Nietzsche is the most controversial philosopher of the modern era. Despite frequent criticism aimed at the romantics, he shares the same outlook, which can be summarised as aristocratic anarchism. Nietzsche attempts to combine a love of ruthlessness, war and aristocratic pride on the one hand, with a love of philosophy and the arts on the other. He also shares a fundamental similarity with Machiavelli, which is an ethic based on achieving power.
Nietzsche actively opposes the idea of equality – the majority are only a means by which the aristocratic minority achieve excellence, and have no independent right to happiness or well-being. Value is found in the work of great men (he was contemptuous of women). The terrors of the French Revolution are justified simply in making the rise of Napoleon possible. He believed that great men had a responsibility to resist the democratic tendencies of the age, in order to ensure that mediocre people do not join together to take control. Compassion is a weakness to be combated. Nietzsche admires strength of will above all else, and this is best demonstrated in the ability to endure as well as inflict pain and suffering. He claims to want more pain and suffering in the world, in order that those with strength of will can more readily rise to the top. Unlike Hegel he is not a worshipper of the State, or even a nationalist. Like the romantics he is a passionate individualist, and a believer in the ‘hero’. The misery of a whole nation is of little importance compared to the sufferings of a great hero. He wants an international ruling aristocratic ruling elite, but there is no indication that this ruling elite should be German.
Compassion vs. Contempt
Nietzsche was contemptuous of Christianity. Enlightenment thinkers had criticised the Church on the grounds that its dogma is untrue, and on the grounds that it was used by tyrants and despots to claim legitimate power, and deny the liberty and democratic rights of the people. Nietzsche had the opposite view, that socialism and Christianity were essentially the same in spirit – they both said that everyone should be treated equally, which for Nietzsche is the greatest wrong. Submission is right but not to God. Rather, people should submit to the hero elite. Christianity has had a degenerative effect on humankind, and nobody of note ever resembled the Christian ideal. Nietzsche is nauseated by repentance and redemption, believing that the strong are worn down and eventually perish through excessive self-contempt and self-immolation. Nietzsche’s perfect person is not the Christian saint, but what he calls the ‘noble man’, who is a governing aristocrat. He is capable of cruelty, and only recognises the rights of his equals. He will be ready to use violence and war to exert power, and to sacrifice ordinary people as required. According to Russell, Nietzsche condemns Christian love because he thinks it is an outcome of fear: I am afraid that others will injure me, so I pretend to love them. If I were stronger and bolder I would openly display the contempt for them that I really feel. It does not appear to have occurred to Nietzsche that a person could genuinely feel universal love for others. Neither does it occur to Nietzsche that a desire for power is often caused by fear. It is generally the case that those who feel fearful and defensive tyrannise others, whereas those who feel safe and confident share power with others.
Russell goes on to ask how far Nietzsche’s doctrines are true, and whether they are at all useful. Is the aristocratic ethic correct, whereby only the happiness of the aristocratic elite matters, or does the happiness of everyone matter equally? Nietzsche would argue that the aristocratic elite is descended from a conquering race, and are therefore a superior race. It is in everyone’s interests that they should hold all the power, as they will be more effective at wielding it. Before assuming that a democratic society is better than an aristocratic one, we should remember that almost all societies up to the modern era have been aristocratic, so it can be said to have had a long and successful history. One might say that the aristocratic ethic increases the suffering of the majority. Nietzsche would counter that trivial people suffer trivially and great people suffer greatly, and the suffering of great people is an opportunity for them to demonstrate their strength of will, which is to be admired and celebrated. Nietzsche might also say that it is impossible in practice to eliminate suffering, and any attempt to make society equal would destroy greatness and make life dull. Ultimately, Nietzsche’s beliefs are based more on emotion than reason (and where they rely on reason are self-consistent), so cannot be decisively defeated by reason. It is up to us as individuals to decide whether we think universal love should be celebrated or despised.