Few thinkers have enjoyed such widespread appeal over the last forty years as Nietzsche. The instrumentalization of the Nazi period seemingly left behind—Lukács’s dissenting voice notwithstanding—Nietzsche’s almost Heraclitean metaphors and images, visceral incarnations of some mythological wisdom which always seems to be in excess of itself, have fascinated theorists from the whole range of the political spectrum. For some, such as Kaufmann and Rorty, Nietzsche dissolved philosophy into an aesthetic play and a relativism entirely in accord with, but lying beyond, the values of the liberal democracies. For others—in the so-called ‘New Nietzsche’ emerging from post-war France—his critique of the overweening pretensions of the western philosophical tradition seemed to offer the possibility to begin philosophy again, as a post-philosophy. While this current of interpretation was not too shy to appropriate some of Nietzsche’s concepts for a radical critique of contemporary bourgeois society—one thinks in the first instance of Foucault, Derrida and Deleuze—its presupposition was that Nietzsche himself was an essentially apolitical philosopher, an innocent victim of right-wing distortion whose ‘indeterminacy’ permitted an attempt to expropriate him for the Left.
More recently, attention has returned to Nietzsche as a political thinker, a tendency that has now received its most eloquent and exhaustive statement in Domenico Losurdo’s monumental Nietzsche, il ribelle aristocratico. Biografia intellettuale e bilancio critico. Over 1,000 pages long, written in a lively and accessible prose and accompanied by an extensive bibliography, it will surely become an indispensable reference work for any serious future discussions of the philosopher of the eternal return. Nietzsche’s politics appear here not as merely one element alongside others, to be relegated to specialist studies and leaving his standing as harbinger of the destruction of western metaphysics untouched. On the contrary, Losurdo forces Nietzsche to step forward in his own colours, as a philosopher totus politicus. His politics now figure not as unfortunate or ambiguous—depending upon one’s perspective—pronouncements, alongside pregnant and brilliant aphorisms, but as the hidden anatomy which allows us to decipher the totality of his thought.
Losurdo is one of the most innovative and prolific left intellectuals of contemporary Italy. Born in 1941 in the Mezzogiorno, educated at the Universities of Urbino and Tübingen, he is currently ordinario (full professor) at the University of Urbino and regular commentator on contemporary Italian and international politics in his capacity as a member of Rifondazione comunista. He has produced a large body of scholarly work that aims at an analysis of European, and particularly German, philosophy and political thought, taking in Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger and, appropriately, Gramsci, as well as Bonapartism, Italian Neo-Hegelianism and historical revisionism. At least two studies, now available in English—Heidegger and the Ideology of War: Community, Death, and the West (2001; Italian edition 1991) and Hegel and the Freedom of Moderns (2004; Italian edition 1992)—have become fundamental reference works. A particular focus of Losurdo’s more recent scholarship is the critical re-reading of the liberal tradition throughout the nineteenth century, informed by a two-fold aim: first, to provide an archaeology of a tradition that continues to dominate contemporary politics and cultural practice; and second, to encourage a reassessment and perhaps even revision of the Marxist tradition through an engagement with the findings of this research.
Nietzsche, il ribelle aristocratico represents the summation of Losurdo’s long study of Nietzsche’s work and the cultural and political environment in which it was formed. His principal thesis is that Nietzsche’s thought, in all its stages and transformations, was fundamentally determined by a central engagement: the critique and denunciation of the tradition that derived from the French Revolution, traversed 1848, and arrived, in Nietzsche’s youth, at the Paris Commune. In the opening pages we read the young classicist’s letter to Gersdorff of 21 June 1871, regarding news of the burning of the Louvre:
For some days I was completely destroyed by doubts and overcome by tears: all scientific, philosophic and artistic existence seemed to me an absurdity, if a single day could obliterate the most marvellous works of art, or rather, entire periods of art.
Subsequent revelation that such reports had been merely malicious rumour aimed at discrediting the Communards seemed to do little to alter the profoundly traumatic and formative nature of the experience for Nietzsche. Several years later he was still writing: ‘The same when the news of the supposed burning of the Louvre arrived—a feeling of the autumn of culture. Never a deeper pain.’
Such is the context in which Losurdo reads The Birth of Tragedy, first published in the spring of 1872. This reinterpretation of ancient Greek culture and philosophy has often been read as the opening shots of Nietzsche’s solitary guerrilla war against the western philosophical tradition and, indeed, modernity in general, with its warning of ‘barbaric slave revolts’. Through a careful comparative analysis of this text, along with others by Nietzsche from the same period and those of his contemporaries, Losurdo demonstrates that whatever else The Birth of Tragedy became, it must also be understood in its own historical moment, as a theoretical response to a specific political event—the uprising of the Commune—articulated within a constellation of ideologies which include various forms of anti-Semitism, secular and not-so-secular critiques of Christianity and conservative opposition to a consolidating transatlantic liberalism; all united by a belief in a redemptive Imperial German Sonderweg leading back to the virtues of pre-Enlightenment Greece. Although Nietzsche claimed to be a solitary thinker who did not enjoy a confidence with the currents of his time, Losurdo has meticulously recorded the wider social echoes that provided a context for his formulations during these decades. Thus, for instance, the terms of Nietzsche’s critique of Socrates, singularly severe if considered in relation to the disciplinary etiquette of late nineteenth-century classical philology, become less exceptional when placed within earshot of the rhetoric of certain anti-Semitic currents of the time.