Nietzsche and Community

Could Nietzsche be a communitarian… albeit a rather strange one? The received understanding of Nietzsche paints him as individualist and elitist, most strikingly portrayed in the doctrine of the Übermensch. A recent conversation between members of the philosophy and government departments at Essex challenged this received notion. Pete Bloom argued that Nietzsche is more of a communitarian than scholars have generally given him credit for. This proved to be a somewhat contentious point, substantiated by reference to a little-known text “Homer’s Contest”. You can follow our email discussion (and comment if you feel like it) here. The article under contention can be found at http://www.geocities.com/thenietzschechannel/hcg.htm (Deutsch) and http://www.geocities.com/thenietzschechannel/hc.htm (English Translation).

 

Pete’s 1st Email:

Rob,

Here are the references for the Nietzsche article that dealt with community. It is called “Homer’s Contest” and it is from 1872. I have it in the The Portable Nietzsche between pages 32-39. In terms of our larger discussion, while it would be unfair to assume that Nietzsche had anything resembling inherent conceptions of a “shared life”, it would be equally unfair to say that he speaks nothing of a shared community. This article is in many ways the most representative of this underdeveloped trend within Nietzsche thought.

To begin Nietzsche seeks that which is natural not merely to man as man but to man as part of nature. He then proceeds to discuss the importance of seeming cruelty for cultural and individual advancement for the Greeks, one which he readily admits they shared with other older cultures. However, for Nietzsche the mere presence of such a transition (from devastation to culture and back again) itself was not of importance so much as its stated acknowledgement as a philosophical framework for the ordering of social relationships. To this end he attributes to the Greeks the “unique genius” of the contest. The contest stood as a reification of struggle, whereby no one man or understanding was permitted to reign supreme allowing for cultural advancement. Consequently, Nietzsche say explicitly that such a conflict was necessary for the “health of the state” (pg. 36). He also declares that such struggle prevented against undue cruelty and atrocity noting that this contest was needed to channel humanity’s more base urges into a productive social end and away from mere savagery:

“…as proof that without envy, jealous, and ambition in the contest, the Hellenic city, like the Hellenic man, degenerates. He becomes evil and cruel; he becomes vengeful and godless; in short, he become ‘pre-Homeric'”

Ironically for Nietzsche in this instance it is the retaining of the Gods through the contest that finds humanity at its most vibrant. Without the presence of the contest which “abominates the rule of one and fears its dangers, it desires, as a protection against the genius, another genius”, man attempts to transcend earthly struggles and compare himself with that of the Gods. This leads to stagnant societies in awe of a seemingly permanent genius giving him rights to force his will on others, often as expressed in “godlike” gestures of horrific destruction.

One can find similar sentiments elsewhere in Nietzsche, criticizing Hegel’s idea of a “spirit” or aim underlying human societies, declaring instead that “But the State has no aim; we alone give it that aim” (Notes 1873: pg. 40). Further, arguing that that the state is merely the means for social preservation, justified through its production, though often times few, of geniuses.

While I would not want to reappropriate Nietzsche to heavily here, I do think one finds striking similarities between his thoughts (especially concerning the contest and eternal return of the same) and that of Laclauian Hegemony. Each argues for the necessity of struggle in order to prevent permanence of meaning, the importance of contestation within the public space for this contest, and the recurrent way such questioning occurs. This is not to say they are identical, but that they dramatically share a number of commonalities and that further each would benefit from the others mutual contamination.

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My Response:

Thanks for following up on this conversation. I have had a chance to look at the piece, which I found online. It’s quite short (3,000 words?) and dates from the very early part of his work, just one year after The Birth of Tragedy. (Wikipedia tells me that Nietzsche’s inaugural lecture at Basel was entitled “Homer and Classical Philology”.) I think it’s fair to include this as part of Nietzsche’s ‘Greek Phase’ for want of a better expression. As such, it is a work of philology that tells us about the Greeks, rather than how things ‘are’ as it were.

We can certainly agree that some of the ideas he attributes to the ancients – the struggle/contest, the willingness to engage with savagery, aestheticism, etc – prefigure elements of his later philosophy. I would note, however, that at this stage he attriubutes them to the Greeks (whom he admires, no doubt).

As far as comments on ‘the state’ go, it seems that Nietzsche does think that struggle contributes to the health of the Greek state, but that to do so it must go on without a winner. The full quote (your page 36?) runs:

“If one wants to observe this conviction—wholly undisguised in its most naïve expression—that the contest is necessary to preserve the health of the state, then one should reflect on the original meaning of ostracism, for example, as it is pronounced by the Ephesians when they banish Hermodorus: “Among us, no one shall be the best; but if someone is, then let him be elsewhere and among others. [Heraclitus]” Why should no one be the best? Because then the contest would come to an end and the eternal source of life for the Hellenic state would be endangered.”

Of course, Nietzsche comes to think that this kind of process leads to the limitation of greatness and the triumph of slave morality. I’m not sure what kind of insight it is to say that Nietzsche does have an idea of society. That’s pretty uncontentious. It’s the degree and nature of the reform that people disagree on.

I think one should be very careful about what views one attributes to Nietzsche on the basis of this paper. I think it rather more likely that you’re reading Laclau into this than finding something Laclauian into this. I do find it interesting though.

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Pete’s Reponse:

Thanks for the feedback. I agree that in many ways this earlier piece (1) represents a period of Nietzsche where Greek idealism was strong and (2) perhaps is speaking only to the Greek context. However, that this leads to a slave mentality in my mind is largely a matter of social and political will. It is when the contest become undermined by the actors emerging out of it that such a stagnant mentality comes. For similar reasons, in my view, Nietzsche later stresses the eternal return, in order to have people focus on the process of becoming as opposed merely to the particular becoming itself. To this end it is the same with the play of hegemony. What is important is not the making permanent of any one dominant articulation but investigating and making central the process by which new discourses can come about.

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One Response “Nietzsche and Community” →
  1. Nick Joll has reminded me that there is another way of understanding what kind of community Nietzsche might support. There are numerous points – even in his later work – where Nietzsche seems to be addressing himself to a select audience made of those who (perhaps one day) will be capable of realising the full import of his work. This might suggest that Nietzsche’s ideal community would be consisted of an elite group (though there are many instances in the text where the “greatness” of the individual is indicated by their distance from the concerns of others; this makes them capable of overcoming the constraints of herd morality).

    Reply

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