Did Nietzsche want Success?

                             Did Nietzsche want Success?

My 1996 book on Nietzsche

My 1996 book on Nietzsche

Success is a judgement about how we relate to our own times. It is a synonym for victory over circumstances and other people, and in extremis other countries, those forces which might otherwise make us ‘victims’. The German writer in exile Elias Canetti nicely defined the temporal element in success and left the rest to imagination. ‘Success,’ he wrote in 1974, ‘is the amount of space one takes up in the newspaper. Success is the shamelessness of a single day.’[1] The newspaper, for men like Canetti and Nietzsche, embodied their negative feelings towards the triviality of ‘our times’, although Nietzsche went further, accentuating the conflictual aspect. The kind of people Nietzsche loathed – some of them at least, for he loathed almost everyone – not only exulted in vulgar success; they even called it an achievement of Christianity. (Max Weber’s thesis in Capitalism and the Protestant Ethic (1904-5) would spell how the German Protestant mind linked business and spiritual success.) Nietzsche set himself up as a force against this vulgar German success of his day. In 1874 he talked about the German nation, the theory of history and what might constitute real spiritual success. By 1888, his last sane year, the topic was success and himself, despite the omnipresent threat of banality.

It’s not a well-known story, but in the fifth chapter of Ecce Homo, ‘The Untimely Essays’, Section 1, where he recalled his early work on ‘The Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life’, he wrote:

The second untimely essay (1874) brings to light what is dangerous, what gnaws at and poisons life, in our way of carrying on science-: life sick with this inhuman clockwork and mechanism, with the impersonality of the worker, with the false economy of [the] ‘division of labour’. The goal gets lost, culture – the means, the modern way of carrying on science, [is] barbarized [sic]…In this essay the ‘historical sense’ of which this century is so proud is recognized for the first time as a sickness, as a typical sign of decay.

By ‘science’, Nietzsche meant the whole pursuit of knowledge in his day was proceeding in the wrong spirit. He saw its mechanical ways as poisonous to life – and even borrowed himself a little Marxism to emphasize the point. History was one branch of that deadening science.

If a nation was to be successful, he went on in the eighth section of that 1874 essay, it needed a collective self-knowledge as an incentive. It needed myths to keep it self-confident and drive it forward to new conquests. What he hated was the kind of dispassionate history that left the nation stranded, without a forward direction and impulse. He hated excessive rationalization in historiography. He hated anything that drained the vitality from the present moment. And what he blamed for doing both of these things was the popularization of Hegel in the time of Bismarck.

BismarckBismarck’s newly united German empire of 1871 was triumphant as  the 30-year-old Nietzsche arrived on the German scene of writing, and he hated it.  The Prussia that has just won victory over the French seemed culturally worthless. Nietzsche who had served in the war as a medical orderly would have preferred to fight for something better, something higher. Game to fight and win, he wanted to secure victory for genius and the artistic-tragic spirit, not pomp and bombast and Prussian orderliness.

GWF Hegel (1770-1831)

GWF Hegel (1770-1831)

A popularization of Hegel, in his view, was what had made latter-day Germans pursue banal ends. With their Hegel-inspired positivism the new breed of Germans worshipped facts. Hegel’s World History, a gloriously objective and rational account of ‘our times’ marching on into the future to the tune of progress, had been somehow banalized to incline people to shrink their horizons and entertain no great ambitions. This is why the historical sense was a sickness and a symptom of decadence. It had crippled the spirit of both nation and individual by removing imagination and vision.

Here is some of young Nietzsche’s actual attack on historicism:

Hegel never wrote anything like this [Nietzsche said], but he implanted in the generations soured by his influence an admiration for ‘the power of history’ that turns practically every moment into blatant admiration of success and leads to an idolatrous worship of the factual…Once a person has learnt to lower his head and bow to ‘the power of history’ he will end up nodding his approval in a mechanical, Chinesy way to every power, whether it be government or popular opinion or the numerical majority, and he will move his limbs to the exact tempo decreed by those pulling the strings. If every success contains within itself a rational necessity, if every event is a victory for Logic or the ‘Idea’ – then, quick, what are you waiting for, down on your knees. Soon you will have knelt your way through the whole scala of successes! [Nietzsche Unzeitgemässige Betrachtungen Insel Verlag edition p.264, my translation]

Nietzsche is the rebel – and here the surprisingly political rebel against uncritically accepted authority – . He is the rebel in the name of the human spirit. And finally he is the rebel who groups all his preferred values under the heading of an aesthetic awareness  that must preserve vitality in all aspects of life to make it worth living. He dislikes people who cannot feel that the life in things is truer than any rational theory.

To show how paltry the positivist approach to life can be he gives the example of the painter Rafael who died aged 36.

If as an apologist of the factual you want to come to the aid of history, you’ll say: he [Rafael] had already expressed everything he had within him, had he lived longer he would only have expressed beauty as the same beauty, he wouldn’t have been able to create any new beauty, and so on. In which case you are the devil’s advocates, because of the way you worship success, facts, as your idol: the truth is that facts are always stupid and have always more closely resembled a calf than a god. On top of being an apologist for history it’s also ignorance whispers to you from the wings: it only because you don’t know what it’s like to be a natura naturans like Rafael that you’re not bothered to learn that his nature was and won’t be again. [ibid.]

This terrific passage heightens the positivist crime against the truth of life by associating it with an aesthetic offence. What matters is not the facts but the life that art lives. The rare true artist in our midst is a miracle and we should celebrate that. The hateful German petty bourgeoisie may exult in its victory over the French, but what has it really achieved when it has no idea how high the human spirit can occasionally soar?

The banality of Bismarck’s Kulturkampf, which was an attempt to establish an official, largely Protestant German culture, is one of the neglected contexts of Nietzschean vitalism. Nietzsche’s hostility poured out of him in language of astonishing force and poetry. If he was battling German culture and an errant idea of success directly in 1874, fourteen years later he remembered how personal it felt. Ecce Homo listed his enemies from that time as ‘“Empire”, “A Classical German Education”, “Christianity”, “Bismarck”, “Success”.’ [2] Now he writes them all in inverted commas, to set them up for new defeat. He admitted that he was only nominally writing about Wagner and Schopenhauer in 1874 when it was his own influence on German culture he really had in mind. He, Nietzsche, had wanted to be a new teacher and found a new tragic culture rooted in the spirit of music. The reviewer who wrote of ‘a real return of German seriousness and German passion in spiritual things’ got it right [Nietzsche Kritische Studienausgabe [KSA] 6, 318, ll.17-18, my translation]. The tragic culture Nietzsche had wanted to set against Bismarckian banality depended on self-discipline. It was ‘self-defence to the degree of hardness, a way to greatness and to world-historical tasks [which in 1874] demanded its first expression,’ he felt. [ibid., 319, ll.29-31, my emphasis]

It’s interesting that these self-centred terms, which culminated in Nietzsche’s famous notion of Self-Overcoming, first functioned as a way of attacking Bismarck’s new nation and sorting out Hegel’s unwilled involvement in it. The direct evidence can be found in the Nachlaß , the postumous papers, for 1885-87.

Between autumn 1885-86 Nietzsche realised that he was too much influenced by Schopenhauer in his earlier negative view of Hegel [KSA 12 160]. What Hegel had in mind, he clarified now, was ‘to think his way to a pantheism in which evil, error and suffering would not be felt as arguments against divinity. This grandiose initiative was misused by the powers of the day (the state etc.,) as if it sanctioned the reasonableness of those presently in charge.’ [KSA 12, 113] With these distractions out of the way Nietzsche began to find Hegel interesting again, in relation to the truly successful individual and history. He wrote:

Hegel’s way of thinking is not so very far removed from Goethe’s: just listen to Goethe on Spinoza. The will to deify the universe and life in order to find peace and happiness in their contemplation and grounding; Hegel sees reason everywhere – in the presence of reason one is bound to submit and be modest. In Goethe a kind of almost joyful and trusting fatalism, that doesn’t rebel, that doesn’t lose its power, which tries to create a totality out of itself, a belief that only in a totality is everything redeemed and seems good and justified.

Goethe encouraging and struggling with his eighteenth century in himself: sentimentality, nature-worship, the unhistorical, the tendency to idealism, the impractical and unreal element in the revolutionary; he helps himself with history, natural science and antiquity…he doesn’t separate himself from life; he isn’t timid and takes as much as possible on himself, about himself, into himself, – he wants totality, he challenges the separation of reason, sensuality, feeling, will, he disciplines himself, he educates himself…he says yes to all great realists.

Goethe: a grand attempt to overcome the eighteenth century (a return to a kind of renaissance man), a kind of self-overcoming from aspects of this century; he was able to release its strongest drives in himself and see them through to their logical end. But what he achieved for himself was not our nineteenth century….

He embodies the concept of a highly educated man who holds himself back and treats himself with reverence, who has the courage to give in to the whole wealth of his soul and his naturalness (to the point of burlesque and the Buffonesque) because he’s strong enough to deal with it; he embodies someone who is tolerant not out of weakness but out of strength, because he knows how to use to his own benefit what would fell an average nature, he is a most comprehensive person but not for that reason a chaotic person….

NB In a certain sense the nineteenth century strove for everything that Goethe achieved for himself: a universality of understanding, acceptance, openness to the world belongs to it; a daring realism, a respect for facts – so how has it happened that the total result is not Goethe but chaos, nihilism, lack of success, which just keeps on reaching back into the eighteenth century (for instance as Romanticism, Altruism, Feminism, Naturalism) [KSA 12 443].[3]

Briefly this passage used Hegel and Goethe to state Nietzsche’s ideal of true success in the world, which might be defined as ‘having the courage to give in to the whole wealth of one’s soul and one’s naturalness because one is strong enough to deal with it’. It stated what he wanted for himself: ‘ a daring realism [and] a respect for facts’ (but not a worship of them). Of course it was overwhelmingly devoted to Goethe, but then as Hegel himself said, he also learnt everything from Goethe.

In fact Nietzsche didn’t have the strength to create for himself the Goethean wealth of soul that would bring him real personal success in his time. Giorgio Colli, one of the editors of the most recent German edition of Nietzsche’s works, sees Nietzsche’s dilemma in 1888 as insoluble. That Nietzsche was desperate in that last year of his sanity to see how he might wring success from his mortal situation without giving in to ‘our times’, Colli brings out with a quote from the Foreword to ‘The Case of Wagner’: What does a philosopher demand of himself, first and last? To overcome his times, to become “timeless”.’  [KSA 6 11] The pathos is in the inverted commas surrounding the word timeless. Nietzsche knows it is impossible. He has no option but to depart life in hatred and emptiness, hating the times he lives in, hating contemporary mankind and belonging nowhere else. Without recourse to a transcendent ego or shared values he cannot triumph and be reconciled to the world simply as himself, and still he won’t give in to outdated and life-deadening metaphysics. To his last moment he resists that banal, devitalising, life-threatening force of ‘our times’ that insists on his conformity.

Nietzsche in his last months goes through a passion of failure. He thinks of himself as crucified, but even as he does he knows there was only ever one man who was in his time and not of it in the fullest sense, and that was Christ.

His success has come posthumously.

Edvard Munch: Nietzsche

Edvard Munch: Nietzsche



[1] Elias Canetti Das Geheimherz der Uhr. Aufzeichnungen 1973-1985

[2] Ecce Homo The Untimely Essays* 1

[3] Nietzsche KSA 12 443-4; Will to Power tr Kaufmann 95ff]

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