Nietzsche and the New Existential Citizen

One enduring critique of Nietzsche of particular relevance to the Existential Citizenship Project—besides the widespread misperception of him as a nihilist mentioned before—has been his apparent aversion to actual politics, and particularly his lack of prescriptions for political action.[1] His aversion to politics is not only apparent at the level of institutions (e.g., in his denunciations of the state as the “coldest of all cold monsters,” and that “only where the state ends, there begins the human being who is not superfluous”[2]), but also even in his more metaphysical conceptions of human nature itself.[3]

Nietzsche, the individual, and the State

For example, consider the declaration of Nietzsche that, “Every philosophy which believes that the problem of existence is touched on, not to say solved, by a political event is a joke—and pseudo-philosophy.” In particular, according to Nietzsche, the problem with conceiving of politics as a solution for our fundamental, existential problems results from the collective organization of the State as such itself:

Many states have been founded since the world began; that is an old story. How should a political innovation suffice to turn men once and for all into contented inhabitants of the earth? [That people think the answer to existential questions might come from politics shows] that we are experiencing the consequences of the doctrine…that the state is the highest goal of mankind and that a man has no higher duty than to serve the state: in which doctrine I recognize a relapse not into paganism but into stupidity. It may be that a man who sees his highest duty in serving the state really knows no higher duties; but there are men and duties existing beyond this—and one of the duties that seems, at least to me, to be higher than serving the state demands that one destroys stupidity in every form, and therefore in this form too. That is why I am concerned with a species of man whose teleology extends somewhat beyond the welfare of a state…, and with [this kind of man] only in relation to a world which is again fairly independent of the welfare of a state, that of culture.[4]

In other words, according to Nietzsche, the emergence of the State as a substantial form of collective human organization has not even been a step backwards for humankind, but rather a step nowhere. Likewise, against the assumption that the highest purposes of humankind are realized via or under or within this collective, Nietzsche is concerned instead with the kind of people capable of existing outside of or beyond the State.

A philosophical stance this dismissive about the relation of humans with collective political organizations like a State would seem to offer little by way of support for a project to promote more meaningful political engagement like the Existential Citizenship Project. Such is not the case.

Democracy, individualism, and the existential citizen

This animus against the State as an institution and against politics in general is a function of the ultimate goal of the philosophy of Nietzsche: The elevation of truly excellent individuals with the unique capacity to create their own values. This emphasis on the individual is also why Nietzsche is so often—and so justifiably—accused of being antagonistic to democracy. The combination of this animus against collective action and the exaltation of the individual would seem to render moot any substantial application of Nietzsche’s thought to politics, and particularly any applications to real-world, day-to-day politics which are the focus of the Existential Citizenship Project.

However, there is more to the philosophical project of Nietzsche than meets the eye. On the one hand, Nietzsche is openly and defiantly antagonistic towards democracy. For Nietzsche, democracy represents the decadent urge for the great levelling of humanity and the dilution of individual greatness, which again is his ultimate standard.[5] All of that being said, though, there are strands of thought in the work of Nietzsche which point towards an interesting reconciliation of individualism with political engagement, against the intentions of even Nietzsche himself, which are particularly appropriate for an existential conception of citizenship.

For example, Lawrence Hatab, in his 1995 book A Nietzschean Defense of Democracy, combines the agonistic and perspectival aspects of democracy with Nietzsche’s core concept of will to power, while discounting the necessity for a notion of rights in democracy and revising its traditional egalitarian rhetoric, to offer a Nietzschean conception of democracy that enhances individuality in the ways Nietzsche celebrates. Thus, while Nietzsche himself may have been overtly anti-democratic, which would seem to invalidate the application of his thought to a project to enhance participation in representative government, interwoven throughout his work are threads of thought which contribute substantially to the conception of existential citizenship I propose.

As such, in reconciling all these different threads, the Existential Citizenship Project represents not only an extension of the thought of Nietzsche to politics, and a refinement of existentialism as it pertains to politics, but also a substantial clarification of politics itself via existentialism. In particular, the ways that existentialism justifies political engagement will be shown to reconcile the hyperindividualism of Nietzsche’s project with meaningful political action. The result is the kinds of independent yet engaged citizens that more conventional conceptions of citizenship have aspired to for centuries, but failed to accomplish thus far.

Again, as discussed in much more detail elsewhere, these previous conceptions of citizenship have fallen short in large part because these conceptions of citizenship have been constructed upon a distinctively modern (i.e., non-heroic or non-tragic) understanding of people and of politics. Filling in these holes is the primary contribution of adopting existentialism as the primary orientation towards politics, and of adopting Nietzsche as a specific lens.

[1]

Nussbaum, Martha, 1997. “Is Nietzsche a Political Thinker?” International Journal of Philosophical Studies, 5: 1–13; See also https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nietzsche-moral-political/#4

[2]

Thus Spoke Zarathustra I:11

[3]

For example, in section 21 of Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche describes how the “Dionysian liberation from the fetters of the individual finds expression first of all in a diminution of, indifference to, indeed, in hostility to, the political instincts.”

[4]

Untimely Meditations III: 4

[5]

For example, “Who still wanteth to rule? Who still wanteth to obey? Both are too burdensome. No shepherd, and one herd! Every one wanteth the same; every one is equal: he who hath other sentiments goeth voluntarily into the madhouse.” (Z Prologue 5)

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