuated by envy or resentment. Nietzsche's remark that everything that springs from envy or resentment is bad will have to be qualified.

If Nietzsche was actuated by resentment, it was not the sort of thing that led him to oppose established ideas just because they were established, but something that spurred him to discover something constant beneath the ever changing diversity of values and ideals. Established ideas as such, meaning the prevailing beliefs of those in power, could theoretically be anything whatever, varying completely by time and place, claiming to provide standards of rightness and wrongness, indifferent to abstract notions of rationality. To argue for established ideas against Nietzsche, is usually to argue only for those established in some very limited time and place; change time and place and established ideas will be very different. Some people, like the ancient Sceptics, argued for observing established customs whatever they are, but this is itself a sophisticated intellectualisation, going far beyond a defence of orthodoxy, and in some ways opposed to it.

Nietzsche argues that there is a sense in which we can speak objectively of the values of the strong, those that give fullest and freest scope to individual human nature, the natural values of power, and that established values may deviate from these in various ways. His whole claim is that he is able to do this. Perhaps only those irritated by prevailing values might want to do this, but unless we believe that there is no reality to discover it is not a totally implausible proposal.

But has Nietzsche proved his case for the objectivity of his explanation? The belief that he has might have the effect of demoralising those currently in power, undermining their conviction of the rightness of their ideas. Prevailing values might be very anti Nietzschean, favouring instinctual repression and intellectual conformism. Could not his own claim to objectivity be merely yet another version of Plato's 'real world', a moralistic attack on what is established? Any ideal will threaten to demoralise someone, promise someone power at the expense of someone else.

Part of Nietzsche's argument is that he can identify which values express what is intrinsically most satisfying and fulfilling, other things being equal. If the guardians of the established order were actually to gain in power, if for example they were to become aristocrats, they would naturally tend to adopt them. His account of the relationship between the weak and the strong claims to offer the most coherent explanation of the great diversity of human values. His standard of judgement is not restricted to that of a bourgeois, an aristocrat or of a rentier. There is nothing admirable about aristocratic values except insofar as they are an expression of strength; deprivation of strength, like the political impotence of the French aristos of the ancien regime, may produce something contemptible.


It is commonly said, by Marxists and liberals alike, that Nietzsche was a precursor of fascism, and therefore to be deplored. If it were true that any substantial degree of interest in his ideas led inevitably to the establishment of a society like Mussolini's Italy, or Hitler's Germany, which few of his modern readers would actually like to inhabit, then that would perhaps be a point against them, sad though that would be. It would be unfortunate if our society were incapable of supporting psychological honesty, unless in a guarded and esoteric form.

Bertrand Russell, not only through his 'History of Western Philosophy', was one of the most influential of our modern educators. He wrote a book called 'Power' , which while apparently conceding many points to Nietzsche, is largely aimed at refuting what Russell believes to be his position. He claims to accept, as a sociological proposition, the primacy of power in political and social relations, interpreting this in its gross sense of domination over others, getting them to do one's will. The will to power is thus viewed as a rather unpleasant manifestation, as a desire to restrict the liberties of others and as something which must therefore be strictly controlled. Democracy is a means of sharing power as equally as possible, and is to be supported for that reason. He appears to picture a man's beliefs as a mere extension of his ego, like the football team he supports, and the satisfaction he would gain from the success of his beliefs in the world, essentially that of belonging to a successful party. He interprets the desire to propagate a set of beliefs as the urge to triumph over others.

The apparent cynicism of this scheme may be productive in sociology, as may the related (Nietzsche influenced) cynicism of Pareto, or it may not, but what value it has is that of an abstraction, and insofar as it is meant as a presentation of Nietzsche's philosophy it is completely unfair.

Nietzsche is presented as an enthusiast for this narrowly egoistic kind of domination. It is an easy matter for Russell to present himself as the champion of love and goodness, by contrast with the hate filled German philosopher, and he finds it easy to refute the idea, falsely attributed to his adversary, that universal love and Christian style decency and moral virtue, are merely the expression of envy and resentment.

While acknowledging that certain destructive passions are deeply rooted in man, Russell, heir of the Lockean empiricist tradition, was antipathetic to the idea that the secret of happiness lies below the level of the conscious will; therefore any attempt to get below this surface to change people he would only see as egotistic interference. He assumes a liberal psychological model, in which the good is interpreted in terms of the satisfaction of conscious desire. The explanatory force of subsuming all desires and motives under some single principle like concept of the will to power, is not something he accepts, but he claims to retain the concept as the name for a destructive passion, useful in explaining the motives of those who disagree with his principles. He would not concede the philanthropic motives of some antidemocratic ideologies, because he did not accept that the feelings to which they aimed to give expression were, except in the very worst sense, innate. Consequently he tended to see their advocates as so many Procrusteans, trying to force people into the same mould as themselves. He interpreted the will to power as the lust for more and more of the same kind of thing, the domination urges of Tamberlaine or some Faustian spaceman.

Revolutionaries, anarchists, communists, fascists and religious extremists of one kind and another, often wish to restore to the individual some special kind of strength, and there is often more benevolence than Russell admits. In discounting this, it might be thought he assumes too much implicit acceptance of his own liberal psychological model. Even if this were true, it would have to be believed before it could be assumed that the best way of doing people good is to give them what they want. It may be conceded that most revolutionaries are naively misguided, if not viciously so, and that a scheme for supposed moral regeneration means at best some dreary military dictatorship, intolerably offensive to individual freedom, if not something far worse. It may well be true that personal fulfilment is far more closely approached if people are left alone to pursue their conscious wills, and that many politicians are motivated by unsavoury varieties of power lust, but Russell does not help democracy by misrepresenting the motives of antidemocratic ideologies.

A common accusation levelled at Nietzsche is that he takes a sado masochistic pleasure in the contemplation of tyrants, encouraging a cult of the strong individual that tends to lead inexorably to despotism. Some of his defenders (Kaufmann for example ) make a lot of his concept of 'sublimation', maintaining that as against the crude kind of power enjoyed by the barbarian chief, Nietzsche's ideal is one of sublimation of the animal nature, arguing in effect that as between a Goethe and a Napoleon, the latter enjoyed raw dominance over the outside world, while the former's power was something qualitatively different, exercised over the self and its rebellious impulses. I have tried to argue differently. Nevertheless, Nietzsche held that there is nothing inherently unhealthy about wanting to be a millionaire, or an absolute dictator, or a world conqueror.

"In Plato's 'Themes' the following passage will be found: 'Every one of us would like, if possible, to be master of mankind; if possible a God". This attitude of mind must be reinstated in our midst." (Will to Power-958).

He would not have shirked from the perhaps uncomfortable conclusion that Hitler and Stalin may in some sense be legitimate objects of admiration, though obviously where such figures are not sufficiently distant in time or place to be viewed with detachment, it is justifiable to hate them passionately, and denounce them morally. To be able to appreciate voluptuousness and the exercise of despotic power is simply to have a sympathetic understanding of some of the heights of possible human experience, allowing the imagination to explore what it would be like to be without constraints of various kinds. Nietzsche's great symbol of this, following Machiavelli, who was quite unlike a fascist, is Caesurae Borgia. The study of the will to power in this very basic aspect is very instructive for other fields of experience. To resist, for moralistic reasons, the temptation to admit the greatness of Hitler or Stalin, can be to introduce a radical dishonesty into one's whole outlook on life, 'Not wanting to see what one does see'. Marrow's Timberline asked, in a passage quoted by Shakespeare's Henry V:-

"Is it not brave to be a king.....

Is it not passing brave to be a king

And ride in triumph through Presupposes?'

People today understandably recoil in horror from the suggestion that it might have been passing brave to be Adolph Hitler, and ride in triumph through Vienna and Paris. To see Hitler and Stalin, or Napoleon for that matter, as homicidal maniacs, mere monsters and criminals, is a useful perspective for some purposes, but by no means the only possible one.

Many people enjoy from a safe distance the splendour of the man eating tiger which in easily imaginable circumstances they would unhesitatingly kill. A society of egoists, which is how we may think of freedom loving people, is traditionally unlikely, except in the very worst emergencies to submit voluntarily to a tyrant. As Solzhenitsyn writes, rather than blaming Stalin for his tyranny it is more useful to blame the lack of civic valour, what the Germans call Zivilcourage, among the Russian people at the time. The same goes for other tyrants. In a society where the people have a healthy sense of their own interests, there is no compelling reason why a certain appreciation of Machiavellian power seekers and despots should not be without danger.

The question of fascism and its appeal is an interesting and complex subject that has become enveloped in various kinds of confusion. There do appear to be elements of Nietzsche in fascism, for one thing there is the talk about rulers and ruled, masters and slaves. It is not unfair to say that Nietzsche also contributed to a certain cult of callousness and ruthlessness, which became an ingredient in nazism.

One might feel inclined to call Nietzsche an elitist, in that his interest was focussed upon the few, but his teaching transcends the popular myths transmitted by any political ideology. He does not propose any rules or laws with the object of discriminating against, or excluding any clear category of people as beyond the pale of sympathy. He does not speak only for Germans, or only for Europeans, or whitemen, or rich people, or educated people, but for anyone who can understand him. Whoever does so might be described as a member of an elite, for he thinks in terms of an aristocracy of the spirit, not a police dictatorship, though what might eventually emerge, even from the latter, was for no one to say.

Elitism in the normal sense is a pejorative term, associated with accusations of fascism. It implies a message of deliberately restricted scope, for example, a message addressed to people with money, or to Oxford graduates, freemasons, people who have passed some test, members of some exclusive racial group, consciously ignoring the interests of those outside. Such ideas promote a strong sense of exclusion in those to whom they are not addressed. Nietzsche aspires to a measure of objectivity. For that reason, he cannot defend the interests of any particular class, or advocate any particular programme. Even in the most destructive aspects of his thought, it is quite wrong to see him lining up on the side of reaction, or of the bourgeoisie. His sympathies are such that he does not take sides. His interest is that of a detached observer.

If one counts as an elite those people in any particular arrangement of society who most benefit from it, then whether or not one deplores it, it seems almost a logical truth that such people should exist. Nietzsche spoke on a critical plane, transcending the appellations 'reactionary' and 'progressive'. He delighted in free spirits, and showed a detached interest in social questions, like that of a horticulturalist in the soil. He was curious to discover the conditions, whatever they might be, which would serve to promote the individually strong personality wherever that might be found, a rare and paradoxically fragile type, because opposed by the combined forces of the mass of mankind in all classes of society.

"Where the strongest natures are to be sought. The ruin and degeneration of the solitary species is much greater and more terrible: they have the instincts of the herd, and the tradition of values, against them; their weapons of defence, their instincts of self preservation, are from the beginning insufficiently strong and reliable - fortune must be peculiarly favourable to them if they are to prosper (they prosper best in the lowest ranks and dregs of society; if ye are seeking personalities it is there that ye will find them with much greater certainty than in the middle classes".

(Will to Power 887)

Hitler admired Nietzsche and so did Mussolini. In Mussolini's original movement there was a note of anticlerical, anti egalitarian propaganda that is Nietzschean. The bombastic police state that he came to lead deviated far from this. Despite the Nietzschean elements in nazism, there were elements profoundly hostile to him . He was very far from being the only critic of democracy in the late nineteenth century, and nazism in general bears more relation to Wagner's teutonism, his revival of bronze age values, than to Nietzsche.

More relevant is the fact that nazism played upon and intensified the extreme nationalism current from the time of Bismarck's unification, as preached by the official historian von Treitsksche. Here is to be found a different variety of amoralism from Nietzsche's, the idea that the interest of the State is above all considerations of morality and international law. Here is the doctrine of German racial superiority, and of the subordination of the individual to the demands of State power. Nietzsche strongly disliked this ideology, and wrote against it. To blame him for the political defects of the German Reich, a state in whose foundation he had no part to play, for whose guiding ideals he showed little enthusiasm, and where he chose not to live for much of his life, is very far fetched, though it has been done. From a standard recognised by Nietzsche as well as by his British and American opponents, the new German society within which his writings were to achieve great popularity, was politically overheated, unhealthy and dangerous to its neighbours as well as minorities within.

However, it is not really defensible to say that no Nietzschean could be a nazi on the ground of Nietzsche's opposition to many of nazism's embryonic forms, and the crudity of the myths on which it drew. He was anti nationalistic, but even Hitler's ultimate ideal might be seen as the establishment of a race of rulers who transcended nationality. Eventually some type of being might have emerged from a fascist order that would have won Nietzsche's sympathy, whether as leader, rebel, scholar, artist or whatever, but the same is true of democracy, communism or any other system. We must recognise the objectivity of his political attitudes. As far as political controversy goes, he is far more of a disinterested observer than an ideologue; no political system won his unqualified approval or disapproval; his interest was in the individual and the joy of the struggle.

There is every reason to suppose that he would have regarded the nazi state, with its persecutions and incessant propaganda, its degradation of the arts to a level of crude moralism, as personally disgusting. The forces that brought that particular elite to power, (state worship, fanatical anti semitism, vulgar nationalism) were among those to which he felt the strongest aversion, and to a great extent the nazi leaders were themselves in the grip of those forces. Only insofar as the propaganda for the mass could be separated from some ideal freedom of the rulers could fascism be regarded as Nietzschean. But, taking this angle, why should intelligent people allow themselves to be taken over in such a manner by a small group of adventurers? The objection to any particular elite must be rooted in self interest, and to defend my interest I will need that weapon of civil valour, armed with which I have no need of moralistic self deceptions. Nietzsche does not explicitly discuss this issue, but many of his readers' sympathies he tends to take for granted. A people possessed of Nietzschean virtues will fight to defend and extend its liberties, one imagines it is one with essentially slavish qualities that willingly hands in copies of its front door keys to the local police station . In a nation consisting mostly of slaves there may be opportunities for a few to enjoy voluptuous sensations of tyrannical power, but that is small compensation for the rest.

Part of the appeal of this totalitarian system was its offer of a servitude bringing relief from some of the painful emotional aspects of what Nietzsche analysed as modern decadence, solace in the form of officially prescribed fantasies of grandeur and triumph. There is no case whatever for accusing Nietzsche of advocating such a crude solution, such a simplistic revolutionary scheme. To describe it as the necessary consequence of his rejection of Christian morality is like blaming a moderate social reformer, like Charles Dickens, for the excesses of Stalinism.

As for the cult of ruthlessness, in saying 'the weak and ill constituted shall perish, and we shall help them to do so', he is not advocating an inhumane social system in which schizophrenics are sent to the gas chambers and the widow and the orphan left to die of starvation. He is scathing about the Social Darwinists, with their assumptions about who are the 'fittest' who deserve to survive. The passage is to be read partly as a parody on the Sermon on the Mount; it is plain that his target is a mental attitude, he means to criticise those who try to paralyse our instincts with pity, and force slave morality on us. He is opposed to mean spiritedness, but the guilt ridden attitudes induced by some forms of Christian compassion, he regards as a moral poison which should be opposed. Nevertheless, it may be objected, it is an inhumane and shocking remark, of a kind common in Nietzsche. While for the individual free spirit, it is liberating to be able to escape the injunctions of conventional morality whenever they become burdensome, others may suffer from his freedom. Conceding this, it is nevertheless true that Nietzsche's motive in making such remarks is concerned with individual mental freedom rather than any serious recommendations of social policy.

Again, we may consider, the nazi attempt to breed, literally, an overlord race, suitably emancipated from Christian morality, and compare this with what Nietzsche might have done had he been in a position to breed a race of free spirits. Most free spirits would presumably feel hostility and contempt for the Hitler youth, with their mass rallies and gregarious mentality, mediocrity triumphant and militant, violently antagonistic to the strong, that is perverse and solitary individual. The youth of the modern democratic west, whatever its various faults, would certainly have been more to Nietzsche's taste.

Essential to the doctrine of fascism is a doctrine of conformism, as the following quotations from Hitler and Mussolini show quite clearly.

"'The day of individual happiness has passed', Hitler returned. 'Instead we shall feel a collective happiness. Can there be any greater happiness than a National Socialist meeting in which speakers and audience feel as one? Only the early Christian communities could have felt it with equal intensity. They too sacrificed their personal happiness for the higher happiness of the community'".

(Hitler Speaks - Hermann Rauschning p.191)

"'One who marches in step with others is not thereby diminished, as you and your friends are fond of saying, he is multiplied by all those who move shoulder to shoulder with him. Here, as in Russia, we are advocates of the collective significance of life, and we wish to develop this at the cost of individualism. That does not mean that we go so far as to think of individuals as mere figures upon a slate, but that we think of them chiefly in relation to the part they have to play in the general life of the community....We want the humanity and beauty of a communal life'".

('Talks with Mussolini' - Emil Ludwig pp125-6)

This is herd morality to an extreme degree, and far removed from Nietzsche's conception of the superior individual who is his own justification. Its intellectual antecedents may be traced back in Germany to Fichte, through certain varieties of Hegelianism, a very different tradition from those on which Nietzsche drew. However, it is true that fascism has now acquired a taboo character, which gives it a perverse appeal to some of those attracted to Nietzsche's rejection of conventional values.

A great deal of what Nietzsche said was on the face of it highly ambiguous if taken in isolation, and even his expressions of most virulent hostility were liable to be qualified unexpectedly, for he was always conscious of the variety of different points of view from which events might be considered. Today, for example the world looks very different place to someone like the renegade Archbishop Lebfevre, from the way it looks to the dictator of some oil rich, recently independent, third world country. What to some are forces of decadence, associated with he loss of European supremacy and the rise of the masses, are to others the forces of energy from which the future is to be built.

Nietzsche's preoccupations transcend those of particular ideologies, and he purveys a kind of wisdom that it has usually been found necessary to express symbolically and esoterically. If such wisdom is to be preserved, it must be by people who are capable of rising above normal party struggles.

Though there are isolated passages in his works, suggestions and prophecies he throws out, that have been useful to certain fascist ideologists and demagogues, to produce quotations purporting to prove that Nietzsche did or did not support various fascist ideas is rather beside the point. He does not pretend to be some schoolman's Aristotle, to be quoted, reverently as an authority; he brings imaginative insight, and how we use it is our own responsibility. There is no intrinsic reason why his ideas should have a harmful effect, they are simply the tools of understanding, and it is up to us what we do with them. He says he is against the breaking of the will of the strong by means of specious moral ideas which distort the truth about human instinct. Like Jesus, his mission is partly that of a healer, he brings back health, restores morale.

It would be a sad state of affairs if we could only defend ourselves against obnoxious political systems by falsifying human nature. He was not a lawgiver in the sense that Goethe was, though he is partly a philosopher of lawgiving. To have set down a definite code of values he would have to have been more dogmatic and coercive than he was prepared to be. OBJECTIVITY

From Nietzsche's perspective, in the light of what he believes about human nature, certain doctrines and ideals are hateful and negative. They appear to be anti-life, the pressure to yield to them and their judgements is a cancer like threat to the health and happiness of the organism. They can still be oppressive, even to someone who rejects them intellectually. But this is only from one viewpoint.

The idea that the concept of the will to power makes any claim to scientific objectivity has been disputed. Many commentators have described Nietzsche as a radical relativist. Fr. Coppleston writes "The obvious comment on Nietzsche's general view of truth is that it presupposes the possibility of occupying an absolute standpoint from which the relativity of all truth or its fictional character can be asserted, and that this presupposition is at variance with the relativist interpretation of truth".

Such criticisms would seem to deprive him of the power to make any serious point whatever. He may be treated as a radical and self contradictory relativist, or as a propagandist, recommending his own favoured perspective as an ad man might. When Nietzsche points out that a man's philosophy is to be understood as the expression of his strongest instinct, this is treated as viciously regressive. How can he be saying anything at all, even that his own strongest instinct impels him to talk thus? He might just be making rhetorical flourishes, trying to persuade other people to think the way he does. But then many of his assertions will appear vacuous.

It is reasonably clear that Nietzsche was claiming a measure of objective truth for his discoveries, that even if his truth was relative, it was relative to a scientific tradition, that it is intended to be true in much the way that successful theories in physics or biology are true. His claim is open to criticism from various philosophers of scientific methodology, like the Popperians, but this is not to say that they cannot be answered.

An outside critic may say that even if Nietzsche does aspire to objectivity, his aim is impossible, because he can only express his own background and conditioning. To claim objectivity is only the expression of his own will to power, his imperialism of self. But from what point of view can this particular criticism be made? Unless it makes a claim to objectivity on its own behalf, it is self trivialising. And once such a claim is made, then at least the legitimacy of Nietzsche's aspiration is recognised, and the criticism loses some of its force.

Marxist attacks bring to bear a formidable scholastic apparatus, refined in the universities of the modern world. On the principles of Marxist determinism, your loyalties are fixed by something quite outside your individual power of choice. However well Nietzsche thinks he has performed his task, all he can do is to express the viewpoint of his class, and it is inconceivable that he could rise beyond that. The causes of the views and values you hold are not multifarious and complex, but general and simple, like the causes of disease. What causes the symptoms of smallpox is a specific virus which can be isolated. Comparable causes may be found for malaria, measles, chickenpox, bubonic plague, etc. Likewise conservatism, liberalism, pessimism, fascism, aestheticism, Nietzscheanism, have definable and straightforward causes, primarily economic, that can be isolated.

Althusser puts the Marxist perspective thus:- '...the relations that reign between philosophical ideas are what we called relations of forces, ideological, and therefore political relations of forces. But it is bourgeois philosophical ideas that are in power. The question of power is therefore the number one question in philosophy too. Philosophy is indeed in the last instance political'.

This, one might want to say, is either mere political agitation, or it is pseudo science. But one's own professions of detachment are firmly attributed to specific causes. I may think my ideas are the product of reason and choice. This would be my philosophy, but some of what seems natural to me springs from general tendencies, tastes and desires that have specific causes, which do not apply in the case of other people.

We may talk of Nietzsche's desire for understanding. This is not to be thought of as taking place in a conceptual void. We can see it in the light of generally recognised forms of understanding, psychological and scientific. The concept of the will to power, offers a perspective from which a type of understanding is possible. This claims to be a universal perspective on human nature. The aim is for that type of understanding, psychology of the scientific type. The motivation is the same as that which led scientists in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to try to uncover the secrets of nature.

Why should we adopt this perspective, this conception of understanding, rather than any others, the Marxist for example? Why should we accept Nietzsche's perspective rather than Marx's? One may grant that both are possible points of view, very different in character. Dean Norman, in a celebrated series of Reith lectures in 1978, described Marxism as the form taken by intellectual seriousness in the modern world. The vast scholastic edifice of Marxism offers comprehensive alternatives to many of the assumptions of modern western society. The will to power has not had anything like such effort expended on its exposition. Were it ever considered worthwhile, maybe some of the rooms built for Marx would be habitable by Nietzsche. Nevertheless, the Nietzschean perspective is clear enough. How are we to judge between the two? Is there any common ground?

Are the concepts of objectivity implicit in Nietzsche and Marx to any extent the same? The Marxist might say that the Nietzschean starts with a different purpose from himself. He might see Nietzschean values as sustaining the domination of a class. A thinker is impelled to the ideas which make him feel best, helping to secure his economic subsistence. This, the Marxist would say, is the reality of his values, and the motive from which his perspective springs. Of these two points of view, on what basis can Nietzsche insist that we choose his one? For he does not see it as just an idle matter of free choice. What is the essential point of contention between them?

That, for all the sophistication of its argument, Marxist psychology is not sound psychology, is a thesis implicit in Nietzsche's work, and it is to be argued not on the basis of a philosophical theory, but of widely accepted assumptions. Marxism does not fully discriminate what there is to discriminate, it is a paradigm case of what Nietzsche calls falsification. The deception comes in insofar as a claim is put in that the world of beliefs and values is mapped out scientifically. Marxism lays claim to an objectivity effectively the same as that claimed by Nietzsche. Marxism is a different perspective, but it cannot be maintained that it is as good without abandoning honest rational traditions. In an argument that does not depend on a prior acceptance of his perspective, Nietzsche says that there are doctrines and ideals which originate in deliberate lies. The lie he defines as purporting not to see what one does see.

The Marxist perspective cannot coexist with the Nietzschean without falsification. Marxist analysis would lose much of its apparent force if it ceased to claim objectivity, that is to reflect nature rather than artificial, man made categories. This is the challenge that is thrown down.


Then there is the question of Nietzsche's madness; he was insane, many say as an effect of syphilis, for 11 years, from 1889 till his death in 1900. Some people have seen this as in a sense an outcome of his thought, and it has contributed to a popular legend as to the perils of thinking too deeply and too independently. Anthropologists report that in cultures other than our own, madness as such has been no disqualification for profound wisdom, and the insane were often regarded as specially inspired. It is a cliché that madness and genius are closely akin, and the strange insights of mystics and others perhaps indicate that areas of consciousness activated in insanity, or in states close to it, may be very productive of original ideas. Even much of the mainstream culture of our own middle ages can seem insane by most modern criteria.

Despite the rationality of Nietzsche's ideas, there are hints that perhaps he drifted into paradox in his attitude towards himself and his achievement. In the concluding paragraphs of the 'Antichrist', Christianity has become the one great infamy, the one real decadence. This is fair enough, given his definitions, but there is perhaps the germ of a dangerous confusion between symbol and reality. Nietzsche must always be read for the spirit behind his utterances, taken too literally they could sometimes become obsessions.

'The letter killeth but the spirit giveth life', is as applicable to his own writings as to other scriptures. He did not like to write without inspiration, and was rarely dishonest enough to pretend to understand when he did not really feel that he did. In the few comparatively lucid intervals that came to him in his last years, he refused to discuss anything about his work and ideas.

His attitude towards himself is revealed in 'Ecce Homo', and shows traces of megalomania, that is to say a dangerously inflated computation of his own status. He pronounces himself greater than any man who has ever lived, greater than Goethe, greater than Shakespeare, ....and the only standpoint from which he can make these claims is that of his own ideas, which involves him in a vicious regress. He is thinking himself into this position of supreme glory on inadequate grounds, committing, one might suggest, a philosophical error concerning the measure of his own achievement.

If his thought were really so intellectually solid, it might be objected, he ought not to be liable to mistakes of this nature, but if it is a mistake, it is one external to the main body of his thought, and which in not way affects it; it concerns an issue which was never to the forefront of his intellect, and which came up for consideration when he was approaching his final collapse. That it is possible for those who want to indulge in this kind of cosmic triumphalism to do so without going mad, was shown in the twentieth century by the careers of such mighty egoists as Aleister Crowley and Salvador Dali, but it needs a sense of humour and a robustness of constitution that Nietzsche probably did not possess.

A case might be made for the suggestion that if he had achieved recognition during his active lifetime he would have preserved his sanity. He led, at the height of his powers, an almost alarmingly solitary life, much of it in hotel rooms in Italy and Switzerland, and his mental stability at least would presumably have benefited from more interaction with other human beings. Arguably it was lack of recognition from the outside world that led him to overpraise himself so highly.

Naturally the character of his madness reflected the interests of his life, the preoccupations of his mind, the books he had written and his philosophical opinions, but one could defy anyone to invent a philosophy which is proof against madness, and could not take bizarre and ugly forms in the mind of one demented. Blake, who counted himself fortunate in having the support of a loving wife, insisted how even the most liberating philosophy can turn oppressive and burdensome, and he embodied this law of life in his myths of Urizen, Orc and the others.


Nietzsche's life resembles little so much as a rather expensive firework, burning itself out in a final glorious explosion.

In his human relationships, he could often seem naive and petulant, very emotionally unstable. His middle period was one of personal illness and intense pain, but towards the end, when he felt he had mastered his problem, and even completed his task, won his final victory over his material, he lived often in a state of extreme elation, high on his own achievement. In focussing on his ill health, it would be wrong to undervalue these ecstasies. By his own standard he was triumphantly successful; but after that there was nothing left of him.

What lesson is to be drawn from his life, if any? One that has been is the tragic, the Dionysian. The title of one biography was "The Tragic Philosopher". Thus his own life might be seen as a story inviting 'the affirmation of life in its most difficult problems'. This would imply success, rather than the failure suggested by those who see his philosophy more in terms of self justification. The very cruelty of fate in his case is instructive to contemplate. His was an unusual life, whose high points were very different from those most people look for or experience, ecstasies of thought and feeling, often associated with nature and architecture. It is a measure of his intensity that we can remember him for this. He was not merely a writer of books, he is not to be judged on that basis alone, he gave his name to a mode of consciousness.

Seeing his life as a success, one feels not so much the deprivation that he suffered as the affirmation that he managed to pull off. He did affirm his life at the end, he reached states of exaltation in which the great yea saying was an immediate reality, triumphant over all past states of misery and even over the appalling physical and mental collapse into which he was shortly to sink. This might seem ordinary enough, a lot of people manage to affirm life despite great suffering, but Nietzsche had the sensibility and communicative power of one of the greatest of lyric poets. From this viewpoint his experiences succeed in justifying the whole of his life, the loneliness, the sexual deprivation, the years of physical pain. For these flashes of fullest happiness it is possible to envy him his life, however forbidding it may have been in other respects. These ecstasies grew out of his own philosophy, and provide an alternative to the Wagnerian sort, which he saw as a dangerous drug.

Nietzsche's love of the enlightenment deliberately contrasts with Wagner's mediaevalism and tormented emotion. Wagner believed in certain states of mind, to be held on to by means of a culture of symbolic myths, heating up the imagination. When he wrote 'The Birth of Tragedy', Nietzsche saw Wagner as a master of the raw Dionysian energy, later he came to see him as a decadent, stimulating the imagination and senses to the point of hysteria. He compares Wagner's sensibility with that of Baudelaire. But Baudelaire was a poet, and poetry can be read in quiet reflection; Wagner's music aims to overwhelm all the senses. Hitler used to intoxicate himself with it. "Who wishes to understand National Socialist Germany", he said, "must know Wagner". On Nietzsche's interpretation, the Wagnerian mode of ecstasy is an escape from life, it accepts that life is basically bad, and offers an escape through culture of a distinctly collective kind. It stimulates 'spiritual' feelings, often subconsciously sexual in nature, as with the fairly obvious symbolism of the grail legend. Wagner is counter reformation, Nietzsche says, meaning that he wants to contain our spiritual experience within a given set of symbols. Wagnerian ecstasies were held at the time as a kind of justification and validation of the complex of art and ideas with which they were associated. 'If this music makes me feel so good, my experience must be true and valid', can seem an unanswerable refutation of Nietzsche's criticisms. The English critic Arthur Symons, a keen Wagnerite, who was delighted by 'The Birth of Tragedy', wrote of the later Nietzsche's 'Apostasy in Music':- "What the musical instinct, guided by Schopenhauer, was ready to divine at sight or hearing, it is the angry philosopher who denies and distorts, reasoning himself out of his instinct".

Nietzsche views Wagner as a most extreme and consistent representative of that attitude towards life and art that has come to be known as aestheticism. Nietzsche's basic objection to this is its pessimism and defeatism. Art is seen as a salvation from the world, rather than as a celebration of it, the function of 'culture', rather than to confront and overcome the symptoms of decadence, is to construct a haven of beauty and refinement from which the ugliness outside can safely be ignored.

It is arguable that our modern western culture is far more Wagnerian in this respect than Nietzschean. Nietzsche proposed a more fruitful, yea saying mode of ecstasy. This is associated with recollection in solitude, an intense awareness wherein all the threads that have made up a life are drawn together and affirmed, a time when the mind is exceptionally clear, and all the badness is no objection. Such experiences can make the whole of life meaningful in a way that mere 'culture' does not. But they will be grounded in rational and sceptical philosophy, and not on some dogmatic belief.

Once Nietzsche had achieved his full and perfect affirmation, and written down everything that was in him to say, he was free to succumb to the disease that was attacking him.


Finally, we may consider the use to which Nietzsche could best be put to use today. One answer might be to group him with other nineteenth century prophets and dissidents, such as Carlyle, Ruskin, Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, even Darwin and Marx, as one who made a contribution, and whose work and ideas have now been assimilated into our intellectual heritage.

In view of the depth and clarity of Nietzsche's criticism of modern western culture, one which it is hard to imagine he would have seen much need to mollify had he been able to observe the world of the 1990s, to judge his ideas in this purely historical way is automatically to take issue with him. His work questions the whole perspective in which the history of ideas is viewed. If we think he was wrong, surely we are challenged to come out and speak openly how and why we think so?

I have spoken of the traditional tripartite division of Nietzsche's thought, early, experimental and mature, and have tried to suggest his mature philosophy be seen as a tour de force of psychological science, claiming to be true in the sense that the theories of Darwin, Newton or Copernicus can be said to be so.

Supposing this truth to be granted, a further question immediately presents itself, that of what use is to be made of these discoveries. The attempt to answer this question could be called the next stage of his thought, upon which he embarked particularly in some of the notes put together as the 'Will to Power', but left uncompleted. Some later philosophies such as those of Spengler, Sorel, Heidegger, may be thought of as different answers to the same question. Certainly Nietzsche's ideas are of a kind that could be expected to make a difference to society, and he is far from being an apologist for the status quo. Great difficulties arise in the attempt to ally him with one side or another in the class battles of the twentieth century.

Sorel sees him primarily as an advocate of certain heroic virtues, quoting approvingly his enthusiasm for "that audacity of noble races, that mad, absurd and spontaneous audacity, the influence and contempt for all security of the body, for life, for comfort".

What kind of risks and dangers might Nietzsche have in mind when he advises his readers to "live dangerously"? One thinks of things like prison, madness, drug addiction, venereal disease and death. The description of the noble character involves a daring and recklessness such as are hardly approved of in bourgeois society, which has its own conception of who are the weak and who are the strong, largely in terms of the accumulation of money and the enjoyment of a comfortable lifestyle. Nietzsche speaks to rebels of many different kinds and classes.

He speaks more of race than of class, though this is best taken metaphorically. It is the Marxist view that the values of a class are determined by methods of economic livelihood. Nietzsche would certainly concede the importance of economic questions in contributing to optimism or pessimism, depression or euphoria, which find expression in philosophies and ideologies, but would presumably claim that his antithesis of strong versus weak is a more useful method of discrimination than Marx's social classes. Though undoubtedly important, the economic is only one factor in life. One may think of the ideas one favours as those which hold out most prospect of feeling good.

Nietzsche insists that a society composed purely of the strong would be unworkable. The mediocre are essential to the strong, who could scarcely exist without them, but it is deplorable when they succeed in crushing and oppressing the values of the strong. Insofar as strength is oppressed, everyone is affected to some extent, and the possibility of enjoyment is blighted.

It is easy to become side-tracked when expounding Nietzsche, fascinated by inspiring schemes for the regeneration of mankind, or gratifying personal philosophies that might be constructed from his works. Nietzsche's writing is full of ingenious speculations, and it is tempting to give him a purely literary treatment, in which some of his wilder flights have equal authority with his more substantial discoveries.

To do this is to fail to distinguish the different questions involved. Nietzsche's ideas can only play something like the role he had in mind if they are not merely used to stimulate and excite, and we remember his interest in enlightenment. The concept is not a difficult one to grasp, but we need to keep in mind what the objective is, and not to confuse it with other objectives. Such enlightenment must not be thought of as something to be imposed. There are other ways of experiencing life than appear to be compatible with explicit Nietzscheanism. No one is saying that these should be made impossible, or put under any kind of prohibition, or that it should not be possible to forget Nietzsche when desired. All that is asked is that his perspective be accessible when needed and that the critical weapons he forged be made more available.

go to homepage