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Christian J. Emden, Friedrich Nietzsche and the Politics of History

Cambridge, New York London: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 386 pp. ISBN: 9780521880565. –80.99 Euro / $107 US (Cloth).

Reviewed by Martine Prange

In Friedrich Nietzsche and the Politics of History, Christian Emden explores “Nietzsche’s response to the historical and political culture in Europe in the age of the modern nation state” (xi). The book is volume 88 of the Ideas in Context series (edited by Quentin Skinner and James Tully). Emden’s goal is to position Nietzsche firmly in the history of modern political thought, starting from the belief that “Nietzsche’s intellectual and political environment plays a prominent role in his historical thought and his understanding of the political” (ibid.). Emden argues that Nietzsche’s political philosophy is one of “political realism” in contrast to the ideological fault lines of modern political culture. What I would like to learn, then, is what Nietzsche’s political realism looks like––for example, with respect to his concern for Europe’s future, expressed in the figure of “the good European”; what Emden’s contextual approach adds to more philosophical interpretations of Nietzsche’s political thought; and what the present value of Nietzsche’s political realism (based on his view of life as will to power) might be, particularly for contemporary Europe.
Emden delineates in six chapters Nietzsche’s politico-philosophical development from his student years in Bonn and Leipzig during the 1860s to his genealogy of the late 1880s (chapter 5) and to his “good Europeanism” (chapter 6) as responses to the “failure of neo-humanism” (chapter 1), the “formation of Imperial Germany” (chapter 2), “the crisis of historical culture” (chapter 3), and the rise of cultural anthropology (chapter 4).

In the first chapter, Emden argues that in order to make a valid assessment of modernity, Nietzsche continuously emphasized the importance of historical knowledge and that Nietzsche owes this insight to his philological studies, which he conducted under the direction of Jahn and Ritschl. Their classical studies were “embedded in a political program, largely due to Wilhelm von Humboldt’s role in the Prussian state: neo-humanist ideals of Bildung can only have an effect once they are part of an institutional setting” (29). Remarkably, Emden argues this without considering Nietzsche’s sharp criticism of the “historical sense,” which he addressed specifically in HL. He also claims that the striving for an “ideal humanity” by means of classical studies was a “political” ideal (rather than a purely aesthetic and cultural one) by stating that “the nostalgic vision of Greek antiquity […] contains a utopian dimension that, almost automatically, politicized any appreciation of antiquity” (30; my emphasis) and by addressing Nietzsche’s main philosophical topic (“modernity”) as “a European political culture” (303). Emden does not problematize these statements in the light of Nietzsche’s repeated claims that culture and state are opposites, that culture should remain as remote as possible from politics, and that he was the last “anti-political” German (see references below). Instead, Emden states that “the presumed centrality of the aesthetic that is invariably attributed to his writings is in need of much revision” (96) without clarifying why it is important that the presumed centrality of the aesthetic in Nietzsche’s philosophy be revised.

In chapter 2, Emden argues that Nietzsche’s historical method took an “anthropological turn” in the early 1870s, which continued to influence his genealogical work of the 1880s, suggesting (rather than proving on the basis of comparative and textual analysis) that this was under the direction of his Basel colleagues Burckhardt, Bachofen, and Overbeck. Interesting is Emden’s reference to the remarkable fact that Nietzsche submitted his lecture on Socrates and Tragedy to the Preussische Jahrbuch for publication. This magazine was edited by Von Treitschke, who was also a close friend of Overbeck (who, however, was disturbed by Von Treitschke’s nationalism), and to whom Nietzsche also sent his Birth of Tragedy. Treitschke, in fact, refused the publication, because “he simply did not understand what the manuscript was about” (93). Such a detail forces us to reconsider the extent to which Nietzsche’s cultural nationalism of BT was also political.

Chapter 3 argues that Nietzsche by the mid-1870s had become aware that art and aesthetics would be unable “to deliver any insight into the political and cultural conditions of modernity” (172) and that this insight could only come from “a form of historical critique” (173). In Nietzsche’s praxis, this becomes a genealogical critique, i.e. “genealogy is a critical discourse about the political conditions of modernity” (chapter 4, 174). This critique, in contrast to the natural sciences, is able to explain and overcome “the illusory status of traditional moral and political values” (174), starting from the question “how do we actually come to such values and institutions in the first place?” (174) This genealogical analysis requires distance from real-life politics, Emden remarks. He hastens to say that Nietzsche’s turn away from politics “does not mean that he wished to ignore the present” (176). As he continues: “Rather, by distancing himself from the present, he believed, the political and intellectual configurations [of the present] will become more readily understandable” (176). Thus, Emden concludes: “The view from outside, as it were, lies at the heart of Nietzsche’s historical critique of modernity” (176). Here, Emden twists and turns to protect his view of Nietzsche as a critic of modernity’s political culture, though this is questionable. The fact that Nietzsche fantasized about living outside of Europe was not driven by the desire to criticize Europe from an outside perspective, as Emden thinks, but by the cosmopolitan desire to become “supra-European”. This is the positive consequence of his good Europeanism, which is an attempt at not only overcoming the self as a product of a national culture, but also “enlarging” the self in the sense of spreading the self around the world. But Emden is right that Nietzsche is “realistic” and “political” in his naturalistic view of life as driven by power and his aspiration to “revalue all values,” i.e. to create new values and, in this way, supply Europe with a new “political orientation” (229).  This new political orientation, then, is “the idea of Europe,” which is “an ethical community […] both more open than the nation state and less vague than humanity” (286). To what extent this “ethical community” is or should also be a “political community” remains unclear, however, because “concrete evidence of Nietzsche’s political vision for Europe is relatively thin” (287). And that is exactly the point—not only with respect to the future of Europe, but also with regard to his own time. Can it be that Nietzsche’s interest in Europe was more aesthetic than political, after all? “I am not a ‘political animal’ and I have a porcupine nature against such things,” he wrote to Rohde in 1868. In addition, Nietzsche claimed in Twilight of the Idols that political powers suppress cultural ones (TI “Germans” 4), he advised free spirits not to interfere with politics (KSA 8: 19[77], p. 348), and he was convinced that “culture owes this [the highest moments possible] above all to ages of political weakness” (HH 465).


The lack of critical analysis of Nietzsche’s use of the terms “politics” and “culture,” as well as the relationship between the two, is one of two shortcomings of Emden’s book. The second is the lack of textual contextualization. Viewing Nietzsche’s writings in their historic-political context does not absolve the Nietzsche-scholar from the responsibility to clarify Nietzsche’s writings in their textual context. This neglect, for example, leads to a questionable political reading of the “German character” and “foreign influences” in BT 23 (118). Nietzsche does not mean to say that the German nation or state need protection from foreigners, but rather German art and culture do. These should be enriched by tragic myth and purified of the prevailing “idyllic” and vocal tendencies in Italian and French opera, which impede the disclosure of the tragic, pessimistic truth. One can argue to what extent this must be understood as a political stance, but one cannot simply put “politics” and “culture” on a par, as Emden does.


It is hard not to highlight one context at the expense of the other. What we need, however, is a successful fusion of both, i.e. close reading and philosophical analysis within the historical-political background. There is a tendency in Nietzsche-scholarship, these days, not only to contextualize his philosophy––in itself a worthwhile undertaking––but also to overestimate the importance of empirical facts, by drawing (definitive) philosophical conclusions directly from (possibly meager) empirical evidence. Empirical instances may suggest certain affinities and interests, but they hardly prove them. For this, we need conceptual, textual, and philosophical analysis. Let me give an example: Nietzsche was in Bonn “appreciative” of liberal-national sentiments, Emden writes (31). He bases this claim on Nietzsche’s visit to Arndt’s graveyard, in 1864, and attendance of a speech delivered by Sybel in the summer of 1865. I have also visited the graveyard of Hegel in Berlin but that hardly makes me a Hegelian; and I have attended many lectures of philosophers, politicians, and (self-proclaimed) intellectuals with whom I do not agree.


This is not to say that the book is not a good study of the context in which Nietzsche’s thought developed. On the contrary, it is exactly that. Emden gives an interesting overview of the historical, social, and scientific context of Nietzsche’s thought, for example by pointing to Hering and Galton as possible sources of his naturalism (chapter 5) and he successfully paints a lively picture of Nietzsche’s social and intellectual life from his time in Bonn to his later “Wander” years. This is not only a laudable achievement but also a much-desired contribution to the study of Nietzsche’s thought in its development and context. The book does not always prove the influences that Emden wants to see. But it opens paths to further textual analysis, which may sustain or disprove some of Emden’s claims, e.g. possible influences of Bachofen and Overbeck, affinities for Treitschke and Sybel, and influences of cultural anthropological studies that led to an “anthropological turn” (178) on Nietzsche’s part that ground his genealogical method. That is certainly stimulating and valuable.

Leiden University