Dorian Astor the spirit of war and War of the spirits in nietzsche's philosophyLe Théâtre est dans la rue de Wolf Vostell : Manifeste pour un public artiste ?

Hartung-Bergman Foundation Seminar, July 2014

Dorian Astor, a former student at the École Normale Supérieure, is a German scholar and a philosopher. He recently published Nietzsche. La détresse du présent (Gallimard, 2014). He is also the author of biographies of Lou Andreas-Salomé and Friedrich Nietzsche (Gallimard, 2008 and 2011), along with a number of edited volumes with commentary in the “Folioplus classiques” and “Folioplus philosophie” series, as well as of the bilingual Folio edition of Ecce Homo (2012). He has translated texts by Sigmund Freud for GF Flammarion (Malaise dans la culture, 2010; L’avenir d’une illusion, 2011; Totem et Tabou, forthcoming), edited and retranslated Richard Wagner’s Ma Vie (Perrin, 2012), and published Comprendre Wagner with Hermann Grampp (Max Milo Éditions, 2013). Since 2010, Astor has lived in Berlin, where he delivers numerous lectures.

The spirit of war and war of the spirits in nietzsche's philosophy

 “I bring war, a war cutting right through all absurd accidents of people, class, race, vocation, education, and culture: a war between ascent and descent, between will to life and the seeking of revenge against life, between probity and spiteful mendacity.”1

           The Third Part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra was to represent the “transition from the free spirit and hermit to the must-dominate [Herrschen-Müssen].”2 Friedrich Nietzsche had manifestly decided that he would thenceforth go on the offensive and initiate the millenary movement for a new legislation, underpinned by a new education that is conceived as a way of raising a new type and that will doubtless require unprecedented “wars.” He would go on to name this project his great politics:

The notion of politics will then completely dissolve into a spiritual war, and all the configurations of power from the old society will be exploded—they are all based on a lie: there will be wars such as there have never yet been on earth.  Only since I came on the scene has there been great politics on earth.3

           Since the Fascist cooptation of Nietzsche and our traumatic experience of totalitarianism in the twentieth century, his “great politics” is almost illegible. Nietzsche’s great imprudence is certainly that he had underestimated the violent drive of modern man, having thought that the latter’s inner chaos had worn him out. He armed against modernity with too great fanfare. His struggle against democratic prejudice should have given him a premonition that it would be precisely the most reactionary forces that would seize hold of war, and not the free spirit. Nonetheless, this was not for want of explaining that the elevation of culture ought to lead to a withering away of the State, that races and nations were absurd fictions, that antisemitism was a disgrace, that Social Darwinism understood selection backwards, that resentment was a revolt on the part of slaves, and that every belief has an underlying fanaticism. Nor was this for want of warning against the Germans.
            It was because Nietzsche, while seeing in modern man the chaotic seat of conflicting drives, an overly excitable psychical type incapable of prioritizing [hiérarchiser] his drives and mastering himself, really feared the appearance of a more dangerous specter than the neurotic: the “last man,”4 who wants security, happiness, and peace. Nietzsche did not dread so much the chaotic contradictions of man as his exhaustion, his growing inability to will the contradiction and war that he himself is.5 At the source of this fear, there is in Nietzsche’s work the disquieting premonition that neither life nor knowledge nor power wants happiness. In any case, not what up until now has been called happiness, which, in all philosophies, religions, and political theories has always had something of an ataraxic aim to it, a nihilistic will to put an end to the contradictions of existence.
            From the standpoint of modern political theory, this is what John Rawls calls the transition from the liberalism of freedom to the liberalism of happiness.6 Now, this is a key point in Nietzsche’s political thinking: he shares with classical liberalism the idea that man is a quantum of power who does all that he can to preserve himself, but this liberalism is thoroughly reconfigured in his work by the concept of the will to power, which makes him suspicious of every equalization of these quanta (on the model of a social contract) and obliges him to take into account no longer just the instinct of self-preservation but also that of growth, the constitutive variability of the degrees of power that individuals are and the constant challenge to the equilibrium of their mutual relations. Freedom ends up being rethought, not as unconditioned autonomy but as local conquests of independence taken over from and immanent to heteronomy: not as the dialectical march of history but as a fragile and risky event that has arisen out of the world of becoming; not as an exit from the cruelty of relations of domination but as an intensification of struggles between the cruelty that frees and the kind that enslaves. This theoretical reconfiguration has political consequences Nietzsche formulates as follows:

Liberal institutions cease to be liberal as soon as they are attained: later on, there are no worse and no more thorough injurers of freedom than liberal institutions ... These same institutions produce quite different effects while they are still being fought for; then they really promote freedom in a powerful way. On closer inspection, it is war that produces these effects, the war for liberal institutions, which, as war, permits illiberal instincts to continue. And war educates for freedom.7

           And here we find ourselves faced with another embarrassing encomium for war. One can certainly understand why the Nietzschean concept of freedom, thought of as will to power, could not define an inalienable property, but very much rather a complex of local forms of resistance and conquests within the world of becoming, following a Heraclitean polemological model. But in order to understand the Nietzschean recourse to the notion of war, it must never be forgotten that the history of culture is almost by its essence, in Nietzsche’s work, one with a history of the spiritualization of instincts and of incorporations of values. That is why one must absolutely distinguish the genealogical appraisal of war as it has occurred in history up till now from the higher notion of “war” in the great politics of the future, a recurrent form of spiritualization and incorporation, this time in the sense of a “will to ascend” capable of reversing the values of the “will to descend.”
           The genealogical approach generated a change in Nietzsche’s thinking about the issue of war, particularly in the relation between war and the State. Thus, in the young Nietzsche’s writings, particularly in The Greek State (1872), one finds features still clearly influenced by Hegel.  In his critique of modern liberalism (individualism, optimism, utilitarianism, eudaemonism, and pacifism), he denounces a “fear of war” and a “natural lack of the State-instinct.”8 The State is not a mere means for satisfying individuals’ needs in civil society, but is unto itself an end. An end means here an objectivation—objectivation of the Spirit in Hegel, an “objectivation of instinct” in Nietzsche.9 Now, while Hegel, for his part, gave up defining politics in terms of war even as he continued to affirm the necessity of a strong state, Nietzsche would move in the opposite direction. The State is only a primitive form of spiritualization of the instincts, just as economic and military power is but a barbarous objectivation of our statist instincts. Nietzsche condemned in the strongest terms possible rabies nationalis,10 of which the Germany of his time furnished him with an abject example.
           This is why the possibility of a supranational Europe would soon be at the center of Nietzschean preoccupations: elevation to a supranational level is among the decisive conditions for emancipation. The free spirit is without country, cosmopolitan: “With all the more profound and large-minded men of this century, the real general tendency of the mysterious labor of their souls was to prepare the way for that new synthesis, and tentatively to anticipate the European of the future.”11 Against the nationalistic bellicosity whose basis in resentment international law reveals,12 Nietzsche will bring into play an ancient or Napoleonic imperialism that, were it victorious, would represent the possibility of new legislation, a new elevation of man, and a transformation of his type into homo hierarchicus. That sort of imperialism is said to overcome the dangerous explosive charge of liberal international balance and the continual intensification of resentment it produces. To such wars of a new type, a new type of peace must correspond. (“Let your peace be a victory!” shouted Zarathustra).13 As early as The Wanderer and His Shadow, Nietzsche sketched the conditions for a world culture in which the desire for recognition, in international relations, would be radically dissociated from the resentment that had, until then, been its source of energy, this being the sole condition for a “genuine peace.”14

           The very great difficulty of Nietzschean politics stems from the extremely radical way in which it subordinates all politics to processes of spiritualization and incorporation. A drive-based conception of reality obliges one always to think at the same time two phenomena: in the absence of any dualism, the spirit is but the extreme point of the body and its drives; but also, the body does not cease to be caught in processes of spiritualization and is not fundamentally to be distinguished therefrom. At the level of culture, the problem is precisely the same: in the physical reality of struggles and instances of domination, political and cultural “bodies” are at the same time drive-based formations, that is to say, they are on the path to spiritualization. The conversion of values has to work toward new forms of spiritualization and incorporation. Now, the Nietzschean requirements for the elevation of the spirit produce images of political “bodies” that, for us, are intolerable; yet, conversely, these highly violent objectivations imply or liberate images of thought that come, lightly or “on dove’s feet,”15 to destabilize entirely their steely hardness. That is why Nietzschean politics is fundamentally a politics of the spirit and the spirit of war is a war of spirits: not because these contents would be mere metaphors, but because there is no real power without this liberatory power of the spirit that frees up life from the deadly fixations of merely objectivated forces.


1. Posthumous Fragment (henceforth: PF) 25 [1], December 1888-January 1889. [Translator: I have borrowed from a partial translation of this fragment found in Keith Ansell-Pearson’s chapter, “Free Spirits and Free Thinkers: Nietzsche and Guyau on the Future of Morality,” in Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Philosophy of the Future, ed. Jeffrey Metzger (London: Continuum, 2009), p. 121.]

2. PF 16 [51], Autumn 1883.

3. “Why I am a Destiny” §1, in Ecce Homo, trans. Duncan Large (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 88-89.

4. See “Zarathustra’s Prologue,” §5, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann (London: Penguin Books, 1982), p. 129.

5. See §200, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, ed. Rolf-Peter Horstmann and Judith Norman, trans. Judith Norman (Cambridge, England and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 87.

6. See John Rawls, Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy, ed. Barbara Herman (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000).

7. Friedrich Nietzsche, “Skirmishes of an Untimely Man,” §38, Twilight of the Idols, in The Portable Nietzsche, p. 541.

8. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Greek State, in The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, vol. 2, trans. Maximilian A. Mugge, ed. Dr. Oscar Levy (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1911), p. 14. 

9. Ibid., p. 10.

10. See Nietzsche’s posthumous fragment 18[3] from July-August 1888. 

11. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, trans. Helen Zimmern (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1907), §256, p. 218.

12. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York:Vintage Books, 1974), §377.

13. Thus Spoke Zarathustra, First Part, “On War and Warriors,” p. 159. 

14. Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All-Too-Human: A Book for Free Spirits, trans. Paul V. Cohen (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1913),  Part II, §284, p. 741. 

15. Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Third Part, “The Stillest Hour,” p. 358. 


ASTOR Dorian. Nietzsche. La détresse du présent. Paris: Gallimard, 2014.

BLONDEL Éric. Nietzsche, the Body and Culture: Philosophy as a Philological Genealogy. Trans. Seán Hand. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991.

CRÉPON Marc. Nietzsche. L’art et la politique de l’avenir. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2003.

MÜLLER-LAUTE Wolfgang. Physiologie de la volonté de puissance. Ed. Patrick Wotling. Trans. Jeanne Champeaux. Paris: Éditions Allia, 1998.

STANGUENNEC André. “L’État et la guerre chez Hegel et Nietzsche.” Les études philosophiques, 77 (2006): 251-60.

OTTMANN Henning. Philosophie und Politik bei Nietzsche. Berlin: De Gruyter, 1999.

WOTLING Patrick. Nietzsche et le problème de la civilisation. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1995. 2009.