Out of all modern philosophers, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was one of the most unique critics of the modern State, yet his views on the subject have been largely overshadowed by his more famous critiques of morality, religion, and art. Since his death, only a handful of authors have broached the topic. Nevertheless, Nietzsche’s views on statism are as relevant today as they were when he wrote them down over a century ago. In his more sober moments, he saw the modern State as nothing more than a vehicle for mass power and as a squanderer of exceptional talent. In his most feverish moods, the State was “a cold monster” and a base falsehood.
During his lifetime, Nietzsche bore witness to the rise of statism in central Europe, and his disgust with nationalism, liberalism, and mass politics led him to live most of his life in self-imposed exile in Switzerland and northern Italy. Even after resigning from the University of Basel in 1879, he took to living in cheap boarding houses rather than return to his native land, which had undergone a dramatic transformation during that time. When Nietzsche was born in Saxony in 1844, the German Confederation consisted of 43 duchies, principalities, kingdoms, and free cities. He was only four years old when liberals and nationalists began to agitate for the creation of one unified German state. They succeeded in 1871, when Prussia defeated France in the Franco-Prussian War (in which Nietzsche briefly served as a medical orderly).
In less than a decade, the German Confederation went from a motley collection of different dialects, customs, and political associations to a fully modern welfare state driven by mass politics. Contrary to the wartime propaganda image of the German Empire, Otto von Bismarck’s Germany was just as liberal—if not more so—than the other great European powers. Members of the German bund traded away their regional independence for universal manhood suffrage, national healthcare, accident insurance, and old age insurance. A common criminal code, as well as court, civil, and criminal procedures, replaced a cornucopia of local legal systems. During his Kulturkampf, Bismarck attempted to erase the last vestiges of the old order by promoting one way of “Germanness,” much like “Americanism” sought to unify the United States around the Federal government after the American Civil War. This centralizing tendency was characteristic of all modern States, and according to Catholic socio-political theorist Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, “This alone is able to foster uniformity and egalitarianism, and to ensure swift execution of governmental orders.”1 Nietzsche identified the rise of the modern State, with its emphasis on centralization and egalitarianism, as one of the defining features of the 19th Century.
What is the State? In Nietzsche’s mind, the State (Staat) is something apart from other forms of social organization such as family, tribe, society, or nation. In “The Greek State” (1871), a preface to an unwritten book, he described the State as a “clamp-iron” that is impressed upon those other forms of social organization. “Without the State,” he wrote, “in the natural bellum omnizim contra omnes,2 Society cannot strike root at all on a larger scale and beyond the reach of the family.”3 He seems to have later retreated from this view of society and family, but fundamentally, he retained the notion that the State acts as a shell or harness that is imposed from without and which restrains and shapes society. Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn agreed, arguing that modern government had achieved autonomy from society and “can now be separated from the body social like the outer hull of a broiled lobster.” He added, “Nietzsche’s ‘coldest of all monsters’ would terrify pre-Renaissance man.”4
Nietzsche drew a sharp distinction between “people” and “State,” and he argued that the modern State fraudulently conflated its interests with those of the people. In Thus Spake Zarathustra (1881), he wrote,
Coldly, it tells lies too; and this lie crawls from its mouth: ‘I, the State, am the people!’ It’s a lie! It was creators who created peoples and hung a faith and a love over them: thus they served life…Where there is still a people, there the State is not understood but hated as the evil eye and as the sin against laws and customs...5
By a “people” he meant an organic body of persons who constitute a community by virtue of a common culture, history, and religion, while the “State” is an artificial construction; a yoke placed over peoples. Peoples are dynamic; constantly changing, expanding, contracting, migrating, disappearing, and being born. “Every people speaks its tongue of good and evil: and the neighbor does not understand it,” he explained.6 These tribes, chiefdoms, and nations had convulsed across the stage of history for millennia, and from early on in his intellectual life, Nietzsche believed it to be narrow-minded to “want to force the whole of mankind into some specific form of state or society.”7
As a classical philologist, Nietzsche undoubtedly thought of the ancient Hellenic Peninsula as he formulated that idea. Like that of Germany, the story of Greece was the story of the unification of dozens of independent civic bodies, each with their own customs, laws, and traditions. The country of “Greece” was a modern construct and did not achieve statehood until 1821. When Socrates walked on the Hellenic Peninsula two millennia earlier, there were only the city-States (polis) of Athens, Sparta, Corinth, etc., and even those political bodies enslaved a dozen different peoples in their hinterlands. It was only later, during the Romantic Period, that the organization of common language speakers around the nation-state became a popular notion. Nietzsche believed this modern State was an artifice invented to serve a political class, based on the myth of shared cultural figures, language, geography, and history.
In order to understand Nietzsche’s conception of the modern State, it is important to contrast the classical (or ancient) State with the modern. Like morality, Nietzsche believed that the purpose of the State had been inverted over time, even while the basic makeup of society had not changed. Whereas, in the past, the State served an elite few—creators and conquerors, it now pandered to the many, which was a change reflected in the way each era perceived the nature of labor. In “The Greek State,” he argued that one difference between Greeks and Moderns was that the Greeks were openly scornful of labor, whereas Moderns spoke of the “dignity of labor.” In an attitude that was reflected in their statecraft, the Greeks were far more “honest” about the nature of labor, which is that drudgery and toil is necessary for the creation of high culture. Nietzsche wrote,
Culture, which is first and foremost a real hunger for art, rests on one terrible premise . . . In order for there to be a broad, deep, fertile soil for the development of art, the overwhelming majority has to be slavishly subjected to life’s necessity in the service of the minority, beyond the measure that is necessary for the individual. At their expense, through their extra work, that privileged class is to be removed from the struggle for existence, in order to produce and satisfy a new world of necessities.8
These “privileged Culture-men,” who believed that “power gives the first right,” gave birth to the ancient State. The origin of this State, then, was in the need of a conqueror to perpetuate the social process that relieved the few from the struggle for existence at the expense of the many, a social process that Nietzsche described as violent and “horrible.” However, this State is necessary because “without which Nature might not succeed in coming, through Society, to her deliverance in semblance, in the mirror of the genius.” Nietzsche imagined the Greek State, on trial for its violent excesses, stepping forth and presenting its creation: Greek society (the “magnificently blossoming woman”).9
Even in this primitive State, there was a tendency towards war and militarism; the division of society into slave and master. The military, Nietzsche argued, is a prototypical State.
The unconscious purpose of the whole movement forces every individual under its yoke, and even among heterogeneous natures produces, as it were, a chemical transformation of their characteristics until they are brought into affinity with that purpose.10
The military genius was therefore the original founder of States. However, in the Greek State, all was put in the service of the preparation and procreation of the genius in a more general sense. Plato, in his perfect State, took it one step further and proclaimed that all State-life should be put at the service of the genius of wisdom and knowledge. Plato excluded the artistic genius, Nietzsche argued, as a “consequence of the Socratian judgment on art.”11 Genius of one kind or another, nevertheless, was the raison d’être of these ancient and classical States.
Nietzsche’s views on the origin of the ancient State did not change much over the course of his lifetime. Sixteen years after he wrote “The Greek State,” he presented a similar narrative in On the Genealogy of Morals (1887). Before there were States, he explained in the second essay of that book, mankind was “unrestrained and shapeless,” and so it required a violent force to shape it. This violent force took the form of an organized and martial people that imposed itself on a more numerous but less organized people. This simple act, which established a “structure of domination” (Herrschafts-Gebilde), planted a seed of resentment among the conquered—a seed that ultimately grew to overthrow this order of things and which found its political expression in the modern State.12
If the ancient and classical State served genius, what does the modern State serve? Referring to the State as he had experienced it during his lifetime, Nietzsche wrote in his notes in 1873, “The history of the State is the history of the egoism of the masses and of the blind desire to exist.”13 He again echoed those sentiments in Thus Spake Zarathustra, writing, “All-too-many are born: for the superfluous the State was invented.” Everything about the modern State was corrupt: education (“they steal the works of the inventors and the treasures of the sages for themselves”), the media (“they vomit their bile and call it a newspaper”), and most of all, political life.14 Nietzsche characterized politics as a mad rush for power, which squandered the talents of great men who were forced to pander to the lowest common denominator. In Daybreak, he argued, “Political and economic affairs are not worthy of being the enforced concern of society’s most gifted spirits: such a wasteful use of the spirit is at bottom worse than having none at all.”15
Nietzsche was most concerned with the effect statism had on culture. “Culture and the State—one should not deceive oneself about this—are antagonists . . . All great ages of culture are ages of political decline: what is great culturally has always been unpolitical, even anti-political,” he wrote in Twilight of the Idols (1888).16 Earlier, he expressed this sentiment in Human, All-Too-Human (1878), writing, “Culture is indebted most of all to politically weakened periods.”17 Because, in the modern State, the energy of a people is used up in power politics, economics, parliamentarianism, and “military interests,” its geniuses lack the energy for artistic and cultural creation; their energies are squandered and dragged down into the muck. As the German State rose to prominence in Europe, Nietzsche perceived a decline in the number of great cultural figures. Mozart, Beethoven, Schiller, Goethe, and Schopenhauer had all come and gone during a period when the German Reich was virtually moribund and consisted of a loose collection of over a hundred different regions.
Nietzsche saw socialism as the driving force behind the “perfect State” (der vollkommene Staat), or the State taken to its ultimate modern expression. With its striving for a comfortable life for the greatest possible number, Nietzsche imagined this State would choke the life out of the geniuses who had previously found themselves at the top of the social ladder.
If the lasting house of this life of comfort, the perfect State, had really been attained, then this life of comfort would have destroyed the ground out of which grow the great intellect and the mighty individual generally . . . Were this State reached, mankind would have grown too weary to be still capable of producing genius.
This State would necessarily be the most despotic, not only because it would seek to abolish all other States, but the individual as well. “It requires the most submissive prostration of all citizens before the absolute State, such as has never yet been realized,” he explained.18 While he considered socialism to be the most advanced expression of the modern spirit, he considered liberals (the bourgeois) to be different from socialists only in a matter of degree: “Possession alone differentiates you from them.”19
Unlike culture and the State, which are opposed, Nietzsche believed religion and the State share a more symbiotic relationship, although they were not without conflict. In Human, All-Too-Human, he argued, “absolutely paternal government and the careful preservation of religion necessarily go hand-in-hand.” In cases where religion and State conflict, he alleged, the State would relegate religion to a private affair, which in turn would cause an outgrowth of different and opposing religious sects. Out of this “spectacle of strife” would come an anti-religious feeling among the governing classes. In turn, the religiously minded, who formerly venerated the State, would become hostile to it and drive the irreligious ones “into an almost fanatical enthusiasm for the State.” Over time, if the State succeeded in stamping out religious feeling, then reverence for the State would also fade, since the two stemmed from the same psychological need. “The interests of the tutelary government and the interests of religion go hand-in-hand, so that when the latter begins to decay the foundations of the State are also shaken,” Nietzsche explained. If religion disappeared, the State would no longer arouse veneration.20
Unfortunately, Nietzsche did not leave a well thought out alternative to the modern State. Instead, he left his readers to infer his preference based on the political arrangements he criticized. In Human, All-Too Human, however, he touched on nationalism and the nation State, proposing that it would be a benefit to Europeans to abolish nations and breed a “European man” that would contain the best qualities of all peoples living on the continent. He envisioned a noble class that freely exchanged ideas across Europe.21 Based on his other arguments, we can surmise that Nietzsche was not advocating something along the lines of a European Union or a transnational State, but perhaps a collection of thousands of independent municipalities, cities, and regions along the lines of the ancient Greek polis. He was careful not to endorse any political ideology, which is consistent with his belief that politics was one of the lowest forms of intellectual pursuit. “We ‘conserve’ nothing; neither do we want to return to any past periods,” he explained in The Gay Science (1882), “we are not by any means ‘liberal’; we do not work for ‘progress’; we do not need to plug up our ears against the sirens who in the market place sing of the future: their song about ‘equal rights,’ ‘a free society,’ ‘no more masters and no servants’ has no allure for us.”22
Nietzsche did not reject the idea of the State in its entirety. In Human, All-Too Human, he argued, “The State is a wise arrangement for the protection of one individual against another,” but went on to warn, “if its ennobling is exaggerated the individual will at last be weakened by it, even effaced,—thus the original purpose of the State will be most completely frustrated.”23 So, although some amount of statism might be useful, Nietzsche was careful not to grant it too much leeway. As a lesson in moderation, he explained, socialism
can serve to teach . . . what danger there lies in all accumulations of state power, and to that extent to implant mistrust of the state itself. When its harsh voice takes up the watchword ‘as much state as possible,’ it thereby at first sounds noisier than ever; but soon the opposite cry comes through with all the greater force: ‘as little state as possible.’
H.L. Mencken, the first American to write about Nietzsche’s philosophy, interpreted Nietzsche’s preferred government as a type of glorified anarchy in which the State would not interfere with the “desires and enterprises of the efficient and intelligent individual.” Neither absolute monarchy nor democracy was desirable, because one put society into the hands of a militaristic caste and the other into the hands of an ignorant mass. Both would potentially retard cultural growth.24 “Nietzschean anarchy would create an aristocracy of efficiency,” Mencken argued. “The strong man—which means the intelligent, ingenious and far-seeing man—would acknowledge no authority but his own will and no morality but his own advantage.” However, it was not Nietzsche’s intention to argue for the immediate overthrow of existing systems, only to point out their fundamental errors.25
As an inverted form of the ancient and classical State, the modern State was not created to uplift the individual, but to satisfy the many. “It will give you everything if you worship it,” Nietzsche warned. “Rather break the windows and spring to freedom!”26 Nietzsche saw the modern State, with its mass media, politics, and culture, as a retardant to human progress, and he preferred to live in places where there was as little central authority as possible. For Nietzsche, it seems, it was not the type of government that concerned him, but who that government served: mass or individual. Unequivocally, he held that statism, such as it was in the 19th Century, served the former, and laid traps for all who desired to rise to new heights.
1 Erik Ritter von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Liberty or Equality: The Challenge of our Time, ed. John P. Hughes (Auburn: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2007), 49.
2 “The war of all against all,” see: Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Part 1, Chapter 13).
3 Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Greek State,” in The Nietzsche Reader, ed. Keith Ansell Pearson and Duncan Large (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 92.
4 Kuehnelt-Leddihn, 93.
5 Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. Clancy Martin (New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2005), 44.
7 Friedrich Nietzsche, “Fate and History: Thoughts,” in The Nietzsche Reader, ed. Keith Ansell Pearson and Duncan Large (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 14.
8 “The Greek State,” 89.
9 Ibid., 91-92.
10 Ibid., 93.
11 Ibid., 94.
12 Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality: A Polemic, in The Nietzsche Reader, ed. Keith Ansell Pearson and Duncan Large (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 420.
13 The Portable Nietzsche, ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann, Notes (1873) (New York: Viking Penguin, Inc., 1954; reprint, New York: Penguin Books, 1982), 40 (page citations are to the reprint edition).
14 Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 45.
15 Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality, ed. Maudemarie Clark and Brian Leiter, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997, 2004), 107.
16 Friedrich NietzscheTwilight of the Idols, in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Viking Penguin, Inc., 1954; reprint, New York: Penguin Books, 1982), 509 (page citations are to the reprint edition).
17 Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All-Too-Human, trans. Helen Zimmern and Paul V. Cohn (Mineola: Dover Publications, 2006), 197.
18 Ibid., 128.
19 Ibid., 335.
20 Ibid., 200-201.
21 Ibid., 203.
22 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), 338.
23 Human, All-Too-Human, 128.
24 H.L. Mencken, The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (Tuscan: Sea Sharp Press, 2003), 114; Note: this book was first published in 1908.
25 Ibid., 117, 119.
26 Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 45.