Pre-eminence and the Status of Politics

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“…all superior men who were irresistibly drawn to throw off the yoke of any kind of morality and to frame new laws had, if they were not actually mad, no alternative but to make themselves or pretend to be mad—and this indeed applies to innovators in every domain and not only in the domain of priestly and political dogma…” (Daybreak, 14).

In contrast to some of the shrewder commentary on Nietzsche’s politically charged philosophy, I would like to try and sketch out my case that Nietzsche’s middle works (Human, All Too Human and Daybreak) do not constitute anomalous representatives of the whole, but a much more thoroughly nuanced discussion of politics than Nietzsche grants his other books. It would be facile to say that Nietzsche is only concerned with morality in these works, and that his true political ruminations will come later. Even if the tone of these works does not immediately resemble that of the later works, there is no viable reason to avoid theorizing some of the most provocative statements I have come in contact with in reading Nietzsche’s oeuvre. Understanding how morality brings about the political conditions of its overcoming will help us to posit a vision of the world and community that does not at all lead to the “great politics”: instead of the latter, in these two books it is always a question of law, history and transformative universalism.

Nevertheless, the importance placed on the middle works is only relevant here to me as a secondary interest (read: they are being used as material or as a foil) insofar as they promote a general (problematic) reciprocity between the political theorization of Nietzsche and Aristotle; it is above all in Human All Too Human’s infamous section “A Glance at the State” where we see Nietzsche coming close to a classical description of the different forms of government which were relevant for his time (hence the critiques of socialism, utilitarianism, and above all democracy).

In fact, a quick skim of Aristotle’s Politics against this section may give some the impression that Nietzsche slept with a copy of the Politics under his pillow during this time. Yet, as I intend to show, the methodology with which these two thinkers approach the subject of politics are almost diametrically opposed: we could say that Nietzsche’s politics here is “open,” whereas Aristotle formulates a “closed” view. This is the same as arguing that Nietzsche, in the middle works, operates according to a logic of transformational politics, and Aristotle is mainly concerned with a generative outlook.

In order to prime the reader for a broader, more macroscopic view of this opposition, it will suffice to study the position of the pre-eminent individual and to describe its specific relevance (as a concept) in each of the discourses at hand. In a word, the crux of this opposition could be formulated as thus: Aristotle tells us what virtues are, and that they are various due to the “constitution” of a state (hence he records and calculates them like a moral empiricist), whereas Nietzsche pushes thought (sometimes through a historical generalization, sometimes through a “speculative” projection) to be open or receptive to future or undetermined, even impossible or imperceptible virtues: “If only they would let us feel in advance something of the virtues of the future! Or of virtues that will never exist on earth, though they could exist somewhere in the universe…” (Daybreak, 551). Our guiding thread in this consideration is to establish the point of confluence where Aristotle, despite himself, comes to agree with Nietzsche’s later reflection that “Only where the state ends, there begins the human being who is not superfluous” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, I, “On the New Idol,” 163).

The Generation and Restraint of Politics

During the course of the Politics, there are three unique groups that become distinguished and come to form the core of Aristotle’s political theory. There are the middle class, which is unique in an essential way for Aristotle. This class guarantees a more or less homogeneous continuum crossing the hierarchy of the lower and upper class (they are the architects of “mobility” as we would say in contemporary American capitalism). Since this “group” is actually a cohesive class (in Aristotelian terms), they will not stand out here but will be illuminated later on in terms of Nietzsche’s “free-radical” class of atheists.

There are also two types of individuals who are placed at the extreme ends of the social spectrum. These extremes are characterized in terms of a (positive and negative) relation to the Law. He writes: “legislation is necessarily concerned only with those who are equal in birth and in capacity; and that for men of pre-eminent excellence there is no law—they are themselves a law” (1284a10-15). In order to fully characterize this statement concerning the pre-eminent individual, who is above the law due to some quality/virtue=x (to an nth degree), it is necessary to formulate its opposite, the outcast or ostracized individual, (who is beneath the law to the same extent). Aristotle writes elsewhere: “[I]n some places…they have recourse to ostracism. But how much better to provide from the first that there should be no such pre-eminent individuals instead of letting them come into existence and then finding a remedy” (1302b15-21).

Here something extraordinary occurs in the Aristotelian discourse: both the ostracized individual beneath the law and the pre-eminent individual above the law become reconciled as having the same identity. In other words, Aristotle formulates the outcast to be just as much a pre-eminent individual as the individual who “is” him/herself a law. This identity, which is often ignored in the Politics because of its tangency or marginal aspect, actually indicates an (obvious) decision concerning Aristotle’s relentless support for the middle class (his hatred of extremes), but more fundamentally highlights the radical identity of the madman/evildoer/criminal and the moral experimenter/creator/engineer/free spirit, etc.

Furthermore, Aristotle has shown that his political model attends to the stability of the state and the law, putting both on the side of the good and the normal (the calculable), and thus has to de-legitimate the rights of the pre-eminent individual to exist. In other words, the pre-eminent individual, who has the ability to transgress beneath or beyond the law, should be guarded against (from the state’s point of view) in order to secure maximum stability for the changes (in law or constitution) that could inherently threaten the state at large.

This is one of the tenets of Aristotelian social theory that leads to the conclusion of a closed or generative outlook on politics. In other words, from a given average distribution of equality, property, capital, virtue, centralization, etc., what will a city’s governmental consistency look like? Anything that falls outside the scope of this “moderate” model scrambles the codes that allow such a combination of conditions to generate a macroscopic identity of the social machine. Fundamentally Aristotle imagines the state and its existence through time via average models at an equilibrium of power relations. In other words, he envisions such a model of averages—which precludes the existence of extreme types able to circumvent the stability of the model—that fundamentally adheres to the belief that moral normality assures the consistency of any politics generated.

Against the generalized extirpation and eradication of the free-spirit/overman/madman, etc. we will oppose a Nietzschean vision of the pre-eminent individual that will partially share in some of the Aristotelian premises, but which will be led to extract conclusions which were foreclosed to the static model of the latter. The main reason why Nietzsche’s politics is considered “open” or “transformational” lies in the fact that he does not consider any order, moral, cosmological, etc. to be inherently good in-itself. In fact, the very stagnation of the good is something that itself can be irrational and dishonest in the guise of reason (like all morality/ideology), and so the evil or insane quality of the pre-eminent individual will not only be required by Nietzsche as a counterforce to dominant social equilibria, but also the means to true re-evaluation of mankind’s real goals which have not been formulated adequately by any morality in-itself, i.e. a transformational politics.

Morality and Law: the “Givenness” of Culture

This fundamental identity, obscured at first, in fact exemplifies one of the guiding threads of Daybreak: in his middle works (Human All Too Human, Daybreak, and The Wanderer and His Shadow), one of the main problems for Nietzsche is: how do we dismantle morality, or better, how do we uproot the sense for morality? Nietzsche believes that morality is nothing but the obedience to customs, i.e. the traditional way of behaving (Daybreak, 9). We obey morality because it commands from authority and not because it is useful. Thus freedom and custom for Nietzsche are antithetical terms at this stage of theorization: the individual is to sacrifice himself to morality, or face being “marked” as evil. Nietzsche argues that because of this, everything original and creative (free) has become demonized by the morality of custom. What is the relationship between the evil man or the “madman” who comes up against the law (which can be considered the reification of customs backed by the pressure of punishment)?

But Nietzsche is quick to note that “the real world is smaller than the imaginary” (10). With our ability to expand our knowledge of causality, the superstitions supporting our indebtedness to custom become weaker and weaker. It is in this strict sense that Nietzsche envisions science to have the means of developing a much more critical use of history. On the other hand, there are backwards developments in this area as well: Nietzsche is quick to reject any sort of popular moralizing on the part of thinkers; if anything, moral science would be a contradiction in terms, let alone what he calls a “pseudo-science” (11). It is also in this sense that developing the critical angle of history is akin to developing the machinery for the subterranean man, plowing beneath established morals.

To return to our earlier remarks about the evil person in relation to the law, it is important to note that very early on in Daybreak Nietzsche pleads for us to root out the concept of punishment (13). The title of the section is interesting as always: it reads, “Towards the re-education of the human race.” There are not only social effects to punishment, but there are also metaphysical (causal) and psychological effects as well: not only does punishment take root in the “consequences” that we contemplate, it has also “robbed of its innocence the whole purely chance character of events” (13). When Nietzsche says “they…demand that we feel our existence to be a punishment,” he is emphasizing the role that the law takes on by marking the criminal down to his metaphysical core: it breeds nihilism, negativity, and, at best, resignation or bad conscience. Later reason will take on the dastardly role of being the metaphysics of the hangman, but it is interesting to note at this stage that morality is very far from being rational! However, Nietzsche would agree that reason, like morality, hangs above us as an ideal, and that, in a sense, morality profits from the general notion of “reason” because it helps mark those who belong to the dominant reality and those whose bodies and minds need assistance.

There is a sense that Nietzsche’s comments about madness and creativity coincide perfectly with the question of rationality, criminality and punishment. Although Kierkegaard would focus on Abraham and refer to it as the teleological suspension of the ethical, Nietzsche argues that madness was a positive asset for the free spirit who refused to submit himself to morality. In fact, madness served as a tool even for some who had to “pretend” (I’m thinking of Odysseus when he first refuses to go to the war) (14). In a way that presages his reflections on Paul in section 86, Nietzsche fabricates a quote from one of these madmen. It reads:

“‘Madness, that I may at last believe in myself!…I am consumed by doubt, I have killed the law, the law anguishes me as a corpse does a living man: if I am not more than the law I am the vilest of all men. The new spirit which is in men, whence is it if it is not from you? Prove to me that I am yours; madness alone can prove it’” (14).

(Socrates’ daemon?)

In essence, for the madman become criminal, if he is not greater or above the law, then she is necessarily evil. The image of the deed attached by society becomes unbearable to the criminal, and becomes the source of his bad conscience. But madness effectively disconnects the social machinery of guilt and also generates the belief in oneself which had to be greater than or equal to the law; the law handed down from above (custom, God, culture, etc.) as absolute had to become contingent, an act which theoretically holds the transcendent authority of the society in contempt. To become greater than the law means to out-absolute the absolute, to absolutize oneself: hence if the madman could not become God through delusions of grandeur, he entertained gods (or daemons) who gave him duties. Yet insofar as one of the goals of the overman is to reach the point where duties and goals are not delegated from on high but actively created by the overman himself, the prototype of the madmen as pre-eminent individual designates that madness is a pre-requisite for the genealogy and de-absolutization of morals. The only absolute that remains is the contingency of all morality, which means that the program of transformational politics is to unravel the consequences of Nietzsche’s basic insight that “morality is a hindrance to the creation of new and better customs” (Daybreak, 19).

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1 Comment

  1. Just at the very end, and I realize you are quoting Nietzsche, the phrase “a hindrance to the creation of new and better customs” bothers me. Isn’t the whole point that there is no absolute good? And if there isn’t, then why not continue with current-day morality if it satisfies? On what basis can Nietzsche demand change – he undercuts himself.

    I better go back and read Aristotle’s Politics. Nietzsche does point out in a fragment somewhere that the Greeks ostracized those who were too superior to the rest of the community.

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