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Nietzsche versus Arendt: Furor Philosophicus or Furor Politicus?

It is difficult to deny that Nietzsche has had some influence on Arendt’s treatment of a variety of topics, including her theory of action, her valuation of appearance, her rejection of “the social question”, her critique of utilitarianism and her generally critical stance towards modernity. Nevertheless, it should be equally clear to any serious reader that there are many respects in which these two thinkers stand opposed to one another.

The purpose of this paper is to make the paradoxical claim that Nietzsche and Arendt may − indeed, should − be read together precisely in light of their opposition to one another. This opposition can be variously described as the conflict between the life of the mind and life in the world − in Arendt’s terms, the vita contemplativa and the vita activa − or the conflict between the philosopher and the political thinker, which itself mirrors the ancient conflict between the philosopher and the polis. The relevant point for my purposes is that this conflict is itself a crucial theme in both Nietzsche’s and Arendt’s respective works.[1] Hence Nietzsche famously maintains that “anyone who has the furor philosophicus will have no time whatsoever for the furor politicus” and that “[a]ll states in which people other than politicians must concern themselves with politics are badly organized and deserve to perish from this abundance of politicians”.[2] Arendt agrees with Nietzsche that the very nature of the furor philosophicus stems the philosopher antagonistic towards the furor politicus, although she generally thinks that this reflects badly on philosophers rather than on those who concern themselves with politics. What is more, both thinkers bemoan the suspension of this very conflict in the modern world.  Thus Arendt laments that “[i]n the world we live in, the last traces of this ancient antagonism between the philosopher’s truth and the opinions of the market place have disappeared”[3], while remarking later on that “it is only by respecting its own borders that [the political] realm … can remain intact, preserving its integrity and keeping its promises”.[4] Nietzsche in turn offers a telling note that contains the following indictment of modern philosophy: “it destroys because there is nothing to hold it in check. The philosopher has become a being who is detrimental to the community. He destroys happiness, virtue, culture, and ultimately himself”.[5] 

In light of these remarks, it seems to me that a good argument for reading Nietzsche and Arendt together would have to take the conflict between them − and, by implication, the conflict between philosophy and politics − seriously, and then go on to demonstrate how this conflict can be made fruitful for understanding their respective projects. 

I begin by situating the conflict between Nietzsche and Arendt in the context of their shared criticism of modernity as a form of “desert”, which is itself the most iniquitous outcome of a particular, moral interpretation of the world. I then turn to their respective attempts at overcoming this interpretation, together with the resentment of the world that has been bound up with it. My aim here is to demonstrate that what is at stake in the opposition between Nietzsche and Arendt is the inescapable conflict between two notions of reconciliation between self and world: a worldly – or political – reconciliation (Arendt), and a much more radical, philosophical notion of reconciliation (Nietzsche), that ultimately does away with all distance between self and world. In order to make this claim, I investigate Nietzsche’s conception of amor fati in part two of my paper, which I then contrast with Arendt’s notion of amor mundi in part three. In the fourth and final part, I try to show how the opposition between amor fati and amor mundi relates to the conflict between the furor philosophicus and the furor politicusMy intention in this concluding section of the paper is not to force a choice between these two alternatives − hence: Nietzsche or Arendt, philosophy or politics − but precisely to argue the importance of maintaining the conflict between these two dispositions towards the world and of availing ourselves of Nietzsche and Arendt while doing so.

[1] Nietzsche discusses this conflict in various contexts. See, for instance, “Schopenhauer as Educator” for an extended treatment of the opposition between philosopher and polis, as well as Human, All-too-Human I:§ 235, 438, 465.  In Arendt’s case, the essays “Philosophy and Truth” and “Philosophy and Politics” provide extensive accounts of this tension.

[2] Nietzsche, F. “Schopenhauer as Educator”. In Unfashionable Observations, trans. R.T. Gray. Stanford: StanfordUniversity Press, 1995, p. 239.

[3] Arendt, H. “Truth and Politics”. In Between Past and Future. New York: Penguin, 1968, p. 235.

[4] Ibid., p. 263-4; my italics.

[5] Nietzsche, F. Sämtliche Werke. Kritische Studienausgabe in 15 Bänden, ed. G. Colli & M. Montinari. München /Berlin: DTV / De Gruyter, 1988, p. 734.