Nietzsche, Agonistic Politics, and Spiritual Enmity

Published date01 March 2020
Date01 March 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2020, Vol. 73(1) 3 –14
© 2019 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912919868772
Nietzsche’s thought, although frequently understood to
be antidemocratic, provides a rich resource for thinking
about contest in political life. His agonistic thought chal-
lenges democratic assumptions and reveals tensions
between pluralistic and democratic aims. Scholars have
widely debated the political character of Nietzsche’s
work, some finding ways to use his work in service of
democratic politics, others finding in him deep antipathy
to democracy and commitment to radically hierarchical
politics. Many who have brought resources for demo-
cratic politics to light have emphasized the agonistic ele-
ments of his political thinking (Hatab 1999; Owen 1995,
2002), whereas those who emphasize his inegalitarian
commitments have frequently presented his thoughts as
demanding a singular aristocratic hierarchy (Appel 1999;
Detwiler 1990; Dombowsky 2004). In contrast to both of
these camps, I will argue that the aristocratic and agonis-
tic elements of his thought are closely connected. This
paper presents two different kinds of contest as crucial to
Nietzsche’s political thought, one among noble faiths and
the other between political and philosophical life. The
tragic conflict between nobility and the position of the
hermit, as Nietzsche presents it in Beyond Good and Evil,
reveals a contest between politics and philosophy behind
his admiration for a politics of noble contest. Rather than
either a singular hierarchy or democratized contestability,
Nietzsche presents noble conflict as the core of agonistic
politics. He thereby offers what he sees as an alternative
to the philosophical politics of settled unified authority1
and reveals the deepest contest as one between politics
and philosophy.
Nietzsche and Agonistic Politics
Nietzsche’s frequent praise for agonistic relations2 has
provided a rich resource for considering his contribution
to political thought. In this article, I argue that Nietzsche’s
aristocratic politics can be understood as promoting the
sorts of contest he identifies with a noble spirit rather than
a settled comprehensive authority, leaving something that
is neither democratic nor tyrannical. Those who have
proffered a democratic reading of Nietzsche’s politics
have frequently drawn from the agonistic elements of this
thought,3 whereas scholars who have insisted that
Nietzsche adheres to a radically aristocratic politics have
generally found singular exploitative hierarchy to be his
preferred model of politics.
868772PRQXXX10.1177/1065912919868772Political Research QuarterlyKirkland
1Carthage College, Kenosha, WI, USA
Corresponding Author:
Paul E. Kirkland, Carthage College, 2001 Alford Park, Kenosha, WI
53140, USA.
Nietzsche, Agonistic Politics, and Spiritual
Paul E. Kirkland1
This article examines the agonistic elements of Nietzsche’s thought in light of theorists who have sought to develop an
agonistic democratic theory that would challenge democratic theory oriented by consensus. It argues that Nietzsche’s
praise for a spiritualization of enmity provides support for a politics that embraces contest rather than seeking
the elimination of conflict through either consensus or domination. Yet, unlike contemporary democratic theorists,
Nietzsche’s view challenges egalitarian commitments by presenting the sources of such conflicts in noble faiths. Instead
of following the practice of many scholars in identifying the agonistic with its utility for democratic politics, the paper
examines Nietzsche’s view of the underlying sources of contest, including important tensions between theory and
practice. The paper presents contest among noble faiths as crucial to Nietzsche’s political thought while highlighting a
contest between politics and philosophy behind it. He thereby offers what he sees as an alternative to the philosophical
politics of settled unified authority and reveals the deepest contest as one between politics and philosophy.
Nietzsche, agonism, tragedy, aristocracy, tyranny, democracy

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT