Nietzsche on the Origin of the State

In the mind of Nineteenth Century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the growth of the state (Staat) was one of the most alarming developments of the modern world. Where others saw the promise of a new democratic age in which “the people” ruled, Nietzsche saw a “cold monster” that was destructive of creative and independent forces. He described the state as a “clamp-iron” pressed upon society, shaping and harnessing it.

Artist's impression of Çatalhöyük, a Neolithic settlement
Artist’s impression of Çatalhöyük, a Neolithic settlement

The modern state was particularly problematic because it potentially recognized no limits in its efforts to satisfy the wants and desires of the common man. To fully understand Nietzsche’s pessimistic understanding of the modern state, however, it is important to understand his beliefs about the origin of that state. Why is the modern state so different from what came before?

Prior to 4,000 BC, most if not all of humankind was organized into tribes and extended families that engaged in herding, hunting and gathering, trading, and subsistence farming. Some lived in cities like Çatal Höyük in modern day Turkey. According to archeologists, Çatal Höyük (7,500 – 5,700 BC) was absent of any public buildings. There are no signs of rulers, social stratification, or classes.

Then, around 4,000 BC, city-states began to emerge in Mesopotamia, and with them, hereditary dynasties. With some exceptions, the basic nature of these dynastic kingdoms, or states, did not change very much for the next several thousand years. In modern times, however, there has been a fundamental revolution in the nature of the state. Nietzsche’s perspective on this revolution, and why it occurred, is as challenging as it is insightful.

Like morality, Nietzsche contended that the purpose of the state had been inverted over time. Whereas, in the past, the state served an elite few (creators and conquerors), it now pandered to the many. Remarkably, Nietzsche believed this change was reflected in the way each era perceived the nature of labor. In “The Greek State” (1871), a preface to an unwritten book, he argued that one difference between Greeks and Moderns was that the Greeks were openly scornful of labor, whereas Moderns spoke of the “dignity of labor.” In an attitude that was reflected in their statecraft, the Greeks were far more “honest” about the nature of labor, which is that drudgery and toil is necessary for the creation of high culture. He wrote,

Friedrich Nietzsche
Friedrich Nietzsche

“Culture, which is first and foremost a real hunger for art, rests on one terrible premise…. In order for there to be a broad, deep, fertile soil for the development of art, the overwhelming majority has to be slavishly subjected to life’s necessity in the service of the minority, beyond the measure that is necessary for the individual. At their expense, through their extra work, that privileged class is to be removed from the struggle for existence, in order to produce and satisfy a new world of necessities.”

These “privileged Culture-men,” who believed that “power gives the first right,” gave birth to the ancient state. The origin of this state, then, was in the need of a conqueror to perpetuate the social process that relieved the few from the struggle for existence at the expense of the many, a social process that Nietzsche described as violent and “horrible.”

However, this state is necessary because “without which Nature might not succeed in coming, through Society, to her deliverance in semblance, in the mirror of the genius.” Nietzsche imagined the Greek State, on trial for its violent excesses, stepping forth and presenting its creation: Greek society (the “magnificently blossoming woman”).

Even in this primitive state, there was a tendency towards war and militarism, the division of society into slave and master. The military, Nietzsche argued, is a prototypical state. “The unconscious purpose of the whole movement forces every individual under its yoke, and even among heterogeneous natures produces, as it were, a chemical transformation of their characteristics until they are brought into affinity with that purpose.” The military genius was therefore the original founder of states.

However, in the Greek State, all was put in the service of the preparation and procreation of the genius in a more general sense. Plato, in his perfect state, took it one step farther and proclaimed that all state-life should be put at the service of the genius of wisdom and knowledge. Plato excluded the artistic genius, Nietzsche argued, as a “consequence of the Socratian judgment on art.” Genius of one kind or another, nevertheless, was the raison d’être of these ancient and classical states.

Nietzsche’s views on the origin of the ancient state did not change much over the course of his lifetime. Sixteen years after he wrote “The Greek State,” he presented a similar narrative in On the Genealogy of Morals (1887). Before there were states, he explained in the second essay of that book, mankind was “unrestrained and shapeless,” and so it required a violent force to shape it. This violent force took the form of an organized and martial people that imposed itself on a more numerous but less organized people. This simple act, which established a “structure of domination” (Herrschafts-Gebilde), planted a seed of resentment among the conquered—a seed that ultimately grew to overthrow this order of things and which found its political expression in the modern state.

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