Bernard E. Harcourt | Introduction to Arendt and Nietzsche

By Bernard E. Harcourt

Although Hannah Arendt had, in The Human Condition and Between Past and Future, sustained important conversations with Nietzsche, it is really only in 1975 that Arendt would engage Nietzsche’s thought in the most direct and sustained manner—in her chapter titled “Nietzsche’s repudiation of the Will” in Volume 2 of The Life of the Mind, the volume on “Willing” or, as Arendt would say, on “the problem of Freedom.”[i] By that time though, in the mid-1970s, Nietzsche had already been recuperated from the ignominy of his fascist appropriation and made part of the philosophical tradition—paradoxically, in the case of Hannah Arendt, by Martin Heidegger primarily. Nietzsche would thus become, for Arendt, one philosopher among others in a lengthy philosophical history of the concept of “willing”—a philosophical conversation that spans the Apostle Paul, Epictetus, Saint Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, to or through Nietzsche ultimately to Heidegger, and then beyond him too to the concept of judgment itself. And it is in these pages that she would articulate her imposing diagnosis of Heidegger’s reading of Nietzsche: “to put it bluntly, the first volume explicates Nietzsche by going along with him, while the second is written in a subdued but unmistakable polemical tone.”[ii]

In this ongoing conversation, Nietzsche plays a pivotal role, but no more pivotal perhaps than Augustine, Aquinas, or those other philosophers of the will. In several passages, Arendt lauds Nietzsche: “No one knew this better than Nietzsche,” Arendt exclaims as she introduces, in her volume on “Thinking,” the dissolution of the suprasensory world.[iii] In the second volume, Arendt describes Nietzsche as “the greatest master” of the art of turning-the-tables, with “his mercilessly honest thought-experiments.”[iv] Elsewhere she refers to his “unsurpassed clarity.”[v] But despite these asides, the relation to Nietzsche remains ambivalent. In the end, Arendt leaves Nietzsche’s “repudiation” of the will behind in order to turn to the more important matter, on her view, of judging. That volume was cut short, though, by her untimely death.

In many ways, one can hardly think of two more different sensibilities than Arendt and Nietzsche. The civic republican and participatory democratic dimensions of Arendt’s thought seem utterly at odds with the radical individualism of the over-man. Nietzsche was not a man of the polis, so much as someone who would try to find there converts to his vision of human overcoming. In other respects, though, the two seem to be kin, especially when it comes to the importance of “becoming” and the freedom that “becoming” injects into their world views. Also in their disenchantment with their respective modernities, with a certain tragic quality, and all the losses that have accompanied historical progress. One can draw a line from Nietzsche’s thoughts on becoming to Arendt’s writings on beginnings. And when she states, in On Revolution, that “revolutions are the only political events which confront us directly and inevitably with the problem of beginning,”[vi] the importance of new beginnings and of taking responsibility for one’s actions seem to have a resonance with Nietzschean notions of invention and becoming. As Arendt would write in her introduction to Willing, “No doubt every man, by virtue of his birth, is a new beginning, and his power of beginning may well correspond to this fact of the human condition.”[vii] That, of course, makes one immediately think of Nietzsche’s becoming—far more than Heidegger’s being.

Nietzsche then is an influential figure in Arendt’s thinking. As Bonnie Honig suggests, “From Nietzsche, Arendt borrows not only the stabilizing practice of promising, theorized by Nietzsche in the second essay of Genealogy, but also that of forgiveness, a process of ‘constant mutual release’ theorized by Nietzsche as a practice of dismissing in the first essay of Genealogy.”[viii] But Nietzsche is never the formative interlocutor to Arendt. And he does not escape her critique. His writings on the will to power, Arendt would characterize in her postscriptum on thinking, ultimately, as “self-defeating.”[ix]

In this sense, the relationship between Nietzsche and Arendt differs from those that we explored previously with Bataille, Blanchot, Deleuze—and even Heidegger. If Heidegger’s turn to Nietzsche shortly before and during World War II fundamentally transformed Heidegger’s thought, the same cannot be said for Arendt.

As evidenced by the sharp controversies in political theory in the United States during the early 1990s over the Nietzscheanism of Arendt’s thought, the question of the relation between Nietzsche and Arendt is not a question of what Arendt did to our understanding of Nietzsche, nor a question of what reading Nietzsche did to Arendt, but instead: what our interpretation of the Nietzschean dimensions of Arendt’s thought tells us about our interpretation of Nietzsche—our own readings and uses of Nietzsche. In other words, the sharp debate over Arendt’s Nietzscheanism, which reverts to a disagreement also about readings of Nietzsche themselves, tells us more about the way in which other critical thinkers deploy different Nietzsches as weapons in their relation to Arendt and to politics. That is a mouthful, but I think it is reflected well in the literature from the early 1990s.

In his article Dana Villa “Beyond Good and Evil: Arendt, Nietzsche, and the Aestheticization of Political Action,” published in 1992, Dana Villa sought to recuperate Arendt’s Nietzscheanism in order to properly understand the way she theorized action and freedom—the way in which “Arendt decenters the subject in the political field in a manner parallel to Nietzsche’s decentering of the moral subject.”[x] As Villa explains there, “The result is a theory of action in which virtuosity, agonism, and theatricality dominate the more Aristotelian model of deliberating citizens, which Habermas sees as the center of Arendt’s theory.”[xi] In that context, Villa argues that “Arendt’s uniqueness, her distance from both Habermasian seriousness and Derridean/postmodem playfulness, can only be measured through a sustained investigation of the Nietzschean dimension, pro and contra, of her work.”[xii] But this would rest, of course, on one particular “reading of Nietzsche”[xiii]—leading the conversation back to the dueling interpretations themselves. Which would lead Bonnie Honig to write that “Villa’s uncritical and approving redeployment of the radically subjectivist, nihilistic Nietzsche that Arendt often presupposes prevents us from appreciating the complexity of Arendt’s relation to Nietzsche because it stops us from asking critically whether Nietzsche’s agonism is really ‘excessive’ and ‘antipolitical’ (p. 276). Once we pose these questions, however, other aspects of Nietzschean agonism surface and our understanding of the Arendt-Nietzsche engagement is deepened and complicated.”[xiv] Notice how the controversy shifts here.

This is, of course, an important critical intersection with Nietzsche—an important way in which the author figures in the critical controversy over his or her appropriations. We have, in effect, moved to another plateau: beyond what reading Nietzsche did to a critical thinker, beyond also what a critical thinker did with or to Nietzsche, to the question how our own critical readings of the different Nietzschianisms of other critical thinkers reflects on our own politics.

This hyper reflexivity, though, should not defuse the other important question today: Arendt’s thoughts on “willing,” the role of willing in the life of the mind, as opposed or in contrast to the vita active, and way in which she would read Nietzsche in the development of her thought. And the fact that these meditations on willing resolve, in the end, in a turn to judgment as a more distinctive faculty, as Linda Zerilli will suggest in her intervention.

In turning to “the life of the mind” from the active life that was the focus of her attention in The Human Condition, Arendt explores the role of “thinking” and “willing” in forming ethical judgments and in leading to political praxis. “The question that imposed itself” from her earlier writings, including those on the banality of evil, on the Eichmann trial, and the absence of thought, was: “Could the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining whatever happens to come to pass or to attract attention, regardless of results and specific content, could this activity be among the conditions that make men abstain from evil-doing or even actually ‘condition’ them against it?”[xv] It was the Eichmann trial, Arendt writes, that “first prompted my interest in this subject” One can hardly think of more central preoccupations for Arendt.

To help us work through these issues, we are privileged to have with us four of the world’s leading experts on Arendt: Seyla Benhabib, Simona Forti, Linda Zerilli, and Ayten Gundogdu.

Welcome to Nietzsche 5/13!


[i] Arendt, Willing, p. 3.

[ii] Arendt, Willing, p. 173.

[iii] Arendt, Thinking, p. 10.

[iv] Arendt, Willing, p. 151.

[v] Arendt, Willing, p. 157.

[vi] Arendt, On Revolution (New York, 1965), p. 21.

[vii] Arendt, Willing, p. 6.

[viii] Honig 1993: 530.

[ix] Arendt, Thinking, p. 214.

[x] Villa 1992: 275.

[xi] Villa 1992: 275.

[xii] Villa 1992: 275.

[xiii] Villa 1992: 289.

[xiv] Honig 1993: 529.

[xv] Arendt, Thinking, p. 5.