Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Dialogue with Nietzsche
by Gianni Vattimo
Columbia University Press, 247 pages, $29.50

It is part of academic folklore to defend philosophers against unskilled readings by nonspecialists. One of the best-known cases involves the outraged scholars who defended Plato when Karl Popper published The Open Society and Its Enemies ”a work in which, after the horrors of the Second World War, Popper declared Plato to be a proto-totalitarian.

Friedrich Nietzsche has had particularly bad luck in being misread. The time separating the publication of Nietzsche’s writings from the Nazi seizure of power in Germany was only a few decades. Why shouldn’t his concept of the Übermensch have led the Nazis to believe they were the supermen whom Nietzsche heralded as saviors of Western civilization?

Gianni Vattimo’s most recent book, Dialogue with Nietzsche , is an implicit defense of Nietzsche. One should add, however, that the book touches on the political dimensions of Nietzsche’s thought only indirectly. It consists of fifteen chapters on various aspects of Nietzsche’s philosophy, ranging from Nietzsche’s theory of history through aesthetics and hermeneutics to nihilism. One of Vattimo’s objectives is to offer a new reading of Nietzsche against German and French interpretations that have dominated scholarship for decades. Vattimo moves through Nietzsche’s writings with ease and grace, engaging in debates with nearly every scholar of distinction. The result is a learned and sophisticated work.

Vattimo has been heavily influenced by Heidegger and Nietzsche, particularly in his earlier works, Belief, After Christianity, and The Future of Religion (written with Richard Rorty), where he offers an analysis of the present state and prospects of Christianity in the
post-Nietzschean and Heideggerian world. While a Heideggerian reading can be advantageous in some cases, Heidegger’s spell can also lead to unconvincing interpretations. In “Nietzsche’s Vision of the World,” Vattimo suggests that the progress of technology created a need for the Nietzschean Man: “With the progress of technology, mankind will require less and less virtue in order to survive in the world, for the conditions of external hardship that gave rise to the virtues will vanish. At this point mankind will arrive at the fork in the road . . . abandon itself completely to mediocrity and massification, losing, along with the need to strive, all the virtues that it had acquired over the course of history.” Vattimo ends this chapter by saying, “What we do know is that, to be human in this world, one must set about assuming one’s own responsibilities in full.”

If Vattimo’s conclusion about the Übermensch ’s humanity is Nietzschean, the premises from which it stems are not necessarily so. Rousseau in his Second Discourse notices that “our virtues declined in proportion to the advancement of sciences.” Rousseau’s formulation is most likely an allusion to Francis Bacon’s 1605 On the Advancements of Learning . Like Nietzsche, Rousseau laments the loss of ancient virtues that he considers to be the result of the softening of the conditions of life. Again, like Nietzsche, Rousseau was anti-Christian, but he did not see the need for the new morality and the resulting conception of the Übermensch . If Nietzsche did, it was because he rejected the whole of a Platonic-Christian metaphysical tradition that recognizes the permanence of good and evil. In other words, the technological progress that Vattimo sees as being at the root of nihilism is a necessary but not sufficient condition for Nietzschean nihilism.

Nietzschean nihilism has at least three sources”Christianity, democracy, and modern science”and it cannot be reduced to a question of mere technological progress. For Vattimo’s Heideggerian thesis to hold true, one would have to establish a connection, first, between the rise of modern science and Christianity, and, second, between science and democracy. A possible way to argue for the first connection would be to see science as an act of Christian charity.

But, as much as the seventeenth-century thinkers, particularly Bacon and Descartes, wanted to present technological progress under the mask of charity, there was something subversive in their project. According to the school of Leo Strauss, modern science was supposed to undo pain and labor, the consequences of Original Sin. One does not need to accept this reading, but one can say that, insofar as science makes the weak equal to the naturally virtuous, science is antithetical to Christianity, since it makes us oblivious to the moral of Genesis.

Insofar as science in fact created conditions for democratic equality, it is bound up with Descartes’ rejection of the ancient concept of philosophy as an activity of the virtuous few and his claim that “good sense” is distributed equally in all men. If so, democratization and the resulting weakening of modern man may be said to have their roots in the rise of science, but this is not how Nietzsche sees it. In his Will to Power , Nietzsche notes: “Through Christianity, the individual was made so important, so absolute, that he could no longer be sacrificed . . . . All ‘souls’ became equal before God: but this is precisely the most dangerous of all possible evaluations.” In short, mediocritization is an extension of the Christian equality of souls into the political realm.

In Beyond Good and Evil , Nietzsche makes this point even more emphatically. Doing away with suffering is tantamount to removing the conditions under which man develops best, he writes, concluding, “We opposite ones, however, who have opened our eyes and conscience to the question how and where the plant man has hitherto grown most vigorously, believe that this has always taken place under the opposite conditions.” One could say in partial vindication of Vattimo’s reading that insofar as technological progress removed those conditions that historically maintained men in a state of inequality and virtue, Christianity”understood as solidarity with those who suffer”is inimical to greatness and therefore responsible for the cultural malaise.

Vattimo avoids an extensive discussion of the vehemently anti-Christian character of Nietzsche’s thought. Its absence is a serious drawback, because Nietzsche’s Übermensch is supposed to be a partial response to the situation of man brought about by Christianity. As a result, Vattimo’s Nietzsche appears to be more “human” than we are used to.

In a chapter entitled “Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality,” Vattimo quotes Nietzsche’s aphorism about the “free spirits” who “shall deprive men of their bad conscience.” It is not clear what Nietzsche has in mind, but this aphorism brings to mind the words of Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov . In a fictitious dialogue with Christ, the sixteenth-century Grand Inquisitor declares: “We will tell them that every sin will be redeemed if it is committed with our permission, and that we will allow them to sin because we love them, and as for the punishment for these sins, very well, we take it upon ourselves . . . . And everyone will be happy, all the millions of creatures, except for the hundred thousand of those who govern them . . . . And we, who took their sins upon ourselves for their happiness, we will stand before you and say, ‘Judge us if you can and dare.’”

One is tempted to identify Nietzsche’s “free spirits” with the hundred thousand grand inquisitors who are above the common herd. But such identification would be preposterous to Nietzsche, because the Grand Inquisitor recognizes the essential truth of Christianity: Freedom lies in living in accordance with the dictates of conscience, that is, the recognition of good and evil. The Grand Inquisitor objects to Christianity not on the ground that Christ’s message is false but on the ground that human nature is too weak for all men to live up to the Christian ideal. Had Dostoyevsky read Nietzsche, he might have said that if man cannot live up to Christian moral standards, it is all the more futile to expect him to be able to generate values. Men are prisoners of good and evil, and inviting them to live beyond it must inevitably produce nihilism and political anarchy. Twentieth-century Nazism and communism were nihilistic. They avoided anarchy by seeking recourse to totalitarian methods of social and political organization.

Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky are thinkers of nihilism par excellence . But in contrast to Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky is an acute realist who knows that in real life “if there is no God, everything is permitted.” Nietzsche, on the other hand, left us with a piece of philosophical fiction known as the Übermensch , whose visage is so unclear that, more than a century later, we still cannot recognize him. According to Vattimo, “[H]e can escape from the permanent dominion of moral valuations.” This sounds convincing as a scholarly device, but as a social message it is an invitation to people of practically any political orientation to claim the title, which is why Nietzsche could attract thinkers on the extreme right and has been appropriated by the secular left.

Vattimo has succeeded in saving Nietzsche from the interpretation of the Übermensch as a “Nazi,” but what other alternative is there? In an earlier book, Il Soggetto e la Maschera (1974), Vattimo espouses the idea that “the Nietzschean overman might in many ways be the most authentic realization of the alienated man of Marxist theory.” If that is so, the real Übermensch is more likely to look like Alexander Zinoviev’s homo sovieticus instead of someone to whom we can entrust the task of saving Western civilization.

Zbigniew Janowski is the author of Augustinian-Cartesian Index: Texts and Commentary and the forthcoming How to Read Descartes’s Meditations.