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Jeffrey Metzger, Editor, Nietzsche, Nihilism, and the Philosophy of the Future

London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2009. xi + 207 pp. ISBN 978-1-84-706556-8. £58.50 (cloth).

Reviewed by Jeffrey Church

In his introduction, Jeffrey Metzger states that “at some point in the past 20 or 30 years…Nietzsche’s name [became] no longer associated primarily with nihilism” (1). Metzger is pointing to the increasing contemporary scholarly interest in Nietzsche’s epistemology, naturalism, and metaethics.  The worthy aim of this volume is to ask us to examine once again the underlying philosophical problem to which these views are a response, namely, nihilism. This volume helpfully reminds us that Nietzsche’s philosophical motivation still requires clarification, and that we can fully understand Nietzsche’s particular views only by grasping Nietzsche’s fundamental philosophical aims.

As with so many edited volumes on Nietzsche, the essays are varied in quality and eclectic in approach. Though this volume focuses on the theme of nihilism in Nietzsche, the authors define nihilism in different ways. Accordingly, the reader does not benefit from a lengthy and systematic treatment of the topic as in Bernard Reginster’s recent The Affirmation of Life (2006), which also sought to retrieve the notion of nihilism in Nietzsche. Yet the variety of approaches in Metzger’s volume has the virtue of surveying the many meanings of nihilism present in Nietzsche’s texts.

What is nihilism? Nietzsche defines nihilism most famously in the collection of notes gathered as the Will to Power as when the “highest values devaluate themselves,” when the “idea of valuelessness, meaninglessness” confronts and torments one. (WP 11). The authors of Nietzsche, Nihilism, and the Philosophy of the Future focus on these and other statements in the Will to Power (see Rosen, Corngold, Porter, Ansell-Pearson), as well as Nietzsche’s discussion of nihilism in The Genealogy of Morality (see Conway, Metzger). Despite focusing on similar textual material, however, these authors develop markedly different accounts.

Three interpretations of nihilism emerge in this volume. First, nihilism is a description of the state of a particular culture, namely, a culture whose value system has collapsed or self-destructed. The highest value in a culture—its vision of the good life—is revealed as worthless or illusory, such that the world at large appears meaningless and cruel from within this culture. The ascetic ideal, for instance, shuns this-worldly pleasures in favor of the truth to come, yet the ascetic ideal culminates in the knowledge that there is no truth to come, and hence the world is fundamentally empty and meaningless. Daniel Conway’s careful and insightful reading of essay III in The Genealogy of Morality offers a nice statement of this version of Nietzsche’s nihilism. In this understanding of nihilism, meaninglessness is a feature of a culture itself, which means that nihilism can be overcome through a transformation or “revaluation” of the culture. This transformation should produce a culture that affirms rather than denies life. The contribution of Conway’s piece is to elicit Nietzsche’s educative and rhetorical strategy for effecting this transformation.  Conway discerns “indirect communication” Nietzsche uses to draw free spirits out of the culture dominated by the ascetic ideal and to exhort them to “turn the destructive power of the ascetic ideal against itself” (83–4).

The second interpretation of nihilism is that of a philosophical view according to which rational thought can never find justification in the irrationality, chaos, and flux of being. Accordingly, all normative claims to authority are a matter not of finding and claiming truth, since there is no truth, but a matter of power relations among agents. Though Stanley Corngold and Geoff Waite employ this understanding of nihilism, Stanley Rosen’s article provides its clearest expression. According to Rosen, Nietzsche’s philosophy is the “culmination of modern epistemology,” which rejects “natural as well as transcendental metaphysics,” and hence rests all truth claims on the nature and structure of the human will (9). Rosen argues that this epistemology self-destructs in Nietzsche, for whom the will is the will to power. Yet power or force is the antithesis of truth, and so Nietzsche himself is the nihilist rather than finding and overcoming nihilism in others.

The problem with this interpretation, however, is that it attributes to Nietzsche a moniker—a nihilist—that he himself did not accept, but rather sought to transcend. However, Rosen is engaged in a philosophical critique of Nietzsche, not just a scholarly task of interpreting Nietzsche accurately. Yet on this count too Rosen simplifies Nietzsche’s argument. Rosen claims that for Nietzsche “the function of philosophy [is] to articulate the structure of art,” yet for there to be a distinction between the noble and the base we require a standard that “cannot itself be just a work of art” (19). For Rosen, Nietzsche cannot provide such a standard. However, the fact that human beings are creative or artistic animals is a discovery, not an invention of Nietzsche’s, and hence could serve as the standard Rosen is looking for. A long strand of scholarship in Nietzsche studies from Alexander Nehamas’ Life as Literature onward has developed precisely an aesthetic standard for the good life, a line of argument Rosen does not consider.

The third form of nihilism in the volume emerges in Metzger’s own contribution, in which he asks “how deep the roots of nihilism go”: are they features of Western culture or “society as such” (125)? Metzger develops a concept of nihilism that marries the two forms discussed above, namely, that nihilism is both a feature of human culture but also a philosophical view about the irrationality of existence as such. He offers a penetrating reading of The Genealogy of Morality, essay II, attending especially to the violence accompanying all political foundings, in order to illuminate this version of nihilism. In addition, we can see this type of nihilism at work in Nietzsche’s early Birth of Tragedy in which he introduces the idea that if human beings were to grasp the full truth of existence unadorned by art, we would judge with Silenus that life is not worth living.

It is useful to outline these different meanings of nihilism, because each gives rise to a quite different solution. For instance, the divergent understandings of Nietzsche’s relationship to politics in the volume can be explained by the differing understandings of Nietzsche’s nihilism. Several of the authors—Ansell-Pearson, Gillespie, and Corngold—hold that Nietzsche defended an “unashamedly elitist ‘radical aristocratism’” against the “Enlightenment ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity” (121). If one holds the first type of nihilism, that Western modernity culminates in nihilism, and this nihilism can be overcome, then one may be led to emphasize the aristocratic political and military elements in Nietzsche. The future masters of Europe provide the promise of a new culture that can generate a healthy affirmation of life. Ansell-Pearson defends this view through an illuminating contrast with a thinker contemporary to Nietzsche, whom Nietzsche read and admired for his “immoralism”—Jean-Marie Guyau. However, Guyau only rose to the level of a “free thinker” in Nietzsche’s mind, not yet a “free spirit.” This essay makes an important contribution to our understanding of Nietzsche in his historical context.

Michael Gillespie also understands nihilism as an affliction of liberal democracy that can be cured through the breeding of a “martial aristocracy” (20). Gillespie’s thoughtful essay situates Nietzsche’s views alongside Plato’s as common responses to a basic political problem, the necessity of violence to found and maintain a political community. Such violence is best carried out by a class of trained warriors, yet this class itself endangers the political community with its brute strength and power. Gillespie makes a compelling case that what distinguishes Plato and Nietzsche is that the former developed a systematic mechanism for “soften[ing] the warrior class,” whereas Nietzsche fails to describe how the warriors will emerge and how their power can be moderated (25).

By contrast, Robert Guay offers an excellent rejoinder to these aristocratic readings by interpreting Nietzsche as an “anti-political” thinker.  Guay understands nihilism in the third sense described above—that for Nietzsche the world is not fully rational—and hence adopts a much more moderate understanding of Nietzsche’s remedy for this inescapable problem. Guay argues that there is a fundamental tension in human existence between the external influences and causes of the human will and our inner experience of our own freedom and creativity. The relationship between world and agent is shot through with contingency, yet the modern state attempts to do the impossible, to confer complete control on the part of human agency. As such, Guay suggests, Nietzsche turns away from politics and embraces an ironic and “tragicomic” approach to life that affirms contingency (165).

In sum, Nietzsche, Nihilism, and the Philosophy of the Future contains several excellent essays on a rather neglected but crucial topic. I wish the authors had been more explicit about defining nihilism and had recognized the competing notions of nihilism in their essays. However, several of these essays provide invaluable insight into many facets of this multifaceted term in Nietzsche

University of Houston