Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Review: Nietzsche, The Aristocratic Rebel by Domenico Losurdo

This is a 1000-page book about Nietzsche. This might seem like a lot of pages to read about one single philosopher (and it is a long book!), but it’s also an in-depth journey into late 19th-century philosophy, battles that shaped the ideology behind World War I and then later World War II as well as (from an opposite perspective) the 1917 October Revolution and then later the mid-20th century wave of national liberation movements. You come away from the book with not only a close familiarity with the evolution of Nietzsche’s thought over his ~20-year career, but also an understanding of origin myths and national identity, nihilism and the critique of religion, metacritique and an outsider’s critique of status quo ideology, judeophobia and antisemitism, eugenics and imperialism, masses and elites.

Losurdo argues that the consistent project in Nietzsche’s otherwise contradictory body of work is one of anti-communism and counter-revolution. Nietzsche held the creation of art and culture to be of the highest value, and something that could be achieved only by individuals afforded complete leisure and spared from mind-numbing toil. The maintenance of this class necessitated the enslavement of the rest of humanity, enforced by violence and eugenics and ideology. Socialism — in its declaration that all humans are equal — was a threat to this world order.

Nietzsche’s philosophy is repugnant, and Losurdo does not shy away from calling it so. But this book is not a 1000-page screed against a terrible philosopher. Throughout the book, it is clear how much Losurdo respects Nietzsche for his intellectual rigour and his ability to find new ways of interrogating the ideology of his world. The target of this tome is not so much Nietzsche but left Nietzscheans, or those who would wish to use him to socialist (or even liberal) ends. Losurdo renders this position ridiculous; he shreds attempts to interpret Nietzsche metaphorically or as a dreamy innocent distorted by a conniving sister. 

A common pattern in this book is to establish the contemporary discourse on a particular topic — education, the military, the poverty of the masses — and show Nietzsche’s continuities with conservative and liberal thinkers of his time, and then examine the ways Nietzsche was able to radicalize these critiques, to transcend the limitations of Christian or liberal thought, and recognize the full implications of their consistent application. I am left with more respect (as well as more repulsion) for him than I expected, and have a better sense for what it means to do “good philosophy”.


For a more detailed, academic review of the contents and approac, I like this one by Matt Sharpe.

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