Ayten Gündoğdu | Epilogue: Arendt’s Nietzsche

By Ayten Gündoğdu

My comments on these presentations center on two interrelated questions: 1) In what ways does Arendt’s reading of Nietzsche in her different works challenge the conventional reception of Nietzsche? 2) How does her close engagement with Nietzsche in The Life of the Mind challenge some of her own conclusions about Nietzsche in her earlier work?

To begin with the first question, especially in the literature on Arendt, Nietzsche is often depicted as the champion of the ancient Greek ideal of an agonistic politics understood in terms of an unconstrained struggle for power, a contest that is not restrained by institutions, norms, or laws; some scholars see Arendt as a follower of Nietzschean agonism, and some others highlight how she parts company with Nietzsche in this regard. This debate appears in all the presentations, especially those we heard from Professors Benhabib and Forti. Professor Forti highlights how Arendt appropriates Nietzschean agonism in her emphasis on action, power, immortality, individuation in contest, etc. (6). Professor Benhabib emphasizes that Arendt does not share Nietzsche’s “celebration of the Dionysian” (2), and at the end of her presentation, she points to how Arendt counters the unpredictability inherent in human action by discussing the possibilities offered by “promising and forgiving” (6). I agree with both of these statements in some respects, which might sound paradoxical, but here is why.

I think Arendt’s engagements with Nietzsche present us with a quite different picture of this thinker than what is often assumed. Take, for example, The Human Condition,[i] the work at the heart of these debates on whether Arendt follows Nietzschean agonism or not. It is important to note that Arendt does not invoke Nietzsche in her discussion of the Greek polis. Instead, Nietzsche appears much later, at the very end of her discussion of action. Nietzsche is the thinker Arendt turns to as she proposes her notion of “promising,” and I do not think it would be far-fetched to say that Nietzsche is in the background of her discussion of “forgiveness.”

I will skip “forgiveness” for now, but I would be happy to say more during our discussion.[ii] Let me turn to what Arendt says about “promising” where she explicitly invokes Nietzsche; here she is discussing a unique understanding of sovereignty. As Professor Zerilli highlights, Arendt repudiates the idea of sovereignty rooted in the “expressions of a groundless will” (3), but she does recognize in The Human Condition a notion of limited sovereignty associated with action in concert, or what she calls “the sovereignty of a body of people bound and kept together, not by an identical will … but by an agreed purpose for which alone the promises are valid and binding” (HC, 245).

It is within this context of rethinking sovereignty exercised in concerted action and limited by the power of promises that she turns to Nietzsche; let me quote Arendt again:

“Nietzsche, in his extraordinary sensibility to moral phenomena, and despite his modern prejudice to see the source of all power in the will of the isolated individual, saw in the faculty of promises (the “memory of the will,” as he called it) the very distinction which marks off human from animal life” (HC, 245).

The statement illustrates Arendt’s complicated engagement with Nietzsche, which is so powerfully highlighted by all three presentations. Arendt does recognize the problems with Nietzsche’s individualism, while at the same time she affirms his notion of “promising.” And perhaps in that double move, Nietzsche appears in a new light, not as a thinker who champions unbridled agonism but one who can also help us think about resources for coming to terms with the unpredictability of action, and doing that without turning to an absolute outside of politics but instead by pointing to such resources within the human capacity for action.

Arendt’s reading of Nietzsche, as developed in The Human Condition, can open up new ways of engaging with Nietzsche, one that is more attuned to political institutions that shape and stabilize action. Bonnie Honig points in this direction, when she highlights, for example, Nietzsche’s endorsement in his Genealogy of Morals of “a conception of law whose virtue is its power to impose measure and limit an otherwise unrestricted agonism.”[iii] Honig also underscores Nietzsche’s scattered and quite Machiavellian remarks about the Roman reverence for institutions and the human capacity to found new institutions.

We might think of Nietzsche and Arendt as thinkers whose works alert us to the ineluctable tension between the boundlessness of action and the need for relatively stable guarantees of freedom—to use a formulation that perhaps risks an Arendtian reading of Nietzsche. They are not really choosing one or the other but instead pointing to the need to inhabit and navigate this tension that is characteristic of politics.

As we discuss how Arendt’s reading of Nietzsche might allow us to see him in a new light especially in relation to this question of agonism, we could perhaps also point to some of the resources that we can find in these thinkers for thinking about the possibilities of political action in the wake of recent elections. In particular, how do we think about such possibilities for action in concert, especially by taking into account this tension between action and institution? How do we avoid an anti-institutionalist celebration of spontaneity as well as a narrow institutionalism that overlooks the problems of our existing institutions and our capacity to change them or found new ones? And how do we think about the possibilities of political action in light of Arendt’s Nietzschean arguments about the power of forgiveness and promise-making? How do we engage with each other, for example, without going into the endless process of assigning blame?

If Arendt’s engagements with Nietzsche can help us see Nietzsche in a new light, we also have to recognize the possibility that her different works might lead us in different directions in this regard; hence my second question: How does Arendt’s close engagement with Nietzsche in The Life of the Mind, posthumously published in 1978, challenge some of her own conclusions about Nietzsche in her earlier works? I am interested in especially how her rich reading of Nietzsche’s “Eternal Recurrence” as a “thought-experiment,” discussed by all these papers, might perhaps take us to conclusions that are different from the ones she states, for example, in “Tradition and the Modern Age,” an essay originally published in Partisan Review in 1954 and reprinted in Between Past and Future in 1961.[iv]

Let me briefly state Arendt’s argument about Nietzsche in this essay: Here Arendt discusses Nietzsche along with Kierkegaard and Marx. All three engage in what Arendt calls “turning operations” that invert the traditional hierarchies of philosophy (e.g. being and appearance, thinking and action, reason and faith). Nietzsche undertakes what he himself calls an “inverted Platonism,” as he “leap[s] from the non-sensuous transcendent realm of ideas and measurements into the sensuousness of life” (BPF, 29). According to Arendt, Nietzsche’s turning operation, just like all other turning operations, is limited to the extent that it continues to work within the binary conceptual structure that underlies the traditional hierarchies of philosophy. Yes, Nietzsche turns the hierarchical ordering of non-sensuous over sensuous upside down, but what results from this inversion is the disappearance of the sensuous along with the non-sensuous since the two make sense only in relation to each other. Hence, Arendt concludes, Nietzsche’s “inverted Platonism” ends in nihilism despite his efforts to overcome the nihilism of modern life (BPF, 30).

Perhaps a different picture of Nietzsche arises in The Life of the Mind; here Arendt does not mention once that Nietzsche inadvertently ends in nihilism, and in fact, her close reading of “Eternal Recurrence” suggests perhaps the opposite. As Professor Benhabib emphasizes, Arendt carefully attends to Nietzsche’s literary style and his use of fragments, parables, and aphorisms (4). She notes that “Eternal Recurrence” is “not a doctrine, not even a hypothesis, but a mere thought-experiment” (LM, 166). And it is a thought-experiment that Nietzsche introduces to trace a passage navigating the aporias of the Will, especially those arising from the fact that “the Will cannot will backward” (LM, 168). What we have as a result is “an unqualified Yes to Life” (LM, 163), one that releases us, as Professor Forti notes, from a “powerless rage” by redeeming the past and transforming the “It was” into “Thus I willed it” (3). There are of course limits to Nietzsche’s thought-experiment, which leads to an Epictetian emphasis on “the art of living one’s own life,” according to Arendt (LM, 170). But in The Life of the Mind Nietzsche no longer appears to be the inadvertent nihilist that we saw in Arendt’s earlier essay.

Once we recognize the limits of this thought-experiment, we should also think about some of the significant political possibilities that “Eternal Recurrence” can open up, especially when considered as an affirmation of the world of appearances and becoming. Professor Zerilli’s reading of Arendt and Nietzsche is really helpful here, especially her discussion of how we might respond to an event differently when we affirm it “as irrevocable and as a beginning, rather than, say, as an occasion to try to undo what has been done” (7). This promising possibility is introduced by Nietzsche’s “Eternal Recurrence,” which Arendt compares to the “theodicies” that tried “to reconcile man’s mind to the world in which he was to spend his life” (LM, 21).

Regardless of whether we call it a theodicy or not (though I am tempted to call it “Arendt’s theodicy”), such an affirmation that reconciles human beings to the world they inhabit is not unlike the one we find at the end of Arendt’s second volume of The Life of the Mind. In the last two pages of this work, Arendt turns to one of her favorite philosophers, Augustine (LM, 216). She offers an Augustinian understanding of natality as a way to trace a passage in the face of the aporias of the faculty of the Will, aporias confronted not only by professional thinkers but also by political actors: “The very capacity for beginning is rooted in natality, and by no means in creativity, not in a gift but in the fact that human beings, new men, again and again appear in the world by virtue of birth” (LM, 217).

To recall the question motivating these comments: Does Arendt’s close engagement with Nietzsche in The Life of the Mind challenge some of her earlier conclusions about Nietzsche? Our discussion of that textual question might also turn into an occasion to address some pressing political questions: What kinds of resources can we find in Nietzsche’s idea of “Eternal Recurrence” and Arendt’s notion of “natality” for thinking about political possibilities in response to this presidential election that is inevitably in our minds? How could we mobilize these resources for the purposes of avoiding nihilistic despair or resignation? And how could we change our relationship to this election so that we do not find ourselves in an endless, life-destructive cycle of ressentiment? How do we take it instead as a provocation for new beginnings and departures along the lines suggested by Arendt and Nietzsche?


[i] Cited hereafter as HC.

[ii] Arendt introduces forgiveness as a resource for dealing with the irreversibility of action, or the idea that what is done cannot be undone; forgiveness releases us from what we have done unwillingly (versus crime, “willed evil,” and what she calls in this work, following Kant, “radical evil;” see HC, 239-241) so that they can begin anew. It is “the exact opposite of vengeance” (HC, 240), which is a reactionary form of action taken in response to a trespass — precisely the type of reactionary action that ressentiment triggers in Nietzsche’s account of “the slave morality” in Genealogy of Morals.

[iii] Bonnie Honig, “The Politics of Agonism,” Political Theory 21, no. 3 (August 1993): 528-533, at 530.

[iv] Cited hereafter as BPF.