Nietzsche, modernity, duality

In his recent biography of Nietzsche, Julian Young writes:

A potentially serious difficulty in Nietzsche’s cultural criticism is presented by an apparent inconsistency […] On the one hand, he claims modernity to be a motley ‘chaos’. But on the other, he seems to attribute to it an unhealthy order: that of (disguised) Christian morality. [Young 2010: 421]

The apparent tension between these two claims does not, in fact, present an insurmountable difficulty; Young has not caught Nietzsche out in a contradiction (nor does Young take himself to have done so). But Young’s observation is still a fruitful starting point; for by reflecting on why these claims are not in contradiction, we can unfurl the full complexity of Nietzsche’s account.

One story that Nietzsche can tell is this: modernity, following the Death of God, is caught in a moment of transition from a disappearing Christian form of life towards a formlessness of life. Remnants of this old Christian order still linger on: ‘God is dead; but given the way people are, there may still for millennia be caves in which they show his shadow’ [GS 108]. But the trajectory of modernity is away from the stifling horizons of the Christian form of life towards a state in which the moderns are uprooted from any one overarching framework and dwell in a ‘chaotic jumble’ [UM I:1, p. 6] in which all limiting horizons have been stripped away.

However, simply positing a chronological divide between an earlier, ‘Christian’ stage of order and a later, ‘post-Christian’ state of chaos that the former is (gradually) giving way to will not be enough to dispel the appearance of contradiction or tension that we began with. That is because Nietzsche’s presentation of the post-Christian stage also contains the same duality within it. A motley, fragmented jumble coexists with conformist, herd-like order; ‘morbid doubt’ [UM II:9, p. 115] coexists with bovine incuriosity and smug self-certainty; sluggish languor coexists with bustling, industrious activity; coldness and a lack of strong passions coexist with a state of heightened emotional excitement and agitation.

Meanwhile, dualities also exist within Nietzsche’s presentation of ‘Christianity’ too. On the one hand, Christians are presented as ‘fettered spirits’ who are imprisoned within a rigid order of unquestioned convictions, ‘tradition’ and a ‘complete automatism of instinct’ [A 57]. It has been made second nature for them to instinctively accept certain ‘habitual and undiscussable principles’ [HAH 224]. On the other hand, at the heart of Christianity is a self-lacerating drive to deny all instinctive impulses and an unconditional will not to be deceived by the purported ‘truths’ posited by our ‘true life instinct’ [GM III: 12]. This drive seeks to transcend the horizons within which their form of life is bounded, and thus tends towards fragmentation rather than rigid order.

So what explanation can Nietzsche give? Consider the following famous passage from The Gay Science:

There are two types of sufferers: first, those who suffer from a superabundance of life – they want a Dionysian art as well as a tragic outlook and insight into life; then, those who suffer from an impoverishment of life and seek quiet, stillness, calm seas, redemption from themselves through art and insight, or else intoxication, paroxysm, numbness, madness. All romanticism in art and in knowledge fits the dual needs of the latter type, as did (and do) Schopenhauer and Richard Wagner […] The desire for destruction , for change and for becoming can be the expression of an overflowing energy pregnant with the future (my term for this is, as is known, ‘Dionysian’); but it can also be the hatred of the ill-constituted, deprived, and underprivileged one who destroys and must destroy because what exists, indeed all existence, all being, outrages and provokes him. [GS 370]

There are two key ideas here.

Firstly, two superficially similar phenomena can in fact be the mark of something quite different. Here, a desire for destruction can be an expression either of ‘overflowing energy’ or of ‘ill-constituted’ deprivation (see also, e.g. HAH 314: ‘The desire to offend no one and injure no one can be the mark of a just disposition as well as of a timorous one’). At a very general level of description, Nietzsche’s moderns appear to exhibit features that are at odds with other aspects of Nietzsche’s presentation of them. For example, they appear to be emotional as well as emotionless, or unified as well as chaotic. But on closer inspection, their passion turns out to be sentimentality and artificially simulated excitement: a symptom of suffering from an ‘impoverishment of life’ that one is trying to escape.

Or consider three different cases that an absence of questioning and reflection could be a symptom of: (1) the primitive masters of the Genealogy, who act unreflectively on almost animalistic impulses; (2) moderns who adopt a fanatical or mechanical attitude in which they suppress reflection and questioning in order to prevent shattering doubt from creeping in; (3) Nietzsche’s ideal of a figure who achieves such mastery of a field that it becomes second nature to them – they know their way about it without needing to reflect consciously at every step.

Secondly, a complementary point: two divergent phenomena can be the mark of one and the same thing. Impoverishment of life can seek either ‘quiet, stillness, calm seas, redemption from themselves’ or ‘intoxication, paroxysm, numbness, madness’. Those impoverished of life have ‘dual needs’; the same underlying phenomenon that necessitates them to engender fake emotions can also necessitate them to artificially stifle unpleasant ones (for instance, by sedating themselves with ‘a little poison now and then’ [Z, Zarathustra’s Prologue: 5]). Nietzsche explicitly ascribes this same sort of duality to the Christian saint: who sometimes ‘seeks conflict and ignites it in themselves, because boredom has shown them its yawning face: they scourge their self-idolatry with self-contempt and cruelty, they rejoice in the wild riot of their desires, in the sharp sting of sin’, but at other times the saint ‘desires a complete cessation of sensations of a disturbing, tormenting, stimulating kind, a waking sleep, a lasting repose in the womb of a dull, beast- and plant-like indolence’ [HAH 142].

Taken together, these two points make it possible to explain the complicated coexistence of opposites and apparent opposites in Nietzsche’s presentation of the moderns’ form of life: their ‘dual needs’ pull them in divergent directions, and lead them to simulate or artificially engender phenomena at two different extremes, but their predicament is not the same as what it superficially appears similar to. The conformity of the ‘herd’, for instance, is not a positive, purposeful, ordered unity, but a negative absence of conflict and tension (One recalls Nietzsche’s scornful remark on ‘unity of the writer and the man, of the head and the heart’, a quality which he says ‘distinguishes every great writer and sometimes even the little writer, for a narrow mind gets on fabulously well with a narrow heart.’ [UM I:4]). No doubt, disagreement (‘They still quarrel, but they soon make up – otherwise indigestion would result’ [Z, Zarathustra’s Prologue: 5]) or adverse state of discomfort is allowed to enter this sphere of mechanised routine, which has been set up to escape from intolerable anxiety:

In individual moments we all know how the most elaborate arrangements of our life are made only so as to flee from the tasks we actually ought to be performing, how we would like to hide our head somewhere as though our hundred-eyed conscience could not find us out there, how we hasten to give our heart to the state, to money-making, to sociability or science merely so as no longer to possess it ourselves, how we labour at our daily work more ardently than is necessary to sustain our life because to us it is even more necessary not to have leisure to stop and think. Haste is universal because everyone is in flight from themselves; universal too is the shy concealment of this haste because everyone wants to seem content and would like to deceive more sharp-eyed observers as to the wretchedness they feel; and also universal is the need for new tinkling word-bells to hang upon life and so bestow upon it an air of noisy festivity. [UM III: 5, p. 158]

Meanwhile, the anxiety-inducing, ‘chaotic jumble’ on which the herd-like order has been imposed is, in another sense, not a ‘chaos’ at all – not in the positive sense in which ‘one must have chaos in one, to give birth to a dancing star’ [Z, Zarathustra’s Prologue: 5], a primordial froth of creative energies. In an unpublished note, Nietzsche speaks of ‘modernity’ metaphorically as a body of water with a busy, churning surface, but little going on beneath the surface:

Sensibility unutterably more excitable […] the abundance of disparate impressions greater than ever before […] interested, but only, as it were, epidermally interested; a fundamental coolness, an equilibrium, a lower temperature kept steady just below the thin surface on which there’s warmth, motion, ‘storm’, the play of the waves.’ [WLN, p. 178; KSA XII.10[18]].

The moderns’ pride in their open-minded curiosity, for example, is a posture; far from a grand intellectual passion to challenge dogmas and deceptions, it is mere ‘chatter’ (after which they ‘go on doing what they have always done’ [UM II:5, p. 87]) that satisfies them that they are free rather than fettered spirits.

There is a further dimension of complexity in Nietzsche’s account. Consider his account of the kind of duality I described in his presentation of Christianity: between, on the one hand, a way of life characterised by instinctive automatism, and on the other hand, an unconditional will to reject life’s instincts. Nietzsche’s diagnosis is that the latter is rooted in the former: the drive to unconditionally reject unquestioned instincts is itself an unquestioned instinct, the drive to overturn the horizons which bound forms of life is itself bound within a specific form of life, the will to nothingness is still a will. Nietzsche unmasks the hidden, unacknowledged framework that conditions Christian morality even as it strives for unconditionedness, unframedness.

Once we take all this into account, it is possible to explain the duality of Nietzsche’s presentation of modernity without dividing that duality into the two temporal stages, ‘Christian’ and ‘post-Christian’, from before and after the Death of God. Indeed, it becomes clear that many features that Nietzsche ascribes to ‘Christianity’ (apparently in reference to a pre-modern form of life that is now disappearing) in fact fit into the picture he paints of ‘post-Christian’ modernity. For instance, one common reading of Nietzsche is that Christian asceticism – self-denial, guilt and shame – give way to the laxity, hedonism and shamelessness of the moderns. But more plausibly, both these poles exist within the ‘dual needs’ of the moderns: on the one hand, the moderns, prone to anguishing extremes of guilt and self-denial, find relief by artificially blocking out these intolerable states through the adoption of a posture of carefree self-indulgence (and, perhaps, as a self-serving way to avoid having to face up to actual wrongs and errors); on the other hand, they affect what Robert Pippin describes as ‘a melancholic and ultimately narcissistic theatrical guilt’ [Pippin 2010: 54] in response to their boredom (and perhaps as a self-serving display of powerlessness by the powerful, rather than, as the Genealogy appears to suggest to the puzzlement of commentators, the powerless somehow imposing the values or condition of powerlessness on the powerful). This very duality of needs is itself most plausibly explained as a continuation, rather than a replacement, of the divergent drives within ‘Christianity’ – for example, simultaneous drives to deny one’s own instinctive impulses (which causes one to suffer) and to alleviate all suffering (including one’s own).

What Nietzsche terms ‘Christianity’ is an underlying institutional and conceptual framework that powerfully structures instincts and behaviours towards certain ends. Officially, Nietzsche claims that this edifice is crumbling, and that the powerful subterranean passions embedded within it are flickering out. But for both internal and external reasons, it is more plausible that this framework (rather than its disappearance) should be seen as constituting the underlying cause of the dualities described thus far, except that it should be identified with the (capitalist, liberal, industrialised) order of modernity rather than Christianity per se (at least in its pre-modern forms). Externally, various authors note that features Nietzsche describes as characteristic of Christianity (or its predecessors, such as slave morality) are, rather, typical of developments in the modern era in Western societies (rather than, as he sometimes suggests, continuations of an older Christianity carried forward into the modern era under different names): for instance, the imperative to alleviate suffering, the individuation of a punctual self, the devaluation of the natural world. Internally: the conditions which Nietzsche claims gave rise to Christianity’s affective dynamic (i.e. forms of life in which the expression of impulse is increasingly regulated) have not disappeared. Moreover, even if this dynamic mechanism were, as he sometimes suggests, to ultimately undermine itself by quenching the affective energies which feed and propel it by turning them against themselves, thus ultimately resulting in the passionate-less state of the ‘Last Men’, in the absence of the subduing force there would then be nothing to stop the affective energies from reigniting and being channelled back into the same mechanism. The subdual of emotions in the moderns is best identified not with the disappearance of the affective energies of ‘Christianity’, but with these energies’ continued activity of subduing (certain manifestations of) emotion.

So what, if anything, are we to make of the ‘crisis’ of the Death of God, if it is not the transition from a Christian order to a post-Christian chaos? One possibility: the death of God represents the destruction, not of a sociopolitical and affective order, but of the conditions for the mechanisms of this order (understood in purely causal terms) to have a certain significance: there is, for instance, no empirically measurable reduction in the strength of affective commitment to the ends towards which the moderns’ form of life is directed, but the required context is absent for these affective commitments to count as passions or ideals, or for the moderns to passionately and consciously identify with ends towards which they nonetheless find themselves compelled.

Or else: the crisis of the death of God consists not in the loss of a particular orienting framework (such that we are no longer oriented within the horizons of a particular form of life), but in our having become trapped within a framework that misorients us by demanding that we ‘abolish all limitations of horizon’ [UM II:10, p. 120] and establish our knowledge and being on a ground of pure, perfect certainty – a demand that undercuts the conditions of its own fulfilment, since this certainty will always elude us (as Stephen Mulhall notes, this demand rests on the error of interpreting ‘limits as limitations’, but ‘it would only make sense to think of the conditions of human knowledge as limitations if we could conceive of another cognitive perspective upon the world that did not require them’ [Mulhall 2005: 94]), although simultaneously with our experience of being unanchored (as if, in the words of the Madman who declares the Death of God, the ‘entire horizon’ had been wiped away [GS 125]) we are in fact anchored in the disguised framework that has been (mis)orienting us all along.

Or perhaps we need to step back from the text and question not the significance of the Death of God, but the significance of Nietzsche’s propagating this myth of crisis and decline. What if the crisis consists not in the Death of God itself, but in society’s being caught in the grip of the myth of Death of God – a myth told to itself not by a society disintegrating into disorder, but one imposing ever more restrictive order upon itself? Often, Nietzsche appears to be celebrating attitudes of disgust and cruelty which he takes to be absent from or undervalued in the state of society that he is describing, while in fact his very expression of these attitudes can be taken as a sign of their centrality in that society. That having been said, even if he does sometimes genuinely endorse such attitudes, his writing also offers the resources to diagnose the strains of cruelty and disgust that run through the society he describes. In fact, such attitudes fit neatly into the explanatory schema of duality already presented: the attitudes of cruelty and disdain expressed by the moderns (including Nietzsche himself) are not a sign of strong, self-assured ‘nobility’ of character but of petty sadism, of a piece with rather than in contradistinction to the morbid scepticism and controlling order that Nietzsche diagnoses in society. Moreover, Nietzsche’s diagnosis of crisis is always ambivalent: he recognises that even or precisely those elements which he identifies as symptoms of malaise can represent potential sources of creativity and flourishing.

Ultimately, Nietzsche’s account cannot be swallowed wholesale, and certainly not as account of what it purports  to be an account of; at the very least, it is over-reliant on a cultural, rather than political, conception of the institutional, conceptual and affective order underlying modernity (what he describes as ‘Christianity’, though we do not need to accept this label for it) and expresses an ideal of sadistic elitism (even if it also contains the resources to undermine it). But it does nonetheless offer a sophisticated schema that, if we abstract away from certain specific features of it, can be applied and tailored to a nuanced understanding of situations and problems above and beyond those that it officially addresses. I hope (at least to my own satisfaction) to have laid out some of the breadth and form of that schema.


Works referenced:

a. By Nietzsche

A The Anti-Christ, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (with Twilight of the Idols) (London: Penguin, 1968 [1894])

GM On the Genealogy of Morality, trans. Maudemarie Clark and Alan J. Swensen (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998 [1887])

GS The Gay Science, ed. Bernard Williams, trans. Josefine Nauckhoff (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001 [1882/1887])

HAH Human, All Too Human, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986 [1878/1886])

KSA Sämtliche Werke: Kritische Studienausgabe, eds. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1980–1988)

UM Untimely Meditations, ed. Daniel Breazeale, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997 [1873–1876])

WLN Writings from the Late Notebooks, ed. Rüdiger Bittner, trans. Kate Sturge (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003)

Z Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (London: Penguin, 1969 [1883–1885])

b. By other authors

Mulhall, Stephen (2005) Philosophical Myths of the Fall (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press)

Pippin, Robert B. (2010) Nietzsche, Psychology, & First Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press)

Young, Julian (2010) Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography (New York: Cambridge University Press)


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