chapter  2
37 Pages

FROM HUMANISM TO ANTIHUMANISM

The relationship between humanism and antihumanism should not be seen as one of pure negation or hostility. Not only do most antihumanisms, as Kate Soper puts it, ‘secrete a humanist rhetoric’ (Soper 1986: 182) that betrays their hidden affinity with what they deny; they generally serve openly humanist ends of intellectual clarity and emancipation, articulated around a recognisable ethic of human capacity and need. Nietzsche, the doyen of philosophical antihumanists, was as surely a product of German humanism as his friend Burckhardt; and though his membership of the academic establishment, which he joined in 1869 as a twenty-four-year-old Professor of Classical Philology at the University of Basle, was effectively terminated by the publication

three years later of the provocatively unprofessorial Birth of Tragedy, his struggle, in the sixteen years that remained before madness closed around him, to formulate a fundamental ‘revaluation of all values’ recurs constantly to humanist themes and figures. Like Burckhardt, he reads the history of modernity as ‘the development of the individual’, and especially of those exceptional ‘complete men’ who, confronted with the ‘death of God’, the absence of any transcendental guarantee of meaning or value, rise above despair to recreate themselves as the bearers of a radical freedom. This heroic transcendence, through the exercise of a ‘will to power’ that drives every individual to the fullest possible self-realisation, is what Nietzsche calls the Übermensch or ‘superman’.