Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Nietzsche's Democratic Hero: Pericles

In Daybreak aphorism 168, Nietzsche is praising the historian Thucydides, author of the Peloponnesian War, an account of the 30 years war between Athens and Sparta. He refers to Thucydides as the outcome of a culture, the culture of Athens: ‘Thus in him the portrayer of man, that culture of the most important knowledge of the world finds its last glorious flower: that culture which had in Sophocles its poet, in Pericles its statesman, in Hippocrates its physician, in Democritus its natural philosopher […]. (translated by R.J. Hollingdale, Cambridge University Press, 1997).

Again we see ambiguity in Nietzsche’s politically significant comments. Thucydides is not not always considered a friend of democracy, and he chronicles the defeat of democratic athens by oligarchic Sparta. However, chronicling defeat does not always mean condemnation of what is defeated, and he gives a famous speech to Pericles, a naval commander who was the most distinguished of Athens’ democratic leaders. That speech famously praises democracy in Athens.

We see that Nietzsche includes Pericles in his great products of Athens, which culminate in Thucydides. We have other examples of Nietzsche praising Pericles, most famously in On the Genealogy of Morals, Essay I, 11. There what Nietzsche emphasises in Pericles is not democracy but the value of strength, itself appropriate to the ‘realism’ of Thucydides. That does not exclude respect for democracy. Machiavelli, Spinoza, and Max Weber all defended democracy as the strongest basis of the state, as the basis of a state that can be effective internally and influential in the international state system.

Again it is not a case of saying that Nietzsche can be defined as a ‘democrat’, a ‘republican’, or a liberal. It is a case of saying he is not the anti-democrat, anti-republican, or anti-liberal, and that he is sometimes the friend of the republic, the democracy, the liberal. He may be the friend whose criticisms are valuable. Where he expresses reservations about these political ideas, he often does so in terms which he shares with advocates of them. Here I can only briefly mention Hume, Kant, Constant, Tocqueville, and John Stuart Mill.

At the bare minimum, Nietzsche can be said to sometimes lean towards the republic, democracy, and political liberty; and where he opposes them, he does so in terms that very frequently overlap with the concerns of the great friends of republic, democracy, and liberty. There are also issues here to addressed later, hopefully, about the relation between these terms, which I assume can conflict but work best through mutual reinforcement.

Original version of this post at Barry Stocker's Weblog.

1 comment:

david mc callum said...

I think it's clear that Nietzsche's overriding concern is with 'human flourishing', and that he only judges formal political structures by whether they help or hinder such Nietzschean conceptions of flourishing (in addition, whether formal politics is essentially irrelevant to the sort of flourishing he's concerned with).

If he thought that a society animated by egalitarian and liberal sentiments would be conducive to 'human flourishing' then he would embrace it fully. The 'problem' is that he clearly thinks no such thing; quite the reverse. Offensive as it sounds to modern ears, I think he's right on this.

However, he's also acutely aware that the tide of history (and human nature) are very much against him, and that he can effectively offer nothing of any practical or philosophical/political weight as an alternative.