Libido Dominandi: Nietzsche and Sallust By Nicholas Birns

VOLUME IX, ISSUES I & II, FALL 2015 – SPRING 2016


Why Nietzsche and Sallust? Why such an unlikely pairing of the nineteenth-century German astonishment and the first century BC Latin chronicler? They are not even antagonists. Nietzsche and St. Paul, or Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky, or even Nietzsche and Leibniz, yes, there is the stuff of contest, of opposition. But of Nietzsche and Sallust, what is the relation? How could a world-defying iconoclast have anything in common with a historian who dutifully recorded events to us now long ago?

Yet, as those who know, know, Nietzsche lauded Sallust to the skies, saying that the first century BC Roman historian may be one of the few writers he actually admires. A close look at the text of Twilight of the Idols is warranted here:

My taste, which may be the opposite of a tolerant taste, is in this case too far from saying Yes indiscriminately; it does like to say Yes; rather even No; but best of all nothing. That applies to whole cultures, it applies to books — also to places and landscapes. At bottom it is a very small number of ancient books that counts in my life; the most famous are not among them. My sense of style, was awakened when I came into contact with Sallust. I have not forgotten the surprise of my honored teacher, Corssen, when he had to give his worst Latin pupil the best grade: I had finished with one stroke, compact, sever, with as much substance as possible, a cold sarcasm against “beautiful words” and “beautiful sentiments” — here I found myself. And even in my Zarathustra one will recognize a very serious ambition for a Roman style, for the aere perennius in style.

Nietzsche says he is not voraciously curious, not open to everything the opposite of the famous credo of a slightly earlier Latin writer than Sallust, the African-born playwright Terence, who famously said, humani nil a me alienum puto. Nothing human is alien to him; Nietzsche makes clear that much that is human is. As a reader, Nietzsche freely takes on the danger of what Voltaire satirized in Candide in the character of Pococurante—somebody who dismisses most of extant literature because it is not good enough for him, and avoids many standard authors not out of ignorance or boorishness but out of icy, snide disdain. Nietzsche will not compromise for the sake of inclusiveness, but lets the actual dictates of his judgment call to him.

All this is true. In other words Nietzsche is not just lying or being pretentious here. But he is unquestionably being theatrical, mugging it up. He is using his genuine admiration for Sallust to shake up and shock others. This begins with his first reading of the historian, which at the time while he was in secondary school at Schulpforta studying under Wilhelm Corssen—who was a great advocate for Nietzsche, yet knew his extraordinary pupil preferred Greek to Latin, vaulted Nietzsche’s own style into a sphere his teacher might not have expected. Sallust’s style, “Gedrágt, streng,” wound as tight as possible among words as can be, gave Nietzsche’s own Latin a pulse, an intent: removed it from student mediocrity, from the burden of just trying to be correct. Sallust gave Nietzsche’s Latin, so he says an edge.

One wonders, though, if the crusade against the “Schöne Wort” which ambiguously backdated to his Schulpforta adolescence is quite so certifiably wie es eighentlich gewesen, This seems rather an attribute of the later Nietzsche, the post-Wagner post Zweites Reich Nietzsche, the Nietzsche who deliberately rebelled against inflation and grandiosity, who saw the dreams he had earlier invested in, as in David Allison’s words, “a risible spectacle of mysticism and self-indulgence.” The retrojection of this back into the Schulpforta era—when, however much this disdain for grandiosity may have been a native tendency, it was surely accelerated after his break with Wagner and his disillusionment with the Empire—attempts to make temperamental the temporal.

This sources the fundamental paradox of Nietzsche’s interest in Sallust: that his praise is for his exacting, severe, epigrammatic style, and this affinity is in line with Nietzsche’s late praise of French epigrammatists such as La Rochefoucauld. Nietzsche knows that this claim is partially rhetorical, and done in particular to score German complacency and chauvinism. By lauding the opposite of the Wagnerian, Nietzsche makes clear his present distance from Wagner, but no reader can take his asseveration of Gallicism or Latinity or logic or concision straight, as he remains sprawling, bombastic, ambitious, and world-shaking—although in his own more ironic and subversive way. In this regard, the Sallust affinity borders on being a trope. And, even more paradoxically, Sallust is a historian, and this is just what he is not—he may be a philosopher, a philologist, a poet, a prophet, but not a historian.

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