Degeneration Nordau And Nietzsche

This paper was presented to the fourth annual conference of the Friedrich Nietzsche Society, April 1994


by John S Moore

Max Nordau's book "Degeneration", published in 1892, expressed attitudes which are still widely entertained if less clearly articulated. It is an intemperate attack on much of the culture of the later nineteenth century. With Nordau, as with John Carey in our own day, conventional attitudes lash out against the criticisms various intellectuals have directed at them. To Nordau, not only did Baudelaire show "all the mental stigmata of degeneration during the whole of his life", but Rossetti and Verlaine are imbeciles, Swinburne is a criminal, Wagner a "crazed graphomaniac". Still today much of the denounced culture is deeply attractive and satisfying. By the extremity of his opposition Nordau, like the Christian preacher attacking sin, makes it sound even more interesting.

He quotes Morel, who first "clearly grasped and formulated" the concept "which obtains throughout the science of mental diseases". "…the clearest notion we can form of degeneracy is to regard it as a morbid deviation from an original type. This deviation even if, at the outset, it was ever so slight, contained transmissible elements of such a nature that anyone bearing in him the germs becomes more and more incapable of fulfilling his functions in the world; and mental progress, already checked in his own person, finds itself menaced also in his descendants".

In his section on "Egomania" Nordau showed himself one of the most vituperative of Nietzsche's early critics. He expressed in a particularly vivid and extreme form objections which have often been levelled over the past hundred years. He cites medical authorities on the mental disorder underlying each of Nietzsche's ideas. He writes of his "contradiction mania", and dismisses all his thought as symptoms of insanity. To Nordau, strongly committed to a belief in altruism, an egoistic philosophy had to be a perverse and retrograde error. "As the formation of an 'I' of an individuality clearly conscious of its separate existence, is the highest achievement of living matter, so the highest degree of development of the 'I' consists in embodying in itself the 'not I', in comprehending the world, in conquering egoism, and in establishing close relations with other beings, things and phenomena. Auguste Comte, and after him Herbert Spencer, have named this stage altruism, from the Italian word 'altrui', others". (p262). Believing this, he reserves his harshest language for Nietzsche and his followers.

"This unhappy lunatic has been put forward as a 'philosopher', and his drivel put forward as a 'system' - this man whose scribbling is one single loud divagation, in whose writings madness shrieks out from every line!" (p472).

"Nietzsche is a sufferer from Sadism in its most pronounced form, only with him it is confined to the intellectual sphere alone and is satisfied by ideal debauchery". (p451)

"It (Nietzsche's originality) consists in simple infantile inversion of a rational train of thought". (p446)

Even were it granted that a mania for contradiction was indeed the motive that inspired Nietzsche, we may still think that after received opinion has been so contradicted it should be difficult even for his enemies to return to a spirit of uncritical assertion. To retain credibility the Christian, the socialist, the utilitarian, the ethical humanist, surely have to reply to his arguments. Nietzsche challenges rationalist pretensions, from utilitarianism onwards. What he calls the decadence of modern culture he argues as resting on unjustified assertions. Taking his central teaching as the will to power, we can see his own claim as resting not on perverse and unfounded assertion, but on rational argument. Even a mania for contradiction might serve the useful purpose of exposing all questionable assumptions.

"In the knowledge of truth what matters is having it, not what made one seek it, or how one found it. If the free spirits are right, the bound spirits are wrong, whether or not the former came to truth out of immorality and the others have kept clinging to untruth out of morality.

"Incidentally, it is not part of the nature of the free spirit that his views are more correct, but rather that he has released himself from tradition, be it successfully or unsuccessfully. Usually, however, he has truth, or at least the spirit of the search for truth on his side: he demands reasons, while others demand faith". Human all too Human 225 (tr. Faber and Lehman)

A culture that bases itself on faith, or dogmatic assertion, is to be seen as anti philosophical, though it may well have its own forms of wisdom. Dogmatism can play a productive part in law, morality, religion, culture in general. Dogmatic hypothesis is important from a creative viewpoint, but vulnerable to rational criticism. Enemies of the classical culture Nietzsche admires have sometimes been led to attack the reasoning faculty, as if only faith can provide a sound basis for life. Nordau, on the other hand, sees Nietzsche as a dogmatist, and himself as thoroughly scientific. Medical materialism was the central plank of his thought, underlying his view of optimism and pessimism and the dismissal of all objections. His dogmas expressed the popular positivism of his age.

Many artists and writers at this time were reacting against this, feeling culture and society to be increasingly pervaded and dominated by crude popular tastes and ideas which though personally rejected retained great power to depress and demoralise. In a society felt to be decadent in the sense of being demoralised by such values, rather than trying to restore aristocracy, or romantically pining for past eras, they tried to create another perspective in the world as art, a mental space free from the oppressive doctrine.

Nordau charges such dissidents with degeneracy, putting forward an ideal of health that invokes Comte and Spencer, but above all Lombroso, with his theory of the hereditary criminal. The effect is to identify health with acceptance of his own assertedly rational doctrine. Obviously those who have not heard of it cannot be covered, but for those who have it is to work as dogma. Those who would dispute with him he would consign to a lunatic asylum. He refutes pessimism thus:- "In a sound organism, possessing a high capacity for adaptation, those appetites only obtain development, the satisfaction of which is possible - at least to a certain degree - and is accompanied by no bad consequences for the individual. In such a life pleasure consequently prevails decidedly over pain, and he looks upon existence, not as an evil, but as a great good. In the organism deranged by disease degenerate appetites exist which cannot be satisfied, or of which the gratification injures or destroys the individual, or the degenerate organism is too weak, or too inapt to gratify the legitimate impulses. In his life pain necessarily predominates, and he looks upon existence as an evil. My interpretation of life is nearly related to the well known theory of eudaemonism, but it is founded on a biological not a metaphysical basis. It explains optimism and pessimism simply as as an adequate or inadequate vitality, as the existence or absence of adaptability, as health or illness." p150

This reads like a caricature of certain things Nietzsche himself says on the subject. The concept of biological degeneration is one that occurs in his own writings. He sometimes writes of declining and ascending life as though they were hard categories. He draws on Lombroso on the hereditary criminal, and also flirts with Lamarck. He reflects the science of his own time, and some of the things he says are associated with his own particular teaching only because people no longer read the other writers of the day.

In Human All too Human he justifies a certain degeneration in terms of its possible usefulness to society.

"Wherever progress is to ensue, deviating natures are of greatest importance. There is rarely a degeneration, a truncation, or even a vice or any physical or moral loss, without an advantage somewhere else. In a warlike and restless clan, for example, the sicklier man may have occasion to be alone, and may therefore become quieter and wiser; the one eyed man will have one eye the stronger; the blind man will see deeper inwardly, and certainly hear better…it is precisely the weaker nature, as the more delicate and free, that makes progress possible at all". (Human all too Human § 224

As his thought developed he came to think of decadence primarily as morality of the weak, enfeebling and obstructing the independent will. Social usefulness is not the criterion for assessing the success of the free spirit.

"….how far is a man disposed to be solitary or gregarious? in the latter case, his value consists in those qualities which secure the survival of his tribe or his type; in the former case his qualities are those which distinguish him from others, which isolate and defend him, and make his solitude possible ……………the concept of degeneration in both cases: the approximation of the qualities of the herd to those of solitary creatures, and vice versa.- in short when they begin to resemble each other. This concept of degeneration is beyond the sphere of moral judgements". Will to Power II translated Ludovici T.N.Foulis 1910 p 320 §886

Nordau is obviously vulnerable to those who follow his own principle and search for some mental disease that caricatures all his own attitudes. One immediately thinks of what he himself called persecution mania. His vision of a degenerate future has a paranoid quality: - "Mystics, but especially ego maniacs and filthy pseudo realists, are enemies to society of the direst kind. Society must unconditionally defend itself against them. Whoever believes with me that society is the natural organic form of humanity, in which it alone can exist, prosper, and continue to develop itself to higher destinies, whoever looks upon civilisation as a good, having value and deserving to be defended, must mercilessly crush under his thumb the anti social vermin". (p557)

He sneers at bad writers, rubbing salt into the wound by saying the failed writer should become a waiter or a shoemaker and find his happiness there. His horror about degeneration relates to his Lamarckism. A Darwinian is prepared to be prodigal of waste. Out of a hundred artists, perhaps one is successful and happy. The rest may be miserable because they are frustrated, but the consolation is that nature can well afford it. Where evolution depends on will to adapt, on the other hand, a perverse or ineffective will threatens the race.

Nordau's values are those of the prohibitionist, holding that it is possible to lay down a pattern of happiness to which we have the right to expect people to adapt. "Whoever preaches absence of discipline is an enemy of progress, and whoever worships his 'I' is an enemy to society. Society has for its first premise neighbourly love and capacity for self sacrifice; and progress is the effect of an ever more rigorous subjugation of the beast in man, of an ever tenser self restraint, an ever keener sense of duty and responsibility". (last page)

From the viewpoint of Nietzsche's solitary species, the evil of prohibition is in its restriction on the individual, a point that precedes any judgement about the good of society. In defence of freedom we can emphasise the value of alienation.

Nordau is scathing about Tolstoy's attribution of the happiness of peasants to their religious faith. His view of health bypasses the question of precisely what ideas we should have in our minds to secure happiness. If with Nietzsche we see the oppressiveness and bad taste of certain cultures as deriving from ideas, to expect someone who dissents from the dominant ideas to adapt and conform is to compound the oppression.

On the will to power theory, happiness is not reducible to health. Where Nordau's values operate they express somebody's power. Oppressive power can create frustrated desire and consequent unhappiness. Nordau's ideal of adaptation can be seen to involve a kind of plebeian morality. Adapt, conform, adjust desires to those reasonably satisfiable. If an end to discontent means an end to art, so much the worse for art. Nordau looks forward happily to the prospect of a world without literature.

Nordau, as much as Nietzsche, asks to be accepted even by those who find his views repellent. Whatever the motives that inspire Nordau and Nietzsche, each position claims authority over those who do not share the same motive.

Nietzsche's original motivation, whatever it was, whether we see it as psychological perversity springing from mental disorder, or the need to defend an economically privileged status, as Marxists would have it, or resentment of the current order, and desire for power, leads him to make certain distinctions. He forms certain projects, and revels in irreligion and immoralism. The conventional view of such activity is very negative. He is immediately threatened with an extremely hostile judgement. How is he to say this judgement is not to be made?

To identify with his aims in the sense of activating his peculiar anxiety gives a general entree into his world of ideas. From his point of view Nordau's views are an obvious threat. For all their absurdity, they make it easy to dismiss whatever he has to say, and uphold the negative judgement it was his whole purpose to overcome.

Nietzsche's motive contrasts with a number of other hypothetical motives. It contrasts, for example, with motives that spring from hatred of a bullying father, resentment of unsatisfying labour, or fear of racial persecution. But even if you share his motive, and therefore find his ideas acceptable, the objection arises that with different premises, different opinions result, whatever the emotional disposition. Change the premises and even your feelings will change. This suggests the following hypothesis:- that you will think like Nietzsche if you accept his premises, and that these have authority over the opposing premises. The proposal that his premises are wrong, with its demoralising suggestion, confronts him with the assaults of an extremely threatening and potentially paralysing morality of the weak. How Nietzsche feels, and how his opponents feel becomes incidental to the basic argument between them.

Nietzsche's describes himself as driven by a "the will to power as no man ever possessed it". (Ecce Homo BT §4).

His own outlook he understands as expression of his will to power, and this conflicts with other wills, in opposition to his. So his must stake a claim to authority. This is its truth claim, clearly incompatible with nihilism, understood as the doctrine that there is no truth. Nihilism suggests a culture of hypothesis, as if there is no anchor, no defence against what has been chosen to be the most attractive hypothesis.

It is in pursuing his will that he discovers and isolates the principle he calls the morality of the weak, which may be "slave values" or those of the herd or the mediocre. These are ideas the aim of which is to weaken him in the pursuit of his desires.

The desire to be a philosopher is an aggressive, combative motive without which established views would not be challenged. Such had been utterly explicit in Stirner, with his frank avowal of his guiding desire to provide for his thoughts an existence in the world. Nordau describes Nietzsche's individualism as no more than a reproduction of Stirner's negligible philosophy. Allowing for the difference between an economic and a medical model, the materialism of Nordau bears some resemblance to that of Marx, his attack on Nietzsche to that on Stirner in Marx's German Ideology'.

Some commentators say Nietzsche should not have placed so much importance on the will to power, seeing a humbler role for his thought than he himself intended. With this concept he makes his bid for domination, to shatter the parameters and transvalue values. He wants to take up space occupied by others. Theoretically people could be left to think exactly as they do. The desire that they should think differently is a desire for mental domination. The more explicit this desire to change minds, the stronger the impulse to dominate. It both leads to and is sustained by a claim to new sources of knowledge. To open a new field of knowledge is to destroy a previous state of licence, introducing intolerance of what was once tolerated.

From this viewpoint, orthodoxy is experienced as a felt pressure to think and feel other than one does, including arguments in its favour which are supposed to convince. Nietzsche's whole philosophy is a defence of his right to think and feel as he does. He challenges to a battle on basic assumptions. The idea that these are not to be challenged, not a legitimate case for a power struggle, has to be refuted. Nietzsche describes Wagner's tyrannical urge as unhealthy, thereby implying that he does not understand his own ambition as expressing itself in the same tyrannical way. He sees in Wagner a will to deceive, which is dishonest and thereby decadent. If he himself is not decadent it is inasmuch as he is content with an open expression of desire, without a will to deceive, or to be deceived.

Nietzsche did not find such honesty in Socrates, for all his concern to argue out basic assumptions. Nietzsche says that as Socrates was a typical decadent, his programme for overcoming decadence could not have succeeded. What does he mean by this? It has something to do with all the monstrous impulses that Socrates admittted he had to control. Did such a nature lead to a desire to tyrannise like Wagner? In Socrates own day he was a pioneer, so "reason" to a great extent meant just his own authority, and his conclusions may appear dogmatic to us. Nietzsche hoped to do better than Socrates. He saw his own strength, in the expression of his own views, as facing a threat from demoralising ideas. This applied to his anti Christianity, his anti egalitarianism, his affirmationism, and his opposition to the lure of Wagner and other fashionable ideas. Such decadence it was his task to defeat.

However we conceive his own motive for espousing the values he does, the will to power theory is an attempt to state the premise that lies behind them, such that acceptance of that should be sufficient to secure acceptance of his general position. The theory is a conception of possibility which expresses disagreement as a conflict of power. The all pervasive nature of such power relations, lead him to speak of a will to power. He holds that all human beings are all the time motivated by this. He extends it to the whole of nature, so that just as Darwin sees each life form as engaged in a struggle to survive, so Nietzsche sees it as engaged in a struggle for power.

He has to refute the charge that that his is only a perspective, that is to say an arbitrary hypothesis or an appealing piece of rhetoric. Against the persuasive power of consensus, the emotional pull of some conformist dogma, he opposes a coldly rational scheme. If his scheme were merely "possible" it could have no hold on us. Nordau's position would be as acceptable as his own, and that conception of social hygiene would be an adequate reason for ignoring or suppressing ideas and practices that conflict with it. Nietzsche needs to be able to claim to be something more than one voice among many. In opposing established views, he makes a clear claim to authority. He would maintain that his is, more than simply a plausible way of looking at the world, the only one that strictly accords with reality. If successful, his claim has huge repercussions. Before it could be decided whether or not the will to power theory is right, each step in his argument needed to be made as clear as possible. Once this had been done, then it would be available for anyone to apply.

If his claim is valid, no alternative position should be acceptable. To reject will to power would not be to reject some abstract argument, but to ignore a demonstrable fragment of ordinary reality. Given this requirement, the factual content of the theory needed to be brought out fully. Much of the effort he spent on the concept of the will to power was in the attempt to construct an argument that achieved this.

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