Nietzsche, the Judeo-Christian Legacy, and European Unification


I first wrote this essay in the winter of 2007, as part of my graduate study at Duke University. The course was “Nietzsche’s Politics,” taught by Michael Gillespie in the Political Science Department. I have maintained the essay substantially as it was when I handed it in. Much honing has taken place, for clarity, flow, and depth, but the structure is unchanged.

I had first encountered Nietzsche’s writings in the year 2000 in my extracurricular readings while an undergraduate at the University of Virginia. Reading him marked a turning point in my life; indeed, I find it hard to imagine what my approach to thinking about society, politics, and religion would be without Nietzsche as educator. Writing isn’t just a form of communication, but a process of discovery for the author. Composing this essay some 10 years ago, I was moving beyond a raw, youthful understanding of Nietzsche’s critiques of Christian morality, democracy, and the modern age, and towards his deeper, in many ways, hidden vision for the transformation of the world. Everybody knows that Nietzsche said “God is dead”; few recognize why and how this catastrophe occurred; what the consequences will be; and how European man can overcome this event.

This essay is about politics. Nietzsche, of course, never put forth any straight-forward “political program,” though his works are littered with sharp opinions on the passing scene. He does, however, develop a meta-politics. This is not “political science” in the sense that it is used today, but politics understood from the standpoint of the transcendent. It is the European crisis—the end game of the Judeo-Christian legacy, the death of God—that births the “good Europeans” and “artist tyrants” who, Nietzsche expects, will rule the continent

Revisiting this essay now, it strikes me as unfinished. There are many tantalizing threads that should be followed further and more flesh put on the bone. I’m in the process of expanding it as part of a book, which will result in its doubling in size. I thought it would be appropriate, however, to publish the original essay as is, so as to give readers an understanding of my thought-process and development.

The Ethno-State has just now entered the popular lexicon, sparking predictable outrage, some productive debate, and no small amount of confusion. The term itself, along with many of its components, I borrowed from the American writer Wilmot Robertson. The deeper character of the Ethno-State, as I view it, is Nietzschean at its core. I hope this essay makes that clear.

Today the Christian can feel anti-Jewish without realizing that he himself is the ultimate Jewish consequence

~The Anti-Christ

As a Saxon, [my mother] was a great admirer of Napoleon; it could be that I still am, too.

~Ecce Homo


1. From Athens to Rome

The imperium Romanum . . . this most admirable work of art in the grand style was a beginning; its construction was designed to prove itself through thousands of years: until today nobody has built again like this, nobody has dreamed of building in such proportions sub specie aeterni. This organization was firm enough to withstand bad emperors: the accident of persons may not have anything to do with such matters—first principle of all grand architecture. But it was not firm enough against the most corrupt kind of corruption, against the Christians (AC §58).1

In this selection from one of the concluding aphorisms of The Antichrist (1888), Nietzsche’s most familiar tropes are fully mobilized: here we find his grandiose, shocking admiration of the powerful master-class . . . his aristocratic distain for Christians as rabble . . . his inhuman perspective in which the cultural achievement in Rome is worth a few “bad emperors” (and countless deaths) . . .

But while the passage might be characteristically “Nietzschean,” there is also much about it that is surprising. The Antichrist was conceived by Nietzsche as the first book of his planned three-volume Revaluation of All Values, what was to be the definitive statement of his philosophy. The fact that Nietzsche chose to image Rome—and specifically not Athens—in what is ultimately a kind of “political testament” goes against much that is taken for granted in Nietzsche scholarship.2 There is, of course, good reason for this. In Nietzsche first book, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), he posited the tragic age of Aeschylus and Sophocles as the unreachable standard of cultural achievement. Even if he later came to view many of his claims in this volume as “embarrassing” (BT P (1886)), it seems reasonable to assume that Athens remained for him a political icon.

Nietzsche’s most important writings on Greek culture came at a point in his life when he was most overtly politically engaged, and his attitude towards 5th-century Athens should be understood within that context. The Birth of Tragedy was written in the wake of German national unification, which occurred months before its publication. And at this time, Nietzsche was, effectively, a German nationalist; he distanced himself from militarism and was critical of the state, but he was a nationalist nonetheless. Nietzsche imaged Germany’s rise to greatness not only through military victory over the French but through a revived cultural spirit. He (in)famously claimed, “[F]or it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified”(BT §5); and for him, the political achievements of both 5th-century Athens and 19th-century Germany would be measured though their cultural output. In this line, it was Kant and Schopenhauer who were, in Nietzsche’s eyes, courageous enough to “critique reason,” to adumbrated aspects of existence outside Socratean rationality. They thereby introduced “an infinitely profounder and more serious view of ethical problems and art which we may designate as Dionysian wisdom comprised in concepts” (BT §19). They were, in this way, able to approach the tragic wisdom of Aeschylus. This new Weltanschauung would find expression in Wagner’s music-dramas—the combination of the Apollonian heroic outlook with Dionysian “infinite melody”—to be performed publicly at the annual Bayreuth festival.

On all levels, Nietzsche understood this new cultural project to be ethno-nationalist in character:

[W]e have the feeling that the birth of a tragic age simply means a return to itself of the German spirit, a blessed rediscovery after powerful intrusive influences had for a long time compelled it . . . being attached to the lead strings of a Romanic civilization (BT §19 [emphasis added]).

Anticipating the deification of German Kultur at the expense of Western, French Zivilization in the 1920s and ‘30s, Nietzsche here imagines the triumph of the German spirit as specifically anti-imperial in character; it would be a great throwing off of the legacy of Rome, Christianity, and the supra-ethnic, supra-national institutions that had defined “Europe” for two millennia.

By Nietzsche’s middle and late periods, much had changed. Far from being an ethno-nationalist, Nietzsche filled these writings with numerous barbs and insults against all things German. In terms of philosophy and culture, Nietzsche claims that the “origin of the German Spirit” is not Kant and Schopenhauer but beer-guzzling and “distressed intestines” (EH II: §1). Wagner and Bayreuth become an expression of decadence—an opera festival for philistines and the nouveau riche, not a rebirth of tragedy. Politically, he came to reject unequivocally Bismarck, Wilhelm I, and the Reich. In turn, Nietzsche’s stance towards the Greeks also changed. Although a deep admiration never waned, Athenian culture no longer served as a touchstone and cultural model in these writings. By his final productive years, Nietzsche had become almost disenchanted: with the exception of Thucydides, Nietzsche reports to have lost interest in the literature of ancient Athens. Historical models were dramatically redefined: “[The Greeks] cannot mean as much to us as the Romans” (TI X: §2). On one level, Nietzsche’s turn from Athens (and Bayreuth) to Rome is indicative of an interest in moving beyond the polis and ethnos (the two most fundamental concepts of Greek politics and cultural identity) in favor of imperial hegemony and a synthesis of European ethnicities. In a way, Nietzsche’s imperialism can be seen as an outgrowth of his earlier cultural nationalism: dreams of German unification were morphing into dreams of a German empire.3

On another level, Nietzsche’s transformation marks a move from art to politics—or rather a view that politics was the grandest genre of art of them all. A culture cannot be justified solely by culture, whether Attic Tragedy or Wagnerian music-drama; instead, Nietzsche begins to view culture as arising in the shadow of the state. The state itself becomes the centerpiece of all cultural, social, and intellectual development. Nietzsche remarks that “the grand style”—that is, the imperial political structure—is “no longer mere art but [has] become reality, truth, life” (AC § 59). Not Athens . . . not Bayreuth . . . but Rome.

2. Nietzsche and the Unpolitical

It is not difficult to cull sundry political opinions from out Nietzsche’s texts and discover what he thought about public intellectuals like David Strauss and Heinrich von Treitschke, not to mention Bismarck and the Kaiser. But then Nietzsche famously called himself the “last anti-political German” (EH I: §3), and he did not formulate anything resembling a political program or “pragmatic” agenda. Reconstructing such things risks wishful thinking or forgery. Where Nietzsche does sustain a discussion of politics, his “political philosophy” is often grandiose bordering on the fantastical. Unconcerned with the vagaries of parliamentary majorities or policy-analysis, Nietzsche instead focused on “Cesare Borgia as Pope” and the creation of a new aristocracy. At other times, when Nietzsche discusses politics, he seems to actually be concerned with something else. As Tracy Strong observes, “The one attempt Nietzsche makes at providing a unified perspective explicitly on politics . . . to our confusion, is essentially a discussion of music” 4. Still, as the above discussion of Athens and Rome reveals, politics are extremely important to Nietzsche and inform, if always subtly, his wider philosophy.

Throughout the 20th century, interpretations of Nietzsche’s political thought have, generally speaking, shifted between two poles—1933 and 1968. First, there is the Nietzsche of “will to power,” “the overman,” “the blond beast,” “the anti-Christ,” a thinker who is an opponent of democracy, the herd, and modernity itself.5 But on the other hand, there is the Nietzsche of immoralism, self-creation, “life as a work of art,” a thinker who becomes the forefather of Foucault, Derrida, and much of the postmodern Left.6 Both of these political interpretations seem equally right and wrong. The main problem is that associating Nietzsche with political movements with which he was never involved blocks consideration of his political philosophy on its own terms. Not coincidentally, these kinds of interpretations have also blocked serious consideration of what Nietzsche explicitly—though always elliptically—claims to be the “politics of the future”—Europeanism.

By 1887, Nietzsche was already speaking of himself and his equals as “good Europeans, Europe’s heirs, the rich superabundant, but also abundantly obligated heirs of two millennia of the European spirit” (GS V: §377).7 A year earlier, his disenchantment with nationalism was explicit and he had already formulated the basis of a supra-national project:

Owing to the pathological estrangement which the insanity of nationality has induced, and still induces, among the peoples of Europe; owing also to the shortsightedness and quick-handed politicians who are at the top today with the help of this insanity, without any inkling that their separatist policies can of necessity only be entr’acte policies; owing to all this and much else that today simply cannot be said, the most unequivocal portents are now being overlooked, or arbitrarily and mendaciously reinterpreted—that Europe wants to become one. (BGE VIII: §256)

German ethno-nationalism was expunged from Nietzsche’s consciousness. While in The Birth of Tragedy, he speaks of German particularism breaking out from under the “servitude” of “Romanic Civilization,” by his mature period, he stresses the need for a new supra-national order. Nietzsche discounts ethnicity and goes as far as to imagine the possibilities (and dangers) of a “new synthesis”—the mixing of the European races. During the writing of The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche was a prominent member of the ideologically anti-Semitic “Bayreuth Circle” surrounding Richard Wagner (though it is not clear that Nietzsche ever shared all of their views). After his break, Nietzsche began to praise the Jews a ripe for the “mastery over Europe” and as powerful precisely through their “nomadic,” international culture (BGE VIII: §244, §251).

But even if it is uncontroversial that in Nietzsche’s mature thought he embraced a kind of Europeanism, the question remains of exactly why. Without doubt, Nietzsche did not support “Europe”—and reject ethno-nationalism and anti-Semitism—out of a sense of “liberalism,” “tolerance,” or “multiculturalism.” To the contrary, Nietzsche wanted the opposite of these things and even described the potential leaders of Europe as “tyrants” (BGE VIII: §242). Nietzsche was first and foremost a philosopher, and he adopted a political philosophy out of philosophic necessity. “Politics in the grand style” did not emerge from an ideology (at least in the simplistic sense of the term) nor from blind pragmatism. Instead, as I hope to demonstrate, Nietzsche forges his politics in the realm of the transcendental, as a response to a cultural and spiritual crisis on the continent—a crisis that affects not only politics but theology, epistemology, and aesthetics.

3. Politics of Crisis

In Ecce Homo (1888), Nietzsche mentions that his mother, Franziska Oehler, married his father in Eilenburg in 1813, the “great war year” in which Napoleon entered the city. Nietzsche relates that, “As a Saxon, she was a great admirer of Napoleon; it could be that I still am, too” (EH I: §3). It is certainly not a stretch to say that the empereur and his attempted unification of Europe represent for Nietzsche a manifestation of the imperial politics he most admired; and, in many ways, Nietzsche’s view of Napoleon encapsulates the way “great politics” functions within his philosophy. It is important to note that Nietzsche’s esteem for Napoleon should not be viewed as mere “hero worship” or as an example of “Great Man history.” Nietzsche never admired Napoleon for his skill in getting to the top, that is, for his “will to power” in the most individualistic and simplistic of meanings. Napoleon instead represents for Nietzsche a culmination of cultural energies: “The history of Napoleon’s reception is almost the history of the highest happiness attained by the whole century in its most valuable human beings and moments (BGE V: §199). As the French Revolution inaugurated the zenith of democratic leveling (and popular ressentiment), Nietzsche viewed Napoleon as a kind of “signpost to the other path,” that of the great and terrible aristocracy of antiquity and the Italian Renaissance. Napoleon was not important for Nietzsche as a “French patriot” and less so as a great individual; he held meaning as a realization of the spirit: Napoleon was “the problem of the noble ideal as such made flesh . . . the synthesis of the inhuman and the superhuman (GM I: §16).

Just as Napoleon embodied a cultural problem, Nietzsche formulates his definition of “great politics” around what he perceives as a European-wide spiritual and cultural crisis. In describing “why I am a destiny,” Nietzsche imagines “politics in the grand style” as encompassing both the terrible truth that Nietzsche’s philosophy announces to the world and the “war of spirits” that must follow:

For when truth enters into a fight with the lies of millennia, we shall have upheavals, a convulsion of earthquakes, a moving of mountains and valleys, the like of which has never been dreamed of. The concept of politics will have merged entirely with a war of spirits; all power structures of the old society will have been exploded—all of them are based on lies: there will be wars the like of which have never yet been seen on earth. It is only beginning with me that the earth knows great politics. (EC IV: §1)

This is a particularly pregnant passage, and it is related to a number of concerns of this essay. For now, it is important to recognize that Nietzsche views “great politics” as emerging directly from a crisis of his age. In announcing the demise of the basic structures of European society, Nietzsche sees himself as unleashing “great politics,” a kind of combination of actual war and a contestation of value.

What Nietzsche views as comprising his “truth” against “the lies of millennia” is, at its core, his announcement that “God is dead.”

Those who only know one thing about Nietzsche usually know the half-truth that he loathed Christianity and was a militant atheist. While it is true that Nietzsche did present himself as “the Antichrist,” to say that Nietzsche was writing polemically against Christianity—like some proto-Christopher Hitchens—is to misconstrue him entirely. Nietzsche hardly thought that the Europeans of the future—perhaps led by a few “overmen” who had read Thus Spoke Zarathustra—could recognize the faults of Christianity and then simply “get rid of it.” To think so is to vastly underestimate the complexity—and, indeed, the ambivalence—of Nietzsche’s critique. Nietzsche did not view Judeo-Christianity8 and its legacy as mere “lies”—as the “opium of the masses” in Marx’s language or the “God Delusion,” to borrow a phrase from the self-styled “New Atheists.” He viewed Christianity much like a traditional conservative—as the most basic grounding of what has come to be called “The West.” To actually oppose Judeo-Christianity—as Nietzsche imagines himself as doing in the passage from Ecce Homo—is not only to risk catastrophe but also all assurance of a future. As I will demonstrate below, Nietzsche questioned the very ability of Europeans to think outside the confines of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Simply exiting Christianity, or transcendent thinking in general, was not an option.

Europeans had not simply “lost faith.” God is dead because the “the belief in the Christian God has become unbelievable” (GS V: §343). Put into other words, the Human and Natural Sciences (“Enlightenment” in the broadest sense) pursued its “will to know” to the point that it shattered the religious basis of European societies. What remains most important about this conception is that Nietzsche specifically does not view Enlightenment and the “will to know” as emerging from a system of knowledge and values outside or alien to Judeo-Christianity. Nietzsche would never deny that the Sciences were often set opposed to the Church (and vice-versa); however, for him, the “will to know” lies at the center of the Judeo-Christian tradition.9 Moreover, as I will discuss below, “truth” functions within Judeo-Christianity in a way that differs in prominence and quality from other historical religions.

In this line, Nietzsche’s supra-nationalism—his Europeanism—is directly linked to his expansive view of the influence of Judeo-Christianity. It is specifically Europe’s struggle with its Christian legacy that generates “great politics” and the need for a radical transformation. Nietzsche claims that the Judeo-Christian tradition has “created in Europe a magnificent tension of the spirit the like of which had never yet existed on earth: with so tense a bow we can now shoot for the most distant goals” (BGE P). It is this “tension”—Europe’s turning against itself—that can launch it into greater heights.

But even if Judeo-Christianity’s tension with the Enlightenment generates the European crisis, Nietzsche does not believe in the least that Enlightened politics—specifically nationalism, democracy, and liberalism—are well suited to address the problem. For Nietzsche, when a culture is in crisis, it must turn to “the grand style” in order to “unbend the bow.” Nietzsche seeks to construct a new kind of aristocratic politics that would not simply be “anti-Christian” but mark a transformation of the tradition. The “good Europeans”—the new masters and tyrants of the continent—will rise to power, not in polemical opposition to Judeo-Christianity, but by embodying the productive contradictions and antagonisms of its legacy.

I. Falling Apart / Coming Together

1. Shadows over Europe

Few thinkers have been as self-consciously hostile towards their age and milieu as Nietzsche. Fewer still have felt themselves to be so out of place, to have been literally born at the wrong time. In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche presents himself as an epigone, as the (presumably last) “disciple of the god Dionysius.” This contrasts sharply with the forward-orientation in many of his other writings in which he claims to be a John the Baptist of “the philosophy of the future.” Perhaps Nietzsche is most honest when he critically admits that he is a product of his own age: “I am a decadent” (EH I: §2).

Without doubt, Nietzsche’s profound alienation from late 19th-century European culture had many personal causes: his various health problems, rejection by his peers, and the absence of adequate companionship being but a few. But far more importantly, Nietzsche’s particular animus towards European society resulted from the fact that he felt he knew his age all too well. More specifically, he believed himself to be fully aware of a cultural crisis beyond comparison, the consequences and implications of which would change utterly all facets of Europe. Being born both too early and too late, Nietzsche saw himself “stretched in the contradiction between today and tomorrow” (GS V: §343). As Cassandra, he foresees the coming catastrophe; as John the Baptist, he glimpse a new dawn.

An exact and concise description of the European crisis is difficult to put into words simply because Nietzsche develops this theme in a wide variety of manifestations. For the purpose of this essay, it is useful to look at a particularly poignant image of the crisis from the middle of Nietzsche’s career—his announcement of the “death of God” and the formation of “shadows over Europe” (GS V: §343).

It is of great importance to understand that Nietzsche’s famous announcement that God is dead is actually far more anthropological and phenomenological than it is theological. In Werner Dannhauser’s words, Nietzsche practices “historical atheism”: “The saying that God is dead implies that God once existed. God existed while one could believe in God; God is dead because belief in God has become impossible.”10 The vital questions thus become: Why did God die? and Who killed him? Nietzsche’s full formulation is that “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him [emphasis added]” (GS, §125). We killed him not simply through our loss of faith, for fervency comes and goes and can be lost and regained. Saying “scientists” or “atheists” killed God is equally unsatisfactory; for science as mere technical mastery does not touch the soul. God died over the course of the series of tumults that cut off European man from the transcendent. Copernicus removed him from the center of the cosmos . . . Galileo discovered that natural laws hold in the celestial spheres just as much as they do on Earth . . . Darwin demonstrated that man emerged from out of brutality and death . . . Individuals and specific discoveries are not important, as no single person killed God. And Nietzsche does not posit an aggressive “atheism” as a motivating factor; to the contrary, the scientists mentioned above were inspired by Christian faith. But to go on believing in the Christian God in the face of the modern experience was, for Nietzsche, a sign of childishness, denial, and cowardice. Nietzsche does not view natural “Enlightenment” as the highest form of wisdom, but he never underestimated its immense, catastrophic power.

Though the bad news has not yet been heeded by all, Nietzsche (and a select few) grasp that the death of the Christian God will be followed by the collapse of “the whole of our European morality.” Furthermore, the end of faith will instigate a “sequences of breakdown,” culminating in the destruction of the institutions and values based upon the Judeo-Christian moral system. The 20th century will witness nothing less than the eclipse of the sun.

In making such claims, Nietzsche might seem to have much in common with the pessimism of many conservatives of the late 19th century (and today), who viewed the end of faith as equally disastrous, and sometimes in equally grandiose terms. Yet Nietzsche’s perspective on the death of God is wholly different than that of such figures. Firstly, Nietzsche viewed the coming catastrophe as necessary; even if all of Europe does not yet recognize it, there is no hope for a Christian revival, for such a thing would inherently ring hollow. Nietzsche would not have been surprised by the decent of mainstream Christianity into self-esteem doctrines or community organizing.

Secondly, while the death of God is a disaster, Nietzsche sees it as containing great potential benefit. As stressed by Michael Allen Gillespie, what Nietzsche most opposed in Christianity is that it leads Europeans into believing that, after the collapse of Christian morality, life in general would have no meaning. But Nietzsche instead envisioned other types of men who, although disturbed by the death of God, accept the dilemma and learn to view it as an opportunity for a cultural transformation.11 In this line, Nietzsche’s tone in this aphorism moves from despairing to rhapsodic. The “shadows over Europe” lift to reveal a “new dawn,” and Nietzsche shifts to a new set of metaphors, imaging the “death of God” as a starting point for great new voyages of the spirit. Writing as one of the “free spirits” who understands the positive aspect of the collapse, Nietzsche ironically entitles Aphorism §343 “The Meaning of our Cheerfulness.”

Such passages deserve serious criticism on many levels.12 First and foremost, as pointed out by Gillespie, one might counter that Nietzsche vastly overrated the degree to which the European world would sink into suicidal, nihilistic despair. Although the years 1914-1945 might seem a fulfillment of Nietzsche’s prophecy, “If the intervening years have proven anything, it is that bourgeois society can weather the death of God without collapsing into either passive or active nihilism.”13 But for the purpose of this essay, it is of greatest importance to stress that Aphorism §343 only represents one aspect of Nietzsche’s conception of the European crisis, and by no means does it express the great complexities and ironies surrounding the death of God. Indeed, as Nietzsche begins Book V of The Gay Science with an apocalyptic vision, he follows it immediately with Aphorism §344 in which he stresses the long-term continuity of Judeo-Christian culture. While “The Meaning of our Cheerfulness” images a “new dawn,” Nietzsche juxtaposes it with an aphorism that reminds one of the presence of the past. Nietzsche approaches this recognition of the long duré of culture through a discourse on epistemology.

2. Piety and the Will to Truth

In Aphorism §344, “How we, too, are still Pious,” Nietzsche first observes that the “scientific spirit” of rational inquiry is one of testing and scrutinizing established convictions: for example, “does a heavier body actually fall faster than a lighter one?” Science is ultimately a process in which “convictions” are destroyed; those that crumble under scrutiny are discarded, and those that hold are no longer mere convictions but “knowledge” and “truth.” In describing this spirit, Nietzsche, no doubt, has in mind Descartes objective in his Meditations on First Philosophy (1641/47) to bring into question every single idea, perception, and premise in order to arrive at a firm ground for knowledge. This is certainly not anything that Nietzsche takes lightly; far from being an “irrationalist,” Nietzsche views the breaking down of conviction as the heart of any great philosophy:

[G]reat spirits are skeptics. Zarathustra is a skeptic. Strength, freedom which is born of the strength and overstrength of the spirit, proves itself by skepticism. Men of convictions are not worthy of the least consideration in fundamental questions of value and disvalue. Convictions are prisons” (AC §54).

But if science strives to knock down convictions, Nietzsche discerns a deeper, unspoken conviction undergirding the entire enterprise; it is one that is so pervasive and indispensable to science as a system that it can never be confronted directly: “We see that science also rests on a faith” (GS V: §344).14 This conviction is that “truth has value.”

The “value” of truth might seem self-evident; however, being that it is often the great liars and manipulators who come out on top, one should ask seriously: Why not deceive? Moreover, Why not allow oneself to be deceived? This is hardly facetious. Throughout his oeuvre, Nietzsche connects the acquisition of greater knowledge with pain.15 Some knowledge might have pragmatic value, and certainly Nietzsche would see “wonder” and “curiosity” underlying the “will to truth”; however, he views knowledge of the highest quality to be that which destroys the foundations of a culture and paralyzes an individual’s will to action. In his major treatise on historiography, Nietzsche associates knowledge with “the historical sense,” that is, scholarly historicism and boldly concludes that ignorance, forgetfulness, and the denial history is of great value to a people or culture:

No artist would ever paint a picture, no general would win a victory, no people would gain its freedom without first having longed for and struggled towards that end in such an nhistorical condition. Just as the man of action, in Goethe phrase, is always unscrupulous, so he is always ignorant too” (HSDL §1).

The man of profound knowledge might achieve a kind of power, but he is also prone to becoming a “Hamlet,” a man nauseated by knowing and thinking too much (see BT §7).

In Nietzsche’s mind, ”the value of truth” has a distinct origin, which I will discuss in the next section. Before this, it is useful to make some preliminary conclusions. Among these is the recognition that Nietzsche might not be as “postmodern” as is often thought. The idea that Nietzsche’s perspective on science is a refutation of truth and thus an assertion of “relativism” is doubtful. Zarathustra does not bring “relativism” to the world down from the mountaintop, but the terrible truth that God is dead. Any kind of defined system—whether it be Science, Christianity, or Buddhism—is based upon, in Walter Kaufmann’s words, “a number of primary assumptions from which [one] draws a net of inferences and thus deduces [the] system; but [one] cannot from within [the] system, establish the truth of his premises.”16 Nietzsche attempts a bold new experiment in which he turns the “will to truth” against those most fundamental assumptions—even against itself—and tests whether the whole system might hold, or not.

In that the search for truth is only rarely practical and usually proves deleterious, it can only acquire meaning through a system of value outside itself. It is Nietzsche’s radical conclusion in Aphorism §344 that it is the Judeo-Christian tradition that gave birth to the “will to truth—at all costs.” In a characteristic dialectical flip, it is Judeo-Christianity that birthed the sciences. It is in this way that Nietzsche ironically derives the title, “How we, too, are still Pious”:

[E]ven we seekers after knowledge today, we godless anti-metaphysicians, still take our fire, too, from the flame lit by a faith that is thousands of years old, that Christian faith . . . that God is the truth, that truth is divine. (GS V: §344)

It is thus exactly that which is most harmed by the will to truth that brought it into the world.

How religion would become so audacious as to value truth is a complicated story, and one that emerges from Nietzsche’s view of history and the place of the Jews, Christians, and national politics in the ancient world.

II. Peoples, Nobles, Slaves

1. Nations and their Gods

Whatever Nietzsche eventually thought of the German nation-state, all of his texts evince a certain esteem, even nostalgia, for ancient “peoples,” that is, historical races with their own culture and religion. As mentioned above, the Athenian ethnos was of central importance, but Nietzsche has similar reverence for other peoples of the ancient Mediterranean world and many across Europe and Asia. Nietzsche’s exact concept of a “people” is difficult to pin down. Obviously, the term is defined ethnically, and Nietzsche often uses “race” interchangeably with “people.”17 However, for Nietzsche, a “people is far more than a mere biological entity. Although never made explicit, Nietzsche’s anthropology was greatly informed by a kind of “theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics.” In the words of Menahem Brinker, “A race is for him primarily a group of people united by their common life-experience which is interiorized and passed on from one generation to the next as cultural heritage and as inherited traits of character” 18. “National character” was forged over time.

Nietzsche’s concept of a people also had a prominent theological component: “A people which still believes in itself retains its own god. In him it reveres the conditions which let it prevail, its virtues—it projects its pleasure in itself, its feeling of power onto a being to whom one may offer thanks” (AC §16). Under a national god, a people would construct a formal morality and system of values that was informed by the conditions for their well-being and position in the world. As Zarathuatra exclaims in his speech “Of Self Overcoming,” “What [a] people believe to be good and evil betrays to me an ancient will to power” (Z II: 12). In the figure of the Hindu law-giver Manu—his thought expressed in his law book, Manu Smriti (circa 200 B.C.)—Nietzsche offers a concrete example of the legislator-cum-chief-cum-priest who forges a great people. Manu, who became revered in Hinduism as the forefather of the entire human race, succeeded in Nietzsche’s mind by raising his people to kind of cultural and religious perfection. After a long era of fragmentation and chaos, Manu took the best that was achieved in this period of “experimentation” and codified a single, timeless religion and system of values. Nietzsche describes Manu’s culture as reaching an “automatism of instinct” in which values had become unconscious. He created a “second nature.”

2. National Epistemology

Just as “peoples” are at the center of Nietzsche’s concept of theology and value, so are they of great importance to his major discourses on epistemology. More specifically, “a people” is directly connected in Nietzsche’s mind with his concept of the “will to truth” and the ways that this has manifested itself. Nietzsche’s most basic conclusion in this line is set down in Zarathustra in the aphorism “On the Famous Wise Men” (Z II: §8). Here, it is the “famous philosophers”—beloved by their communities—who, in claiming to have reached “truth,” have actually transformed the prejudices and superstitions of a people into dogma or philosophy. As he does throughout Zarathustra, Nietzsche encapsulates this idea in a striking image, and in this case, it is one that is highly satirical: the “famous wise man” is an ass pulling a cart. The “cart,” of course, represents “the people,” who are grateful to their ass-philosopher for his tireless efforts.

The sentiment that philosophers (or at least “famous” ones) are basically sophists and demagogues who “tell the people what they want to hear” is hardly new. However, this notion functions idiosyncratically within Nietzsche’s thought as a whole. Despite the obvious satire of the image, Nietzsche is not wholly opposed to “famous wise men.” As discussed above, Nietzsche has an irrepressible nostalgia for peoples who could write their “tables of good and evil” and were confident in themselves. For this, “famous wise men” and their “truths” were indispensable. In many ways, Nietzsche views the decadence and cultural barrenness of Europe as expressed by their inability to invent a new theology. In reference to the “strong races of Northern Europe,” Nietzsche laments that they never rejected the Christian God foisted upon them in the late Roman Empire, but instead allowed themselves to be defined by Judeo-Christianity: “[a]lmost two thousand years—and not a single new god!” (AC: §19).

National philosophers might have served their purpose; however, Nietzsche’s nostalgia has its limits, and he unequivocally rejects “national philosophy” as a worldview for Europe’s future. Nietzsche makes no effort to tell his age a quaint bedtime story or become Europe’s latest (or last) “famous wise man.”

Nietzsche’s sense that “national religions” (at least within the confines of Europe) are both impossible and undesirable has much to do with his understanding of the Judeo-Christian legacy. On one level, Christianity is for Nietzsche “just another religion,” and it shares much in common with the national religions. In this case, it is an expression of the will to power of the down-trodden within the imperium Romanum, and one can criticize it as such (as Nietzsche does at length in the Genealogy). But Nietzsche views this sociological insight as only of partial importance in assessing Judeo-Christianity and its impact on Europe.

From the beginning, Nietzsche claims that Christianity was, at heart, never a national religion, and its dynamic was always expansive and supranational in character. In Nietzsche’s words, Christianity was “not a function of a race—it turned to every kind of man who was disinherited by life, it had its allies everywhere” (AC §51). From this broad base of support in the ancient world, the Judeo-Christian legacy surfaced, in a variety of manifestations, and came to inform all peoples and classes of Europe (and beyond). Christianity thus lacked completely other religions’ basis in the sustenance of a distinct group, with its good and evil, high and low, sentiments and attachments.

But beyond this matter of scale, Nietzsche viewed Christianity as different in character from national religions. Much of this is expressed in the fact that Nietzsche views Christianity as possessing an epistemology radically different from the “national epistemologies” described above. More specifically, Judeo-Christianity has a “will to truth” like no other. In Nietzsche’s mind, much of this results from Judaism’s place in the ancient world. In order to properly understand Judeo-Christian epistemology, one must turn to the story of the Jews.

3. Judaism and the Jews

It is well known that Nietzsche was a fierce anti-anti-Semite. It was not particularly difficult for Nietzsche to take this position in the latter part of his career. Anti-Semitism was indelibly linked in his mind with Wagner and the Bayreuth circle, his sister’s poor choice in husbands, and pompous German nationalism—that is to say, everything which Nietzsche found most distasteful and felt that he had to overcome in himself. Nietzsche’s hatred of anti-Semitism culminated in his letter sent to Franz Overbeck, at the onset of madness in January of 1889, announcing that he was “having all anti-Semites shot.”19 But then, being an anti-anti-Semite doesn’t quite mean that he was a philo-Semite, nor does it quite tell us what Nietzsche thought of the Jews. Examined closely, Nietzsche’s depictions of Judaism and the Jews reveals that he was intensely ambivalent about both—a certain anti-Semitism and penchant for double-edged compliments are combined with an enduring admiration. In his view, the Jews are, at the same time, a strong heroic people, a slave-race most responsible for the decline of aristocratic values, and potential “good Europeans.”20

Nietzsche unequivocally admires the Biblical Jewish people, and uses rapturous language to describe the “Homeric” world of the Pentateuch: “great human beings, a heroic landscape, and something of the very rarest quality in the world, the incomparable naïveté of the strong heart; what is more I find a people” (GM III: §22). At this point in time, Judaism was a healthy and powerful national religion. Being that Jews and their political order were “in the right, that is, natural relationship to all things,” they were able to create their own table of good and evil and invent a God that expressed their strength: Yahweh in his original form “was the expression of a consciousness of power, of joy in oneself, of hope for oneself: through him victory and welfare were expected” (AC: §25).

But as the Jews began to experience defeat and subservience—recast in historical terminology, in the period following the destruction of the First Temple (6th Century B.C.)—Yahweh began to lose his luster. In a striking admonishment, Nietzsche claims, “they should have let him go” (AC §25). That is, once Yahweh ceased to be a god of power and victory, the Jews should have been creative enough to make a new one. This was, of course, common practice throughout the Roman Empire, as gods were ordered, created, and destroyed within the federalist Pantheon.

Instead, Jewish political life began to be dominated by a priestly class, and Yahweh was re-imagined. If the Jews could not experience power in the real world, they claimed that “the good” was not found there but only in a new “higher” realm of morality. The god of the Jews became, in turn, an abstract demand, an “evil-eye,” a “morality.” The situation was made worse by the fact that the priestly class transformed the Jewish historical consciousness, empowering themselves and devaluing the Biblical age of heroes which Nietzsche so admired:

[I]n the hands of the Jewish priests, the great age in the history of Israel became an age of decay; the Exile, the long misfortune, was transformed in to an eternal punishment for the great age—an age in which the priest was still a nobody” (AC §26).

Judaism was further affected by the Jews’ conflicts with the Roman Empire, culminating in the destruction of the Second Temple (1st Century, B.C.). It is, indeed, this confrontation through which Nietzsche generates one of his most characteristic opposition, “Rome against Judea, Judea against Rome: Rome felt the Jews to be something like anti-nature itself, its antipodal monstrosity as it were: in Rome the Jew stood convicted of hatred for the whole human race” (GM I: §16). “Judea against Rome” is the depiction not of too rival nations and national religions but of two completely opposed Weltanschauungen and moral systems: on one side, there is the aristocratic master-class, conscious of its own power, and able to subordinate and integrate rival nations into a stable, productive hierarchy; on other, there is a small, wretched tribe of people claiming no national power (as they had none), but then making a grasp for universal dominion.

4. Morality in the Grand Style

In Nietzsche’s reading, the Jews are “the most catastrophic people in world history” (AC §24), but not merely because they created a religion of ressentiment directed against the aristocratic Romans. For as a religion of a weak people, Judaism would hardly be unusual in this respect and would never have gained world-historical significance. The Jews were truly catastrophic in that they transformed the nature of religion itself.

In order to understand the new metaphysics created in Judaism, it is useful to turn to Nietzsche’s description of the formation of the conscience and the sense of guilt. Drawing on the fact that the German word “Schuld” refers to both “debt” (in the monetary sense) and “guilt” (in the moral sense), Nietzsche claims that, in the prehistory of mankind, the moral conscience emerged as an internalization of the punishment one received for failing to repay loans. The feeling of guilt is a means for man to punish himself by reproducing the fear and loathing of indebtedness in other contexts. Obviously, this had a class-dimension, for it is primarily the lower orders and weaker nations who experienced chronic indebtedness, and thus were more likely to develop the internalization. The Jews underwent an intensification of this process in that not only were they constantly in a position of subservience vis-à-vis “master” nations, but their culture became dominated by a priestly class that eagerly transformed “guilt/debt” into a exaltation of their weak and downtrodden state, the “ascetic ideal.”

Nietzsche relates that, as this process ensued, this painful internalization of guilt became simply too great for the slave to bear, and he and his society sought a means of discharging it. This could take many forms; Nietzsche views the primary one as entailing a grand reversal, a projection back of the feeling of debt onto the “creditor,” that is, the master. The Jews thus formed an entire metaphysics based upon ressentiment. The “transvaluation of all values”—that is, the valuing of the weak, shameful slaves as “good”—and the powerful, conscienceless rulers as “evil”—operated through this process in the latter days of the ancient world.

This great “reversal of guilt,” so to speak, is directly related to the Jews’ development of monotheism and a universal religion. In Nietzsche’ reading of history, it is the Jews and the original Christian slave-classes throughout the Empire that achieved the “maximum feeling of guilty indebtedness [des Schuldgefühl] on earth.” Nietzsche views this as expressed by a universalist theory and “the maximum god attained thus far” (GM II: §20), the one, true god—Yahweh. Not only did the Jews and Christians divorce their god from the attainment of worldly power, but in imagining a higher realm, they grasped at a kind of grand coup d’état. The refashioned Yahweh was above the gods of Rome and all other deities, indeed, he superseded them. The Jews were the inventors of what Nietzsche calls “the grand style in morality” (BGE VIII: §250). In this way, Nietzsche imagines a great clash of universal religions: on the one hand, Judeo-Christian monotheism, and on the other, the Imperium Romanum and its Pantheon.

In the struggle of “Rome against Judea,” Judea won. Nietzsche views this as happening mostly on a psychological level; put simply, the all-encompassing Judaic (and later Judeo-Christian) system entrapped the nobles and made them feel guilty about themselves, about their power, beauty, and dominance. Beyond the Roman aristocrats, Nietzsche sees the pre-Judeo-Christian world as replete with a host of figures who, “imbued with faith in their own perfection, went about with the dignity of a great matador”; these were the great masters who had confidence in their ability to achieve power and, it should be mentioned, were unafraid to be cruel. “Moral Skepticism”—that is, the “evil eye” and the unflagging criticism of the Judeo-Christian system—succeeded in drawing into question all of the noble man’s great strengths—pride, ruthlessness, ambition—and in “accusing and embittering him” to the point that he lost faith in himself (GS III: §122).

Nietzsche views this great “loss of nerve” as lamentable, for there is little doubt that he felt the great, cruel master-class to be the foundation of high culture in the ancient world. This being said, Nietzsche recognizes that the “transvaluation of all values” is at the heart of the sciences and the modern systems of knowledge. Indeed, Nietzsche views Judaism and Christianity as the first religions to fully systematize the potential of doubt and skepticism. The ancient Jew and Christian might originally pursue “truth” out of ressentiment, in the sense of “bringing the great down to size” or “looking up the skirt” of the Queen. But this is transformed into a call for knowledge for its own sake. As Nietzsche points out, it is no coincidence that the great philosophers have been social outcasts—Heraclitus, Socrates, Epicurius, Nietzsche (BGE I: §6). Ressentiment is the secret, guilty origin of philosophy. Moreover, with the expansion to universalism, the acquisition of knowledge becomes a duty, a painful binding of the self to achieve knowledge “for its own sake” and “at all costs.”

Furthermore, it is with man’s “turning against himself” that it becomes possible to enact a great transformation of values. In this line, it is the dynamic of Judeo-Christian ressentiment that gives substance to Nietzsche’s metaphor (quoted above) of the “taut bow.” “Turned against himself,” Judeo-Christian man is a strange, seemingly “unnatural,” being, but as such he begins to view himself no longer as an end but as a stage in a grand transformation:

[T]he existence on earth of an animal soul turned against itself . . . was something so new, profound, unheard of, enigmatic, contradictory, and pregnant with a future that the aspect of the earth was essentially altered. . . .[M]an . . . gives rise to an interest, a tension, a hope, almost a certainty, as if with him something were announcing and preparing itself, as if man were not a goal but only a way, an episode, a bridge, a great promise.—(GM II: §16)

In describing the development of the systems of knowledge, Nietzsche returns to the image of the “taut bow” and “great politics.” Judaism gave birth not only to the universalism and value of truth that characterize European societies, but also to the capacity to transfigure radically these values.

As explored in the following section, this aspect of Judeo-Christian legacy is of particular importance in informing Nietzsche’s discussions of 19th-century European politics and his hope for supra-national integration.

III. Super-Nationalism

1. The New Idol

Publishing in the latter third of the 19th century, Nietzsche couldn’t help but comment on the most important political development of his time—nationalism. In his mature period, Nietzsche’s stance towards the nation-state was almost uniformly hostile. (This might come as a surprise to those who associate him with German National Socialism.) In these discussions, Nietzsche is not interested in sovereignty or the state in themselves so much as their modern “republican” and “national-democratic” variations. In this line, the central political problem for Nietzsche is one of representation. Nietzsche (or Zarathustra to be exact) claims that the state exists through a central lie: “I, the state, am the people.” It is this equation and promise of representation that, after the collapse of “divine right” and absolutism, became the fundamental source of legitimacy.

Whereas healthy peoples are able to write their own tablets of good and evil, Zarathustra calls the modern state “the death of peoples” and, in an ironic reference to Hobbes “Leviathan,” “the coldest of all cold monsters” (Z I: §11). While a great legislator like Manu was a “creator”—he brought order to his culture—the modern state is an “annihilator.” It simply “takes,” its managers exist by taxing those below them. And it is a cold monster in that it “bask[s] in the sunshine” of the allegiance and men of actual achievement. And, to Zarathustra’s dismay, it has seduced the “great souls” of every nation. Here, Nietzsche certainly has in mind a figure like Wagner: after the events of 1848-49 he was a nomadic artist who radically rethought the operatic form; by 1876 and the establishment of the Bayreuth festival, he was “nationalized” and thus became “respectable” and “palatable.”

Keeping in mind Nietzsche’s esteem and nostalgia for the age of peoples, it is important to note that his critique of the modern state functions around a nation/state opposition. As mentioned above, Nietzsche’s mature work is filled with barbs against all things German; however, the moments in which he criticizes the German state are exactly those in which he allows himself to recognize the cultural achievement of the German people—even if he does this in the form of his signature double-edged complements.21 While in other works Nietzsche depicts Germans as lugubrious beer-guzzlers, vis-à-vis their state, they are a people of ponderous depths, fixated—perhaps to a fault—on a vision of the future (BGE VIII: §240). Germans famously have an identity crisis—“It is characteristic of the Germans that the question, ‘what is German?’ never dies out amongst them” (BGE VIII: §244)—but then this makes them philosophical. In light of Nietzsche’s political ideal of the good European, it is certainly significant here that he depicts the German soul as disposed to “cosmopolitanism” (BGE VIII: §241). In 1888—18 years after the founding of the Reich—he exclaimed: “‘German spirit’: for the past eighteen years a contradiction in terms” (TI I: §23). In a clear reference to the leader of the new Germany, Otto von Bismarck, Nietzsche speaks of “a statesman” who convinced the Germans to sacrifice their great virtues for the sake of a “novel and dubious mediocrity” (BGE VIII: §241). Bismarck was able to seduce the Germans through, in Nietzsche’s exact words, “Great Politics.” Far from being the merger of politics and the war of spirits that Nietzsche foresaw in Ecce Homo (EC IV: §1), Bismarck’s “great politics” is little more than pomp and circumstance, a parody of actual greatness. The great chancellor “piles up for [the Germans] another tower of Babel, a monster of empire and power,” and willing citizens “grovel on their bellies before anything massive” (BGE VIII: §241). Nietzsche holds his nose at this spectacle and refers to the process as the “spiritual flattening” of a people. In becoming citizens of the Reich, Germans forgo their spiritual boundlessness and learn “politicking.”

2. The Herd and the Tyrants

Like most critics of nationalism, Nietzsche is quick to place national formation within a particular historical context and deconstruct any claims the nation-state might have of being an organic outgrowth out of an ancient community. Far from representing an eternal Deutsch, Nietzsche views the Reich as a part of a European-wide spirit of secular republicanism. And despite Kaiser Wilhelm’s claims of divine sovereignty, he views the Reich as part of “Europe’s democratic movement” (BGE VIII: §242). In this line, Nietzsche generally criticizes the nation-state in much the same way that he criticizes the Enlightenment’s political offspring, democracy and liberalism. Democratic and republican politics seek to oppress the great individual exemplars of the human species and mark the lowering of tastes to suit the herd. Nietzsche takes this point very far, even speculating that democratization was actually a “physiological process” in which Europeans were quite literally getting flatter and flatter and more and more boring. Europeans are no longer a collection of peoples, but a homogenous mass.

This being said, Nietzsche is not merely an aristocratic conservative, lamenting the dumbing-down of tastes (though he certainly did lament the dumbing-down of tastes). Just as with the discussion of “shadows over Europe,” Nietzsche views this “mass-ification” of peoples as inevitable and irreversible; indeed, he attempts to glimpse a potential transformation taking place through (not against) the “democratic movement.” Indeed, Nietzsche provocatively imagines that the great leveling will eventuate in a “result which would seem to be least expected by those who naively praise [the process of democratization], the apostles of ‘modern ideas.’” For the new “democratic man”—in the form of either the “last man” described in Zarathustra (Z I: P: §5) or the “garrulous worker” in Beyond Good and Evil (BGE VIII: §242)—shall be, in status if not name, a slave. Slaves, of course, need Masters, much like cattle need cowboys. And this means that “in exceptional cases the strong human being will have to turn out stronger and richer than perhaps ever before.” The democratization of Europeans will be the opportunity for the “cultivation of tyrants.”

3. Who Leads Europe?

In the wake of 20th-century totalitarianisms, Nietzsche’s call for the cultivation of tyrants is undoubtedly unwelcome. As Jacob Golomb and Robert Wistrich observe, Nietzsche is not a proto-Fascist or -Nazi, but he is most definitely a kind of “godfather” of these movements. In their words, he was a “prophet of the spiritual vacuum that gave birth to the totalitarian abysses of the twentieth century. As such he remains profoundly relevant to our time.”22 But then, perhaps one could push Nietzsche’s “totalitarian” connection much further than Golomb and Wistrich would like. Both Hitler and Stalin might even seem to be an excellent candidate for the “artist tyrant” in that both sustained their dictatorship by replacing politics with the spectacle of power. Nietzsche, of course, never discusses things like a “one-party-state” or the “Führer principle”; however, in his unpublished writings, which were collected as The Will to Power (1901), he did specifically speak of “international racial unions whose task will be to rear a master race” (WP §504). Furthermore, in stressing the need for fearless new conquerors, he rhetorically asks, “Where are the barbarians of the twentieth century?” (WP §465).23

Nietzsche never published any statements like this in his lifetime, and it is irresponsible to treat them uncritically as definitive components of his philosophy. Nevertheless, the questions that such a statement evoke are serious and invariably color any reading of Nietzsche’s political philosophy. Without doubt there is a certain racial, eugenicist component to Nietzsche’s vision of the new Europe; however, it is of vital importance to look very closely at exactly how Nietzsche depicts his projected tyrants and masters of Europe. Nietzsche might be notorious for writing positively about the “blond beast” and the “noble races” (GM I: §11),24 but ultimately both of these figures are part of Nietzsche’s vision of “pre-history,” of the half-forgotten memory of man. They are not the Masters of Europe, who will arise after the death of God.

Nietzsche ultimately never details who the Overman (Übermensch) is, much as Marx remained poetic and elliptical when he described communism. That said, he offers glimpses . . .


It is useful to begin this discussion with the figure of the “good European.” Nietzsche is most explicit about what he means by this term when he discuses the role of the Jews in modern European society. Nietzsche’s portrait of the Jewish people is, in many ways, familiar: he writes of them as wandering without a home, still alienated from the European national communities even after the wide-spread liberal reforms improving their treatment. Their alien status has certain benefits, however, for in being excluded from national life, the Ashkenazim maintain their own distinct cultural traditions and remain, in Nietzsche’s words, a people “aere perennius,” more enduring than bronze.

With this in mind, Daniel Conway has suggested that the European Jews stand for Nietzsche as a kind of political alternative, a living critique of his grand vision of a renewed Roman Empire: “Despite his bold, Europhilic swagger, he feared that they [the Jews] may have succeeded in formulating the optimal strategy for promoting cultural advancement in late modernity.”25 This claim is highly useful in that it is, in my view, a misreading of Nietzsche’s position towards the Ashkenazim, but then it brings to the fore an important point. It is certainly true that Nietzsche saw the value in being the outsider; all great philosophers are outsiders, including Nietzsche himself. Furthermore, Zarathustra speaks directly to the lonely and disposed in his call for the creation of a new spiritual order: “You that are lonely today, you that are withdrawing, you shall one day be the people: out of you, who have chosen yourselves, there shall grow a chosen people—and out of them the overman” (Z I: §22). It might seem that here Nietzsche is calling for a kind of “Jewish” good European, the Good European as a wandering nomad. Those who have “chosen themselves” will form an ironic “chosen people.”

Nietzsche undoubtedly desires to empower those who stand against the modern world; however, in this scheme, they are not to remain “free spirits” for long. In the above quotation, Nietzsche does not imagine the alienated as forever standing apart, but as ultimately triumphing, as giving birth to a higher stage of humanity, and thus laying the foundations for rule. Similarly, what Nietzsche admires in the Jews’ “optimal strategy” is not their apartness in itself, but their potential to achieve “mastery over Europe” (BGE VIII: §251). Indeed, Nietzsche scolds the Jews for trying to assimilate into national cultures. Were these indestructible, nomadic people not capable of much more, for better and for worse? In making such claims, Nietzsche does not reveal himself to be a kind of “Jewish supremacist,” so to speak. The Jew, who has survived persecution and attempted annihilation—survived even national assimilation and who has built international networks—are an image, at least in part, of what a “Good European” might be.26 But the Ashkenazim’s international culture and “morality in the grand style,” which has been developed into a variety of ethical philosophies, make them particularly well suited for the governance of the continent.

In no better way does Nietzsche express that his political project amounts to a “transvaluation of all values,” for it is the wanderers and nomads who were, as physical types, those to whom Christianity would most likely appeal in the ancient world, and furthermore, those who would most likely succeed in crafting a religion of ressentiment against the nobility. The lonely and dispossessed are poised to become a new master class.


Immediately following his paean to the imperium Romanum quoted at the beginning of this essay, Nietzsche offers a glimpse of his ideal of the man who might sit on the throne. His language here is grandiose and deserves to be quoted at length:

I envisage a possibility of a perfect supraterrestrial magic and fascination of color: it seems to me that it glistens in all the tremors of subtle beauty, that an art is at work in it, so divine, so devilishly divine that one searches millennia in vain for a second such possibility […] Cesare Borgia as pope. Am I understood? (AC §61)

The imagery is meant to shock, and Nietzsche’s effusiveness expresses his glee in blasphemy. But then Nietzsche intends “Cesare Borgia as pope” to be taken seriously, and such an image connects to many components of his wider political thought. In installing Borgia in Rome, Nietzsche means to attack the Judeo-Christian tradition “in the decisive place, in the very seat of Christianity, placing the noble values on the throne”; going further, he seeks to bring these values “right into the instincts, into the lowest needs and desires of those who sat there” (AC §61). A polemical or merely blasphemous opposition to Christianity—in which case he would image a “sultan in Babylon” or the like—is nowhere to be seen. To the contrary, Nietzsche seeks to re-constitute the entire Judeo-Christian legacy. The “instincts” and “lowest needs and desires” of the Jew or Christian are transformed into the foundation for a new aristocratic order. Just as the “good European” marks a kind of reversal of the tradition of Jewish ressentiment, so Nietzsche imagines the coming tyrants as an upside down version of the greatest of all priestly classes.


Bergman, Peter. 1987. Nietzsche, “the Last Antipolitical German.” Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Brinker, Menahem. 2002. “Nietzsche and the Jews.” In Nietzsche, Godfather of Fascism?: On the Uses and Abuses of a Philosophy, edited by J. Golomb and R. S. Wistrich. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Conway, Daniel W. . 2002. “Ecce Caesar: Nietzsche’s Imperial Aspirations.” In Nietzsche, Godfather of Fascism?: On the Uses and Abuses of a Philosophy, edited by J. Golomb and R. S. Wistrich. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Coudenhove-Kalergi, Richard Nikolaus, Graf von. 1925 [1920]. Adel, Praktischer Idealismus. Wien and Leipzig: Pan-Europa Verlag.

Dannhauser, Werner J. 1987 [1963]. Friedrich Nietzsche. In History of Political Philosophy, edited by L. Strauss and J. Cropsey. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Gillespie, Michael Allen. 1999. “Nietzsche and the Anthropology of Nihilism.” Nietzsche-Studien (28):141-155.

Golomb, Jacob, and Robert S. Wistrich. 2002. Introduction. In Nietzsche: Godfather of Fascism?: On the Uses and Abuses of a Philosophy, edited by J. Golomb and R. S. Wistrich. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Kaufmann, Walter. 1974 [1950]. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. 4th ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Middleton, Christopher (ed.). 1996 [1969]. Selected Letters of Friedrich Nietzsche. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1967 [1901]. The Will to Power. Translated by W. Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books.

———. 1974 [1882/87]. The Gay Science. Translated by W. Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books.

———. 1982 [1881]. Daybreak. Translated by R. J. Hollingdale. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 1982 [1883-84]. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Translated by W. Kaufmann. Edited by W. Kaufmann, The Portable Nietzsche. New York: Penguin Books.

———. 1982 [1888]. The Antichrist. Translated by W. Kaufmann. Edited by W. Kaufmann, The Portable Nietzsche. New York: Penguin Books.

———. 1982 [1888]. The Twilight of the Idols. Translated by W. Kaufmann. Edited by W. Kaufmann, The Portable Nietzsche. New York: Penguin Books.

———. 1990 [1873]. “History in Service and Disservice of Life”. In Unmodern Observations, edited by A. William. New Haven: Yale University Press.

———. 1992 [1872]. The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music. Translated by W. Kaufmann. Edited by W. Kaufmann, The Basic Writings of Nietzsche. New York: Modern February.

———. 1992 [1887]. On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic. Translated by W. Kaufmann. Edited by W. Kaufmann, Basic Writings of Nietzsche. New York: Modern Library.

———. 1992 [1888]. Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is. Translated by W. Kaufmann. Edited by W. Kaufmann, Basic Writings of Nietzsche. New York: Modern Library.

Salaquarda, Jörg. 1996. “Nietzsche and the Judeo-Christian Tradition”. In The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche, edited by B. Marnus and K. M. Higgins. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Schrift, Alan. 1995. Nietzsche’s French Legacy. London and New York: Routledge.

Strong, Tracy B. 1988 [1975]. Friedrich Nietzsche and the Politics of Transfiguration. Expanded ed. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press.

Wolin, Richard. 2004. The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism, from Nietzsche to Postmodernism. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Yovel, Yirmiyahu. 2002. “Nietzsche Contra Wagner on the Jews.” In Nietzsche, Godfather of Fascism?: On the Uses and Abuses of a Philosophy, edited by J. Golomb and R. S. Wistrich. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.


  1. Throughout this essay, I use standard parenthetical documentation for all of Nietzsche’s works. An abbreviation of the title is followed by the section and paragraph number (when available). A Preface to a volume and the Prologue to Thus Spoke Zarathustra are both signified by “P.” Nietzsche is a writer fond of the italicized stress, and, unless otherwise noted, all emphasis in selected quotations is identical to that in the original.The works referenced are as follows: The Antichrist, AC (Nietzsche 1982 [1888]); The Birth of Tragedy, BT (Nietzsche 1992 [1872]); Daybreak, D (Nietzsche 1982 [1881]); Ecce Homo, EH (Nietzsche 1992 [1888]); The Gay Science, GS (Nietzsche 1974 [1882/87]); On the Genealogy of Morals, GM (Nietzsche 1992 [1887]); “History in Service and Disservice of Life,” HSDL (Nietzsche 1990 [1873]); Twilight of the Idols, TI (Nietzsche 1982 [1888]); The Will to Power, WP (Nietzsche 1967 [1901]); and Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Z (Nietzsche 1982 [1883-84]).
  2. In the critical literature, there are countless volumes detailing Nietzsche’s relationship towards the Greeks of the 5th century; there is no single monograph dedicated to Nietzsche’s view of Rome and the Imperium.
  3. Peter Bergman. Nietzsche, “the Last Antipolitical German” (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1987), 90.
  4. Tracy B. Strong, Friedrich Nietzsche and the Politics of Transfiguration, expanded edition (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1988 [1975]), 202.
  5. Much of this can be directly linked to the fact that Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche, Nietzsche beloved sister, was in charge of Friedrich’s literary estate after his death and was the moving force in establishing the Nietzsche Archive in Weimar. To Friedrich’s dismay, Elizabeth had married a one Bernard Förster, an anti-Semite equal parts German Nationalist and proto-Hippie. (He actually took Elizabeth to South America to found a utopian Commune, “Germania,” beyond the reach of Jewish greed.) During the 1930s, Elizabeth assiduously tried to gain the favor of the Nazi regime and rather brazenly misrepresented Nietzsche’s views on Jews, Germans, and German nationalism.Still, this is far from the whole story. That Mussolini read and admired Nietzsche and generally thought of his politics—even in his Socialist days—as “Nietzschean” is indisputable. There is no evidence that Hitler ever read Nietzsche even though he publicly praised him. Other Nazi theorists, most notably Alfred Rosenberg, were clearly well versed in Nietzsche’s writings.
  6. Alan Schrift offers an overview in Nietzsche’s French Legacy (London and New York: Routledge, 1995.
  7. The Gay Science was first published in 1882; however, Nietzsche added Book V, in which this quotation appears, in the 1887 expanded edition.
  8. Throughout this essay, I use the term “Judeo-Christian” to signify that, far from viewing Christianity and Judaism as divergent or even opposed, Nietzsche perceived Christianity specifically as the consequence of Judaism and the means by which Judaism expanded globally. Nietzsche specifically referred to Christ as the “seduction and bypath to precisely those Jewish values and new ideal” (GM I: §8); he saw Judaism as having influenced Christianity and the Churches so deeply that it had become imperceptible: “today the Christian can feel anti-Jewish without realizing that he himself is the ultimate Jewish consequence (AC §24).It is worth noting that here I specifically disagree with Walter Kaufmann’s views on “Judeo-Christianity” in his Nietzsche. Kaufmann sought to distance Nietzsche from Nazi and proto-Nazi thinkers, specifically Alfred Rosenberg and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who denounced Christianity on account of its Jewish origins. In attempting this, Kaufmann misreads Nietzsche in claiming that he viewed a great separation between the religions in the sense that “Christianity is envisaged as the dross of Judaism” (Kaufmann 1974 [1950], p. 299).
  9. In claiming that Nietzsche viewed that Enlightenment and Science as emerging from the Judeo-Christian tradition, I have relied on Jörg Salaquarda’s “Nietzsche and the Judeo-Christian Tradition” (Salaquarda 1996).
  10. Werner J. Dannhauser, “Friedrich Nietzsche” in History of Political Philosophy, edited by L. Strauss and J. Cropsey (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1987 [1963]).
  11. Michael Allen Gillespie, “Nietzsche and the Anthropology of Nihilism,” Nietzsche-Studien (28) 1999, 141-155.
  12. At least in The Gay Science, Nietzsche’s “new dawn” seems to lack all semblance of content. While Nietzsche might hope for a life after God to be ruled by “overmen,” a society ruled by philistine “last men” seems just as (if not more) likely. Although such a comparison is intrinsically unfair, Nietzsche’s “new dawn” seems similar to Lenin’s belief that, after the fall of the bourgeois-Christian world, a radical elite could construct a new “socialist man.” Millenarian dreams of a Tabula rasa seem always to crash on the rocks of durable institutions and a persistent human nature.
  13. Gillespie, op cit.
  14. In his discussion “On the Prejudices of Philosophers,” Nietzsche reiterates the point: “What in us really wants ‘truth’? […] Suppose we want truth: why not rather untruth? and uncertainty? even ignorance?” (BGE I: §1).
  15. Nietzsche associates not just knowledge but the even more basic concept of memory with pain. For “learning,” pain is indispensable: “[T]here is nothing more fearful and uncanny in the whole of prehistory of man than his mnemotechnics. ‘If something is to stay in the memory it must be burned in: only that which never ceases to hurt stays in the memory”—this is a main clause of the oldest (unhappily the most enduring) psychology on earth” (GM II: §3).
  16. Walter Kaufmann, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, 4th edition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974 [1950]), 79.
  17. It is important to remember that Nietzsche does not use “race” in its modern supra-ethnic meaning, e.g. “the white race.” As correctly pointed out by Brinker, Nietzsche’s “race” clearly indicates an ethnic-cultural population: e.g. the Jews are “the purest of the European races.” (BGE VIII: 251) (Brinker 2002).
  18. Menahem Brinker, “Nietzsche and the Jews,” Nietzsche, Godfather of Fascism?: On the Uses and Abuses of a Philosophy, Edited by J. Golomb and R. S. Wistrich (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 1999).
  19. Christopher Middleton (ed.), Selected Letters of Friedrich Nietzsche, (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1996 [1969]).
  20. Yirmiyahu Yovel: “When Nietzsche attacks the anti-Semites or defends the Jews, he was aiming at real people—the actual community of the Jews, and anti-Semitism as a contemporary movement. By contrast when dealing with ancient priestly Judaism, Nietzsche treated it as a psycho-cultural category latent in the Protestant Christian Church of his day, which Nietzsche, as a “genealogist” of this culture, wished to expose. Contrary to many anti-Semites—and also to the trend of Jewish apologetics—Nietzsche did not project his critique of ancient Judaism into a political attitude against the Jews of his day. This break allowed him to be at the same time—and with intense passion—both an anti-anti-Semite and a critic of ancient priestly Judaism, the fountain of Christianity (Yovel 2002).”
  21. Nietzsche’s reconciliation is expressed by the fact he even allows himself to once again wax poetic about the majesty of Wagnerian music (§240), something surprising in light of the vitriolic attack in The Case of Wagner (1888) just two years later. In the following aphorism (§241), he actually calls this a “sample” of the good European’s “relapse” into “some hearty fatherlandishness,” “old loves and narrowness.”
  22. Introduction, Nietzsche, Godfather of Fascism?: On the Uses and Abuses of a Philosophy, edited by J. Golomb and R. S. Wistrich (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002).
  23. Both of these selections from The Will to Power are quoted and discussed at length by Richard Wolin in The Seduction of Unreason (55-56), in which he generally argues that Nietzsche was far more than a “godfather of Fascism” and that he anticipates the obsessions with race and power-politics of Fascist and Nazi ideology. Postmodernists who were inspired by Nietzsche are, in Wolin’s mind, guilty by association (Wolin 2004).
  24. Walter Kaufmann discusses these terms and their misreading and misuse in his translation of On the Genealogy of Morals (pp. 476-77, footnote 3).
  25. Daniel W. Conway, “Ecce Caesar: Nietzsche’s Imperial Aspirations,” Nietzsche, Godfather of Fascism?: On the Uses and Abuses of a Philosophy, edited by J. Golomb and R. S. Wistrich (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002).
  26. Count Richard Nikolaus Coudenhove-Kalergi, the founder of the “Pan-European League,” who sought to unite Europe and was inspired by Nietzsche, described Jews as a “core around which a new spiritual nobility would group itself” (Coudenhove-Kalergi 1925 [1920], 51, my translation).