Book Summaries

Nietzsche (A History of Western Philosophy)

Nietzsche was the successor of Schopenhauer, but was superior to him in many ways, especially in the consistency and coherence of his doctrine. Schopenhauer’s oriental ethic of renunciation does not match his metaphysic of the omnipotence of the will. In Nietzsche, the will has both metaphysical and ethical primacy. Nietzsche was a professor, but he was a literary, not an academic philosopher. He did not invent technical theories in ontology or epistemology. His main contribution was in ethics. Russell mostly discusses Nietzsche’s ethics and criticism of religion in the rest of this chapter.

While Nietzsche was not consciously a romantic, he was one. Nietzsche thought of all men from Scorates onwards as inferior to their predecessors. He accuses Socrates of corrupting the noble Athenian youth with a democratic moral bias, an unforgivable sin. He had a low opinion of Kant and Rousseau, who are both ‘moral fanatics.’

While Nietzsche criticized the romantics, his outlook owes much to them. Like Byron, his outlook is that of aristocratic anarchism. He tried to combine two sets of values that are not easily compatible. He likes ruthlessness, war, and aristocratic pride; on the other hand, he loves philosophy and
literature and the arts, especially music. These values coexisted during the Renaissance.

Nietzsche can be compared to Machiavelli despite many important differences. The latter was a man of affairs, and his opinions were in harmony with the age he lived in, while Nietzsche was a bookish man, in conscious opposition to the dominant ethical trends of his time.

But the two have deeper similarities. Nietzsche’s political philosophy is akin to the one found in The Prince. Cesar Borgia was to Machiavelli what Napoleon was to Nietzsche, both were great men defeated by petty opponents. Both Nietzsche and Machiavelli wrote about an ethic that aims at power and is deliberately anti-Christian.

Nietzsche only admires certain ethical qualities that can only belong to an aristocratic minority. The majority should only be a means to the excellence of the few and should not have an independent claim to happiness or well-being.

He is fond of expressing himself paradoxically and with a view to shocking conventional readers. He does this by employing the words ‘good’ and ‘evil’ with their ordinary connotations, and then saying that he prefers ‘evil’ to ‘good’. His book, Beyond Good and Evil, really aims at changing the reader’s opinion as to what is good and what is evil, but professes, except at moments, to be praising what is ‘evil’ and decrying what is ‘good’.

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy

He says that it is a mistake to aim for the victory of good over evil, this is an English perspective, typical of ‘that blockhead, John Stuart Mill,’ a man for whom Nietzsche detests. Nietzsche hated the concept of equality, that all men’s actions towards each other should be equal in some sense. True virtue, unlike Mill’s conventional sort, is a characteristic that only a few men possess. It is not profitable or prudent, and it may cause chaos and harm the political order, but it is necessary for higher man to wage war on the masses and resist the temptations of democracy.

Nietzsche was against the promotion of the poor or women, he was against helping the weak or the disenfranchised. He hated self-indulgence. He believed in Spartan discipline and the capacity to endure and inflict pain.

‘I test the power of a will,’ he says, ‘according to the amount of resistance it can offer and the amount of pain and torture it can endure and know how to turn to its own advantage; I do not point to the evil and pain of existence with the finger of reproach, but rather entertain the hope that life may one day become more evil and more full of suffering than it has ever been.’

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy

Compassion was a weakness to be resisted. Nietzsche was a passionate individualist, a believer in the hero. The misery of an entire nation is less important than the suffering of one great individual.

Nietzsche was not a nationalist and did not show unusual admiration for Germany. He desired an international ruling race, who would rule the earth, a vast aristocracy based on severe self-discipline, in which the will of a few philosophical men of power and artist tyrants will be stamped upon thousands of years.’

He dislikes the New Testament but not the Old, which he deeply admired.

Some political movements twisted what Nietzsche really said. Two applications of his ethic deserve notice. One, his contempt for women. Two, his bitter critique of Christianity.

He is never tired of inveighing against women. In his pseudo-prophetical book, Thus Spake Zarathustra, he says that women are not, as yet, capable of friendship; they are still cats, or birds, or at best cows. ‘Man shall be trained for war and woman for the recreation of the warrior. All else is folly.’ The recreation of the warrior is to be of a peculiar sort if one may trust his most emphatic aphorism on this subject: ‘Thou goest to woman? Do not forget thy whip.’

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy

He then describes woman as a creature who uniquely can take delight in dancing and nonsense. And as soon as they achieve independence, they become intolerable. In Beyond Good and Evil, he says that women should be treated as property. But insofar as his own experience with women was concerned – it was almost confined to his sister.

Nietzsche hated Christianity because it validated “slave morality.”

The French philosophies preceding the Revolution rejected the dogma of Christianity, claiming that it was anti-democratic and false. Nietzsche did not care about the metaphysical truth of Christianity or any religion, he was convinced that no religion was true. He judged all religions by their social effects.

He agreed with the French philosophies that refused to submit to the supposed will of God, but he believed that instead of a democracy, men should submit to the will of earthly ‘artist-tyrants’. The French Revolution and Socialism are identical in spirit with Christianity, and to all he is opposed – he will not treat all men as equal.

He thought that both Buddhism and Christianity were nihilistic religions because they denied inequality between men, but Buddhism was less objectionable.

Christianity is degenerative, full of decaying and excremental elements; its driving force is the revolt of the bungled and botched. This revolt was begun by the Jews, and brought into Christianity by ‘holy epileptics’ like St Paul, who had no honesty. ‘The New Testament is the gospel of a completely ignoble species of man.’ Christianity is the most fatal and seductive lie that ever existed. No man of note has ever resembled the Christian ideal; consider for instance the heroes of Plutarch’s Lives. Christianity is to be condemned for denying the value of ‘pride, pathos of distance, great responsibility, exuberant spirits, splendid animalism, the instincts of war and of conquest, the deification of passion, revenge, anger, voluptuousness, adventure, knowledge’.

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy

Nietzsche thought all these things are good, and all are said by Christianity to be bad. Christianity wants to tame the heart in man, but this was a mistake. One of his best objections to Christianity according to Russell was in a passage about Pascal.

‘What is it that we combat in Christianity? That it aims at destroying the strong, at breaking their spirit, at exploiting their moments of weariness and debility, at converting their proud assurance into anxiety and conscience-trouble; that it knows how to poison the noblest instincts and to infect them with disease, until their strength, their will to power, turns inwards, against themselves—until the strong perish through their excessive self-contempt and self-immolation: that gruesome way of perishing, of which Pascal is the most famous example.’

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy

Nietzsche wats to replace the Christian saint with the ‘noble’ man, a governing aristocrat. This noble man can be cruel and commit crimes, and he will concede duties only to equals. The ‘noble’
man is essentially the incarnate will to power.

What does Russell make of Nietzsche’s doctrines? Were they a profound collection of ideas or the power fantasies of an invalid?

What is beyond any doubt was Nietzsche’s great influence on culture and politics. And his prophecies to the future have proved more accurate than those of liberals or Socialists. If he is only a symptom of disease, the disease must be ubiquitous. But there is much about him that can be dismissed as megalomania. This includes his dismissal of Spinoza as a timid and vulnerable man, while it is obvious that the same can be said of him. He clearly daydreams that he is a warrior, not a professor, and his opinion of women are borne out of fear.

‘Forget not thy whip’—but nine women out of ten would get the whip away from him, and he knew it, so he kept away from women, and soothed his wounded vanity with unkind remarks.

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy

He condemns Christian love because he thought it resulted from fear. Because I am afraid of my neighbor, I will assure him of my love. But if I were stronger, I would openly display contempt. Nietzsche does not conceive that a man can genuinely feel universal love, because he himself feels almost nothing but hatred and fear. It never occurred to him that the lust for power with which he endows his superman is an outcome of fear. If you do not fear your neighbors, there is no reason to tyrannize over them.

But Russell does not deny that Nietzsche’s vision has become very much manifest in the real world. It may be that his philosophy was partly to blame. But Russell agrees that an ethic that is built on fear is not honorable. In this sense, he both compliments Nietzsche on what he said about Pascal and Dostoevsky, but also ends the passage with an ironical jab at Nietzsche himself, who’s ethic is rooted in fear.  

It must be admitted that there is a certain type of Christian ethic to which Nietzsche’s strictures can be justly applied. Pascal and Dostoevsky—his own illustrations—have both something abject in their virtue. Pascal sacrificed his magnificent mathematical intellect to his God, thereby attributing to Him a barbarity which was a cosmic enlargement of Pascal’s morbid mental tortures. Dostoevsky would have nothing to do with ‘proper pride’; he would sin in order to repent and to enjoy the luxury of confession. I will not argue the question how far such aberrations can justly be charged against Christianity, but I will admit that I agree with Nietzsche in thinking Dostoevsky’s prostration contemptible. A certain uprightness and pride and even self-assertion of a sort, I should agree, are elements in the best character; no virtue which has its roots in fear is much to be admired.

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy

Russel ends with an imagined conversation between Nietzsche and Buddha before God. Russell takes Buddha’s side, not for any logical reasons, but because he agrees with Buddha’s sentimentality that the weak and the fragile should be protected and cared for. And he hoped that the followers of Nietzsche, while they had their inning, will no longer govern the world.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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