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Bertrand Russell on Nietzsche

Russell in 1907 (from Wikipedia)

In my last post, Part One of a two-part series on Bertrand Russell’s monumental A History of Western Philosophy, I highlighted the author’s critical views of Plato and Aristotle from the ‘Ancient Philosophy’ section of the work. Now, in Part Two, I will summarize and comment on just one chapter from the ‘Modern Philosophy’ section of this same work–the one dealing with the German-born philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. As with Plato and Aristotle, Russell is highly disapproving of the outcome of much of Nietzsche’s thought; unlike with the former two thinkers, however, Russell’s critique of Nietzsche seems like a personal ad hominem polemic against the latter. Russell does not only seek to demonstrate scientific, logical, or methodical errors or prejudices, as with many of the philosophers he discusses, but intends to completely ridicule, demolish, and discredit the entire foundation on which Nietzsche’s ideas are built. In addition to prima facie philosophical disagreement, most of the hostility of Russell (who was writing this book in the last years of WWII) comes from the fact that he sees Nietzsche as the most recent example of a European philosophical tradition that has culminated in, or at least prepared the way for, Fascism. Though he would not find Plato innocent of these same charges, it was difficult to trace such a direct line of influence from antiquity to the modern age and the war that was then in progress. This, according to Russell, could not be said about many philosophers of the modern era ever since the successors of John Locke. Here is an example of Russell’s commentary from the chapter entitled “Locke’s Influence”:

Since Rousseau and Kant, there have been two schools of liberalism, which may be distinguished as the hard-headed and the soft-hearted. The hard-headed developed, through Bentham, Ricardo, and Marx, by logical stages into Stalin; the soft-hearted, by other logical stages, through Fichte, Byron, Carlyle, and Nietzsche, into Hitler. This statement, of course, is too schematic to be quite true, but it may serve as a map and a mnemonic… A man’s ethic usually reflects his character, and benevolence leads to a desire for the general happiness. Thus the men who thought happiness the end of life tended to be the more benevolent, while those who proposed other ends were often dominated, unconsciously, by cruelty or love of power.

Russell further compares the evolution of ideas to the present day in terms of romanticism, which he opposed, and rationalism, which he supported. From the chapter entitled “Currents of Thought in the Nineteenth Century”:

This revolt (against traditional systems in thought, in politics, and in economics) had two very different forms, one romantic, the other rationalistic. The romantic revolt passes from Byron, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche to Mussolini and Hitler; the rationalistic revolt begins with the French philosophers of the Revolution, passes on, somewhat softened, to the philosophical radicals in England, then acquires a deeper form in Marx and issues in Soviet Russia.

Nietzsche in 1869 (from Wikipedia)

For me, one of the most interesting things about Russell’s views on Nietzsche, and the reason I have chosen to comment on this chapter, is the fact that it is perhaps the only place in A History of Western Philosophy in which I found myself in something less than complete substantive acquiescence with Russell. For reasons that are not entirely known to me, I think Russell’s assessment of Nietzsche was too harsh, too biased, or possibly based on an incomplete reading, interpretation, translation, or understanding.

The following series of quotes will provide a brief, but representative, synopsis of Russell’s chapter entitled “Nietzsche”, which will be followed by a few of my own thoughts on the matter:

His general outlook remained very similar to that of Wagner in the Ring; Nietzsche’s superman is very like Siegfried, except that he knows Greek. This may seem odd, but that is not my fault.

Lord Byron, Romantic rogue

In spite of Nietzsche’s criticism of the romantics, his outlook owes much to them; it is that of aristocratic anarchism, like Byron’s, and one is not surprised to find him admiring Byron. He attempts to combine two sets of values which are not easily harmonized: on the one hand he likes ruthlessness, war, and aristocratic pride; on the other hand, he loves philosophy and literature and the arts, especially music. Historically, these values coexisted in the Renaissance; Pope Julius II, fighting for Bologna and employing Michelangelo, might be taken as the sort of man whom Nietzsche would wish to see in control of governments. It is natural to compare Nietzsche with Machiavelli, in spite of important differences between the two men… Both have an ethic which aims at power and is deliberately anti-Christian, though Nietzsche is more frank in this respect. What Caesar Borgia was to Machiavelli, Napoleon was to Nietzsche: a great man defeated by petty opponents.

Nietzsche alludes habitually to ordinary human beings as the “bungled and botched,” and sees no objection to their suffering if it is necessary for the production of a great man. Thus the whole importance of the period from 1789 to 1815 is summed up in Napoleon: “The Revolution made Napoleon possible: that is its justification…”

It is necessary for higher men to make war upon the masses, and resist the democratic tendencies of the age, for in all directions mediocre people are joining hands to make themselves masters… He regards compassion as a weakness to be combated… He prophesied with a certain glee an era of great wars; one wonders whether he would have been happy if he had lived to see the fulfillment of his prophecy.

There is a great deal in Nietzsche that must be dismissed as merely megalomaniac… It is obvious that in his day-dreams he is a warrior, not a professor; all the men he admires were military. His opinion of women, like every man’s, is an objectification of his own emotion towards them, which is obviously one of fear. “Forget not thy whip”–but nine women out of ten would get the whip away from him, and he knew it, so he kept away from women, and soothed his wounded vanity with unkind remarks.

He condemns Christian love because he thinks it is an outcome of fear… It does not occur to Nietzsche as possible that a man should genuinely feel universal love, obviously because he himself feels almost universal hatred and fear, which he would fain disguise as lordly indifference. His “noble” man–who is himself in day-dreams–is a being wholly devoid of sympathy, ruthless, cunning, concerned only with his own power. King Lear, on the verge of madness, says: “I will do such things–what they are yet I know not–but they shall be the terror of the earth.” This is Nietzsche’s philosophy in a nutshell.

It never occurred to Nietzsche that the lust for power, with which he endows his superman, is itself an outcome of fear. Those who do not fear their neighbours see no necessity to tyrannize over them… I will not deny that, partly as a result of his teaching, the real world has become very like his nightmare, but that does not make it any the less horrible.

We can now state Nietzsche’s ethic. I think what follows is a fair analysis of it: Victors in war, and their descendants, are usually biologically superior to the vanquished. It is therefore desirable that they should hold all the power, and should manage affairs exclusively in their own interests.

Suppose we wish–as I certainly do–to find arguments against Nietzsche’s ethics and politics, what arguments can we find?… The ethical, as opposed to the political, question is one as to sympathy. Sympathy, in the sense of being made unhappy by the sufferings of others, is to some extent natural to human beings. But the development of this feeling is very different in different people. Some find pleasure in the infliction of torture; others, like Buddha, feel that they cannot be completely happy so long as any living thing is suffering. Most people divide mankind emotionally into friends and enemies, feeling sympathy for the former, but not for the latter. An ethic such as that of Christianity or Buddhism has its emotional basis in universal sympathy; Nietzsche’s, in a complete absence of sympathy. (He frequently preaches against sympathy, and in this respect one feels that he has no difficulty in obeying his own precepts.)

For my part, I agree with Buddha as I have imagined him. But I do not know how to prove that he is right by any argument such as can be used in a mathematical or a scientific question. I dislike Nietzsche because he likes the contemplation of pain, because he erects conceit into a duty, because the men whom he most admires are conquerors, whose glory is cleverness in causing men to die. But I think the ultimate argument against his philosophy, as against any unpleasant but internally self-consistent ethic, lies not in an appeal to facts, but in an appeal to the emotions. Nietzsche despises universal love; I feel it the motive power to all that I desire as regards the world. His followers have had their innings, but we may hope that it is coming rapidly to an end.

So what are we to make of Russell’s scathing indictment of Nietzsche? Russell has certainly made a strong and convincing case for his opinions, but one that I feel is only one possible interpretation and in one historical context. This interpretation seems too shallow and dismissive of such a complex well-spring of ideas that was Nietzsche. For example, I understand and sympathize with Russell’s rejection of the concept of the Übermensch and the Will to Power as an ‘aristocratic lust for power’. I am not so sure about the validity of Russell’s conclusion that Nietzsche’s philosophy was the result of universal hatred and fear. My reading of Nietzsche is incomplete, but it is already clear to me that he is more important and useful than Russell gives him credit for. He is one of the most original and captivating Western thinkers of modern times (or probably of any age), and the breadth of his influence already shows that his ideas cannot be pigeon-holed or dismissed so easily.

As for the historical context, Russell was writing during World War II, as an obvious opponent of Fascism and war in general. It is true that Nietzsche’s works had influenced German militarism and nationalism in both world wars, including misuse by the Nazis. This cannot necessarily be understood as a fault of Nietzsche, who was an opponent of Nationalism, Anti-Semitism, and Germany itself (he renounced his citizenship and was officially stateless for the last 31 years of his life). Hitler probably never actually read Nietzsche, and the Nazis mostly cherry-picked lines that seemed convenient to them. This is hardly a surprise in the case of such a multi-layered and open-to-interpretation thinker such as Nietzsche. Indeed, some of his earliest followers were not Fascists but left-wing anarchists and Zionists, and poets such as Yeats and Mencken, as well as virtually every ‘Continental’ philosopher of the 20th century–Heidegger, Sartre, Strauss, Camus, Derrida, Foucault, etc. It is with them in mind that I shall conclude this post.

(The above video is a spoken excerpt from Russell’s chapter on Nietzsche, followed by Martin Heidegger’s contradictory remarks on the importance of Nietzsche).

Martin Heidegger was heavily influenced by Nietzsche and wrote a 4-volume work on him. Though I am less familiar with the notoriously difficult Heidegger than I am with Nietzsche, the emphasis of the former seems to be much more on the individualistic and ontological aspects inspired by the latter. For example, Heidegger continues Nietzsche’s veneration of pre-Socratics such as Heraclitus over Parmenides and the Platonic tradition. Heraclitus believed that everything was in a state of flux, famously stating that a person cannot step twice into the same river, and therefore the focus was on the process of Becoming. Parmenides, followed by Plato, believed that everything is eternal and unchanging, with the focus on the state of Being. Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche led to his own attempt to redefine the meaning of Being itself and its consequences for human affairs. I have found here a useful synthesis and exegesis of many of Heidegger’s working notes on Nietzsche.

Existentialists such as Sartre and Camus, though opposed by Heidegger on different grounds, continued this line of thought further from its Nietzschean origins. When taken out of his political context, it is in this regard that I think Nietzsche may still be useful, contra Russell. The fact that Nietzsche helped diminish the role of metaphysics has led to questions as to the nature of our existence, which was expressed by Sartre as “existence precedes essence.” From a certain perspective, it even seems possible that Nietzsche’s philosophy has much in common with Russell’s Analytical school in that they, too, had no use for metaphysics. Their solutions to this problem differed, with Nietzsche prophesying and attempting to create a new morality “beyond good and evil”, and Russell adamantly advocating the case for logic, reason, and liberalism.

This is certainly not a closed book, and at this point I can come to no definite conclusions, except for a tentative belief that Russell’s criticism is not wholly valid, and that other uses of Nietzsche are possible. For example, here is a curious article I have found that attempts to portray Nietzsche as a proto-egalitarian. As with most thinkers, Nietzsche is often misunderstood and can quite easily be exploited or twisted into service for many ends. I will have some occasion to discuss this in the future, as, for example, in the unfortunate case of Ayn Rand. On the other hand, I believe there is still a place for a positive and empowering individualistic interpretation of Nietzsche, such as was used, I believe, by Nikos Kazantzakis (whom I discussed here). Walter Kaufman’s excellent translation and commentary (which I employ) has done much to rehabilitate Nietzsche’s post-WWII image in the Anglo-American world. I will continue to search for a common-ground between divergent modern philosophical ideas as represented by Russell and Nietzsche (which sums up, on a smaller scale, the ongoing conflict between Analytic and Continental philosophy), as I believe both provide useful tools for asking questions and finding solutions as to the nature of truth and existence in the universe and in our lives.


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