- Nietzsche's Culture of Humanity: Beyond Aristocracy and Democracy in the Early Period by Jeffrey Church
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. xv + 436 278 pp.
isbn: 978-1-107-12026-6. Hardcover, $108.00.
Jeffrey Church's book Nietzsche's Culture of Humanity is a flawed but nonetheless significant contribution to the still fairly scant Anglophone literature on Nietzsche's early works. The book argues for two major intertwined theses and a third, less central one. The first thesis is that Nietzsche distinguishes between two types or layers of culture: national culture, which Nietzsche characterizes in §1 of the first essay of UM as "unity of artistic style in all the expressions of the life of a people," and cosmopolitan culture, which consists in the "republic of genius" that stretches across nations and eras. Church's second thesis, advertised in the book's subtitle, is that the early Nietzsche is not as much of an aristocratic snob or a democratic egalitarian as various commentators have made him out to be. Instead, Church argues, Nietzsche is a proponent of meritocracy, a synthesis of aristocracy and democracy that promotes and rewards a cultural excellence that only a few will achieve, but that "judges excellence not in terms of natural inequalities but rather in terms of human effort possible for all human beings" (4). The third thesis is that Nietzsche supports a strict division between state and culture in the modern era, so his aristocratic tendencies regarding the direction of culture should not be taken to extend to the political sphere.
Church's book does a good deal of careful, compelling interpretive work. His distinction between national and cosmopolitan culture is a useful and important one, and the story he tells about their relationship makes sense of the apparent tension between the quasi-nationalist and nationalismskeptical strands in Nietzsche's early philosophy. The basic idea is that national culture is the province of "the many" while cosmopolitan culture is the province of "the few." National culture sustains and gives shape and meaning to the lives of the many, binding them into a community and lifting them out of mere [End Page 336] animality—the struggle for bodily survival and pleasure—by giving them ideals beyond themselves to strive for. Cosmopolitan culture, meanwhile, encourages the most exceptional artists, thinkers, and statesmen to look beyond the constraints of the national culture in which they find themselves, to compare it to the best of what has come before and imagine new possibilities of human greatness. But the elite few must play a role in shaping national culture, setting an example of self-determining humanity for the many to look up to; and the many are not excluded from cosmopolitan culture, which calls them to a higher kind of freedom even though they may never succeed in achieving it. Church does an interesting, informative job of tracing Nietzsche's conceptions of cosmopolitan and national culture to Kant and Herder, respectively, and showing how Nietzsche synthesized their insights: Herder correctly perceived the need of most human beings for a culture grounded in their own place, time, and community, while Kant was right to hold up a universal ideal of humanity that could transcend those contingent divisions.
Church also makes a good case against crude interpretations that paint Nietzsche as nostalgic for ancient forms of political life in which societies are divided into hereditary castes, economically sustained by slave labor, and almost constantly at war. In reference to Nietzsche's unpublished early essay GSt, Church says, "Nietzsche does not literally advocate slavery and war for the modern age, but rather he sees 'slavery' and 'war' as functional terms that can be embodied in any number of empirical forms" (214). This seems to me to be entirely correct, especially considering that, even in his late works, Nietzsche consistently uses "war" and "slavery" in extended and nonliteral ways (e.g., GS 273, 324; BGE 188, 207, 242). Church is also right that Nietzsche's approval of literal war, slavery, and the union of state and cultural power in previous societies, such as...