The Nietzschean Anarchist, The Nietzschean Anarchy
To anyone with even a passing familiarity with the works of Friedrich Nietzsche it must be admitted that it is not, and should not, be immediately clear that “anarchist” is a description that should apply to him. In political terms, this should perhaps most particularly not be the case — although Nietzsche, like anarchists, was no lover of the state or parliamentarianism either, if for differing reasons. [In The Wanderer and His Shadow Nietzsche does have words on “the folly” of the exploitation of the worker, speaks of working with machinery as “anonymous and impersonal serfdom” and argues that we should remove the ability from private individuals to amass vast fortunes quickly besides regarding those “who own too much” as those “fraught with danger to the community”.] Yet Nietzsche’s political views — and his views of “the herd” as he so often puts it — are far too aristocratic, and perhaps even superior, to be able to paint him as a champion of the common human being and one working intellectually for the political relief of people in general. Nietzsche, in fact, if he has any political concern, is much more concerned with the individual — perhaps even the solitary individual — than with social movements or with class war. Nietzsche is not concerned with the problems of the poor or the worker per se and, in fact, his concerns may not even be external ones such as these at all.
It will be known, however, that one of the main foci of Nietzsche’s many attacks in his short but explosive literary career was Christianity, something he often excoriated. Yet Nietzsche was still a religious man — certainly a spiritual and philosophical man — and so fully in line with my interests in discussing anarchism which are internal as much as external. This is important for it means that Nietzsche is beset, throughout his deliberations and the operations of his thinking, with how someone saves themselves within the life [or perhaps, better, gives value to the life] that they experience. This, for Nietzsche, is certainly never less than an existential battle, a battle in and through life and not simply with life. And so Nietzsche’s interest is a philosophical, spiritual, internal one. As such, it at least potentially affects us all for we all have an internal world as well as external circumstances. We all also fight the battle with, in and through ourselves.
Nietzsche’s philosophy, in a common academic reading of it, has several phases. The first, which mainly covers his first, ill-received tome, The Birth of Tragedy, besides other, in the main, less important essays, is where he introduces himself as a writer interested in the Apollonian and especially the Dionysian and with a Greek train of thought which was his academic training and specialty [Nietzsche was a philologist, and so, strictly speaking, one who studied ancient Greek language which, of course, necessitated studying ancient Greek literature as well]. A second phase in the literary career of Nietzsche would cover the books Human, All Too Human, The Wanderer and His Shadow [later added to the former book], Daybreak and The Gay Science [in which the word “gay” had not yet remotely acquired the singular connotation “homosexual” and so which is nothing to do with sexuality of any kind. “Gay” here means “cheerful”].
This second phase is where Nietzsche carries out major work deconstructing the basis of Western thought as a whole in terms of metaphysics, rationality and morality. It is summed up in section 125 of The Gay Science with the well known statement “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him”. God, in Western thought, was the symbol and guarantor of metaphysics, rationality and morality and, if he is truly dead, then these things also die with him. A third phase of Nietzschean endeavour, briefly foreshadowed at the original end of The Gay Science [Nietzsche had a habit of going back and writing an extra chapter for previous books here and there, something he also did with The Gay Science], begins with Nietzsche’s own favourite book of his, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in which an artistic, prophetic figure [which is really only Nietzsche himself in the most transparent disguise] presents his grand idea: the eternal recurrence. The eternal recurrence is, in simple terms, willing a life which you would joyfully live over and over again [one which makes you the Overhuman who transcends humanity as, so Nietzsche thought, it should be transcended]. In books subsequent to this, Nietzsche may even be said to go through further phases and he hits on perhaps his greatest project, a revaluation of all values, just at the point upon which he falls into terminal illness which renders him insensible for the last 11 years of his life and so unable to write ever again.
But what, you are asking, about any of this makes Nietzsche’s thought something acceptable for a book on “anarchy and anarchisms”? The clue is in that second phase of Nietzsche’s endeavour where he deconstructs the world and shows human thinking up for what it is: pragmatic, interpretive, artistic, aesthetic, fictional, rhetorical — but never perspicuous to any putative reality, never a “foundation”, never a genuine calculation of worth, meaning or value. Nietzsche, put in the vernacular, reveals human beings as that species which make things up and then call it real because what they make up is found useful and because it avoids causing them harm — or so they think. Those best able to deceive themselves in this even go so far as to insist human beings are able to calculate reality and apportion it its value – but they are only the biggest liars of all, biological organisms that presume to be gods [and, lest we ever forget, “God is dead”]. Human beings, thinks Nietzsche, by no means have any intellectual apparatus by which they could remotely begin making sense of existence, let alone pretending to tell us how it fits together or according it any genuine value. So the first clue as to why Nietzsche fits in a book on anarchy and anarchisms is that, in deconstructing the intellectual world, and undermining the foundations others have tried to set in place, Nietzsche reveals, once again, that it is an anarchy in which we exist properly so called. We don’t have a narrative which “explains” existence and sets it in place. There is no intellectual foundation which is an authority all must adhere to. There are just human beings who interpret and create fictions in which they find utility, meaning and value. That I call a philosophical anarchy, an anarchy as real as any we shall ever conceive or experience.
So when it comes to “anarchy and anarchisms”, things this essay is concerned with, Nietzsche does have some credentials he can put on the table. We might here usefully focus again, in sections 108–125 of his book, The Gay Science, sections which open book 3 of that tome, on his notion, first expressed in print in section 108, that “God is dead”. Nietzsche, of course, does not mean that an actual supernatural being has died. He means that the idea of God, and all it signifies and guarantees in human thinking, has passed its sell-by date. If the anarchist mantra is “No gods, no masters” then Nietzsche is well onside on the “no gods” part of that mantra as one of the most famous people in history to say that there is no God. In fact, in many respects, Nietzsche’s “God is dead” may mean a lot more in his words than it does on the lips of people thought of as much more orthodox anarchists. For, when Nietzsche says it, he means the end of morality as a system of moral truths which act as authorities for us; he means the end of order, arrangement, form, beauty and wisdom as fixed authorities too; he means that knowledge and logic are human inventions or “aesthetic anthropomorphisms”; he means that humans, in cosmological and epistemological terms, are unable to engage in “explanation” of things because they simply do not have the apparatus for it. They are, at best, describers “attempting to humanize things as faithfully as possible”. Not for Nietzsche the petty, trivial statement “no gods” but, instead, the consequential statement “God is dead” — with all the significance that removing God from human thinking would and should have. Nietzsche is here more “anarchist” than many anarchists ever manage to become: “the Antichrist” [as he would later call himself] as anarchist.
But even though Nietzsche may announce that God [always a term in this connection which means so much more than one being] is dead, he knows very well that the memory of God will linger on in human thinking. Thus, in section 108 again, he reminds us that “we still have to vanquish his shadow too”. This is an anarchist task, the task of an anarchism, for it is an action which removes imagined authority from human thinking and which deconstructs and reshapes what human thinking even is. So it is no surprise that in the very next section, section 109, Nietzsche moves to confound those who would slide the God function over to the universe in order to “deify” that instead. [Here we see the difference between saying “a God is dead” and “God is dead”. Nietzsche seeks to remove divinity and deification — which are authoritarian functions — from human thinking rather than engaging in the more trivial task of saying a particular deity is no longer believable. Contrast this with what celebrity atheists such as Richard Dawkins do when they deny God but deify “Truth” instead. Nietzsche’s is the far more radical, anarchist action.] Thus, the universe itself is not “a living being”; it is not “organic”; it is not “a machine”. Nietzsche describes it as “in all eternity chaos”, something which will later seem to filter into his idea of the eternal recurrence. So we should not ascribe to the universe, the context of every existence, existence itself as it manifests itself, heartlessness or unreasonableness. But neither is it the opposites of those things nor is it “perfect, nor beautiful, nor noble”. And “nor does it wish to become any of those things”. The universe, strange to say it but it is true, “does not by any means strive to imitate Man”. And, furthermore, “none of our aesthetic or moral judgments apply to it”.
But the consequences of “God is dead” for the universe, and so necessarily for all existence, including ours, carry on. The universe has “no instinct for self-preservation or any other instinct”. There are, says Nietzsche, also no laws in nature. There are, he points out with the attention to detail with which he should be characterised, “only necessities: there is nobody who commands, nobody who obeys, nobody who trespasses.” For, simply put, there is no one and nothing to trespass. There are no purposes in Nietzschean nature and so there are also no accidents — for one requires the other. Thus, we can even say, in this Nietzschean thinking, that death is not opposed to life. In an eye-opening insight, Nietzsche suggests that “the living is merely a type of what is dead, and a very rare type.” And who can really disagree with that from this point of view? And so “God is dead”, as a Nietzschean formulation, is actually turning the world completely upside down. It is completely reformulating how the human being thinks and destroying any vestiges of a deified authority that existed within it. “When will all these shadows of God cease to darken our minds?” Nietzsche asks, “When will we complete our de-deification of nature?” He answers his own question by suggesting that it will be when we “naturalize” humanity “in terms of a newly discovered, newly redeemed nature”. And this will be a nature de-deified, de-divinized, with the last vestiges of such an authority expunged. That I call anarchy; that I call anarchist.
Yet Nietzsche’s anarchism is even more radical than this. Not content with deconstructing God, he must now deconstruct the human being too. We are not who we appear to ourselves to be and who we appear to ourselves to be is yet another illusion, a perhaps willing fiction, a lie to which we accommodate ourselves for reasons of utility or pragmatism. We should not find this surprising for all the authoritarian, deifying activity was only human activity — and human error — to begin with. Nietzsche characterises the human intellect as producing “nothing but errors” over immense periods of time where even errors may sometimes prove useful for preserving the species now and again much as a stopped clock is right twice a day. Yet such errors can, in human usage, become “articles of faith” [indicative of a basic tendency in human beings towards “faith”?] and these articles can become passed on or inherited by others until they almost seem to become part of what it is to be a human being. Nietzsche describes some of these things as “that there are enduring things; that there are equal things; that there are things, substances, bodies; that a thing is what it appears to be; that our will is free; that what is good for me is also good in itself.” But why does any of this matter? Because it is what we think, what we make a foundation, what we make authoritative, that rules over us. This is anarchist business in a world in which freedom, liberation and ability to choose uncoerced are lauded as the highest values.
“Truth”, therefore, is a form of knowledge [Nietzsche calls it the weakest form of knowledge] but how we arrive at it, and what is claimed for it, are anarchist issues, issues of authority. They are this because how we determine things and what for are anarchist issues too. Imagine a system of control based on what you think you know — The Matrix franchise creates a world which is a good example of this — and you see how knowledge and truth, and how they are arrived at, is obviously a form of control. And its insidiousness — it is control you don’t feel is control and coercion you don’t even notice — is its major strength. Now erase the machines and the agents of the machine system in The Matrix and imagine that human beings have done something similar to themselves all by themselves, that they have created their own epistemological systems and authorities in order to convince themselves of things to believe in. Why, a priori, should anything we call knowing actually be knowing? Why is any human truth actually truth? Why would any human way of designating an authority be authoritative? These are anarchist issues and matters of how human thinking, and so human beings, are controlled and coerced — if even by themselves in their own systems, apparatuses and ways of thinking.
So Nietzsche now suggests, now in section 110 of The Gay Science , that the strength of knowledge is little to do with truth and more to do with age, with what we become used to and what we inherit. That received as a condition of life is that we honour as knowledge. But to do this requires the imagined knower to engage in many fictions about life in order to bring the prospective knowledge into sync with it. To say that “this and this is so” is not a small matter and neither one proved or demonstrated simply in either the saying of it or the inability to refute it. Other measures too, such as utility for life, the lack of harm done by a proposition or even human convictions, are likewise no genuine measures of some external property called truth or some valuation called knowledge. More interesting, however, is the fact that “knowledge” and “truth” became things valued in themselves with human processes designated for the designation and identification of them. At this point, knowledge became a power and designating it powerful in itself. As in The Matrix, however, “the ultimate question about the conditions of life has been posed here.” And the same, too, applies to logic [section 111] which, states Nietzsche, certainly came “out of illogic”. Originally, all was illogic [and, humans aside, maybe still is]. But it was human beings who made what humans now call logic. Logic is a kind of usefulness for Nietzsche and only exists because some people somewhere have found it useful. But that does not mean the universe accords with human logic nor that logic gets anything right. That is to confuse useful with such things. Utility, in fact, does not even mean human beings have the capacity or the faculty to make any judgments about “right” or “true” in anything but utilitarian terms. Nietzsche often thinks of utilitarian human beings operating by means of processes so primeval they may never rise to human consciousness and which they certainly do not understand.
It is this kind of thinking which leads, in section 112, to the distinction between “explanation” and “description” and to Nietzsche’s argument that “it will do to consider science as an attempt to humanize things as faithfully as possible”. This is description but not necessarily explanation. How can we show we have “explained” when “in truth we are confronted by a continuum out of which we isolate a couple of pieces”? That is what both the universe and our existence are — continuums out of which we isolate arbitrary and imaginary self-contained pieces and then call it “explanation”. Yet both the universe and existence are not in any way made up of pieces but they are things forever in flux, changing, fundamentally interconnected and interactive. It is impossible even to imagine how many connections and relations there are within the things that make them up and so who are we to claim we have explained or understood in regard to them? Is this even what our activity towards them is? When human authority is on the line, and the authority and character of human claims is on the line, this is important.
But this affects not just cosmological or epistemological concerns. It also affects moral ones too. Must it be pointed out that neither the universe nor even the shape of existence itself act according to some moral guidelines or moral force? Could not a simple observation of nature teach us this? Are we so besotted with ourselves that we think ourselves apart from all this, above it, perhaps even become gods in human form who designate right and wrong, beings who pretend to such authority? But God is dead… and we have killed him. Best we get rid of those shadows too. This is an anarchism. Yet if human beings are incapable of explaining or understanding, of designating truth or knowledge, if they are evaluators who work only on the basis of utility, then, argues Nietzsche in section 115, they are only those who have been educated by their errors — much like a human being grown in The Matrix is educated by what the machines feed them. Nietzsche picks out four particular errors:
Humanity sees itself incompletely.
Humanity endows itself with fictitious attributes.
Humanity places itself in a false order of rank with animals and nature.
Humanity invents ever new tables of goods which it accepts, if only for a time, as eternal and unconditional which results in things being given importance because they are esteemed so highly.
It is Nietzsche’s suggestion that, if we removed these errors from humanity, we would remove humanity and “human dignity” itself. [These are themselves only human fictions.] All human authority, in this way, is seen to come from human fabrication, fictionalisation and invention — morality included.
And so, in section 124:
“In the horizon of the infinite. — We have left the land and have embarked. We have
burned our bridges behind us — indeed, we have gone farther and destroyed the land
behind us. Now, little ship, look out! Beside you is the ocean: to be sure, it does not
always roar, and at times it lies spread out like silk and gold and reveries of
graciousness. But hours will come when you will realise that it is infinite and that
there is nothing more awesome than infinity. Oh, the poor bird that felt free and now
strikes the walls of his cage! Woe, when you feel homesick for the land as if it had
offered more freedom — and there is no longer any ‘land’.”
It is only now, in the very next section, that Nietzsche introduces his “madman” who goes through the marketplace and claims that “God is dead”. One other thing he says in this section is a question. He asks: “Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing?” This is the Nietzschean anarchy, an anarchy devoid of the solidity of land, land which is the basis of knowledge and truth, a perspicuous reason and a definitive, authoritative morality. If God is dead, these are dead for on what authority can they stand? There is only an “infinity”, an infinite sea without possibility of making port. Can one make a foundation for authority on the sea? No. And the sea here is infinite. It is what he will call in section 277 “the beautiful chaos of existence”. How can one redeem this for humanity? — Through art and artistry, through creation and creativity, by honouring that which becomes and letting go of the need for an “is”, by living in flux and refusing the authority which says “the world is like this and that is how it must be for you too because I say so”. It is by embracing the infinite sea and by embracing that there is no longer any land. This is an anarchism.
In section 107, the last section of book 2 of The Gay Science, Nietzsche tells us that it was through welcoming the arts [which he labels “this kind of cult of the untrue”] that we discovered “the realization that delusion and error are conditions of human knowledge and sensation” [these are, of course, our whole basis for positing anything, for using the linguistic “is” which — falsely — designates and sets in stone]. Honesty precisely here, thinks Nietzsche, would make us sick and despairing unto death without the creative fiction of art, a “good will to appearance” as he puts it. Existence is bearable for us as an aesthetic phenomenon [in which “aesthetic” and “phenomenon” are both important words] which becomes a freedom, a living poetically, for, Nietzsche diagnoses, we are far too serious for our own good. We do not need to become “virtuous monsters and scarecrows”. We should “float above” the world and “play” and be both the artist and the fool, one who can laugh at themselves rather than one who takes their every thought about the world with an utmost seriousness as if any of it mattered at all or as if our seriousness was the important thing. This is an anarchism. It is this “foolishness”, this “play”, Nietzsche calls “liberation” and which he characterises, at the end of both books 2 and 3 of The Gay Science as “no longer being ashamed of oneself”, which he designates as the means to our survival and the means to our freedom from our inauthentic dogmatisms. For one following the logic of his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, this is where the Dionysian asserts itself over the Apollonian. It was also there he had praised life as an aesthetic phenomenon for the first time.
Yet it is at the end of The Gay Science, and much more in his next and most important book, as he saw it, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, that Nietzsche fills out the details of the Nietzschean human being — although, of course, it is not a human being but a being who seeks to transcend the seriousness, the lack of play, artistry and creativity, the “knowledge” and morality of human beings, by being itself the Overhuman [elsewhere often rendered “Superman” but this is a mistake and does violence to Nietzsche’s vocabulary which is full of “over” and “under” words in a way that is important]. Nietzsche’s point in all this is that humanity is beset by numerous inherent faults and errors which must be overcome if we will be free. He himself makes sense of this in a love of fate [fate being that which happens because it was necessary to happen], in his concept of an eternally recurrent life which one wills for oneself [and so one becomes the artistic creator of one’s own life by moulding oneself to the circumstances of life as a poet or artist rather than by being inauthentically and mortally afraid and serious in regard to forces one does not understand] and in being Overhuman, those who outgrow the humanity Nietzsche has heretofore diagnosed as sick and mistaken, an error.
Nietzsche’s point here is that human beings, as they have developed based on their inappropriate knowledge, logic and morality, have become intolerable — not least to themselves. Nietzsche thinks that it is only “by means of this or that poetry and art” that “a human being is tolerable to behold” [section 290 of The Gay Science]. What is going on here is human psychology for Nietzsche was a psychologist in his remarks too. Nietzsche conceives of people who can accept themselves as they are [and consistently talks about “becoming who you are”] but diagnoses that people are not satisfied with who they are, with what their humanity is to them. [Nietzsche’s entire output, in one sense, can be interpreted as a body of work concerned with human dissatisfaction with what it has become — and how to resolve such a problem.] So Nietzsche diagnoses human ills such as revenge and dissatisfaction with oneself as why so many of us go searching for victims to take our bad mood towards ourselves out upon. We see ugliness in ourselves and this makes us “bad and gloomy”.
Earlier, Nietzsche had exhorted the secret of life as “to live dangerously” [section 283] and he had noted that “few people have faith in themselves” [section 284] in the straight jackets of serious thought in which they have allowed themselves to become constricted. Nietzsche wants human beings who overcome their constraints [and so become “Overhuman”], human beings distinguished by “cheerfulness, patience, unpretentiousness and contempt for all great vanities” [section 283]. In Zarathustra he conceives of this human being as a warrior who does not want to be spared – for what warrior would? Such a person is consumed with good faith towards themselves and lives dangerously as who they are, as what they have willed to become. This is why, in the end, I conceive Nietzsche’s topic as that of creative self-actualisation. But this is not just a selfish concern with oneself and contempt for the world of others. It is, fundamentally, an honesty towards oneself and towards the world. It is a saying “Yes!” towards the world but in which one takes responsibility for one’s “Yes!”. Section 294 of The Gay Science is worth quoting in full in this regard:
“Against the slanderers of nature. — I find those people disagreeable in whom every
natural inclination immediately becomes a sickness, something that disfigures them
or is downright infamous: it is they that have seduced us to hold that man’s
inclinations and instincts are evil. They are the cause of our great injustice against
our nature, against all nature. There are enough people who might well entrust
themselves to their instincts with grace and without care; but they do not from fear
of this imagined “evil character” of nature. That is why we find so little nobility among
men; for it will always be the mark of nobility that one feels no fear of oneself,
expects nothing infamous of oneself, flies without scruple where we feel like flying,
we freeborn birds. Wherever we may come there will always be freedom and sunlight
Here we can see both Nietzsche’s interest in freeing us from the shackles of our very own thought and also why Christianity was one of his most common targets – for what else does Christianity do but tell us that the universe itself is in a fallen state of nature and that we share its fallen state? It thus sullies every instinct and impugns nature itself, the very basis of our lives. For Nietzsche, as for the anarchist properly so called, this cannot be. We human beings, in both cases, are those who must have their own “Yes!” towards nature and towards themselves within it. They, for both, must be the motive cause of their own liberation from such a debilitating view of life. They, for both, must actualise their own selves in the world. They, for both, rather than having “the courage of their convictions” — as the popular saying has it – must, instead, have “the courage for an attack on” their convictions. For “What are Man’s truths ultimately? Merely his irrefutable errors” [section 265]. So it is in having bad faith or lack of faith towards oneself and the world, in impugning nature and instinct, and in making false logic, false knowledge and false morality gods above us, that humanity condemns and constricts itself so that it becomes an inauthentic, unfree being. It is this which is to be overcome by the Overhuman in a poetic, creative act of will to self-actualisation. In short, and somewhat ironically, Nietzsche wants human beings to get playfully serious about the FICTIVE nature of their existence, to realise that, for human beings, “is” is merely a linguistic tool and never a metaphysical or ontological postulate. We are not those beings who can set things in place and give them their value — even if we are fated to always repeat doing so. Thus, we must make the world and what we make is our responsibility — and our fate. “Man” is an invention and ultimately a prison of our own making — but Nietzsche thinks we can do better.
One of the ways Nietzsche conceived of human beings in the way that he thought they should become was as free spirits. [In German this is freie Geiste and there is much to be learned by doing a word study on Geist in its German usage.] Indeed, Nietzsche subtitled the first book in his second phase of endeavour “A Book for Free Spirits”. In the 638th and final section of its first part [Human, All Too Human], Nietzsche introduces us to “The Wanderer” [another version of himself]. I would close my essay on Nietzsche, and his poetic, creative anarchy and anarchism, by simply quoting this section and leaving it up to you to decide what to make of it.
“The Wanderer. — He who has attained to only some degree of freedom of mind
cannot feel other than as a wanderer on the earth — though not as a traveller to a final
destination: for this destination does not exist. But he will watch and observe and
keep his eyes open to see what is really going on in the world; for this reason he may
not let his heart adhere too firmly to any individual thing; within him too there must
be something wander ing that takes pleasure in change and transience. Such a man
will, to be sure, experience bad nights, when he is tired and finds the gate of the
town that should offer him rest closed against him; perhaps in addition the desert
will, as in the Orient, reach right up to the gate, beasts of prey howl now farther off,
now closer to, a strong wind arise, robbers depart with his beasts of burden. Then
dreadful night may sink down upon the desert like a second desert, and his heart
grow weary of wandering. When the morning sun then rises, burning like a god of
wrath, and the gate of the town opens to him, perhaps he will behold in the faces of
those who dwell there even more desert, dirt, deception, insecurity than lie outside
the gate — and the day will be almost worse than the night. Thus it may be that the
wanderer shall fare; but then, as recompense, there will come the joyful mornings of
other days and climes, when he shall see, even before the light has broken, the
Muses come dancing by him in the mist of the mountains, when afterwards, if he
relaxes quietly beneath the trees in the equanimity of his soul at morning, good and
bright things will be thrown down to him from their tops and leafy hiding-places, the
gifts of all those free spirits who are at home in mountain, wood and solitude and
who, like him, are, in their now joyful, now thoughtful way, wanderers and
philosophers. Born out of the mysteries of dawn, they ponder on how, between the
tenth and the twelfth stroke of the clock, the day could present a face so pure, so
light-filled, so cheerful and transfigured: — they seek the philosophy of the morning .”
[PS Nietzsche’s subsequent book was titled Daybreak and critiqued “the prejudices of morality”, a subject he would subsequently dismantle in later works.]