Algo de historia filosófica sobre los dos egoistas hostiles a la modernidad y el apestoso humanismo.
MAX STIRNER AND FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE
Stirner remains a marginal figure in contemporary philosophy and social thought, despite his significant influence on theorists such as Benjamin Tucker, James L. Walker, Dora Marsden, and the writers and activists associated with Liberty and The Egoist. As far as contemporary scholarship is concerned, the work of Saul Newman and Bernd Laska are scholarly efforts to establish Stirner’s relevance to contemporary thought and the critique of modernity. Newman appreciates Stirner as a precursor of the development of “poststructuralist anarchism” and the “politics of postanarchism.” Newman believes that Stirner is a forerunner to postmodernist and postructuralist thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and Jacques Lacan. Laska is most concerned about the lack of appreciation for Stirner’s work. He is also interested in the strands of Stirner’s thought that he believes appear in the writings of Dora Marsden and Friedrich Nietzsche. Much of Laska’s work is oriented toward the discovery of “evidence” that Stirner influenced Nietzsche.
Contemporary perspectives on the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche are considerably different from those of Stirner. Like Stirner, Nietzsche made individualism a central notion in his philosophy, creating a different form of rebellion against the collectivizing and homogenizing forces of modernity. Unlike Stirner, Nietzsche is a very well known thinker who attracts considerable interest within the academy and popular culture. Along with the Russian American novelist and political philosopher Ayn Rand, Nietzsche is the best known proponent of an individualist critique of modernity. Nietzsche is one of the most preeminent philosophers in the scholarship on philosophy in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The research literature on him is vast. There are several scholarly journals and professional associations in Europe and America that are devoted to the analysis of his thought. Many contemporary academics in Europe and America value Nietzsche’s individualism as an important source of the critiques of modernity.
Nietzsche was born in 1844, the same year The Ego and Its Own was first published. His father and grandfather were Lutheran clergymen. In 1864 he entered Bonn University to study theology and classical philology. He dropped theology a year later, as he transferred to Leipzig University. Soon thereafter Nietzsche discovered the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer and was greatly influenced by his atheism and subjectivism. In 1868 Nietzsche met the other great influence on his early intellectual development, the composer Richard Wagner. The next year he was appointed professor of classical philology at Basel University in Switzerland and began a series of visits to the home of Richard Wagner on Lake Lucerne. He volunteered as a medical officer during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, but was quickly discharged after contracting dysentery and diphtheria. He published his first book, The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music, in 1872. This was followed in 1873 with the publication of the first in a series of Untimely Meditations on David Strauss, Schopenhauer, and Wagner. He broke off his friendship with Wagner in 1876 and published his initial criticism of the composer in Richard Wagner in Bayreuth in 1877. In 1883 he published his masterpiece, Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and Nobody, which develops the notion of the overhuman. This was followed in 1886 by Beyond Good and Evil, in 1887 by On the Genealogy of Morals, and in 1888 by a frenzy of publishing that included Twilight of the Idols, The Antichrist, and Ecce Homo. In 1889 he suffered a mental breakdown that effectively ended his career as a scholar and writer. He died in 1900. Some of his unpublished writings and notes were published posthumously as The Will to Power.
Beginning with the publication of The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music, which appeared twenty-eight years after The Ego and Its Own, critics saw some striking similarities between Stirner and Nietzsche. Both were critical of collectivism, the state, morality, Christianity, humanism, and socialism. In the foreword to The Antichrist, Nietzsche introduces his assault on Christianity with a battle cry that could have been written by Stirner: “Reverence for oneself; love for oneself; unconditional freedom with respect to oneself.” Nietzsche was a very wellread scholar, an observation that has prompted egoists and anarchists to suggest that he would have known about The Ego and Its Own and possibly influenced by it.
Did Stirner’s writings have any influence on Nietzsche? Is there any evidence that Nietzsche owes an intellectual debt to Stirner? Are there significant similarities in the thought of the two individualist thinkers? This chapter explores the intellectual relationship, including the similarities and differences, between Stirner and Nietzsche. The chapter argues that, while it seems curious, it highly unlikely that Stirner had a significant influence on Nietzsche. Despite surface similarities that include a critique of modernity based on individualism, the differences in the philosophies of the two individualists are too great to comprise any sort of significant relationship.
The question of whether Nietzsche was influenced by Stirner has a long and interesting history. Part of the reason why there is interest in an intellectual “relationship,” is the suspicion that Stirner and Nietzsche argue for a similar type of egoism. Some anarchists and egoists were adamant about the similarity during the “Stirner revival” at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. From the 1890s to the first couple of decades in the twentieth century, interest in Nietzsche’s work expanded in Europe, Great Britain, and America. The attention Nietzsche received in the 1880s and 1890s sparked a renewed interest in Stirner among radical individualists, part of which included the search for points of convergence in the two philosophies. Tucker’s Liberty, for example, not only introduced English-speaking individualists to the work of Stirner, it also provided the first English translations and discussions of Nietzsche in America. Tucker himself argued that his readers should appropriate ideas from Nietzsche that help make the case for anarchism and egoism, such as Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity and the state. Journals such as Egoism, The Egoist, and The Eagle and the Serpent included enthusiastic commentary about both Nietzsche and Stirner. The title of the last of these journals is a clear reference to the hero’s two animal companions in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Stirner’s writings had been neglected, and were largely unknown, until James L. Walker and George Schumm began discussing them in the 1880s in Egoism and Liberty. Stirner’s primary work was not broadly available to English-speaking audiences until 1907. At the end of the nineteenth century, neither Stirner nor Nietzsche were well-understood in the United States nor in Great Britain, except by a few scholars, as well as anarchist, atheist, and egoist intellectuals. What mattered to the individualist anarchists and egoists in fin de siècle Europe and America was the excitement that accompanied the discovery that both philosophers articulated an individualist opposition to modernity, the state, and the emergent form of monopoly capitalism. Nietzsche and Stirner espoused atheism and egoism. Both attacked capitalism and socialism. Both philosophers resisted the dispossession and downward leveling of persons that egoists and anarchists thought inherent in modernity.
James L. Walker and Georg Simmel were among the few voices in this period who acknowledged the important differences between Stirner and Nietzsche. They cast doubt on the notion that Nietzsche’s thought supported anarchism or the type of egoism that Stirner espoused. Walker said that Stirner articulated the notion of a self-liberated individual, free from law, morality, and ideological control. Stirner worked within the dialectical tradition to complete Hegel’s assault on alienation. Stirner adopted a type of Hegelian view of history in which Christianity and the French Revolution are cited as critical events in the rise of modernity. Both events generated new forms of direct and ideological control. Simmel argued that Stirner eschewed the reverence for nobility that Nietzsche promoted. Stirner was a tough-minded realist, an antihumanist, and a critical thinker who outlined a philosophic and historical foundation for individual opposition to all forms of external control and measurement of the unique individual. His notion of the unique one is open to any and all who are willing to “own” their thoughts and behavior, to appropriate and consume their life for their own self-enjoyment. He despised hierarchy and objected to the treatment of laborers, children, and women. He cultivated an attitude of opposition to the rich and powerful. In contrast, Nietzsche was a humanist, poet, novelist, musician, and artist. He looked to the past for inspiration for the future; he despised Christianity as decadent and urged a renaissance of ancient Greek ideals. Nietzsche argued that systematizers and dialecticians like Hegel lack integrity. Unlike Stirner, Nietzsche approved of Feuerbach’s critique of Christianity because of its humanism. Nietzsche espoused not freedom and self-ownership, but duty, harshness, creativity, and sincerity. Unlike Stirner, he was a philosopher of elitism and nobility who sought the evolution of a spiritual ideal that would transcend human weakness and mediocrity.
THE CONTROVERSY OVER STIRNER’S INFLUENCE
The broad interest in egoism and the notion of the “superman” in modernist literature and criticism in the early 1900s encouraged interest in, and conflated the thought of, otherwise divergent “individualist” writers and philosophers. Perhaps the most noteworthy of the efforts to equate “egoists” and “supermen” was James Huneker’s study of Stendhal, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Ibsen, Nietzsche, and Stirner, entitled Egoists, A Book of Supermen. Huneker was an American music critic who was best known for his study of Chopin. He was also proficient in the study of literature and the arts. He was one of the first to analyze and comment on Ibsen, Wagner, Nietzsche, and Stirner in English. He published a lengthy analysis of Stirner in the New York Times in April 1907, soon after Byington’s translation of The Ego and Its Own appeared. This early essay eventually stirred a discussion on the paper’s editorial page in 1909 and became Huneker’s chapter on Stirner in Egoists. The 1907 article clearly states Huneker’s surprise at learning that Nietzsche, the poet and rhapsodist, had a forerunner in Stirner. Noting the stylistic differences, and Walker’s early admonition against any equation of Stirner and Nietzsche, Huneker nevertheless makes the first case in English, in the New York Times no less, for a relationship between the “prophet of egoism” and the “poet of egoism.” Huneker’s article on Stirner and his book on egoists cemented the idea in public discourse in America and Great Britain that Nietzsche was influenced by Stirner. Huneker reports that in the 1890s he began to understand “that Nietzsche used Stirner as a springboard, a point of departure.” It is in the chapter on Nietzsche in Egoists where Huneker is most direct about Nietzsche’s debt to Stirner. According to Huneker, Nietzsche was a philosopher who lacked “originality” and “was not one of the world’s great men.” His work has “the familiar ring of Max Stirner and his doctrine of the ego.” Moreover, Stirner must have “imitated Nietzsche in advance” and the “dyed-in-the-wool Nietzscheans” never acknowledge that their “master had read and digested Max Stirner’s anarchistic work, The Ego and Its Own.”
Although it had little effect on the reception of either Nietzsche or Stirner in Great Britain and America, the question about the relationship appeared initially two decades earlier in Germany just as Nietzsche’s writings were gaining renown. The arguments in favor of Stirner’s influence on Nietzsche were typically based on hearsay and circumstantial evidence. In 1889, Eduard von Hartmann, the author of The Philosophy of the Unconscious (1869), which discusses Stirner’s ideas, publicly accused Nietzsche of plagiarizing Stirner. Hartmann’s accusation was taken as significant evidence of Stirner’s influence because Nietzsche had written a hostile review of Hartmann’s book in the second of his Untimely Meditations. Hartmann argues that Nietzsche must have known about Stirner since Nietzsche knew The Philosophy of the Unconscious intimately and focused his critique on the chapter that discusses Stirner. A similar accusation arose earlier in Nietzsche’s career that he must have known about The Ego and Its Own because it is discussed in Friedrich A. Lange’s 1866 book, The History of Materialism, another intellectual history that Nietzsche devoured in his youth. Lange’s survey of materialist thought is the same book that inspired John Henry Mackay to learn the facts of Stirner’s life and thought.
Some of Nietzsche’s friends also claimed that he knew about Stirner and, at a minimum, felt some affinity with the dialectical egoist. Nietzsche spent some time living with Franz and Ida Overbeck at different points during 1880–1883. After Nietzsche’s death, Franz Overbeck confirmed the claim of Adolf Baumgartner, reportedly Nietzsche’s favorite student, that he borrowed The Ego and Its Own from the Basel University library on July 14, 1874, “on Nietzsche’s warmest recommendations.” Ida Overbeck also reported that Nietzsche once mentioned his appreciation of Stirner, but then retracted his statement fearing another accusation of plagiarism. “Forget it,” he told her. “I did not want to mention it at all.” Further, there is circumstantial evidence that Nietzsche may have discussed Stirner with his early mentor, Richard Wagner, who was certainly familiar with Stirner and knew the anarchist Michael Bakunin very well. Nietzsche was also friends with the conductor Hans von Bulow, Cosima Wagner’s first husband. Bulow was a great admirer of Stirner, probably knew him personally, and even worked with John Henry Mackay to place a memorial plaque at Stirner’s last residence in Berlin. Nietzsche and von Bulow held long conversations in Basel in 1872, exchanged gifts, and were friendly at least until 1889. The suggestion is that Nietzsche learned about Stirner from one of his strongest supporters in the arts. There is also some newer research on the “relationship” between Stirner and Nietzsche that argues that Eduard Mushacke, the father of one of Nietzsche’s school friends, had been a close friend of Stirner. Nietzsche apparently developed a friendship with the “old Mushacke.” The conversations between the two reportedly generated Nietzsche’s “initial crisis” that led to his study of Arthur Schopenhauer and, presumably, an individualist turn informed by, or inspired by, Stirner.
Many anarchists and Stirnerites felt invested in the controversy because, if Nietzsche was influenced by Stirner, the lack of acknowledgement amounts not only to the unfair marginalization of Stirner, but is also a backhanded vindication of his ideas. Even though Stirner himself is a minor figure in the history of philosophy, the argument goes, he had more influence through Nietzsche’s philosophy than previously thought. For their part, the Nietzscheans typically dispel any argument or evidence of an influence in order to maintain the image of their master’s originality. It is important to emphasize that Nietzsche does not quote, debate, nor reference Stirner anywhere in his books or letters. Moreover, the evidence of plagiarism is either nonexistent or extremely nebulous; the accusations of plagiarism and the assertions of influence are based on perceived similarities in ideas. Although the young Nietzsche wrote during a period in which Stirner’s work was largely ignored, it is hard to believe that he would knowingly appropriate Stirner’s work thinking that scholars would not discover any deception. Plagiarism is an extremely unfair accusation to level against Nietzsche since there is no study that provides a side-by-side comparison of the ideas and passages that were supposedly appropriated from Stirner.
If there are significant parallels in the thought of Stirner and Nietzsche, it should be possible to identify similarities in the methodological and theoretical frameworks they developed. If Stirner developed a dialectical egoist critique of modernity, then Nietzsche should have comparable views on the dialectic, egoism, and modernity. This is far from the case.
Nietzsche and the Dialectic
From a methodological standpoint, if Nietzsche had been significantly influenced by Stirner, he should have used the dialectic to examine history, society, and knowledge. It is true that Socrates, Hegel, and Feuerbach appear prominently in Nietzsche’s writings and that he had a complex perspective on all three. However, Nietzsche was clearly an enemy of the dialectic. His comments on Socrates, Hegel, and Feuerbach are ambivalent, at best. He respects Hegel’s German nobility and he likes Feuerbach’s atheism and humanism. But he hates Hegel’s efforts at systemization, and mocks his emphasis on what humans are becoming instead of what they are. None of Nietzsche’s positive comments on the three dialecticians has anything to do with the dialectic. The differences between Stirner and Nietzsche are the sharpest in their perspectives on Socrates and the dialectic.
Like Nietzsche, Stirner is critical of the Socratic dialectic, but unlike Nietzsche, Stirner objects to the incipient humanism in Socrates’ thought. Stirner argues in The Ego and Its Own that Socrates’ creation of ethics destroyed the particularity of individuals promoted by the Sophists. Socrates elevated an ideal concept of the universal human being. Stirner appreciates that the Socratic dialectic is subversive because it counterposes human subjectivity, or individual reason, to the prevailing rationales for social control; the Socratic dialectic unleashed critical thought against the fixed ideas of ancient Greece and antiquity generally. The Socratic dialectic promoted “a higher presupposition” in both thought and society because it challenged the prevailing ideas of antiquity and the legitimations of aristocratic domination.
Nietzsche views Socrates as decadent, not progressive, precisely because he subverted Greek culture, especially the nobility and beauty idolized by the aristocracy. The Twilight of the Idols includes Nietzsche’s most hostile comments on Socrates and his dialectic. To begin with, Socrates was born in the lower social orders, part of the “rabble” whose “ugly” and “monstrous” face reflected a “monstrous” soul. His “dissolute character,” “anarchic instincts,” and resentment toward the aristocracy combined to forge the dialectic into a weapon that undermined authority and discredited prevailing values. “[T]he stuperfetation of the logical and that barbed malice which distinguishes him” are also evidence of Socrates’ decadence. Prior to Socrates, the dialectic was repudiated in Greek culture and politics. In the hands of the Sophists, it was regarded as “a form of bad manners, one was compromised by it. Young people were warned against it. And all such presentation of one’s reasons was regarded with mistrust.” Socrates made the dialectic respectable; he made it a legitimate component of pedagogy and civic discourse. He was a “buffoon” who managed to get himself taken seriously. In so doing he undermined authority because it became necessary for the state and the aristocrats to provide “reasons” or justifications for their commands; authority began to crumble because the acceptance of the legitimacy of commands became dependent on the rabble.
Socrates’ attack on authority and the aristocracy was too much for Nietzsche. “What has first to have itself proved is of little value. Wherever authority is still part of accepted usage and one does not ‘give reasons’ but commands.”19 Nietzsche correctly assesses that the dialectic enables the “rabble” to (a) challenge their masters at least on an intellectual level and (b) interpret history and society in a manner that encourages the overthrow of cultural and political elites. Socrates’ use of dialectics is the exemplar of both. As one of the oppressed, Socrates uses dialectic, irony, contradiction, and conflict as means of expressing resentment toward the privileged classes and fostering the revolt of the rabble. His dialectic is a ferocious “knife-thrust” into the thought of his opponents. Dialectical logic enables Socrates to take revenge on the aristocrats, conquering them and the culture they created. The dialectic is really a weapon that is used in political conquest.
As a dialectician one is in possession of a pitiless instrument; with its aid one can play the tyrant; one compromises by conquering. The dialectician leaves it to his opponent to demonstrate he is not an idiot: he enrages, he at the same time makes helpless. The dialectician devitalizes his opponent’s intellect.
As a political weapon, the dialectic generates mistrust, it encourages doubt, skepticism, undermines certainty. It even promotes distrust of instinct and prerational behavior. Dialectics themselves are rarely a viable route to knowledge. They are not convincing and they do not settle questions about knowledge, life, or history. Dialecticians, like Socrates, are easy to refute and have no lasting effect on discourse. At its best, the dialectic is only an “expedient,” or a “last-ditch weapon in the hands of those who have no other weapon left.” Dialecticians, like Socrates, assign a prominent role to reason in history and in everyday life. Nietzsche is unhappy with that, preferring that individuals and nations be guided by their “instincts.” He admonishes us that
The harshest daylight, rationality at any cost, life bright, cold, circumspect, conscious, without instinct, in opposition to the instincts, has itself been no more than a form of sickness, another form of sickness—and by no means a way back to “virtue,” to “health,” to happiness. . . . To have to combat one’s instincts—that is the formula for decadence: as long as life is ascending, happiness and instinct are one.
Nietzsche rejects everything about the dialectic that Stirner embraces, believing that it challenges authority, instinct, and habit, the historical fetters on individual thought and action. For Stirner, the dialectic is essential to the person’s judgment and intentionality, their ability to assert ownership, or to appropriate and consume life, property, and power. Dialectic is essential to self-enjoyment.
Another important difference is apparent in the nature of the egoism of Stirner and Nietzsche. Like Stirner, Nietzsche clearly advocates for egoism and offers an organized criticism of altruistic morality in several of his books. At times, he describes himself as an “immoralist,” perhaps ironically, and applauds the contemporary value of independence, selfinterest, feeling “responsible for what one intends,” and having “pride in ourselves.” Both Stirner and Nietzsche are extremely critical of altruism, self-denial, and self-renunciation, but Nietzsche’s egoism was not based on a notion of ownness. Instead, it emerged out his inversion of the traditional ethical framework that includes notions of good and evil, and external measures of virtue. His egoism includes a consideration of the inherently selfish or self-interested nature of human action, and the logical and psychological problems associated with altruism. Nietzsche’s egoism and critique of morality is certainly a radical departure from not only altruists, but also those egoists who found morality on hedonic or utilitarian grounds. In opposition to Stirner and his progeny, Nietzsche does not advocate for the abolition of morality in favor of any form of ownness, self-ownership, or individual subjectivity. Furthermore, Nietzsche argues in favor of the use of external standards to assign value to the choices and actions of individuals. Nietzsche challenges traditional conceptions of morality, particularly the antagonism between self-interest and selfsacrifice. He argues that the self-interested actions of noble souls also serve greater purposes. Nietzsche intends to reinvent or reconstruct morality based on more heroic values. Unlike Stirner, he does not counterpose morality with egoism, nor does he see morality as inherently inimical to the individual.
Nietzsche’s egoism is defined by three important points. First, morality poses a significant philosophic problem, but it is a cultural necessity. The nature of morality and its uses can only be understood through its inversion; that is, by upending how people traditionally understand its concepts and purposes. Morality is necessary not because the “evil wild beast” inside humans needs to be constrained by cultural prescriptions of good and evil, but because, as tame animals, the people who populate modernity “are an ignominious spectacle and require moral disguising.” The “European disguises himself in morality because he has become sick, sickly crippled animal, who has good reasons for being ‘tame,’ because he is almost an abortion, an imperfect, weak and clumsy.” Amoral fierce beasts do not need any moral disguise, they simply act and recognize that it is their power, not their right that matters. It is the tame, the gregarious animal, the timid, mediocre modern human being that must “dress up” its mediocrity, anxiety, and ennui with morality. The mass of humanity, what Nietzsche calls “the herd,” legitimates and dramatizes its weakness and mediocrity through morality. Ultimately, morality has little to do with universal notions of right and wrong. It does not constrain human aggression or the passions. Instead, it is a marker that separates the herd from exceptional individuals, the overhumans; it differentiates the masters from the slaves. Each social category is marked by its own morality. The most important function of egoism in Nietzsche’s philosophy is to legitimate the sense of the overhumans that they are special, not bound by the “prejudices” and rules that govern ordinary human behavior.
Second, Nietzsche’s rejection of altruism is no less adamant than Stirner’s but it has a different goal. In Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche says, “the feelings of devotion, self-sacrifice for one’s neighbor, the whole morality of self-denial must be questioned mercilessly and taken to court.” In The Gay Science, he unequivocally states that selflessness “has no value either in heaven or on earth; the great problems all demand great love, and it is only the strong, well-rounded, secure spirits, those who have a solid basis, that are qualified for them.” He makes clear that self-renunciation characterizes particular types of individuals and that it is a fact of life that some will dominate and others submit.
I see in many men an excessive impulse and delight in wanting to be a function; they strive after it, and have the keenest scent for all those positions in which precisely they themselves can be functions. . . . Such beings maintain themselves best when they insert themselves in an alien organism; if they do not succeed they become vexed, irritated, and eat themselves up.
It is not necessarily a matter of virtue or ethics that some persons transform themselves into dominant creatures and subordinate others. It is simply a matter of necessity and nature. Morality, benevolence, and altruism, therefore, are a matter of perspective, “according as the stronger or the weaker feels benevolent.” Third, Nietzsche’s egoism differentiates
between noble and petty actions, and argues that the value and, therefore, the interests of some persons are more important than others.
The value of egoism depends on the physiological value of him who possesses it: it can be very valuable, it can be worthless and contemptible. Every individual may be regarded as representing the ascending or descending line of life. When one has decided which, one has thereby established a canon for the value of his egoism. If he represents the ascending line his value is in fact extraordinary—and for the sake of the life-collective.
If the person represents the “descending development, decay, chronic degeneration,” she or he has little value and should not be able to sponge off of the “well-constituted.” The qualities of individuals, and the egoistic choices that individuals make, have value according to the “canon” defined by “ascending life.” Thus, for Nietzsche, noble actions and the actions of the noble serve both the interest of the individual actor and a larger social and historical purpose, the ascending line of the “life-collective.”
From a Stirnerite point of view, the problem with Nietzsche’s egoism is that it includes an assumption of an external standard, or a “canon of the ascending line of the life-collective,” that should be used to measure nobility or pettiness of actions and the importance of individuals. What is this canon and where did it come from? How can individuals know if their actions are noble or petty? How can they know which individuals are more important than others? Nietzsche’s supposition of a “canon of the ascending line of the life-collective” is nothing more than what Stirner would call a “spook.” It is a humanly constructed fiction that is attributed the appearance of an external, constraining, and absolute yardstick to assess the value of actions and persons. It fundamentally contradicts Stirner’s notion of egoism since ownness opposes the application of any external measure of value to the person’s qualities or actions. Individuals are the totality, they are not part of some mystical life-collective. Individuals are unique; they are without “norm.” Stirner’s critique of self-renunciation was based on his judgment that all forms of external measurement contradict ownness. It is impossible for individuals to own their lives, minds, and bodies if they renounce their ability to assign meaning and value to themselves, to others, and to objects in the external environment, in favor of some external canon. Egoism, ownness, the affirmation of self, entails an absolute rejection of external measures of meaning and value.
Nietzsche’s Critique of Modernity
Stirner and Nietzsche are both resolute enemies of modernity, but they define modernity differently and oppose it for different reasons. Stirner equates modernity with the domination of individual thought and action by humanist ideology. For Stirner, modernity is not a condition of nihilism nor a void of meaning. It is a condition in which the human reigns supreme. Modernity, the hegemony of the human as an ideal form was rooted in the universalist ethics created by Socrates and evolved out of Christianity, empiricism, and the political, social, and humane forms of liberalism. Modernity was fully totalized in Feuerbach’s atheism which elevated “Man” to the status of the supreme being. For Stirner, the problem of modernity is not the absence of meaning or value, but the imposition of externally constructed meanings and values that inhibit individuals from contributing to the symbolic environment they inhabit.
Nietzsche also assigns atheism a pivotal role in modernity: modernity arrives as soon as humans announce “the death of god.” But in Nietzsche’s thought, atheism or the proclamation that “god is dead” does not mean that humanity becomes the new supreme being. Humans confront a void that has been filled by a secularized, humanitarian Christianity, an especially decadent and weak slave morality. Modernity is devoid of meaning and value. Persons experience the nihilism of modernity. The concrete manifestations of the nihilistic condition of modernity are evident in all social institutions, including the democratic state, the economy, the church, and marriage. All are decadent, lack meaning, and too weak to regenerate or defend themselves. Modern societies, particularly in the West, have lost the “instincts” that are necessary to make social institutions strong and prosperous. The “modern spirit” includes a concept of “freedom” that encourages persons to live for today, to live very fast, and to live irresponsibly. This concept of freedom is a symbol of décadence. At the root of the problem of modernity is the loss of authority or the rise of the instinct of décadence. If there is no meaning, there can be no authority. And if there is no authority, no one willing to profess or defend social institutions, there can be no meaning. The qualities that define social institutions are
despised, hated, rejected: whenever the word “authority” is so much as heard one believes oneself in danger of a new slavery. The décadence in the valuating instincts of our politicians, our political parties, goes so deep that they instinctively prefer that which leads to dissolution, that which hastens the end.
It is impossible to reverse this degeneration from the inside. Modern social institutions cannot reform or save themselves. The degeneration has to proceed, step by step further into décadence. It is, of course, challenged from the outside by Nietzsche’s reconstruction of morality. Nietzsche’s individualism was based on the philosophic conflict between master and slave moralities, an antagonism that mimics but actually inverts Hegel’s lordship-bondage dialectic. In Nietzsche’s view, human actions must be assessed in terms of their proficiency, the “master morality,” and not their intentions, the “slave morality.” History and culture for Nietzsche are narrations in time and space of the conflict between the master and slave moralities. This is particularly important in modernity, because humanly constructed moralities are all that are left since the “death of god.” For Nietzsche, the master morality reflects all that is noble, strong, and powerful, while the slave morality reflects all that is weak, cowardly, timid, and petty. The master morality challenges the décadence of modernity, while the slave morality hastens it.
In Nietzsche’s thought, the creative energy in history and society is provided by the masters, the exceptional individuals, who intend to impose noble values on a restive populace. This differs dramatically from dialectical theory in which the creative energy in history and society is generated by the servant seeking recognition as an equal, or an autonomous subject. Historically, the master morality is reflected in the will of stronger persons, groups, and nations who impose their will, ethics, economics, and politics on others. The concept of the “will to power” is the basis for understanding human motivation and, ultimately, the formation of social institutions. Humans struggle to impose their will on the world and, inevitably, on other people. The “will to power” is important in the social development of humanity since it eventually results in the overcoming of all that is human—the creation of the Übermensch, or the overhuman, a being who transcends the weakness of modernity and the slave morality. Nietzsche views humanity as merely a bridge between beasts and the overhuman.
There is a type of parallel of the major concepts in the assault on modernity by Stirner and Nietzsche. The unique one and the overhuman are images of a subject that has overcome the alienation inherent in the person’s subjugation to the external mediation of thought and behavior in history and culture. Ownness and the will to power are both principles of thought and action that guide the subject’s opposition to alienation in history and culture. The union of egoists and the master morality are both images of the unfettered subject interacting with others who also reject the alienated conformity of modernity and who act to transcend existing relationships, roles, and expectations. Of course, these parallels are not evidence that Stirner’s writings had a significant influence on Nietzsche, nor are they evidence that the two philosophers articulate the same or similar critiques of modernity. Stirner certainly rejected any notion that the creative energy in history and society is provided solely by the masters who control the polity, economy, and culture. Stirner also rejected the notion that the goal of history, society, or individuality is the imposition of any type of morality, slave or master. Moreover, Stirner’s writings lack any sort of assertion that the “will to power” is the dynamic principle or the driver of individual behavior, although the acquisition and consumption of power are elements of ownness. Nor would the overhuman be anything more than what Stirner would ridicule as a spook or fixed idea that functions only to denigrate and control the thoughts and aspirations of individuals.
The importance of a discussion that dissociates the two philosophies is manifest in the fact that the most significant interpretation and application of Stirner in political theory today is based on the highly improbable assertion that Nietzsche “was clearly influenced by [Stirner].” The problem is that Stirner is still interpreted through the lens of Nietzsche’s critique of modernity, even by those who want to establish Stirner’s relevance to contemporary social and political theory!
Both Nietzsche and Stirner should be understood on their own terms; neither should be interpreted through the lens of the other’s thought. Stirner’s relevance today can be established only by a clear understanding of his ideas, not his ideas filtered through a Nietzschean perspective. An articulation of the similarities and dissimilarities in the ideas of Nietzsche and Stirner has more importance than the debate over Stirner’s direct influence on Nietzsche. The interest in discussing the question, beyond the value of historical accuracy, is in dissociating, not conflating, the two philosophies; the two critiques of modernity are not the same. This study of Stirner focuses on the notion of “ownness,” and its derivatives—the unique one and the union of egoists—as the central concepts in The Ego and Its Own. These concepts are the standards it uses to assess Stirner’s influence on Tucker, Walker, and Marsden. The same ideas, or any similar derivation of them, simply do not appear in Nietzsche’s writings. This is not a criticism of Nietzsche, nor an assertion that one philosophy is superior to the other; it is simply a recognition that the two are very different. Whatever the strengths of Nietzsche’s egoism, and whatever its parallels with Stirner’s egoism, a rendering of the differences between (a) the overhuman and the unique one, (b) the will to power and ownness, and (c) the master morality and the union of egoists, helps definitively dissociate the thought of Stirner and Nietzsche. It thereby augments an understanding of Stirner’s revolt against modernity.
THE UNIQUE ONE MEETS THE OVERHUMAN
Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch or overhuman is easily one of the most recognized ideas in his thought. However, it actually plays a small and somewhat vague role in the entirety of his philosophy. Nietzsche’s definition and characterization of the overhuman is also very limited. The overhuman is discussed with any depth only in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The overhuman is a problematic concept for understanding of Stirner and his influence, because it has been associated with the unique one. The same body of literature that intends to establish Stirner as Nietzsche’s predecessor, also tends to see the overhuman as a poetic restatement of the unique one. In addition, a significant number of the scholars who argue that there are profound differences between Stirner and Nietzsche, also see parallels between the unique one and the overhuman, arguing that the concepts are similar egoist reactions to both humanism and modernity. But these efforts are specious, even with the scant and ambiguous information Nietzsche provides about the overhuman. About all that Nietzsche says about the overhuman is that it (a) is a collective concept, not a reference to an individual; (b) is devoid of the timidity, cowardice, and pettiness that frequently characterizes modern human beings, especially those in leadership positions; (c) aspires to warrior values of greatness and nobility; and (d) acknowledges and relishes the fact that life is risky and adventurous. What appears to matter more than the specific qualities of the overhuman is the rationale for its coming, and what humans must do to prepare for it.
In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche discusses the inspirations and frustrations he experienced as he wrote Thus Spoke Zarathustra, thus creating the concept of the overhuman. When his health permitted in the spring and winter of 1881, Nietzsche would walk in the mornings from Rapallo on the Italian Riviera, where he was living, to Zoagli amid the pine trees. In the afternoon he would walk along the bay from Santa Margherita to Portofino. It was on these walks that the concept of Zarathustra “as a type” came to him, or, as he put it, “overtook me.” To understand Zarathustra as the prophet of a great change, he suggests that one must review his concept of “great health,” which he initially elaborated in The Gay Science. “Great health” is an acknowledgement, an appreciation, and a frustration with the intellectual journey toward discovering new goals, new values, new means, and new ideals, particularly those pertaining to human beings and their actions. The beautiful views of the Mediterranean contrasted sharply with his ill health, shaking Nietzsche with a profound agony that became a metaphor for his disgust with the values and archetypes of modernity. Nietzsche claims insight because he suffers deeply but still appreciates beauty and majesty.
After such vistas and with burning hunger in our science and conscience, how could we still be satisfied with present-day man? It may be too hard but it is inevitable that we find it difficult to remain serious when we look at his worthiest goals and hopes, and perhaps we do not even bother to look anymore.
Nevertheless, Nietzsche looks at “modern man.” He finds the values, hopes, and lives of modern humans inadequate. When we first meet the hero in the early pages of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he has emerged from the cave in the mountains where he has spent the past decade in isolation. He is now a transformed human, overburdened with the wisdom that he wants to bestow and distribute until the wise are once again “glad of their folly” and the poor are once again “glad of their riches.” He encounters a holy man as he descends but he soon parts company, astonished to learn that the holy man has not heard that “god is dead.” He comes to a crowded market in a town and dramatically announces the coming of the overhuman, telling the crowd that the overhuman is to the human what the human is to the ape. His appeal to the mob in the market is that the greatness in humanity, or in themselves, is found in the efforts of persons to lay the foundation for the arrival of this being, or ideal, that transcends the human. “What is great in the human is that it is a bridge and not a goal: what can be loved in the human is that it is a going-over and a going-under.”
Zarathustra says that he loves the humans who sacrifice themselves for the earth so that it will one day belong to the overhuman. He loves those who “will” their “going under” so that the overhuman may live, and those who prepare a home with animals and plants so that the overhuman will have a home with the resources needed to live. Zarathustra’s initial message is not only to announce the coming of the overhuman, and the overcoming of the human, but to instruct his audience in what they need to do to prepare the way for the life of the overhuman and the death of the human. This preparation involves both a “going-over” the bridge that is humanity and a “going-under” so that the human will “live no more.” Individual human beings are not the overhuman and neither is Zarathustra. Zarathustra is the “herald of the lightning from the dark cloud of the human,” and the lightning is the overhuman. Zarathustra’s task is to rally the humans to be more than themselves by contributing to the arrival of the overhuman. Nietzsche tells us directly that Zarathustra is the promoter of a cause, which is the arrival of the overhuman, and he demands the sacrifice of the thoughts, feelings, and activity of individuals to the cause, so that they can be part of something that is more than themselves. Their purpose, the meaning of their lives, the goal they should set for humanity is to assist in the creation of something better than themselves.
As the “herald of the lightning,” Nietzsche speaks through Zarathustra about the failures, limitations, and inadequacies of human beings, encouraging and applauding their “going under,” their sacrifice, in favor of the overhuman. He counterposes the overhuman with “the last human,” and warns his audience about the final, most despicable humans. The last humans are despicable because they have abandoned all interest in transcending the human. They no longer understand or seek to understand love or creation. They have made the earth small and petty. They have contrived happiness. They no longer challenge themselves, but seek only comfort, warmth, and a little pleasure. They do not even realize how despicable they are. But there is still some “chaos” within the souls of humans and Zarathustra will exploit this chaos, work with the “higher humans” to bring about the overhuman. To make way for the overhuman, the human and all of the products of human folly must be overcome. Zarathustra critiques the “new idols,” but this is not the critique of dialectical egoism.
The state is especially singled out for Zarathustra’s wrath because it is the implacable enemy, not of the unique one, but of “peoples and herds” who have a faith and serve the cause of life. The state is the annihilator of peoples; it rules by the sword and generates a “hundred desires” in people, while “moderate poverty” should be praised. Where peoples, tribes, cultures still exist, they despise the state as an abomination against customs and morality. The state creates its own concepts of good and evil, and undermines traditional notions of customs and rights. The state generates superfluous, unnecessary persons who clamor for equality, rights, and material desiderata. It separates people from nobler values of duty, honor, and struggle because its reason for being is to provide security, rights, equality, and freedom from material deprivation. Only where the state ends is where the overhuman begins. Zarathustra assails the political products of equality and individual rights in a similar manner. Humans are not equal and never will be. The deception of equality generates nothing but petty resentment and a desire for revenge; the deception of equality represses nobility. The overhuman will not bring equality nor individual rights, but a clash of rich and poor, the high and low so that life can overcome itself again and again. “And because it needs the heights it needs steps and opposition among steps and climbers! To climb is what life wills, and in climbing to overcome itself.”
Nietzsche’s critique of politics and society is not oriented toward the overcoming of the individual’s alienation from self, nor toward the individual’s assertion of ownership of thought, behavior, and property. His critique is oriented toward the coming of the overhuman. Nietzsche’s assault on the state, culture, religion, and science does not establish any sort of compatibility with Stirner either in form, content, or purpose. Nor does it make him an anarchist or atheist. Nietzsche attacks authority in order to recreate it. Nietzsche attacks the human abstraction, the human essence, in order to make way for the overhuman, a new abstraction, a new essence. The state, culture, religion, and science must go so that there is no competitor for the attention, trust, loyalty, and adulation due to the overhuman. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra wants to rally the mob so that they can sacrifice themselves, effecting the transition to the overhuman. He is not rousing the rabble so they can make the internal and external changes needed to appropriate and consume their own lives. God and the state must die, and so must the human, but this is so the overhuman can live. It is significant that Stirner not only counterposed the state in the abstract to the egoism, the “I,” of the unique one, but he attacked the state in its specific historical and ideological manifestations: the Greek, Roman, ChristianGermanic, liberal, socialist, and humanist. In each case, he outlined the specific form of opposition of the state to the egoism of the individual, extracting from each form the antagonism between the “cause” of the state and the “ownness” of the person. Stirner’s critique of culture, virtue, religion, and science has a similar trajectory: the historical and ideological facts are opposed to egoism, the “I,” and the unique one. They are eventually related back to the opposition between the external “cause” and the ownness of the person. Stirner’s critique of the abstraction—god, state, and humanity—was based on an objection that the essence supplanted the real, concrete individual. The overhuman is an abstraction, an essence, a spiritual ideal. It is another cause that is “more to me than myself.”
Zarathustra proclaims the downfall of modernity, conventional values, and the birth of a new era with a new morality and a new view of greatness that ordinary humans cannot envision, much less achieve. Zarathustra attacks individual humans for what they are, how they live, what they value, and what they aspire to become. They are disparaged because they do not fit the spiritual ideal of the overhuman. He announces the death of god, but does not attack the supernal and mystical expressions of human thought because he knew it would destroy any notion of the supernatural dignity of humanity as the precursor of the overhuman. He wants to resuscitate the supernatural and the mystical so that the overhuman is greeted with awe and admiration. As a supernatural and mystical being, the overhuman dominates the passions and lesser values. The overhuman forms his or her own character ab novo, valuing creativity above all else. The overhuman accepts that life is hard, that injustice occurs, but chooses to live without resentment or any form of pettiness. The overhuman is not motivated by everyday commerce, the necessity of meeting everyday needs, but by the opportunity for greatness and nobility.
The overhuman is the alternative to both god and humanity. Unlike god, the overhuman is not perfect. Unlike humanity, the overhuman embraces perfection as a life-goal. The overhuman struggles for perfection in a world without inherent meaning and without absolute standards. There is no meaning in life except the meaning that persons give their life. There are no standards other than those people create. Most humans—the last humans—settle for petty values and do not attempt to surpass the mediocrity and cowardice of modern life. To raise themselves above meaninglessness, mediocrity, and cowardice they must cease being merely human, all too human. They must be harsh on themselves and each other. They must be disciplined to endure deprivation with joy. They must become creators instead of remaining mere creatures. Nietzsche says that suffering strengthens people and prepares them to overcome mediocrity and cowardice. Harshness, suffering, and discipline are important because there is no other way to prove one’s worth or to transcend modern values. The death of god is an opportunity, not a lament, because a world without god demands that humans transcend themselves. Perfectibility or improvement is the task of the overhuman made possible and necessary by the death of god. The overhuman demands more of self than human beings. The overhuman welcomes difficulties and duties in contrast to humans who demand nothing special, who seek only comfort and satiation, and fail to push themselves toward perfection. The overhuman accepts the risks, terrors, and deprivations inherent in living, but values life without hesitation. The existence and vocation of the overhuman is dangerous. Danger reveals the destiny of persons; those who accept and confront danger transcend humanity and modernity, those who refuse to confront it are condemned to extinction.
Other archetypes of “modern man” are equally problematic in Nietzsche’s concept of the overhuman. Those who idolize the protection and security provided by the state, those who idolize acquisition and consumption, and those who refuse to challenge the Christian ideal of humanity are “worms,” “mere animals,” “mechanical robots;” collectively, they are a “herd.” Nietzsche’s criticism of modernity is a protest against the weakness, complacency, and fake civility of Christian humanism because it imposes a distorted image of what human beings can be. He demands the transcendence of humanity and modernity that will negate the entirety of Christian humanitarianism. Modern human beings must be transcended by the overhuman. The only hope is that the “higher men,” those humans who can still despise themselves, as Nietzsche did during his walks along the Italian Riviera, will recognize the need for a transcendence, and assist the being who can impose some meaning on the purposeless existence of humanity.
The “humanity” that Stirner targeted was rooted in Christianity, but it was not a Christian idea; it was the atheist idea of Feuerbach and Bauer. Stirner’s conflict was not with modernity as a catalog of human failures and inadequacies, it was a fight with modernity as a social system that dispossesses persons of power and property, a culture and ideology that infuse the world with spooks, and a form of cognition and everyday behavior that converts persons into ragamuffins who welcome their dispossession. The unique one is not the overhuman and does not transcend the human. The unique one is the practicing egoist, the individual human being who owns his or her life, thoughts, and actions.
There is no external, overarching purpose for humans. There is no external, overarching meaning. Purpose and meaning are created, destroyed, recreated, and ignored by persons continually. Nietzsche is bothered by the death of god and the lack of inherent meaning in life. He wants it recreated in the form of a new being and a new morality. For Stirner, god was not dead but resurrected as humanity. Humanity is the supreme being of modernity. Stirner objects to the imposition of meaning and purpose by culture and social institutions. Individuals can determine for themselves what matters in their lives. They can appropriate and consume what they find meaningful. Self-liberation is not a matter of discovering prefabricated meaning or waiting for the overhuman to provide it. Perfection and improvement are not measures of liberation, they are external images of how people should live, think, and behave. Ownness is a quality or the act of determining for oneself what images one will use to live; dialectical egoism is the philosophy of living without external measures of value, meaning, or purpose. It challenges the notion that harshness is better than gentleness, that duty is better than choice, that necessity is better than freedom, that perfection is better than imperfection. Stirner did not seek a new morality, a new spiritual ideal, nor a new, improved version of human collectivities. He did not disparage persons; he disparaged social systems, the state, and “the dominion of mind” for what they do to persons. Stirner rejected all supernal and mystical essences. In The Ego and Its Own, humanity is a “spook.” The overhuman is also a spook.
THE WILL TO POWER AND THE WILL TO ACCUMULATION
Nietzsche’s use of different approaches in his writings has been both applauded and criticized. The applause typically comes from scholars who find that his mixture of organized, systematic argument with poetry and epigrammatic free association to be innovative and a pleasant break from more turgid nineteenth century philosophic prose. Moreover, it is also applauded as a stylistic manifestation of his antimodernity. Nietzsche himself said that he mistrusted “systematizers.” The “will to a system” or efforts to create organized philosophic statements based on an identifiable and coherent methodology “lack integrity.” Other scholars warn that the expression of his thought in hundreds of aphorisms creates a false sense that there is no continuity or integration of his ideas, and, thus, there is really no way to resolve his many apparently contradictory statements. As Kaufman argues, while Nietzsche seems direct and clear in his individual statements, even these must be interpreted in the context of the totality of his writings. It is problematic to discern Nietzsche’s intended meaning even in the concepts that recur in his writings. Nietzsche’s method tends to encourage softening the boldness and originality of the concepts such as the overhuman and the will to power.
The problem of interpretation is not unique to Nietzsche, of course. The whole point of scholarship on classical political theory is to articulate the meaning of a theorist’s ideas and defend it based on judgments about the totality of his or her work and the context in which it was written. Nietzsche’s disdain for systemization makes it critical to acknowledge that his diverse approaches are part of the context and present some challenges in interpretation and comparison. Consequently, major Nietzsche scholars debate the role and importance of the “will to power” in the entirety of his thought. Some suggest that it is the notion that undergirds all of his thought; others suggest that this unnecessarily overstates its role and importance. If the goal is to compare Nietzsche to a writer like Stirner, it is helpful to consider the position that the will to power is one of Nietzsche’s signature concepts because of its perceived parallel with the notion of ownness. The concept of the will to power appears in Nietzsche’s notes as early as the late 1870s, but it makes its first appearance in a published work in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In Walter Kaufman’s view, the will to power is the central idea in Nietzsche’s philosophy. What distinguishes Nietzsche’s early work from his “final philosophy” is the inclusion of the will to power which eliminated all of the divergent tendencies in his early writings and reduced them to “mere manifestations of this basic human drive.” As it appears in his mature thought, Kaufman indicates that the will to power provides a principle that helps to unify or to provide some cohesion to Nietzsche’s philosophy.
Nietzsche is fond of using the phrase “the will to . . .” In addition to “the will to power” and “the will to a system,” he also speaks of “the will to truth,” “the will to deception,” “the will to overcome,” “the will to serve,” “the will to master,” “the will to suffer,” “the will to live,” and “the will to deny reality.” The “will to power” appears with such regularity in his writings that Nietzsche gives the impression that it is a core idea that helps integrate or bind whatever integration or cohesion exists in his philosophy. The book that bears the title The Will to Power affirms the centrality of the concept in an ironic and indirect way. The Will to Power was actually assembled and published posthumously by Nietzsche’s sister based on manuscripts he left behind. Several sections of the book discuss the will to power. Some Nietzsche scholars do not regard The Will to Power to be among his most important books. The fact that the assembled materials were entitled The Will to Power, not by Nietzsche but by the executors of his literary estate, is nevertheless a testament to the perceived importance of the concept in his work.
It is also an indication of the perceived importance of the role of the will in overcoming humanity and modernity in his philosophy. Significant discussions of will and the will to power appear in Beyond Good and Evil, Twilight of the Idols, The Anti-Christ, and, his masterpiece, Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
In Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche arguably provides the greatest depth in his discussion of the will to power. Beyond Good and Evil is a critique of the concepts of truth and morality as they appear in philosophy at the end of the nineteenth century. It also outlines the basic elements of Nietzsche’s critique of modernity. The first part of the book attacks two facets of philosophy: (a) the “prejudices of philosophers,” or the practice of presenting their discoveries as absolute, objective truth; and (b) the tendency to frame philosophic problems in terms of opposites, such as “good” and “evil.” Nietzsche argues that such concepts may not be opposites at all, or that they are only “foreground estimates” of a “higher and more fundamental value for life.” The pretense at objectivity and absoluteness in philosophy is suspicious because “all philosophers” are “not honest enough in their work, although they all make a lot of noise when the problem of truthfulness is touched even remotely.” Philosophic methods pose as rational, objective, pure, “divinely unconcerned dialectic” and purport to produce “truth,” when their efforts are really assumptions, hunches, inspirations. Philosophy “baptizes” prejudices as truths, or it converts the subjective pronouncements by philosophers into positive truths that have an aura of objectivity and absoluteness. Nietzsche predicts that “new philosophers” and “new psychologists” will unmask this problem and begin to acknowledge that their discoveries are really reflections of the type of people they are. They will critically examine the practice of isolating opposites and increasingly focus on the discovery of underlying essences.
The “new philosophy” and “new psychology” will admit that all thought and all human action seek to create the world in its own image. They will discover that philosophy is a “tyrannical drive” or a “spiritual will to power” to impose an image on the world. The “will to power” underlies all life, even science, philosophy, and art. Every living thing, including the scientist, the philosopher, and the artist, seeks “above all to discharge its strength—life itself is will to power.” Prior to Nietzsche’s articulation of this idea, the claim goes, the hedonistic philosophers who preceded him expressed egoism in terms of self-preservation. But self-preservation is only one “indirect and most frequent results” of the will to power. The will to power is the more fundamental, more important concept that includes, but transcends, self-preservation. Part of the problem is that the will itself is not well understood, but Nietzsche says that it has physical, intellectual, and emotional dimensions that comprise a totality. The will is a complex of sensations “away from” one object and “toward” another object. It is a “ruling thought” that directs attention, interest, and value; and an “affect of command” that requires obedience. “A man who wills commands something within himself that renders obedience, or that he believes renders obedience.” The will has a duality of commanding and obeying which are deceptively synthesized in the concept of “I.”
The idea of will also includes an assumption, which is often false, that will and action are the same: that the act of willing produces or is linked to an intended outcome. The person who wills something tends to believe that the objective consequences of the action she or he desires are grounded in the will. The “freedom of the will” is the label that persons place on the positive feelings that acts of will enabled them to overcome obstacles. The person wills and the external world obeys. Freedom of the will is the delight one experiences in being a successful commander. Hence, the notion of power, command, and mastery are inherent in the act of willing; command and obedience are inherent in human action, thought, and feeling. For Nietzsche, the “I” is the label that individuals place on the act of willing, including all of the disregarded, erroneous conclusions, and false evaluations of the will.
Nietzsche says that the will is not only a psychological concept, it is an important part of the study of ethics or “the doctrine of the relations of supremacy under which the phenomenon of ‘life comes to be.” As a moral concept, the “doctrine of the will to power” means several things: (a) it is the universal driver of individual behavior; (b) there is a hierarchy of value, or a “supremacy,” of what the person wills; and (c) it structures social relationships.
The Will to Power as the Source of Behavior
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil, and The Will to Power, Nietzsche clearly establishes the idea that the will to power is an absolute, universal driver of human behavior. The concept makes its first appearance in his published work in Thus Spoke Zarathustra when the hero proclaims the will to power as the one and only force in the cosmos that motivates all human activities and underlies all life. He says, “Where I found the living, there I found will to power,” and “Only where Life is, there too is will: though not will to life, but—so I teach you—will to power!” In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche tells us that the world when “viewed from the inside,” according to its “intelligible character,” is the “will to power” and nothing else. The will to power is not always manifest in the same way, but it does have common characteristics: it is the basis for the overcoming of the self and it always entails command and obedience. The will to power can be expressed in “a thousand and one goals” in as many nations, as Zarathustra says. This moral relativism, however, is both an opportunity and a problem for Zarathustra. The divergent expressions of the will to power in individuals, social institutions, and cultures means that it is also the basis for the overcoming of the human and for the coming of the overhuman. Zarathustra distinguishes between an “ancient will to power” that is concerned with defining good
and evil, or establishing once and for all absolute moral strictures for human behaviors, and “the will itself, the will to power,” the life-will, which is always overcoming itself. This “other will” that Zarathustra promotes is oriented to the coming of the Overhuman.
The will to power includes both command and obedience. It entails both mastery and control. “What persuades the living so that it obeys and commands, and in commanding still practices obedience?” Much of Zarathustra’s discussion about the will to power has to do with individuals “overcoming” themselves, achieving more, acting more nobly, subordinating their passions to principles, obeying internal commands to act more responsibly. But, there is also a threat that if they fail to “overcome” what they are, an external force will see that they do. “All that is living is something that obeys. And this is the second thing: whoever cannot obey himself will be commanded.” In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche reveals that the will to power has a very specific contribution to human existence: it makes self-overcoming possible and, therefore, helps pave the way for the overhuman. The will to power is a universal driver of unthinking behavior and the life force, but it is also a dynamic that must be reined in. It is unlikely that individual humans, left to their own devices, will ever succeed in controlling the will to power. They need to overcome their human inadequacies and either assert mastery over their drives, or something like the overhuman will do it for them.
The Will to Power as the Standard of value
What humans will reflects who they are and what they value. Nietzsche places the ascetic spirit at the top of his hierarchy of values. The ascetic spirit includes self-mastery, self-control, and the subordination of the passions and whims to more important goals. The ascetic ideal gives meaning to suffering, or it demonstrates that suffering and deprivation are noble because they make it possible for some humans to achieve greatness. The saint, artist, and philosopher are the most valuable human beings because they are the most powerful. They are the most powerful because they are willing to deprive themselves of comfort, prosperity, and security for nobler pursuits. For Nietzsche, ascetic self-torture, or selfdeprivation, is the source of the greatest possible feeling of power, and therefore ranks at the top of his moral hierarchy. At the bottom of the scale is the uncultured barbarian who, torturing or depriving others, demonstrates no self-mastery and, consequently, is the least powerful. Since Nietzsche equates quantitative degrees of power with forms of behavior, power is the measure of value and the standard of morality.
The ascetic spirit poses a conundrum for the individual: in the quest for perfection, self-mastery, and self-control, one can never have too much power. In The Antichrist, Nietzsche says that the good is “[a]ll that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man.” The bad is “[a] ll that proceeds from weakness.” And happiness is “[t]he feeling that power increases—that a resistance is overcome.” What matters is not contentment, satisfaction, and enjoyment of self, but “more power.” Humans should not value peace, but war because it inures persons to hardship, deprivation, and danger. Morality and standards of human value must change in order to recognize fully the role of the will to power in human life.
Man has one terrible and fundamental wish; he desires power, and this impulse, which is called freedom, must be the longest restrained. Hence ethics has instinctively aimed at such an education as shall restrain the desire for power; thus our morality slanders the would-be tyrant, and glorifies charity, patriotism, and the ambition of the herd.
In contrast to the decadent values of Christianity, proficiency matters more than virtue because the measure of the human is the mastery of self, not compliance with an external code of behavior. The will to power must be the most important human value because “life itself [is] instinct for growth, for continuance, for accumulation of forces, for power: where the will to power is lacking, there is decline” and decadence. Any hierarchy of values really turns out to be a quantitative scale of how much power the individual has. Morality is the will to obtain more power. The will to power, therefore, is not just the fundamental dynamic that structures human sensations, thoughts, and feelings, it is the assurance that “more power,” or the infinite accumulation of power, is the most important human value, even transcending freedom and life itself.
The Will to Power and the Self-other relationship
To what extent does the will to power pertain to power over other people? Some Nietzsche scholars downplay the implication that the concept refers to power over people. Their argument is that the will to power really refers to self-development, mastery over self, or personal strength and efficacy in the world. This line of thinking suggests that Nietzsche did not intend the will to power to refer to political power. Instead, he supposedly presents it as a psychological hypothesis about the underlying force that motivates humans toward achievement and greatness in their lives. These positive outward expressions of the will to power are possible because, inwardly, individuals sublimate their desires, exert self-control, and focus their energy and skill toward the accomplishment of goals they have chosen. For instance, Nietzsche praises Caesar primarily for his self-mastery, or his command of self; his military and political conquests resulted from his ability to control his passions and manage his opportunities productively. The will to power does not mean, first and foremost, that there is an innate drive in humans to subordinate others to their will. Instead, it is a combination of sensations, thoughts, and emotions that push individuals toward significant accomplishments made possible by self-mastery.
The will to power is a universal driver of human behavior, but it does not guarantee universal results. Some individuals and some efforts succeed in self-mastery and, thus, achievements and greatness; others do not. Those who achieve great things do so by controlling frustration and refocusing their energy and talent on important goals. They appreciate the success and accomplishments of others. Those who cannot achieve will either obsess over their failures and become resentful toward those who succeed and accomplish great things, or they will continue their quest for perfection, striving to accumulate more power. The will to power is initially about self-development, a quest for perfection, and the individual’s efforts to have an impact on the world, or to gratify self through an accomplishment. It also means that the acquisition of power becomes the person’s primary objective: “the straight look that fixes itself exclusively on one aim, the unconditional evaluation that ‘this and nothing else is necessary now.’” The drive to accumulate more power has consequences not only for the self, but for others.
The will to power is about mastery or control of all that is external world to the will. As far as the individual is concerned, the person’s passions and physical being are external to his or her convictions and choices. These must be subordinated to the nobler warrior values Nietzsche identifies. There are no boundaries that restrain the will to power or the person’s mastery over externality. The lack of limits means that the will to power is limitless; its legitimate purview extends beyond mastery of the self and the body, it extends to the person’s interaction with others.
We exercise our power over others by doing them good or by doing them ill—that is all we care for! Doing ill to those on whom we have to make our power felt; for pain is far more sensitive means for that purpose than pleasure: pain always asks concerning the cause, while pleasure is inclined to keep within itself and not look backward. Doing good and being kind to those who are in any way already dependent on us (that is, who are accustomed to think of us as their raison d’être): we want to increase their power because we thus increase our own; or we want to show them the advantage there is in being in our power—thus they become more contented with their position, and more hostile to the enemies of our power and readier to contend with them.
While the will to power initially refers to the individual’s mastery of self, it does not stop there. It has a social component. Nietzsche clearly means that the will to power exists among the powerful and among the powerless. The implication is that the “powerful” and “powerless” both want power and that they differ in terms of how much they have. Power and powerlessness are relative terms based on an external measure of how much power individuals possess. Power is also based on the mastery of others, not just the mastery of oneself. Zarathustra reveals as much when he says, “even in the will of one who serves I found a will to be master” and “[t]hat the weaker should serve the stronger, of this it is persuaded by its will, which would be master over what is weaker still: this pleasure alone it does not gladly forgo.” Power has an external measure: the power of one over another.
The will to power is directed toward mastery, command, and obedience in regard to the individual’s relationship with self and in regard to the individual’s relationship with others. It is important to acknowledge that the will to power has a social dimension to it. Nietzsche states in several places the idea that some persons are more powerful than others and that individuals seek to have power over others. He even states that the will to power is expressed in institutionalized power relations, particularly in the state. From a Stirnerite point of view, there is no shame in this. Certainly, one of the aspects of ownness is the will to power, although Stirner does not use that phrase. Stirner is also quite clear on the point that the effort to impose one’s will on the world and on other people is inherent in life and important if individuals are to own themselves. Marsden developed this idea most forcefully among the intellectuals influenced by Stirner.
In Stirner’s thought, ownness cannot be reduced to Nietzsche’s notion of the will to power. Ownness is also a “will to property” and a “will to selfenjoyment.” The owner or the unique one not only seeks the acquisition and consumption of power, mastery over self and others, but also the acquisition and consumption of property and self-enjoyment. The unique one rejects the idea that the individual must pursue the infinite accumulation of power or the ceaseless pursuit of perfection in any form. Stirner’s critique of capitalism included the objection to the prohibition on consuming and enjoying products, time, and achievements. Accumulation of property or power for the sake of accumulation is anathema to the unique one. What matters to the unique one is the consumption of life, objects, time, and relationships with others. Power and property are not ends in themselves, but are tools for the individual’s self-enjoyment. As such, they are subordinate to the person’s ownership. Neither power nor property has a status that is autonomous to the person’s act of ownership. The will to self-enjoyment imposes limits on the will to power and property. The infinite accumulation of power and property negates the consumption and enjoyment of life. Stirner’s concept of ownness contradicts Nietzsche’s notion of the ascetic spirit. Nietzsche would likely consider the pursuit of property and selfenjoyment as barbaric and uncultured. The unique one is unimpressed because, in opposition to Nietzsche, ownness means that the person rejects the external imposition of any scale of values. The meaning and value of property and culture is a task for the individual to work out. Any attempt to equate Nietzsche’s notion of the will to power with Stirner’s ownness inevitably distorts one or both of these ideas.
NIETZSCHE’S REVOLT AGAINST MODERNITY
Perhaps one of Nietzsche’s most important philosophic contributions is his notion of “nihilism.” Nihilism is a solemn and dangerous word which implies a threat to both individual experience and the collective life of persons. While humanism, or the supremacy of the human, was the starting point for Stirner’s egoistic rebellion, nihilism is the starting point for Nietzsche’s rebellion against modernity. Nietzsche describes nihilism as the “gruesome guest” that is the primary descriptor of modernity. Nihilism has social and cultural characteristics, as well as historical origins. It also has implications as individuals attempt to navigate and interpret their everyday experiences.
Culturally, nihilism refers to a circumstance in which the “highest values are losing their value.” Morality is in doubt. It is the “downfall of the moral interpretation of the universe” and a resistance to the attribution of moral qualities to the external world. It is a condition in which there is no answer to the question: “to what purpose?” From the perspective of the individual, nihilism is a sense of purposelessness and meaninglessness, a sense that things lack value and make little sense. As Nietzsche describes modernity in The Will to Power, “We have ceased from attaching any worth to what we know, and we dare not attach any more worth to that with which we would fain deceive ourselves—from this antagonism there is a process of dissolution.” Nihilism is the notion that there are no values and no purpose. It also includes the idea that there is no certainty in knowledge; nothing is really known. There is no truth, no purpose, and no standard of value. Consequently, the strong and powerful are the arbiters of truth, purpose and value.
That there is no truth; that there is no absolute state of affairs—“no thing in itself.” This alone is nihilism, and of the most extreme kind. It finds that the value of things consists precisely in the fact that these values are not real and never have been real, but that they are only a symptom of strength on the part of the valuer, a simplification serving the purposes of existence.
Nihilism is the theory and practice of expunging truth, purpose, and value from culture, society, and individuality. Ultimately, nihilism is the condition in which moral valuations themselves are reduced to condemnations, morality is “the abdication of the will to live.” Nihilism is the rationale for décadence, the logic of modernity. Nihilism is not mere pessimism since the latter is disillusionment with specific circumstances. Nihilism is a much more serious disillusionment; it is disillusionment with the world and existence as such.
Nietzsche identifies two historical sources of nihilism: Christianity and science. Christianity is a source of nihilism because its faith in a man who became a god invited a disdain for the material world people inhabit in favor of a world of fictions. Christian morality is nihilistic because it degrades human beings as they really exist and celebrates humanity as a fantasy. In Christianity, the dignity of human beings is established by god. Christianity, therefore, creates an “overevaluation” of humanity that will have disastrous consequences.
The time is coming when we shall have to pay for having been Christians for two thousand years: we are losing the equilibrium which enables us to live—for a long while we shall not know in what direction we are traveling. We are hurling ourselves headlong into the opposite valuations, with that degree which could only have been engendered in man by an overvaluation of himself.
Christianity made faith in god unstable, it disrupted the “equilibrium which enables us to live,” because it equated god with a man. The contradiction of Christianity is that it demands faith in a man who became a god, but its morality demeans real men! How can people be expected to maintain their faith in the divinity of a demeaned being? Christianity prompted nihilism because it unwittingly undermined faith in the absolute.
Faith in god was replaced with faith in science and reason. Science and reason attempt to refute religious myth with facts, but they prove to be another body of myths and prejudices that also denigrate the human. In some ways, science is worse than Christianity, or it is more important than Christianity in laying the foundation for nihilism. Science undermined the dignity religion attributes to humanity by arguing that human existence is an accident; the purposelessness and meaninglessness of human existence is inherent, it is built into the cosmos. The scientific and rational theft of human purpose and value only reinforces and contributes to the negation of human dignity that results from the projection of human power onto god. Science and reason also have epistemological dimensions that contribute to nihilism and décadence. Kant destroyed the fundamental unity in scientific and rational inquiry by forever separating the noumenal and phenomenal worlds, the “thing-in-itself” and the “thingas-experience.” Nietzsche knew that the philosophers following Kant, including Hegel, could not reconcile the noumenal and phenomenal worlds except by reconstituting faith as the bridge between the two. With the noumenal and phenomenal alienated forever, the value of human life would be measured “according to categories which can only be applied to a purely fictitious world.” Science and reason can only tell us things about the phenomenal world, the world created by science and reason. Religion and science both leave human beings without access to knowledge about the world they inhabit.
Nihilism has earthly, societal, everyday causes and consequences as well. It affects all social institutions and all forms of human interactions. Nihilism is the social and cultural reality of modernity. Its social and cultural traits include:
1. Philosophy and the natural sciences become characterized by theories and measures that reinforce purposelessness, unintentional causality, mechanism, conformity to natural law;
2. In politics, individuals abandon beliefs in their own rights and innocence. Falsehoods ensure order and encourage worship of temporary regimes and causes;
3. In political economy, slavery is abolished, as is every possibility of a “redeeming class,” that can justify authority and order;
4. In history, human experience is reduced to fatalism and Darwinian concepts of natural selection in which success and failure are assumed to occur by chance;
5. In culture, all attempts at reconciling reason and faith are abandoned;
6. In psychology, “biographies can no longer be endured!” Individual qualities no longer matter; character is regarded as a mask; and
7. In art, romanticism is regarded with repugnance and beauty is redefined as pessimistic “truthfulness.”
Among the social causes of nihilism is the lack of a “higher species” whose power and charisma would “uphold our belief in man.” The “inferior species,” which Nietzsche parenthetically identifies as the “mass” or the “herd,” forgets its “modesty, and inflates its needs into cosmic and metaphysical values.” The mass, the herd consequently vulgarizes all life, tyrannizing over exceptional individuals, so that even these persons lose belief in themselves and others. Individuals are confronted with three basic choices about how they adapt to the decadence. First, they can seek some sort of earthly solution to the problem of life in a social movement that promises the “final triumph of truth, love, justice, socialism, equality of persons.” Second, they can recommit themselves to the fiction of selfrenunciation, display contempt for desires and the ego, elevating altruism, self-sacrifice and the denial of will above all other possible values. Third, they can recommit themselves to a metaphysical interpretation of their lives which attributes divine guidance to their experiences. This option, of course, largely encourages the church to meddle in all aspects of the life of the individual.
Nietzsche recognizes that the second and third options are, in modernity, fantasies. They are merely adaptations that hold little possibility for individuals or groups to respond to nihilism in any way that helps them regain a sense of dignity, meaning, or purpose. The first option, however, is a thoroughly modernist response that, consequently, attracts many adherents. It is best typified by socialism and socialist movements. But Nietzsche condemns socialism in no uncertain terms primarily because it prolongs the artifice of nihilism through slogans like “progress,” “justice,” and “equality,” which are destined only to generate more disillusionment.
It is disgraceful on the part of socialist-theorists to argue that circumstances and social combinations could be devised which would put an end to all vice, illness, crime, prostitution, and poverty. . . . [T]hat is tantamount to condemning life . . . a society is not at liberty to remain young. And even in its prime it must bring forth ordure and decaying matter. The more energetically and daringly it advances, the richer will it be in failures and in deformities, and the nearer it will be to its fall. Age is not deferred by means of institutions. Nor is illness. Nor is vice.
The theories that attempt to lay a rational or scientific basis for socialism, such as sociology, are themselves only exercises in decadence. “[A]ll our sociology is a proof of this proposition, and it has yet to be reproached with the fact that it has only the experience of society in the process of decay, and inevitably takes its own decaying instincts as the basis of sociological judgment.” The theory of equality, compliance, and dispossession is itself flawed and antilife. To possess and to wish to possess more is growth, or life itself. “In the teaching of socialism ‘a will to the denial of life’ is but poorly concealed: botched men and races they must be who have devised a teaching of this sort.” The socialist movement is a tyranny of the superficial, the envious, the meanest, and “most brainless.” It is “the logical conclusion of ‘modern ideas’ and their latent anarchy.” The “democracy” and collectivism it promotes produces a genial form of paralysis that prevents any sort of accomplishment at all. It is an institutionalized political movement that ignores or displaces the values of equality and justice in favor of order and compliance. People follow it, but not for the nascent reasons that attracted them. Socialism and other movements like it, are “a hopelessly bitter affair: and there is nothing more amusing than to observe the discord between the poisonous and desperate faces of present-day socialists—and what wretched and nonsensical feelings does not their style reveal to us!”
Socialism is the apex of modernist adaptations to nihilism. It is a theory and movement that expresses the slave morality most clearly in the modern era, insisting that persons are perpetually oppressed, inherently victims of external circumstances. The “longing for freedom, the instinct for happiness, and the subtleties of the feeling of freedom” are inefficacious sentiments and political “banners” that fail to produce changes in people’s lives, but which also express an alternative vision of morality. However, it is a vision of “the good” that is rooted in resentment and envy. It encourages invidious comparisons with others and promotes hostility toward those who have more. It is an angry lament that individuals cannot master their own lives and experiences, a “vengeful cunning of impotence.” The slave morality insists that persons cannot live their lives without intervention by external agents. Socialism entails a moral demand that “strength not show itself as strength, that it should not be a desire to overcome, a desire to throw down, a desire to become master, a thirst for enemies and resistances and triumphs.” “The good” that the slave morality promotes is a weak, diffident creature “who harms nobody, who does not attack, who does not requite.” Socialism’s critique of capitalism is a fundamentally disgraceful moral directive that seeks reprisals against the successful, intending to tame the “beast of prey.”
As Nietzsche sees it, socialism, democracy, religious humanitarianism— all forms of the slave morality—are not viable alternatives to nihilism and modernity. They are expressions of nihilism and modernity. Nihilism can be understood as potentially indicative of the final and complete dissolution of individuality and culture; a complete downfall and an aversion to existence; a backward-looking rationale for decadence that implies nothing about the future. It can also be understood as a recognition of degeneration and also a commitment to an altered way of life, or a forward-looking clarion for individual and cultural renewal. Zarathustra never states whether he came to pronounce the end or a new beginning. In all probability, Nietzsche’s thought is both. It offers insight into yesterday and tomorrow.87 The Will to Power makes it clear that Nietzsche does not celebrate nihilism. In fact, he recoils in horror at what nihilism means and what it portends for individuals, culture, and society over the impending two centuries.
I teach people to say Nay in the face of all that makes for weakness and exhaustion. I teach people to say Yea in the face of all that makes for strength, that preserves strength, and justifies the feeling of strength.
Thus Spoke Zarathustra encourages those who would destroy traditional values and relationships, but Zarathustra intends to clear the way for the overhuman and the new values and relationships it will bring. Nietzsche’s encouragements to accelerate the destruction of traditional values and relationships is only intended to accelerate their replacement with new values and relationships. The nihilism of modernity will be replaced with something else. Zarathustra wants to destroy in order to make things better, to reverse the decadence inherent in Christianity, socialism, democracy, and modern science. Does Nietzsche provide us with any guidance about what is to replace nihilism or how this change is to occur either at the level of individuals or at the cultural level?
One suggestion Nietzsche offers is a return to the “master morality,” or at least an attempt to recapture a sense of the values of nobility. Nietzsche says that in all of his studies of morality in human history two basic types appear with regularity—the master morality and the slave morality. The master morality or, as Nietzsche also calls it, the noble morality, is not the morality of modernity. It is hard for people to empathize with the master morality in modern culture and “hard to dig up and recover” because it has been discarded for so long. Nietzsche’s writings are replete with references to the warrior values of strength, endurance, severity, and nobility. Initial references to the values of nobility or to the “noble soul” appear in Human, All Too Human and Thus Spoke Zarathustra. More detailed discussions of the master morality are included in Beyond Good and Evil and The Genealogy of Morals. The master morality dominates when the ruling group of aristocrats has the ability to impose a definition of “the good” on individuals and society; the master morality is the ideology of the “aristocratic commonwealth.” When this happens, the “exalted, proud states of the soul are experienced as conferring distinction and determining the order of rank.”
Unlike the slave morality, the master morality is value-creating. The masters themselves, or the noble souls, determine what is valuable. They judge value and purpose. They do not need external approval or intervention. The noble morality does not pretend to apply ethical standards universally. It rejects all categorical imperatives. It emphasizes the importance of reciprocity, but this only applies to peers. Noble souls may behave as they please against “beings” of a lower rank and against everything alien. Noble souls are beyond “good and evil” and they reject any sort of valuation that denigrates their success, excellence, strength, and courage. Noble souls have nothing but contempt for “the cowardly, the anxious, the petty, those intent on narrow utility; also for the suspicious with their unfree glances, those who humble themselves.” The master morality is the worldview, or the “fundamental faith,” of aristocrats. It glorifies itself and the social groups associated with it. The domination of culture by Christian ethics for the past two thousand years makes it extremely unlikely that any social group would pursue a return to the master morality. Humanity is too far gone.
The other suggestion Nietzsche offers is that individuals can adopt “ascetic ideals.” In The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche not only charts the historical development of the master and slave moralities, he identifies the thoughts and actions of the “ascetic priest,” an archetype of asceticism who individually adopts the values of strength, heroism, and self-mastery. Nietzsche describes this asceticism as “severe and cheerful continence with the best will, belongs to the most favorable conditions of supreme spirituality.” In opposition to the “hubris and godlessness” of modernity, the ascetic priest seeks to impose on life a definite set of virtues that includes modesty, valuation, courage, severity, integrity, and seriousness. The ascetic priest fights for his existence against those who deny these ideals, knowing that “the ascetic ideal springs from the protective instinct of a degenerating life.” The ascetic ideal is something of an apparent paradox since its purpose is to protect life in a degenerating set of circumstances through the artifice of self-denial, deprivation, and sacrifice for a higher ideal. The ascetic ideal is a paradox only at the level of appearance. The ascetic priest denies life, or the robust enjoyment of life, in order to preserve its value against the weakness and antilife thoughts and behaviors of the slave morality. The ascetic priest keeps the concrete elements of the master morality alive in a hostile cultural environment.
Löwith concludes his study of nineteenth-century philosophy with the observation that Nietzsche’s notions of ascetic ideals demonstrate that he never really provided a philosophic alternative to the bourgeois-Christian world; he never really outgrew the Christianity of his childhood. The ascetic ideal, Nietzsche’s individualist response to modernity, “is an avowed substitute for religion; no less than Kierkegaard’s Christian paradox, it is an escape from despair: an attempt to leave “nothing” and arrive at “something.” Regardless of Nietzsche’s relationship to Christianity, he rejects only one form of morality: the weak, unctuous, slave morality he associates with Christianity, socialism, democracy, and modernity. In contrast to Stirner’s sharp admonition against the external measurement and assessment of the thoughts and behaviors of unique individuals, Nietzsche does not reject morality in its entirety. He does not reject the measurement of the thought and actions of individuals against external yardsticks. He rejects the decadent form of morality that defines modernity. He despises its apologists. Beyond the ascetic ideal, he does not provide much of an alternative. He remains spiritual in his opposition to modernity.
Stirner opposed all forms of external measurement with ownness. He opposed the prevailing collectivist notions about revolution and political change because they are only the instruments of humanism. He provided an alternative vision that suggests how individuals can live their lives in opposition to modernity and all externally imposed morality. Stirner recognized that the disobedience of large numbers of individuals can produce the collapse of social and cultural systems. Stirner’s egoist insurrection is also a form of revolutionary thought that seeks the overthrow of modernity, or “the dominion of the mind.” Despite all of his dissidence and approval of egoism, Nietzsche’s philosophy never really provides a vision for the same sort of alternative. He wants to overcome nihilism, not the “dominion of mind.” This is a radically different task. For Nietzsche, “[a]ll the sciences have from now on to prepare the way for the future task of the philosophers: this task understood as the solution of the problem of value, the determination of the order of rank among values.” Nietzsche advances a type of insurrection against modernity, but it is not an egoist challenge to the power and authority of fixed ideas. It is not an egoist argument for individuals who intend to reinvent their lives. Nietzsche’s goal is to replace one set of fixed ideas with another. Nietzsche offers a prepackaged array of virtues to those who accept his critique of modernity and the slave morality responses to it. Stirner and Nietzsche differ at a very fundamental level in what constitutes modernity and why it is a problem. As a result, they differ radically on the options open to persons who intend to assert ownership and control over their bodies, minds, and selves.