(This was written in 1973)
My thoughts on the Assyrian empire contradict the accepted interpretation of certain features of Near Eastern history in the first millennium BC.
The origins of civilisation are well known to have been in Sumer, and there is a continuity in the culture that developed directly out of this, through the Akkadians, the Babylonians the Hittites, the Assyrians, the Chaldeans and finally the Persians.
The Assyrians came at the end of the bronze age, and the beginning of the iron age, and eventually, after the break up of the Hittite Empire, they established a military despotism of unprecedented ferocity which lasted for about 150 years and resulted in economic ruination. Few have a good word to say for the Assyrians. After them came the Achaemenid Persian empire, which although it was denounced by the Greeks as a rigid oriental tyranny, is widely seen as a benevolent government, excellent by previous standards. Achaemenid art is hailed as the flower of the art of the whole near eastern civilisation that began with Sumer. It is recognised that Assyrian art, especially in its bas-reliefs, made immense strides, that it is greatly superior, for example to the art of the Hittites. But it is agreed that there is a harshness and cruelty in it, which the superior Persian artist was able to overcome. Persian civilisation is seen as a grand achievement, the Assyrian empire as an odious tyranny, which was deservedly forgotten shortly after it fell.
My own experience led me to feel uncomfortable with this view. It began with various impressions I felt at Persepolis when I visited in 1970. Much of my knowledge of Persian culture had come from Zaehner’s Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism which I had read about a year previously. I could not fail to admire the achievement of Persepolis. Of course the palace is in ruins, but a lot remains. My overall impression was to sympathise with Alexander who burned the whole thing down in a drunken riot. There is a suffocating atmosphere about the sculpture, imaginatively reconstructed for all its admirable symmetry and organisation. Actually there seems too much organisation about it. I thought about the Zoroastrian dualism which it seemed to express. The art that sprang to mind as an analogy was socialist realism. Persian civilisation seemed insofar as it was a synthesis of what went before, like the synthesis of our civilisation that communism purports to be. Some older material, such as an isolated Elamite carving, had far more appeal. It may have been cruder, but to me it was far more attractive and vital. Alexander’s destruction of Persepolis was a symbolic act, indicating that the far more vital Hellenic civilisation, with its own art forms was destined to supplant this old ossified Persian culture. All these, I emphasise, were merely impressions.
My reaction to the Assyrian wall carvings in the British Museum were different. Here, at first, I was repelled by what seemed to be a monstrous militarism and ferocity. All was to do with war and domination, apart from the occasional hunt, which was cruelty applied to animals rather than humans. It all seemed to be merely crude propaganda on behalf of the king, just one big bloody triumph. That I suspect is a common reaction. However, in this, I suspect lies the key to Assyria’s uniqueness and originality.
Previous to Assyria was the bronze age, and we may take the Hittites as an example. Their culture was like a continuous accretion from Sumerian times, the interest in the old language was kept up as were many mythological and literary themes. Also new ones were developed. There was a patient attitude; civilisation had been growing and developing for a very long time and there was a sense of continuity with the past. Progress was steady, new things were added and digested, religion was traditional, laws were relatively humane and were becoming more so.
The Assyrians came on the scene like revolutionaries. They it was who first challenged the ancient assumptions about what civilisation was all about, and they have not received the credit for it. Once we understand their art, and its originality, I think we can appreciate it for the very fine and original achievement it was.
I do not underplay the many repellent features of Assyrian culture, the brutal punishments, the cruel mutilations, nor do I suggest the ancient world was not well rid of them. However, in the realm of art and culture, and yes of ideas, they were important innovators and contributed more to the advance of civilisation than is recognised.
The theme of domination and conquest is of course pervasive in ancient art, well before the Assyrians; the point is that the Assyrians take it to a new intensity. They are not merely being traditional, they are making a statement about what life is like, expressing their most deeply held convictions. Their aim is not to glorify God, or the king as a god, on whom depends the well being of the people. The impression given is that what is being said is that the core of life is about conquest and domination. Whatever we think of it, this is an original thought. The Assyrians were an emotionally intense people they raise this emotion, this factor in life to such a pitch it becomes supreme. We might even say that theirs is the basic thesis of the Marquis de Sade. Life is to be enjoyed at the expense of all the suffering of others. The good is conquest and domination. This is a philosophical, and ethical thought. It was contemporaneous with Zoroaster, with the Hebrew prophets, and the earliest Greek poets, and should be seen as part of the same movement, the questioning of accepted values and the gradual emancipation of the mind from traditional myths.
So the Assyrians stand for a new level of thinking, reflection about the values that underlie society, they attempt a new rational foundation. “All good in life is at the expense of the weak”. “the basic principle of society is power”. To a great extent this was true, the societies of the ancient world were based on slavery, on the wretchedness of large numbers of people. Unfortunately it is a self fulfilling doctrine, rulers who believe it become crueller than they otherwise might have been. A comparable honesty may be found among the Greeks, particularly in Homer; where it is not found is among the Persians. What we find among the Persians… (the rest of the MS is lost.)
The Greeks were keen business-men. The Romans built a vast empire of tremendous power and wealth. but if they had done no more than that they would be as dead as the Assyrians. (Gilbert Highet)
For all their cruelty, no.
The Assyrians are not dead for me.
Nimrud, Nineveh fallen,
The east the imperium
The power and the lust and the
Joy of dominion
The rapture of life
And the magical tree.
Poor but free
Thee I resurrect
Assyria the fallen
Direct through millennia
Thou speakest to me.
The willow in the wind stands tall
I sit beneath and drink my beer
While down below the river wall
The Thames, is at low tide.
Judge Jeffreys used to drink in here
His portrait is inside
The sun shines as it ever shone
And sitting near to me
An old man tells a younger one
About his family tree.
We need illusions to deploy
For truth brings` no security
The tragic heroines of Troy
Were not consoled for loss
And walking down the pelican stairs,
Passing the green moss
And slippery slime
I think this time
On the wisdom of immaturity.
Two men are digging in the mire
Not for work but pleasure
Some yards apart each stands alone.
As they reveal when I enquire,
One wants to find a pretty stone,
The other’s seeking treasure.
And nearby Tim
Who was born in Wales
When I visited him
On a later day
Said he’s found many old ships nails
And is planning to sell them on ebay.
Yesterday a British mp got murdered. Her name was Jo Cox. Some years ago I wrote a story about a British mp being murdered. I gave him the name David Cox.
Contemptuous of the self congratulation and cultural triumphalism that followed Prussia’s victory in the Franco Prussian war, Nietzsche in his Thoughts out of Season was far from simply preferring French culture to German. The cultural philistine is present in every era, or at least every democratically minded one. Baudelaire had been vitriolic about the coarseness of his own epoch. In this book Nietzsche’s remedy for the faults in the zeitgeist are Schopenhauer’s philosophy and Wagner’s music. Untimely men resist received wisdom. In modern circumstances any higher culture must be unseasonable in this sense. In the chapter on Strauss, Nietzsche hones in on the suggestion that culture philistinism can be identified with weakness, a seminal idea that lent itself to further development. Commonly the philistine was thought of as a being of rude health and strength, compared to the delicate and sickly artistic personality, here the tragic soul.
If only these weak were not in possession of the power!- he writes.
Did Nietzsche’s eventual rejection of the Schopenhauerian aesthetic really come from greater understanding? How much did he retain of his earlier views in his mature philosophy of beauty and art? In his later work Nietzsche describes a chain of misunderstandings. Kant misunderstood the aesthetic experience, Schopenhauer misunderstood Kant’s teaching, and Wagner misunderstood Schopenhauer’s. Nietzsche came to see that he himself had strictly speaking misrepresented both Schopenhauer and Wagner. When talking of both these untimely figures he had really been talking about himself. I shall argue his mature view was the product of growing older, but not inevitably wiser, and that all these so called misunderstandings were in their own way legitimate. Nietzsche’s later perspective was just more appropriate to a different period of life.
To develop these points:-
Nietzsche considered Kant misunderstood aesthetic experience. As he writes in The Genealogy of Morals:-.
“That is beautiful,” says Kant, “which pleases without interesting.” Without interesting!
under the magic of beauty men can look at even naked female statues “without interest,”
Kenneth Clark in his book The Nude also takes issue with this received idea.
“If the nude,” says Professor Alexander, “is so treated that it raises in the spectator ideas or desires appropriate to the material subject, it is false art, and bad morals.” This high-minded theory is contrary to experience. In the mixture of memories and sensations aroused by Rubens’ Andromeda or Renoir’s Bather are many that are “appropriate to the material subject.” And since these words of a famous philosopher are often quoted, it is necessary to labour the obvious and say that no nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling, even though it be only the faintest shadow — and if it does not do so, it is bad art and false morals.”
Professor Alexander appears to have taken Kant’s thought and made it ridiculous. However there is a distinction to be made, however inadequately expressed, or there would be no difference between art and pornography, or ballet and striptease.
Schopenhauer reinterpreted Kant:-
Schopenhauer has made use of the Kantian treatment of the aesthetic problem—though he certainly did not regard it with the Kantian eyes…. Schopenhauer, who stood in much closer neighbourhood to the arts than did Kant, and yet never escaped outside the pale of the Kantian definition; … he interprets the expression, “without interest,” in the most personal fashion, out of an experience which must in his case have been part and parcel of his regular routine. On few subjects does Schopenhauer speak with such certainty as on the working of aesthetic contemplation: he says of it that it simply counteracts sexual interest, like lupulin and camphor; he never gets tired of glorifying this escape from the “Life-will” as the great advantage and utility of the aesthetic state.
Genealogy of Morals essay II chapter 6
Then Wagner misunderstood, or at least altered, Schopenhauer, whose philosophy he claimed to follow:-
it will remain true that nothing is more counter to Schopenhauer’s spirit than the essentially Wagnerian element in Wagner’s heroes: I mean the innocence of the supremest selfishness, the belief in strong passion as the good in itself, in a word, the Siegfried trait in the countenances of his heroes. – Joyful Wisdom §99
In Tristan und Isolde Wagner identifies the denial of the will to live with sexual release. That is definitely not Schopenhauer, but an adaptation for Wagner’s own aesthetic purpose. Tristan was a work Nietzsche continued to admire.
In The Ring a Schopenhauerian framework was added to an originally Hegelian conception. As Nietzsche tells us:-
Brunhilde was initially supposed to take her farewell with a song in honour of free love
Sexualising and modifying him, Wagner was hardly a faithful disciple of Schopenhauer.
Then Nietzsche had misrepresented them both. In Ecce Homo he says that when he wrote the Untimely Meditations, he had treated Wagner and Schopenhauer as Plato treated Socrates, as a cipher for himself. But what he meant by untimeliess still stood. He also says that when he wrote the Birth of Tragedy he was himself an untimely man, by which he did not mean a prophetic one. The book was conceived when a battle was raging and he was working as a medical orderly outside the walls of Metz. Rather than ahead of its time it was actually well behind it. That is why he says it smells offensively Hegelian. Nevertheless his unfashionable opinions served to challenge the clichés of the age.
At the beginning of Schopenhauer as Educator he wrote:-
Certainly there may be other means of finding oneself, of coming to oneself out of the bewilderment in which one usually wanders as in a dark cloud, but I know of none better than to think on one’s
true educators and cultivators. And so today I shall remember one of the teachers and taskmasters of whom I can boast, Arthur Schopenhauer- and later on I shall recall others.
Schopenhauer and Wagner, even Nietzsche himself, had ideas we may see as misrepresentation. They all modify the views of their predecessors to express visions and ideas of their own, to describe the art and the experience with which they are involved. These interpretations were all meaningful. Even Kant had a point. All these intellectual ideas are associated with different experiences of art, either as creators or consumers. They are ways of clarifying feeling.
In his most conventionally rationalist work Human all too Human Nietzsche rejects Schopenhauer, treating him as an obscurantist force:-
“But even in the present century Schopenhauer’s metaphysic shows that the scientific spirit is not yet powerful enough: for the whole mediaeval Christian world-standpoint once again, notwithstanding the slowly wrought destruction of all Christian dogma, celebrated a resurrection in Schopenhauer’s doctrine….
Yet asserts his value for a scientific outlook:-
I believe that without Schopenhauer’s aid it would be no easy matter for anyone now to do justice to Christianity and its Asiatic relatives—a thing impossible as regards the Christianity that still survives. After according this great triumph to justice, after we have corrected in so essential a respect the historical point of view which the age of learning brought with it, we may begin to bear still farther onward the banner of enlightenment—a banner bearing the three names: Petrarch, Erasmus, Voltaire. We have taken a forward step out of reaction.” §26
Rejecting Schopenhauer left a gap. Lange’s History of Materialism was Nietzsche’s much studied source for the history of philosophy. We don’t need to think of Nietzsche as committed to neo-Kantianism, but giving up Schopenhauer and unconvinced by Hegel’s logic, Kant might easily seem as far as philosophy had got, and he followed Lange’s take on it. Much of Nietzsche’s material about art as illusion is Lange’s Kant rather than an original Nietzschean insight into the nature of truth. Some look for Nietzsche’s greatest originality in such speculations, as if something very difficult and interesting is being said about art and truth, whereas put in context it is really rather ordinary. The real originality elsewhere.
A later, more interesting, and possibly his final view of the role of art was expressed in some of the notes posthumously collected in the Will to Power. In §764 he writes:-
Our religion, morality, and philosophy are decadent human institutions.
The counter-agent: Art.
Wagner had now become for him the symbol of what art was trying to get away from. Nietzsche’s considered objection to Wagner is that he is not untimely, that he flatters the age, becomes a mere entertainer, considering no problem other than those that preoccupy “the little decadents of Paris”. We note that by little decadents he is thinking of frivolous Madam Bovary types, not Baudelaire. Madame Bovary had been corrupted by cheap novels.
To the mature Nietzsche, Wagner was the times, his own antipodes. The remedy was true art.
Instead of the appreciation of art, the focus of his later aesthetics is on its creation. This approach raises the question of why the producer’s viewpoint should be considered better than the consumer’s. Is not consumption the ultimate purpose of production?
Nietzsche says Schopenhauer misunderstood Kant, but he certainly didn’t think Kant got the aesthetic experience right. The suggestion of Stendhal’s that he opposes to Kant, in GM seems scarcely adequate. To take beauty as “the promise of happiness” could never have spoken to someone in Schopenhauer’s condition, nor is it obviously compatible with the description of hope as the worst of all evils in Human all too Human.
In understanding the development of Nietzsche’s aesthetics the Stendhal quote is not helpful, except as illustrating a flat contradiction of Kant by a practising artist. Schopenhauer’s aesthetic, on the other hand, was something in which the young Nietzsche was deeply involved, which once seemed to him to solved the riddle of existence, even if he was already beginning to grow out of it by the time he published the Birth of Tragedy.
Schopenhauer is a philosopher for young men, speaking to a time of life when sexual desire can be so intense as to be painful. The experience of art is of release from that torment in contemplation. It is not freedom from all desire but only from that “torture”. Thus it succeeds in satisfying. It is to be presumed Nietzsche himself once felt something like that. In later life one will probably experience art differently. Schopenhauer was congenitally obstinate, and stuck with his ideas throughout his life.
Life brings you a lot of disorderly experience, of which in youth you had no notion. Focus shifts, new tensions are discovered. Received wisdom counsels submission to a mass of alien will. Art provides a counter movement. The solution is still the untimely man, but not Schopenhauer, far less Wagner.
Nietzsche’s later view of art was not a sea change, but neither is there the continuity suggested in Ecce Homo. He has no comprehensive theory to replace Schopenhauerian metaphysics, but he is more conscious of the specific resistances that demand his attention. Philistines are weaklings who don’t even try to resist the pressures the strong will work to overcome. The creative artist is our guide, shaping an alternative vision to the frustrating order in which we are expected to acquiesce. We should not presume to characterise in advance the nature or quality of his achievement.
Though pointing out how Wagner’s sexualisation of Schopenhauer’s Buddhistic vision takes its dishonesty even further, Nietzsche himself can hardly claim, nor did he, to have been a faithful follower of Schopenhauer’s asceticism.
Even more than The World as Will and Idea, The Birth of Tragedy is a young man’s book. It is a happy, cheerful read, no more pessimistic than Wagner himself. Even today, it is understood or misunderstood by young people who may relate it to the Dionysian enthusiasm of a rock festival. This is something one may usually grow out of. In any Dionysian feeling of oneness there is inevitably a measure of illusion. The sense that each understand each other does not bear the test of experience. Rock music lends itself to a musical cult like Wagnerism, as indeed did jazz. The loss of individuality, submergence in mass feeling can be of interest of philosophers.
Later came more penetrating thoughts about what was wrong with the culture around him, or more generally with western civilisation altogether. Finding the solutions required more work.
What was in Nietzsche’s mind when he wrote about the future of Europe? He has faced accusations of irresponsibility, and with making some bad things happen. People with strong political convictions, even when they absolve him of direct responsibility for that, often blame him for his detachment. A philosopher, it is claimed, ought to be politically involved, taking the right side in class and other conflicts. This supposedly conflicts with what Nietzsche expects of his readers when he says:-
One must be accustomed to living on mountains – to seeing the wretched ephemeral chatter of politics and national egoism beneath one. (Antichrist)
Effectively the accusation is of fiddling while Rome burns.
Nietzsche was neither committed to permanent detachment nor to its opposite. He was open to shifts of perspective, when he might will different things. We could point out a few of these.
Extrapolating from contemporary trends, Nietzsche had some thoughts about what was likely to happen to western society over the next few decades. Given a rough sketch of a likely future we can identify at least three or four different perspectives on it.
For perspective one, he could place himself in the future as pure spectator, observing what happens and taking it in, trying to understand, even enjoy it, like a tourist visiting a foreign land.
On perspective two he is someone who wishes to use what possibilities it offers for his own creative work. This was not escapism or self indulgence. The participation in and creation of a higher culture was his remedy for decadence.
On perspective three he may act as a concerned citizen and apply his insight to discovering a few reforms that might be feasible. For example he wrote about What the Germans lack in Twilight of the Idols. He also attacks movements like political antisemitism. Nevertheless, much imperfection is to be taken as given. Nietzsche was not concerned to cancel out that.
A fourth perspective would involve a picture of what he might take to be an ideal society or utopia. For an amusing diversion one might wonder how one might use the power of some absolute despot like a Chinese Emperor. Of course Nietzsche would have his own preferences, but so would anyone else. He was not demanding of others the sort of subjection to his personal vision of which he accused Wagner.
Nietzsche accepted many liberal ideas, he was on the whole comfortable with the freedom and humanity of advanced western societies. We need not interpret him as a revolutionary rethinking the whole basis of society. Some people find it a disturbing thought that anything should be allowed to proceed without philosophical justification.
In a world you cannot control you imagine what creative opportunities might be open to you. Nietzsche had his own projects. Transport him a few years into the Europe that actually came about, no further than the Weimar republic in twentieth century Germany. Imagine his being placed in 1920s Berlin, without preconceptions, taking it for what it was, contemplating and exploring what possibilities it offered. Compare what he wanted with what happened. Many of his own ideas were becoming influential by then. Perhaps he would have tried to set up his own movement. Naturally he would have wanted success for his own ideas. That would not necessarily have amounted to a vision of the future.
By then Nietzsche’s reputation had well taken off. Rather than just battling for recognition he could concern himself with creativity and focus on the opportunities of that.
Kaufmann quotes expressionist poet Gottfried Benn, writing in 1950:-
Virtually everything my generation discussed, tried to think through -one might say, suffered; one might also say, spun out -had long been expressed and exhausted by Nietzsche, who had found definitive formulations; the rest was exegesis.
This does not mean Nietzsche had become in tune with the times or vice versa. His followers were still dissidents, trying to resist the main tendencies of the age. Nor was there as such any coherent Nietzschean movement.
Contrast this forward vision with looking back a few centuries to dream about the magnificent and unstable culture of renaissance Italy. You might enjoy the imagined future, as you enjoy the past, given you can see inspiring possibilities in it. Unlike looking ahead, looking back is necessarily on a world on which you can have no influence.
As Nietzsche wrote of this era:- It was the Golden Age of the last thousand years, in spite of all its blemishes and vices. – Human all too Human §237
There is nothing better than what is good– and good is having some ability and using that to create, Tuchtigkeit or virtu in the Italian Renaissance sense.- Will to Power §75
Nietzsche dwelt much on this period. If we are to criticise him for irresponsibility about the future we might say as much for his feeling about the past, for admiring the Italian renaissance. Bertrand Russell said Nietzsche’s doctrine might be stated “more simply and honestly” in one sentence: “I wish I had lived in the Athens of Pericles or the Florence of the Medici.” The suggestion is that he was a hopeless dreamer. Untimeliness is taken to mean irrelevance. But he is involved, he contributes and is creative. His aesthetic response and his creativity come out of his resistance to what he experiences as wrong with the present. This is all of course only his own point of view. Deference to the feelings of others was far from his strongest value. It is compassion or pity that tie you to the conventional values, to the forces he criticises, like coercive morality. Pity can be a trap.
A recent book, Tobias Churton’s The Beast in Berlin, describes the two years English Nietzschean Aleister Crowley spent in Berlin, in 1930-32. Crowley met creative people of whose inspiration he could approve, communists on whom he would inform, Nazis who threatened and eventually ended his sojourn. Unlike with his experience of New York, here Crowley felt creative possibilities. Instead of frustration at the pain and oppression of decadence, there were exciting opportunities. No longer did everything seem misdirected or wrong.
Such responses to Germany can illuminate Nietzsche’s hopes for Europe. You will feel some detachment if somewhere is not your own country. Taking a state of affairs as given, you may enjoy it for and despite all the forces at play. In Berlin Jews confronted antisemites, communists fought nationalists. People struggled to establish and further their own ideas, artistic, scientific, social. We see how this dynamic might be enjoyed.
Crowley spent his time there trying to promote his ideas and setting up an exhibition as an expressionist painter. Weimar Germany was a very creative mixed culture, gentile and Jewish. He could take this for what it was, without militancy, or imagining how it could be different. Not only was it unstable but we know it was doomed. Yet within it there were great cultural opportunities. Crowley won some surprising sympathisers, like the psychologist Alfred Adler. He corresponded with Einstein. There was instability and threat, much as there were in renaissance Italy. He could observe how people try to realise very different values. Nationalist and communists struggled for supremacy. He was free to take it in, accept it or fight it.
Our institutions may all be decadent but that does not mean that no value can be realised until that is put right. What Nietzsche wanted for Europe, the thriving culture he would have wanted to see required a struggle of ideas. He envisaged hard fought battles in the near future. Detached as much as he wished to be, he might see himself as taking or not taking sides. The values he would want to realise amid this drew inspiration from times in the past, like imperial Rome or renaissance Italy.
Nietzsche’s untimely man has a clear political dimension. What he wanted for European society, was a higher culture, alongside whatever everyday one was going to emerge. The opposing force to all the discontents with the society and culture around him, he says, is art.
In the third and fourth untimely ones two images of the hardest self love, self discipline are put up against all this, as pointers to a higher concept of culture, to restore the concept culture- untimely types par excellence, full of sovereign contempt for everything around them that was called “Empire”, “culture” “Christianity” Bismarck” “success”- Schopenhauer and Wagner or in one word Nietzsche. (Ecce Homo)
Nietzschean perspectives on his own society ranged from the observer and the tourist, through the creative artist, to someone trying to put the whole society right. He was not obsessed with the last one. Nevertheless it would be the ultimate political objective. It is hoped it will take effect one day, perhaps not in his lifetime, some time in the distant future.
Independent values, involving “the hardest self love” and “self discipline”, alien to the principles which currently infect all our institutions, come to form antibodies. From a will to defy those principles we get the possibility of higher culture
Art offers cure but not for everything. Mediocrity has its place, obviously. On one level the unsatisfactory is inevitable. Most people are mediocre, almost be definition. Nietzsche’s solution of higher culture offers an inspiration for any time, including, in his own phrase, “the day after tomorrow”, which is now.
Nietzsche diagnosed some specific evils, far from all of those his contemporaries faced. Though he was not a politician, the evils he diagnoses have significant political implications. His is not an ivory tower aestheticism. One way of reading his criticism of Wagner is as an attack on proto fascism, and as the key to a rationalistic and individualistic understanding of society and culture. The Nazi philosopher Alfred Bauemler put the same material to opposite ends. Here is what he had to say:-
At the Bayreuth festival in the summer of 1876, the Germany of Bismarck came for the first time into view on the field of culture, The Kaiser of the new Reich was present, and people believed they were assisting at an event that was to be the starting-point of a wonderful national future. Actually it was the reflection of a present that bore within it the germ of decay. The reality was a State that that had been slowly hollowed out by trade and industry, a commercial condition that choked every virile will to guidance and mastery. Civic security was the watchword, and a culture calling itself learned gave its blessing to this security.
The paralysed sought safety in the intoxication of art and a philosophy of sublime flight from the world. ‘World-redeeming love’ as against ‘power’- that was the philosophy of The Nibelung’s Ring. For Nietzsche to have been conscious of the falsehood of this state of affairs and of this art., and for him to have given immediate lively expression to this perception, marks him out as the exemplary man of the epoch- nay, as a political figure.
We see the German youth marching under the sign of the swastika, our minds go back to Nietzsche’s Thoughts out of Season, in which this youth was invoked for the first time. And when we call out to this youth ‘Heil Hitler’ we greet at the same time, with the same cry Friedrich Nietzsche.
This should not pass as an acceptable interpretation of Nietzsche, nor should it be put on the same level as the other misrepresentations and misinterpretations of philosophers, or allowed as legitimate. It is not just bad because Nazism was bad. It would rob Nietzsche of all his subtlety and on that basis we can dismiss it. The same objection would apply to the attempt to recruit him to any modern ideology. To do so would entail the assumption that untimeliness had now become irrelevant, now that we are, all, for example, socialists or Christians, and need to go along with that. It would mean putting Nietzsche into someone else’s system and subordinating his thought to someone else’s.
Famously Nietzsche compared the philosophers’ objective of truth to a woman, and upbraids them for their clumsy approaches. Yet elsewhere he says that a philosopher does not pursue women. Instead they come to him.
A philosopher is recognised by the fact that he shuns three brilliant and noisy things— fame, princes, and women: which is not to say that they do not come to him. He shuns every glaring light: therefore he shuns his time and its “daylight.” Therein he is as a shadow; the deeper sinks the sun, the greater grows the shadow. (GM III 8)
Princes may not count for much these days, but we have their equivalent. The true philosopher according to Nietzsche is indeed untimely. Like Chuang Tsu’s sage he rejects the position and status that are the rewards of conformity and are supposed to compensate for the subordination of personal judgement to the demands of society.
The philosopher does not directly seek fame or women. He does not try to make himself into the sort of being that he calculates will please the world or the opposite sex. By resisting that he consolidates his strength, and perhaps then the world and women will therefore come to him.
Nietzsche came to express some contempt for university philosophy. By a philosopher he means what Plato meant by a lover of wisdom, or what the old Chinese meant by a sage.
… I separate my concept of “the philosopher” miles and miles from a concept which still includes even a Kant, not to speak of academic “ruminants” and other professors of philosophy: (Ecce Homo)
The true philosopher does not accommodate himself to fashionable ideas. He does not adapt himself to other people, shaping himself to further his career or to please others. Following his own inspiration he may eventually become something which attracts without having directly worked to do so. He strengthens himself, forming himself into something that expresses what he wants, and may thus become of deep interest to those who seek redemption from the demands that jar on them too.
Nietzsche’s philosopher and his artist have much in common, whether or not there is a tension between the idea of the philosopher, shunning fame, and the creative artist, taking what opportunities he can what he can, within a society whose flaws do not need to obsess him.
The untimely man is to a degree a contrarian, sometimes a paradoxicalist. Being a contrarian is not enough to make an artist. Much strength is needed. Nietzsche did not automatically admire eccentricity (referring dismissively to the English as “that cattle herd of alcoholics and eccentrics”), but he respected the strength of character and individuality to be found in the lower ranks of society.
From Will to Power § 887:-
“Where the strongest natures are to be sought. The ruin and degeneration of the solitary species is much greater and more terrible: they have the instincts of the herd, and the tradition of values, against them; their weapons of defence, their instincts of self preservation, are from the beginning insufficiently strong and reliable – fortune must be peculiarly favourable to them if they are to prosper (they prosper best in the lowest ranks and dregs of society; if ye are seeking personalities it is there that ye will find them with much greater certainty than in the middle classes.
For mediocre minds the authority of received opinion works as a powerful argument in its own right and it is very hard to shake.
I began by saying Nietzsche did not simply want to replace German culture with French. In The Future Of Our Educational Institutions he said that Germany should not try to imitate France, but assert its own perspective as formed by the Reformation. He appears to have changed his mind about the Reformation. Some have taken this to mean he lost his Protestant prejudice and became more sympathetic to Catholicism. The proffered model of an untimely man was still a German, namely Nietzsche himself. Nevertheless some French writers had a strong talent for untimeliness. To come back to Baudelaire, who impressed Nietzsche, Baudelaire’s Mon Coeur mis a Nu, was written in 1864 though not published till 1887. Apparently Nietzsche read it avidly. A background of Catholicism seemed to allow for some brilliantly perverse flights of imagination. Nietzsche only mentions Baudelaire twice in his published work, praising his critical intelligence, but grouping him with Schopenhauer as prolonging Christianity with his denunciation of voluptuousness. Despite, if not because of, his affinities to Schopenhauer and Wagner, Baudelaire surely meets most of Nietzsche’s criteria for a genuine artist.
If there is no resistance there is no art. The timely man is adapted to his time, he believes that current morality is enlightened and progressive. In our day he accepts the doctrine of equality. A successful artistic culture is in opposition to the prevailing orthodoxy.
Applying this to our own age, Nietzsche accepted some liberal ideas, but far from all of them. He accepts as much of liberalism as he thinks right. Modern Europe has its own problems. To some, but not to others, these present threats as serious as those that are now recent history. To a detached observer this disagreement might pose interesting questions of moral philosophy.
Acknowledging the decadence Nietzsche identifies in our society, a higher culture, is created by those untimely ones who are
full of sovereign contempt for everything around them that was called “Empire”, “culture” “Christianity” Bismarck”…
We may take all these terms as having their modern equivalents. It is best not to be too specific. The way forward as Nietzsche conceives it is not direct political resistance. As individuals we will need the strength to swim against the current of what we are told and expected to think. We also require a measure of reserve, what may even be sometimes called hypocrisy. To accept what we are told to accept would be to abandon trust in our own judgement. Even when paying lip service to modern morality, inwardly we keep our own counsel and cultivate private sources of creative energy.
Paper presented at Bari 16th May 2016
I signed and sold several books, and made a speech, Here are my notes for it:-
Socialist and Christian.
Before Hitler was I am
In his The Beast in Berlin
Tobias Churton discusses this remark of Crowley’s, and its clear reference to the gospels, but surprisingly misses the verse it very obviously parodies, John 8:58
Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.