Modernity and Its Discontents: Nietzsche’s Critique, by Douglas Kellner


Ported over to the Inferno for improved legibility, this serves as a rather comprehensive overview of Fritz’s thoughts on the trends and currents that compose what many call “modernity”. Rewarding reading for those with time to invest, despite the often repetitive nature of Kellner’s prose — enjoy!


Modernity and Its Discontents: Nietzsche’s Critique [1]

By Douglas Kellner


There is nothing I want more than to become enlightened about the whole highly complicated system of antagonisms that constitute the ‘modern world’


Along with Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche can be read as a great theorist and critic of modernity who carried out a “ruthless criticism of all that exists” (Marx 1975c [1843]: 142). His powerful broadsides against religion, morality, and philosophy deploy a mixture of Enlightenment-inspired criticism and anti-Enlightenment vitalism to attack the life-negating aspects of modern culture. In addition, Nietzsche criticizes many of the institutions and values of modern societies as oppressing bodily energies and creativity, while blocking the generation of stronger individuals and a more vigorous society and culture. In his appraisals of the modern age, Nietzsche developed one of the first sustained critiques of mass culture and society, the state, and bureaucratic discipline and regimentation, producing perspectives that deeply influenced later discourses of modernity. Since his writings display cogent insights into the origins, dynamics, culture, and personality-formations of modern societies, Nietzsche deserves to be read in the narrative of social theory, although he has been generally neglected in discussions of classical theory (Baier 1981-1982 and Antonio 1995).

Although he polemicizes against democracy, liberalism, and various progressive social movements, Nietzsche’s attack is at least partially carried out in a modern Enlightenment spirit, negating existing ideas in the name of a better future. Despite his keen appreciation for past cultures like classical antiquity and defense of some premodern values, Nietzsche is very future and present-oriented, attacking tradition while calling for a new society and culture. An impetus toward innovation, involving negation of the old and creation of the new, is therefore at the very heart of Nietzsche’s complex and often enigmatic theoretical work, which, in the spirit of modernity, affirms development and transcendence of the old as crucial values for contemporary individuals and society.

Nietzsche wanted to transcend modernity for a new mode of culture and society that would create stronger and more fully-developed individuals. He believed that new potentials for individual creativity and for a “higher” form of culture, made possible by the eruption of the modern age, were being curtailed and suppressed by the prevailing social and political organization, requiring radical socio-cultural change. This too, however, was in some ways a very modern posture. Thus, despite assaults on modernity, Nietzsche exemplified the very modern spirit of critique, and throughout his career attacked the perennial and contemporary idols of the mind which he saw as obstacles to free thinking and living.

Whereas most readings of Nietzsche center on his philosophy or cultural critique, I focus on his importance for the problematic of modernity and highlight the insights that he presents concerning the constitution of modern culture and societies, as well as his critique of how modernity inhibits the creation of freer, happier, and healthier human beings. I attempt to show that Nietzsche’s writings contain a fascinating mixture of modern, anti-modern, premodern, and what might be called “postmodern” impulses and positions which help account for the contradictions of his thought. My thesis is that Nietzsche’s critique of modernity is a key element of his work and construct a reading which interprets his major ideas in relation to his novel account and critical analysis of the modern world.

Nietzsche’s Life and Writings

Friedrich Nietzsche was born in the rural, central German town of Rocken in 1844, the same year in which Marx wrote his Paris Manuscripts and began his encounter with modern capitalism. The son of a Lutheran pastor who died when he was four, Nietzsche would eventually associate modern ideas with liberation from what he considered to be the mystifying theology and stultifying prejudices of his provincial childhood world.[2] Reared by his mother, grandmother, and aunts, and adored by his sister Elizabeth, Nietzsche’s writings contain some misogynist themes, although, as I show later in this chapter, he was one of the first to theorize gender and gender difference within modern society, and also positively deployed figures of women, generating a vast literature and debates over the topic of Nietzsche and women.[3]

As a youth, Nietzsche wrote poetry and excelled academically; he was awarded a scholarship to the elite school at Pforta where students received an outstanding classical education in a military-like disciplinary environment, cut off completely from the modern world. Nietzsche developed a strong concept of discipline and respect for martial values throughout his life, seeking to become a cultural warrior against his age, engaging in spiritual battle and the fight for a new culture.

At 18, Nietzsche entered the University of Bonn, and, after a year of boisterous fraternity activity, including a duel and frequent drunkenness, experiences replicated by Marx and Weber, he transferred to the University of Leipzig with his classics professor Theodore Ritschl. Young Nietzsche soon after distinguished himself as a top-flight student and deeply immersed himself in the study of classical antiquity, cultivating a love for ancient Greece and Rome that would shape his later thinking. Nietzsche periodically paid respect to his love for the Greeks, writing:

Oh, those Greeks! They knew how to live. What is required for that is to stop courageously, at the surface, the fold, the skin, to adore appearance. Those Greeks were superficial – out of profundity. And is not this precisely what we are again coming back to, we daredevils of the spirit who have climbed the highest and most dangerous peak of present thought and looked around from up there — we who have looked down from there? (1974: 38 and 1954: 683).[4]

At the age of 24, Ritschl recommended Nietzsche for a professorship at Basel, even though he had not yet completed the required Ph.D. On the basis of this recommendation and a few published papers, Nietzsche was offered the job and quickly awarded the necessary doctorate, even though he had not written a formal thesis. Nietzsche began his short but illustrious academic career just as the Franco-Prussian war broke out, and he volunteered and served as a hospital orderly. After brief service on the front in France, he was assigned to take sick troops back to Germany, became ill himself, and was forced to leave the military. Yet he returned to Basel an enthusiast for military adventures and values, and for some years after the war he defended the German Reich and culture in lectures and publications.

The young professor soon began work on his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, the outline of which he claimed was thought out in the midst of the battle of Worth (Nietzsche 1969 [1908]: 270). The text was denigrated or ignored in the academic mainstream, but was affirmed by others as a brilliant and novel interpretation of Greek culture, including Richard Wagner, whose work Nietzsche hoped would promote a rebirth of German culture, and with whom he formed a deep, albeit conflicted, friendship. Indeed, Nietzsche became a frequent visitor at Wagner’s house in Tribschen and a propagandist for the maestro’s music drama which he hoped could provide a basis for a new German culture.

Nietzsche wrote during a period of great German economic expansion and industrialization which he responded to in his writings, intensifying his critical project to include the economy, social institutions, and politics, as well as culture. Meteoric development of the coal and steel industries, manufacturing, finance, and administration were propelling Germany into a global economic and military power. The railway and telegraph systems provided an infrastructure for a national market, and a powerful bureaucracy and dutiful and respected civil service forged the basis for a modern state apparatus. In a climate of exuberant nationalism, following Prussia’s decisive military victory over France in 1871, Bismarck unified Germany politically under his leadership. The enhanced prestige of the Junker officer corps strengthened the hand of the old landholding aristocracy, and gave added force to their antimodernist opposition to liberalism and democracy. Intensified nationalism accompanied the expansion of national armies and the major imperialist powers began more intensely competing for colonies and markets.

But whereas the young Nietzsche started out an enthusiastic nationalist and believer that Wagner could help produce a strong German culture that could unify the German nation culturally much as Bismarck was unifying it politically, he soon became skeptical of both German nationalism and Wagner. Bergmann (1987) suggests that Nietzsche should be read as a member of the generation of 1866 which experienced German unification as a great generational experience that produced the excitement of new possibilities, but was also a source of later disappointments. From this perspective, the early Nietzsche’s search for a new culture was inspired by the perceived need to provide a great culture to unify the new German nation. But Nietzsche then became disillusioned with German philistinism, the dull nationalism of the German Reich, and came more to identify with various other European cultures and to present himself as a “good European.”

Nietzsche followed his impressive literary debut with a series of Untimely Meditations which attacked, in the spirit of the Enlightenment, key figures and features of Germany and the modern age while proposing ideas for cultural renewal. The target of the first Meditations was the German writer David Friedrich Strauss. Nietzsche read Strauss’ Life of Jesus at twenty and was deeply impressed with his philological dissection of the account of Jesus’ life in the gospels (Hayman 1980: 63).[5] After paying homage to Strauss’ earlier work, Nietzsche sharply criticized his more recent writings which he saw as exemplary of the philistinism that was ruling German life since its victory over France and unification, and which blocked the rebirth of genuine culture that he desired (Nietzsche 1990 [1873]: 23ff).

Throughout his Meditations, Nietzsche claimed that modern culture was “barbaric” (i.e. a formless amalgamation of fragmentary competing styles, ideas, and works), and he assailed the excessive rationalism, egotistical individualism, shallow optimism, homogenization, and fragmentation that he saw as characteristic of modern culture. In On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life, Nietzsche argued that with the proliferation of historical studies modern man was becoming paralyzed and overwhelmed with historical knowledge (1990 [1874]: 87ff.), writing: “We moderns… possess nothing which is truly ours.” For Nietzsche, the contemporary person assimilated an overwhelming amount of factual knowledge that was trivial and did not shape a rich and formative common culture: “And so all of modern culture is essentially inward; on the cover the binder has stamped some title like ‘Handbook of Inner Culture for Outward Barbarians'” (1990: 105).

Believing that modern individuals suffered from a weakened personality, Nietzsche wanted the study of history to be put in the service of creating great personalities, to help make possible a rebirth of genuine culture. During the 1870s, Nietzsche was becoming increasingly disappointed with the philistinism of the new German Reich and progressively intensified through the 1880s his critique of German bourgeois culture, Wagner, Bismarck, German militarism, and the Reich. He distanced himself from his search for a new culture based on Wagner’s music dramas and published a series of aphoristic works which promoted a spirit of enlightenment and social critique, beginning with Human, All Too Human (1986 [1878]).

Nietzsche’s turn to aphorisms exhibit a propensity to find a new way of writing, self-expression, and argumentation — a project that is itself akin to modernist aesthetic practices. His aphorisms apply the spirit of Enlightenment and experimental science against traditional religion, morality, and philosophy, as well as against the homogenizing and oppressive tendencies of the present age. His aphoristic writings seek to replace all obscurity, superstition, and illusions of the past with clear, rigorous, and emancipatory ideas that will serve human life and produce a new culture. Nietzsche also effectively deployed the short essay, parables, narrative, and other story-telling devices, and is considered one of the great writers of all time, as well as a major thinker.

Severe headaches also helped force Nietzsche to develop a more aphoristic style, allowing him to work in short periods of extreme intensity, producing a veritable explosion of ideas on a diversity of topics. His recurrent medical problems highlighted for him the importance of the body and good health, topics that became central to his thought. Indeed, ill health and dissatisfaction with academic life forced Nietzsche to resign his Basel professorship; and during the decade between 1878 and 1888, he often lived a solitary and unsettled life, engaging in intense work and producing a large number of highly original books. Henceforth, he was a man without a country or home, wandering through southern Europe in search of better health, or optimal writing conditions. He withdrew from many of his previous friendships, turning inward for inspiration and material. During this period, Nietzsche became increasingly disgusted with the German Reich and culture, and impressed with French and Italian culture.

During the 1880s, Nietzsche came to insights which he believed were of crucial importance to world culture. Utilizing the metaphor of an explorer charting new seas and lands (1974 [1882]: 180-181, 283-4, passim), his visionary philosophy was brilliantly sketched in his major literary work Thus Spoke Zarathrustra (1883-1885), which presented his ideas in dramatic form. A steady stream of books illuminated and developed these concepts, including The Gay Science, Beyond Good and Evil, The Genealogy of Morals, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols, and The Anti-Christ. The late Nietzsche poured out book after book, completing five in 1888, the last year before his permanent madness.

While Nietzsche has traditionally been presented as the archetype of the solitary thinker, far removed from the turmoil of his age, recent studies have indicated that his thought was attuned to the socio-political events of his time, and can be productively read in the context of the relation of his writings to his socio-political and historical environment. Bergmann (1987), Warren (1988), and Detweiler (1990) document Nietzsche’s deep immersion in the political controversies of the day and studies have also chronicled the contradictory political effects of his writing.[6] Bergmann (1987) has shown that throughout the 1870s and into the 1880s, Nietzsche was profoundly interested in the cultural and political events of the day, reading newspapers, journals, and political pamphlets of the era. On the whole, he came to despise all modern political movements and most form of state politics, rejecting modern politics en toto while developing a form of cultural politics that seeks social transformation through production of a new culture and values.

Biographical studies thus reveal that his political attitudes were shaped by the events of the era and that his reflections on politics, society, and culture are an important element of his thought. Hence, Nietzsche inaugurates a form of “cultural politics” that assaults existing political institutions and forms in the name of a cultural renovation and transformation of values that reject existing modern social and political institutions in their entirety. I thus read Nietzsche as engaging modern society and politics but attempting to move beyond modernity to a new era.

Modern Society and Cultural Renovation

Fundamental innovations:…. In place of ‘sociology,’ a theory of the forms of domination. In place of ‘society,’ the cultural complex, as my chief interest” (Nietzsche 1968a [1883-1888]: 255).

Although he rarely uses the term, Nietzsche’s concept of the “cultural complex” is an implicit organizing principle of his thought that conceptualizes entire civilizations as cultural systems. The concept embraces a wide historical panorama of different historical conjunctures, ranging from ancient Greece and Rome, to Christian civilization, to the Renaissance, Enlightenment, and contemporary mass society. The category of cultural complex tightly condenses key defining features of a culture or era, compressing in a highly charged figure of thought characteristics that illuminate a phenomena and make possible enlightening comparisons. By dealing with cultural complexes Nietzsche could speak of cultures as patterned wholes as opposed to “society” which he saw as an aggregation of individuals. The term is typical of Nietzsche’s use of synoptic, organizing categories which he deploys to compare different cultures and societies and which in its generalizing and heuristic status anticipates Weber’s conception of ideal types.

Nietzsche saw culture in general as domesticating the body, submitting individuals to discipline and mechanisms of social control. For Nietzsche, culture is a product of the sublimation of bodily drives and it can either shape and form strong and healthy individuals, or cause them to be so severely repressed that guilt, sickness, and decadence result. In particular, Nietzsche thought that modern values replicated what he considered to be “slave values” that supplanted an earlier “master morality” (1967 [1887]). In this scenario, “ascetic priests” took revenge on the strong and “domesticated” the body, creating slave morality which channels ressentiment inward against the body and outward against enemies of the herd. On Nietzsche’s account, weaker individuals resented the prerogatives of the stronger and carried out a transvaluation of values, overturning previous master morality in favor of slave moralities which promise salvation in a future heaven in exchange for submission and obedience to social forces and institutions. Transforming powerlessness and resentment into discipline and social control, ascetic priests forge individuals into compliant “herds” who conform to the dominant morality.

The ultimate result of this process of cultural domestification through bodily repression was an unparalleled control over the body in modern societies which subjected individuals to repressive morality that stultified their instincts, reducing the human beast to docile herd animals. Nietzsche ultimately traced this long process of social rationalization and control to Socratic culture that represented for him the triumph of reason over instincts, mind over body, intellect over passion and drives. While Nietzsche saw pre-Socratic Greek culture as producing healthy, vigorous, and strong bodies and personalities, he believed that with the beginning of Socratic culture and “theoretical man,” Western culture largely oppressed the body and created weak personalities.

Nietzsche thus saw the origins of modernity in the Socratic cultural complex that worked itself through Christianity, the Enlightenment, and modern mass societies and cultures. Hence, whereas Marx made the development of the capitalist economy the motor of modernity in the transition from feudal to modern society, Nietzsche saw the origins of modernity much earlier in the constellation of Socratic culture and privileged cultural forms over economics in his historical narratives. Nietzsche’s concept of “Socratic culture” thus denotes a cultural complex which provides a key to his conceptualizing of modern culture in contrast to premodern Greek culture, distinctions that function parallel to the contrast between traditional and modern societies advanced by modern social theory. These concepts provide Nietzsche with a historical optic and theory of phases through which he analyzes the differences between modern and premodern society, carries out a critique of modernity, and contrasts the life-enhancing or life-negating potential of various historical phases and cultural complexes.

Socratic Culture and Theoretical Man: The Origins of the Modern

“I seek to understand out of what idiosyncrasy that Socratic equation reason=virtue=happiness derives: that bizarrest of equations and one which has in particular all the instincts of the older Hellenes against it” (Nietzsche 1968b: 31).

Obviously, Nietzsche discerns the origin of modern culture much earlier than Marx and classical theory, interpreting the split between Greek tragic culture and Socratic culture as the key to the emergence of the modern world that he sees as the contemporary expression of Socratic culture. Unlike the other classical social theorists, who posit a decisive rupture with the past and emergence of a new modern society as a relatively recent event, Nietzsche sees the origins of modernity in Greek culture in the split between tragic and Socratic culture — much as Adorno and Horkheimer (1972 [1947]) saw the origins of Western rationalism in Homer’s Odyssey.

Nietzsche constantly contrasted the vigor and unity of pre-Socratic Greek culture with the lifelessness, fragmentation, and conformity of modern life (1967; 1968b; 1979; 1990). Yet he did not champion the harmony and grandeur of classical Greece in an aesthetic vein � la Winckelmann and classical German philology, but instead found a more vibrant and powerful culture in pre-Socratic Greece. Nietzsche’s classical studies yielded a notion that the agon, or contest, stood at the heart of Greek life. In Homer’s Contest, he argued that there were two types of contest in Greek culture: a dark and barbaric Eris, reaching back to an age of cruelty, contrasted to competition between artists and individuals of all walks of life that produced the distinctive contributions of Greek culture (Nietzsche 1911 [1872]: 51ff.). Greek culture was thus fundamentally agonistic with its athletes, poets, musicians, philosophers, politicians, and others struggling for supremacy in public contests. Whereas “modern educators” fear nothing so much as selfishness or ambition, the Greeks unleashed the power of the individual for the benefit of all (ibid: 58f).

For Nietzsche, then, the competition of conflicting values, ideas, and ways of life produced cultural diversity and a more vital culture which he contrasts to the homogeneity and lifelessness of modern culture. These Greek cultural wars thus exhibited a healthy, life-affirming culture that expressed bodily and aesthetic sensibilities and that allowed the strongest and most creative to flourish. Modern culture by contrast was homogenizing, repressive of the body, and hostile to strong individuality. From his early work on The Birth of Tragedy (1967 [1872]) to one of his last published texts Twilight of the Idols (1968b [1889]), Nietzsche contrasted the vibrant Dionysian culture evident in pre-Socratic Greece and early Greek tragedy with the more rationalistic Apollinian strains evident in Socratic reason and later Greek tragedy. Dionysian culture was eminently life-affirming, expressive of bodily energies and passions, and bound together individuals in shared cultural experiences of ecstasy, intoxication, and festivals, which Nietzsche believed created strong and healthy individuals and a vigorous culture.

In Nietzsche’s view, Socratic culture was a response to the breakdown and fragmentation of tragic Greek culture which it attempted to replace with a set of shared, homogeneous values, theoretical norms, and procedures, based on Socratic logic and reasoning, which would replace the warring gods of the Greeks with a more unified rational culture. In a sense, Socratic culture thus provided a cure for a cultural emergency with extreme rationalism coming to curb the strong, warring impulses that had been released and that Socrates/Plato believed were out of control.[7] The result was an equation of reason and knowledge and virtue, making reason the instrument of both truth and morality (1968b: 33).

Thus, the Socratic cultural complex replaced what Nietzsche saw as the profound pre-Socratic tragic vision of suffering and redemption through culture with the Socratic optimism that reason can discover truth and produce a good life (1967 [1872] and 1968b [1889]). For Nietzsche, the triumph of Socratic theoretic man provided the origins of modern rationalism and Enlightenment optimism and was counterpoised to a tragic pessimism, which in the spirit of his early mentors Schopenhauer and Wagner perceived great philosophy and art as the teachers and redeemers of humanity and the instruments of strong, healthy cultures.[8] Nietzsche saw Socratic culture as a force that was formative of the modern period, but with life-negating results (for example, 1968b [1889]: 29ff.). “Socrates” for Nietzsche was thus a symbol of decay, of atrophying life-instincts in which reason came to dominate the body and the passions, a process that intensified over the centuries.

For Nietzsche, the celebration of Socratic “theoretical man” also submitted culture to a subjectification, in which reason and rationalization come to form a cultural complex hostile to the body, strong individuality, and cultural diversity. Western culture is thus a form of subjectified culture for Nietzsche whereby reason and rationalization negate the body, individuality, and submit people to life-negating and homogenizing social control and discipline. The Socratic cultural complex also generated a split between inner and outer experience, and thus between subjective and objective culture, which produced a fetishism of inwardness, valuing subjective spirit and reason over external nature. Excessive evaluation of subjectivity produced both a repression of the body and a crisis of representation, as there was a split between subjective experience and external social reality. Nietzsche believed that Western culture greatly overvalued ideas and reason, negating nature, the body, and the objective realm of experience, thus producing a highly subjectified cultural complex in which culture was seen as an expression of subjectivity and valued because it cultivated personalities — as opposed to strong bodies, social institutions, or nature.

On Nietzsche’s view, the Socratic cultural complex generated a repressive rationalism that became the central principle of modern culture, dominating philosophy, the economy, the state, and everyday life. For Socratic culture, the passions, body, and feelings are subordinate to reason, which emerged as the ruling principle of philosophy and life. Nietzsche’s life-work would be dedicated to delineating the multifarious ways in which this principle permeated modern societies, becoming a constitutive principle — a theme that would later be taken up by Weber, Luk�cs, the Frankfurt school, and then Foucault and much postmodern theory.

Nietzsche, however, should not be read as an irrationalist who rejects modern reason and all forms of rational thought and inquiry tout court. His first proposed solution to the cultural and political malaise of the modern era was to revitalize the Greek cultural complex that harmonized Apollinian and Dionysian components, in order to create a new culture in the contemporary era. The “Apollinian” represented the principle of form, order, and individuation traditionally associated with Greek culture, while the “Dionysian” represented those powers of intoxication, disorder, and the dissolution of the individual ego in collective ecstasy and sensual surrender. Intense Dionysian passion should therefore be harmonized, spiritualized, and refined by Apollinian form. Classical Greek drama, especially Sophocles, represented for Nietzsche a profound combination of the Apollinian and Dionysian, linking aesthetic forms with tragic vision, profound harmony with great suffering and passion, and the delineation of individual fate against the backdrop of human finitude and powerlessness. Rather than rejecting the Apollinian principle, Nietzsche thus calls for a synthesis and conjures the ideal of an “artistic Socrates” who would combine the powers of reason and creativity, the rational with the irrational.

Nietzsche at first saw such a project exemplified in Richard Wagner’s music theater but became critical of its philistinism, sentimentalism, and lack of strong ideas. In his middle writings, Nietzsche turned to an appreciation of a mode of critical Enlightenment thought, though he criticized its pretensions and limitations and always opposed a dissected Enlightenment rationalism cut off from the body, passions, and instincts. Yet Nietzsche believed that a certain sort of sublimation would create strong and healthy bodies and personalities and like the other critical social theorists can be read as calling for a reconstruction of Enlightenment reason rather than simply as an irrationalist. Instead of merely condemning sublimation or inwardness, Nietzsche criticized repressions of natural drives which turned them against themselves, exerting cruelty and guilt through the mechanisms of conscience. Nietzsche opposed to this form of self-repression a sublimation that refines natural instincts in a creative and pleasurable manner.

Moreover, the “artistic metaphysics” which the young Nietzsche champions can be read as a celebration of aesthetic modernity, as a continuation of the romantic project of the renewal of culture and life through art.[9] The return to Greece can therefore be seen as an attempt to deal with modern problems and to provide contemporary solutions which will produce a new future. On this reading, Nietzsche wishes to combine premodern values with the modern project of perpetual self-overcoming and transcendence to a higher stage of life,and thus a new “postmodern” future. Indeed, a pathos of “the future” runs through the entirety of Nietzsche’s works. His early writings deal with the future of educational institutions, the music of the future, and a future rebirth of the higher culture of the Greeks.[10]

From Christianity to Mass Society

add: good quote on Christianity

In Nietzsche’s view, Christianity continued the main features of the Socratic cultural complex, profoundly contributing to the subjectification of culture and repression of expressive life energies. The universalism of Catholicism contributed to homogenizing of the Western mentality and its rationalized theology contributed to intellectual and societal rationalization. Protestantism in turn exaggerated inwardness and individualism, in which individual reason became the organon and the judge of truth.

On the whole, however, Nietzsche saw Christianity as anachronistic and irrational. In an aphorism on “Christianity and antiquity,” Nietzsche is incredulous that individuals still believe in “a justice which accepts an innocent man as a substitute sacrifice; someone who bids his disciples drink his blood” (1986 [1878]: 65-66). In Nietzsche’s view, Christianity represses bodily instincts, promotes an unhealthy sense of sin and guilt, and generates unparalleled denial of the body and the senses. Although Nietzsche is sometimes accused of being an irrationalist he assaulted the Christian cultural complex precisely because of its irrationality and attack on the body and this world. Jesus Christ, he claimed, “promoted the stupidifying of man, placed himself on the side of the poor in spirit and retarded the production of the supreme intellect” (Nietzsche 1986 [1878]: 112). Nietzsche also dissected attacked the Christian transvaluation of values which declared strength and wisdom as bad, while lowliness, humility, and submission were deemed “good”; this promotion of a slave morality excessively valuated spirit over body and promoted general societal repression and regression (1967 [1887]).

Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity was accompanied by a critique of morality. He sought to abolish the “higher ideals” by showing their human-all-too-human origins in “lower” strivings, needs, and frailties (1986 [1878] and 1966 [1886]). His studies provide “genealogical” accounts of the genesis of morality and other higher ideals and embody modern skepticism, suspicion, Enlightenment critique, and experimental thought and writing. In his critique of morality, religion, and philosophy, Nietzsche denies the reality of ideal or transcendental existences of any sort and strongly affirms a secular, this-worldly orientation.

Nietzsche described his aphorisms as “percepts of health” for free spirits (Nietzsche 1986: 210), and they can be read as compendiums of modern secular critical thought that would enable his reader to engage in enlightened thinking. Nietzsche was especially critical of morality which he believed oppressed individuals by imposing universalistic and repressive strictures on individual behavior. The universalist ethos of morality suppresses the particularity of individual drives, needs, and passions and is thus inherently repressive. Morality also cultivates excessive subjectivism and inwardness, creating unhealthy concerns with guilt, shame, and conscience. Highly idealistic, morality represses and devalues bodily energies and passions and is thus fundamentally life-denying in its dominant forms.

Undermining its foundation will, Nietzsche believes, “undermine our faith in morality” (1982 [1881]: 2). Morality works, he claims, through a “certain art of enchantment,” thus his diagnosis will work toward demystification and disenchantment. From this perspective, Nietzsche’s offensive against morality carries through in the domain of values precisely the process of disenchantment that Weber saw as the very dynamic of modernity. In the modern cultural complex, Socratic values were rationalized and carried forward in the Enlightenment and democratic revolutions, and institutionalized in contemporary modern societies. For Nietzsche, only the Renaissance provided an exception to this process of increasing social rationalization and the weakening of strong individuals through social morality and religion. The result was weak individuals, dominated by the “ascetic priests” of morality and religion, who formed an indistinctive mass of docile herd conformists.

Nietzsche presented the modern incarnation of the Socratic “theoretic man” in his conception of “the Last Man” who makes his own reason the measure of the real (1954 [1883-8]: 129f) and who is devoid of creativity, originality, and passion. This for Nietzsche was the mark of decadence and herd conformity, a total surrender to the values and mode of life of the contemporary era. For the Last Man (i.e. the most recent contemporary man) is totally content with its lot and blinkingly accepts contemporary morality and values: “No shepherd and one herd! Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same; whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse” (1954: 130). This figure anticipates Weber’s conception of the Iron Cage and Marcuse’s notion of “one-dimensional man” (1964) who accepts its slavery and conformity without question or revolt.

Nietzsche’s attack on “theoretic man” and slave morality can thus be read as a critique of modernity, which has produced a condition of leveling and homogeneity that Nietzsche saw as decadence and nihilism. Yet in addition to criticizing modern values, Nietzsche was also concerned to construct a code of values for the present age. Nietzsche consistently assailed guilt and “remorse of conscience” (1968b [1889]: 23f) and affirmed the values of “being natural,” as well as strength, egoism, will, and the “manly virtues.” He increasingly championed the values of the body, life and health, affirming ascending life as the source of values and declaring that whatever intensifies and enhances life is good, while what diminishes and inhibits life is deemed bad.

Nietzsche consistently critiqued the Western conception of the “rational subject” which portrays reason or mind as a “higher” faculty governing the body. With Marx, he affirmed a materialist perspective that took seriously human needs and drives, although his theory of human nature was more vitalist and naturalist than Marx’s synthesis of Feuerbach and the German humanist Bildung tradition which emphasized the full development of the individual. Nietzsche also attributed Christianity a stronger role in repressing individuals than Marx, though his critique of religion powerfully promoted the secular trends characteristic of modern thought, situating Nietzsche as a champion of this-worldly and secular thought � la Marx and the Enlightenment. His polemics against Christianity exude the vitriolic sarcasm for which he would become infamous and take to a higher level the Young Hegelian critiques that deeply influenced the early Marx.

Nietzsche often championed critical rationality, science, and knowledge as positive forces of social transformation, and thus can be read as part of a reconstructed critical Enlightenment tradition. Rejecting the “highest ideals” of Western culture, he opposed an experimental philosophy and “little truths” to empty generalizations of Enlightenment rationalism: “It is the mark of a higher culture to value the little unpretentious truths which have been discovered by means of rigorous method more highly than the errors handed down by metaphysical and artistic ages and men, which blind us and make us happy” (Nietzsche 1986 [1878]: 13). He valued experimental science and critical thought as the highest ideal and polemicized against the pretensions of idealist philosophy and religion (see Nietzsche 1982 [1881]: 101, 185, 204 and Nietzsche 1974 [1887]: 110, 253, 324 passim).

In the spirit of Enlightenment, Nietzsche also polemicizes against metaphysics, arguing that it illicitly generalizes from ideas in one historical epoch, projecting them upon the entirety of history. Against this form of philosophical universalism, Nietzsche argues “there are no eternal facts, just as there are no absolute truths. Consequently, what is needed from now on is historical philosophizing, and with it the virtue of modesty” (Nietzsche, 1878, 1986: 13). Nietzsche thus criticized the idealism, absolutism, and universalism of traditional philosophy and values from a critical Enlightenment historicist perspective. In a powerful philosophical critique anticipating later critiques of metaphysics, he assailed the concept of enduring knowledge, the notion of a metaphysical world, presenting metaphysical thought — in a modernizing vein — as a thoroughly obsolete mode of thinking. He attributes the “metaphysical need,” at the heart of Schopenhauer’s philosophy, to primitive yearnings for religious consolation for the sufferings of life and urges “free spirits” to liberate themselves and pursue thinking and living experimentally (Nietzsche 1986 [1878]: 8).

Against metaphysics, Nietzsche, like Marx, champions historical and physical explanations, rejecting all obscurantist thinking and writing. His assault on metaphysics can, therefore, be read as a critique of traditional thought that clears the way for a thoroughly modern mode of thought.[11] This theme is encapsulated in his notion of a “free spirit,” which he describes as an individual “who thinks differently from what, on the basis of his origin, environment, his class and profession, or on the basis of the dominant views of the age, would have been expected of him. He is the exception, the fettered spirits are the rule,” who take up their “position, not for reasons, but out of habit” (Nietzsche 1986: 108).

Nietzsche’s critique thus contributed to development of a form of modern thought that was this-worldly, historical, and focused on the present. Nietzsche’s conception of the “death of God” described the contemporary era that no longer believed in transcendent values and in which a materialistic skepticism reigned. But Nietzsche did not see this feature of modernity as emancipatory per se and equated it with nihilism and decadence, a failure to create original values and as expressive of a depletion or exhaustion of creative life-energies. Against nihilism, Nietzsche called for the creation of values that would be life-affirming and original, positioning superior individuals against society. Yet he did not champion an unrestrained release of desire and individual passion, calling instead for self-discipline and authority as key elements of forming superior individuals. Nietzsche believed that strong cultures such as ancient Greece, Rome, and the Renaissance practiced self-discipline and provided authority that enabled individuals to be stronger and more alive. Modern cultures, by contrast, lacked strong belief and individuality, promoting mediocre herdlike thought and behavior:

We modern men, very delicate, very vulnerable and paying and receiving consideration in a hundred ways, imagine in fact that this sensitive humanity which we represent, this achieved unanimity in forbearance, in readiness to help, in mutual trust, is a positive advance, that with this we have gone far beyond the men of the Renaissance. What is certain is that we would not dare to place ourselves in Renaissance circumstances, or even imagine ourselves in them: our nerves could not endure that reality, not to speak of our muscles. This incapacity, however, demonstrates, not an advance, but only a different, a more belated constitution, a weaker, more delicate, more vulnerable one, out of which is necessarily engendered a morality which is full of consideration. If we think away our delicacy and belatedness, our physiological ageing, then our morality of ‘humanization’ too loses its value at once — no morality has any value in itself -­: we would even despise it” (1968b [1889]: 89-90).

Liberalism, Democracy, and Nationalism: Nietzsche’s Critique

Nietzsche thought that modern democracy, liberalism, and enlightened social movements contributed to the regression of “modern man” behind the more vital and powerful individuals of the Renaissance. Nietzsche consistently championed ancient Greece and the Italian Renaissance as paradigms of strong, vigorous cultures. His strategy was to choose past ideals which could serve as models or norms for future “greatness.” Greek and Renaissance cultures affirmed the body, were secular, developed science and technology, were highly aesthetic, and produced strong individuals– all Nietzsche’s ideals. These ideals, he believed were concentrated in strong individuals like Julius Caesar, Caesar Borgia, and the “great men” of the Renaissance. Nietzsche’s normative contrasts are supported by a distinction between sickness and health, between descending and ascending life. His texts exult in an affirmation of life energies and criticize everything that suppresses and inhibits the full expression of primary instincts. His assault on religion, morality, and the herd-conformity of modern societies is thus unleashed from the standpoint of an ideal of the free and uninhibited flow of life energies, an unrestrained expression of instinctual powers.

Likewise, he argues that the democratic, liberal, feminist, anarchist, and socialist movements are expressive of declining life, of sickness, of resentment. All are manifestations of Socratic culture that posit reason over passion, ideas over life, and all are also manifestations of modern leveling and homogenizing tendencies, and are thus anti-life, helping to produce weak individuals and cultures. In opposition to liberal cultural tolerance, Nietzsche advocated cultural war which he believed would generate cultural diversity and a stronger, more creative culture and individuals. Although Nietzsche’s assault on liberalism and other progressive social movements contain elitist and anti-democratic attitudes, one also finds some positive positions on democracy in his writings, as when Nietzsche presents the democratization of Europe as irresistible and a “link in the chain of those tremendous prophylactic measures which are the conception of modern times and through which we separate ourselves from the Middle Age” (1983 [1880]: 376).

Nietzsche presents political and socio-economic modernity here as providing the foundation upon which future ages can build a better society and protect themselves against barbarism and tyranny, writing: “Democratic institutions are quarantine arrangements to combat that ancient pestilence, lust for tyranny: as such they are very useful and very boring” (Nietzsche 1983: 383). This passage indicates Nietzsche’s dual attitude toward democracy quite clearly: on one hand, it is useful as a counterforce to tyranny, but it is boring and promotes mediocrity. Later, Nietzsche will sift out all positive elements toward democracy and be purely negative.

Although some of Nietzsche’s ideas on race were taken up by German fascism, their concept of a German master-race and anti-semitism were far from Nietzsche’s own thought. Nietzsche was a strong critic of German nationalism and, as Kaufman has demonstrated (1950), he was also critical of anti-semitism and various proto-fascist values with which he has sometimes been associated by both his champions and his critics. Although Nietzsche took up some Darwinian categories, he inverted Social Darwinism by arguing that often the slaves, the weaker, used cunning and intelligence to subjugate the stronger (1967; also 1968b: 75-6). He also argued that the Darwinian concept that self-preservation was the fundamental human drive was misleading, writing: “The wish to preserve oneself is the symptom of a condition of distress, of a limitation of the really fundamental instinct of life which aims at the expansion of power and, wishing for that, frequently risks and even sacrifices self-preservation” (1974: 291-292).

Nietzsche thought that the will to power and struggle were more fundamental than a will to survive, to mere self-preservation, and that cultural diversity and struggle would produce a genuinely healthier and stronger culture. Thus, rather than racial separation or purity, Nietzsche believed that mingling of different races and the development of a multicultural society in which different groups competed would create a stronger European polity that would overcome the banal nationalisms and national chauvinisms of his day. Moreover, Nietzsche constantly theorized gender, class, national, and ethnic differences and thus emerges as a theorist of difference against the homogenizing trends of modernity and the tendencies of theorists to wipe out these differences in a more generalized concept of human beings.

To be sure, Nietzsche said many problematical things about women, workers, and various cultures and nationalities, but he also had some sharp insights into the differences between classes, genders, and nations, and believed that affirmation of difference and particularities created stronger individuals and societies. Moreover, as I argue in a later section, his concept of multiperspectival seeing requires that one try to overcome the biases of one’s social position and perceive things from many perspectives, thus Nietzsche anticipates postmodern theories of perspectivism and their celebration of difference and otherness — a theme I return to later in this chapter.

Nietzsche consistently presented himself as a “good European” and advocated “repudiation of national, class and individual vanity” (1983: 363). Thus, despite comments about “blond beasts” which would seem to connect him with German fascism, Nietzsche celebrated cultural diversity and Europe, anticipating contemporary multicultural theory, and attacked narrow nationalism, anti-semitism, and the belief that any one nation constituted a “master race.” Yet he was generally hostile toward socialism, anarchism, feminism, and other political movements of the day. In general, Nietzsche equated Christianity and democratic political movements as expressions of resentment of the weak against the strong and as devaluations of this world, this existence, in favor of another world, an ideal future. Both, in his view, exude pity and sympathy for the disadvantaged and advocate equality and the well-being of all.

Crucially, Nietzsche advocated a cultural politics that opposed the politics of his day, especially the welfare-state politics of Bismarck. Thus, his attacks on democracy, liberalism, and socialism are directed at the form of the first welfare state developed in his day in Germany. He saw all of these movements as manifestations of Socratic culture that helped produced societal rationalization and that destroyed individuality. Anticipating the critiques of Max Weber, Nietzsche believed that socialists would increase the tendencies toward massification and cultural mediocrity because their ultimate goal is “to manage more cheaply, more safely, more equitably, more uniformly.” On attaining power, they would attempt to perfect the modern state’s already growing regimentation. Speaking of “iron chains” and “fearful discipline,” Nietzsche warned that socialism threatened to institute a “fundamental remolding, indeed weakening and abolition of the individual” (1882 [1881]: 109, 131-132, 187). Associating socialism with premodern despotic regimes, he believed that it would recreate “Chinese conditions” in Europe and that its modern means of administration would produce even “more complete subservience” and would show the harmful effects of “all accumulations of state power” (Nietzsche 1986 [1878-1880]: 173-174; 1974 [1882]: 99, 338; and 1968a [1883-1888]: 463-464.

Putting Nietzsche’s ideas in context, one could argue that he was criticizing precisely the weak and specious democracy evident in Wilhelmine Germany and that he was thus one of the first critics of the perversion of democracy in modern societies and of the leveling and homogeneity emerging in the new mass societies. He thus produced one of the first critiques of the modern welfare state. Likewise, his criticism of socialism can be read as a dissection of German Social Democracy and its similarities to the sort of welfare state bureaucracy being promoted by Bismarck. Indeed, Germany under Bismarck and the Kaiser exhibited features of a bureaucratic and authoritarian welfare state and “democracy” was merely formal and an ideology legitimating authoritarian rule — a position that Nietzsche shared with Marx. One could also argue that the socialism that Nietzsche was attacking was precisely the vulgar forms of “crude communism” and German socialism Marx attacked in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, that he and Engels disparaged in The Holy Family and The German Ideology, and that Engels castigated in Anti-Duhring (cite sources).[12]

Moreover, Nietzsche’s positive comments on Napoleon can be read as an expression of his hatred of German nationalism and hopes for a united Europe, a dream of which Napoleon was an early avatar. Indeed, both Caesar and Napoleon, two of Nietzsche’s cultural heros, were much more internationalist than nationalist. Indeed, Nietzsche’s critique of nationalism emerges as one of his major contributions to contemporary thought. Whereas Marx saw nationalism as epiphenomenal to the capitalist economy and believed it would disappear with internationalist socialist revolution, Nietzsche saw the force and virulence of nationalism, its irrational attraction, and what was new and original about it; i.e. how it was connected with the new idol of the state. Nietzsche continuously attacked both nationalism and the institutions like the state and mass culture which promoted it.

Thus one could read Nietzsche’s attack on liberal democratic theory as providing a specific condemnation of the German authoritarian welfare state in the Germany of the Kaiser and Bismarck, with its anti-socialist laws, its cultural mediocrity, nationalism, and its oppressive politics.[13] Indeed, Nietzsche systematically and intensely assailed German culture and nationalism from his Untimely Meditations, writing in the mid-1870s, until the end of his literary activity in the late 1880s (see Nietzsche 1990 and 1968b). He equated nationalism with cultural homogenization, banality, philistinism, and demagogic manipulation, reserving some of his most vitriolic sarcasm for German nationalism, as when he blames German newspapers, beer, and nationalism for German stupidity and mediocrity.

It was precisely Nietzsche’s attack on cultural homogenization, nationalism, and philistinism that has endeared him to avant garde subcultures and artistic movements, rebellious individuals, and opponents of the existing society. Herbert Marcuse spoke of “the liberating air of Nietzsche’s thought, cutting into law and order” (1964: 216), and praised Nietzsche’s celebration of eros, play, and art, as well as “total affirmation of the life instincts” (1955: 121). Indeed, Nietzsche’s continued attraction to cultural and philosophical radicals, evident in the current Nietzsche appropriation in poststructuralist and postmodern theory, is found in his attacks on cultural homogenization and defense of cultural diversity and Dialectic of Enlightenment. Likewise, his sharp appraisals of the capitalist economy and modern state have won sympathy for Nietzsche in many quarters.

Critique of the Modern Economy and State

“…our modern noisy, time-consuming industriousness, proud of itself, stupidly proud, educates and prepares people more than anything else does, precisely for ‘unbelief” (Nietzsche 1966: 69).

Nietzsche was highly critical of the social institutions and values of modern societies which he saw as life-denying and oppressive of strong individuality. Although he was presented by Luk�cs (1980) as an apologist for an imperialistic capitalism, in fact he loathed what he saw as its base concern for merely monetary and bourgeois values, its alienated labor, and its tendency to turn everyone into “industrious ants” (1982a [1881]: 126-7). Like Marx, Nietzsche assailed the modern tendency to reduce all value to mere utility, although he failed to grasp the specific economic dynamics behind this process that Marx analyzed through the profit imperative and commodity form. Attacking the hegemony of utilitarian values and self-interest in a society of mediocrity, Nietzsche wrote;

Common natures consider all noble, magnanimous feelings inexpedient and therefore first of all incredible. They blink when they hear of such things and seem to feel like saying: “surely, there must be some advantage involved; one cannot see through everything.” They are suspicious of the noble person, as if he surreptitiously sought his advantage. When they are irresistibly persuaded of the absence of selfish intentions and gains, they see the noble person as a kind of fool; they despise him in his joy and laugh at his shining eyes…. What distinguishes the common type is that it never loses sight of its advantage, and that this thought of purpose and advantage is even stronger than the strongest instincts; not to allow these instincts to lead one astray to perform inexpedient acts — that is their wisdom and pride (1974: 77).

This attack on utility and self-interest is parallel to Marx’s attack on the reduction of all values to those governed by exchange value which calculated value in terms of self-interest and a narrow sense of material gain. Whereas Marx championed altruism and Nietzsche egotism, he opposed the narrow concepts of egotism and self-interest which merely interpreted these things in economic terms. Nietzsche also carried out an all-out assault on capitalist values of mendaciousness, flattery, sycophancy, and what he sees as a leveling into mediocrity (1954 [1883]: 163-166). Distinguishing between “actors” in the marketplace and “inventors of values” in a section on “The Flies in the Marketplace” in Thus Spoke Zarathrustra, Nietzsche uses the metaphors of pesky flies to denote the purveyors of the goods, services, and values of the modern economy, and to exhort his readers to flee from its temptations and seductions (ibid).

A strong critique of the machine and the machine age is also present in Nietzsche: “The machine of itself teaches the mutual cooperation of hordes of men in operations where each man has to do only one thing: it provides the model for the party apparatus and the conduct of warfare. On the other hand, it does not teach individual autocracy: it makes of many one machine and of every individual an instrument to one end. Its most generalized effect is to teach the utility of centralization” (Nietzsche 1983 [1880], 366). In this passage, it is as if Nietzsche had read Marx’s analyses in the Grundrisse and Capital concerning the dialectic of technology in capitalist modernity. As Marx analyzes it, capital multiplies the productive powers of labor through introducing new modes of cooperation and centralization, while the consequent specialization robs individual labor of its creativity and autonomy and binds the worker to the machine — although Marx ultimately sees more productive potential in the powers of cooperation whereas Nietzsche saw only flattening out and homogenization, pointing to their quite different concepts of the social.

Nietzsche describes the energies set forth by the machine as “lower, non-intellectual” (1983: 366), concluding: “It makes men active and uniform — but in the long run this engenders a counter-effect, a despairing boredom of soul, which teaches them to long for idleness in all its varieties” (1983: 367). He claimed that wage workers under capitalism are worse off than slaves, because they are at the “mercy of brute need” and employers who ruthlessly exploit them, concluding that:

the workers of Europe ought henceforth to declare themselves as a class a human impossibility and not, as usually happens, only a somewhat harsh and inappropriate social arrangement; they ought to inaugurate within the European beehive an age of a great swarming-out such as never been seen before, and through this act of free emigration in the grand manner to protest against the machine, against capital, and against the choice now threatening them of being compelled to become either the slave of the state or of the party of disruption (1982a [1881]: 125-127.

In this passage, Nietzsche clearly advocates individualist revolt against the capitalist machine, though he rejects joining the opposition party (“of disruption”) because he believed that all social movements are rooted in the herd psychology of resentment of higher types. He also developed a vitriolic attack on the modern state, finding it to be a “new idol” that is “the coldest of all cold monsters,” run by annihilators” who continuously lie and relie. “Everything about it is false,” Nietzsche claims, and it “devours… chews… and rechews” its citizens (1954 [1883]: 160-163). Nietzsche consistently attacked as well German nationalism, writing: “If one spends oneself on power, grand politics, economic affairs, world commerce, parliamentary institutions, military interests — if one expends oneself in this direction the quantum of reason, seriousness, will self-overcoming that one is, then, there ill be a shortage in the other direction” (1968b [1889]: 62). Nietzsche is distinguishing here between culture and the state and is clearly championing the former over the latter, writing: “All great cultural epochs are epochs of political decline: that which is great in the cultural sense has been unpolitical, even anti-political” (1968b: 63).

Nietzsche thus provides one of the first radical appraisals of the modern state as an instrument of repression, homogenization, and mediocrity and can thus be read as a sharp critic of modern politics. Nietzsche was “anti-political” in the sense that he believed contemporary mass politics led to herd conformity, leveling of individuality, and mass manipulation and homogenization. Indeed, his condemnation of the state is bound up with his critique of mass society and culture which he sees as homogenizing, massifying, and harmful to vital life energies, creativity, and superior individuality. Nietzsche’s contributions to social theory thus revolve around his powerful critical assessments of the modern state, mass society and culture, and their normalizing and homogenizing tendencies.[14]

For Nietzsche, the state and the marketplace were bitter antagonists against culture and he saw both the modern state and society as leveling individuals, producing mediocrity and cultural backwardness, as well as generating mass hysteria such as nationalism and anti-Semitism. The modern state and society level status and value hierarchies, reducing ideals and tastes to the lowest common denominator and producing mediocre individuals. Consequently, Nietzsche took on the key institutions of modernity in his critical optic. Yet unlike Marx and Engels, he did not think that a new modern economy, society, and state could be formed that could realize the promises of modernity. Thus, Nietzsche combines highly modern ideas and impulses with distinctly antimodern positions.

Nietzsche also sees the importance of new modes of communication and technologies in the development of modernity: “The press, the machine, the railway, the telegraph are premises whose thousand-year conclusion no one has yet dared to draw” (Nietzsche 1880, 1983, 378). Yet on the whole, Nietzsche was pessimistic about the impact of modern social processes. For the most part, he felt that modern society and culture had become so chaotic, fragmented, “arbitrary,” and devoid of “creative force” that it has lost the resources to create a higher culture and ultimately advanced the decline of the human species. He especially thought that the press and mass culture were forces of degeneration and mediocrity, focusing attention on the trivial, superfluous, and sensational, and creating homogenization and conformity.

Reversing the optimism of classical theorists concerning the positive benefits of association and growing voluntary integration of individuals into the institutions and practices of modern societies, Nietzsche believed that “society” as a form of culturally reproduced solidarity was dissolving (1974 [1882]: 302-304l see also 1969b [1887]: 121-126l 1968a [1983-1888]: 150; and 1968b [1889]: 93-93) and he saw social conformity and domination as a threat to individuality. Indeed, he had an almost visceral repulsion against mass society, arguing: “every association makes us shudder slightly” and that “all contact… ‘in society’ — involves inevitable uncleanliness” (Nietzsche 1974 [1882]: 342 and 1966 [1886]: 226). Thus, while classical social theorists saw modern society as helping develop individuality, Nietzsche saw a sharp antithesis between the individual and society and saw modern society as oppressive to the development of individuality.

In Nietzsche’s view, two complementary trends were evident that were eroding the promises of social modernity. On one hand, modern society was fragmenting into warring groups, factions, and individuals, without any overriding purpose or shared goals. On the other hand, it was leveling individuals into a herd, bereft of individuality, spontaneity, and creativity. Both trends were harmful to the development of superior individuality and thus Nietzsche was sharply critical of each. Yet his social critique generated powerful insights into social conformity and massification.

Superior Individuality, Difference, and Social Roles

“The problem of the actor has troubled me for the longest time” (Nietzsche 1974: 316).

Nietzsche’s texts also contain acute psychological analysis based on scrupulous self-observation, study of the classics of the moral life, and the close study of human beings. The psychological turn in Nietzsche’s thought represents a move within modern thought to more closely dissect the human psyche and the inner life. Applying methods of observation developed in the study of nature to the study of morality and the inner life, Nietzsche’s thought intensifies the concern with psychology that would mark the development of a differentiated and fractured modern psyche, which Freud and other later psychologists would study, establishing psychology as a discipline. Nietzsche’s aphoristic texts thus provide an important step in the self-scrutiny of the individual that is a constitutive aspect of modernity and that anticipate the development of modern psychology.

Indeed, Nietzsche considered himself the first great psychologist, who explored the terra incognita of the labyrinth of the modern psyche, though his mode of analysis is closer to what I would call philosophical or cultural critique then to “psychology” in the sense of the academic discipline that developed with Freud and his successors. Part of cultural modernity, as Habermas would remind us (1981), is the differentiation of various academic disciplines and of fields of human experience, like society or the psyche, as domains of an increasingly specialized academic division of labor. Classical theory, we shall see, emerged before the extreme specialization of disciplines like sociology and psychology, and thus combined philosophical, cultural, political, psychological, and sociological issues in the attempt to articulate the many dimensions of modernity.

Although Nietzsche carried out a critique of ascetic ideals, he also advocated discipline, sublimation, severity, and strength which would produce superior individuals. Individuality was thus the creation for him of those who were able to overcome their weaknesses and to produce stronger and healthier personalities. “Self-overcoming” required transcendence of all of one’s infirmities, but also of all that society has made of one. Nietzsche believed that modern individuals were “decadent” because their life-instincts were atrophying and because they docilely submitted to social domination. On Nietzsche’s analysis, ressentiment was a major feature of modern individuals who resented the prerogatives and capacities of the strong. Modern individuals who did not themselves advocate strong values or exhibit strong personalities were, Nietzsche argued, carriers of a modern nihilism that no longer believed in any great values or ideals (Nietzsche 1968a: 7ff).

“Nihilism” for Nietzsche signified a contemporary condition of cultural exhaustion and decadence which required a transvaluation of values and development of a new culture (1968a: 3ff). Culture for Nietzsche fundamentally consisted of an “ordering of rank” (Rankordnung) that established higher and lower values and Nietzsche calls for a revaluation of values, an overturning (Unwertung) of the highest values and establishment of new values that would promote stronger individuals and a more creative culture. His Ubermensch, therefore, is a superior individual who overcomes the decadent values and is able to create new life-affirming values and a stronger and more life-affirming culture.

Developing superior individuality requires overcoming social determinism and herd conformity, pitting the individual against society. Nietzsche believed that some individuals could exert their will to power to create higher, more refined selves and one key to Nietzsche’s ideal is his overcoming of the mind/body dualism and his interpretation of freedom as liberation from societal determinism. In particular, Nietzsche’s free individual must be free from morality, religion, and society and free to fully develop one’s own potentialities. In the following passage, Nietzsche indicates how art allows “freedom above things” and the demands of morality and other repressive institutions:

we need all exuberant, floating, dancing, mocking, childish, and blissful art lest we lose our freedom above things that our ideal demands of us…. We should be able also to stand above morality — and not only to stand with anxious stiffness of a man who is afraid of slipping and falling any moment, but also to float above it and play. How then could we possibly dispense with art — and with the fool? (1974 [1882]: 164).

Authentic art was privileged by Nietzsche precisely because it cultivated the senses, imagination, and other aspects of the mind and body, allowing individuals to enter a realm that transcended conventional morality and social norms. Nietzsche championed art as the most powerful enemy of the ascetic ideal and the ultimate source of cultural vitality. The crisis in modern culture is partly rooted in the fact that aesthetic sensibilities have been savaged by the repressive forces of rationality, social rationalization, and mass culture and society, thus art has been relegated to the margins of society. For Nietzsche, however, these rationalizing forces must be constrained by aesthetically rooted values. Free spirits were needed who would experiment with art, ideas, and life and who would create new values and a new culture that would produce in turn higher human beings.

On the whole, Nietzsche located superior individuality in the body and denied the existence of a free subject or will — concepts that were mythical in his view. Overcoming mind/body dualism, Nietzsche praised the body’s superior “intelligence” and treated the ego as its “instrument” (1969 [1883]: 61-6, 86, 118, 120). In addition, Nietzsche saw the “subject” as a mere construct, an idealized sublimation of bodily drives, experiences, and a multiplicity of thoughts and impulses. This “little changeling,” Nietzsche complained, this subject, “is believed in more firmly than anything else on earth,” but is a mere illusion created out of modern desperation to have a well-grounded identity. For Nietzsche, “the doer” is “merely a fiction added to the deed — the deed is everything” (1869b [1887]: 45). For Nietzsche, “the subject” was thus merely a shorthand expression for a multiplicity of drives, experiences, and ideas. Nietzsche broke with unified notions of the subject, arguing: “My hypothesis: subject as multiplicity” (1968a: 270). Nietzsche saw the rational subject celebrated by philosophy as a bundle of drives and impulses, some of which are not even conscious. Moreover, the subject was a product of modern culture and society which produced docile, disciplined, and conformist herd individuals.

Indeed, some of Nietzsche’s deepest insights pertain to how modern individuals and their morality and values are products of modern society. In a prescient anticipation of role theory, Nietzsche saw that modern societies were producing a differentiated set of occupational, professional, and gender roles, that imposed conventional and conformist behavior on individuals. Further, Nietzsche was one of the first major theorists to articulate class, race, and gender differences in a sustained and serious manner, and while he made many masculinist comments about women he had some important insights into gender differences. In a passage in the Gay Science, for example, Nietzsche notes how men create “the image of woman, and woman forms herself according to this image,” (1974: 126), suggesting the social construction of femininity and the way men are able to get women to conform to their own images of what women should be. He also discusses the ways that women are socialized into chastity via religion, morality, and social roles — and are then thrown into marriage where they are supposed to put aside sexual abstinence to satisfy their husbands. Further:

Young women try hard to appear superficial and thoughtless. The most refined simulate a kind of impertinence. Women easily experience their husbands as a question mark concerning their honor, and their children as an apology or atonement. They need children and wish for them in a way that is altogether different from that in which a man may wish for children. In sum, one cannot be too kind about women (1974: 128).

Nietzsche also anticipates “difference feminism” in passages where he suggests that women’s biological condition, in particular their ability to bear children, generate important differences between men and women: “Pregnancy has made women kinder, more patient, more timid, more pleased to submit; and just so does spiritual pregnancy produce the character of the contemplative type, which is closely related to the feminine character” (1974: 129). Nietzsche also wrote that women were superior in learning to use masks and distancing themselves from social roles than men, exhibiting a “lightness of being” and talent for dissimulation not found in many men (1974: 316-317).

Such passages — with deep insight into the social situation of women and sympathy for them — should be contrasted to Nietzsche’s more misogynist discourse to capture characteristic contradictions of his thought. Derrida (1979 [1976]) and some French feminist thinkers, eager to recuperate Nietzsche for their positions, argue that Nietzsche really advocates “feminine” values and that he privileges the figure of woman in his work (see the discussion in Many claim that Nietzsche has more affinities with feminism than other modern theorists — claims hotly contested by others (see Schutte 1986). On this issue, like so many others, “Nietzsche” is a contested terrain and his texts support widely variant interpretations.[15]

Thus, Nietzsche was one of the first major theorists to theorize gender differences between men and women as socially constituted in modern societies. The main target of his critique was not women but rather the professionally specialized, conformist, family-oriented, church-going male who he saw as the bearer of mediocrity. Of course, his sociological insights were often undercut by essentializing discourses that privileged men over women and espoused masculinist values. Yet on a personal level, Nietzsche himself had many constructive personal relations with intellectual women, often used the feminine as a positive metaphor, and was in many ways more “feminine” than “masculine” himself — in terms of how these concepts were then socially constructed.[16]

In addition, Nietzsche stressed the limitations of more rational modes of communication, so it would be wrong simply to dismiss his thought as masculinist tout court. For Nietzsche, authentic communication and social bonds are anchored in shared feelings and the body, and not in abstract linguistic interchange.[17] Nietzsche rejected the notion that words were mirrors of natural or conceptual objects, depicting them as “fictions,” which “mask” bodily drives and introduce inevitable distortions into communication because they are impersonal and collective while experience is personal and individual.

Nietzsche thus valorized expressive, bodily, and aesthetic modes of communication, while pointing to the limitations of rational and linguistic social interaction. Yet he did not advocate an “anything goes” relativism and constantly stressed the importance of strong modes of thought that did not flinch from looking coldly and without illusions into the negative aspects of life. More than ever, Nietzsche believed, the present times call for a cultural leadership who can endure “seeing reality as it is,” in all its multiplicity, chaotic uncertainty, and harshness, whatever the costs (1968b [1889]: 163). Nietzsche’s superior individuals would thus live fully, dangerously, with contradictions, yet without illusions, and would be able to benefit from the full range of cultural diversity and difference.

While classical social theorists like Durkheim saw social roles as providing potentials for an expansion of individual thought and behavior, Nietzsche believed that occupants of the new specialized occupations and social functions, especially the professions, tended to over-identify with their roles and engage in inauthentic “fabrication” or “simulation.” During the Middle Ages, individuals were stuck in fixed roles whereas modern individuals “become convinced” that they “can do just about everything and can manage almost any role” (1974: 302-3). But, he felt, they act hesitantly, without strength, asking themselves: “How ought I feel about this?” They are so engaged in simulating effectiveness and identify so strongly with their roles that they “really become actors” and have trouble being “anything else… The role has actually become the character” (Nietzsche 1986 [1878-1880]: 39-40; see also 1982a [1881]: 157; 1974 [1882]: 302-304; 1966 [1886]: 26, 218; and 1968a [1883-1888]: 328).

Whereas most modern social theorists claimed that social actors gained self-reflexivity against traditional roles and had an expanded repertoire of possibilities from which to choose, Nietzsche maintained that modern role-playing is governed by sterile models that destroy particularity, spontaneity, and individual self-expression. Modern role players act instead in a highly conventional and unreflective manner, adapting “many roles” which they play “badly and superficially” in the mode of a mechanically acted “puppet-play.” Wearing these social masks reduces individuals, he believes to “shadows” and abstractions, turning individuals into simulacra. Anticipating Baudrillard’s postmodern theory (1993), Nietzsche contended that simulation is so pervasive that it is hard to distinguish between the role and the person, between the simulated behavior and the real individual. Modern role players are so docile, Nietzsche believed, that they “prefer the copies to the originals” (Nietzsche 1983 [1873-1876]: 84-86l see also 1986 [1878-1880]: 136; 1974 [1882]: 232-233; 1969a [1883]: 268, 300, 302; and 1968b [1889]: 26-7).

Thus, whereas Marx and other classical social theorists stressed that society produced new forms of fragmentation and solidarity, Nietzsche saw these modern forces as producing primarily homogeneity and fragmentation, thus articulating a primarily negative optic on social modernity. But in addition to seeing the negative features of social modernity, classical social theorists stressed that modern modes of sociality, association, and cooperation provided positive resources to create strong individuals, to produce wider communication, and more democracy. Thus, unlike the classical social theorists who believed that modern societies provide the resources to address its problems and to institute social change, Nietzsche believed that a new culture was necessary to regenerate individuals and social life. Whereas classical social theorists believed that their new sciences of society were able to identify indispensable resources for social progress and to provide knowledge of how to improve and reform society, Nietzsche declared that sociologists and social reforms exemplified “the decaying forms of society” (1968b [1889]: 91).

Nietzsche often spoke of a conflict between these roles and the genuine person, but by equating the authentic self with the body, he reversed the usual privileging of “higher” spiritual, ideal, or transcendental features of the personality. Moreover, Nietzsche believed that the herd conformists who submitted to dominant roles and behavior lacked the personal resources to cope with the socio-cultural disintegration and fragmentation that was a feature of modern societies. For this reason, he believed that resentment was rampant, easily redirected, and dangerous. Yet Nietzsche pointed to the ideal of a completely different type of social actor who dons masks without totally identifying with their roles or losing their sense of self in their social functions. These “genuine” actors “dissimulate” in order to perform and observe themselves in their social roles. They are able to establish “distance” from their roles, engage in a multiplicity of roles and functions, to bear solitude and aloneness, to avert manipulation, and to be capable of benevolence and modesty. Their behavior thus exhibits an independent and creative quality missing in the more conformist social actors (Nietzsche 1986 [1878-1880]: 136; 1982 [1881]: 156; 1974 [1882]: 130-133, 321; 1966 [1886]: 160).

Sometimes Nietzsche’s superior individuals act out of the sheer delight of putting on masks, thus escaping the “heaviness” of fixed identities, and at other times they use them to cunningly avoid threats, overcome enemies, and exercise command (e.g. Homer’s Odysseus). But this sort of dissembling is purposive without any confusion of self and role (Nietzsche 1982a [1881]: 156; 1974 [1882]: 131-132). They utilize their roles to “become who we are — human beings who are new, unique, incomparable, who give themselves laws, who create themselves” (1974 [1882]: 266. Such reflexive and clever role players can originate in any social stratum. For example, Nietzsche argued that today’s subjugated strata (e.g. “lower classes,” “Jews,” and “women”) develop highly refined role-playing skills and unusual adaptability (1974: 316-317). These individuals are not “domesticated” or absorbed in their roles, but use them to retain and amplify their “multiplicity” and bodily “intelligence.”

Nietzsche held that such “sovereign individuals” appear in all types of societies. Although they are always relatively rare, they have exceptional influence on patterns of cultural and social development. The ideal of the reflective actor is thus closely linked to Nietzsche’s idea of a potential cultural leadership stratum, capable of ushering in a higher form of civilization. The same process of social selection that “domesticates” weak individuals, thus has reverse effects among sovereign types. Since they instinctually transgress norms, they are subjected to disciplinary actions in all societies. Hence, the same conditions that produce “leveling” and mediocrity give rise to “exceptional human beings” (Nietzsche 1968a [1883-1888]: 80, 460-464; 1966 [1886]: 138-139, 176-177; 1968b [1889]: 118, 232).

While Nietzsche believed that the mixing of peoples and cultures in modern societies has devastating effects on most people, overwhelming and confusing them with difference, he believed that it makes sovereign types “stronger and richer than ever before.” Rather than being confused and paralyzed by diversity, these superior types find the ubiquitous cultural clashes and highly divergent values, ways of life, and groups to be sources of growth and power. They are so flexible and adaptable that they are “increasingly independent of any determinate milieu” (Nietzsche 1966 [1886]: 174-177). Because of their “manifold” and “mixed features,” they grasp “the perspective character of existence” — that each person’s body, biography, and location are unique optics and sources of a nearly infinite range of possible points of view. Since they themselves draw power from difference, they see the plurality of possible people, experiences, and values to be a resource and they are able to respect and benefit from difference themselves (Nietzsche 1974 [1882]: 336-337).

Nietzsche envisaged the “highest type” of person to have “the greatest multiplicity of drives in the relatively greatest strength that they can be endured.” Being the “richest in contradictions,” these people would have “antennae for all types” of humanity (Nietzsche 1968a [1883-1888]: 150, 479, 507). This perspectival type of being was at the core of Nietzsche’s aspirations for “overcoming” modern mediocrity and Socratic culture. He stressed emphatically the utter futility and undesirability of modern efforts to harmonize contrary spheres of values and ideas. The capacity to orient to the world from fundamentally different and conflictual perspectives subverts the abstract rationalism, one-sidedness, and mediocrity characteristic of modern selves and theory. Nietzsche’s superior individuals would be able to grasp the particular, uncertain, incomplete, disjunctive, and “experimental” nature of knowledge. They would be uninhibited enough to live without warrants in the midst of difference and to embrace, thrive on, and, even, will difference (Nietzsche 1966 [1886]: 160, 110-111, 145-146).

Nietzsche saw modern societies as producing both new forms of herd conformity and new forms of cultural diversity that would make possible the development of superior individuals. Nietzsche attacked those conditions that prevented higher individuality and that produced massification and mediocrity. He directed his cultural critique against the heartland of Northern European culture, especially German culture and male professional culture that were the main forces of conformity and leveling. Although Nietzsche sometimes made derogatory remarks about what he considered to be inferior cultures and nations, he also championed cultural diversity and difference. He saw Christianity, morality, and social conformity leveling individuals into a homogeneous herd, and fragmenting into incommensurate social groups. Both tendencies have indeed accelerated since Nietzsche’s day, so his analysis of the contradictory features of social modernity and critique of its leveling tendencies continues to be relevant. Against the oppressive features of social modernity Nietzsche developed the ideal of superior individuals who would be distinguished in part by a perspective way of seeing and knowing and the ability to appropriate a multiplicity of perspectives. We shall present this ideal as a model for a new type of modern theory in the following section and take on the limitations of Nietzsche’s social thought in a concluding section.

Perspectivism and the Critique of Modern Theory

“There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective ‘knowing’; and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more complete will our ‘concept’ of this thing, our ‘objectivity,’ be” (Nietzsche 1969: 119).

Nietzsche’s attack on Christianity and otherworldly idealism can be read as a culmination of Enlightenment modernity, as a modernizing demystification and secularization of the world. For Nietzsche, as with the Young Hegelians, modernity comes into its own with the death of God, though Nietzsche drew more consequent philosophical implications, arguing that with this event, there exists no more solid, stable, eternal foundation for values and ideas. In a radically transitory, finite, and unstable world, there can be no foundation for philosophy or values. Nietzsche overturned and revalued (Umwertung) the highest philosophical values, championing becoming over being, appearance over reality, this world over the “true world,” and body over spirit (1968b: 35ff). He thus anticipated Derrida’s deconstruction, taking apart traditional philosophical hierarchies, and the attack on foundationalism associated with postmodern theory.

In addition, Nietzsche’s perspectivism denied the possibility of affirming any absolute or universal values: all ideas, values, positions, and so on are posits of the existing individual, constructs of a will to power, which are to be judged according to the extent to which they do or do not serve the values of life and strong individuality. For Nietzsche there are no facts, only interpretations, and he argued that interpretation was constituted by the interpreter’s perspectives and was thus inevitably laden with presuppositions, values, biases, and limitations. For Nietzsche, a perspective was thus an optic, a way of seeing, and the more perspectives one had at one’s disposal, the more one could see, the better one could understand and grasp specific phenomena. To avoid one-sidedness and partial vision one should learn “how to employ a variety of perspectives and interpretations in the service of knowledge” (Nietzsche 1969: 119).

On one hand, the notion of perspectival seeing indicates the limitations whereby each individual’s body, history, and location restricts what one can see. On the other hand, the doctrine points to the necessity of learning to see from a variety of positions and cultivating perspectival seeing as part of superior individuality. Nietzsche believed that: “every elevation of man brings with it the overcoming of narrower interpretations; that every strengthening and increase of power opens up new perspectives and means believing in new horizons” (1968a: 330). Acquiring perspectival seeing enables individuals to overcome one-sidedness and thus to grasp aspects of phenomena previously overlooked. It also enables individuals to overcome one-sided modes of thought.

We usually endeavor to acquire a single deportment of feeling, a single attitude of mind toward all the events and situations of life — that above all is what is called being philosophically minded. But for the enrichment of knowledge it may be of more value not to reduce oneself to uniformity in this way, but to listen instead to the gentle voice of each of life’s different situations; these will suggest the attitude of mind appropriate to them. Through thus ceasing to treat one-self as a single rigid and unchanging individuum one takes an intelligent interest in life and being of many others (Nietzsche 1983 [1880]: 195-196).

Nietzsche’s assumption is that reality is too complex and many-sided to be grasped from a single perspective: “A multiplicity of hypotheses, for example, as to the origin of the bad conscience, suffices still in our own time to lift from the soul that shadow that so easily arises from a laborious pondering over a single hypothesis which, being the only one visible, is a hundredfold overrated” (Nietzsche 1983 [1880]: 304). A single hypothesis can provide but a one-sided grasp of things and thus requires refinement and rethinking. In the Genealogy of Morals (1983), where he explicated this doctrine, Nietzsche provides an interpretation of ascetic ideals, insisting that ascetic ideals are very different in artists, philosophers, priests, and scientists. There is thus no essence of the ascetic ideal, or single hypothesis that explains them, but a wealth of phenomena that require different interpretations and valuations.[18]

The concepts of perspectival seeing and interpretation provide Nietzsche with a critical alternative to essentialism: objects do not have an inherent essence, but will appear differently according to the perspective from which they are viewed and interpreted and the context in which they appear. He spoke of his own “search for knowledge being manifested in the dream of having the “hands and eyes” of many others and of being “reborn in a hundred beings” (1974 [1882]: 215). Cultivating this approach required learning to see and interpret — “habituating the eye to repose, to patience, to letting things come to it; learning to defer judgement, to investigate and comprehend the individual case in all its aspects” (Nietzsche 1968b [1889]: 65).

This passage points to another virtue of a perspectival optic: learning to grasp the specificity and particularity of things. Nietzsche mistrusted the distorting function of language and concepts which required perspectival seeing and interpretation to grasp the particularity and specificity of concrete individual phenomena. Perspectival seeing allowed access to “a complex form of specificity” (Nietzsche 1968a [1883-1888]: 340) which made possible a more concrete and complete grasp of the particularities of phenomena. Seeing from conflicting perspectives also opened people to appreciation of otherness and difference, and to grasp the uncertain, provisional, hypothetical and “experimental” nature of all knowledge.

Thus, the multiperspectival approach allows the theorist to grasp the particularity and concreteness of individual phenomena. In this sense, it is similar to Marx’s concept of mediations. Just as Marx saw the concrete as a product of its mediations, or internal relations, that were complex and multidimensional, so too did Nietzsche’s multiperspectival approach allow one to analyze phenomena from different perspectives. Thus, just as Nietzsche championed human and cultural particularity, so too did he advocate modes of thought that avoid homogenizing phenomena and that thus cover over their qualitative particularity.

Nietzsche’s multiperspectival approach undermines claims for absolute truth or for a method that will guarantee truth and objectivity. Nietzsche was for experimental science, gaining knowledge through the senses, testing hypotheses and attaining cumulative knowledge, but he attacked the belief in objectivity, in an immaculate perception, in a completely non-biased and non-interested mode of seeing. Perception and cognition were always perspectival, Nietzsche believed, and he scorned those who believed that science alone attain truth or that the scientist has privileged access to reality (1967: 146f). Nietzsche also strongly opposed the mechanistic and scientific view of the world that would rob it of its aesthetic qualities, scornfully saying: “That the only justifiable interpretation of the world should be one in which you are justified because one can continue to work and do research scientifically in your sense (you really mean, mechanistically?)– an interpretation that permits counting, calculating, weighing, seeing and touching, and nothing more — that is a crudity and naivete, assuming that it is not a mental illness, an idiocy” (1974: 335).

Nietzsche’s conception of a multiperspectival discipline led him to question the claims of science, philosophy, or any one discipline to be the sole road to truth. His own approach combines many perspectives including philosophy, science, history, social analysis, aesthetics, and even myth. He himself at various stages appeared as a philologist, cultural historian and critic, philosopher, aestheticist and artist, psychologist, and as we are suggesting social theorist. From this multidisciplinary space, the notion of perspectival interpretation gives Nietzsche a powerful weapon to criticize the one-sidedness and reductionism of many forms of modern theory. He appeared before disciplinary specialization and professionalization appeared and thus provides a model of a transdisciplinary approach that is able to experiment with different perspectives and modes of discourse to gain deeper understanding of the world.

Yet while arguing for a perspectival way of seeing, Nietzsche is also aware that sometimes a single strong hypothesis is valuable, claiming that in a modern “democracy of concepts,” “a single concept that wanted to be master would now be called an ide� fixe. That is our way of disposing of tyrants — we direct them to the madhouse” (Nietzsche 1983 [1880]: 369). A single strong and original perspective will obviously illuminate features missed by those who fail to focus intensely on specifics and particulars of objects. Indeed, Nietzsche had his own strong and privileged perspectives that he believed provided unique insights that were of utmost significance for human life, just as Marx privileged the economic dimension, providing an original perspective on modern societies.

Contemporary postmodernists therefore sometimes mistake Nietzsche’s perspectivism for an “anything goes” type of relativism and irrationalism. But this is precisely the type of intellectual indolence that he despised. Perspectivism is, instead, a highly disciplined specific mode of thought. Practiced “modestly” and with a sensitivity to limits, science is itself a perspectivist resource that provides access to multiple realities, provides knowledge about specific conditions and particular situations, and challenges to error and dogma. On these grounds, Nietzsche considered science as a sign of “a higher multiplicity of culture.” After stripping away the positivist veneer, he praised its “disciplining of the intellect, clarity, and severity in matters of intellectual conscience, noble coolness and freedom of the intellect” (Nietzsche 1968b [1889]: 122-126, 162-165, 171-175).

Thus, Nietzsche did not completely reject the concept of truth as a lie or illusion. Rather he inquired into the value of truth for life and ruthlessly exposed many taken-for-granted truths as sublimations of a will to power, thus delineating the interconnectedness of truth and power. His aphorisms and essays provide different optics that are sometimes contradictory, but which provide stronger ways of seeing and understanding than more one-sided, disciplinary optics. Nietzsche himself is clearly a seeker of truth but dramatically redefined that search and the nature and value of what was being sought.

Truth would not be found in the authoritative voice of one privileged perspective, even his own, but in a dialogue of many perspectives that fully cultivated a perspectival concept of knowledge. As a philosopher of difference, Nietzsche was aware that individuals had different perspectives according to their class, gender, race, and ethnicity and his multiperspectival approach suggests that all subject positions are necessarily biased and limited and that therefore dialogue and debate from many positions is more likely to illuminate a phenomenon than a single perspective. Yet Nietzsche believed that stronger perspectives would prevail in sustained debate and that one’s perspective could be strengthened in some cases by appropriating one’s opponents insights and taking them to a higher level.

Moreover, Nietzsche demanded a type of thinking and learning that overcomes the “indecent haste” and superficiality of modernity. He asserted that: “One has to learn to learn to think, one has to learn to speak and write” (Nietzsche 1968b [1889]: 65). He repeatedly stressed the need to properly digest and assimilate complex thoughts, to make them one’s own. Seeing differences and grasping phenomena from many sides enabled one to better rank and order phenomena, to see their differences in relationship to one another, and thus to produce a hierarchy of values and ideals. Nietzsche was very serious in stressing the importance of “ordering of rank” (Rangordnung), of producing value hierarchies, and affirming specific values and ideas as better and more valuable (1968a [1883-1888]: 457ff; 1966 [1886]: 148). Yet the strong individual, for Nietzsche, recognizes the value of a plurality of opposing theoretical visions and is able to see things from a multiplicity of perspectives. Such vision provides a multiplicity of optics on social life and grasp of contradictory locations, interests, values, strengths, and limitations of social theories and perspectives.

Nietzsche’s call for a multiperspectival theory thus serves as a critical counterpoint to general theories that arrogate all of reality to one optic, as well as to “integrated” approaches that abstractly harmonize irreconcilable differences and to all theories that abstract from the contradictory life-worlds from which they arise. Nietzsche thus provides important methodological contributions to modern theory and should be read, we are arguing, in the context of 19th century classical social theorists’ attempts to reconstruct social theory in the light of the dynamics of contemporary societies. Like classical social theorists, Nietzsche carries out a critique of the limitations of the Enlightenment and earlier modern theory and presents a counterpoint to more abstract and one-sided theories. In contrast to some of his contemporary “postmodern” followers, Nietzsche stresses diversity and plurality, but does not carry out a particularistic and relativistic undermining of theory. In sharp contrast to the professed aversion to totality espoused by many contemporary postmodern theorists — and the sometimes unspoken rejection of such discourses by empiricists and disciplinary specialists — Nietzsche theorized Western culture as a whole and with normative as well as historical and practical intent. In this regard, he definitely belongs with the classical social theorists and today’s modern theorists who follow in their tracks.

Deconstructive and Reconstructive Motifs

Nietzsche thus emerges in this reading as both a deconstructive and reconstructive thinker. In the spirit of modernity, Nietzsche deconstructs what he sees as the oppressive and illusory features of philosophy, morality, religion, and other modes of thought. He also assaults the irrational, repressive, and massifying forms of societal normalization and discipline, and thus the rise of a mass society and culture. Yet he replaces such values (also a modern gesture) with his own values, philosophy, and positions. Some of Nietzsche’s own positions, such as the theory of perspectivism that we just elucidated are arguably modern concepts that take modern motifs to higher levels. Some of his own ideals and positions, however, are anti-modern and even premodern, as we shall see in the concluding discussion.

The Enlightenment form of critique is radicalized in Nietzsche and applied to areas that were neglected by the philosophes and indeed Enlightenment itself is subject to Nietzsche’s withering critical scrutiny. Foreshadowing Adorno and Horkheimer (1972), Nietzsche sees a sort of dialectic of Enlightenment in which reason turns into its opposite, becomes myth, but a life-negating one. Reason is supposed to free the individual from bondage to nature, irrational social authority, and one’s body, but ends up imprisoning individuals in a life-denying culture.

A prophetic turn is evident in Nietzsche’s thought in Thus Spoke Zarathrustra (1883-6) in which he adopts a literary form and strategy to present the major ideas of his later period. While this text is usually read as the key exposition of Nietzsche’s distinctive late philosophy, we also find his literary master-piece to be an important part of his critique of social and political modernity, though it also evidences a (re)turn to the sort of premodern ideals, found in his early celebration of Greek tragedy, the Dionysian aspects of Greek culture, and its agonistic competition and emphasis on strong and heroic individuals. His highly prophetic literary text, similar in style and strategy to cultural modernism, is animated by an impulse to go beyond the present organization of society, to produce an entirely different society and culture based on the creativity of strong individuals, which would be made possible by appropriation of Nietzsche’s philosophy. At this stage, Nietzsche thus sees himself as the great critic of modernity and the sage who will produce a new culture.[19] The figure of the Persian sage Zarathrustra in the text is obviously a mouthpiece for Nietzsche himself and the text articulates his most deeply held convictions and key ideas.

Yet the figure of Zarathrustra appropriates a premodern figure as Nietzsche’s mouthpiece, highlighting his deep attachment to ancient philosophies. The form of Zarathrustra replicates the biblical mixture of teachings, sayings, songs, and prophecies, though Nietzsche’s modernist irony often undercuts the gravity of biblical discourse. The idea of the eternal recurrence, presented as the key to Zarathrustra’s teaching, also replicates ancient teachings that everything would eternally recur in a blind wheel of fate, a position held by certain versions of Zoroastralism.[20] While this is a premodern idea it is inflected in Nietzsche’s vision to help create the ability to deal with the repetitiveness of modern life and to create individuals strong enough to bear all suffering, even the most severe type that would be repeated eternally in Nietzsche’s vision.

There are also anti-modern inflections in Nietzsche’s critique of the state in “The New Idol” where he champions traditional society over the modern state, with Nietzsche presenting the state as “a cold monster” that is the “death of peoples” (1954 [1883-1885]: 160). The contrast is between a “people” with its traditions, “customs and rights” and the modern state with its lies and pretensions. Nietzsche’s critique of both the marketplace and state takes place from a radically antimodern individualistic position in Zarathrustra, espousing withdrawal and isolation over participation and involvement in the key institutions of modernity: “Foul smells their idol, the cold monster…. break their windows and leap to freedom” (1954 [1883-1885]: 162). Yet one could read this doctrine also as part of a drive beyond the limitations of modernity to a new society and culture without the burden of the modern state.

Along with Heidegger, one could read Nietzsche’s doctrine of the will to power as a reversion to metaphysics, to the old Greek notion that there was a single metaphysical key to the universe.[21] Yet one could also read it as a uniquely modern idea, as an expression of the growing power of individuals and social forces in modern societies, in which science, technology, industry, and the new forms of social organization are creating new forms of power — forms that would, as Nietzsche and later the Frankfurt School and Foucault remind us, provide society with new powers over individuals and individuals with new powers of self-expression and development. And the modern expansion of power would also lead to imperialist wars which Nietzsche anticipated.

Nietzsche’s concept of the Ubermensch, the overman, who constitutes a higher form of human being can also be seen as a typically modern idea, as expressive of the modern will to development, growth, and innovation. An ancient premodern sage, Zarathrustra, however, is Nietzsche’s chosen figure for the teacher of the Ubermensch and Nietzsche’s championing of the cultural warrior, the noble aristocrat of the spirit, the sage, and the artist philosopher can be read as a replication of ancient ideals. Moreover, it is hard to read Nietzsche’s ideas of the eternal recurrence, Amor Fati, and his celebration of Dionysus as anything other than premodern ideals. Nietzsche’s concept of Amor Fati, his affirmation that “every man is himself a piece of fate” and his arguments for determinism and fatalism (Nietzsche 1983 [1880]: 325) reveal the lasting influence of certain Greek ideas on Nietzsche. And his celebration of Dionysus as a figure of liberation shows his proclivities to premodern thought.

In his last completed work, Twilight of the Idols (1968b [1889]), one finds Nietzsche privileging premodern ideals in his attacks on Greek philosophers and decadent Hellenists in contrast to his celebration of Dionysus “as a means to understanding the older Hellenic instinct, an instinct still exuberant and even overflowing: it is explicable only as an excess of energy” (1968b: 108). Succeeding passages equate the Dionysian with his vitalist ideal: “For it is only in the Dionysian mysteries, in the psychology of the Dionysian condition, that the fundamental fact of the Hellenic instinct expresses itself — its ‘will to life’. What did the Hellene guarantee to himself with these mysteries? Eternal life, the eternal recurrence of life: the future promised and consecrated in the past; the triumphant Yes to life beyond death and change; true life as collective continuation of life through procreation, through the mysteries of sexuality” (1968b: 109).

The figure of Dionysus synthesizes Nietzsche’s nostalgia for the mysteries of ancient Greece with his distinctive affirmation of life and life-energies such as sexuality. Nietzsche feared that modernity was devitalizing individuals and looked to ancient Greece for ideals of more vibrant life. However, just as Nietzsche’s morality is one-sided in affirming the individual while attacking social morality, so too is his appropriation of modernity one-sided, affirming such modern values as individuality, dynamism, and development, while rejecting the institutions of social and political modernity.

Thus, Nietzsche’s thought contains a unique synthesis of modern and premodern elements that envisage a postmodern break with modernity. Many of his core values are premodern, his critiques of religion, philosophy, and morality are thoroughly modern, as are his celebrations of individuality, free-thinking, and self-overcoming, while he dreams of a new (postmodern) era that overcomes the ills and limitations of the present age. Nietzsche is his contradictions and key contradictions are between the modern and premodern elements in his thought. Thus, although his thought is, on one hand, thoroughly modern, and even modernist in its formal qualities, Nietzsche only affirms some modern ideas while rejecting others. Moreover, he yearns for a higher civilization that builds on the ancient cultures that he continues to valorize and the most animate elements of modern culture. From this perspective, the key ideas of his later philosophy can be read as a series of attempts to create new energizing myths for the contemporary era. The concepts of the will to power, the Overman, eternal recurrence, amor fati, Dionysus, and so on can be interpreted as producing the components of a set of modern myths. Nietzsche, the great scholar of classical antiquity, saw the power of myth in human life and the need for a new set of myths for the contemporary era.

On the other hand, Nietzsche’s work aimed at radical disenchantment and creating higher individuals able to see reality without illusions and to fully develop their potentials and abilities, thus putting him in a critical Enlightenment tradition. Consequently, Nietzsche’s dual project can be read as an attempt to create a set of myths that might produce stronger, higher, and more creative human beings in the contemporary moment and individuals strong enough to do without myths. Afraid that modernity was devitalizing human beings and robbing them of their individuality and power of self-determination, Nietzsche sought emancipatory ideas that would create new and higher individuals. Since this was a tendency of modernity itself, one can thus read Nietzsche as replicating certain modern impulses while critiquing other ones, drawing on some premodern ideals to create a postmodern break, that would be beyond modernity to yet a higher, better and more life-affirming type of culture and society.

Nietzsche and Modernity: Some Critical Reflections

On one hand, Nietzsche articulates some of the deepest core ideas of modernity, advocating such key values as individualism, growth, development, innovation, and the destruction of the old and the development of the new. A pathos of the new permeates his work that sought new beginnings, values, and even a new era via negation of the old. In his emphasis on self-overcoming and growth, Nietzsche is similar to the Promethean-Faustian spirit that Marx also exemplified, a modern rejection of the past and present along with the development of new values and modes of life. But unlike Marx who developed a fundamentally scientific discourse for social theory, both the style and content of Nietzsche’s texts deploy the strategies of aesthetic modernism, exemplifying in form and content Rimbaud’s exhortation to changer la vie and Pound’s demand to “make it new.” His aphoristic texts are experimental and philosophize in a new manner. Likewise, Zarathrustra is a modernist text, finding a new form to express Nietzsche’s philosophy.

Throughout his life, Nietzsche analyzed what he perceived as the problems and ills of the modern age and would continue to offer cultural solutions to the problems dissected, unlike Marx who envisaged economic solutions and the reordering of politics and society as solutions to the ills of modernity. Yet it is important to note that Nietzsche also envisaged a cultural transformation through the production of a new culture, although in his later work he would also posit more individualist solutions. Nietzsche’s perspectives on modernity are thus highly aestheticist and culturalist, seeking cultural transcendence in a new culture and seeing life-affirming culture as the key to individual and cultural transformation. His turn toward appropriation of critical Enlightenment perspectives in his middle writings, however, bring him more into the field of discourse of classical social theory in which Nietzsche offers novel insights into contemporary society, culture, and politics.

But unlike classical social theory, Nietzsche does not engage in substantive sociological research and has a problematic relationship to the sciences of his day. On the one hand, Nietzsche calls for new experimental modes of thought and a new gay science — more playful, modest, skeptical, and provisional than the sciences of his day — thus he is not hostile to science per se. But Nietzsche engages in more aestheticized and philosophical modes of discourse than the other classical social theorists and does not carry out patient sociological investigation and development of his ideas. Likewise, although his mode of thought is historical — and while the early Nietzsche engaged in intense scholarly research into Greek and Roman culture — his genealogical method of his middle and later writings tends toward a sort of armchair historizing, a form of speculative history, and does not take the more rigorous scholarly form of historical research as found in social theorists like Marx or Weber at their best.

Put more polemically, many of Nietzsche’s “genealogies” are pseudo-history based on philosophical speculation and sweeping generalizations that are often quite dubious from a more rigorous historical perspective. His historical examples and genealogies are often used to illustrate moral or philosophical points and this sort of speculative and tendential historicizing is at odds with later social theory (although, obviously, many social theorists engage in frequently speculative history and are in their various ways tendential). Moreover, Nietzsche lacks an institutional analysis of modern societies and analysis of how the institutions fit together into a modern social system, as one finds in Marx’s and Weber’s analyses of capitalist society. And while he has many insights into how modern societies socialize women into oppressive roles and behavior, he has no theory of patriarchy, of an entire mode of social organization that is oppressive of women. Thus, while there are many important sociological insights in Nietzsche, there is no real social theory in the sense that maps out how social institutions, relations, and practices form a social constellation and system.

Nietzsche also lacks adequate political institutional analysis. His politics are not really thought out or developed. While he has ideals of stronger individuality and cultural diversity he has no political analysis of what sort of institutions could best produce these ideals. Moreover, Nietzsche opposes all of the liberal and progressive movements of his day that were struggling against some of the same things that he was criticizing. Unlike Marx, Dewey, and other progressive theorists who based their hopes for social change on actually existing movements and social forces — and who believed that modern societies contained the resources for their own internal regeneration and reform, — Nietzsche thought that change could only come from a cultural revolution and a negation of the existing modern institutions and social forms carried out by a cultural elite, but has no vision of an alternative society or social organization.

Indeed, Nietzsche has a basically negative concept of the social per se and no positive social values or ideals. Unlike classical social theorists who believe that the new modes of social organization in modern societies provide forms of association, norms, and socio-cultural bases for critique, reform, and reconstruction of modern societies, Nietzsche believed that modern societies were hopelessly decadent and incapable of providing resources for their renewal. Thus, in his view, regeneration would have to come from a radically new culture which he himself hoped to animate. Yet one could argue that Nietzsche was weakest precisely where other modern social theorists were strongest: in providing analysis and inventory of the social resources for political struggle and social transformation. Any sense of non-repressive social solidarities is missing in Nietzsche whose hopes are purely individualistic. Compared with Marx and later social theorists, Nietzsche’s analysis of the modes of organization, institutions, and forms of modern society ultimately lacks a sense of the positive potentials in social modernity. Nietzsche thus lacks a language for dealing with forms of association, social bonds, and the positive potentials for democracy, wider association and communication, and freer individuality in modern societies.

Moreover, Nietzsche’s low estimation of liberal democracy, feminism, and projects of social reconstruction like socialism provide little help in detecting and grasping the shape of democratic aspirations which have percolated from Nietzsche’s time to ours. Part of the problem is that Nietzsche’s conception of morality is also one-sided, limiting itself to individual morality and eliminating social morality as inherently repressive, leveling, and inimicable to creativity, the development of a higher individuality and other of Nietzsche’s individualist values. He therefore lacks both a positive appropriation of the potentials of social modernity and a social ethics to complement his individualist ethic.

Thus Nietzsche not only criticizes the massification and homogenization of human beings (anticipating later critiques of mass society) and the power politics of the modern state, but rejects the progressive heritage of the bourgeois revolutions (i.e. democracy, rights, fraternity, and social solidarity), as well as the progressive movements of the day (socialism, feminism, anarchism, and so on). The problem with Nietzsche is thus that he fails to affirm key aspects of social modernity, which he attacks from the standpoint of largely premodern ideals. Despite his distinctively modern traits and impulses, Nietzsche is ultimately not modern enough.

Yet Nietzsche’s powerful and provocative critiques are useful in focusing social theory on the trends toward domination, mediocrity, nationalism, and massification that modern societies were producing. His critique of the modern state and democracy forces an illusionless focus on the obstacles to genuine democracy and the forms of domination present in existing modern societies. His call for a new form of culture and critique of values highlights the importance of cultural renewal and a revolution in values in order to realize the deepest promises of modernity that call for the full development and realization of the individual.

Nietzsche was a great detector of modern forms of domination and he deeply influenced later students of domination such as the Frankfurt school and Foucault. Further, Nietzsche’s calls for an experimental “gay science,” his emphasis on the aesthetic and cultural dimension, and his critiques of rationality and domination provide an imaginative counterforce to the tendencies toward formalism, abstraction, quantification, and specialization that would undermine the power of much later social theory. But although there are deep aesthetic impulses which run throughout Nietzsche’s work, it is a mistake to accept readings of his life work which reduce him to aestheticism and to read Nietzsche solely under the sign of aesthetic modernity, as do many of his contemporary disciples and critics. Instead, one of the most characteristic marks of his work is a critique of modernity and a series of attempts to overcome what he considers to be its baleful features which puts him in the orbit of classical social theory that we are reading as discourses on modernity. Nietzsche is entwined in the same stream of thought rooted in Enlightenment discourses and their problems as modern social theory and is dealing with much of the same subject matter. Certainly, at some stages of his work Nietzsche celebrated the artist, artistic metaphysics, and aesthetic modernity as the highest form of life, but the figures of the philosopher, the experimental thinker, and free spirits are also privileged tropes in his work.

Crucially, Nietzsche contributed to the climate in which modern society and culture were viewed and was one of the most influential thinkers of the modern era. Beginning around 1890 he had an incalculable influence on modernist avant-garde movements, bohemian subcultures, oppositional political movements, and the general climate of thought. His influence permeated modern social theory through his influence on Max Weber and his generation, and it is to that fateful constellation of ideas that we now turn.


[1] This is an unpublished book chapter of a study of modernity and modern theory, and I am indebted to Robert J. Antonio for critical comments, discussions, and ideas that helped shape this study.

[2]. The most reliable biographies of Nietzsche include Hollingdale 1965; Hayman 1980; and the three-volume work by Janz 1977, 1978 and 19xx. Kaufmann 1968 [1950] provides a useful introduction to his life, work, and influence.

[3]. For conflicting views of Nietzsche, women, and feminism, see the articles in Patton 1993 and Oliver 1995.

[4]. This same passage appeared verbatim in the two separate texts cited. Since there is as yet no scholarly edition of Nietzsche’s works in English, I use the most accessible paperback translations of his works, many of which were edited and translated by Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale and published in relatively inexpensive paperback editions; the date of original publication is in brackets, signaling, in some cases, the various editions prepared by Nietzsche over a several year period by citing multiple years; e.g. 1883-1888 for Thus Spake Zarathrustra.

[5]. Strauss’ text greatly influenced the Young Hegelians when it was published in 1835 and intensified the modern philological and philosophical critique of religion begun in the Enlightenment which culminated in Nietzsche himself. Indeed, the Young Hegelians anticipated Nietzsche’s critique of religion with Bruno Bauer declaring “God is Dead,” Marx describing religion as “the opium of the people,” and Feuerbach interpreting religion as the projection of human qualities onto a deity. On the Young Hegelian critique of religion, see Hook 1936 and Lowith 1967 [1940].

[6]. Thomas (1983) analyzes Nietzsche’s impact on the Left, counterbalancing Kaufmann’s (1950) study of his appropriation by the Right and consequent distortion. Aschheim (1992) demonstrates Nietzsche’s appropriation by both progressive and reactionary forces and his tremendous impact on the European socio-political milieu, beginning in the 1890s. Bergman (1987) provides an excellent political contextualization of Nietzsche’s work, while Detweiler (1990) contributes a convincing polemic against Kaufmann and others who maintain that Nietzsche was primarily apolitical. We however, offer a different interpretation of Nietzsche’s politics from these writers, arguing that Nietzsche’s “anti-politics” constituted an often contradictory attack on existing social and political institutions in the name of a higher cultural politics.

[7]. The historical Socrates, of course, was much more intuitive, passionate, aesthetic, and erotic than in Nietzsche’s model, but we are arguing that the conception of Socratic culture is an ideal type that crystallizes a model of Greek rationalism in the figure of Socrates and that therefore what is important for our analysis is the model of Socratic culture and its later effects and not whether or not this accurately characterizes the historical Socrates.

[8]. See Nietzsche’s meditations on Schopenhauer and Wagner in 1990 [1873-5]. On Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, see Simmel 1991 [1907]). It was under Schopenhauer’s influence that Nietzsche could proclaim in The Birth of Tragedy that art is the “essential metaphysical activity” and that “it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified” (Nietzsche 1967 [1872]: 52). Many interpreters claim that Nietzsche continued to affirm this artistic metaphysics (Megill 1985 and Habermas 1987) and in the course of this chapter we contest this reading. We also contest Luk�cs’ reading (1980 [1954]) of Nietzsche as the continuation of a current of German irrationalism that begins with Schopenhauer, arguing that Nietzsche’s thought is much more complex than in these one-sided presentations.

[9]. Habermas (1987: 93, passim) claims that the experiences of aesthetic modernity were crucial formative experiences for Nietzsche and that he continued to affirm primarily aesthetic solutions to the problems of modernity. We see Nietzsche’s development and philosophy as far more complex, however; indeed, Habermas fails to engage Nietzsche’s discourse on social and political modernity which we shall focus on, and even downplays the importance of Nietzsche’s contributions to philosophy. Thus, we ultimately see Nietzsche’s aesthetic metaphysics as but a moment of his work, albeit an important one.

[10]. On the concept of “music of the future” in Wagner, see . Nietzsche titled a lecture series On the Future of Our Educational Institutions (187X, 19XX) and spoke of the music and drama of the future in the later part of The Birth of Tragedy (1967 [1872]).

[11]. On the other hand, Nietzsche’s attack on foundationalism, universalizing thought, and metaphysics is often taken as beginning a “postmodern” turn in theory through a radical deconstruction of modern theory. Against such readings, we have argued that much of what is taken to be “postmodern” is already present in a tradition of modern thought, which includes the thinkers discussed in this book; see Antonio and Kellner in Dickens and Fontana 1994.

[12]. It should be noted that there is no evidence that Nietzsche read Marx and he obviously had an extremely shallow notion of socialism which was probably derived from reading newspaper accounts of the German Social-Democratic movement, or other socialist parties of the day. Indeed, one finds in Marx himself a critique of the sort of “crude communism” with which Nietzsche identified socialism. Both Nietzsche and Marx attacked institutions and forces which oppressed and alienated individuals and both stood for the full development of individuality. But in the absence of solid knowledge of Marxian theory, Nietzsche equated socialism with a collectivist, radically egalitarian, and anti-individualist politics.

[13]. Indeed, many socialists and radicals read Nietzsche in this way, seeing him as a progressive critic of German nationalism and militarism, the German state, capitalism and mass society; see Thomas 1983 and Aschheim 1992 for documentation.

[14]. Nietzsche was beloved by members of the Frankfurt school (see Adorno and Horkheimer, 1972 [1946]) and postmodern theorists like Foucault (1972 and 1975) precisely because of his powerful critiques of mass culture and society and its homogenizing and normalizing features.

[15]. On Nietzsche and women, see Note 2.

[16]. See Gilman (1983) for many examples of Nietzsche’s friendly relations with women and Thomas (1983) and Aschheim (1992) for documentation concerning Nietzsche’s positive effect on the feminist movements that emerged after his descent into madness in 1889.

[17]. On the limitations of linguistic communication, see Nietzsche 1968a [1888]: 50, 203-204, 275, 334, 371, 427-428. For similar arguments about the aesthetic and bodily components of communications, see Dewey 1989 [1934]: 275, who we discuss in a later chapter.

[18]. Adorno and Horkheimer applied this multiperspectival method to a study of anti-semitism in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1972), approaching the phenomenon from economic, political, sociological, religious, anthropological, psychoanalytic, and other perspectives.

[19]. This self-image explains how Nietzsche could present himself in his semi-autobiographical Ecce Homo as “dynamite,” a “fate,” and the great precursor of a new philosophy and culture.

[20]. Cite ER in Zara and sources on doctrines origin; not a modern idea!

[21]. Heidegger interprets Nietzsche as the last metaphysician, claiming that he continues the Western metaphysical practice of seeking a single key to the universe, though he destroys Platonist metaphysics and finds the key to being in the sensory world (Heidegger 1977: 53ff.).

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5 Responses to Modernity and Its Discontents: Nietzsche’s Critique, by Douglas Kellner

  1. Simon says:

    I still haven’t finished reading this for several reasons, but looks interesting so far. At the least it should serve very well as a corrective for the perception in certain quarters of Nietzsche as some kind of political reactionary.

  2. LeFlamel says:

    Reblogged this on The Thinker and commented:
    Finally someone does the man justice. Very comprehensive study of Nietzsche’s thought concerning modernity and the future.

  3. LeFlamel says:

    What are your thoughts on Prometheanism?

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