Aristocrats of the Soul
This article is an extract from
Aristocratic Radicalism: The Political Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche
The expression ‘Aristocratic Radicalism,’ which you employ, is very good. It is, permit me to say, the cleverest thing I have yet read about myself.
— Nietzsche, Dec. 2, 1887.
When Friedrich Nietzsche use the term aristocracy it is essentially in a meritocratic sense, and this is why it becomes ‘radical’. It is not a belief in maintaining the traditional aristocracy, rather it is intended to establish a new system of aristocracy and as such it is completely separate from any other system of political thought. Furthermore, in Aristocratic Radicalism, the aristocratic principle is not to be confused with, and does not necessarily presuppose, an aristocratic class or a caste society. If anything, the main problem with Aristocratic Radicalism occurs when one tries to define exactly who qualifies as a member of Nietzsche’s new aristocracy. Whilst it is obvious that Nietzsche is advocating a hierarchical system, the exact hierarchy itself is much less easy to define, for as other writers have noted, individuals to whom Nietzsche ascribes an aristocratic status are of higher value not because of birth, class, ethnicity or any other tangible indicator. The system is based on personal qualities alone.
Nietzsche’s claim is that they are of higher value because they realize higher states of the soul. An unusual claim for a philosopher linked to the ‘death of god’ – however, Nietzsche’s philosophy of religion is not strictly ‘atheism’. Whilst it does denounce the Judeo-Christian Tradition, Nietzsche actually speaks with great admiration of other Traditions, such as the Hindu and the Hellenic. Nonetheless this does make defining the quantifying characteristics of Nietzsche’s new aristocracy more difficult. In light of this we have to accept that Nietzsche is using the terminology of the ‘soul’ as an abstract concept, and indeed we do find Nietzsche describing ‘greatness’ of the soul as linked with other personal qualities in The Will to Power:
Type: True graciousness, nobility, greatness of soul proceed from abundance; do not give in order to receive – do not try to exalt themselves by being gracious; – prodigality as the type of true graciousness, abundance of personality as its presupposition.
The soul, as Nietzsche describes it is indeed an abstract expression, and Nietzsche is definitely basing his aristocratic model on a meritocratic one, centered no less on benevolence. Graciousness, nobility, giving – this is a very far cry from the cold, hierarchical models often misattributed to Nietzsche. It is evident that whatever else the term may have meant for either Nietzsche or Brandes, aristocratic sentiment was not simply equated with the dominance of brute force. But there are even more personal qualities Nietzsche associates with aristocracy – and this intangible aspect of their personality sets the individual apart from the group collective or ‘Herd’ as Nietzsche calls it. He is therefore, elevating the worth of certain individuals to a higher value than that of other individuals within the collective.
Herd-animals – now culminating as the highest value standard of ‘society’; attempt to give them a cosmic, even a metaphysical value. Against them I defend aristocracy.
Aristocratic Radicalism is a system which places the ‘aristocrat’ as a type of individual who remains aloof and distinct from the collective Herd. Kaufmann, a well-known authority on Nietzsche argues that Nietzsche was an existentialist concerned with the creativity of the human spirit and with the strengthening of individualism. What Nietzsche creates for us therefore, is a culture in which the new aristocracy is founded on personal merit, guided by powerful creative ‘free spirits’ that are both noble and courageous, exhibit intellectual tolerance of ideas, have the ability to accept contradictions, possess dynamic vitality and self-control, are devoid of bad conscience, have adopted the attitude of amor fati, and exhibit self-acceptance.
Although separate from the collective, there is to be no cruelty directed towards the ‘Herd’ by this new aristocracy, for the personal characteristics of those selected would not be predisposed to such negative traits. Nietzsche is extremely quick to point out that personal flaws such as these would not only automatically exclude an individual from the aristocracy, but also from the topic of philosophy itself:
Hatred for mediocrity is unworthy of a philosopher: it is almost a question mark against his ‘right to philosophy’. Precisely because he is an exception he has to take the rule under his protection, he has to keep the mediocre in good heart.
Poor conduct should also automatically exclude one from the ranks of the aristocracy and from professions such as philosophy where an individual is in a trusted position of authority and must provide advice to the community or people as a whole. Nietzsche explains in the extract below;
What I fight against: that an exceptional type should make war on the rule – instead of grasping that the continued existence of the rule is the precondition for the value of the exception.
However, though essentially guiding the wider cultural group, this new aristocracy is not fully part of it, and Nietzsche advises what could be best described as a ‘polite distance’.
Without the pathos of distance such as develops from the incarnate differences of classes, from the ruling caste’s constant looking out and looking down on subjects and instruments and from its equally constant exercise of obedience and command, its holding down and holding at a distance, that other, more mysterious pathos could not have developed either, that longing for an ever-increasing widening of distance within the soul itself, the formation of ever higher, rarer, more remote, tenser, more comprehensive states, in short precisely the elevation of the type ‘man’, the continual self-overcoming of man.
The pathos of distance, as Nietzsche calls it is not performed out of need to create a rift, but instead to facilitate understanding. One cannot effectively observe a group if one identifies as part of it – Nietzsche’s aristocrat must not only be part of the group, but also separate from it in order to both shape the current of its growth and to accurately understand the needs of the collective whole. From the perspective of an anthropologist, the Aristocratic Radical is operating in a participant/observer capacity, in which despite being a part of the collective, they remain distinct from what Nietzsche defines as the ‘Herd’ mentality, and are able to differentiate themselves from mainstream thought in order to fulfil their function as creators/thinkers. In terms of anthropology this also relates to Arnold van Gennep’s theories on the liminal. Van Gennep’s structure consisted of a pre-liminal phase (separation), a liminal phase (transition), and a post-liminal phase (reincorporation). This concept was later elaborated on by Victor Turner who noted that in the transitional state between two phases, individuals were “betwixt and between” the social construct. In the early stages of development before the differentiation process had been completed, one who was naturally possessed of the required temperament would feel isolated from the ‘Herd’ mentality – in the later stages of progress the ‘Aristocrat’ will also be able to cross the liminal boundaries back into the collective. And in the final stage of development, an Aristocratic Radical who would progress from the initial role as a liminal/outsider archetype to that of the creative Artist/Philosopher who can shape the social model – which is the paradigm for Nietzsche’s Übermensch.
The Übermensch is not only the basis of Aristocratic Radicalism it also one who is in essence an artist or a philosopher of the highest order. Nietzsche uses the term ‘artist’ here in an unfamiliar sense; not as a painter or a sculptor, but essentially a creator of civilization. The people themselves are the canvas upon which the Übermensch paints, creating a model of society that is an art form. The citation below clearly indicates that part of the requirement for Nietzsche’s aristocracy is the creative principle found in both the arts and in philosophy.
The artist-philosopher. Higher concept of art. Whether a man can place himself so far distant from other men that he can form them? Preliminary exercises: (1) he who forms himself, the hermit; (2) the artist hitherto, as a perfection on a small scale, working on material.
Furthermore, the ideal model for Nietzsche’s new aristocracy will also possess a high intelligence, as obviously in order to fulfil the relative functions required, the higher cognitive faculties must be utilized. In this new status quo, Aristocratic Radicalism is in fact an ‘aristocracy of intellect’. We see this expressed in an academic study of Aristocratic Radicalism;
[…] contrary to the concept of ‘aristocracy’ that is orthodox and familiar, the benefit of inclusion among the aristocracy is not that one thereby wields political power (cf. Fossen 2009; Franklin 1999), but rather that one thereby counts axiologically. In radical contrast to the status quo, ‘aristocratic radicalism’ is an aristocracy of moral value. On the other hand, the conjunction is ‘radical’, because AR2 [aristocratic radicalism] asserts that, contrary to the concept of ‘aristocracy’ that is orthodox and familiar, one merits inclusion among the aristocracy not in virtue of the family into which one was born, but rather in virtue of the intellect with which one ‘do[es] much’.
Nietzsche’s new aristocracy is not one based on birth, wealth, or even social class. It is a meritocracy of the mind, based on intelligence and personal qualities, and is the natural hierarchy in society itself. What renders it radical is not only the fact that it redefines the meaning of aristocracy, but that it advocates recognition of the fact that not all people are equal in capability, and that only those who are truly exceptional should be entitled to occupy a position of power. Nietzsche asserts that ‘an aristocratic society [is] a society which believes in a long scale of orders of rank and differences of worth between man and man’ and thus is the antithesis of contemporary democracy. Aristocratic Radicalism is not a continuation of the traditional aristocracy for according to Nietzsche, “Aristocrats so far, spiritual and temporal, prove nothing against the necessity for a new aristocracy.”
One of the main points in Aristocratic Radicalism is to shift the impetus from aristocratic birth to that of aristocratic temperament. The result of this is that class nobility due to ancestry is removed – rather it becomes a matter of whether or not one acts as nobility – and nobility of character is a requirement which Nietzsche dwells upon at length. The reason which importance is attached to the attribute of nobility is because in traditional aristocracies it was a preparatory school for personal sovereignty, and it was “The noble class [is that] which inherits this training”. The descriptions on what Nietzsche considers to be noble are cited in The Will to Power.
What is noble? Endurance of poverty and want, also of sickness. Avoidance of petty honours and mistrust of all who praise readily; for whoever praises believes he understands what he praises; but to understand – Balzac, that typical man of ambition, has revealed it – compreendre c’est égaler. The conviction that one has duties only to one’s equals, towards the others one acts as one thinks best: that justice can be hoped for (unfortunately not counted on) only inter pares.
Always to experience oneself as one who bestows honours, while there are not many fit to honour one.
Always disguised: the higher the type, the more a man requires an incognito. If God existed, he would, merely on grounds of decency, be obliged to show himself to the world as only a man.
Pleasure in forms; taking under protection everything formal, the conviction that politeness is one of the greatest virtues; mistrust for letting oneself go in any way, including all freedom of press and thought, because under them the spirit grows comfortable and doltish and relaxes its limbs.
Pleasure in princes and priests, because they preserve the belief in differences in human values even in the valuation of the past, at least symbolically and on the whole even actually.
Disgust for the demagogic, for the “enlightenment”, for “being cozy”, for plebeian familiarity.
What is noble? That one constantly has to play a part. That one seeks situations in which one has constant poses. That one leaves happiness to the great majority: happiness as peace of soul, virtue, comfort, Anglo-angelic shopkeeperdom à la Spencer. That one instinctively seeks heavy responsibilities. That one makes enemies everywhere, if the worst comes to the worst even of oneself. That one constantly contradicts the great majority not through words but through deeds.
One of the recurrent themes in Nietzsche’s descriptions of nobility is the motif of endurance; endurance which is performed in the name of a task or cause even if it may run contrary to the opinions of the majority. It is not enough merely to exist; in order to be considered part of Nietzsche’s new aristocracy one’s existence must serve a higher purpose, which is performed by setting oneself “as lofty and noble a goal as you can.” Therefore nobility is analogous with the spirit of self-sacrifice, an interpretation which is very far removed from the average persons understanding of the Übermensch. Nietzsche sees the nobility of man in his capacity for promising something, answering for himself and undertaking a responsibility — since man, with the mastery of himself which this capacity implies, necessarily acquires in addition mastery over external circumstances and over other creatures, whose will is not so lasting. We see this summarized below in George Brandes’ book on Nietzsche:
But be that as it may: owing to our familiarity with the notion of making sacrifices for a whole country, a multitude of people, it appears unreasonable that a man should exist for the sake of a few other men, that it should be his duty to devote his life to them in order thereby to promote culture. But nevertheless the answer to the question of culture — how the individual human life may acquire its highest value and its greatest significance — must be: By being lived for the benefit of the rarest and most valuable examples of the human race. This will also be the way in which the individual can best impart a value to the life of the greatest number.
Nietzsche’s ideas have been claimed by many movements to enhance their own theories and as a result he has been linked to a contrasting assortment of ideologies in order to fabricate an intellectual continuity of thought. Unfortunately by doing this Nietzsche’s true opinions are often distorted into supporting ideas to which he was often vehemently opposed. What is certain however, is that Aristocratic Radicalism was intended by Nietzsche to replace the existing status quo, for he makes direct and impassioned pleas to his readers for this new class of philosophers to create a new social construct;
We to whom the democratic movement is not merely a form assumed by a political organization in decay but also a form assumed by man in his decay…in the process of becoming mediocre and losing his value, whither must be direct our hopes? Towards new philosophers, we have no other choice, towards spirits strong and original enough to make a start on antithetical evaluations.
Nietzsche explicitly links mediocrity to liberalism and democracy, for both are doctrines of the middle. This also relates directly to his theory on the will to power, and it is certainly no coincidence that the majority of ideas connected to Aristocratic Radicalism occur in the text which bears the same name. It is the will to power itself which is feared under democratic regimes, indeed according to Nietzsche: “The will to power is so hated in democratic ages that their entire psychology seems directed toward belittling and defaming it”.
The will to power is something which can manifest in many different guises. Like the Übermensch and Dionysius it is an integral part of all Nietzsche’s works, and is something he considers to be both healthy and virtuous. Its absence and fear of individuals whom possess it are hallmarks of what he calls ‘slave morality’ and is a symptom of a culture in decline. This is why Nietzsche says of his contemporaries “… men, not noble enough to see the abysmally different order of rank, chasm of rank, between man and man – such men have so far held sway over the fate of Europe, with their ‘equal before God,’ until finally a smaller, almost ridiculous type, a herd animal, something eager to please, sickly, and mediocre has been bred, the European of today.” This epidemic of destructive mediocrity is something Nietzsche also links to the rise of the finance industry and liberalism.
The power of the middle is, further, upheld by trade, above all trade in money: the instinct of great financiers against everything extreme. […] They need occasionally to arouse fear of other extreme tendencies – by demonstrating how much power they have in their hands, but their instinct itself is unswervingly conservative – and “mediocre” – wherever there is power, they know how to be powerful; but the employment of their power is always in one direction. The honourable term for mediocre is, of course, the word “liberal”.
The supreme manifestation of the will to power is the ability to impose upon becoming the character of being and is also connected to Nietzsche’s notion of self-overcoming. This he refers to as Selbstüberwindung which is a concept originating in recognition of the role of sublimation. Sublimation, as the mental mechanism that orders and subdues instinctual drives, is responsible for the attainment of “self-mastery”. These concepts will be realized in the ideal Übermensch. However, if the will to power is not sufficient in an individual they shall not succeed in the process of differentiation and will seek to re-join the Herd. Individuals with a sound psychic make-up and personal authenticity are endowed with a will to power of higher quality and greater vitality. Their will expresses the master morality, in contrast to the slave morality typical of those possessing lesser power or macht, although the later may be endowed with greater physical force or kraft and this distinction between kraft and macht is crucial to any understanding of Nietzsche’s mature doctrine of power: it represents the philosophical emphasis on the transition from physical force to mental and spiritual power. Through this process of self-sublimation the actualised macht essentially becomes a work of art; another reason why the Übermensch is compared to an artist. The authentic selfhood of the Übermensch, like that of “the exceptional Greeks”, is achieved by one’s ability to bring about a “transfiguration of nature,” a purification of the primitive, coarse element of force into refined, creative power. In Heidegger’s analysis of what Nietzsche calls values there are also conditions that make the will to power possible. They do not exist independently, but only as conditions that are useful for the preservation and enhancement of the constructs of domination into which the will to power forms itself: “Values are the conditions with which power as such must reckon ….Values are in the first place the conditions of enhancement that the will to power has in view”.
The way in which Nietzsche speaks of power as an abstraction is reminiscent of the Hindu concept of Shakti. Nietzsche constantly speaks of power being in itself the ‘enhancement of power’; the powering of power is empowering to ‘more’ power”. Will and power therefore “are self-same in the metaphysical sense that they cohere in the one original essence of the will to power”; in thinking the “essence” of either will or of power, we do not think them alone, but, rather, think will to power. Hence, the will to power means empowering to the point of excelling. This too is linked to the virtues that Nietzsche lists as being aristocratic, as is expressed here;
The will to power appears […] among the strongest, richest, most independent, most courageous, as “love of mankind,” of “the people,” of the gospel, of truth, God; as sympathy; “self-sacrifice,” etc.; as overpowering, bearing away with oneself, taking into one’s service, as instinctive self-involvement with a great quantum of power to which one is able to give direction: the hero, the prophet, the Caesar, the saviour, the shepherd.
The manifestation of the will to power itself is also linked to the process of differentiation. Like Aristocratic Radicalism itself, it is fundamentally individualistic: it is the power of the individual in will and ability that marks the basis of the principle. In regards to how the will to power correlates to the process of individuation it is not that one opposes society as an individual, but rather it represents all individuals who posit themselves against the collective. The individual instinctively considers himself as equal or above all other individuals; what he gains in this struggle he gains for himself not as a person but as a representative of individuals against the totality. In this regard, individualism should be regarded as a subconscious manifestation of the will to power, in contrast to contemporary society in which one is taught to conform to the law of the average and ‘slave morality’. It is from these differentiated individuals that influence is exerted upon society in the wider perspective – Aristocratic Radicalism is intended to form the loci and focal points of the causal power structure. Individualism is followed by the formation of groups and organs; related tendencies join together and become active as a power; between these centers of power friction, recognition of one another’s forces, reciprocation, approaches, regulation and an exchange of services. Thus, every Aristocratic Radical maintains the central position within their respective collective as the creative principle until eventually society is presided over by a new aristocracy of creators. Because of the obvious difficulty in qualifying as part of Nietzsche’s aristocracy the manifestation of the will to power in these individuals is explicitly identified as a virtue and linked to endurance. Adversity strengthens the will to power and intensifies it in the correct type and, it is for this reason that Nietzsche relates this to his ‘disciples’;
Type of my disciples – To those beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities – I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing can prove today whether one is worth or not – that one endures.
Returning to the political elements of Nietzsche’s hypothesis, Nietzsche believes the will to power is scorned and denigrated in the modern era because of democratic values. The doctrine of equality reduces everyone to exactly the same, faceless substance, and those who express any form of individualization become a potential victim of the Herd’s wrath. Under such a regime the will to power when it manifests, is feared by the Herd. In these conditions, the unequal and those below average will be rewarded because it will lessen the will to power and reduce the threat of change entering into what is otherwise a closed system of thought. Nietzsche expressed this here;
Our virtues are conditioned, are demanded by our weakness……Equality, a certain actual rendering similar of which the theory of ‘equal rights’ is only the expression, belongs essentially to decline: the chasm between man and man, class and class, the multiplicity of types, the will to be oneself, to be standing out – that which I call pathos of distance – characterises every strong age. The tension, the range between the extremes is today growing less and less – the extremes are themselves finally obliterated to the point of similarity.
Thus excessive doctrines of equality act as a vessel for the vilest and most insidious form of inequality; by punishing that which dares to think differently and by doing so inherently restricting intelligence and creativity, as well as removing individuation out of fear of the will to power.
The Herd feels the exception, whether it be below it or above it, as something opposed and harmful to it. […] Fear ceases in the middle: here one is never alone; here there is little room for misunderstanding; here there is equality; here one’s own form of being is not felt as reproach but as the right form of being; here contentment rules. Mistrust is felt toward the exceptions; to be an exception is experienced as guilt.
Nietzsche also points out that what he refers to as the ‘Herd’ is diametrically opposed to what he defines as an aristocratic society and lessens the will to power by conveying the supposition within the Herd that one should seek the safety of the meridian – to be a “zero.”
The Herd instinct, then – a power that has now become sovereign – is something totally different from the instinct in an aristocratic society; and the value of the units determines the significance of the sum. Our entire sociology simply does not know any other instinct than that of the Herd, i.e., that of the sum of zeros – where every zero has “equal rights”, where it is virtuous to be zero.
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