14 January 2010

Articles: Nietzsche's Critique of Democracy

Friedrich Nietzsche's antipathy toward democracy is well known, and it is advisable to read primarily his own books, such as "Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None", "Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future", and "On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic".

However, scholars continue to publish about him and last year "The Journal of Nietzsche Studies" carried an article by Herman W. Siemens on "Nietzsche's Critique of Democracy" (issue 38, autumn 2009: pp. 20-37).

Abstract: "This article reconstructs Nietzsche's shifting views on democracy in the period 1870–86 with reference to his enduring preoccupation with tyrannical concentrations of power and the conviction that radical pluralism offers the only effective form of resistance. As long as he identifies democracy with pluralism (Human, All Too Human), he sympathizes with it as a site of resistance and emancipation. From around 1880 on, however, Nietzsche increasingly links it with tyranny, in the form of popular sovereignty, and with the promotion of uniformity, to the exclusion of genuine pluralism. Democracy's emancipatory claims are reinterpreted as 'misarchism,' or hatred of authority, and Nietzsche looks to the 'exceptional beings' excluded by democracy for sources of resistance to the 'autonomous herd' and 'mob rule.'

"Against elitist readings of this move, it is argued that Nietzsche opposes the domination of the herd type under democracy from a standpoint in human diversity and a generic concern with the future of humankind. Exceptional individuals are conceived in pluralistic, agonal terms, as a community of legislators engaged in a process of transvaluation that serves the interests not of one or a few but of all of us: 'the self-overcoming of the human.'"

Unfortunately, I have no further access to this journal and can't even find a link where to buy it.

Herman W. Siemens is an Assistant Professor at the Institute for Philosophy of Leiden University, The Netherlands.

Slightly older is an article by Paul van Tongeren, "Nietzsche, Democracy, and Transcendence", published in the "South African Journal of Philosophy" (26 [1], 2007: pp. 5-16):


Excerpts: "[Nietzsche] calls 'the democratic movement [...] not only a form of the decay of political organization but a form of the decay, namely the diminution, of man, making him mediocre and lowering his value' [...] and in Twilight of the Idols, he writes: 'The man who has become free – and how much more the mind that has become free – spurns the contemptible sort of well-being dreamed of by shopkeepers, Christians, cows, women, Englishmen and other democrats.' [...]

"It therefore not only sounds, but is dangerous to read Nietzsche on democracy. And yet, or by that very token, it might be important to confront ourselves with Nietzsche's critique of democracy, not only for historic reasons, but also in order to test our own democratic convictions, as well as to acknowledge and to understand better our possible unease with some features of contemporary democracy. [...]

"Equality is in the interest of the weak. Therefore a weak being, a weak society, a weak era, will become democratic, will preach equality and will make efforts to expell [sic] any struggle, any tension, any difference [... .]

"Democracy for Nietzsche is one of those figures in which the human being, after the death of God canonizes itself, eternalizes its present form and makes it impossible for other forms to emerge. [...] After having been liberated from the subservience to a transcendent God [...], we have become (or at least run the risk of becoming) the prisoners of ourselves, locked into the immanence of our present interests. [...]

"If this is true, we do not have to become anti-democrats in every sense of the word, when we recognize some of our own unease with democracy in Nietzsche's critique. [...] We will have to look critically at the ways in which actual democratic structures tend to eliminate conflict in favour of consensus. Instead we will have to be creative in finding ways of cultivating dissensus."

Paul van Tongeren is Professor of Moral Philosophy and Director of the Center for Ethics at Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands.

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