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Nietzsche as Political Thinker


Nietzsche as Political Thinker


in conversation with Maudemarie Clark

Part Two

What did Nietzsche think about democracy and equality? Philosopher Maudemarie Clark talks to four by three about Nietzsche’s political views, the possibilities for feminist readings of his work and why he saw value in democratic institutions.

In part one of our interview with Maudemarie Clark we discussed Nietzsche’s critique of Christian morality and his alternative approach to ethics. In this second half, we focused on Nietzsche's politics to find out about his views on democracy and why, in spite of his apparently misogynistic remarks, feminism has something to learn from him.


I’d like to turn now to your writing on Nietzsche’s politics and the ‘political philosophy’ that we might find in his work. One apparent target of attack in his work is modern democracy. In contrast to some scholars, you argue that Nietzsche doesn’t find democratic political institutions to be problematic in themselves, but rather certain democratic values. Could you say a bit more about what you mean by this? Why does Nietzsche have a problem with ‘democratic values’?

Democratic political institutions are committed to treating individual humans as equal for political purposes – for determining who can vote, who should go to jail, who can stand for political office, etc.  My basic claim is that is that Nietzsche has no problem with such institutions.  His problem is with the claim that people are of equal worth as persons.  There is no view that my undergraduate students bridle against more strongly than the view that some people might be better than others.  For Nietzsche, this is a disaster due to “democratic values.”  It is a disaster because it tears down the lustre that needs to surround the highest values (the things that are of value, but whose value cannot be appreciated without training and effort) if people are to strive to achieve them.  The thought that we are all equal winds up denigrating those things that cannot be achieved by everyone, thereby making it less likely that they will be achieved by anyone.  And the upshot is not that people are actually regarded as equal, but that people are regarded as superior people simply because they have more of the “common” goods, those that everyone can appreciate, above all, money.

The thought that we are all equal winds up denigrating those things that cannot be achieved by everyone, thereby making it less likely that they will be achieved by anyone.

In passing, you suggest in the same essay ('Nietzsche’s Antidemocratic Rhetoric') that, if you had space, you would argue for the stronger claim that democratic political institutions are valued by Nietzsche. Why is this?

What I had in mind is that Nietzsche is committed to science and that he makes clear that science belongs with democracy (Twilight: “Skirmishes” 2).  In Gay Science 348 he says that scholars in Europe (clearly including scientists) grow out of all kinds of classes and social conditions and that they therefore belong “by their very nature and quite involuntarily to the carriers of the democratic idea.”  So a strictly aristocratic society, in which only the aristocracy is educated, is incompatible with the advanced level of scholarship and science that Europe has (and had). To have science at that level, education cannot be restricted to those of means.  Indeed, GS 349 claims that the ancestors of most natural scientists were “poor and undistinguished people.” And once you have the level of education necessary for science, the “democratic idea” is in place and democratic political institutions will be difficult to avoid except by force.  


In your essay “Nietzsche’s Misogyny,” you focus on Nietzsche’s frequent denigrations of women. Here, you suggest that his misogyny is a reason for the lack of engagement with his work by feminist philosophers working in the Anglo-American tradition. However, in contrast to some commentators, you argue that his anti-feminist strand does not dogmatically or destructively negatively determine his philosophical views but rather, in particular in passages in his Beyond Good and Evil, exhibits an intellectual honesty. Could you say a bit more about what you mean by this, and what you take Nietzsche’s stance on feminism to be more generally?

I started out assuming that Nietzsche’s remarks about women expressed a sexism that he shared with most 19th century European males, and which was exacerbated by his ressentiment against Lou Salome (a concept he seems not to have had a name for until after she jilted him).  But because I had been able to make sense of most of his other views, I did not see his apparent sexism as undermining them, anymore than I see Kant’s apparent racism as undermining his categorical imperative.  I wrote “Nietzsche’s Misogyny” to figure out if there was anything more going on in Nietzsche’s comments on women, thinking that the best way to do that was to examine his one extended discussion of women, which occurs in chapter 7 of Beyond Good and Evil.  Actually there is also a fairly extended discussion in Gay Science, but it is relatively sympathetic to women.  I wanted to examine his clearly negative comments on women, and that is what we apparently find in BGE.  What I discovered, however, is that if one reads carefully, his actual claim do not appear to be sexist, much less misogynistic. For instance, he is not saying, as he seems to be, that women (die Frauen) do not care about truth and are only interested in making themselves look beautiful; he says this about woman (das Weib), which I take to be the social construction of the feminine.  That construction appears to be a contradiction in terms on his account, with females being both more natural (hence less spiritual) and more spiritual than males.  If so, no individual woman could embody it and Nietzsche’s criticism of the construction is not a criticism of actual women.  And when he insists on “the necessity of an eternally hostile tension” between “man and woman’” (BGE 238), I take him to be referring to the tension that necessarily exists between those who attempt to be embodiments of the social constructions of masculinity and femininity.  

And yet, even if his criticism of the construction is not a criticism of women, it seems fairly clear that he has “feelings” about woman – hostile feelings – that are being expressed here.  Even if what he actually says – appropriately interpreted - is not sexist, he seems to be satisfying his hostile feelings towards women by keeping his real meaning fairly well hidden and requiring the reader to do considerable work to arrive at that meaning.  And so he must have personal motives for believing the things about women that he seems to be saying about them.  So I take what he is doing here as an exhibition of his honesty about his own feelings and as a demonstration of his overcoming of them. As to his stance on feminism, I think if you put together what Young says in his article on the topic in the recent Oxford Handbook of Nietzsche with what I have to say here, Nietzsche seems at least pretty close to being a 19th century feminist, but one who is against arguing for feminism on moral grounds.  Of course, as I see it, he is against arguing for anything on moral grounds.  Ethical grounds is a different matter.  Does he think the world would be a better place if men and women were regarded as equal?  Not in itself, because that leaves out too much of what the world will be like otherwise.  But he thinks that there is much to be gained, for both men and women, in freeing women from the constraints of patriarchal society, as he perhaps indicated by voting, on the losing side and against his hero, Jacob Burckhardt, for the admission of women to the University of Basel in 1874.  Nietzsche’s main concern is what our ideals will be, for men and for women and for people in general.  I think he wants to encourage both males and females to invent new ideals for themselves.  And he even seems to recognize the possibility of other genders, although in a difficult-to-interpret passage sometimes considered “absurd” (GS 75).

I think he wants to encourage both males and females to invent new ideals for themselves. And he even seems to recognize the possibility of other genders.

One of Nietzsche’s recurrent pre-occupations seems to be in examining, and asking the reader to think about, the characters of certain exemplary individuals: Goethe, Napoleon, Socrates and so on. It would be natural to assume from this that Nietzsche would not think his own character irrelevant to our reading of his works. Do you think his anti-feminist remarks do raise a more basic challenge for a feminist appropriation of Nietzsche’s philosophy, or should we separate the writer from the work in this case? Does his intellectual honesty do enough to redeem his philosophy, if not himself?  

Nietzsche’s character is not irrelevant to our reading of his works, but not because it gives us any basis for evaluating the claims he makes in them.  Consider Goethe.  Goethe’s character is important to Nietzsche because he thinks it is an achievement, and that it is important for people who are able to make use of it as a model or inspiration to know that it is possible.  But that doesn’t mean it has any relevance for evaluating Goethe’s theory of colour, for instance.  So we always have to separate the writer from his work for purposes of evaluating the latter.  If we look carefully enough, we will usually find that Nietzsche has independent grounds for rejecting the doctrines of those with whom he disagrees even when he also attacks their character.  He holds the character responsible for the problematic doctrines, but doesn’t present the character as a reason to reject the doctrines.  Nietzsche’s character is relevant to our reading of his works because, like Goethe’s, it presents us with a model that some of us may be able to use for inspiration, and to present that model is one of the main functions of his work (see BGE 253).

Nietzsche’s apparently anti-feminist remarks do not raise a problem for a feminist appropriation of his work if, as I argue, they are not actually anti-feminist if read properly. They might raise such a problem, on the other hand, if feminism has its foundation in morality (as Nietzsche understands it).  

I do not think that Nietzsche’s philosophy – his actual beliefs - needs to be “redeemed.”   If my account of him is correct, what might need redeeming – or justification at least - is his willingness to say apparently nasty things about women and feminism for the sake of educating the (perhaps few) readers who could be educated this way and could recognize therein a non-moral basis for embracing as a goal the liberation of women from patriarchal structures.  If one adheres to morality, as Nietzsche understands it, this is probably not justified.  But if one cares about what will become of humanity and agrees with Nietzsche that morality is a hopeless project and that education is the most important thing, then it certainly seems justifiable.  


You’ve suggested that there are many positive things that feminists working in the Anglo-American tradition can learn from Nietzsche. What, in your view, do you think the most crucial contribution Nietzsche could make to feminist philosophy today might be?

I don’t want to speak for contemporary feminist philosophy because I cannot claim to be up to speed on it.  But in general what I think everyone interested in introducing change into the structures of human life might learn from Nietzsche is how to recognize their own blind spots, how to laugh at themselves, how to sublimate their anger into something more helpful to the cause, and how to promote change without moralizing or guilt-tripping those who have benefited from the status quo.  

Part one of this interview: Nietzsche as Immoralist


Maudemarie Clark is Professor of Philosophy at UC Riverside in California. She has written numerous works on 19th century German Philosophy, with a focus on the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche. Her books include Nietzsche on Truth and Philosophy (CUP, 1990) and Nietzsche on Ethics and Politics (OUP, 2015).