Hope Despite All Doubts

Jamie Keesling

July 17, 2022

Live with your century; but do not be its creature. Work for your contemporaries; but create what they need, not what they praise.

Friedrich Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man


As an anti-German German intellectual sandwiched between the Industrial Revolution and the catastrophic twentieth century, as a Romantic critic of Romanticism and a philosophical critic of philosophy, Nietzsche is an ambiguous figure who can be read “in relation to'' numerous contemporaries, predecessors, and successors. His relation to his own time remains contested. Was Nietzsche an apologist for German imperialism, an enemy of the working class and quixotic champion of a dying nobility, as Lukács contends in his late works? Or an irrationalist who valorized the unconscious and prioritized perspectivalism over naive realism, as some post-structuralist readings contend? Or is Nietzsche a staunch individualist—a faithful reader of Emerson advocating self-reflection and self-reliance in the face of an increasingly false and rationalized society? Nietzsche tasks his readers with the question of how to read him. Though they are not entirely uncritical of him, the theorists of the Frankfurt School, particularly Benjamin, Adorno, and Horkheimer, grasp Nietzsche immanently and, in so doing, read him first and foremost as a dialectical critic of the dialectic of bourgeois society after the Industrial Revolution, in other words, as a late philosopher of freedom.

In a fragment of commentary on a 1942 paper by Ludwig Marcuse on Nietzsche’s critique of German culture, Theodor W. Adorno observes, not without provoking some contention among his fellow discussants, the following regarding Nietzsche’s dialectical critique of bourgeois culture and society: “In certain critical respects, Nietzsche progressed further than Marx, insofar as he had a greater aversion vis-à-vis the bourgeois. . . Nietzsche’s critique is directed not only against democracy, but also against individualist society.”[1]

Adorno’s understanding here runs contrary to at least one popular interpretation of Nietzsche, one that views his philosophy as upholding an irreverent, elitist, and aristocratic individualism against liberal democratic egalitarianism. Adorno’s characterization of Nietzsche as a critic of the crisis expressed by the antimony of individual and society recognizes his critical relation to the Enlightenment post-Industrial Revolution. Why did Adorno, in the accusatory words of L. Marcuse, attempt to “save Nietzsche by shaping him on a Marxian lathe?”[2] In other words, why employ Marx to interpret Nietzsche?

Adorno’s friendship with Walter Benjamin, formed when Adorno was still a student, initiated him into a radically unfamiliar approach to the great nineteenth-century thinker. Though Benjamin’s oeuvre lacks an extended analysis of Nietzsche, his influence suffuses Benjamin’s essays and aphorisms — via direct and indirect references, citations, and associations. Nietzsche’s influence is decidedly felt in his 1940 “Theses on the Philosophy of History” and in sections of The Arcades Project, where Benjamin associates him with both Charles Baudelaire, the seminal theorist of 19th-century modernism and the radical socialist Louis Auguste Blanqui, two figures representative of culture and politics, respectively, in Second Empire France. While such a triangulation may at first glance feel idiosyncratic, Benjamin binds the three as figures contending with the dialectic of stasis and dynamism in post-1848 European society, in which all that is solid melting into air results in only more of the same. This is most evident to Benjamin in Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence, which “transforms the historical event itself into a mass-produced article.” The figure of endless repetition draws its strength precisely from its opposite: In capitalism runaway progress makes it impossible “to expect a recurrence of conditions across any interval of time.”