For Nietzsche, ‘complete’ nihilism includes a perspective on Europe. Rousseau had followed Saint-Pierre in arguing for a European federation that could preserve peace: Kant had placed his sights on the entire world, believing that only a truly cosmopolitan expression of the notion of right would constitute a fully realized legal order in the sense required by that notion. Instead of speaking of a federal Europe or a European Volkenbund, however, Nietzsche focusus on persons: the good Europeans.

In one sense, the good European is a full rejection of the “nationalism and race hatred” that Nietzsche sees around him, where ‘German’ has come to mean “to be able to take pleasure in the scabies of the heart and blood poisoning that now leads the nations of Europe to delimit and barricade themselves against one another as if it were a matter of quarantine (…)[;] petty politics, (…) petty states”[1]. For Nietzsche, this nationalism is ultimately rooted in Christian ideas that affect all nations of Europe: the value judgments that have defined the various traditions of the continent. But if we truly apply the strictness that these values teach us, we can become “good Europeans and heirs to Europe’s longest and bravest self-vanquishing[2]”.

Nietzsche describes the final step of nihilism as the ability to overcome nihilism itself. As we have seen him describe in the Genealogy of Morals, it is ultimately the interiorization of man that creates the possibility of going beyond slave morality. Similarly, abstract ideals, including abstract ideals of Europe, were historical stages that were required for us to move beyond them. That is ultimately why Nietzsche addresses Europe and not the world: nihilism remains for him a European experience, but it is no more than “a pathological transitional stage (what is pathological is the tremendous generalisation, the inference that there is no meaning at all)”[3]. The counterpoint is that this meaning has passed beyond the idea that it needs to be given in some sense, whether by a God or by systematic philosophy. Instead, it needs to be created and left open.

The present European Union, in arguing for a truth that is more fundamental than an earlier truth (the era of the nation state is over, enter the EU), qualifies as “incomplete nihilism” in this sense, still operating in the scheme of the “will to truth” that had run through Christian and scientific ways of seeing the world[4]. Going beyond this will to truth entails refraining from postulating an ideal European identity that is in some sense ‘more real’ than, for instance, national identity. Instead, the highest value of the ‘good European’ shifts from truth to freedom, and the possibilities that lie beyond the will to truth are experimental in nature, without any fixed notion of Europe at the far end of experimentation: in our terms, without moral finality. This lack of an ideal of what counts as ‘good’ is precisely what makes for the ‘good European’, on Nietzsche’s view[5]. In complete nihilism, one goes beyond the loss implied by nihilism and the waning of old ideals, into the new dawn of unconstrained possibilities.

[1] Nietzsche 2010, par 377

[2] ibid, par 357

[3] Quoted in Elbe 2003, 93

[4] Elbe 2003, 86-87; 90

[5] ibid, 90

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6 thoughts on “Nietzsche on ‘good Europeans’

    1. Attempt at an answer: in political terms, I would translate nihilism as anti-foundationalism. But I think we still need foundations even though they are ultimately impossible to come by in a final sense. In order words, I prefer post- over anti-foundationalism.

      To answer your question: no, I don’t think I’m a nihilist, though I don’t believe in the possibility of ultimate foundations. Does that clarify anything?

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  1. That is a good answer and yes it does help to clarify your thinking for me.
    I tend to agree with you if you mean what I think you mean. The important thing is that your answer is honest and unassuming (not arrogant).
    “in political terms, I would translate nihilism as anti-foundationalism.”
    And in epistemological and metaphysical terms?

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    1. Most of my work is on politics in some shape or form. In terms of ontology, I can give a similar answer to the one above: we can no longer derive absolute foundations (to serve as a basis for grand narratives) but we also cannot quite to without them. This has been called ‘metamodernism’ and I think I find it convincing both as a cultural diagnosis and a philosophical position: we oscillate between the need for grand narrative and disbelief in their ontological bases.

      ‘Epistemological nihilism’ can mean many things, I think. I do think there are ‘truthmakers’, but not as a neutral presence but always in a particular context specified by the relevant community. For instance: my name is Julien and this is true in that it was defined as such at the time of my birth, and the record is there to show it. One can thus have knowledge of what my name is. But if it turns out that the archives always lie (or some other silly counterfactual) there needs to be some other basis for my name, or else the notion of having a name and knowing what it is ceases to have meaning. Epistemology is out of my comfort zone, but this is the kind of position I feel attracted to.

      All in all, not much of a nihilist, or perhaps a strange one!

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