For Iphigenia

In a strange note from 1870/1, Nietzsche wrote that “I see enormous conglomerates taking the place of individual capitalists. I see the stock exchange falling victim to the curse under which the casinos have fallen”. What is strange is not Nietzsche’s prescience but, rather, that he says this fate is cause for pity for the “rich or talented egoist” and that somehow such pity is the “solution of the social question”. The entire (brief) note opens with the invocation of tragedy as the most fitting “teacher” of the human.

Interpreting this note turns on what we take Nietzsche to mean by “the social question”, about which we know nothing from his published work from this time (he was still working on The Birth of Tragedy). This is still the Nietzsche for whom, with Schopenhauer and Wagner, culture is only possible for the life of an organism “greater than the individual”; where the production of the (artistic) genius is the goal and purpose of nature itself such that, as Nietzsche would declare in an unpublished appendix to The Birth of Tragedy, “to supply the soil for a greater development of art, the vast majority, in the service of a minority, must be enslaved to the demands of life beyond their individual need”. Nietzsche criticizes both the liberals and the socialists and, in his praise of war, argues that the purpose of civil life is to sublimate the impulse to war into the production of art. With the socialists against the liberals, Nietzsche observes that the bourgeois state strives, as much as possible, toward the “perpetual peace” of a world in which “a condition for war is an impossibility … through the creation of large, evenly matched states and mutual guarantees between them” but, in doing so, “the truly international, homeless, money hermits … have learnt to misuse politics as an instrument of the stock exchange and both the state and society for their own enrichment”. The individual, Nietzsche says, is nothing other than the “representation of the primal One” or the appearance of the primal One to itself. But why should the One thus appear? This the great mystery, Nietzsche says: the appearance of a will to existence that Nietzsche describes in all but name as nothing other than signification (in the Lacanian sense): “what is meant by becoming conscious of a movement of the will? A symbolizing process that becomes clearer and clearer. Language, the word, nothing but symbols. Thinking, i.e., consciously imagining, is nothing but envisioning and linking linguistic symbols”, i.e., in the language of discourse as opposed to the mythic language of magic. Discourse signals the reaching of consciousness back toward an origin that thinking always is but can never be insofar as ‘I’ am nothing other than the continuous process of relating to my origin (else I would simply be causa sui). There is a sort of “pure past” that must exist as my origin (I am born into a family, a culture, a people) and thus I have a certain mediated access to this past through education yet I must also posit this origin as that which will have always been “my” past but which must always have been since this past must exist without the temporalizing passivity of my consciousness. The excesses born of this gap between the intelligibility of the “I” and the mystery of its origin—the suffering of non-coincidence—are masked by tragedy. The dual tendencies of the Apollonian and Dionysian express life as both reason (necessity) and the forgetting of reason—the momentary collapse of the ego in the recognition that life must consume the individual.

Thus Sloterdijk is quite right in this commentary on Nietzsche to observe that “the origins of justice lie in permission—that is, the acceptance of a great abundance—and not in prohibition, as a narrow-minded dialectics would have it, and also not in the proprietary appropriateness of a decisive establishment of values”. As Nietzsche would say in the third Untimely Meditation, “no one has a greater claim to our veneration than he who possesses the drive to and strength for justice [emphasis added]” and that such a person “desires truth, not as cold, ineffectual knowledge, but as a regulating and punishing judge”. The revelation of the “higher order”, the search for truth, and the virtues of goodness, love, and charity, Nietzsche writes in an earlier note, are “practical drives” to correct the world, “pure instincts” of those with the strength to live and to suffer without delusion and resentment (which, for the record, is exactly what Hobbes had said in his lament for the dearth of such noble characters). Nothing is easier, as we know from psychoanalysis, than withholding from ourselves the satisfaction of our desires. Hence the Greek conception of justice (dikaiosune) had nothing to do with the liberal ideal of regulation and redistribution and was intimately associated with what under a different lexicon would be considered the vast injustice of a world where weeds and flowers are indistinguishable. If there is such a thing as modern tragedy, it is not only that the impulse to justice must be fueled by rage (Achilles, Clytemnestra) but that it will consume the lives of those who pursue it.

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