Simona Forti | Notes on Arendt and Nietzsche

By Simona Forti

Hannah Arendt liked to quote Cicero and his preference “to rather go astray with Plato than hold true views with Pythagoreans”. For her, in fact, the question of whom we wish to be together with, in life as well in thought, was a crucial philosophical question.

There is no doubt that Nietzsche has been one of the most important intellectual companions in Arendt’s philosophical journey. Yet the relationship binding her to him is far from linear, and in many respects ambivalent. On the one hand, at a surface level, when Arendt directly interprets Nietzsche, she accuses him of reviving a vitalistic theodicy by way of the “Will to Power”, the “Eternal Return”, and the “Innocence of Becoming”. In doing so, I believe, Arendt gives us a simplified reading of Nietzsche’s philosophy. On the other hand, at a deeper level Arendt draws from Nietzsche, and incorporates in her own work, an agonistic and tragic view of life and the self, which considerably complicates both her own philosophical situation and the image of Nietzsche.

This obviously entails a double hermeneutic choice: thinking about Arendt’s political philosophy as a reflection remaining intentionally aporetic and it also not thinking about Nietzsche’s philosophy in terms of a simple vitalistic irrationalism or as an appeal to a permanent nomadism.

First of all we must remember that Hannah Arendt tenaciously disavows any attempt to tie Nietzsche’s name to the fascist and nazi ideology. At the end of the 1950s Friedrich Nietzsche is seen by Arendt first of all as the genius who dared to think without the guidance of any authority whatsoever, and who tried desperately to think against the force of the tradition, the metaphysical tradition[1]. Nevertheless, while challenging the basic assumptions of religion, political thought and philosophy, by consciously inverting the traditional hierarchy of concepts, he was still held by the categorial framework of metaphysics. His leap from transcendent realm into sensuous life succeeded only in turning tradition upside down. In other words, Nietzsche’s anti-platonism does not go beyond an ‘inverted Platonism’, incapable of freeing itself from the dualistic scheme. But in this way Nietzsche, rather than liberating the meaning of the human world from the grip of transcendence, actually crushes it under the weight of the necessity of life, which now becomes the new absolute value and measure for all reality.

Though changing in its tone and in its arguments, Arendt’s criticism will continue to bite at the great contradiction she saw at the heart of Nietzschean thought: deconstruct the value of values, but only to overturn the hierarchy of values and consecrate life as absolute. In the last of Arendt’s battles with Nietzsche, the section of The Life of the Mind devoted to “Willing” published posthumously, Hannah Arendt begins her commentary zeroing in on the paradox of how Nietzsche’s will to power actually plays out an outspoken hostility toward the idea of “freedom of the will”. The Wille zur Macht, as in Deleuze, has nothing to do with the idea that some, the best, the strongest, dominate the worst and the weakest. On the contrary, the paradox consists precisely in the fact that the will to power ultimately implies the death of the will.

On the one side, Nietzsche mantains that will is different from desire and from striving for. Ineherent to will is the element of command: a command and obedience relation that occurs in the mind. But the movement of an “I will” that enables an “I can”, which actually creats a feeling of strength inside the mind, it might just be a perception and an illusion.

Not all Arendtian passages are blatant and parsed out — bear in mind that this section on Willing has undergone the strongest revision by the editor – but one thing emerges clearly: the contemporaneity/ coincidence between the thought of the “eternal recurrence” — neither a theory nor a doctrine, but a thought-experiment — and the deconstruction of the cause-effect relation between will and action. In other words, the coincidence between an experimental return to the concept of ancient cyclical time and the disclaim of the will as force that brings forth a purposive action. The Eternal recurrence appears to Hannah Arendt a theoretical device very similar to theodicies. In the case of Nietzsche, it would offer the solution to the problem of all human evil related to resentment, from thirst for vengeance to thirst for dominating others. All that weighs on humanity, in sum, would derive for him from the sense of powerless rage of a will that cannot will backward. Hence, the necessity to think of a human being able to overcome resentment; the overman, the superman who is able to transcend himself and says yes to life as it repeats tself, again and again. Only thus, the “It was” can transform into “Thus I willed it”. The Overman, actually, is the creature that is strong enough (or better his will is strong enough) to do without meaning in things, “the creature that can endure to live in a meaningless world”. This would be — Arendt argues — for Nietzsche the only possible redemption from the negative, from guilt and suffering, a redemption that does not entail an escape into the metaphysical and religious lies of an eternal Being beyond becoming. “Eternal Recurrence” is the name that this redeeming thought acquires when it announces the “Innocence of all becoming” (Die Unschuld des Werdens).

Not very different substantially from the Deleuzian interpretation, though opposite in the valuation, for Hannah Arendt the Nietzschean Wille zur Macht would celebrate the power and force of accepting the freedom of a world redeemed from the weight of responsibility, of the difference between good and evil. In the temporal circularity, in which “Everything passes” and “Everything returns”, the linear construction of time shatters, which contemplates a past, a present and a future, a cause, a result, and an end. Any moral distinction loses meaning within a framework that “makes Being swings within itself”.

But the constellation of concepts with which Nietzsche things of being as eternal recurrence and will to power, for Hannah Arendt, and this is her pivotal remark, does not correspond to anything but Life itself: the “sheer life” with its eternal and always identical repetition, day after day, season after season.     As if Nietzsche – this is the implicit Arendtian conclusion – fell back on the same logic that always tried to justify evil – specifically evil emerging from resentment – drowning it and denying it in the innocent and necessary flux of being. Now, in the case of Nietzsche, being that is one with becoming, which is in turn one with life. If the sense of being is becoming and if becoming is the will to power, in the sense of the affirmative power of life, nothing is left for evaluating the world. All the freedom we have left is to say yes to life, and Amen.

Being is becoming, becoming is will to power, will to power is life itself! If the chain of correlations is not unfair to Nietzsche’s thought, the way in which she simplifies the Nietzschean idea of life perhaps is! My impression is that here Hannah Arendt is superposing her own concept of life as zoe to Nietzsche’s.

It is known that Arendt’s concept of life is based on the distinction between zoe and bios: a distinction that in turn suffers from the never overcome dualism between a “realm of necessity” and a “realm of freedom,” between nature and culture. I am also convinced that in her last works this hiatus is reduced, as far as the interpretation of Nietzschean philosophy, the concept of life she projects is not unlike the one that in The Human Condition corresponded to the condition of the animal laborans, life as zoe, as ‘naked life’. In other words she takes for granted that Life, in Nietzsche’s thought as well, is conceived of as the eternal movement of living organisms; life as that process “that everywhere uses up durability, wears it down, makes it disappear, until eventually dead matter, the result of small, single, cyclical, life processes, returns into the over-all gigantic circle of nature herself, where no beginning and no end exist and where all nature things swing in changeless, deathless repetition. It is this blind force of life, which reproduces itself without pause according to the law of the necessity of nature, which does not know birth nor death, that represents in Arendt a continuous challenge and a constant threat to the meaning (sense?) of the world, to the singular meaning of the plurality of the biographies of its mortal dwellers. That is why, in her eyes, Friedrich Nietzsche elevating zoe to absolute value, beside unmasking the lie of transcendence, has jeopardized the meaning of the world.

But does life really mean in Nietzsche what Arendt believes it means? Do zoe and bios, life and world, nature and culture, in Nietzsche really face each other, recomposing, though with an opposite sign, that dualistic order to whose destitution Nietzsche has devoted his entire life? Or is it Arendt who cannot but interpret Nietzschean philosophy in this way, as a consequence of the fact that in order to think freedom she still needs to separate, or rather circumscribe, in the being of man his humanity from his naturality?

Despite the many contradictions, the turmoil of metaphors and images, the sometimes-embarrassing affirmations we would have never wanted to read, though acknowledging all of this, I believe that the concept of life in Nietzsche cannot be reduced to what Arendt thinks it is. Certainly it is not univocal in its meaning, yet it is shot through with a permanent tension that distinguishes it from that “realm of necessity,” which characterizes the notion of life in Arendt. The entanglement of living and tought, of nature and culture, of immediacy and reflexivity is inextricable in Nietzsche’s philosophy.

Niezsche will never give up his idea of life as a field upon which necessity and freedom will struggle to infinity, because the one cannot do without the other. For this reason he will always be faithful to his initial purpose, that of looking at life from the perspective of art and looking at art from the perspective of life, confirming himself to the end the master of at least one discipline: that of alternating and changing perspectives, of playing one against the other, in order to bring to light the positions of force, and partial, from which affirmations and negations move. Nietzsche knows that to live means constantly to value, measure and judge; that as human beings we cannot but value, measure and judge, and that is how we keep ourselves alive. He also knows that life, especially the life of the human animal, is not at all a blind passing away and passive adaptation, but it is something that stands in relation and in tension to active form-giving. In a way if there is a law of life, that is the law of self-contradiction. Or better, life in Nietzsche never recedes from the ancient Greek meaning of the concept: a struggle among different and contradictory forces.

It is puzzling, then, this Arendtian misunderstanding, if we think about how central to her reflection is precisely this vision of Greek agonism. It has been noted for example how Arendt’s idea of politics is strongly influenced by this conception of the agon. I think first of all, with Honig, of the mark Nietzsche’s essay Homer’s Contest leaves on the Arendtian idea of action, of power, of immortality in memory, of individuation in contest, of the quest for excellence that does not tolerate relationships of domination, and so on…). Precisely by virtue of this appropriation of Nietzschean agonism, whose tragic character in fact Arendt herself never relinquishes, I believe that Arendt’s political philosophy remains intentionally aporetic. Arendt’s reflection never defines the norms of acting, but rather it deploys, not unlike Nietzschean perspectivism, a notion of political action as counterfactual meter with which to value and measure the transformations, and also the deformations, of modern politics.

But the Arendtian misrecognition with respect to Nietzsche’s “life as contest” is even more puzzling if we think that it is pronounced in the pages of Willing, that is to say during that phase of Arendt’s work in which Nietzsche becomes even more relevant, and in a surprising way.

I do not have the time to expound my argument extensively, I did it elsewhere[2] and I would be happy to return to it during our discussion, but I cannot help to report my conviction: that Nietzschean agonism marks profoundly even the image of the self that Arendt begins to rethink starting with The banality of evil, that is when she tries to zero in on an idea of subjectivity that manages to avoid the traps of domination maintaining alive within itself the experience of plurality.


[1] See H. Arendt, The Human Condition, The University of Chicago Press, 1958 and H. Arendt, Tradition and the Modern Age, in H. Arendt, Between Past and Future. Eight Exercises in Political Thought The Viking Press, 1961

[2] See S. Forti, New demons. Rethinking Power and Evil Today, Stanford U.P. 2015, pp. 220 ss.