- Nietzsche on the Decadence and Flourishing of Culture by Andrew Huddleston
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. xi + 191 pp.
isbn: 978-0-198-82367-4. Hardcover, £45.
Andrew Huddleston’s book sets out a vision of Nietzsche as a philosopher of culture. His approach sheds light on some familiar problems and opens up a new way of thinking about cultural criticism. Nietzsche’s concern, he argues, lies with both the instrumental and final value of both individuals and whole cultures. In terms of the Anglophone secondary literature, this places Huddleston between Leiter, who tends to suggest that individuals are all that matters, and Young, who tends to suggest that communities are all that matters. A repeated claim is that Nietzsche evaluates cultures in a manner that is analogous to the evaluation of art, and much of the book involves exploring the subtleties of what that analogy entails.
The book is blessedly slim and divided into eight brisk chapters. The first sets out an “existential” function of culture: it enables human beings to cope with existence. BT is an obvious focus, but Huddleston traces this through later works, too. The focus shifts in chapter 3, via an illuminating digression on Nietzsche’s relation to the Bildung tradition (chapter 2), from culture as functional to culture as end in itself. Building on UM I:1’s description of culture as the “unity of artistic style in all the life expressions of a people,” Huddleston claims that a culture can be viewed as a “massive piece of collectively-embodied art” (48, see also 157). The point is not that [End Page 125] cultures are evaluated using aesthetic criteria such as beauty, but that, like art, culture as a “collective entity” or “way of life” bears value as a whole and in itself (49).
Chapter 4 complicates the relation between great individuals and their surrounding cultures in a number of directions. Great individuals are not (just) valuable in splendid isolation from their surroundings. Many of their great properties are extrinsic, for example, relative to the inferiority of others (72) or requiring their recognition (75). Christianity, correctly understood, has arguably been “as much a benefit as a curse by Nietzsche’s reckoning” (7). An essential quality of greatness, in any case, is that one can turn bad circumstances and prima facie misfortune to one’s advantage (68). Hence, “the best Nietzschean conclusion” (though “not the one he himself draws” in GM) to the question of whether culture undermines greatness would be: if one’s surroundings prevent one from being great, one wasn’t great in the first place (69). Nietzsche sometimes suggests that the way to combat decadence is to eradicate those who are decadent. Huddleston argues (chapter 5) that, since eradicating one’s enemies is a symptom of decadence in Nietzsche, eradicating the decadent cannot or at least ought not to be Nietzsche’s favored solution, individually or culturally. A healthy society can therefore flourish in spite of the decadence of most of its members— so a majority of decadent members does not entail a “decadent” culture.
In fact, in chapter 6 Huddleston gives an account of how individual decadents might be used or incorporated in a culture, forming the base or scaffolding on which greatness unfolds—a functional role that Huddleston calls “slavery,” although that need not entail being the property of another. The headline is that Nietzsche thinks that being a slave of this sort is the best possible life for many people. Christianity sometimes undermines and sometimes fosters this form of slavery. Chapter 7 targets anti-realist readings of Nietzsche’s meta-ethics (or meta-axiology, as Huddleston calls it) and dismisses realist views that “ground all value in ‘Life’ or in the will to power” (147). He keeps fairly quiet about what he takes Nietzsche’s specific views to be, claiming that the texts do not establish things one way or another. The final chapter takes Christian morality as a case study of Nietzsche as cultural critic. Christianity, for Nietzsche, is not problematic only or primarily because it inhibits greatness. It is problematic because it is...