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Don Dombowsky, Nietzsche’s Machiavellian Politics and Frank Cameron and Don Dombowsky, Editors, Political Writings of Friedrich Nietzsche

New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. 256 pages. ISBN 1-4039-3367-7. $90.00 (Hardcover); New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. 288 pages. ISBN: 978-0-230-53773-6. $100.00 (Hardcover)

Reviewed by Paul F. Glenn

The debate over Nietzsche’s political teaching—whether he had one, and if so what it was–shows no sign of abating, despite a great deal of scholarly exchange on the topic over the last few decades.  Don Dombowsky has participated in this debate over the last few years with the publication of two books:  an argument for a political reading of Nietzsche (Nietzsche’s Machiavellian Politics; hereafter NMP) and (with Frank Cameron) an edited volume collecting Nietzsche’s political writings throughout his career (Political Writings of Friedrich Nietzsche; hereafter PWFN). I will address the books in order.

In NMP, Dombowsky approaches Nietzsche with a distinct argument: he wishes to emphasize the political context of Nietzsche’s own time, and how Nietzsche fit in to this context: “The principal imperative guiding this study, conversely, is to situate Nietzsche’s political thought in relation to the political issues, critiques, and movements of his own period” (NMP p. 1). As Dombowksy points out, Peter Bergmann’s Nietzsche, “The Last Antipolticial German” is one of the few other works to address this matter in detail, so there is ample room for such research.  To this end, Dombowsky points to Nietzsche’s frequent mention (often in asides) of Bismarck, the Kulturkampf, and other issues of the late nineteenth century. But he also seeks to connect Nietzsche with intellectual movements of his time, such as neo-Machiavellian elite theory. On top of this, Dombowsky strongly criticizes postmodern and radical liberal interpretations of Nietzsche, and contends that Nietzsche subscribes to Machiavelli’s political teachings, combining force with fraud.

Dombowsky begins by making the case that for Nietzsche, morality is reducible to politics, making him a thoroughly political thinker. Dombowksy extends this idea by claiming that all of Nietzsche’s key philosophical ideas fit into this political view; indeed,  we cannot escape Nietzsche’s politics, even if we choose to focus solely on his views on, for example, aesthetics or epistemology. Part and parcel of Nietzsche’s political views is his profoundly anti-egalitarian sentiment: his emphasis on agonism and order of rank, and his project of the revaluation of values, are fundamentally elitist. Dombowsky makes his case strongly here (although I am predisposed to agree with this part of his interpretation): he offers extensive textual support for his argument, and cogently fits the parts of Nietzsche’s philosophy together.

In the next chapter, Dombowsky takes on what he calls the radical liberal reading of Nietzsche. This view, put forward by scholars such as Mark Warren, William Connolly, and Lawrence Hatab, argues that Nietzsche’s philosophical teachings are incompatible with his anti-democratic political views. Instead, the argument goes, Nietzsche’s moral and epistemological teachings lend themselves to a postmodern theory of democracy: if no view is privileged, then all are equal, and none can legitimately suppress others. Dombowsky argues that this view is flat-out wrong, and it is here that he makes perhaps the best argument of the book. Nietzsche’s elitist views are inextricably linked to his epistemology and ontology. Not all perspectives are equal. Nietzsche’s agonism implies a lack of equality because will to power involves the strong dominating the weak. Again, I am predisposed to accept this interpretation of Nietzsche’s thought, but I find that Dombowsky makes a compelling case that the radical liberal view simply misses the point.

Instead of a radical liberal view, Dombowsky argues that Nietzsche should be under- stood as growing out of thinkers like de Tocqueville and Taine (what Dombowsky calls the aristocratic liberal school of thought). These thinkers were very skeptical of democracy’s levelling tendencies, but did not favor replacing liberal regimes with aristocratic ones. Nietzsche shares this school of thought’s profound skepticism of the common person and the fear that democracy is ruining culture. Nietzsche, however, radicalizes this school of thought, pushing him much closer to neo-Machiavellian elite theorists (such as Vilfredo Pareto and Gaetano Mosca). Dombowsky’s final chapter argues that, like these thinkers, Nietzsche adopts Machiavelli’s tactics and outlook, including the use of violence and deception, the importance of virtu, plus the willingness to use current regimes and religions as tools to promote the creation of a new nobility. According to Dombowsky, Nietzsche adopts Machiavelli’s techniques of control, attempting to use democracy for non-democratic ends.  Compared to the earlier chapters, the argument here is not as strong. Dombowsky makes some interesting connections, but his case is not fully persuasive.

One of the significant problems of the book is that Dombowsky does not provide a clear account of Machiavelli’s teachings; he writes as if it were clear what Machiavelli believed. The huge range of interpretations of Machiavelli shows that there is no consensus on the subject:  for some, Machiavelli is a “teacher of evil,” while for others he is a principled advocate of republican government. Yet Dombowsky does not engage this debate. So when Dombowsky states that Nietzsche “was a disciple of Machiavelli” (NMP p. 5), what exactly does this mean?  Unfortunately, there is no clear answer to this question, which is a rather serious problem.

Dombowsky frequently invokes Nietzsche’s standard of life—all that supports life is good, while all that undermines it is bad—in his account of Nietzsche’s politics. How- ever, this is problematic because Nietzsche himself points out that life cannot be a standard: no living thing can truly evaluate life, and even things that seem to negate life actually serve a form of life (albeit a weak one). While in itself this may not be a critical problem, it suggests that Dombowsky is not reading Nietzsche closely or with subtlety. And this to me raises doubts about Dombowsky’s reading of Nietzsche in general.

An example of this comes in Dombowsky’s assertion of Nietzsche’s use of the “noble lie.” He asserts that the core component of Nietzsche’s noble lie is “will to power or order of rank” (NMP p. 149). If the order of rank is a noble lie, then is Nietzsche really an elitist? Or is he an elitist whose elitism is merely preference, with no objective reality? Should we simply disregard Nietzsche’s statements that the order of rank is innate? Dombowsky states that (unlike Plato’s) Nietzsche’s noble lie has no salutary effect; to what end, then, is the noble lie told? Given Dombowsky’s repeated emphasis on Nietzche’s anti-democratic views, this is a serious issue, and to my mind Dombowsky offers no satisfactory answer to these questions.

Political Writings of Friedrich Nietzsche fits with Nietzsche’s Machiavellian Politics because it too seeks to anchor Nietzsche in his time (probably even more than the former book). The book consists of virtually all of Nietzsche’s political passages, from his earliest juvenalia to his final published works. Cameron and Dombowky intersperse the selections with valuable historical information on German politics of the late nineteenth century. These comments are very useful for understanding some of Nietzsche’s terminology as well the targets of his praise and criticism.

The bulk of the PWFN consists of excerpts from Nietzsche’s writings, placed in chronological order.  The book’s great strength is that it is comprehensive: it covers Nietzsche’s entire life.  The book includes a number of writings from Nietzsche’s student days, including his essay on Napoleon III’s seizure of power. Of perhaps greatest interest to Nietzsche scholars is the inclusion of several lectures Nietzsche gave in his early days at Basel, several of them on overtly political topics. These lectures have, at times, been difficult to find in translation, so Cameron and Dombowsky provide something valuable by presenting these essays. Much of the books is composed of excerpts from Nietzsche’s published writings that deal with politics: everything from The Birth of Tragedy to The Antichrist is covered.

Perhaps the greatest weakness of the book is that it does not provide context for the excerpts.  More than many other thinkers, Nietzsche’s writings are heavily context- dependent; it is easy to misinterpret a passage if you do not know the context. Some of the worst examples of misinterpretation of Nietzsche’s work have been based on stripping a quote from its context; for example, the infamous passage in the Genealogy about the “blond beast” sounds like Nazi propaganda—until you read further and see that Nietzsche includes Arabs and Japanese among the “blond beasts.” An edited volume like this one necessarily strips passages out of context, at least to some extent, which could interfere with understanding Nietzsche’s political thought.

It was not at all clear to me what the target audience for PWFN is. Serious scholars of Nietzsche’s politics probably wouldn’t have a huge interest in this book because they have access to virtually all of the texts already. A few unpublished writings (especially from Nietzsche’s youth) are of interest, but that is not enough to be a major resource. The volume is also not likely to be useful as an introduction to Nietzsche’s political writings because of the issue of context mentioned in the previous paragraph. PWFN is probably best used as a resource for those who have some understanding of Nietzsche’s politics, but who are looking for a bit more depth. I don’t know how big of an audience that is.

I have offered some harsh words about these books. They do, however, make contributions to the debates about Nietzsche’s politics, especially by tying Nietzsche concretely to political events of his time. As I pointed out at the start, Bergmann is the only other scholar to pursue this topic at such length. However, these books are problematic. Both are worth reading, but with a critical eye.