Warspeak: Nietzsche’s Victory Over Nihilism: A Review

Warspeak: Nietzsche’s Victory Over Nihilism by Lise van Boxel. Political Animal Press, 2020. Paperback. 218 pp. $29.99.

Friedrich Nietzsche: the great bogeyman of the 19th century. Many think Nietzsche’s thought has led humanity astray for over 125 years into paths of cruelty and destruction. But for Lise van Boxel, Nietzsche is one of the greatest defenders of life and human flourishing.

Lise van Boxel’s Warspeak: Nietzsche’s Victory over Nihilism is worthy of careful study by both seasoned readers of Nietzsche and newcomers who want a guide to his thought.[1] The book is built around a close reading of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals but touches on the central tenets of Nietzschean philosophy more broadly.

In this review, I want to discuss the primary emphasis of van Boxel’s work: Nietzsche’s effort to defeat nihilism and redeem earthly life.

In the popular conception, Nietzsche is known as a nihilist—or at least the prophet of nihilism. In a famous passage from The Gay Science, he places in the mouth of a madman, “God is dead!” Casual readers imagine its author writing these words with glee. Nietzsche’s apparent nihilism is commonly perceived as leading ultimately to the hyper-relativism and expressive individualism of today. And so it might seem perplexing that for van Boxel, Nietzsche is not only not a nihilist but one of the greatest modern warriors against nihilism. How can this be the case?

For Nietzsche, nihilism is any morality or way of life that points man away from his natural life. Van Boxel’s Nietzsche wars against abstraction, universal morality, the supremacy of rationality, and what van Boxel calls the “moral-theological prejudice.” Van Boxel’s Nietzsche views all these concepts as distracting man from natural, earthly life. Each concept is built on the hypothesis that there is a way to escape human perspective, to rationally learn about God, to gain knowledge of objective truth, or to understand something of a transcendent realm that is beyond man’s ever-changing world. And yet, for van Boxel’s Nietzsche, “the human perspective remains unavoidable and insurmountable for us” (6). There is no escape from our human–and therefore historically-defined–lives into a perspective-less, ahistorical objectivity.

Nietzsche’s war against purveyors of a “beyond,” then, is waged for the sake of human life. Put differently, in Platonic terms, van Boxel’s Nietzsche is fighting for the earthly world of becoming, the world of constant generation and passing away. He fights against those who posit and then place all value in an eternal world of being. That world, for Nietzsche, represents a denial of earthly life. Beings like ourselves can never live there. And living our lives while here as if all that matters is life there in the unknowable beyond—that’s nihilism.

For van Boxel, Nietzsche’s defense of earthly life does not result in a nihilistic free-for-all. Rather, there is an objective good that is first recognized by noble human beings full of life: super-abundant vitality–dare we say, life to the full. These original valuators recognize themselves as good–they know themselves to be the Good, the True, the most real ones. Van Boxel compares this equating of oneself with reality and goodness with the Christian God: “Their recognition of the goodness, reality, and truth of their maximality can be expressed in a proclamation attributed to Yahweh: ‘I AM THAT I AM’ (41).” Maximal vitality functions as a real and objective standard against which human action (and moral systems) can be measured. Rather than subordinating human actions to rationality or heavenly standards, van Boxel’s Nietzsche makes flourishing human life itself the standard. This standard, admittedly, is highly individualized (what promotes flourishing in one might degrade another), but it is a standard not wholly subject to the passing whims of an individual. It is false, therefore, to conceive of Nietzsche as merely a teacher of self-determination who directly leads to the societal problems of the 21st century.[2] Rather, Nietzsche wants life, and life abundant.

A defense of the good of human life must recognize that human beings are not permanently fixed, unchangeable creatures. Over time, our “physio-psychology” is altered; that is, for van Boxel’s Nietzsche, there is “no distinction, strictly speaking, between the so-called mind and body” (17). Thus, what impacts our bodies changes our minds, and vice versa. This means that the objective good of super-abundant vitality will look different at different points in human history. The thoughts and actions that constitute vital human life will depend on historical and cultural circumstance.

This changeable conception of the good is what attracts the accusation of “radical historicism” that is often used to dismiss Nietzsche. And yet, for Nietzsche, human nature and man’s historical boundedness are one and the same.[3] The nature of human beings is not absolutely fixed, and so any standard of flourishing human life must acknowledge that man’s nature is wholly in the world of becoming and change. For van Boxel’s Nietzsche, to deny humanity’s historical boundedness is to deny what human life really is. And that, for Nietzsche, is true nihilism.

Christians might find Nietzsche’s war against nihilism to have no bearing on their faith. Yet, for Nietzsche, the Christians of his day are those most guilty of nihilism, of denigrating the body and earthly life. Christianity, when properly understood, should affirm with God the Creator that this world is good, even very good. Yet modern Christians should be wary of falling into a new Gnosticism that dismisses health, the body, and earthly flourishing as unimportant. We should seek to prove Nietzsche’s accusation of nihilism wrong by embracing this good world that God has made. If we cannot in a right fashion say “Yes!” with Nietzsche to this life, then life eternal might prove disappointing.

Van Boxel is correct in portraying Nietzsche as a defender of human life, of the world of becoming. She argues that Nietzsche “writes to redeem the . . . principle of becoming so that it can resume a fecund, dualistic union with the . . . principle of being” (18). Perhaps this dualistic union is van Boxel’s aim–but it is not Nietzsche’s. In his fervor of saying “Yes!” to all that this world of becoming has to offer, Nietzsche rejects in total the world of being, that which is truly eternal and unchanging. He writes in Ecce Homo:

The affirmation of passing away and destroying, which is the decisive feature of Dionysian philosophy; saying Yes to opposition and war; becoming; along with a radical repudiation of the very concept of being—all this is clearly more closely related to me than anything else thought to date.[4]

Nietzsche rejects eternal being, yet he still recognizes man’s need for eternality. He posits a doctrine of eternal recurrence, an idea that, given infinite time, each man’s actions might repeat over and over, for all eternity. Such a theory, Nietzsche hopes, would imbue human action with eternal significance.

But left to his own devices, man remains stuck in a world of becoming, death, and decay, without hope–even if it is a life that repeats itself eternally. But God be praised, there is One who is Life, who although himself is of the world of eternal being, entered into the human world of becoming, opening a path for man to the world that does not pass away. Although seemingly describing Nietzsche, perhaps van Boxel is alluding to this Way with the final line of Warspeak: “We have understood adequately this comedy written in blood, infused with spirit. Grace in deed” (206).

Christian Winter is a doctoral candidate at Hillsdale College, completing a dissertation on Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity. He is a member of College Baptist Church in Hillsdale, MI.

[1] Lise von Boxel, Warspeak: Nietzsche’s Victory over Nihilism (Political Animal Press: Toronto, 2020). All in-text citations in this review will be to this work.

[2] This is what Carl Trueman suggests in his book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. He argues that “Nietzsche, sophisticated thinker that he is, is really giving a critical account of what we might express in the demotic banalities of our time as ‘Be Whoever you want to be, and do whatever works for you’” (176).

[3] In other words, Nietzsche rejects the distinction between the historical approach and nature as a standard that Leo Strauss posits. See “Natural Right and the Historical Approach” in Natural Right and History (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1965), 9-34.

[4] Ecce Homo, “Birth,” trans. Walter Kaufmann (Vintage Books: New York, 1989), 3.


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