He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Sunday, June 21, 2015

In Denial: Nietzsche's Anti-Semitism

As I have mentioned before, I really enjoy reading Nietzsche's works, not because I agree with him, but because he is disagreeable in the most entertaining and enjoyable way.  It may be true that everybody is a critic, but it is most assuredly true that Nietzsche was a critic of everybody.  Nietzsche refined into a devastating art the practice of writing a biting denial of the philosophies, feelings, and works of others.

Given his propensity for harsh criticism of anything which came into view, it is easy to take quotations from his works in order to substantiate a proposal that he hated any group of people he had ever heard of.  The English, for example:

"They are no philosophical race, these Englishmen: Bacon signifies an attack on the philosophical spirit; Hobbes, Hume, and Locke a debasement and lowering of the value of the concept of 'philosophy' for more than a century."

This passage from Beyond Good and Evil continues on to shift the criticism of the English on to the topic of religion, a topic much discussed by Nietzsche in rather mixed terms with mostly negative conclusions.

"It is characteristic of such an unphilosophical race that it clings firmly to Christianity: they need its discipline to become 'moralized' and somewhat humanized.  The English, being gloomier, more sensual, stronger in will, and more brutal than the Germans, are precisely for that reason more vulgar, also more pious than the Germans: they stand more in need of Christianity.  For more sensitive nostrils even this English Christianity still has a typically English odor of spleen and alcoholic dissipation against which it is needed  for good reasons as a remedy--the subtler poison against the coarser: a subtler poison is indeed for clumsy peoples some progress, a step toward spiritualization.  English clumsiness and peasant seriousness is still disguised most tolerably--or rather elucidated and reinterpreted--by the language of Christian gestures and by prayers and singing of psalms.  And for those brutes and sots and rakes who formerly learned how to grunt morally under the sway of Methodism and more recently again as a 'Salvation Army', a penitential spasm may really be the relatively highest achievement of 'humanity' to which they can be raised: that much may be conceded in all fairness."

The irony seen in hindsight here is of course that England on the whole has rather stopped clinging to Christianity, though it could not be fairly said that the English have gotten any more philosophical in the sense which Nietzsche would have lauded.  Nietzsche goes on to bemoan the English lack of music.  It makes one wonder what criticism he might have leveled at The Beatles.

Much in the same way that I have just painted a picture of Nietzsche as anti-English while neglecting to mention his many criticisms of his folk, the Germans, a German named Richard Oehler who was a great supporter of National Socialism and the Nazi project in Germany painted a picture of Nietzsche as anti-Semitic.

And because even Nietzsche's compliments are caustic, it is easy enough to paint such a picture with careful editing and selective quoting from Beyond Good and Evil.  For example, immediately after calling anti-Semitism "stupid" Nietzsche pens the following passage:

"I have not met a German yet who was well disposed toward the Jews; and however unconditionally all the cautious and politically-minded repudiated real anti-Semitism, even this caution and policy are not directed against this species of feeling itself but only against its dangerous immoderation, especially against the insipid and shameful expression of this immoderate feeling--about this, one should not deceive oneself.  That Germany has amply enough Jews, that the German stomach, the German blood has trouble (and will still have trouble for a long time) digesting even this quantum of 'Jew'--as the Italians, French, and English have done, having a stronger digestive system--that is the clear testimony and language of a general instinct to which one must listen, in accordance with which one must act."

This sounds oddly anti-Semitic coming from a guy who just called anti-Semitism stupid, at least until it becomes clear from the very next passage that he is explaining the anti-Semitic sentiment among his fellow Germans in order to pillory it with his usual panache.

"Admit no more new Jews!  And especially close the doors to the east (also to Austria)!" thus commands the instinct of a people whose type is still weak and indefinite, so it could easily be blurred or extinguished by a stronger race.  The Jews, however, are beyond any doubt the strongest, toughest, and purest race now living in Europe; they know how to prevail even under the worst conditions (even better than under favorable conditions), by means of virtues that today one would like to mark as vices--thanks above all to a resolute faith that need not be ashamed before "modern ideas"; they change, when they change, always only as the Russian Empire makes its conquests--being an empire that has time and is not of yesterday--namely, according to the principle, "as slowly as possible."

While Nietzsche may think the Jewish and Christian religions a vice and a poison, it is fairly clear that he has a serious admiration for the perseverance of the Jews in Europe.  He goes on to explicitly deny the view of many Nazis and Nazi sympathizers that there is a conspiracy by Jews to rule the world.

"That the Jews, if they wanted it--or if they were forced into it, which seems to be what the anti-Semites want--could even now have preponderance, indeed quite literally mastery over Europe, that is certain; that they are not working  and planning for that is equally certain."

Not only is Nietzsche denying that the Germans are the master race, he is also denying the validity of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories by pointing out that the Jews are the superior race and that if they had wanted to rule Europe, they could have already accomplished it.  So what does Nietzsche think the Jews in Europe want?

"Meanwhile they want and wish rather, even with some importunity, to be absorbed and assimilated by Europe; they long to be fixed, permitted, respected somewhere at long last, putting an end to the nomads' life, to the 'Wandering Jew'; and this bent and impulse (which may even express an attenuation of the Jewish instincts) should be noted well and accommodated: to that end it might be useful and fair to expel the anti-Semitic screamers from the country."

In the end, Nietzsche is not so much anti-Semitic as he is anti-anti-Semitic; rather than proposing to get rid of the Jews, he proposed to get rid of the vocal anti-Semites by government fiat.  Nietzsche is very serious in his denial of any validity to anti-Semitism.  Despite the attempts of some to associate him with the Nazi project, he is fundamentally opposed to the presuppositions of Nazi propaganda about the Jews.

Nietzsche's Asceticism - Nietzsche's Anti-Semitism - Nietzsche's Skepticism

Note:  The above image is part of the cover of my copy of Nietzsche's collected works.  See my Sources page for more information about which translation I used.

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