Nietzsche on the Origin of the State

Column by Michael Kleen.

Exclusive to STR


In the mind of 19th Century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the growth of the State (Staat) was one of the most alarming developments of the modern world. Where others saw the promise of a new democratic age in which “the people” ruled, Nietzsche saw a “cold monster” that was, in reality, destructive of creative and independent forces. He described the State as a “clamp-iron” pressed upon society, shaping and harnessing it. The modern State was particularly problematic because it potentially recognized no limits in its efforts to satisfy the wants and desires of the common man. In order to fully understand Nietzsche’s pessimistic understanding of the modern State, however, it is important to understand his beliefs about the origin of that State. Why is the modern State so different from what came before?
Historically, we know that prior to 4,000 BC, most if not all of humankind was organized into tribes and extended families that engaged in herding, hunting and gathering, trading, and subsistence farming. Some lived in cities like Çatal Höyük in modern day Turkey. According to archeologists, Çatal Höyük (7,500 – 5,700 BC), was absent of any public buildings. Then, around 4,000 BC, city-states began to emerge in Mesopotamia, and with them, the dynasties of the first hereditary rulers. With some exceptions, the basic nature of these dynastic kingdoms, or States, did not change very much for the next several thousand years. In modern times, however, there has been a fundamental revolution in the nature of the State. Nietzsche’s perspective on this revolution, and why it occurred, is as challenging as it is insightful.
Like morality, Nietzsche contended that the purpose of the State had been inverted over time. Whereas, in the past, the State served an elite few (creators and conquerors), it now pandered to the many. Remarkably, Nietzsche believed this change was reflected in the way each era perceived the nature of labor. In “The Greek State” (1871), a preface to an unwritten book, he argued that one difference between Greeks and Moderns was that the Greeks were openly scornful of labor, whereas Moderns spoke of the “dignity of labor.” In an attitude that was reflected in their statecraft, the Greeks were far more “honest” about the nature of labor, which is that drudgery and toil is necessary for the creation of high culture. He wrote,
“Culture, which is first and foremost a real hunger for art, rests on one terrible premise…. In order for there to be a broad, deep, fertile soil for the development of art, the overwhelming majority has to be slavishly subjected to life’s necessity in the service of the minority, beyond the measure that is necessary for the individual. At their expense, through their extra work, that privileged class is to be removed from the struggle for existence, in order to produce and satisfy a new world of necessities.”
These “privileged Culture-men,” who believed that “power gives the first right,” gave birth to the ancient State. The origin of this State, then, was in the need of a conqueror to perpetuate the social process that relieved the few from the struggle for existence at the expense of the many, a social process that Nietzsche described as violent and “horrible.” However, this State is necessary because “without which Nature might not succeed in coming, through Society, to her deliverance in semblance, in the mirror of the genius.” Nietzsche imagined the Greek State, on trial for its violent excesses, stepping forth and presenting its creation: Greek society (the “magnificently blossoming woman”).
Even in this primitive State, there was a tendency towards war and militarism, the division of society into slave and master. The military, Nietzsche argued, is a prototypical State. “The unconscious purpose of the whole movement forces every individual under its yoke, and even among heterogeneous natures produces, as it were, a chemical transformation of their characteristics until they are brought into affinity with that purpose.” The military genius was therefore the original founder of States. However, in the Greek State, all was put in the service of the preparation and procreation of the genius in a more general sense. Plato, in his perfect State, took it one step farther and proclaimed that all State-life should be put at the service of the genius of wisdom and knowledge. Plato excluded the artistic genius, Nietzsche argued, as a “consequence of the Socratian judgment on art.” Genius of one kind or another, nevertheless, was the raison d’être of these ancient and classical States.
Nietzsche’s views on the origin of the ancient State did not change much over the course of his lifetime. Sixteen years after he wrote “The Greek State,” he presented a similar narrative in On the Genealogy of Morals (1887). Before there were States, he explained in the second essay of that book, mankind was “unrestrained and shapeless,” and so it required a violent force to shape it. This violent force took the form of an organized and martial people that imposed itself on a more numerous but less organized people. This simple act, which established a “structure of domination” (Herrschafts-Gebilde), planted a seed of resentment among the conquered—a seed that ultimately grew to overthrow this order of things and which found its political expression in the modern State.


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Michael Kleen's picture
Columns on STR: 36

Michael Kleen is the Editor-in-Chief of Untimely Meditations, publisher of Black Oak Presents, and proprietor of Black Oak Media. He holds a M.A. in History and a M.S. in Education, and is the author of Statism and its Discontents, a collection of columns on the topics of Statism, liberty, and their conflict. His columns have appeared in a variety of publications and websites, including Strike-the-Root.


Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture

Michael, thank you for providing this and your earlier writings on Nietzsche. I have always found him (like Sartre) difficult to read and full of contradictions and non sequiturs and flowery but unclear writing. As a result I have not read him extensively. After reading this essay and your earlier one, I have to ask you a question. It seems that Nietzsche has a kind of ambivalent attitude to the state. At times he seems to revile it, yet when it comes to the creation of the state (or its germ) as you described here, he seems to feel it a positive thing because it supports his bias toward the spirit of genius that cultivates the "arts" -- whatever they may be perceived to be at the time (either philosophy or the other artistic endeavors). In that sense, is he much different from those who support state coercion so that they can have their symphonies and operas? I find this question difficult to express, and I'm hoping you can clarify it a bit. Do you find these ambiguities in your readings of him? Thanks again for introducing this view on Nietzsche.

Michael Kleen's picture

Lawrence, as you've pointed out, Nietzsche was a complicated man and it is often difficult to determine exactly what he meant. It's even more difficult with his thoughts on the State because they are scattered throughout his writing. For a while, I thought he was being contradictory because in his earlier writing on the classical Greeks seemed to acknowledge a purpose for the State, while his later writing changed dramatically and he condemned everything about the State. He could have just changed his mind. But, I think he's talking about two different things - the State prior to the modernity and the State after modernity. Both of them are problematic, but the pre-modern State (he believed) at least had some redeeming qualities. Now, there's a question of whether he was advocating a return to this type of government. The answer is absolutely not. There are several passages where he explicitly says he doesn't "wish to return to any past periods." I think he was just describing things as he saw them. Does that make any sense?

Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture

Hi, Michael: Thanks for your reply and for clarifying these changes. It helped a great deal. Apparently Nietzsche isn't like Plato (or Augustine for that matter) who changed for the worse as he got older -- becoming more and more statist. You've helped to clarify this a bit. I find Nietzsche to be a very challenging writer to understand -- very passionate and emotional with a vocabulary all its own at times, as so many of the Romantics were. Thanks again.

Glen Allport's picture

I'm another Nietzsche fan, and I agree: he's sometimes hard to take. It helps a great deal to use one of the better translations; I'd recommend those by Walter Kaufmann. Kaufmann was both scholarly and, most important, adept at laying some of the music and poetry of Nietszche's writing into his translations. I'm making the assumption that the artistry IS in the German original; I don't speak the language but I can say that when I read most translations by anyone other than Kaufmann, I cringe.

I used this quotation at the top of my very first column for STR in 2002 (Government is Not Compassion):

"Indeed, a hellish artifice was invented there, a horse of death, clattering in the finery of divine honors. Indeed, a dying for many was invented there, which praises itself as life: verily, a great service to all preachers of death!" ~ Friedrich Nietzsche, "On the New Idol" in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, part 1, translation by Walter Kauffmann.

The rest of this section is equally dramatic and clear. For instance: "State is the name of the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly it tells lies too; and this lie crawls out of its mouth: 'I, the state, am the people.' That is a lie! It was creators who created peoples and hung a faith and a love over them: thus they served life."

I'd recommend The Portable Nietzsche -- a Kindle version is available, thank goodness -- for a both a nice collection of his aphorisms (a Nietzsche specialty, as you surely know), longer sections (The Problem of Socrates in Twilight of the Idols is a favorite), and of course Zarathustra. 90% is annoying or overly-neurotic or local news and gossip or otherwise not interesting to me; the remaining 10% is often stellar and deep enough to make re-reading every few years a joy.

Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture

Glen, thanks for these wonderful quotes and the suggested translation. Now I can begin -- slowly -- to possibly understand this rather complex source!

Michael Kleen's picture

I recently discovered "The Nietzsche Reader" (ed. Keith Ansell Pearson) - it gathers together a lot of the best and most recent translations of his work, including obscure pieces and earlier writings like "The Greek State." I highly recommend it.