This commentary is part of The Atlas Society's 2000 online "CyberSeminar" entitled " Nietzsche and Objectivism ."
I was delighted to find myself in substantial agreement with David Potts’ list, and would like to amplify this with some observations of my own:
On the political side, I have always maintained that we must look both at what Nietzsche’s political-*philosophical* commitments are, on the one hand, and also try to see what his hum-drum political commitments are, without assuming too tight a linkage between them. In my personal experience, I’ve noticed that most people, philosophers and non-philosophers alike, are much more mutable in their justificatory thinking than they are in their actual political opinions. The limited historical evidence suggests that, whatever his views on ultimate grounds, Nietzsche was, from the mid-1870s on, in favor of limited government focused on the securing of property-rights, disarmament (I don’t think we discussed this, but it’s there, in Wanderer #284), cosmopolitanism, European unification, and an ever-increasing distaste for manifestations of German nationalism. Interestingly, most of these views also appear in Schopenhauer, whose metaphysics and epistemology may be even more disturbing than Nietzsche’s. However, Nietzsche’s *influence* has not stressed these aspects of his thought, Kaufmann notwithstanding, and most people who have had their own politics influenced by Nietzsche have either embraced deplorable views on the far right or the far left (e.g., Foucault), with the latter currently predominating. So I think that there are plenty of grounds for criticism here, but it should be mitigated by the fact that Nietzsche’s real political sympathies were quite different from those “entailed” by his thought and derived from it by others.
Most people whose politics is influenced by Nietzsche have either embraced deplorable views on the far right or the far left.
A second point is one that I ultimately owe to Ayn Rand herself, though I had to rediscover it for myself to see how right she is. A few years back I had a close personal relationship with someone born and raised in Europe. Many puzzling personality traits kept popping up that seemed, well, irrational; talk with another friend led to their making a statement that they had had a very similar experience with someone else from the same country. Out of an unrelated curiosity, I found myself reading a *travel* book recently, Understanding Europeans, and saw these very same traits being discussed. They are precisely the traits on Potts’s negative list. To paraphrase and summarize the book: Europeans have suffered from so many centuries of violence, and oppression imposed by violence, that it is *baked* into their sense of the world. (One example: how many Americans walk over old battlefields and past ancient fortresses every day? How many Europeans?) To be pessimistic means to accept that life is war, sometimes by other means but often not, to thrive you must carve out your piece, by force if necessary, before others carve a piece out of you, winners can afford to be excellent, losers are compelled to submit. Rational debate is just war by other means. Listening to what someone else is trying to say, being open to the possibility of being wrong, being willing to change your mind in the face of another’s superior reasons is just prudentially *stupid*--it is to hand a knife to an enemy. Debates never change anyone’s mind, and not being deeply skeptical about the importance of reasoning is a sign of deplorable naiveté. Life is suffering but the better people create pockets of beauty amidst it. To be *optimistic* means: perhaps someday everything just described can be washed away by a cleansing act of revolutionary violence.
And us? Americans: are naive and stupid, smile too much, have no sense of reticence or caution or privacy, are tacky, make friends too easily, and are absurdly overconfident; their reluctance to embrace the revolutionary cleansing fire means that on some level they must *like* the fact that the world is as the Euro-pessimist describes it.
I was brought up with the Liberal Myth that there was something called the West, which was just like America, but included Western Europe. But we deeply misunderstand Western European culture and values if we project our own trust, confidence, reasonableness, and good-naturedness on it. At the risk of overgeneralizing, when an American expresses views that express confidence in reason, justice, progress, etc., we *believe* it. When Europeans express the same views, they are either an expression of what is thought to be an unattainable ideal, or else a cynical mask for the pursuit of power. In short, Nietzsche’s views were not all that strange--it was his open profession of them that amazed Europeans, and his refusal to say that it at least *shouldn’t* be that way. And today, for example, among the French, he is celebrated for his wisdom and honesty, precisely because of the Byronic things on Potts’s list #2.
Ayn Rand understood all this, as a European-American immigrant. When she said that Nietzsche thought you had to choose between being an exploiter or being exploited, and that he preferred the exploiter, she was *basically* right at the deepest level, however Nietzsche might’ve wanted to *vote* (if he had voted). And when she said, elsewhere, that this was the way Europeans in general tend to think, she was basically right about that too (you’re suppose to openly disapprove of it—that’s the Christian legacy--while privately acknowledging its inevitability and seeking your own advantage within it). And when she said that Americans had discovered, at least on the level of sense of life, a fundamentally different stance, feeling, and way of living, beyond the false alternative of exploiter and exploited, she was right about that too. She knew first-hand. I wonder if she ever fully overcame her own Europeanness. But I do think that she gave us the opportunity to see ourselves through alien eyes and to learn just how unusual we are.
In short: Nietzsche’s views are shocking to us, but what made them shocking to Europeans was not what he said, but *that* he said it. What he said was a kind of silent conventional wisdom in his broader culture. Getting a sense of that takes us a long way toward understanding him. And ourselves.