Friedrich Nietzsche was one of the most controversial writers of the 19th century. He left a remarkably ambiguous legacy for political thought, and his sweeping and often cryptic denunciations of existing institutions inspired a wide variety of thinkers, including both libertarians and many others who were profoundly hostile to libertarianism. His own views on liberty and the state are subject to a wide variety of interpretations. In his early account of Nietzsche’s philosophy, H. L. Mencken interprets him as a sort of anarchist. There is certainly some reason to see Nietzsche in that way; he refers to himself repeatedly as “antipolitical,” which must be rather different from being merely “apolitical,” and he has blisteringly caustic things to say about the state in his Thus Spoke Zarathustra. However, in virtually all the writings of his mature period, he describes his own standard of value as the “Will to Power,” a view that might be paraphrased as viewing power as a good or possibly the highest good. However, Walter Kaufmann, writing in the early 1950s, read that notion to mean that power over others is relatively unimportant, with true power being mastery over one’s self. Undeniably, Nietzsche does have a high regard for people who have self‐​mastery, but his admiration is consistent with advocating power over others as well, and Nietzsche does describe his ideal human beings as molding humanity according to their own will. Accordingly, in recent decades, there has been a reaction in Nietzsche scholarship against Kaufmann’s interpretation. Many interpreters, including Strong and Detwiler, now understand Nietzsche as advocating authoritarian or even totalitarian governments. Such interpretations, however, are difficult to reconcile with the sweepingly categorical nature of his denunciations of the state. Indeed, this apparent contradiction can be resolved by understanding Nietzsche as claiming that the power wielded by his heroes is, for the most part, the power of ideas and the force of personality. In his ideal world, a few exemplary individuals would hold power, but, in that scheme, the state would play at most a subordinate role.

Nietzsche’s writings continue to attract interest among people who are dissatisfied with existing political and social arrangements, but the implications of his approach are contested.

Further Readings

Detwiler, Bruce. Nietzsche and the Politics of Aristocratic Radicalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Hunt, Lester H. Nietzsche and the Origin of Virtue. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Kaufmann, Walter. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. New York: Meridian, 1956.

Mencken, H. L. “Introduction to Friedrich Nietzsche.” The Antichrist. H. L. Mencken, trans and ed. New York: Knopf, 1923.

———. The Philosophy of Nietzsche. Port Washington, NY: Kenikat Press, 1964.

Strong, Tracy. Friedrich Nietzsche and the Politics of Transfiguration. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.

Originally published