Between Life and Norms

By Barry StockerJuly 23, 2017

Between Life and Norms

Nietzsche’s Great Politics by Hugo Drochon

FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE HAS BEEN accused of many things in politics, from Nazism to incoherence. His place in political philosophy has been rejected, while many see him as an essential thinker about power, the state, and social difference. While there is a danger of evasion and finding excuses to ignore difficult parts of Nietzsche, it would nevertheless be a mistake to neglect the degree to which Nietzsche presents provocations, thought experiments, literary exercises, and explorations of possibility, as inseparable parts of his philosophical project. The most provocatively anti-egalitarian and illiberal moments in Nietzsche, therefore, should not turn into the end of the argument. Hugo Drochon’s Nietzsche’s Great Politics provides explanations for these radical conflicts and ambiguities along with a clear account of how we can make sense of Nietzsche as a political thinker. It is an approach visibly influenced by Bernard Williams and shaped by an urge to put Nietzsche in historical context:

For Nietzsche to have a politics, he therefore would need to relate his […] ethical and psychological insights […] to an intelligible account of modern politics — namely, that of the state, democracy and international politics. Moreover, he must posit a vision of how power should be exercised in his ideal society, with what limitations and to what ends. To this account we should add something like a political strategy: given his understanding of modern politics and his advocating of a future ideal, how does Nietzsche propose we move from one to the other? What is his political program?

The approach — both to Nietzsche and to more recent political thought — is carefully documented. Drochon establishes his positions in a methodical manner and while there is not much to complain about in the book, sometimes the methodical approach is done at the expense of establishing a clear argument; it would be interesting to see the author in a more boldly argumentative and less carefully descriptive mode. What he achieves here, however, is certainly enough to make his book necessary reading for anyone working on Nietzsche as a political thinker.

Drochon is skeptical of humanist-apolitical readings of Nietzsche, along with democratic readings and totalitarian-hierarchical readings. What he argues for is a “soft” version of the perfectionism John Rawls attributes to Nietzsche, where there is a hierarchy between aristocracy and lower classes, but in the form of an agonism, which is less harsh than what some of the most extreme of Nietzsche’s comments about slavery might suggest:

On Rawls’s scale, Nietzsche therefore might not appear to be as extreme as Rawls makes him out to be. That the two spheres Nietzsche posits should have different aspirations — that the spirit of the herd rules within the herd, and the “independent ones” have their own different valuation — reveals that there are balances to Nietzsche’s desire for society to be organized in such a way as to make the overmen possible.

Drochon is careful to take full account of the most provocative of Nietzsche’s ideas about Western slavery and the Indian caste system, so there is no question of toning Nietzsche down or evading his more uncomfortable thoughts. The book provides a nuanced argument that Nietzsche had a personal view of modern politics — and not just a desire to return to an earlier age — and that, in the context of the modern world, he thought a relatively mild form of hierarchy was the best way of cultivating great individuals.

What Drochon’s book also does is open up questions of the relation between universal rights and the pursuit of excellence — what might be called norms versus life. In taking up the topic of norms, Nietzsche was responding to the pressure of the Kantian legacy, which underlies the emphasis on norms, along with other influences feeding into the later thought, such as Utilitarian ethics and positivist science. The ideal of equality in Rawls, and the goal of cultural merit in Nietzsche, might be difficult to harmonize if there is any kind of recognition of excellence in culture as the basic principle. Even without greater economic goods rewarding the creator of excellence, the creator is going to have more esteem from peers than those who have not created such excellence, which may conflict with Rawlsian norms. At the very least, Rawls requires some kind of benefit to those with the least such esteem, or that is surely the consequence of applying his ideas to culture. If culture is at the center of human life, as Nietzsche requires, then the issue must arise. Of course, Nietzsche goes beyond this, suggesting that creation of excellence requires an aristocracy standing above the lower classes in rights. In this case, not just equality of rewards, but equality of rights and opportunities are undermined. Even allowing for some meritocratic opportunities to rise up through the hierarchy, there is clearly some difference in opportunities according to initial place in the hierarchy.

It might also be argued that some inherited benefits are the inevitable price for allowing individuals to pursue excellence and allowing words for such excellence. Some trade-off is necessary so that there can be a flourishing society, in which individuals with great capacities prosper. There are broadly Rawlsian ways of justifying the promotion of excellence, however. Nietzsche is not even discussing trade-offs or regrettable prices for the existence of some goods, in the manner of Rawls; it just is the case for him that a society is justified by its great individuals. It might nevertheless be possible to harmonize a concern with the flourishing of all individuals and the flourishing of great individuals.

Drochon examines and rejects a number of proposals for seeing Nietzsche’s position as one of harmonizing the flourishing of all and the flourishing of the excellent few. He argues that Emersonian perfectionism is too democratic from Nietzsche’s point of view. In related arguments, he suggests that aristocratic and elitist aspects of J. S. Mill and Tocqueville’s thought do not capture the extent of Nietzsche’s adherence to a hierarchy that can be traced back to ancient Greece. In Drochon’s account, Nietzsche sees the ancient Greek polity as losing its creativity in the time of democratic Athens with Plato’s ideal state as a final response. Nietzsche’s inversion of Platonic metaphysics is taken up as more preservation than denial of Plato’s political thought.

What Drochon overlooks in Nietzsche’s view of antiquity is the latter’s Romanism: his apparent admiration for the Roman aristocracy, strongly expressed in the On the Genealogy of Morals (Essay One). It fits with the structuring of that essay for a preference for the master over the slave. The opposition is mobile, so that the Jews, who are the most slavish people for the Romans, only adopt the slavish characteristics in adaptation to conquest. The opposition between Roman political masters and Jewish religious slaves, according to Nietzsche, is maintained up to the 18th century, in admiration for the French aristocracy as a political class. The French Revolution is then a late expression of Judea, so that revolutionary ideology is equated with slavish religiosity.

We can note ambiguities here. Both sides in this French opposition were influenced by Rousseau, generally referred to as a plebeian thinker in Nietzsche. Rousseau was in some degree the product of aristocratic patronage and the prevailing thoughts of this aristocracy, which has its own interest in natural humanity. His social and political thought follows on from earlier aristocratic and Catholic thinkers, like Louis de Rouvroy, Duke de Saint-Simon and Bishop François Fénelon. The former’s Memoirs include many anticipations of Rousseau’s notion of amour-propre, while the latter’s Adventures of Telemachus features in Émile and anticipates Rousseau’s advocacy of simple agricultural societies. The trauma of the socialization of natural humanity in Rousseau has strong echoes in Nietzsche, just to indicate one line of connection.

It would be very difficult for anyone to capture all the ways in which Nietzsche explores politics, including the proposed centrality of the Rome versus Judea tension. One complication in Nietzsche’s Romanism is that the empire he admires was premised on a decline of the aristocracy, compared with a monarchical figure surrounded by advisors from lesser social levels and looking for popular support (at least from soldiers and the city of Rome).

Drochon gives us a unified approach to Nietzsche’s political thought, and this is done scrupulously and with attention to nuance, but awareness of the trickier aspects of unifying Nietzsche’s thought is weakened. A trade-off between unity and giving a full account of all parts of Nietzsche’s work is inevitable, and Drochon’s trade-off is successful, but that is no reason to ignore the cost. If Nietzsche’s thought is aristocratic, as Drochon suggests, that does not exclude monarchy, but it does limit the kind of monarchy that can be accommodated. The more “despotic” that is, the less it has a restraining aristocratic power, the less it is suited to Nietzsche’s vision of a republic of great individuals. The same issue arises with Napoleon III, who Drochon briefly notes as an inspiration to Nietzsche. Of course, there was an element of aristocratic culture in Napoleon III’s reign, but it was a populist monarchy resting on plebiscitary legitimacy and mixed autocratic tendencies with some respect for representative institutions. Maybe the relatively liberal despotism of Napoleon III fits into Drochon’s interpretation of Nietzsche as offering a “softer” kind of hierarchy in the democratic world, but the book does not fully articulate this possibility. What Drochon does take account of is Nietzsche’s preference for a Mediterranean and European vision in Napoleon III, which has an element of Romanism in it.

There is a much bigger context for Nietzsche’s remarks on Rome, which includes Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s Addresses to the German Nation, where he contrasts national German spirit with universalist Roman-French spirit. Nietzsche does not seem to have been a great reader of German Idealism, and he may not have been very familiar with the text, but he was surely aware of that line of argument. However, even in Drochon’s account of Nietzsche’s relations with Wagner, the turn away from Germanism to Romano-Gallicism is not emphasized.

Drochon’s thesis on the convergence of Nietzschean elitism with a kind of liberal perfectionism, as defined by Rawls, is very suggestive, though there are other ways of investigating this aspect of Nietzsche. There is a history of liberalism, with roots in earlier republican thought, that precedes the kind of democratic egalitarianism that Rawls proposes. The older republican and liberal tradition from Aristotle to Benjamin Constant restricts political life to a privileged part of the community; it is aristocratic in nature, tending to assume that there is a natural aristocracy that displays perfectionist capacities. Liberty is presumed to come from constitutional arrangements in which a political aristocracy offers moderation in the use of power, compared with monarchical despots and the people as a whole.

By the early 19th century, this vision was under pressure because liberal thinkers accepted the moral equality of all humans and rejected slavery. This move was strongly constrained by racist and patriarchal assumptions, but was still incompatible with the earlier strong aristocratic principles. The older assumptions about the exclusive role of the aristocracy in politics, or at least its natural dominance, carried on in other forms. Alexis de Tocqueville’s fears of the “tyranny of the majority,” along with his belief that the judiciary and the legal profession should provide a new aristocracy, anticipate more recent ideas of a political class and of restraints on majoritarianism, even within systems where all citizens elect the law-making body.

On the face of it, Nietzsche was not taken with this way of thinking either. What distinguishes him from this kind of liberal, or conservative, elitism is a far deeper suspicion of the kind of community that exists in a world of market exchange and expanding state functions. Nietzsche criticized the effects of market exchange on character, weakening it as individuals become more concerned with gaining the approval of others, via the marketplace, for their capacities and the products of their capacities. This did not make him a socialist anymore than his objections to the expanding state made him a night-watchman state liberal. He proposed forms of community around hospitality, friendship, promise making, and artistic and scientific experimentation that are never integrated into a system.

As Drochon points out, Nietzsche favored some kind of European aristocracy as political leadership, with echoes of Roman and Hohenstaufen Empire. In some way, then, Nietzsche is an advocate of a European Union of sorts, though how far his vision might have been satisfied by the technocrats and largely Catholic politicians at the origin of the EU is another matter. In applying Nietzsche to the world of liberal democratic politics we are likely to feel some tension between the heroic ruling class he imagines and the banal realities of career politicians trying to assemble coalitions of voters. This is a process that looks more like the work of the higher man, the conformist, than the overman.

Nietzsche shows an inclination toward the isolated philosopher, or artist, as his model, and a rather eclectic taste in politicians. The corrupt and deceitful Mirabeau the Younger, a leading figure among constitutional monarchists in the early stage of the French Revolution, receives favorable mention along with Napoleon and Lazare Carnot, a Jacobin who went over to Napoleon, while keeping republican principles. The briefly reigning Kaiser Friedrich III, between Wilhelm I and Wilhelm II, who favored more liberal policies in Germany, provides another point of reference.

What should also be explored in Nietzsche’s politics is how an aristocracy can be formed, which must also accommodate the Nietzsche-type, the thinker who needs solitude, distance, and a very peripheral relation to political community. In Nietzsche’s Great Politics, Drochon provides a fine way into these questions surrounding Nietzsche’s thought about great politics. He provides a scrupulous account of Nietzsche’s political thought and a stimulating argument for a way of taking Nietzsche seriously from a political point of view.


Barry Stocker teaches philosophy within the Department of Humanities and Social Science and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Istanbul Technical University.

LARB Contributor

Barry Stocker teaches philosophy at Istanbul Technical University and is an Honorary Research Associate in the Department of Philosophy at University College London. He is the author of Derrida on Deconstruction (2006) and Kierkegaard on Politics. Philosophy of the Novel is currently in press. A book on liberty in Foucault is planned.


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