Yesterday, I began reading Nietzsche’s The Anti-Christ, a non-trivial lacuna in my Nietzsche reading to this point. I have not finished it, but I want to look at a movement that is already occurring in Nietzsche’s text—a movement I do not fully understand yet. This post is my attempt to go some way toward making sense of it. Specifically, I want to understand the relation between the private and the social in The Anti-Christ. I am using the Penguin Classics edition of Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ, which contains the Hollingdale translation of both works.
I want to start, not with Nietzsche, but with a fascinating suggestion by Gilles Deleuze, in his essay “Literature and Life” (found in Essays Critical and Clinical). He writes:
The ultimate aim of literature is to set free, in the delirium, this creation of a health or this invention of a people, that is, a possibility of life. To write for this people who are missing… (4)
The reason I start here is that I think, on this point, Deleuze is not all that far from Nietzsche’s own self-understanding of his project. Nietzsche’s 1878 book, Human, All Too Human is subtitled, “A Book for Free Spirits”. When the book was reprinted in 1886, Nietzsche wrote a new preface discussing this subtitle. A lengthy quote from this preface (from the Faber translation, University of Nebraska Press):
Whoever guesses something of the consequences of any deep suspicion, something of the chills and fears stemming from isolation, to which every man burdened with an unconditional difference of viewpoint is condemned, this person will understand […] why, when I could not find what I needed, I had to gain it by force artificially, to counterfeit it, or to create it poetically. (And what have poets ever done otherwise? And why else do we have all the art in the world?) What I always needed most to cure and restore myself, however, was the belief that I was not the only one to be thus, to see thus—I needed the enchanting intuition of kinship and equality in the eye and in desire, repose in a trusted friendship… (§1)
Thus I invented, when I needed them, the “free spirits” too, to whom this heavyhearted-stouthearted book with the title “Human, All Too Human” is dedicated. There are no such “free spirits,” were none—but, as I said, I needed their company at the time, to be of good cheer in the midst of bad things (illness, isolation, foreignness, sloth, inactivity); as brave fellows and specters to chat and laugh with, when one feels like chatting and laughing, and whom one sends to hell when they get boring—as reparation for lacking friends. That there could someday be such free spirits, that our Europe will have such lively, daring fellows among its sons of tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, real and palpable and not merely, as in my case, phantoms and a hermit’s shadow play: I am the last person to want to doubt that. I already see them coming, slowly, slowly; and perhaps I am doing something to hasten their coming when I describe before the fact that fateful conditions that I see giving rise to them, the paths on which I see them coming? (§2)
Here we see Nietzsche explicitly admit that the “free spirits” to whom his book was addressed were non-existent, were his own creation. They are a people who did not yet exist, though Nietzsche saw them coming. (Nietzsche is careful to cast their coming as inevitable, and to minimize his role as, at best, a hastening of their coming, but we might wonder whether or not this is a false modesty. And yes, Nietzsche was capable of modesty when he needed it.) This may also help us understand his claim that he was born posthumously (from the foreword to The Anti-Christ: “Some are born posthumously”)—Nietzsche will not be born until after he dies, for his people will not be born until then, the free spirits that he invented.
The foreword to The Anti-Christ begins, “This book belongs to the very few. Perhaps none of them is even living yet.” In the first section of the book proper, Nietzsche begins, “Let us look one another in the face. We are Hyperboreans.” A helpful note to my edition states that the Hyperboreans were, in Greek mythology, “a race dwelling beyond the north wind (Boreas) in a country of warmth and plenty.” In these two quotes, I think Nietzsche is making it clear that he is addressing his book to a specific people, a people opposed to “modern man,” the man who sighs, “I know not which way to turn; I am everything that knows not which way to turn” (§1). It is an interpretive question I am not qualified to answer whether or not the Hyperboreans of The Anti-Christ are the same as the “free spirits” of Human, All Too Human. What I can say with some confidence is that Nietzsche is here again in the business of inventing the people to whom his book is addressed.
The book takes as a negative task the condemnation of Christianity: this task is emphasized when, in the book’s final section, Nietzsche writes, “– With that I have done and pronounce my judgment. I condemn Christianity, I bring against the Christian Church the most terrible charge any prosecutor has ever uttered” (§62). But, it seems to me, this negative task is not the sole task of the book, and possibly not even the main task—a possibility we should take very seriously given Nietzsche’s continual stressing of affirmation over negation, and of the value of looking away from what is ugly. If Nietzsche in this work does not look away, there must be some positive task, and I take that positive task to be the creation of his Hyperborean people.
Throughout the portion of the book I have read, Nietzsche consistently highlights that he is critiquing Christianity from a particular perspective—in this sense, the very act of critique reveals not just the flaws of Christianity, but what the critical perspective takes to be virtuous. The negative and positive tasks are thus inseparable, and so the final act of pronouncing judgment is equally a positive affirmation of the perspective from which the judgment comes. In condemning Christianity, Nietzsche sets himself and his Hyperboreans positive tasks. It is these that I wish to understand, though here I may achieve only the asking of a few pertinent questions.
I will proceed by looking first at what speaks to privacy in the first 18 sections of the book (what I have thus far read), and then I will look to what seems inherently social. Following that, I shall try to make some sense of where things stand.
In §4, Nietzsche suggests that a “higher type of man”, a type that stands opposed to collective humanity, has at times been realized by particular individuals, but only by chance, as a “lucky hit.” Nietzsche then characterizes the depravity/décadence of an individual as the loss of instinct, as the preference of what is harmful to it (§6). In §11, against Kant as a moralist, Nietzsche writes,
A virtue has to be our invention, our most personal defence and necessity: in any other sense it is merely a danger. […] The profoundest laws of preservation and growth demand the reverse of this [= “impersonal and universal” duty & virtue]: that each one of us should devise his own virtue, his own categorical imperative. […] What destroys more quickly than to work, to think, to feel without inner necessity, without a deep personal choice, without joy? as an automaton of ‘duty’? It is virtually a recipe for décadence, even for idiocy…
Here, then, is the personal aspect of Nietzsche’s view: individual higher men are to be produced; décadent individuals have lost their instinct for life; individuals must create their own virtues. These are the classic individualist themes in Nietzsche. But there is a more social side to the work as well, which is first seen in his very need to address it to a group of kindred spirits.
Thus Nietzsche speaks of the “formula of our happiness” (§1), of the “first principle of our philanthropy” (§2), and he characterizes a collective task: “To be physician here, to be inexorable here, to wield the knife here – that pertains to us, that is our kind of philanthropy, with that are we philosophers, we Hyperboreans!” (§7). Theologians are characterized as “our antithesis” (§8). Intermixed with what I (quite selectively) quoted from §11 is the following: “A people perishes if it mistakes its own duty for the concept of duty in general.” The whole of §14 is dedicated to illustrating the ways in which “we have learned better” what are the criteria for reality and unreality.
Thus we have, on the one hand what is personal and individual, and on the other hand what is institutional and social. How do these relate? Specifically, what is the relation between a people and a person: what is their relation in terms of values especially? In §3, Nietzsche sets out his primary problem:
The problem I raise here is not what ought to succeed mankind in the sequence of species (– the human being is a conclusion –): but what type of human being one ought to breed, ought to will, as more valuable, more worthy of life, more certain of the future.
This more valuable type has existed often enough already: but as a lucky accident, as an exception, never as willed. He has rather been the most feared, he has hitherto been virtually the thing to be feared – and out of fear the reverse type has been willed, bred, achieved: the domestic animal, the herd animal, the sick animal man – the Christian…
This goes some way to illuminating the relationship. Let me start by looking at what Nietzsche wants to take down: Christianity. As I read this passage, Nietzsche is suggesting that Christianity as an institution has served to breed Christians as individuals—sick individuals. Christianity as an institution is thus inimical to the cultivation of higher types of individuals—though of course Nietzsche recognized that the higher type had been achieved at times within Christian culture, despite having never been willed.
This suggests some clarification of the relationship between the Hyperboreans and the higher type. The Hyperboreans, as physicians, have the task of setting up social institutions that will breed the higher type. They are to create a context in which the higher type will be willed rather than feared. Nietzsche’s view is thus not solely for individuals: he really does wish to see the arising of a particular people.
But a tension still remains. Nietzsche seems to slide back and forth between peoples and persons. Thus, in §11, he suggests that each individual must have find his own categorical imperative, but then speaks of a people mistaking its particular duty for duty-in-itself. He moves from virtue as something fundamentally individual (think of the private virtue of Zarathustra) to something that characterizes a people. He extends this thought in §16, where he discusses the creation of Gods: “A people which still believes in itself still also has its own God.” The Jews have their God, for which they are the chosen people; Christians by contrast have a cosmopolitan God—a degeneration of the Israelites’ God. Gods are something social; they reflect the belief of a culture in itself—or the loss of that belief in a “perishing” people.
Another complication ensues when we look at §13, where Nietzsche writes:
Let us not undervalue this: we ourselves, we free spirits, are already a ‘revaluation of all values’, an incarnate declaration of war and victory over all ancient conceptions of ‘true’ and ‘untrue’. […] We have had the whole pathos of mankind against us – its conception of what truth ought to be; every ‘thou shalt’ has hitherto been directed against us…. Our objectives, our practices, our quiet, cautious, mistrustful manner – all this appeared utterly unworthy and contemptible to mankind.
In my prior understanding of Nietzsche—in keeping with what I quoted earlier about each individual having his own categorical imperative—I understood the revaluation of all values as an individual task. Here, however, Nietzsche sees it as a social one, one incarnated in all Hyperboreans.
What am I to take away from this? On the one hand, Nietzsche is an individualistic philosopher, but there seems to be a social element to his thought that I did not previously appreciate. Is this to be understood as the need to create a culture with institutions that promote the development of the higher type, that will the higher type? Is it to be seen as recognition that the highest creative movements that Nietzsche recognizes can be instantiated at the level of peoples and not just in individuals? Are Nietzsche’s Hyperboreans themselves individuals of the higher type, or mere breeders of the higher type? How does the duty of a people relate to the duty of an individual? If Gods are creations of peoples, then they reflect public, shared virtues—how do public and shared virtues interact with private virtues? What is the implication of the Hyperboreans being a creation of Nietzsche the individual have for all of this?
I do not know the answers to these questions—I hope that when I have completed the book I shall have gained some insight. I would, of course, appreciate any suggestions from readers familiar with Nietzsche’s thought.