Nihilism and Hierarchy in Nietzsche
Every elevation of the type “man,” has hitherto been the work of an aristocratic society and so it will always be — a society believing in a long scale of gradations of rank and differences of worth among human beings, and requiring slavery in some form or other. Without the pathos of distance, such as grows out of the incarnated difference of classes, out of the constant out-looking and down-looking of the ruling caste on subordinates and instruments, and out of their equally constant practice of obeying and commanding, of keeping down and keeping at a distance — that other more mysterious pathos could never have arisen, the longing for an ever new widening of distance within the soul itself, the formation of ever higher, rarer, further, more extended, more comprehensive states, in short, just the elevation of the type “man,” the continued “self-surmounting of man,” to use a moral formula in a supermoral sense.
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
Nietzsche is far and away the most influential of the three, both because of the powerful effect his ideas had on Heidegger and Schmitt, and his immense impact on culture as a whole. He is also a rarity among German philosophers: reading him is a pleasure. Nietzsche had a genuine sense of humor and loved nothing more than to drop in counterintuitive turns of phrase.
Through the years, many ostensible left-wing thinkers and movements — from countercultural artists to post-structuralists and feminists like Michel Foucault and Judith Butler — have drawn on Nietzsche, too. This would have likely surprised the Antichrist, who prophesized an end to the egalitarian “slave morality” of Christianity (along with its progeny, liberalism, and socialism) and the emergence of the noble and aristocratic supermen in their place. As Malcolm Bull puts it in Anti-Nietzsche, “equality has no fiercer critic than Nietzsche, whose ‘fundamental insight with respect to the geneaology of morals’ is that social inequality is the source of our value concepts, and the necessary condition of value itself.”
At the heart of Nietzsche’s outlook is a concern for the problem of nihilism. In his mind, nihilism was the inevitable consequence of a fall from the honorable, fierce aristocracies of yore and their replacement by Christianity, which postured as a religion of compassion and pity for the weak, poor, and humble. Far from being based on love, Nietzsche argued, Christianity was a kind of Platonism for the people, giving voice to their resentful belief that the real world was so filled with evil and suffering that it could only be justified if an eternal world existed above and below.
In this eternal world, the suffering inflicted by the aristocrats, the wealthy, and the violent would be meted out against those who had been powerful and arrogant in their mortal lives. It’s no accident that in The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche pays great attention to Tertullian’s comment that one of the great joys in heaven will be witnessing the suffering of the damned in hell. Unable to achieve revenge in this life, the weak will get to enjoy it eternally in the next one.
Some leftists have looked favorably upon Nietzsche’s anti-Christian animus, seeing it as an emancipatory weapon against oppressive moralism. But Nietzsche had something far different in mind. He felt that the desire for emancipation and equality was simply the continuation of the Christian theological project under a new, secularized guise.
Since the French Revolution — the “continuation of Christianity,” as Nietzsche put it in his notes for The Will to Power — the leveling impetus of the slave morality was more universalized than ever, bringing with it the decay of institutions and noble individuals who alone could provide a sense of meaning in a nihilistic post-God world. This was true of liberalism, and especially socialism, which held that the weak, sickly, and unworthy should unite and take over the world to end exploitation and dominion. For these doctrines, Nietzsche had nothing but contempt:
Whom do I hate most heartily among the rabbles of today? The rabble of Socialists, the apostles to the Chandala, who undermine the workingman’s instincts, his pleasure, his feeling of contentment with his petty existence — who make him envious and teach him revenge. . . . Wrong never lies in unequal rights; it lies in the assertion of “equal” rights. . . . What is bad? But I have already answered: all that proceeds from weakness, from envy, from revenge. — The anarchist and the Christian have the same ancestry. . .”
Only an unequal system, Nietzsche argued, could produce truly creative souls with life-affirming values. These values could not be judged morally in a nihilistic world, but only according to the one metric left after the death of God: aesthetically. For Nietzsche, the great-souled man will inevitably use others as his clay in tremendous and often terrifyingly violent projects — indifferent to, if not directly hostile toward, the mostly worthless masses whose primary value is being put to use by the coming superman. The inferior masses, Nietzsche was saying, should simply accept their exploitation by their betters.