Rough Sketches of Nietzsche’s Politics and Philosophy of Religion

Rough Sketches of Nietzsche’s Politics and Philosophy of Religion May 12, 2008

What follows are a couple of replies to questions sent to me by a student this semester about Nietzsche’s views on politics and religion. While not definitive or thoroughly sourced discussions of Nietzsche’s thoughts on politics and religion, I think the sketches of Nietzsche’s positions as I formulated them in these replies have some promise.

I would eagerly welcome replies as to the tenability of the positions spelled out both for their justice to Nietzsche’s texts and for their general philosophical merit. With no further ado, here are the questions I was sent followed by my replies:

Does Nietszche want everyone to embrace the noble mindset? He says the individual must always re-affirm himself, act spontaneously and free, without restrictions of some sort of authority/moral over him. But since humans do co-exist in societies, there needs to be some sort of order/law, no? Does he propose societies without leaders, that each person is his own sovereign? Or does he think the noble people will rise above the inevitable masses that will continue with the slave mentality?

Your questions are superb ones without simple answers. They are exactly the kinds of things I’m still trying to sort out. Firstly, Nietzsche acknowledges in a more fatalistic sort of way that not every one will be of noble mind and he is suspicious of philosophies that try to ignore the ways that people really are. The common person will always be the common person. He does, I think, talk about whole ages where a whole people might be more noble but in general there will be these contrasts in mindset and internal constitution between the herd and the more noble types.

So, to an extent, Nietzsche can be read as making his appeals to those fewer ones who will be receptive to the nobler calling to a nobler way of life that he is making. He can, to a greater extent than most philosophers, admit that there can be different codes of life good for the herd than for the nobles. Herd morality does serve the herd’s interests and so is genuinely valuable for them. Nietzsche does not so much want to upset their stability as free the “nobles” to do the sort of value creation that is possible for them as people with greater internal resources.

At minimum, we can say that these nobler individuals can transform a culture in a way that takes the whole people to another level for its having the influence of their greatness. The importance of great artists is of great significance for Nietzsche as exemplary figures who effect this kind of move within a culture. Now, whether or not the masses will be able to incorporate the profundities of these transformative cultural figures in such a way that makes them embody all his virtues and be as great in themselves is hard to say. It’s likely they won’t, but they will nonetheless be better off for the contributions to their culture.

Now the question of laws and ethical precepts are a couple whole other balls of wax. I think Nietzsche tends to focus on creating the conditions for the excellent to emerge and to be the cultural leaders. He totally mistrusts statism because he thinks that state apparatuses are woeful substitutes for genuine culture when it comes to genuinely uniting a people. Also, while he is not an individualist, he is protective of the values-innovators who state and religion will vilify as evil. The problem that Nietzsche sees the values-innovator as facing is that when (s)he questions the dominant values, (s)he is inevitably going to be deemed evil according to the dominant values because (s)he is a threat to them themselves. How can you question your values when your values are the judge of what’s a good answer? So, a large part of Nietzsche’s concern with morality is this conservative dimension to it, by which it shuts off the questioning that goes against it. So, he is concerned to break the hold of laws that would enshrine the values of the present. Whether he wants laws created by the coming values-innovators who will replace the Christian values or whether he wants them only to be cultural influences who don’t get into the business of actually turning their new values into actual laws, is a difficult question that I can’t really definitively answer yet.

I am starting to write my paper and I am a little confused about Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence.

As far as God is concerned, I thought Nietzsche doesn’t believe in God or an afterlife per se, just that you keep living your life over and over again, like reincarnation except its always the same. So in that sense its not really an afterlife(because an after life, in the Christian sense anyway, is some spiritual never ending life after a short period of temporal living), I think it would be more like some never ending circle of temporal life. You would really never die (because death is understood as your spirit separating from your body for another place). It would be sort of like a book with many chapters, each saying the same thing. Does Nietzsche believe that there is some infinite being causing this eternal recurrence? and how exactly does it work, because obviously time goes on, so you couldn’t keep living your successive lives on Earth, they would have to be on some other plane or dimension right? And since people are born and die at different times, how does that work out( say I die today, and start my eternal life, but my brother doesn’t die for another 50 years…how does he end up in my “new” eternal life?)

Also, Nietzsche doesn’t believe in any seperate infinite being or “other”, but rather the unity and oneness of the universe. So how are we all connected? Is there an interconnecting spirit or something?


You’re basically on the right track. The only things that I would correct are as follows. There is no reference to a being beyond the universe such as an independently existing God. If he is to speak of a “divine” at all, it would be just the totality of the universe taken as a whole. What I mean by this is as follows: the question of “what is God?” is a question of what is the ultimate, eternal reality upon which all particular being depends for its existence. The metaphysical intuition that leads people to talk about the “divine” is that temporal beings as we know them require outside causes to come into existence—they can’t cause themselves. So, the divine has usually been interpreted by philosophers in some way or another as whatever that thing is that didn’t need a prior existing thing to create it.

Obviously particular material objects don’t seem fit for such an uncaused existence since they require causes outside of themselves. Where the monotheist posits a separate being, a God, who exists by his own power, uncaused by anything else, the atheist or the pantheist usually just posits that the universe itself has some sort of eternal dimension such that even though particular combinations of matter are created through causal interactions, there is some eternal dimension to the universe that itself is not caused to come into being or to go out of being.

This is a very rough way of spelling out Spinoza’s essential position and Spinoza was the thinker most fundamentally in the background of Schopenhauer—-who in turn deeply influenced Nietzsche. Nietzsche also speaks very highly of Spinoza. So, it’s fair to infer some common sympathies with Nietzsche and Spinoza and flesh him out in the Spinozistic terms I like to use. For Spinoza, the universe is “God:” it is the totality of everything that is and it is eternally existing. The particular beings that we are and that we experience are just modes of the universe—forms it takes within the greater unity of itself. For Spinoza, as I think for Nietzsche, the universe is not merely matter, nor merely mind but rather is both in every one of its modes. What I mean by that is that there is both a material and a mental dimension to all of existence. This means that everything in existence has both a mental side and a material one to it.

God is neither the material nor the mental aspect of existence or things but just the entirety of the whole universe, he is the “substance” in which all the particular beings exist. An analogy I like to use is to take a human being. There is a material and a mental dimension to you. And you can express those yourself in all sorts of ways physically and mentally. You can take on different modes. Your body can be sitting or standing or walking or chewing, etc. and your mind can be thinking and feeling all sorts of thoughts. You are not separate from any of these things but expressed through all of them. You are more fundamental than any particular mode you take. You exist before and after all the particular thoughts you think and body positions you take, etc. But you also don’t exist without any body position or thoughts whatsoever. So, to apply this analogy to the world. “God” is like you in that scenario, he is the totality of everything but he only exists in the particular modes that his attributes (matter and mind) take. You and I are just the modes of God’s attributes. We’re just shapes his material and mental attributes twist themselves into. He doesn’t exist without expressing himself in his attributes, but he is the more fundamental being because we exist in him, rather than him in us. He doesn’t have an independent identity apart from all the modes of the universe. In other words, our thoughts are God thinking, he doesn’t think separately from that as though he were a distinct person from all of us. We are modes of God’s body, he doesn’t have a different body than the material universe itself. So God=the universe.

So, that’s in a nutshell, Spinozistic pantheism. The connection between all of us in such a scenario, as Nietzsche to some extent accepts, would be that we all boil down to the same fundamental being of the universe. Nietzsche never explicitly embraces pantheism and so that’s why I suggest in my review of Julian Young’s book Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Religion that we shy away from calling him a pantheist as Young does. What he does share with the pantheist though is that the universe itself is what is eternal and so if anything is to be called divine, that would be it. But I think he would reject ultimately reject the idea that the universe is indeed one substance since his major rejection of Schopenhauer is denying that the entire universe is a single will, in favor of interpreting it as made up of innumerable centers of will to power. In this way, Nietzsche is more Leibniz than Spinoza and less inclined to positing a notion of a fundamental unity to all the universe that we could call “God.”

Now, on Nietzsche’s thinking, how the eternal recurrence would happen is a little sketchy. But what he speculates is that with an infinite amount of time and a finite amount of matter following out fixed laws of nature, eventually all the combinations of matter would recur an infinite number of times. Since there are only a finite numbers of combinations among material in the universe and there’s an infinity to keep recombining the same combinations, following the same laws of nature, would recur an infinite number of times. This is roughly how Nietzsche sketched out the recurrence.

So to answer your question of how we can each recur in our own lives when we die while others continue their present lives—-the issue there I think is simply that it’s a matter of the universe recurring and our lives recurring when we are reconstituted in it. So, in other words, you don’t recur immediately but only when the universe gets back to reconstituting history to the point where you come into being again. There are others who think more in terms of dimensions similar to the one you theorized and argue that our infinite recurrences actually all happen simultaneously. I have to admit I have a hard time wrapping my mind around that idea since it’s hard for me to grasp what would distinguish all these infinite versions of the same existence. If they happen sequentially, then I can grasp that. But if they’re all happening simultaneously, how are they distinct?

I think the argument for the simultaneous recurrences is that eternal recurrence does not happen in time in the sort of manner I described earlier where the matter just keeps recombining sequentially in time. Rather than there being eternal recurrences in time, there would be the eternal recurrence of time itself. So, this would require different dimensions in which time and matter recurred separately from their instantiation in each other dimension.

Now, it is possible that none of these physical and metaphysical speculations are correct and it is also possible (though I don’t think likely) that Nietzsche didn’t think it important that they be correct. In such cases, the meaning of the eternal recurrence still stands as a test for affirmation. Is what we want most desperately to be eternal our own temporal lives in this temporal universe, recurring for all eternity? If it is, then we maximally affirm our lives—regardless of whether or not the universe honors our desire. This is at minimum our test. There are those (like Paul Loeb) who stress though that for Nietzsche it must also be that the universe does indeed recur for this to be such a crushing existential question to contend with. They argue that if the eternal recurrence is not real, we can just dismiss the question of its possibility as not at all the kind of thing that would lead us to the sort of turmoil that Nietzsche describes in the Gay Science 341.

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