Nietzsche, Bourgeois Anti-Modernist of the Second Industrial Revolution

This is a talk I'm giving at the conference, Nietzsche, Science, and Technology, which is co-organized by the Nietzsche Circle and Stevens Institute of Technology.

Friedrich Nietzsche was a bourgeois anti-modernist of the Second Industrial Revolution. Like many others of his time, he believed that the rise of industrial capitalism and the modern nation state was leading to decadence and moral decline. Nietzsche isn’t nearly as insightful as his defenders like to pretend, and because his ultimate solution to the problems of modernity is so morally debased, we should leave him in the dustbin of history. That is what I will argue today.

From the beginning to the end of his career, Friedrich Nietzsche’s approach was historical and quasi-sociological, yet few (English language scholars at least) apply this same perspective to Nietzsche himself. It’s the folly of philosophers. As Nietzsche wrote, “You ask me which of the philosophers’ traits are really idiosyncrasies? For example, their lack of historical sense, their hatred of the very idea of becoming . . . . They think they show respect for a subject when they de-historicize it, when they take the ‘view from eternity’—when they turn it into a mummy.”[i] When philosophers do try to take the historical view, their efforts are ham-handed, the work of individuals who have neither the instinct, nor the sensitivity, nor the training necessary for the insightful historical work. Julian Young’s 2010 Nietzsche biography is a perfect example.[ii] While much in Young’s biography is fine—and I think Young’s theory that Nietzsche is a kind of communitarian is provocative and fruitful, if flawed—the book only rarely succeeds in properly situating Nietzsche in his historical context. The book’s subtitle, A Philosophical Biography, tells you all you need to know: it’s the biography of a mummy.

            Young’s book suffers from another flaw that runs throughout Nietzsche studies: it is far too worshipful. Young wishes to defend and save his master, rather than turning against him. It’s a basic irony: in Zarathustra, Nietzsche’s allegory of the “Three Metamorphoses” of the camel, the lion, and the child enshrines revolt against our teachers. In these stages, the camel as beast of burden carries the heavy load necessary to begin self-development. The lion, however, bites the hand that has fed him. “He seeks out his last master; he wants to fight him.” Only once this battle is won can the child emerge to “create new values.”[iii] Ah. But Nietzsche studies lack creative children. Nietzsche told us to overthrow masters, but Nietzsche scholars everywhere, like beasts of burden, carry his water.

            No. What we need is a historian who will eviscerate Nietzsche as Nietzsche did Wagner and so many others—to free us from the burdens of this “Anti-Christ.” That historian is not me. I am an Americanist and a historian of science, technology, and business. I lack the language skills and training in the history of German politics, society, science, music, and letters that would be necessary for a full critique. If Nietzsche could fantasize about his “Blond Beast,” I can envision my own: I think she’ll likely be a brilliant, bodacious historian of science, and she’ll leave Nietzsche gutted and twitching on the floor right where she finds him. Today, I only want to point the way. Call it a “Prelude to the Philosophy of the Future.”

In my remarks, I will rely on one of Nietzsche’s core methods—that is, reading people unfairly. For Nietzsche was one of the most unfair and least charitable readers in history. The number of writers who Nietzsche badly read is truly mind-boggling. I will repay him the favor.

            The core of my argument will involve applying a Nietzschean genealogy to Nietzsche and his fans. Such an approach finds master and disciples to be a form of the Hegelian “beautiful soul,” perhaps best described as the pale angry bedroom dweller or the hostile nerd—a wallflower who judges life’s active participants to be members of the herd. I can level this criticism because I was one of these people. When I was 16 years old, I watched the coming-of-age film, Clueless, while on Christmas vacation with my family in sunny Florida. I identified strongly with the older brother character played by Paul Rudd, an angst-filled, existentialist type who wore black, whose every word reeked of sarcasm. In one scene, Rudd’s character was laying by a sun-drenched poolside reading a book. I wondered what it was. Through the help of a high school teacher, I discovered that it was the Walter Kaufman edited volume, Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Discovering Nietzsche changed my life. It began a trajectory that ultimately led to me becoming a professor. Nietzsche also made a perfect compliment to Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against the Machine, and the other anger and angst-ridden musical acts that I adored at the time. I could lay in my bedroom and judge the rest of the world. I thought most other people were idiots. I especially loathed the evangelical Christian kids who were dumb enough to go the Christian Youth Center in my town. What tools! I thought: probably I’ll be an Ubermensch. You know, maybe not, but probably.

            To make this a little more academic, I will argue that Nietzsche was a well-known type from this period, which scholars refer to as the bourgeois anti-modernist. In his book, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920, Jackson Lears examines the history of anti-modernist movements in the United States, including the Arts and Crafts moment, the return of the martial ideal, the fascination with Medievalism, a turn towards Catholic art and spirituality, and several others. Like Nietzsche, the members of these movements came from bourgeois families. After completing a table examining the backgrounds and beliefs of about seventy anti-modernists, Lears concluded that the mindset “was most prevalent among the better educated strata of the old-stock ruling class.”[iv] Anti-modernists, then, were bourgeois conservatives alienated from the changing world of industrial capitalism. Summarizing this worldview, Lears writes, “This was the vision which haunted the antimodern imagination: a docile mass society—glutted by sensate gratification, ordered by benevolent governors, populated by creatures who have exchanged spiritual freedom and moral responsibility for economic and psychic security.”[v] You could hardly imagine a more Nietzschean sentence.

            Yet, we needn’t use anti-modernism as an analyst’s category as if Nietzche wouldn’t have understood the term. He states his anti-modernist intentions explicitly! As he writes of Beyond Good and Evil in Ecce Homo, “This book is in all essentials a critique of modernity, not excluding the modern sciences, modern arts, and even modern politics, along with pointers to a contrary type that is as little modern as possible—a noble, Yes-saying type.”[vi] The point is that he was part of a herd of people making such declarations. The author of the Untimely Meditations was himself very timely.

            The frustrating part is that Nietzsche’s rootedness in his time has been widely recognized in history and political science. For example, Fritz Stern’s 1961 book, The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of Germanic Ideology, argued that Nietzsche was a part of what Stern called a “conservative revolution,” which sang “a rhapsody of irrationality, denouncing the whole intellectualistic and scientific bent of German culture, the extinction of art and individuality, the drift towards conformity.”[vii] The enemies of these conservatives were industry, democracy, liberalism. According to Google Scholar, Stern’s book has been cited 823 times, but as far as I have been able to find only once in a study of Nietzsche, a 1991 essay by John Bernstein, and Bernstein’s essay has only been cited 30 times. It was never taken up in the wider Nietzsche literature.[viii] Kaufman and Schacht, for instance, never bother to address Stern’s work. The anti-historicism of Nietzsche studies goes much deeper. In his 2014 book, After Hegel: German Philosophy, 1840–1900, Frederick Beiser examines four controversies that marked German philosophy during this period: the search for the identity, or future, of philosophy; the question of materialism; worries about the limits of knowledge or the constant presence of ignorance; the development of historicism; and the rise of Kulturpessimismus, or cultural pessimism. Nietzsche inherited all of these problems and strains, and yet Nietzsche fans so often embrace his claims to radicalness and originality.

I could go on like this for ages. But why bother? Pointing out that Nietzsche was a product of his age does not knock him off his horse. It only deflates his claims to originality. In the time remaining, I would like briefly to discuss Nietzsche’s central problematic during his mature writings, namely the problem of nihilism. The problem itself was widely shared during the period Nietzsche was writing. Then I would like to examine Nietzsche’s central answer to the problem of nihilism—and this reflection will bring me to why we should reject Nietzsche as a forbearer.

From his early writings, such as “On the Future of Our Educational Institutions” and the Untimely Meditations, through his last scribblings, Nietzsche always decried the twin-headed beast of industrial capitalism and the centralized state—the two forces that were, for instance, remaking his beloved schools and universities. Industry and the state were unified in the person and efforts of German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, a conservative, anti-democrat of whom Nietzsche was no fan. Yet, Nietzsche everywhere bemoans the role that democracy and the push for equality is playing in undoing society, including by leveling institutions of learning. “What conditions the decline of German culture?” Nietzsche asks. “That ‘higher education’ is no longer a privilege—the democratism of Bildung, which has become ‘common’—too common.” When compounded by secularization and the Death of God, Nietzsche, as we all know, believed that Germans were sliding towards what he called the “Last Man,” that society was falling into what Nietzsche in his notebooks called “nihilism.” This then is Nietzsche’s famous problem: given contemporary society’s decline into nihilism, how do we save Culture?

If I had more time today, I would outline an extensive critique of Nietzsche’s theory of value that undergirds this problem. I think he’s just wrong about how human values work. Part of the problem is that, like a lot of people in the long 19th century, including Dostoevsky and William James, Nietzsche believed that secularization would inevitably lead to a cultural crisis. This belief was understandable but basically wrong, and its assumptions were founded on a basically masculine understanding of ethics and morality, which asserts that moral action is based on abstract principles. Feminist theorists, like Carol Gilligan, just have a better understanding of human action as being grounded in an “ethics of care,” which fundamentally has to do with our place in networks, and webs, of other humans. In Nietzsche’s time as well as today, if you ask people what they value, they will give you mundane answers, like family, work, leisure, whatever. And when we watch over the course of two or three generations, a family go from being quite religious to being completely irreligious, the resulting agnostics, tepid atheists, or secular humanists have completely normal notions of right and wrong. Now you can say that today’s secular humanists are instances of Nietzsche’s “last man,” and I often like to tease my students that when they sit around for hours in their boxers, playing online roleplaying games, chowing down on Doritos, and slamming Mountain Dew, they are precisely the thing that HORRIFIED Nietzsche so greatly. But really, what kind of prick do you need to be to judge other humans in this way? Well, you can be an angry bedroom dweller, a 16 year old boy who lays in his stained sheets listening to Joy Division and Einstuzende Neubauten. (I’m always amazed by academics who will use language like herd, mob, masses, and then turn around and do something very herd-like. For instance, they will brag about not watching television, a true herd animal technology, not realizing that not-watching-television is a classic trait of belonging to a certain self-important academic culture. In other words, there is no one herd. There’s a bunch of different herds. It’s herds all the way down.)

Nietzsche, like Durkheim and Freud, adheres to a mode of social explanation that the sociologist John Levi Martin calls “sociopathic epistemology” because it has an “implicit dismissal of explanations that might be offered by those people whose actions we are studying.”[ix] Nietzsche believes that he can understand others better than they themselves can and that he can understand them from the confines of his bedroom. He doesn’t need to ask what they think. This position leads to some insane interpretations. For instance, he argues that men become Trappist monks because they are “too weak willed, too degenerate, to be able to impose moderation on themselves,” that is, “radical means are indispensible only for the degenerate; the weakness of the will . . . is itself merely another form of degeneration.”[x] But isn’t a simpler interpretation that—given both belief in a metaphysical God and a theology that values prayer as the highest possible form of activity—spending a life in little but prayer was seen as a great honor? Moreover, many of Nietzsche’s interpretations of others’ actions depends on him being able to suss out “instincts” and “drives” that lie behind and under regions and yet are completely invisible to the naked eye. Furthermore, given that many of the people that he discusses have been dead for hundreds if not thousands of years, how can he feel so confident talking about their “instincts”?

Nietzsche’s theory of value sucks, but his answer to the question of nihilism is much more troubling. Given that democracy, capitalism, and the priorities of the herd are leading to nihilism, what is the answer? In Beyond Good and Evil and other works from Nietzsche’s late period, the answer is fairly straight-forward: it involves creating a new race or caste that will ensure the dominance of noble culture. In Section 208 of Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche bemoans the “absurdly sudden attempt at a radical mixture of classes, and hence races” which leads to a sickness of the will, and this sickness further leads skepticism and the “introduction of parliamentary nonsense.” Nietzsche then hopes out loud that Russia will become a political and military threat to Europe so that Europeans “would have to resolve to become menacing, too, namely, to acquire one will by means of a new caste that would rule Europe, a long, terrible will that would be able to cast its goals millennia hence.”

Note the complex intertwining here: races, classes, and castes are one and the same. Races physiologically contain bundles of instincts and drives expressed in the will. And physiology produces philosophical views. As Nietzsche writes in that same section, “For skepticism is the most spiritual expression of a certain complex physiological condition that in ordinary language is called nervous exhaustion and sickliness; it always develops when races or classes that have long been separated are crossed suddenly and decisively.” The only answer is the creation of a new nobility. In section 251 of the same book, Nietzsche argues that Jews should be genetically accommodated into the German race because Jews are “the strongest, toughest, and purest race now living in Europe.” After outlining this accommodation scheme, Nietzsche writes, “I am beginning to touch on what is serious for me, the ‘European problem’ as I understand it, the cultivation of a new caste that will rule Europe.”

Because Nietzsche was fundamentally a Lamarckian and believed that acquired traits could be passed down from parent to child, physiology was a complex product of the interaction of genetics, culture, and personal development. Yet, while Nietzsche’s polemics were meant to rouse individuals out of their slumber, it was only this future caste—a population of individuals spread over multiple generations—that Nietzsche believed could stave off nihilism. As he wrote in Twilight of the Idols, “The beauty of a race or family” is “the accumulated work of generations. . . . The law holds that those who have [good things] are different from those who acquire them. All that is good is inherited; whatever is not inherited is imperfect, is mere beginning.”[xi]

My interpretation here accords with the vision of Nietzsche as a “philosophical naturalist” that has dominated Anglophone Nietzsche studies for the last fifteen years.[xii] More and more, philosophers have focused on how Nietzsche took up Darwin, Lamarck, and other sciences of his day, especially physiology. The greatest gift for me while writing this paper has been discovering Brian Leiter’s writings on Nietzsche’s naturalism. I’m sure I’ll be reading Leiter for a long time. I agree with Leiter that Nietzsche was not writing “political philosophy,” and that people who talk about Nietzsche’s political philosophy are often doing a great disservice to his work. Nietzsche has almost nothing to say about political arrangements, and he usually has nasty things to say about the state.

But what I think Leiter misses is that Nietzsche fits into a larger trend in German society—which saw the state and formal politics as the enemy of Culture. As Wolf Lepenies writes in his book, The Seduction of Culture in German History, quoting from Norbert Elias’s book, The Germans, “embedded in the meaning of the German ‘culture’ was a non-political and perhaps even anti-political bias symptomatic of the recurrent feeling among the German middle-class elites that politics and the affairs of the state represented the area of their humiliation and lack of freedom, while culture represented the sphere of their freedom and their pride. . . . [Eventually] this anti-political bias was turned against the parliamentary politics of a democratic state.”[xiii] Fittingly Nietzsche’s new caste was not rooted in politics, but it was a caste, a new nobility and aristocracy, and Nietzsche was also known to hold the false belief that he himself was a descendent of Polish nobility (something even his crazy sister wasn’t foolish enough to buy into). Nietzsche’s new caste would require social hierarchy, including famously slavery. But really Nietzsche’s vision of nobility involved preserving hierarchies of all types. As he writes in section 239 of Beyond Good and Evil, “Wherever the industrial spirit has triumphed over the military and aristocratic spirit, woman now aspires to the economic and legal self-reliance of a clerk,” that is, to “defeminize herself.”

Nietzsche’s naturalistic viewpoint that reaches maturity in Beyond Good and Evil continues throughout his career. I do not have time to go into great detail but only to make a few observations. On the Genealogy of Morality describes how a culture fell into slave morality over the course of generations and how this decline reshaped their physiology. The book was a sequel to Beyond Good and Evil, and it fits hand-in-glove with the vision of race and caste spelled out in that earlier work. Moreover, On the Genealogy of Morality was in part a response to Paul Ree’s Darwinian treatise The Origin of Moral Sensations, which was based in the thinking of Herbert Spencer. And On the Genealogy of Morality presents Lamarckian response to Ree—attacking Ree’s and Spencer’s assertions that morality is about fitness and usefulness, Nietzsche holds forth that it is about power. Finally, at the end of the book’s first essay, Nietzsche proposes an academic prize competition for essays on “historical studies of morality,” and he believes that such histories “require first physiological investigation and interpretation, rather than a psychological one.” He goes on “Something, for example, that possessed obvious value in relation to the longest possible survival of a race . . . would by no means possess the same values if it were a question, for instance, of producing a stronger type.”

            Brian Leiter nicely takes apart Michel Foucault’s effort to turn “genealogy” into an abstract form of cultural critique. But what I do not understand yet is why we should not reject the metaphorical reading of Nietzsche’s notion of genealogy and instead see Nietzsche’s moral history as literal genealogy—that is, as a recounting of biological lines. Moreover, the notion of biological lineage played a role in other works that Nietzsche was writing during this period. For example, in the Book Five of The Gay Science (added in 1887), Nietzsche argues that human consciousness arose from the need for communication. He believes that this need builds up through the ages. “It does seem to me as it were that way when we consider whole races and chains of generations: Where need and distress have forced men for a long time to communicate . . . the ultimate result is an excess of this strength and art of communication.”[xiv]

Nietzsche’s focus on noble and degenerate races does not end in On the Genealogy of Morality but continues right through to the end. In Twilight of the Idols (1888), Nietzsche argues that Greek nobility rejected philosophical dialogue (dialectics) because “they were considered to be bad manners, they were comprising.”[xv] He goes on, “Honest things, like honest men, do not carry their reasons in their hands like that. It is indecent to show all five fingers. What first must be proved is worth little.” The success of Socrates and Plato, then, only came because the Greek noble class was degenerating. “Old Athens was coming to an end.”[xvi] Socrates and Plato were “symptoms of degeneration, tools of Greek dissolution,” Nietzsche writes. Socrates and Plato did not agree philosophically because they were correct but rather because they “agreed in some physiological respect, and hence adopted the same negative attitude to life—had to adopt it.”[xvii] That is, because beliefs are the product of instincts and drives, Socrates and Plato are on the same page because their biological urges align. Nietzsche writes, “Socrates’ decadence is suggested not only by the admitted wantonness and anarchy of his instincts, but also by the hypertrophy of the logical faculty and that sarcasm of the rachitic which distinguishes him.”[xviii]  Moreover, Socrates, with his love of dialectics, “belonged to the lowest class.” How do we know this? Because Socrates was ugly. “Ugliness is often enough the expression of a development that has been crossed . . . . or it appears as declining development (that is, degeneration). The anthropologists among the criminologists tell us that the typical criminal is ugly: monster in face, monster in soul.”[xix] To summarize, Nietzsche saw the rise of Socratic philosophy as a battle between racial types.

To give one more example from Twilight of the Idols: in the section “The Labor Question,” Nietzsche writes, “The stupidity—at bottom, the degeneration of instinct, which is today the cause of all stupidities—is that there is a labor question at all. . . .The hope is gone forever that a modest and self-sufficient kind of man, a Chinese type, might here develop as a class. . . . If one wants an end, one must also want the means: if one wants slaves, then one is a fool if one educates them to be masters.”

With that, allow me to pivot back to Nietzsche’s historical context and conclude. Germany in Nietzsche’s time was undergoing a transformation that we now call the Second Industrial Revolution, the most dramatic technological revolution in human history, including the creation of the railroad, steel, electrical, chemical, pharmaceutical, telegraph, telephone, and automobile industries. I am not naïve. A lot of this revolution was truly terrible in terms of human costs, and some of its consequences, like climate change, we still have no idea how to address. Yet, by almost any measure imaginable, today more humans on Earth have a higher quality of life than any time in history precisely because of this transformation. Moreover, the exact changes in German universities that Nietzsche attacked in his works were an essential factor in creating the capacity for knowledge production that led to this revolution. Which is why American universities including Stevens copied that model. The Bismarck government gave birth to social welfare as we know it, a hallmark of humane existence. And the social movements and struggles that led to a partial and temporary humanizing of capitalism arose from fellow-feeling and class consciousness that Nietzsche would have mocked as the weakness of pity, the rule of the herd. Because Nietzsche lived in his bedroom and refuse to read the newspaper, he understood none of this. If you want to be a cultural pessimist, like Nietzsche or Wittgenstein, and believe that Western culture has declined since 1850, tell me in specific terms what we have lost.

            Finally, my talk today has had a certain tone, but I did not start off down this road. Rather, I wanted to re-read Nietzsche and discover what he has to teach us about living with technology. I think the answer is not much. That is, nothing that couldn’t be placed on an inspirational poster in a dentist’s office. “If you’re going to use Twitter, use it like an Overman, not like a Last Man.” I think it’s telling, however, that one place we see a lot of discussion around Nietzsche is around transhumanism. I think it’s telling because the technologies that would allow us to truly transcend our existence as homo sapiens are still quite a ways off. Recently, when Chinese scientists edited genes, it led to unplanned mutation and death. We have no idea how to move forward. What this means is that a lot of smart people are basically sitting around and thinking about Nietzsche and science fiction instead of focusing on the real suffering that is happening in our world right now. In other words, to this day, instead of drawing us closer to reality, Nietzsche’s spirit haunts


[i] Twilight of the Idols, “’Reason’ in Philosophy,” 1. All numbers given for Nietzsche’s texts are for section numbers, not page numbers.

[ii] Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[iii] Zaruthustra, “Three Metamorphoses.”

[iv] No Place of Grace, 313.

[v] Ibid., 300.

[vi] (Section 2—see also his insistence that after Zaruthustra’s “Yes-saying,” Beyond Good and Evil initiated a “No-saying, No-doing” streak, “the reevaluation of our values so far.)

[vii] Stern, xii.

[viii] John Andrew Bernstein, “Nietzsche’s Moral Philosophy,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 29 (1) 1991: 55-6.

[ix] John Levi Martin, The Explanation of Social Action, 6.

[x] Twilight of the Idols, “Morality as Anti-Nature,” 2.

[xi] Twilight of the Idols, “Skirmishes of an Untimely Man,” 47.

[xii] My interpretation is also informed by Malcolm Bull’s Anti Nietzsche, a provocative but highly problematic work. In that book, Bull really criticizes how the poststructuralists and others have tried to make Nietzsche a friend to leftist and progressive causes since the 1960s. But, like Heidegger, Bull relies too heavily on Nietzsche’s notebooks that were later published as The Will to Power. I do think we should read and interpret the notebooks, but I’ve always questioned any interpretation of Nietzsche’s works that is primarily based on the unpublished works. For this reason, I am only going to focus on published works, especially Beyond Good and Evil, The Genealogy of Morality, and Twilight of the Idols.

[xiii] The Seduction of Culture in German History, 4.

[xiv] The Gay Science, 354.

[xv] “The Problem of Socrates,” 5

[xvi] Ibid., 9.

[xvii] Ibid., 2.

[xviii] Ibid., 4.

[xix] Ibid., 3.