Diagnosis: Décadence

  • C. Heike Schotten


While the contested term “modernity” has neither an obvious referent nor established boundaries, for Nietzsche, this term functions as a cultural designation, indicating a time and place—in this case, the West, and the major portion of its historical existence—in which human beings exhibit particularly weakened and diseased practices of life. Nietzsche writes perpetually about this modernity, taking aim at its weaknesses, its hubris, and, in particular, its décadence. Positioning himself as its culture doctor,1 Nietzsche diagnoses the modern age as suffering from the strange condition of selfloathing: modernity is inhabited by the grotesque paradox of living beings who loathe themselves as living. As he rather hyperbolically puts it in the On the Genealogy of Morals: “Read from a distant star, the majuscule script of our earthly existence would perhaps lead to the conclusion that the earth was the distinctively ascetic planet, a nook of disgruntled, arrogant, and offensive creatures filled with a profound disgust at themselves, at the earth, at all life, who inflict as much pain on themselves as they possibly can out of pleasure in inflicting pain—which is probably their only pleasure.”2 For Nietzsche, the masochistic logic of this asceticism—ordered by what he calls “the ascetic ideal”—is the logic of modernity. Its nihilism epitomizes the various moralities and methodologies that govern its intellectual and ethical life: Platonism, Christianity, Kantianism, scientific method, aesthetics, modern education, et cetera.


Human Animal Christian Morality Herd Animal Animal Consciousness Guilty Person 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Daniel Ahern, Nietzsche as Cultural Physician (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995).Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    For a compelling study of Nietzsche’s philosophy that takes the centrality of décadence and Nietzsche’s self-professed obsession with it as its starting point, see Daniel W. Conway’s rich and insightful Nietzsche’s Dangerous Game: Philosophy in the Twilight of the Idols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). Nietzsche’s obsession with décadence is by no means idiosyncratic—many late nineteenth-century European writers, fearful of the multiple social, political, and economic upheavals occurring on the continent and beyond attributed these changes to the decay of morality, the family, and traditional structures of authority. The prognosis for such disintegration was nothing less than the millenarian demise of European culture as a whole.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. See Edward J. Chamberlin and Sander Gilman, eds., Degeneration: The Dark Side of Progress (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985);Google Scholar
  4. Gregory Moore, Nietzsche, Biology, and Metaphor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002);CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. George Mosse, Nationalism and Sexuality: Respectability and Abnormal Sexuality in Modern Europe (New York: Howard Fertig, 1985);Google Scholar
  6. Daniel Pick, Faces of Degeneration: A European Disorder, c. 1848–1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989);CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Elaine Showalter, Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siècle (New York: Viking, 1990).Google Scholar
  8. 30.
    A §6. Unlike his disavowal of conservatism, in this case what Nietzsche says about himself (at the end of his career, perhaps in retrospective reflection) is wholly true: “Nothing has preoccupied me more profoundly than the problem of décadence—I had reasons” (CWP). Richard Gilman notes that Nietzsche is the philosopher who made decadence his central and critical problem. Richard Gilman, Decadence: The Strange Life ofan Epithet (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1975). Gregory Moore notes that “few thinkers, either before or since, have contemplated this problem as deeply or as consistently as [Nietzsche], or have placed it at the very centre of their philosophical inquiry” (Moore, Nietzsche, Biology, and Metaphor, 219).Google Scholar
  9. See also Charles Bernheimer, Decadent Subjects: The Idea of Decadence in Art, Literature, Philosophy, and Culture of the Fin de Siècle in Europe (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002).Google Scholar
  10. 34.
    As Derrida notes, “l’he degenerate is not a lesser vitality; it is a lite principle hostile to lite.” Jacques Derrida, The Ear of the Other, ed. Christie McDonald, trans. Peggy Kamuf (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985), 27. Bernheimer does not mark this transitionGoogle Scholar
  11. 35.
    Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Context (New York: Routledge, 1995); Showalter, Sexual Anarchy.Google Scholar
  12. 37.
    André Comte-Sponville, for example, insists that “Nietzsche’s thinking is racist in its essence through its conjunction (under cover of heredity) of elitism with biologism.” André Comte-Sponville, “The Brute, the Sophist, and the Aesthete: ‘Art in the Service of an Illusion’”, in Why We Are Not Nietzscheans, eds. Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 33.Google Scholar
  13. 38.
    Although Robert Solomon admits that Nietzsche’s “enthusiasm for genetics and racial stereotyping” is “overly abused,” he nevertheless sees a “quasi-biological deterministic the-sis” lurking in Nietzsche’s tests, a thesis that “suggests that weakness and strength as such are singular, concrete characteristics—as fixed and unambiguous as eye color, and as all-encompassing as the defining characteristics of a biological species.” Robert Solomon, “One Hundred Years of Ressentiment,” in Nietzsche, Genealogy, Morality: Essays on Nietz-sche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, ed. Richard Schacht (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 121.Google Scholar
  14. 41.
    §208. Moore argues that this is Nietzsche’s primary tactic, whereby Rasse is “often used interchangeably or in close connection with the word Stand,” denoting something like “estate, class, caste,” or “any group which shares a common ancestry (such as a clan or dynasty)” (Moore, Nietzsche, Biology, and Metaphor, 125.) Cf. Bruce Detwiler, Nietzsche and the Politics of Aristocratic Radicalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 111. In contemporary terms, then, this would make Nietzsche’s race/class designation something more akin to an ethnic group than a “race.”Google Scholar
  15. 51.
    BGE §262. For Germany’s colonial endeavors and their role in shaping Germans’ selfconceptions with regard to race and class, see Lora Wildenthal, German Women for Empire, 1884–1945 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. and Susanne Zantop, Colonial Fan-tasies: Conquest, Family, and Nation in Precolonial Germany, 1770–1870 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. 52.
    For example, Max Nordau’s Degeneration (London: Heinemann, 1913). As Mike Hawkins argues, because Darwin himself neither applied his theory of natural selection to human beings in The Origin of Species nor specified the necessary “direction” of evolutionary change, social Darwinism became an instrument for documenting both social progress and decline. Mike Hawkins, Social Darwinism in European andAmerican Thought, 1860–1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 34. Hawkins also points out the extraordinary “flexibility” of Darwinism with regard to its “unit of selection,” wherein evolution and natural selection may “act upon” an individual organism or, as became popular in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe, the “species, tribe, nation, race” (33). 53. Moore, Nietzsche, Biology, and Metaphor, 116.Google Scholar
  18. 54.
    Mosse, Nationalism and Sexuality, 18, 31–35. Indeed, Brian Leiter claims that Nietzsche’s critique of modern mediocrity misplaces its cause in morality as opposed to, say, the leveling effects of the free market. Brian Leiter, “Nietzsche and the Morality Critics,” in Nietzsche: Oxford Readings in Philosophy, ed. John Richardson and Brian Leiter (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 248. Cf. Mark Warren’s claim that Nietzsche’s political proclamations must be overlooked or ignored as the “naïve” ruminations of someone blind to the increasing industrialization and modernizing changes occurring in the Europe of his day.Google Scholar
  19. Mark Warren, Nietzsche and Political Thought (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1988).Google Scholar
  20. 55.
    Neil MacMaster, Racism in Europe (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 92.Google Scholar
  21. 66.
    MacMaster, Racism in Europe, 6; Tzvetan Todorov, “Race and Racism,” trans. Catherine Porter, in Theories of Race and Racism: A Reader, ed. Les Back and John Solomos (New York: Routledge, 2000), 65–67.Google Scholar
  22. 70.
    Ct. Fanon: “It is the settler who has brought the native into existence.” Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (New York: Grove Press, 1963).Google Scholar
  23. See also Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1978).Google Scholar
  24. 71.
    No doubt he is also emphasizing the bloodiness of these events, but, on this count, Nietzsche is more than fair and this emphasis renders him neither responsible for such violence nor its advocate. As Henry Staten has argued regarding Nietzsche’s discussions of slavery, it is important to be attentive not merely to Nietzsche’s claims but also his tone, which reveals neither an unproblematic advocacy nor the unquestioning condemnation that contemporary readers might want. Rather, Nietzsche speaks in tones of “horrified fascination,” understanding that “there is something terrible mixed with the beauty of nature.” Henry Staten, Nietzsche’s Voice (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990), 83. As Staten says, this is the fundamental “economic dilemma with which Nietzsche struggled to the very end—the problem of how to stomach history as he imagines it, as the totality of affect of suffering humanity, how to keep from vomiting it back up when he tries to swallow it” (86).Google Scholar
  25. 82.
    Peter Bergmann, Nietzsche: “The Last Antipolitical German” (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 162.Google Scholar
  26. 88.
    Walter Kaufmann offers a cursory defense of Nietzsche on this count, arguing that Nietz-sche’s multiple criticisms of anti-Semites (including Wagner) mean he cannot himself be anti-Semitic. Walter Kaufmann, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (New York: Vintage, 1974), 298–304. Moore claims Nietzsche deliberately transposes many of the vicious stereotypes about Jews onto Christians, thereby fortifying his own self-stylization as the Antichrist(ian) and leaving any possible verdict on his anti-Semitism, at best, ambiguous (Moore, Nietzsche, Biology, and Metaphor, 153–55). But, obviously, Nietzsche can revile both Jews and anti-Semites at the same time, and the notion that he is slandering Christians with anti-Semitic Jewish stereotypes suggests as much (Comte-Sponville, “The Brute, the Sophist, and the Aesthete,” 32). In the nineteenth century, Jews were generally considered to be “black” or “swarthy,” thereby combining imperial or “anti-black” racism with the already widespread continental anti-Semitism.Google Scholar
  27. See Sander Gilman, The Jewish Body (New York: Routledge, 1991) and MacMaster, Racism in Europe. And, in TI “Improvers,” section 4, Nietzsche calls Christianity “sprung from Jewish roots and comprehensible only as a growth on this soil,” the “anti-Aryan religion par excellence.” For discussions of Nietzsche’s relationship with both Judaism and anti-Semitism, see Jacob Golomb, ed., Nietzsche andfewish Culture (New York: Routledge, 1997) and Weaver San-taniello, Nietzsche, God, and the Jews (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994).Google Scholar
  28. 92.
    It is important not to read a retrospective teleology of fascism into Nietzsche’s texts, since any ideology—from Christianity to Marxism to social Darwinism to democratic freedom—can be appropriated for destructive political purposes by despicable rulers and regimes. This is an argument against those regimes, not the ideologies by which they justify their actions. Ideologies do not cause political behavior any more than they intrinsically justify it, and powerful regimes can obviously use any ideology they want to legitimate their otherwise loathsome behavior. For further commentary on these issues, see Steven Aschheim, The Nietzsche Legacy in Germany 1890–1990 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992);Google Scholar
  29. Jacob Golomb and Robert Wistrich, eds., Nietzsche: Godfather of Fascism? On the Uses and Abuses ofa Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002).Google Scholar
  30. 112.
    GM I:13. Cf. Foucault: “With the Christian pastorate we see the birth of an absolutely new form of power. Also … we see the emergence of what could be called absolutely specific modes of individualization … What the history of the pastorate involves, therefore, is the entire history of procedures of human individualization in the West. Let’s say also that it involves the history of the subject.” Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France 1977–1978, ed. Michel Senellart, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Palgrave, 2007), 183–84.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. 125.
    TI “Philosophy” g3. Freud, too, places great importance on smelling, hypothesizing that the human assumption of an erect posture was the calamitous step on the road to civilization and unhappiness since it led to a devaluation of the otherwise centrally important capacity of smell. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. and ed. James Strachey (New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1961). Nietzsche seems to have escaped this particular sensory erosion triggered by the onset of civilization, which potentially explains why, despite being décadent himself, he can nevertheless diagnose it where others remain oblivious. Significantly, Nietzsche affirmatively contrasts the nose with the eye—and a technologically enhanced eye at that—claiming that the nose “is able to detect minimal differences of motion which even a spectroscope cannot detect.” For a marvelous exposition of the use of metaphors of smelling and “sniffing out” in Nietzsche’s texts,Google Scholar
  32. see Eric Blondel, Nietzsche, the Body, and Culture: Philosophy as a Philological Genealogy, trans. Seân Hand (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991), 113–24.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© C. Heike Schotten 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • C. Heike Schotten

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations