Nietzsche, Power and Politics

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It would have been good to outline in more detail what scope of the concept "politics" was being assumed, or what it would take for something to count as "political. Much of Drochon's book is framed as an answer to Bernard Williams, who is skeptical of the idea that Nietzsche has a politics. Williams, posing the challenge that Drochon seeks to meet, writes as follows:. But we need a politics, in the sense of a coherent set of opinions about the ways in which power should be exercised in modern societies, with what limitations and to what ends Shame and Necessity , quoted in Drochon, 3.

Williams does not provide a very good foil, however. In the first part of the quotation, Williams implies that Nietzsche doesn't have a politics, in part because he doesn't have a way of relating his ethical and psychological insights to an intelligible account of modern society. Yet this is an odd claim to make. For Nietzsche does relate his ethical and psychological insights to an intelligible account of modern society.

Do many sympathetic readers of Nietzsche -- apart from Williams apparently -- really think otherwise? And moreover, how relevant is this to having a "politics? In the second part of the quotation, Williams offers a further criterion: In order to have a politics, one would also need a theory of the way power should be exercised in modern societies, with what limitations and to what ends. This criterion is better, yet it is still too imprecise.

Unless governments or laws are involved, it is rather misleading to frame it as a political issue. If one's theory is about how private actors or corporate non-governmental agents should justifiably exercise power, is that a political theory as opposed to a social or ethical one? If so, why? If one takes what Williams says in this passage at face value, it would be rather easy to show that Nietzsche had a politics.

One would basically just need to show he has views about modern society. Again, little should turn on the semantics. But I think Drochon is trying to establish something more ambitious, controversial, and thus interesting than what is indicated by Williams's criteria. As a matter of fact, I think Drochon succeeds, according to more plausible criteria, in showing that Nietzsche, in certain key respects, has a politics.

The reliance on Williams is therefore unhelpful, since it does not cast into sharp enough relief what Drochon actually needs to show and to some extent, does manage to show in making his case. Drochon's first chapter concerns Nietzsche's relationship to the Greek world and his criticisms of and affinities with Socrates and Plato.

Drochon has a good discussion of Nietzsche's ambivalent relationship with Socrates, someone Nietzsche views as both a gadfly worthy of admiration and a decadent worthy of scorn. Drochon's discussion of Plato is more distinctive. One of the most insightful aspects of this chapter is his use of Nietzsche's lectures on Plato, which are often ignored by Anglophone Nietzsche scholars.

Drochon is trying to establish a similarity between the supposed Platonic political project particularly as understood by Nietzsche and Nietzsche's own supposed political project. Plato, on this view, is someone with both a political philosophy as elaborated in the Republic and elsewhere and someone with a political agenda behind his writings.

Key to Drochon's chapter is his view of why Plato writes.

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He is not simply trying to convey abstract philosophical ideas through his dialogues, but at least on Drochon's reading of Nietzsche's controversial view, as presented in the Plato lectures to have concrete political effects, including paving the way for the foundation of a new and reformed polis.

We should, Drochon suggests, also be attentive to what Nietzsche is trying to achieve through writing Even if Nietzsche doesn't mention political change explicitly, he may be trying to effect it through his philosophical works, and Drochon thinks his letters and notebooks provide good evidence of this, a matter to which Drochon returns at the end of the book. In Chapter 2, Drochon considers Nietzsche's views on the state. He makes a good case for why Nietzsche is not part of the social contract tradition.


In making this point about Nietzsche's divergence from such views, Drochon seeks to counter Brian Leiter's influential position that Nietzsche has no political philosophy to speak of In order to survive humans had to become social and group-conscious animals. Although Nietzsche seems to privilege the life form of the solitary and forgetful animal to that of the "herd animal", he acknowledges that the memory of the will responds to a need of life and that therefore its political institution is not only necessary for the preservation of human animal life, but that its accomplishments are also praiseworthy 7.

However, the successful institution of the memory of the will "seem all the more surprising to the one who [like Nietzsche] can fully appreciate the countervailing force, forgetfulness " Nietzsche, From the perspective of forgetfulness, the memory of the will only solves the problem of bringing forth an animal that can make promises "to large degree" Nietzsche, It provides a solution to the question of how societies can be kept together, how forgetful and solitary animals can be made to dedicate themselves willingly to the welfare of society and of the state, but since it fails in valorizing animal forgetfulness, the memory of the will is not entitled to the privilege of making promises.

On the contrary, the memory of the will carries the risk of producing an inherently irresponsible and dangerous animal: an over-bred herd animal, too obedient and too tame, an animal whose promises cannot be trusted 8. And hence, for Nietzsche, the question remains of how to bring forth a form of memory and promise that despite its being directed against forgetfulness recognizes in forgetfulness a force necessary not only to the becoming of human animal life, but also to the constitution of social and political forms of life 9.

It is interesting to note that in Nietzsche scholarship the "memory of the will" is primarily known for the violence and cruelty involved in its making.

Arendt, instead, praises the greatness and sovereignty which results from the making and keeping of promises, despite the fact that Nietzsche emphasizes "how much blood and horror lies at the basis of all 'good thing'! How do you impress somet-hing on this partly dull, partly idiotic, inattentive mind, this personification of forgetfulness, so that it will stick?

With the aid of this sort of memory, people finally came to 'reason'! How much blood and horror lies at the basis of all 'good things'! Nietzsche, That Arendt does not comment on the violence and cruelty inherent to the making of the "memory of the will" in Nietzsche is not surprising.

After all, she identifies the memory of the will with the will power of the sovereign individual and opposes the latter's violence to the non-violence of the promise that keeps the group bound together and that arises out of the will to live together with others in the mode of action and speech.

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Nietzsche, Power and Politics

Nietzsche, instead, clearly distinguishes "the promise of the sovereign individual" as that which overcomes the "memory of the will". The sove-reign individual is "an autonomous, supra-ethical individual", who de-serves "the privilege to make promises" because it "has freed itself from the morality of customs" Nietzsche, I argue that the sovereign individual's overcoming of the memory of the will depends on a return of animal forgetfulness as that force which allows the indivi-dual to twist free from the morality of custom The sovereign indivi-dual forgets the moral and political norms of society in the name of its "own standard of value" Nietzsche, This forgetfulness reflects not only the sovereign individual's own becoming and self-overcoming, but moreover, contributes, as I shall argue below, to the transformation of given social and political forms of life morality of custom Arendt's identification of the "memory of the will" with the will power of the sovereign individual in Nietzsche is problematic.

First of all, this identification ignores the fact that Nietzsche actually rejects the "memory of the will" precisely because of the cruelty and violence he detects in the mechanisms of its making. Second, and perhaps more importantly, his conception of the promise of the sovereign individual constitutes a critique of the "memory of the will" that is inherently political. It seeks to overcome a politics of violence and domination through the cultivation of individual freedom and responsibility.

Arendt's misreading of Nietzsche fails to differentiate between the "memory of the will" as a means of domination and the promise of the sovereign individual as a means of freedom and responsibility In Nietzsche, the crucial question of the promise is not, as Arendt claims, how to generate, preserve and protect the memory of the will that lies at the basis of political power, but instead, how to counteract the violence and domination which define the political practices of institutions such as the modern state. This is not to say that Nietzsche objects to the need for political institutions as such.

On the contrary, he welcomes strong institutions 13 , but he believes that they require a counter-force which continuously overcomes their being founded on violence and domination.

Nietzsche’s Moral and Political Philosophy (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

For him, the promise of the sovereign individual is a counter-promise to the "memory of the will" which protects the freedom and plurality of human action through the practice of what could be called an agonistic politics of responsibility. Responsibility is agonistic in the sense that it stands for a continuous resistance to the institutionalization of freedom.

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In this view, freedom is neither what one has by virtue of an instituted right nor what one is given by virtue of a mutual agreement, but always only what one fights for, what one conquers Nietzsche, What distinguishes the political value of the agonistic spirit exempli-fied in the promise of the sovereign individual, as opposed to the promise in Arendt, is not institutionalization: for Nietzsche, the promise is inherently counter-institutional.

Its function is to submit the es-tablished authority of the memory of the will and its moral and politi-cal standards to a continuous and radical critique. It is by means of critical questioning, rather than by means of tyrannical self-discipline, that Nietzsche hopes to advance human sovereignty and greatness. It is because of this agonistic spirit that several authors have tried to assimilate Nietzsche to an agonistic conception of democracy. While some argue that an agonistic conception of political action is essential to the political life within a democracy, others argue that agonistic political action cannot be institutionalized and hence always only "attacks" political institutions, whether democratic or not, from the outside and that it is this anti-institutional aspect of Nietzsche's agonistic politics which inspires hope for a democracy "yet to come" Nietzsche, Moreover, the promise of the sovereign individual is important to Nietzsche not because it reflects a commitment of the self to itself that is inherently a- and maybe even anti- political, but, on the contrary, because it stands for the cultivation of a free relation with the other which exceeds the project of individual self-realization.

Since Arendt confuses Nietzsche's notion of the will to power with that of the individual's will, she takes his notion of sovereignty to be entirely concerned with individual self-realization Thus, she fails to see both that the promise of the sovereign individual reflects a preoccupation with the cultivation of freedom as responsibility that overcomes the kind of individualism which devalues the political, on the one hand, and that overcomes the kind of politics which devalues the freedom and plurality of human action, on the other.

Arendt's reading of Nietzsche is typical of an interpretation that identifies the promise of the sovereign individual as essentially a-social and a-political because it appears in the form of egoism and solitude In reality, Nietzsche defends egoism and solitude only because they are the conditions that allow the human animal to stand in a relation to the other which is neither grounded on force and fear, nor on resentment and revenge Nietzsche, The promise of the sovereign individual is a carrier of unlimited responsibility because it reflects a power that results from the overcoming of the need to dominate others Responsibility is the privilege of those who give and promise to the other and who see in this gift and giving the greatest extension of their power.

Interestingly, Nietzsche associates this gift-giving with a return of animal forgetfulness Nietzsche, Gift-giving is an ex-cessive, prodigal and wasteful force constituted by the individual's forgetting of its self, which, in the words of Zarathustra, is a "going-under": "I love him whose soul is overfull so that he forgets himself and all things are in him: thus all things spell his going under" Nietzsche, 16 Both reveal the traces of a return of animal forgetfulness as that force which disrupts an economy of survival the memory of the will in the name of a giving beyond measures the promise of the sovereign individual Accordin-gly, the "high" point of freedom in Nietzsche is always a going-under of the self before the other rather than a rising of the self above the other.

The promise of the sovereign individual attains such a high value for Nietzsche only insofar as the freedom it exemplifies stands for a radical exposure of the self to the other that takes the form of unlimited responsibility and self-responsibility. In On the Genealogy of Morals , Nietzsche shows that the making of the memory of the will coincides with the forced breeding of a particular kind of animal, namely, a social and civilized animal that is inherently reliable, predictable and entirely devoted to the good of society.

Furthermore, he maintains that the violence which characterizes the making of the memory of the will is inseparable from a form of violence directed against the animality of the human animal, in particular, against its animal forgetfulness The memory of the will, as Arendt correctly sees, humanizes an animal characterized by forgetfulness, or, as she puts it, distinguishes "humans from animal life" Arendt, For Arendt, the distinction between human and animal life is crucial: it constitutes the condition of possibility of politics, that is, of human freedom and action.

Otherwise, as Arendt notes, "we would be doomed to swing forever in the ever-recurring cycle of becoming"; "we would be the victims of an automatic necessity" Arendt, While Arendt believes that a separation of human from animal life is the only way to protect freedom and plurality, Nietzsche believes exac-tly the opposite. He contends that this separation threatens the freedom and plurality of human action.

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  • For Nietzsche, the problem is not the violence of the animal, for he considers the animal to be inherently innocent, but, instead, the problem lies with the violence that humans direct against their own animality and their animal forgetfulness Since Nietzsche considers animal forgetfulness to be essential to the enhancement of human animal life, for him, the question is how to make a promise that protects the freedom and plurality of human ac-tion without resting on violence and domination exercised over the human animal's animal life.

    On this reading, when the human animal defines itself against its animality and animal forgetfulness, or denies it a productive role, cultural and political life assumes forms that are based on domination and exploitation of humans by humans. The breeding of the "memory of the will" as an attempt to transcend or extirpate animality and animal forgetfulness is an example of these forms of domination.

    Contrariwise, when the human animal engages with its animality and animal forgetfulness, this gives rise to forms of cultural and political life that are rooted in the singular human animal's responsibility. Nietzsche's conception of the promise of the sovereign individual is an example of a form of memory that fruitfully engages with the human animal's animality.

    Nietzsche, Power and Politics: Rethinking Nietzsche's Legacy for Political Thought

    In the sovereing individual, memory is not imposed on the human animal's forgetfulness. Instead, the promise of the sovereign individual portrays the features of animal forgetfulness. In the sovereign individual, reliability and predictability are not forced, but manifest themselves in the sovereign individual's "instinct" of responsibility Nietzsche, 40 Nietzsche sees in the fact that an individual must act in the name of its responsibility a sign that sovereignty and greatness have been achieved. The individual's instinct of responsibility should not be confused with its will power: what makes for sovereignty in Nietzsche is not the fact that the individual is free and could have acted otherwise, but that it is subject to the necessity of responsibility and hence could not have acted otherwise.

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