The Mask of Enlightenment
Nietzsche is the point of confluence of two separate but intimately related streams of modern thought, which streams are still plainly visible today in what is called 'analytical' and 'Continental' philosophy. Both those who believe themselves to be sophisticated computing machines and those who prefer the more romantic terminology of traces of 'differance' agree in their repudiation of what they call 'the myth of the given.' Both identify necessity with chance; both liberate contradiction from physical necessity and give priority to the imagination over reason; both speak incoherently of freedom and mastery (or what comes to the same thing, of the free abolition of mastery in a utopia in which everyone is a master and no one is a slave).
What stands between freedom and bondage, or more generally between enlightenment and nihilism, then, is rhetoric. As Nietzsche understands the historical situation in the second half of the nineteenth century, the rhetoric is one of scientific, political, and spiritual progress: This is the initial visage of the mask of enlightenment. But that visage is itself illusory and conceals the deeper grimace of a steady decay into impotence and vulgarity. The rank-ordering of aristocratic virility has been replaced by egalitarianism; the ruthlessness that is the necessary accompaniment of creation has evaporated into liberal sentimentality; science and technology have combined with secular or effeminate Christianity to produce a society of bourgeois philistines. The love of danger gives way to the love of comfort; the desire to overcome is replaced by the pursuit of comfortable satisfaction, both physical and spiritual.
According io Hegel, modern man prays by reading the morning newspaper; Nietzsche fixes at an early stage in his development upon the newspaper and beer as suppressors of the German spirit and later notes the destructive consequences of reading the newspaper in place of morning prayer. The newspaper is a confluence point of the industrialization of technology and the values of the average or even below-average person. When everyone votes or has a political voice, the level of political discussion is lowered, and so necessarily are the standards of general cultivation. The Christian doctrine of salvation is thus replaced by the doctrine of secular or political salvation. The link between democracy and the newspaper is expiessed as 'the general vulgarization of the European spirit.'
These references to the newspaper serve as a symbol of Nietzsche's aristocratic condemnation of the Enlightenment and will suffice for introductory purposes. From this standpoint, Nietzsche advocates the replacement of the globally degenerative consequences of the Enlightenment by a transvaluation of values that is not at all, as the more extreme rhetoric of Zurathustra would suggest, a radically new creation of the unique individual but rather a reappropriation of the aristocratic spirit of the archaic Greeks or Renaissance Italians, to give only two examples. As is guaranteed by the doctrine of eternal return, there cannot be a radically unique creation. 'Every elevation of the type "man" was previously the work of an aristocratic society—and so will it always be again.' The fundamental task is one of rank-ordering 'human types that have always occurred and will always exist.' In this context it is important to notice Nietzsche's remarks in the Notebooks of 1880 to the effect that most original thoughts are foolishness and that the Germans suffer from a rage for originality. However various the external forms, the spirit of an aristocratic rank-ordering is always the same: life enhancement or power.
These examples will suffice as indications of the diagnostic stage of Nietzsche's doctrine. They also make evident the impossibility of finding in Nietzsche a basis for democratic egalitarianism or of liberation from the so-called structures of domination of the past. The will to power liberates only in the sense of changing masters. To continue with Nietzsche's diagnosis, whether we call it decadence or nihilism, late-modern European society believes itself to be progressing on all fronts but is in fact steadily declining. Stage two of the doctrine is that this decline must be accelerated. Having exposed the grimace beneath the mask of progress, or, in his own terms, having been the first to state openly and honestly the psychological essence of all human spiritual activity, including philosophy, as well as the chaotic interior of all ostensible order and intelligibility, Nietzsche must now himself assume the mask of revolution. Otherwise put, he shifts from the open visage of historical and psychological analysis to the mask of revolutionary ideology. These are the two fundamental forms of what I called previously Nietzsche's double rhetoric. But there is a further distinction to be drawn between the destructive and creative stages of the revolutionary ideology. In order to destroy, Nietzsche must invoke nihilism; in order to create, he must overcome it.
In a notebook entry dating from 1887, Nietzsche distinguishes between active and passive nihilism. Active nihilism is the minimum of relative fbrce that functions as a 'masterful force of destruction,' namely, of the passive nihilism that is inseparable from if not identical with decadence. The most intense manifestation of active nihilism is Nietzsche himself, who has transformed the extreme decadence of his own nature into the power by which we may overcome the passive nihilism of the next two hundred years. This point must be emphasized. Nietzsche is in a position to forecast the history of the coming two hundred years because he is 'the first complete European nihilist, who has however already lived nihilism to its end in himself.' I am reminded of Hegel's observation in the preface to Lectures on the Philosophy of History that 'the whole is already known by me' and hence can be communicated to his students. Whereas Hegel describes, however, Nietzsche prescribes. 'A pessimistic mode of thought and teaching[,] an ecstatic nihilism can possibly be indispensable to the philosopher: as a mighty blow and hammer with which he breaks up denatured and dying races and out of these ways creates, (in order to) make a road for a new order of life, or in order to provide a longing for the end to that which is denatured and dying.' The purifying or active nihilism is identified by Nietzsche in a fragment from 1886/87 as the eternal return: 'The value of such a crisis is that it purifies.' And again, the eternal return is 'the most extreme form of nihilism; nothingness (the "meaningless") forever!'
I have now distinguished three stages of Nietzsche's teaching. The first stage is that of honest diagnosis of the decay of the West; Nietzsche speaks here with no other mask than that of the juxtaposition of subtlety and refinement with exaggeration and bombast. The second stage, as I have just sketched it, is revolutionary and consists of two substages, one of destruction and the other of creation, or at least of the prophecy of creation. It is this stage that is characterized by a double rhetoric in which the alternation of subtlety and bombast previously employed for descriptive or analytical purposes is now directed toward persuasion. Otherwise put, Nietzsche employs the same crucial doctrines, will to power and eternal return, in an intrinsically inconsistent manner, corresponding to two distinct ends. First we must be liberated from the past by the active nihilism. Next we must be stimulated to overcome the nihilistic dimension of activism in the creative act of overcoming or transvaluation. The problem is that the second, or creative, substage is already vitiated by the destructive force of the first substage.
'My demand: to bring forth a nature that stands exalted over the total race "man": and to sacrifice to this goal myself and "those who are nearest to me."' This reference to self-sacrifice is an indication that Nietzsche understands the impossibility of the prophet's entering into the promised land. The danger of the entire enterprise is warranted, however, by the destiny into which we have already begun to dissolve. In sum: Nietzsche is the intellectual and spiritual precursor of those twentieth century forms of terrorism that justify their acts by rejecting the fatal alternative of acquiescence in a corrupt society. As such a precursor, he enlightens us with respect to the inner darkness of the Enlightenment. Nietzsche is inevitably himself a figure of the Enlightenment, but of an Enlightenment that has turned on itself, like the snake that swallows its own tail. The mask of the Enlightenment thus turns out at bottom to be the Enlightenment itself. The instruments of illumination, in the first instance mathematical physics and experimental science, are also the instruments of darkness. Despite his love of the archaic Greeks and his unique celebration of the blending of philology and psychology, Nietzsche is decisively stamped by the same scientific materialism of the nineteenth century that will produce Freud as his intellectual successor.
I want to end this section with a brief remark. It seems to me that a good part of Nietzsche's criticism of the consequences of the Enlightenment is sound. But this is not on my view a sufficient reason to disown the Enlightenment. Not the least of Nietzsche's merits is that his rhetoric serves as an ideological emetic that purifies us of the imperfections of modernity. The risk that modernity will be rejected tout court is at least mitigated by Nietzsche's constant recognition of the impossibility of arriving at the past by any route other than that of the future. The danger of Nietzsche's thought does not lie in his conservatism, as many of his most characteristic views would today (erroneously) be labeled, but in his extremely radical appropriation of the mask of enlightenment, which leads the most gifted of those who wear it into the temptation to transform society by overcoming entirely the split between theory and practice.