A Critique of Nietzschean Nobility

A Critique of Nietzschean Nobility

I have to begin this argument with an asterisk. Nietzsche uses the concept of “noble” in different senses, depending upon the work in question. Across all of his works, two related but distinct conceptions of the “noble” emerge:

  1. A nature that is uninhibited (by external convention, expectation, duty, etc; in short, a nature which is internally driven by instinct)
  2. A will which pursues what is frivolous

The noble type of man regards himself as a determiner of values; he does not require to be approved of; he passes the judgment…

Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

From his use of the term “noble” to describe both of these modes, I do not believe that his conjunction was accidental. Nietzsche was too careful and too particular with the importance of words to be clumsy. Rather, he seems to have believed these definitions were, if not interchangeable, then deeply connected; perhaps the second necessarily follows from the first.

We can see this relation in a fascinating context in The Gay Science, where Nietzsche speculates about the potential future relationship between nobility and commerce:

31. Commerce and Nobility

Buying and selling is now regarded as something ordinary, like the art of reading and writing; everyone is now trained to it even when he is not a tradesman, exercising himself daily in the art; precisely as formerly in the period of uncivilised humanity, everyone was a hunter and exercised himself day by day in the art of hunting. Hunting was then something common: but just as this finally became a privilege of the powerful and noble, and thereby lost the character of the commonplace and the ordinary—by ceasing to be necessary and by becoming an affair of fancy and luxury:—so it might become the same some day with buying and selling. Conditions of society are imaginable in which there will be no selling and buying, and in which the necessity for this art will become quite lost; perhaps it may then happen that individuals who are less subjected to the law of the prevailing condition of things will indulge in buying and selling as a luxury of sentiment. It is then only that commerce would acquire nobility, and the noble would then perhaps occupy themselves just as readily with commerce as they have done hitherto with war and politics: while on the other hand the valuation of politics might then have entirely altered. Already even politics ceases to be the business of a gentleman; and it is possible that one day it may be found to be so vulgar as to be brought, like all party literature and daily literature, under the rubric: “Prostitution of the intellect.”

The connection between (1) disinhibition and (2) frivolity is this: the noble man is disinhibited in his behavior, which means he will not pursue “expediency” as the masses do. It is his lack of self-consciousness which makes him noble, and this nobility is not identical with, but identifiable by frivolities and past-times which are no longer necessary or expedient — which in fact may even be harmful.

But I think there is a different cause for the aristocratic frivolities Nietzsche associates with nobility than the psychology of disinhibition which he identifies and associates with this nobility — one which is not disinhibited at all, but which is in fact more stringently controlled and inhibited than are even the general public.

To understand this, we need only look at the patterns of frivolities which are indulged in by the nobility of the last three-hundred years or so.

But first, we must clarify our definitions.

“Nobility” here is a phenomenon, and means nothing esoteric or opaquely spiritual — no “aristocracy of the soul,” of the kind that allows every twenty-something with a superiority complex to imagine that he is some kind of secret king. Nobility refers to the upper echelon of society, which is explicitly or implicitly awarded special privileges and attention, and whom a great number of the rest of society look to as a basis for taste (either in emulation or active rejection). In today’s age, this nobility is composed of movie stars, musicians, politicians, commentators, sports stars, and a few internet celebrities. In short: entertainers.

This was not always the case. Once upon a time, statesmen (politicians who worked in a much different, much less publicly televised and commentated upon career) were the nobility, along with the higher commissioned field-grade officers of the military. In Jewish and Indian culture, special nobility of this kind was ascribed to the priests. In Chinese culture, to governmental bureaucrats. But in all cases, nobility and aristocracy were one and the same. “Noble” meant “aristocratic” in the social sense, and vice versa.

It is important to keep this phenomenological definition of “nobility” in mind because without this, Nietzsche’s attempt to get to the bottom of “nobility” in a more psychological sense loses its meaning. What he is attempting to do isn’t to define nobility per se, but to explain it. What causes a noble man? What is the psychology of the person who becomes elevated to the social status of the noble? Without this more concrete social category — the “upper crust” — the proposed explanation becomes dislodged from its question.

And it is by examining this social strata that a different hypothesis presents itself which better explains the frivolities of the nobility.

Broadly speaking, the “frivolities” of the aristocracy are not frivolous at all, but carefully cultivated signals of an intensely social nature.

Consider, for example, the phenomenon of the cultivated grass lawn.

For most of history, land was built upon, cultivated for food, or engineered for travel. Perhaps there may have been a small area for beautification: a garden with flowers maybe. But the idea of setting aside enormous swathes of land for grass alone was, from the perspective of the lay person looking for economic and biological utility, unthinkable.

This makes it “noble” in at least two out of the three senses listed above: it is frivolous, and it is associated with the upper echelons of social class.

But does the creation of lawns come from an uninhibited state of mind? A “noble” psychology and spirit?

Looking at the function of the lawn, the answer appears to be “no.” And yes, the lawn does have a function, although the function is not direct and utilitarian. Rather it is a signal, and like many other aristocratic signals, it is characterized by two qualities: first, it is nostalgic. The lawn as a feature of the home garden was invented by a Scotsman who missed the expansive moors of his homeland, which were also a feature of much of the British countryside. And secondly, it is expensive. Before the age of lawn-mowers, lawns had to be cut by hand, usually by multiple servants. And these first lawns were not a few square yards, but acres upon acres.

The function of nostalgia is to invoke a strong emotion, especially a positive one. Nostalgic features are associated — often subconsciously — with the places which they evoke (in the case of lawns, rural Britain), and this creates a strong sensual experience. This experience is, in turn, associated with the noble himself. Thus, our positive association of the noble may not be so much an attraction to his “soul” or nature, but to what we infer of his soul from the carefully-cultivated magic of nostalgia he has conjured in his yard, in his house, or on his person.

The function of the cost is more straightforward: it demonstrates wealth. Like an expensive diamond ring, or donating tremendous amounts of money to a charity, or wearing clothes that cost as much as a cheap car, these extravagant expenditures often strike the lay person not just as incomprehensible, but stupid. But understood as a signal, they make perfect sense. The purpose is to project a certain air.

Given the attention, opportunity, affection, and social and romantic success thrown at the feet of people who can successfully create this air, this pursuit begins to appear not as something intrinsic, instinctive, and frivolous, but rather as something external, calculated, and intensely, biologically practical. But of course, the appearance of calculation ruins the magic. That is why expensive objects are superior to money itself in achieving the air of nobility. Nostalgia is powerful because it is semi-hidden. It evokes the emotions obliquely. And the appearance of frivolity, of accident and instinct, are a final (though not always convincing) layer of concealment over the carefully-orchestrated intent.

This understanding of aristocratic signalling better explains the differentiation of the noble class, for if nobility truly arose from an uninhibited nature, we would expect to see a great deal more variety among the nobles. Instead, we see strong patterns emerge — in art, in architecture, in taste of all kinds. We see conformity among the aristocracy, in approximately the same degree as we see among the masses.

None of this argument is to disagree with the goodness of the disinhibited quality that Nietzsche talks of when he describes the “master-morality.” But it is to disagree slightly with the definitional association of this quality with the nobility and aristocracy. The aristocracy at present seems deeply inhibited and confined by the tastes of the public. This is actually quite intuitive when we realize that aristocratic status is socially conferred and always has been. Things were not so different even 4,000 years ago, when crowns and scepters of royalty were awarded according to standards and values already established in society — speaking well, fighting well, farming well, negotiating well. Excellence according to pre-existing standards, rather than the creation of new standards, seemed to be what set the nobility above the rank and file.

This is not to say that the creation of new standards does not happen. It can, and does. But “noble” is too mild a term for such people: noble classes exist in every generation, and the creation of new moralities is something rare and confusing. Often, the creator, this “Nietzschean noble” is not awarded or bestowed with nobility in his own lifetime, or even for subsequent lifetimes. Abraham — the father of ‘faith’ — was such a figure. Was he an aristocrat?

There are times when lineages emerge following great figures, but patterns of great achievement along these lineages seem not to result from a “noble” nature, but from either inherited excellence in a more general and concrete, less “spiritual” sense, or from nepotism.

So far, I suspect Nietzsche may even have agreed assessment, or at least tolerated it as a forgivable error (much as I view his assessment of the origins of nobility). But my target here is not so much Nietzsche as it is his followers, specifically those who follow Evola and speak of an aristocrat of the soul.

What on earth does this phrase mean?

If it is separated from the social-phenomenon of the aristocracy, it appears to be a complete license to imagine oneself superior to all of one’s peers, contrary to any conflicting evidence. The problem, you see, is that the entire world is backwards. Really, I should be king. I am an aristocrat at heart. I have a “noble” soul.

When Nietzsche’s slightly flawed hypothesis of nobility is injected into Evola’s phrase, however, we get a sense of what Evola was attempting to communicate in a slightly more concrete form: the “aristocrat of the soul” is the uninhibited and frivolous man who is untimely in today’s age. In ages past, such a spirit would have been rewarded with wealth and land and women, but today he is spat upon. This makes him into something of a tragic hero.

The most obvious problem with this view is that it is immensely flattering, and indiscriminately flattering. The second problem with this is the Barnum-quality which leads a great number of lay-individuals to imagine that they are secretly Aristocrats from a past life, on the basis of having instincts at all, to the point that I wonder whether or not books like Ride the Tiger were in fact written not for the aristocracy at all, but for the masses…

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Thanks for this insightful essay. Disturbingly, Nietzsche’s notion of nobility in the preface to Genealogy of Morals is atrociously racist depending upon the aristocrat/noble distinguishing himself from the black or darkskinned masses. He makes special reference to blonde, paleskinned aryans invading Italy and oppressing the darkskinned natives.This racism is so apparent throughout many other cultures, e.g. Hinduism – the pale skinned aryans invading the Indian subcontinent and oppressing the darker skinned indigenous peoples. the English were particularly good at this racist bigotry during the Empire, convinced of their noble, Christian superiority, which entitled them to behave in the most atrocious manner.

    I think the importance of what is going on in that preface is Nietzsche’s etymological understanding of the meaning of ‘good’ and what it meant for early Greek and Roman cultures as distinguished from the modern notion of self denial, self-sacrifice and good being associated with the ‘meek’, humble, poor and lowly in life; the good or noble person being prepared to sacrifice all, his life for the general betterment of an indefinable populace, i.e. the Christian saint. Let’s face it, he is setting about a genealogy. Importantly, what emerges as a primary characteristic of what it means to be noble is a quality of affirmation, affirming one’s own life and experiences, rather than getting lost in an introspection of guilt and failed identity; being able to name, a sort of ordination of people, things and places in the affirmed world, i.e. defining one’s own life and affirming it, acting positively, rather than reacting resentfully and interpreting circumstance and experience with resentful hatred and wishing for a Christian death (and better afterlife) to bring it all to an end.

    It seems to me difficult to acknowledge that in an imagined future in which the vast majority actually affirmed their individual lives and experiences and the very few were still filled with resentment that Nietzsche would be inclined to describe those rarified few as noble.

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