Was Nietzsche an aristocratic elitist?
Nietzsche is often portrayed as an aristocratic elitist, whose main concern was with the higher morals and who strongly opposed any type of herd mentality. Although this is generally true, albeit very crudely formulated (and indeed oversimplified), for some reason there is also a consideration that because Nietzsche was concerned with higher morals, he was therefore also an elitist aristocrat in his political views, disavowing any sense of egalitarian community. He is considered to be staunchly opposed to democratic principles, or to any form of politics which aims towards equality. In what follows, I will (1) go over passages where Nietzsche criticises democracy; I will then (2) present passages where Nietzsche seems to be in favour of egalitarian principles; and finally (3) I will show why we should not be drawing conclusions about Nietzsche’s political views too quickly.
Critique of democracy and egalitarianism
I have long written about Nietzsche not being reducible to aphorisms, but as per usual, in defence of these views come aphorisms where Nietzsche criticises democracy. Here are a couple:
We who have a different faith –, we who consider the democratic movement to be not merely an abased form of political organization, but rather an abased (more specifically a diminished) form of humanity, a mediocritization and depreciation of humanity in value: where do we need to reach with our hopes? (BGE 203)
Or for instance this one
What are the conditions for the decline of German culture? That ‘higher education’ is not a privilege any more – the democratization of ‘Bildung’1, the fact that it is becoming common and commonplace . . . And do not forget that military privileges practically compel people to pursue too much higher schooling, which leads to its downfall. (TI, What the German lack, 5).
What we can see from this kind of passages, if taken in isolation, is that Nietzsche indeed denounced any sense of egalitarian or democratic politics. That his ‘project’ was meant to overcome the malaise with which Germany (and indeed our contemporary culture as well) was infested with.
Additionally, we should also take into account the specificity of Nietzsche’s cultural background – it was a very common practice in 19th century Germany to admire Athens’ culture, and to stand against its principal institution of democracy. The 19th century was in no sense unique in its fear of the masses (some scholars literally referred to the masses as ‘grande peur’). Already in Aristotle, in his Politics, Book III.7, a distinction is to be made between the correct and the deviant forms of constitution, where the rule by the many is characterised as a polity in its correct form, and a democracy in its deviant form.
Some Nietzsche scholars go even further and think of Nietzsche’s anti-democratic stance to be rooted before his philosophical considerations. As Raymond Geuss notes,
Nietzsche’s utter contempt for ‘democracy’ seems to be one of the most basic features of his intellectual and psychological make-up. It certainly antedated the development of any of his characteristic philosophic views. He is said to have resigned from a student fraternity because he disapproved of its excessively democratic admissions policies. It is true that virtually no one in the nineteenth century would have thought of ‘democracy’ in the way that has become customary here in Western Europe at the end of the twentieth century, as self-evidently the only justifiable form of political organization, but even by the standards of his period Nietzsche’s political views were not enlightened. (Raymond Geuss in Introduction to BT)
But this is only so if we fall for the familiar fallacy in reading Nietzsche and focus on a particular aphorism, from which we further derive Nietzsche’s position on a particular theme – in our case, that Nietzsche abhorred democracy. But in doing so, we forget to ask some very important questions. Let us accept, for the moment, that Nietzsche was against democracy in his middle and later period (from 1880 onwards). Should we stop there, or should we ask in what sense he was opposed? What in particular was he opposed to? What type of democracy was he opposed to – Athenian, representative, or participatory democracy?
Defence of democracy and egalitarianism
These type of questions lead to a different look at Nietzsche’s views of democracy, for they suddenly enable the reader to look for passages that no longer condemn democracy or egalitarian politics. And it appears there are many such passages, though they are generally restricted to Nietzsche’s early body of work. Let us take a look, for instance, at Homer’s Contest:
the feeling that the contest is vital, if the well-being of the state is to continue, we should think about the original meaning of ostracism: as, for example, expressed by the Ephesians at the banning of Hermodor. ‘Amongst us, nobody should be the best; but if somebody is, let him be somewhere else, with other people.’ [Heraclitus, fragment 121] For why should nobody be the best? Because with that, the contest would dry up and the permanent basis of life in the Hellenic state would be endangered. Later, ostracism acquires a different relation to the contest: it is used when there is the obvious danger that one of the great contending politicians and party leaders might feel driven, in the heat of battle, to use harmful and destructive means and to conduct dangerous coups d’états.
If we are to think of Nietzsche as an aristocratic elitist, does not this passage at least problematise such a view? Does not elimination of the great from the process (be that a political process or one of gymnastics) not devalue the culture, rather than raising it? Indeed, does this not contradict the very premise of higher morals and herd mentality?