Friedrich Nietzsche remains one of the most widely read philosophers in history, necessarily influencing the thought of some of the great dictators in history, Mussolini and Hitler, for example (in reality, they corrupted his philosophy more than anything). One of Nietzsche’s biggest ‘pet peeves’ was this thing we call “morality” and near the end of his career he sought to “revaluate” all of our values with marvellously crafted genealogies using his philological knowledge and barbaric wit. His epistemological views were hilariously skeptical, his metaphysical thoughts lucidly antagonistic, but one part of his views seem highly contentious and appear to warn of a bitter hatred towards women. As much as I personally admire Nietzsche and fervently subscribe to his thoughts with regards to several branches of philosophy, I am quite simply torn by the forceful comments that he makes about women across all of his works. Therefor, this article does not exactly intend to provide a vindication for the proclaimer of God’s death, but instead wishes to present, with references to his philosophical and personal upbringing, a context and breakdown for views about women.
Nietzsche was raised in a household of women, namely his sister, mother and aunt. His father had died when he was very young. Yet despite, being brought up in this household, it seems as though Nietzsche never developed any respect for women. It seems quite easy to label him a ‘product of his time’, but doesn’t that go entirely against what he stood for? Nietzsche’s philosophy is a philosophy of attack. He attacks age-old religions, attacks morals, attacks aesthetics, attacks science and he attacks society, so why would he not attack the status of women in the 19th Century? Some scholars have in fact, pointed to his intellectual influences, Schopenhauer and Goethe. Goethe did not establish hierarchies between the sexes, but he did recognise inherent differences between them. Schopenhauer on the other hand, was somewhat of a rabid sexist and he was probably the first philosopher whose work deeply influenced Nietzsche. I quote:
“One need only look at a woman’s shape to discover that she is not intended for either too much mental or too much physical work.She pays the debt of life not by what she does but by what she suffers—by the pains of child-bearing, care for the child, and by subjection to man, to whom she should be a patient and cheerful companion.”
-Arthur Schopenhauer, ‘On Women.’
The rest of the essay is laughably speculative, even for Schopenhauer. In Nietzsche’s views about women we see the insistence upon hierarchy that Schopenhauer inevitably defends, but with a scathing critique of the question of gender equality. But before we can address his views head on, we must address the photograph above.
The woman photographed above was Lou Salome, a Russian author and intellectual with whom Nietzsche was wildly in love. Unfortunately, she rejected Nietzsche’s proposals. All three of them. She claimed that she wanted to be ‘intellectual companions.’ Yes, our heavily-moustached, Zarathustra-loving philosopher had been friendzoned. In any case, Salome fascinated Nietzsche and she describes her first interaction with the troubled philosopher as follows:
“I remember when I first spoke with Nietzsche during a day in the Spring of 1882 in St. Peter’s in Rome, his studied, elegant posture surprised and deceived me. But not for long was one deceived by this recluse who wore his mask so awkwardly, like someone who has come out of the wilderness and mountains and who is dressed conventionally.” – Lou Salome.
The scholar and translator of Nietzsche’s works, R.J. Holling, definitely viewed this incident as particularly influential claiming that: “he fell into an abyss of despair.” Holling even notes that this incident devastated him to the extent that his “cheerful disposition” had been lost. In one of his letters, only months after the proposal, Nietzsche wrote:
“If only I could sleep […] I am lost, I now mistrust everybody: I hear contempt towards me…Sometimes I think of driving my solitude and resignation to the ultimate limit…” – Nietzsche to Franz Overbeck.
We have now established a psychological context with which we will explore his views concerning women and also added the personal exchanges that he had with the formidable character of Lou Salome. With this in mind, we can deconstruct Nietzsche’s views about women.
Perhaps the best source, where he directly addresses and attacks women – not just subtly attributing the adjective ‘feminine’ to things he did not like – is “Beyond Good and Evil” (1886). From Section 232 onwards in ‘Chapter VII: Our Virtues’ we find ruthless attacks on the issue of feminism. He begins these sections by claiming that:
“Woman wants to be independent[…]this is one of the worst developments in the general uglification of Europe. Woman has so much reason for shame; in woman there is concealed so much superficiality, petty presumption and petty immodesty – one needs only to study her behaviour with children!” – Nietzsche, ‘Beyond Good and Evil’
One can definitely detect the echoes of Schopenhauer’s misogyny in that last sentence. In this quote, he is trying to draw a parallel between women and the other things that he believes “uglify” Europe, such as German nationalism and anti-Semitism. At this time, Nietzsche believed that the culture that he knew and loved was in a coma, that it was blind to the dangers attacking it from all fronts. He wasn’t really wrong. Wagner – his former best friend – was a foundational influence on German culture, and his operas overtly contained nationalistic and anti-Semitic messages. This helps to explain the hostility in his attack, which is characteristic of Nietzsche anyway, but perhaps by virtue of this being so intimate an issue to him, his tone is further exacerbated.
If we turn once more to the quote, a word which seems to jump out at us is “superficiality.” In philosophy, it is difficult to find a man more at odds with superficiality and appearance than Nietzsche, whose work is obsessed with finding the deeper, sub-cutaneous meaning behind everything. The notions of appearance and truth are ones that have watermarked his entire body of work, especially in his ‘Birth of Tragedy’ – believed by himself to be “offensively Hegelian, in only a few formulas infected with the cadaverous perfume of Schopenhauer” (Ecce Homo). Written about 10 years before his ill-fated proposal to Salome, this work deals with the metaphysical forces of the Apolline and the Dionysiac, with the former of which being almost directly a caricature of women. In a word, the Apolline is concerned with the rational and the beautiful, gains its subsistence from appearances and illusions. With this in mind, read these next comments in conjunction, which concern respectively, the Apolline and women:
“We must recognise the greatest effect of Apollonian culture[…]the most sensitive capacity for suffering by resorting to powerful misleading delusions and pleasurable illusions. But how seldom is that naïve state, that complete embrace by the beauty of appearance achieved!” – Nietzsche, ‘The Birth of Tragedy.’
“What is truth to a woman! From the very first nothing has been more alien, repugnant, inimical to woman than truth – her great art is the lie, her supreme concern is appearance and beauty.” – Nietzsche, ‘Beyond Good and Evil.’
Truth, in a certain sense, is thus ‘inimical’ to the Apolline and is presumed by Nietzsche to be inimical to women. While this argument may seem to amount to nothing more than cherry-picking quotes, we still see grains of these thoughts of appearance and truth appearing in most of his works, with feminine connotations not being far behind. It is natural that if Nietzsche makes this association between woman and appearance that his attack on these subjects would possess equal dispensations of hostility.
Coming to the end of his rant about women in ‘Beyond Good and Evil’, Nietzsche reflects that women don’t appreciate what they have now, he claims that: “the weak sex has in no age been treated by men with such respect as it is in ours.” Granted the evolution of women’s status appears to be correlating positively with time, this still could have been phrased with less spite. From what we read, Nietzsche mocks the movement of feminism, claiming that “woman degenerates.” Nietzsche fundamentally believes that women are incapable of finding truth, that it somehow “sacrifices her most womanly instincts” and that is a symptom of our culture regressing rather than progressing. This most contentious point possesses no legitimate basis except for specious reasoning (he even argues about woman’s cooking, as a self-evident argument against emancipation). It becomes increasingly difficult to consider why he boldly asserts that man should think of women in an “oriental fashion”, conceiving of her as a “possession.” Perhaps, the only context by which this is ‘justified’ is his overarching discussion of prejudices or deep truths. Nietzsche is the archetype of the introspective man, and perhaps these are his unshakable – yet no more permissible – convictions, stemming necessarily from his sexist intellectual influences and his terrible experiences with women. This quote from Nietzsche perfectly signs off this article:
“Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truths than lies.” – Friedrich Nietzsche.
- 1886 ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ by Friedrich Nietzsche, translated by R.J. Hollingdale
- 1883 ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’ by Friedrich Nietzsche, translated by R.J. Hollingdale
- 1889 ‘Ecce Homo’ by Friedrich Nietzsche, translated by Shaun Whiteside
- 1872 ‘The Birth of Tragedy’ by Friedrich Nietzsche, translated by Shaun Whiteside
- 1851 ‘On Women’ from ‘Essays and Aphorisms’ by Arthur Schopenhauer
- ‘Lou Salome and Nietzsche’ by Michael Del Nevo
- ‘Beyond Good and Evil Review’ by Maudemarie Clark