The Physiology of Politics

Friedrich Nietzsche binds the political to the physiological. His political intuitions emerge from a theory of breeding: that cultures and peoples are shaped by the conditions in which they are produced. Adverse conditions breed strength and conformity of type, while superabundance leads to variation, “whether as deviation (to something higher, subtler, rarer) or as degeneration and monstrosity” (211). In Beyond Good & Evil, he pushes against the false universalism that he sees as ascendant in Europe, and injects the countervailing idea that advancement of man-as-species requires the recognition of hierarchy, of distinctions between men. Nietzsche sees the political movement toward democracy as the outer-works of a “tremendous physiological process,” the leveling and mediocritization of biological man, which is taking place concurrently (176). He condemns this future of commonness and vulgarity, but suggests that it may yield, in the exceptional cases, strong “human beings of the most dangerous and attractive quality” — a new Nobility (176).

For Nietzsche, what is noble is “all that is rare, strange, privileged, … and the abundance of creative power and masterfulness” (139). Nietzsche emphasizes the elevation of the noble: “the higher man, the higher soul, the higher duty, the higher responsibility” (139). Noble qualities imply a hierarchy. If the noble soul “knows itself to be at a height,” this elevated status begs the question: higher than what? (215).

Nietzsche’s political theories are tinged with a proto-evolutionary logic. He argues that adversity in conditions produces a “fixed and strong” type of man (210). A type, a species, a culture learns to prevail because it must prevail, as failing to do so risks extermination. This “long fight with essentially constant unfavorable conditions,” both fortifies and culls (210). Through conflict and conflagration, the essential qualities that allowed a people to “always triumph,” reveal themselves more readily (210). Hardship clarifies the demands of necessity. These qualities are the “conditions of existence” and they alone are baptized as virtues and cultivated as such (211). Those who posses these common traits are valorized, while aberrant individuals are at a severe disadvantage. They will not survive or reproduce as they “easily remain alone, succumb to accidents, being isolated, and rarely propagate” (217). Early aristocracies, such as the ancient Greek polis or the city state of Venice, were embedded in such hostile conditions and thus produced “a type with few but very strong traits” (210).
The emergence of the concept of nobility coincides with conquest and exploitation; the stronger, more barbaric type of man-as-species asserting dominance over “weaker, more civilized, more peaceful” types (201). The noble caste always began as the barbarian caste. It was a ruling group which reflexively determined what was ‘good’ by looking inward at itself and fixating on those qualities that “conferred distinction and determined the order of rank” (204). What was noble was that which distinguished the rulers from the ruled; the characteristics of the ruling class — “severe, warlike, prudently taciturn” — were forged in the fire of existential necessity (211).

Aristocracy and nobility begins with an initial act of domination; they owe their origin to the brute physicality of the barbarian overcoming a more civilized culture, however this is not their end. Nietzsche believes that the enhancement of man-as-species stems from the structure of aristocratic society. The ingrained differences between a ruling caste and its conquered subjects birth a new urge, a desire for “the development of ever higher, rarer, more remote, further-stretching, more comprehensive states” (201). When Nietzsche asserts that “society must not exist for society’s sake,” he has this higher purpose in mind (202).

In order for enhancement to occur, a society must believe “in the long ladder of an order of rank and differences in value between man and man” (201). The mandate of political life is not to superimpose a false equality or to extend superficial rights, but to construct the “foundation and scaffolding” on which superior individuals can develop. Society is not produced by a collective for the improvement of all, as suggested by other political theorists, instead it justified by the betterment of an elite class. A healthy aristocracy experiences its own reproduction as the “meaning and highest justification” of political life (202). The ruling caste must willfully accept the sacrifice and reduction of “untold human beings” in order to sustain itself (202). The central conceit that “life is essentially appropriation,” cannot be corrupted or abandoned (203). Nobles require a forceful belief in their own ‘goodness’ and right to rule, for if this requisite belief fades, the enhancing function of aristocracy decays in tandem.

The political movement toward democracy belies the fragility of this belief in the modern context. The “ordinary consciousness” of Europeans resists the idea that society must be exploitative (203). Although Nietzsche rejects the “nonsense of the ‘greatest number'” — as noted earlier, for him, the end of political life is not the greatest good, but the production of a superior type — the opposing value is gaining momentum (117). And as the unfavorable conditions which maintained the virtues of the aristocracy no longer exist, the structure itself is debased. A democratic structure of governance can only result from a corrupted aristocracy; one that “sacrifices itself to the extravagance of its own moral feelings” as did the French aristocracy before the revolution (202). The political agitation for democracy, Nietzsche argues, is not “only a form of the decay of political organization but a form of decay … of man,” reflecting European man’s impending mediocrity and diminution (117). He believes that “the democratization of Europe leads to the production of a type that is prepared for slavery in the subtleness sense” (176). The source of the corruption, according to Nietzsche, is in some sense, biological.

European modernity severs the link between a type of man and the conditions and climate which produced him. Europeans are becoming homogenous. Peoples have become “more and more detached” from the conditions of their origin and thus more similar to each other (176). There is less that makes a people unique, fewer distinction which can separate one type from another. Europeans are “increasingly independent of any determinate milieu that would like to inscribe itself for centuries” (176). The harsh — and specific — conditions that once enforced virtue and produced the noble type come to an end and “the tremendous tension decreases” (211). The old requirements, which enabled existence under adversity, no longer appear necessary. Given conditions of abundance and adequate protection, variation becomes possible. The individual dares to be different. During this period, the variety of forms and modes of living explodes. Some will be improvements on the previous type of man, but many will merely be degenerate forms.

Nietzsche presents a highly physiological, and somewhat deterministic, theory of political life. He interrogates the origins of peoples and cultures, exploring how varied situational conditions can impact the political realm and is preoccupied by the portent of degeneration that he sees. He suggests that society should not be constructed for the benefit of a degenerate majority, but instead for the development of a select few, the Noble. Nietzsche provocatively asks, “today—is greatness possible?” (139). And a retrograde, backwards-looking greatness is not; the conception of the noble is the product of specific conditions, which under modernity, may no longer exist. However, while ‘modern ideas’ lead to a general mediocrity across the population and degrade previous manifestations of greatness into “an archaizing taste,” they involuntarily present a fertile ground for the cultivation of a new nobility (211).


Beyond Good & Evil, Translated by Walter Kaufmann

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