Nietzsche’s Antipolitique: The Will-to-Power, the Individual, and the State



by Danny Weston, aka Darios


In this essay, I would like to discuss Nietzsche’s doctrine of the ‘will-to-power’, particularly with regard to how it relates to concepts of the State and the Individual. I shall argue that there are two main interpretations of how one applies Nietzsche’s ‘will-to-power’ thus, (particularly with regard to his view of the State), and that one proves not only more cogent than the other in the context of his other writings, but also that this interpretation proves to be the more desirable of the two and directly informs his theories on the state.

I will begin by outlining in general terms what Nietzsche means by the ‘will-to-power.’ I will then move onto how this applies to concepts of the State and the Individual, drawing particular attention to the issue of crime and punishment as a means of highlighting this. Finally I shall argue that my favoured interpretation of Nietzsche’s doctrines be ascribed to him on the basis that Nietzsche’s thought often gets pigeonholed by other interpretations into one of the major schools of sociopolitical thought, and that this should be regarded as an erroneous undertaking because Nietzsche’s interests — and theories — lie outside of the conventional sociopolitical landscape. The interpretation I shall argue for contends, instead, that Nietzsche actually attempts something altogether new, at least in relation to the recognized ‘traditional’ schools of thought. In fact, the kind of theory that Nietzsche advocates provides what one could regard as a precursor to the anti-political strategy of the Promethean movement.

The Will-to-Power

This doctrine has its basis in certain psychological (and physiological) presuppositions made by Nietzsche. The primary presupposition claims that human beings — and life in general — seek to expand their power and influence over environment and self. And as environment would, naturally, include other individuals, this means power over others too. Not being limited to just human beings, the will-to-power can be seen manifesting itself in everyone and everything. Growth, self-preservation, domination, and upward mobility are all elements of these wills that are exhibited by everything that lives in the world, according to Nietzsche.

Although there are residual qualities of Schopenhauer’s ‘will’ in Nietzsche’s concept, one should not confuse the two, although no doubt Nietzsche was greatly influenced by Schopenhauer’s concept. Schopenhauer’s ‘will,’ while ubiquitous just like Nietzsche’s will-to-power, does not have concern with power, but instead constitutes an unintelligent blind striving. This ‘will’ for Schopenhauer never reaches satisfaction, it takes the form of desires, cravings and aspirations in human beings, but its insatiable nature means that it makes a burden out of one’s existence. For example, a particular desire may be satisfied, but for Schopenhauer, this simply gives rise to another desire, then another, and so on. Because of this Schopenhauer regarded the ‘will’ as the source of suffering and evil in the world. And so, unsurprisingly, he came to his pessimistic and life-denying view of the world.

In direct contrast to this, Nietzsche’s doctrine of the will-to-power asserts a very life-affirming view. Living things affirm their instincts and life through it. Pleasure — in the case of human beings — results when able to live according to one’s instincts — the ability to exert one’s will-to-power, as Nietzsche indeed concludes in The Will to Power:

“… — do you want a name for this world? A solution for all its riddles? A light for you too, you best-concealed, strongest, most intrepid, most midnightly men? This world is the Will-to-Power — and nothing besides! And you yourselves are also this will-to-power and nothing besides!” [1]

Already, one’s interpretation of this ‘will-to-power’ will cause one’s view of the remainder of Nietzsche’s philosophy to dovetail. One can see this concept in a particularly brutal way. For example, one may suppose that whether a person gives gifts, claims to love someone, gives someone praise or physically harms another in each case the same psychological motive applies — to exert one’s will. The breaking point comes where one decides whether or not to finish off the previous sentence as simply ‘to exert one’s will,’ or as ‘to exert one’s will over others.’

The ‘brutal interpretation’ as I call it, implies some kind of Hobbesian state of affairs and little else besides. The will-to-power in this interpretation amounts to little more than restating the doctrine of the ‘survival of the fittest’ and amounts to nothing more than a desire to manipulate and control something or someone. The disturbing implications of this are clear. Nietzsche states equally clearly in many places that he very much intends these disturbing implications, albeit only in certain contexts.

On the other hand, one could take what I call the ‘potentiality interpretation.’ This regards the will-to-power as something more like a desire to exercise one’s powers, for example, one’s powers of speech, one’s capacity to think or invent and so on. Here it amounts to a drive to realize one’s potentialities as an end in itself. Nietzsche says, for example:

“Physiologists should think before putting down the instinct of self-preservation as the cardinal instinct of an organic being. A living thing seeks above all to discharge its strength — life itself is will to power; self-preservation is only one of the indirect and most frequent results.” [2]

According to this understanding living things do not discharge their strength because forced to do so by the environment. They do so instead because they can. Life, through the will-to-power, becomes a spontaneous activity — the will-to-power becomes a drive to act spontaneously instead of a drive to dominate.

Which interpretation does Nietzsche mean? I think he quite clearly means both of them. In The Geneology of Morals he says that we can only acknowledge the existence of “spontaneous, aggressive, expansive, form-giving forces that give new interpretations and directions” if we also admit the reality of “that which dominates and wants to dominate.” [3]The usual interpretations of Nietzsche’s political and social views stem from which of the above interpretations of the will-to-power one leans most heavily toward.

It shall aid our discussion enormously if we consider these interpretations not as competitive views, but rather as separate ‘branches’ of the underlying will-to-power. I shall argue later that the latter ‘potentiality’ interpretation takes precedence over the ‘brutal’ interpretation, and indeed must to maintain cogency with other themes in Nietzsche’s work, particularly the political themes. I shall argue further that emphasis almost exclusively on the ‘brutal’ interpretation has led to misunderstanding of Nietzsche’s political views per se, and that Nietzsche himself adopts the ‘potentiality’ view as the more important branch of the will-to-power.

The Will-to-Power in the State

Nietzsche argues [4]that in the modern world, societies can tell us a lot more about the nature of human beings as exemplars of brutal will-to-power, than can individuals (generally speaking). States, he argues, can and do act towards one another (and, importantly, towards individuals) in ways for which individuals (again, generally speaking) do not have the strength or courage. States can do this, he says, because they do not feel ‘responsible’ for their actions as individuals do.

In accordance with the ‘brutal’ will to power, the external behavior of states involves war and conquest. The state can do this, he says, because it divides labor, executive powers — and by implication, responsibility — amongst its individuals. In this way no single individual can bear significant responsibility for the states actions. The state instills values such as obedience, duty, and patriotism through the overpowering of the individual, so that one (usually unthinkingly) becomes compelled to serve its avowed interests.

Feelings of potential guilt and/or fear of punishment (whether institutional or in a life beyond) for breaking laws prevent individuals (by and large) from behaving like the state. The state, however, not bound by such rules, guilt, or fear, can behave in an unrestrained fashion, exerting its will-to-power.

Some commentators have taken Nietzsche’s comments to indicate that he thinks that the violence inherent in the way states exert their will-to-power provides evidence that the true nature of humankind, unrestrained like the state, would seem equally violent. I think again, here we have a case of assuming the ‘brutal’ will to power as the only interpretation, and not as a branch of the will-to-power. If one can only interpret and apply the will-to-power in this way, then we will find it unsurprising to jump to such conclusions. But Nietzsche has made clear the altogether more sophisticated levels or branches of the will-to-power. One of the most common features of Nietzsche’s discussions of the will-to-power involves the emphasis on the multifarious ways, means and modes of expression of the will-to-power. The ‘brutal’ interpretation only ascribes to one particular collection of these ways, means, and modes. To assume that Nietzsche thinks that the primary instincts of the human being come down to violence and little else amounts to a gross underestimation of Nietzsche’s views of humankind.

In all bluntness, Nietzsche apparently does not concern himself with this question (can we see human beings as naturally, fundamentally violent creatures?). Whatever the answer to this question, it matters not to him because he concerns himself far more with the fact that the state suppresses the natural instincts of the individual — however these instincts may be viewed. The state, in his eyes, attempts to keep the individual at the level of ‘the herd.’ The state can simply instill in its herd a fear of those who would attempt to act upon their natural instincts to seek power and freedom. For example, the state tells us not to drive at 100 mph down the motorway because if we did it, everyone else might also do it and what would happen if everyone did? This is a common tactic for keeping ‘the herd’ in line. ‘Everyone’ won’t do this, because too many find themselves stuck in the herd mentality, but almost paradoxically, the worry that this might happen ensures that most individuals will not.

The Individual and the Criminal

Perhaps the most powerful weapon in the state’s arsenal involves the definition of those individuals who would follow their instincts as criminals. All great human beings, according to Nietzsche, are criminals in some respect in that they are courageous enough to act in a way that goes against the conformity of the herd. Nietzsche expresses this sentiment thus:

“Crime belongs to the concept “revolt against the social order.” One does not “punish” a rebel: one suppresses him. A rebel can be a miserable and contemptible man; but there is nothing contemptible in a revolt as such — and to be a rebel in view of contemporary society does not in itself lower the value of a man. There are even cases in which one might have to honor a rebel, because he finds something in our society against which war ought to be waged — he awakens us from our slumber.” [5]

The criminal thus appears to Nietzsche as someone whom society should potentially value, instead of looking upon all criminals with derision. The criminal points out something about society that may be in need of change, helping to jolt the rest of us out of complacency. The concept of “punishment” for criminals, then, simply amounts to the “suppression of a revolt,” [6]in that it becomes nothing more than an attempt to maintain the mediocre status quo of the herd by imprisoning (or in some cases killing) those who deviate from it.

That society looks upon the punished in a derogatory manner, Nietzsche sees as a terrible mistake. Punishment — in modern western societies at least — heaps more indignity upon the individual due to the derogatory aspects it has assumed in these societies. Instead of making one’s peace with society, an individual now comes away from punishment as an enemy of society. Nietzsche attributes this derogatory evaluation of punishment to a time when it “became associated with contemptible men.” [7] Since most of those who were seen enduring punishments were of the low classes, such as slaves, punishment itself began to take on an air of the derogatory. Nietzsche’s point here, I believe, amounts to the idea that once a person has finished with their punishment, society should no longer consider them a criminal and thus one to be looked upon with contempt. For doing so, Nietzsche thinks, does not help the criminal: “One can embrace only those men whom one does not treat with contempt: moral contempt causes greater indignity and harm than any crime.” [8]

Thus the contempt felt by modern society toward those individuals who attempt to gain an advantage over their herdly counterparts continues to be felt long after the crime committed and even longer after the punishment served. In this way society (the herd) keeps its individuals in line.

I think Nietzsche certainly touches upon something true here. All applications for employment, for example, require the admission of any previous convictions. It would certainly appear that we in the West do not regard those punished for crimes as really having ‘paid their debt to society,’ so to speak, never mind regarding them as subsequently ‘purified’ individuals.

Nietzsche goes on to reckon that so-called criminals should not be locked up, but instead allowed to roam free, as they would help us to break out of our shared mediocrity:

“Schopenhauer wanted rascals to be castrated and silly geese to be shut up in convents: from what point of view would this be desirable? The rascal has this advantage over us, that he is not mediocre, and the fool has this advantage over us, that he does not suffer at the sight of mediocrity. It would be more desirable that the gulf should be made wider, so rascality and folly should increase. In this way human nature would be expanded — But, after all, this is dictated by necessity; it does not depend on whether we desire it or not. Folly, rascality increase: that is part of progress.” [9]

The present type of society or state helps to maintain mediocrity among individuals. Nietzsche highly disapproves, it seems, of any society based on notions in which the majority (supposedly) maintain power one way or the other. Traditional views of socialism, democracy, and so on rest upon the idea that there do not (and sometimes, cannot) exist ‘great’ or ‘superior’ individuals, and so Nietzsche rejects them. Such forms of society represent nothing more than the rule of the herd, the rule of mediocrity. Nietzsche rejects them in favor of something approximating an aristocratic ideal, which at least values a higher form of humankind, a model for society which does in fact demonstrate a belief in great and talented individuals. For here the herd does not have any power, and therefore does not keep in check those who stand out among them. Individuals in this case find themselves free to act upon their will-to-power.

Nietzsche’s idea of what he calls the ‘innocence to becoming’ seems particularly relevant here. He rejects the idea that the weak and weary find themselves in such a condition because of the long period of domination and oppression that they have endured at the hands of the ruling classes. The blaming of others for the condition that one happens to find oneself in amounts to nothing more than the act of searching for a scapegoat. People feel the need to find others responsible for their miserable condition, because they do not want to feel as though no reason exists for why they are what they are.

This attribution of responsibility to others for one’s condition, Nietzsche supposes, creates a pleasurable feeling of ‘sweet revenge.’ This instinct for revenge, Nietzsche thinks, has taken the innocence out of existence itself, in that it has attempted to find responsibility for everything in some past intentional act. Nietzsche claims instead that no person can hold anyone responsible for the situation in which they find themselves born, or the qualities that they possess:

“We others, who desire to restore innocence to becoming, would like to be the missionaries of a cleaner idea: that no one has given man his qualities, neither God, nor society, nor his parents and ancestors, nor he himself — that no one is to blame for him. There is no being that could be held responsible for the fact that anyone exists at all, that anyone is thus and thus, that anyone was born in certain circumstances, in a certain environment. — It is a tremendous restorative that such a being is lacking.” [10]

The idea of ‘innocence to becoming’ means that one should regard existence ‘innocent.’ To need to hold someone or something responsible for one’s condition means to make sour grapes out of those who find themselves in more favorable circumstances. Thus actions which stem from a healthy exertion of one’s will-to-power (not revengeful or out of ressentiment), one must regard as innocent in that they are actions in accordance with one’s true instincts.

Further Manifestations of the Will-to-Power in the Individual

After previewing, in a general fashion, the relationship between the will-to-power of the individual and that of the state, I feel it worthwhile to focus a little more on some of the multifarious ways in which Nietzsche thinks the will-to-power can and does manifest itself in individuals. This will give a broader understanding of why I reject the crude ‘brute’ interpretation of the will-to-power and I hope it will further highlight the need to reassess Nietzsche’s political views later on.

Indeed, Nietzsche points out that in the process of seeking to bring another under one’s power, physical harm would appear a very poor method:

“Every living thing reaches out as far from itself with its force as it can, and overwhelms what is weaker: thus it takes pleasure in itself. The increasing “humanizing” of this tendency consists in this, that there is an ever subtler sense of how hard it is really to incorporate another: while a crude injury done him certainly demonstrates our power over him, it at the same time estranges his will from us even more — and thus makes him less easy to subjugate.” [11]

One can find many more subtler and intelligent ways to exert one’s will-to-power than the violent or the forceful. No matter what situation individuals find themselves in, according to Nietzsche, their will-to-power comes through in one way or another.

Nietzsche calls these other ways disguised forms of the will-to-power, meaning that they appear to stem from something else, for example, altruism or pity, when they really originate in one’s instinct to exert one’s power. The first of these, Nietzsche identifies as a desire for freedom, independence, and peace. According to him, this, at bottom, simply reflects the will toward self-preservation and existence in general (an aspect of the will-to-power). One wants peace and independence so that one does not risk the possibly violent actions of others. Also one does not want to become enslaved or subjugated by others.

The second disguised form Nietzsche refers to as enrollment. This form involves submission to those in power in order to acquire a certain aspect of control over them. To achieve this control, one makes oneself indispensable to one’s superiors in order to obligate them into gratitude. One simply does what their superior asks and does it to the best of their ability, so much that their superior begins to see them as vital or irreplaceable. This kind of power one feels over one’s employer when one has great skill and experience at a certain job position that few others are willing or able to perform at all, to say nothing of performing as proficiently.

A third disguise involves a sense of duty and conscience in which one feels a kind of superiority over those really in power. Here one, or rather a group, creates and abides by a new set of values to which they hold even those in power accountable. In this way, even though they appear subjugated, those creating or ‘inverting’ values, (as in Nietzsche’s comments on master/slave mentality), can gain control of others, (their oppressors, masters or whatever), by guilting and shaming them according to these values. Certain virtues could, for example, become so ‘inverted’ so that one makes a virtue out of one’s condition/status/position and an evil out of the standing of one’s masters/oppressors etc.

Importantly, this latter disguise one can also interpret as a way of mastering oneself, in that one forces oneself to adopt a new system of values and dutifully abide by them as well. In this way one exerts one’s will-to-power not only on others, but also on oneself, having a mastery over one’s instincts and passions. A similar disguised form of the will-to-power appears in the act of praising others. When one person praises another, they appear to concede the superiority of the other in the area of whatever was accomplished by that person. However, as Nietzsche argues, what the person does by praising actually involves affirming his or her own power in having the aptitude and qualification to assess what the other has done:

“What, then is praise? A sort of restoration of balance in respect of benefits received, a giving in return, a demonstration of our power — for those who praise, affirm, judge, evaluate, pass sentence: they claim the right of being able to affirm, of being able to dispense honors. A heightened feeling of happiness and life is also a heightened feeling of power: it is from this that man praises (from this that he invents and seeks a doer, a “subject”) Gratitude as virtuous revenge: most strenuously demanded and practiced where equality and pride must both be upheld, where revenge is practiced best.” [12]

Therefore praise may seem a way of getting back at someone for something that makes one feel as though put under their power by having one obligated into gratitude. In effect, in this sense, it restores one’s sense of lost power at the hands of another. Note however, the more positive tenor that Nietzsche also implies directly: the idea of a recognition of another’s ability, skill, or power in the act of praise. Many commentators have understood Nietzsche as always defining — and supporting — the flow of value and power from the ‘weak’ to the ‘strong.’ Again such suppositions grossly underestimate the multifarious nature of Nietzsche’s thinking: For as far as Nietzsche was concerned we all appear weak and strong in different ways. For example, one may have little skill in hand-to-hand combat, but have great skill in oratorical communication. Nowhere in Nietzsche’s works does he outline some kind of definitive ‘sliding scale’ or continuum of weak to strong where one could look up certain characteristics and determine (pseudo-objectively) where one fell on the scale of weak to strong. Yet many of the damning interpretations of Nietzsche have in fact supposed this. Even those who appear outwardly weak, may in fact have incredible strengths. One can use gratitude and praise as a manipulative expression of the will-to-power, or one can use it to demonstrate one’s strength as someone with the aptitude to recognize the will-to-power and individuality of another.

So, we find that Nietzsche thinks the aforementioned actions, more often than not, are something beyond their surface appearances. They are, more often than not, the will-to-power in disguised forms. Nietzsche thinks of individuals as fundamentally egoistic in their pursuits, whether those pursuits look as though they are in the interests of others or not. Nietzsche regards the idea of selfless actions as a psychological error, out of which the concepts ‘moral’ and ‘immoral’ have arisen. He attributes the error of course, to the Judeo-Christian priestly type, who professed the sinfulness of humankind and the accompanying instinctual drives that govern humans’ actions. Since these actions and drives seem to Nietzsche egoistic in nature, the priestly types were compelled to prescribe actions that were selfless and unegoistic, if one wanted to act in a way free from sin. Thus it became moral to act in ways outside of one’s own interests, and immoral to act self-interestedly. In other words, a profound value has become placed on actions that seem absolutely impossible for a human being to perform, namely (truly) altruistic actions. Nietzsche, I believe, in pointing these things out — particularly in his outlines of the manifestations of the will-to-power — tries to wake us up to the fact that these so-called ‘selfless’ actions have always proceeded from egoistic motives, i.e. the will-to-power.

The issue of humanity’s apparent egoism often seems difficult to admit, never mind celebrate, as indeed Nietzsche seems to. Such reluctance itself would certainly seem a result of Nietzsche’s interpretation of ‘morality’, and his assessment of just how deeply it affects most of us — even atheists and agnostics — would seem to be correct, in fact. Nietzsche, I believe, was trying to remove the nonsense and shame surrounding such notions. I think his aim was also to put a very much positive spin on what self-interest meant. As far as he was concerned, most of us could not, cannot or would not admit self-interest as the basis of our actions and thoughts. This was the first — and most difficult part of the problem for Nietzsche. It would seem unsurprising then that his remarks have such a harsh confrontational character. He wanted to shake us from our stupidity — our ‘sleep’ if you will — by undermining many of our fundamental notions. Only from there could he proceed positively.

Self-interest, for Nietzsche, actually means something very positive, as one can see in his notions of ‘overabundance of self’ and the ‘gift-giving virtue.’ Unfortunately I do not have the scope in this paper to go on to discuss these. One can find in section 3 of The Promethean Manifesto, (‘Vital Self-Interest and Individualism‘), this positive understanding of self-interest and how one can approach or understand it. I wanted to discuss primarily the will-to-power, for apart from seeming a very much abused term in Nietzsche scholarship (only receiving extensive treatment by Nietzsche in his notes that form the collection The Will to Power, from which I have quoted, yet used as one of his most celebrated ideas — odd, yes?), it also determines which way (one might say, through which myopia) one will interpret other parts of his philosophy. Nietzsche intended both negative (brutal) and positive (potentiality) interpretations of the will-to-power and all that followed from it. His reasoning behind this was simple: both are found in nature, in the world around us. His vision for the future, for future society, and for the ‘Philosophers of the Future,’ I am arguing, was based on not only recognition of both, but also the realization that these things would come out of the greater aspects of the will-to-power and not the brute aspects.

Brute self-interest will-to-power would of course lead to a Hobbesian kind of world — and if this was what Nietzsche meant (and celebrated!) why on earth did he not write just like Hobbes? He didn’t, so we should not (mis)understand him as such. To give an example to illustrate this apparent ambiguity: take a man who dedicated his entire life to traveling the world, investing his time, his energy, and his life in helping and healing other people. Nietzsche would have two different views of such a man, depending upon his internal makeup. If the man was motivated by ‘morality’, by notions of ‘sin’ and ‘guilt’ and so on, Nietzsche would see him in a most negative and pathetic light. If, however, the man had self-chosen his values, recognizing that his self-interest led him to carry out these acts for the pleasant feelings that they gave rise to, recognizing also that he exerted his will-to-power in helping these other people, we could regard this as the very intention for the Promethean character. Such a person Nietzsche would recognize as free and self-determined and would not heap scorn upon him, in fact — quite the opposite. Understanding this has tremendous implications for delving into Nietzsche’s political philosophy, as we shall now do.


One can take many passages in Nietzsche’s works to indicate that he supported the idea of a totalitarian regime. At other points, he seems to favorable describe some kind of individualist stateless society. So, confusion reigns as to which statements to attach credence. I believe a simple method can apply here, and also with one’s understanding of the will-to-power. If one observes the tense that Nietzsche uses in any of these particular statements that one might care to find, one will find generally that statements regarding totalitarian states, fascist states and attitudes, and brute interpretations of the will-to-power tend to share the present or past tense. Statements about some kind of individualist, stateless society and ‘potentiality’ interpretations of the will-to-power tend to share the future tense. This leads to a particularly important insight: in the former case Nietzsche describes whereas in the latter he prescribes or predicts. Why does this seem so crucial? Well, consider what was largely regarded in the academic community as Hitler’s misappropriation of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Hitler made a terrible mistake in understanding Nietzsche; he took Nietzsche’s descriptions of society as he saw it at that time as prescriptions and so it was no surprise that Hitler thought Nietzsche would approve of his brand of ultra-nationalist fascism.

This may appear a thin line to draw — to separate Nietzsche’s descriptions from his prescriptions, but I believe in the possibility of this task. (Although I do not have scope to carry that out in this paper, I shall nevertheless use this as one of my fundamental premises.)

Consider the following: In Human, All Too Human Nietzsche discusses the future of democratic societies following the collapse of religion. He predicts that as factional disputes multiply and worsen, people will become more and more mistrustful of government, leading, in his words,

“… to the superseding of the concept of the state, the transcending of the antithesis between private and public… step by step, private organizations draw the business of the state into themselves: even the stickiest residue which from the ancient work of the state remains behind (that activity, for instance, which protects one private person from another) is taken care of by private entrepreneurs.” [13]

Such a state of affairs as Nietzsche refers to in the above quote certainly defines the bedrock of a Promethean society. Indeed, he goes on to say that when this has been achieved and “… all relapses into the old disease have been overcome, a new page will be turned in the storybook of humanity in which there will be many strange tales to read and perhaps some of them good ones.” One can see in the factional disputes referred to above, and in the actions of the state to protect itself, elements of the brutal will-to-power in sects, factions, and even individuals coming into conflict with one another. I think the disease he refers to involves a combination of morality, anti-egoism, denial of the will-to-power, and erroneous social systems (such as totalitarianism) that he describes in such detail.

Certainly given the above quotes one would suppose Nietzsche an anarchist, but I believe even this jumps the gun. I do not, as I said earlier, think one can understand Nietzsche in terms of any of the standard political ideologies. I am arguing this because I think that — if I may reiterate — Nietzsche has little interest in the same questions to which the standard ideologies are answers. It is unsurprising, then, that if one instead assumes such an interest, one can find quotes scattered throughout his works one could use to justify most, if not all, of the standard political ideologies. No. Nietzsche, I believe, approaches the topic from a very novel direction. Nietzsche, I believe, was anti-political.

A large part of Nietzsche’s views on political discourse one can glean from his comments concerning the origins, purpose, and development of the state. The two main threads one finds here involve firstly the idea that ‘culture’ and the ‘state’ have an antagonistic relationship: “Culture and the state — one should not deceive oneself about this — are antagonists” [14]. And secondly we have the idea that the (modern) state somehow continues on from and replaces religion. He brings out this latter thread in Schopenhauer as Educatorwhere he traces the development of the state today back to the middle ages. As far as Nietzsche was concerned, in this time, the church used its immense power to harmonize the conflicting and hostile forces of human beings and to “in some measure assimilate them to one another.”

When the power of the church began to wane, the state prevented the possibility of ensuing chaos through occupying the central place in human life that the church had once done, acting as a bond that held people together. Unfortunately, “… this means that it wishes the people to practice toward it the same idolatry that they once practiced toward the church.” [15] He goes on, at a later point to argue that the extent of the state power we see around us one need not regard as necessary in order to prevent chaos. It has grown so extensive simply in proportion to our need for security; we wish to “.. .make society safe against thieves and fireproof and endlessly amenable to every kind of trade and traffic.” [16] By investing the state with this much power, “… what is being affected is the very opposite of universal security, a fact our lovely century is undertaking to demonstrate.” [17]

He goes on to predict that “… the time will come when institutions will arise” superior to both church and state that put their “… prototype, the Catholic Church, into shadows and forgetfulness.” [18] If one now contrasts here Nietzsche’s views on ‘culture’, one can see clearly where the will-to-power — and its various interpretations — must rear their heads: culture for Nietzsche meant something very much along the lines of a heroic quest for self development via the will-to-power in its nobler (‘potentiality’) aspects. Nietzsche doubted that many people — especially in the past stages of human development — had ever been free. And so he does not discuss culture — as many have done — on the assumption that it always arises from a condition of freedom. Instead of considering culture in terms of its origins, he instead considers it in terms of purpose. As he says the “… purpose of culture” is to “demand the formation of true human beings and nothing besides.” [19]

Further elaboration on this one can find in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. He claims here that all states in some way collude in the self-destruction of their subjects: “State I call it… where the slow suicide of all is called life.” If one discusses the state, one discusses “… the death of peoples.” It (the state) also gives the people “… a hundred new appetites.” Importantly, he refers to the state here as “… the sin against customs and laws.” And in relation to the previous points regarding the states origin and purpose he goes on to claim that the state says, “I, the state, am the people.” and “On earth there is nothing greater than I: the ordering finger of God am I.” Eventually he comes to the conclusion that “… where the state ends” we can see “the rainbow and the bridges of the overman.” [20]

The above remarks relate directly to certain points Nietzsche makes regarding morality. In Daybreak Nietzsche accounts for morality in the following way: “… morality is nothing other (therefore no more!) than obedience to customs” and customs are the “traditional way of behaving and evaluating” that arise in a certain community [21]. Nietzsche here regards morality as something created by the community itself through some kind of evolutionary process. In other words, the “… morality which prevails in a community is constantly being worked at by everybody” [22]; it represents the accumulated “experiences of men of earlier times as to what they supposed useful and harmful” [23].

These remarks on morality represent an integral part of Nietzsche’s critique of the state. Different human tribes in the past would differentiate themselves from others by various means, including through different codes of values — moralities. Such moralities were, generally, created through the shared experiences of the tribe and would represent their accumulated wisdom. But as time has gone by, this has gradually changed: “First, peoples were creators; and only in later times, individuals. Verily, the individual himself is still the most recent creation.” [24]Now, in modern times, the state tends to displace, in the consciousness of its subjects, the position usually (rightfully?) occupied by the people themselves. This, it would seem, explains why Nietzsche regards the state as the death of peoples.

By means of laws, directives, and values, the state tells us supposed truths about what we ought to do. Why do we believe these values are true? Nietzsche identifies tradition or custom as one source for this belief. However, the original sources and justifications for custom no longer exist, as Nietzsche says:

“Where, however, law is no longer custom, as with us, it can only be commanded, it can only be force; we, all of us, no longer have a traditional sense of justice, thus we must submit to arbitrary laws.” [25]

For where one can no longer regard law as identical to custom, then Nietzsche would regard law as something imposed upon us externally. Before the state separated law and custom, the question of why a group or tribe believed what they believed would not have arisen, because custom simply told them what they already believed.

Nietzsche, as suggested by a previous quotation, also identified another source for the shared/common belief in the values promulgated by the state:

“… the uninsightful will suppose it proper to see the finger of God, and to patiently resign oneself to directives from above (in which concept the divine and human types of government usually Merge)” [26].

Such a quasi-religious attitude Nietzsche regarded as essential to the life of the state. This he supposes one can trace, in part, to the relationship between religion and custom: “The power which lies in the unity of the perceptions of the people, in the same beliefs and purposes for all, is something which religion protects and puts its seal on” [27]. And:

“… the interests of tutelary government and the interests of religion go hand in hand so that, when the latter begins to die down, the foundations of the state are convulsed. The belief in a divine arrangement of political things, in a mystery in the existence of the state, has its source in religion: if religion atrophies, the state will unavoidably lose its old veil of Isis and cease to inspire respect.” [28]

If people can see anything in a religious way, even just a single aspect of reality which they regard as sacred, then they are capable of believing that the sort of authority claimed by the state can exist. And similarly, if they cannot view anything in such a way they equally cannot believe in the authority of the state. As the legitimacy of religion weakens, the state similarly suffers a crisis of legitimacy. Despite an ultimately fatal outcome, Nietzsche supposes that the state will nevertheless defend itself. The primary means through which the state defends itself involves attracting the attention of its subjects so that other objects are displaced from their minds. [29] In fact, Nietzsche supposes, all states appear to skillfully distract us, especially from the objects that interest him most. This may explain his scorn for so many of the standard political ideologies and theories. The kind of social processes that really produce most of our values and beliefs about how we should act (as discussed in essays one and two in The Geneology of Morals), he supposes, are very difficult to unearth even with deliberate scrutiny. The state, in contrast, seems blatantly visible and audible. And thus some kind of optical illusion occurs where the people look to the state (not where they should really look, Nietzsche thinks) for their source of values.

This does not alarm Nietzsche for the usual reasons that people may seek to argue against the state. No, Nietzsche’s horror appears at the effect of such a state of affairs on the human character, a stultifying of the will-to-power and its expression. Nietzsche preaches, through the symbolism of the Overman, the goal of some kind of human perfection. To work toward this goal, Nietzsche contends that, as a first step, we must know what we are and why we are that way. More than anything, Nietzsche appears to be at pains to demonstrate, humans are beings that evaluate. Our evaluations, for Nietzsche, make us what we are, (as far as identity remains under our control), and as such we are our own creators. For the most part he seems strongly aware that such activities have taken place in the past as part of a group. But now, as he points out, it becomes increasingly possible for individuals to raise, choose, and create values on their own, apart from the herd. This realization, Nietzsche thinks, casts us in a heroic role, truly exercising our will-to-power as mentioned previously. However it also presents us with a rather frightening abyss to cross, because it means that human life and values based upon it one must regard in a certain way as arbitrary, since they do not come with a divine seal of approval. So of course, we have a strong motive to avoid this realization.

The state then, for Nietzsche, presents us with a very attractive opportunity to carry out this evasion. The power, which really belongs to us, one can simply attribute to some entity (the state) that appears above us — and so appears less arbitrary. The similarity to God and religion seems close enough so that the state appears almost identical. In the realm of human growth, both state and God seem particularly retarding and as such, for Nietzsche, both sources of death.

Nietzsche’s conception of culture seemed mostly tied to the idea stultified by state and religion — the idea of development of the human character. Culture, for Nietzsche, fosters such development. States, on the other hand, interfere with our awareness of what we are and why we are — the all important awareness that provides the first stepping stone on the path to the Overman. So, in Nietzsche’s view, this provides a reason why the state not only proves antagonistic to culture, but inferior to it also.

Most political ideologies seem to consist of answers to two questions — how much power should the state have, and what should the state do with the power it has. Nietzsche does not answer either of these questions — and it would seem now quite clear why. He objects to states not on any particular grounds of what they do (or have done) but instead on the grounds of the amount of our attention and energy that we give over to them. We can clearly say, I think, that Nietzsche’s concerns seem quite incompatible with handing the state lots of power, but beyond this we can say very little with regard to Nietzsche’s views on the specifics of the state. Nietzsche only concerns himself with the goal that the state makes more difficult to reach — the goal of perfecting the human being.


I believe that one could argue, quite cogently, that despite the implications present in Nietzsche, even though handing the state more power would de facto defeat those things he held most dear, one must consider the corollary that it may not necessarily follow that immediately limiting the states power or annihilating the state utterly would fail to cause even more dire circumstances for the development of the human being. Nietzsche certainly appeared aware of this possibility, implying a need to focus instead on the task that the state (among other things) has distracted so many of us from for so long — the task of doing the work that would replace it as a source of values, rather than actively seeking to destroy it. As he says, it would not seem advisable “… to lay one’s hand to the plough just now…” because “… no one can yet show us the seeds that are afterwards to be spread upon the earth” [30]. This, I would argue, neatly encapsulates the transition one must make in one’s thinking regarding political issues to understand not only the objectives, but the ultimate outcome of a Promethean society. Nietzsche’s particular strain of thinking leads one to realise that for too long the state has occupied the role of star, moon, sky and sun in our hemisphere of values and objectives — and such a realisation has led to a small number of us, albeit steadily growing, to create — rather than seek — an alternative. I stress the ‘create’ over the ‘seek’ for the simple reason that to ‘seek’ an alternative would once again distract us from ourselves and our responsibility — and would imply the giving away of that responsibility. And nowhere does a human being become more responsible than when they create.

Nietzsche felt we should turn our backs on the state, questions of policy, and the trappings of rule, and take up instead the task of cultivating our own potentials — our own individual wills-to-power. In this sense, Nietzsche would seem incomparably anti-political and indeed provides a very functional precursor of Promethean anti-politics.

— Danny Weston, aka Darios


1. Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Will to Power. Vintage. New York. 1968. pp. 550. [back]

2. Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. Penguin. St Ives 1990. Section 13. [back]

3. Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Geneology of Morals. Vintage. New York. 1966 Section II 12. [back]

4. Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Will to Power. Vintage. New York. 1968 sections 716-719. [back]

5. Ibid p. 391 14. [back]

6. Ibid p. 392. [back]

7. Ibid p. 393. [back]

8. Ibid p. 394. [back]

9. Ibid p. 402. [back]

10. Ibid p. 403-4. [back]

11. Ibid 403-404. [back]

12. Ibid pp. 406-7. [back]

13. Nietzsche. Friedrich. Human, All Too Human. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge. 1986 section 472. [back]

14. Nietzsche. Friedrich. Third Untimely Meditation: Schopenhauer as Educator. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge. 1983 section 4. [back]

15. Ibid. [back]

16. Nietzsche. Friedrich. Daybreak. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge. 1982. Section 179. [back]

17. Ibid. [back]

18. Human, All Too Human, section 476. [back]

19. Third Untimely Meditation, section 6. [back]

20. Nietzsche. Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In The Portable Nietzsche. Viking Press. New York. 1954. Section I, 11. [back]

21. Daybreak, section 9. [back]

22. Daybreak, section 11. [back]

23. Daybreak, section 19. [back]

24. Thus Spoke Zarathustra, section I, 15. [back]

25. Human, All Too Human, section 459. [back]

26. Ibid, 472. [back]

27. Ibid, 472. [back]

28. Ibid, 472. [back]

29. Ibid, 481. [back]

30. Ibid, 472. [back]


Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. Penguin. St Ives 1990.

Nietzsche. Friedrich. Daybreak. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge. 1982.

Nietzsche. Friedrich. Human, All Too Human. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge. 1986

Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Geneology of Morals. Vintage. New York. 1966

Nietzsche. Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In The Portable Nietzsche. Viking Press. New York. 1954

Nietzsche. Friedrich. Third Untimely Meditation: Schopenhauer as Educator.

Cambridge University Press. Cambridge. 1983.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Will to Power. Vintage. New York. 1968.

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