Nietzsche and the State

“Where the state ends—look there, my brothers! Do you not see it, the rainbow and the bridges of the overman?”

Friedrich Nietzsche
Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was a prolific writer on just about every subject. His views on the modern state, however, have been largely overshadowed by his critique of morality. Nietzsche held a very clear and consistently critical view of the subject throughout his adult life. In his more sober moments, he saw the modern state as nothing more than a vehicle for mass power and as a squanderer of exceptional talent. In his most feverish moods, the state was “a cold monster” and a base falsehood.

During his lifetime, Nietzsche bore witness to the rise of statism in central Europe, and his disgust with nationalism, liberalism, and mass politics led him to live most of his life in self-imposed exile in Switzerland and northern Italy. Even after resigning from the University of Basel in 1879, he took to living in cheap boarding houses rather than return to his native land, which had undergone a dramatic transformation.

When Nietzsche was born in Saxony in 1844, the German Confederation consisted of 43 duchies, principalities, kingdoms, and free cities. He was only four years old when liberals and nationalists began to agitate for the creation of one unified German state. They succeeded in 1871, when Prussia defeated France in the Franco-Prussian War (in which Nietzsche briefly served as a medical orderly).

In less than a decade, the German Confederation went from a motley collection of different dialects, customs, and political associations to a fully modern welfare state driven by mass politics. Contrary to the wartime image of the German Empire, Otto von Bismarck’s Germany was just as liberal—if not more so—than the other great European powers.

The German Confederation 1815–1866
The German Confederation 1815–1866

Members of the German bund traded away their regional independence for universal manhood suffrage, national healthcare, accident insurance, and old age insurance. A common criminal code, as well as court, civil, and criminal procedures, replaced a cornucopia of local legal systems. During his Kulturkampf, Bismarck attempted to erase the last vestiges of the old order by promoting one way of “Germanness,” much like “Americanism” sought to unify the United States around the federal government after the American Civil War.

This political and social consolidation is key to understanding Nietzsche’s criticism of the state, because he drew a sharp distinction between a “people” and the “state.” “’I, the state, am the people!’ That is a lie!” he wrote in Thus Spake Zarathustra (1881). “Where there is still a people, it does not understand the state and hates it…” By a “people” he meant an organic body of persons who constitute a community by virtue of a common culture, history, and religion, while the “state” is an artificial construction; a yoke placed over peoples.

“It was creators who created peoples and hung a faith and a love over them: thus they served life,” he wrote. “Every people speaks its tongue of good and evil, which the neighbor does not understand.”

As a classical philologist, Nietzsche undoubtedly thought of ancient Greece as he wrote those words. Like that of Germany, the story of Greece was the story of the unification of dozens of independent civic bodies, each with their own customs, laws, and traditions. “Greece” was a modern creation. In the ancient world, there were only the city-states (polis) of Athens, Sparta, Corinth, etc., and even those political bodies enslaved a dozen different peoples in their hinterlands. It was only later, during the Romantic Period, that the organization of common language speakers around the nation-state became a popular notion. Therefore, Nietzsche believed the state was an artifice invented to serve a political class, based on the myth of a shared culture and past.

Who did the state serve? “The history of the state is the history of the egoism of the masses and of the blind desire to exist,” Nietzsche wrote in his notes in 1873. He again echoed those sentiments in Thus Spake Zarathustra, writing, “All-too-many are born: for the superfluous the state was invented.” Everything about the modern state was corrupt: education (“they steal the works of the inventors and the treasures of the sages for themselves”), the media (“they vomit their gall and call it a newspaper”), and most of all, politics. Nietzsche characterized politics as a mad rush for power, which squandered the talents of great men, who were forced to pander to the lowest common denominator.

Nietzsche was most concerned with the effect statism had on culture. “Culture and the state—one should not deceive oneself about this—are antagonists… All great ages of culture are ages of political decline: what is great culturally has always been unpolitical, even anti-political,” he wrote in Twilight of the Idols (1888). Because, in the modern state, the energy of a people is used up in power politics, economics, parliamentarianism, and “military interests,” its geniuses lack the energy for artistic and cultural creation; their energies are squandered and dragged down into the muck.

Nationalist depiction of Germania, 1848–49
Nationalist depiction of Germania, 1848–49

As the German state rose to prominence in Europe, Nietzsche saw a decline in the number of great cultural figures. Mozart, Beethoven, Schiller, Goethe, and Schopenhauer had all come and gone during a period when the German reich was virtually moribund and consisted of a loose collection of over a hundred different regions.

Unfortunately, Nietzsche did not leave a well thought out alternative to the modern state. Instead, he left his readers to infer his preference based on the political arrangements he criticized. In Human, All-Too Human (1878), however, he touched on nationalism and the nation state, proposing that it would be a benefit to Europeans to abolish nations and breed a “European man” that would contain the best qualities of all peoples living on the continent. He envisioned a noble class that freely exchanged ideas across Europe.

Based on his other arguments, we can surmise that Nietzsche was not advocating something along the lines of a European Union or a transnational state, but perhaps a collection of thousands of municipalities along the lines of the ancient Greek polis.

The state was not created to uplift the individual, but to satisfy the many. “It will give you everything if you will adore it,” Nietzsche warned. “Rather break the windows and leap to freedom.” He saw the modern state, with its mass media, politics, and culture, as a retardant to human progress, and he preferred to live in places where there was as little central authority as possible. For Nietzsche, it seems, it was not the type of government that concerned him, but who that government served: mass or individual? Unequivocally, he held that statism, such as it was in the 19th Century, served the former, and laid traps for all who desired to rise to new heights.

Further Reading: Nietzsche’s most colorful, and lengthy, discussion of the state can be found in Part 1 of Thus Spake Zarathustra, in the aphorism “On the New Idol.” In Part 2, he discusses how famous wise men have been put in the service of the people in “On the Famous Wise Men.” Other passages on the state can be found in The Dawn (or Daybreak), aphorism #179 “As Little State as Possible.” He describes his idea for a stateless Europe in Human, All-Too Human, aphorism #475 “European Man and the Abolition of Nations.” In his Notes of 1873, “On the Mythology of the Historical” proves enlightening.

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