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Nietzsche on the Origin of the State

Article by Michael Kleen.
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In the mind of 19th Century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the growth of the State (Staat) was one of the most alarming developments of the modern world. Where others saw the promise of a new democratic age in which “the people” ruled, Nietzsche saw a “cold monster” that was, in reality, destructive of creative and independent forces. He described the State as a “clamp-iron” pressed upon society, shaping and harnessing it. The modern State was particularly problematic because it potentially recognized no limits in its efforts to satisfy the wants and desires of the common man. In order to fully understand Nietzsche’s pessimistic understanding of the modern State, however, it is important to understand his beliefs about the origin of that State. Why is the modern State so different from what came before?

Historically, we know that prior to 4,000 BC, most if not all of humankind was organized into tribes and extended families that engaged in herding, hunting and gathering, trading, and subsistence farming. Some lived in cities like Çatal Höyük in modern day Turkey. According to archeologists, Çatal Höyük (7,500 – 5,700 BC), was absent of any public buildings. Then, around 4,000 BC, city-states began to emerge in Mesopotamia, and with them, the dynasties of the first hereditary rulers. With some exceptions, the basic nature of these dynastic kingdoms, or States, did not change very much for the next several thousand years. In modern times, however, there has been a fundamental revolution in the nature of the State. Nietzsche’s perspective on this revolution, and why it occurred, is as challenging as it is insightful.

Like morality, Nietzsche contended that the purpose of the State had been inverted over time. Whereas, in the past, the State served an elite few (creators and conquerors), it now pandered to the many. Remarkably, Nietzsche believed this change was reflected in the way each era perceived the nature of labor. In “The Greek State” (1871), a preface to an unwritten book, he argued that one difference between Greeks and Moderns was that the Greeks were openly scornful of labor, whereas Moderns spoke of the “dignity of labor.” In an attitude that was reflected in their statecraft, the Greeks were far more “honest” about the nature of labor, which is that drudgery and toil is necessary for the creation of high culture.

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