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90 4 Nietzsche and “Hitler” Alexander Nehamas When one is young, one venerates and despises without that art of nuances which constitutes the best gain of life, and it is only fair that one has to pay dearly for having assaulted men and things in this manner with Yes and No. Everything is arranged so that the worst of tastes, the taste for the unconditional, should be cruelly fooled and abused until a man learns to put a little art into his feelings and rather to risk trying even what is artificial—as the real artists of life do. —Nietzsche (BGE, 31) The reason Hitler’s name is in quotation marks in the title of this chapter is that I do not plan to discuss the historical connections between Nietzsche and National Socialism. I am concerned, instead, with a more abstract and, to me, more pressing problem. It concerns Nietzsche’s attitude toward the evil hero—the great individual who still, by any reasonable standard, may be a completely unacceptable human being: the kind of person who provokes moral revulsion even in those of us who share, or perhaps (in light of having such a reaction) merely profess to share, Nietzsche’s own revulsion at moral values and estimations. “Hitler” is supposed to stand for all such characters. But—that of course is why it is his name, and not, say, Genghis Khan’s or Diocletian ’s, that I use in my title—Hitler is the most trenchant instance of such an evil hero. He is the one, we Nietzscheans, too, think of, inevitably , when we address—or when we skirt addressing—the issue of evil heroes and our reaction to them. The question that keeps nagging, not only at the back of my mind, is “Does Nietzsche approve of ‘Hitler’?” It is a question I, at least, have never faced squarely. Most of those who address it—unless they are willing to concede with J. P. Stern that “the pathos of personal authenticity . . . was the chief tenet of fascism and national socialism. No man came closer to the full realization of self-created ‘values’ than A. Hitler”1 — nietzsche and “hitler” 䡲 91 seem to me to skirt it, to avoid a direct confrontation with it. I will cite no authors because it would be absurd of me to accuse others of doing, at least in part, what I believe I have not done at all. The point is not to show that others have failed. The point is to confess that I have to begin, however inadequately, to confront the question directly. At this point, I don’t know where such a direct confrontation will lead. What, exactly, is the problem of the evil hero? Let me begin to approach it indirectly. In ancient Greek thought, there was universal agreement that what distinguishes human beings from one another is the quality called arête. Although we usually translate that word as “virtue,” the fact that animals as well as inanimate objects exhibit it shows that a better rendering would be, precisely, “distinction,” the quality that makes someone an outstanding member of some group. Arête is what makes anything justifiably notable. But this idea raises a serious problem, which we see addressed again and again in Greek philosophy.2 Being distinguished, outstanding, or justifiably notable involves three elements: the inner features that enable some people to be outstanding, the actual reputation such people enjoy, and the audience that is to appreciate them. In Homer, these three are harmonious: arête is therefore almost synonymous with “fame” (kleos). But what if they are not? What if someone had the right features but people failed to appreciate them, like Plato’s Socrates, whom his contemporaries took to be the contrary of what he really was—a villain rather than (as Plato saw him) a noble human being? The psychological structure, the soul, that made Socrates a magnificent human being in Plato’s eyes was invisible to his fellow citizens. The internal structure and the external face of arête came apart. In the Republic, Plato tried to put them together. He made those whose souls are truly outstanding—the philosophers—rulers, and therefore the most outstanding citizens, of a state whose population is educated so as to appreciate the coincidence of a harmonious soul and a position of public importance and accomplishment. Even if we reject Plato’s particular values, we can acknowledge the brilliance of his...


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