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Alternatives 24 (2999),83-118

Breathing ,Nietzsche's Air:
New Reflections on
Morgenthau's Concepts of
Power and Human Nature
Ulrik Enemark Petersen"
He who knows how to breathe the air of my writings knows that it
is an air of the heights, a robust air. One has to be made for it, otherwise there is no smalI danger one will catch cold.
-Friedrich Nietzschel
Bad metaphysics leads of necessity to bad political philosophy.
-Hans J. Morgenthad

The work of Hans Joachim Morgenthau, undoubtedly the most famous scholar of international relations (IR) this century, continues
to attract attention nearly twenty years after his death.3 This does not
mean that, some fifty years after the appearance of his defining
works, his thought has been mastered or cleared of interpretative
ambiguities. Perhaps this is inevitable; Morgenthau was, to use Walt
Whitman's immortal words, large, and he no doubt contained "multitudes," and sometimes contradicted himself. However, from the
publication of the first reflections on his work right up to the recent
nouvelle vague, Morgenthau scholarship has been haunted by a contradiction so fundamental that it threatens to render his whole body
of thought incomprehensible.
What is not in question is that the basis of Morgenthau's political
thought is made up of two claims. First, that "international politics,
like all politics, is a struggle for power," and, second, that "politics,
like society in general, is governed by objective laws that have their
roots in human nature," which is defined as evil and driven by a lust
*Department of Politics and International Relations, Lancaster University, Lancaster,
England, UK.

83
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84

Breathing Niefzsche’sAir

for power.4 What one makes of these claims obviously depends on
how one understands the two fundamental concepts around which
they are built: power and human nature. And whatever one makes of
them, one must be able to relate them to the rest of his work in a way
that supports it and makes it a whole. This is where the contradiction
arises. Currently available interpretations remain unable to establish
a connection between the determinism apparently inherent in these
claims and Morgenthau’s often noted emphasis on the moral dilemmas of political choice.
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Breathing Niefzsche’sAir

for power.4 What one makes of these claims obviously depe:
how one understands the two fundamental concepts around
they are built: power and human nature. And whatever one m
them, one must be able to relate them to the rest of his work ii
that supports it and makes it a whole. This is where the contra!
arises. Currently available interpretations remain unable to es
a connection between the determinism apparently inherent ii
claims and Morgenthau’s often noted emphasis on the moral
mas of political choice.

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tradition stretching back through the centuries.
The primary significance of the reinterpretation to be offered
here, however, goes beyond the correction of details in available
Morgenthau interpretations. Far from reestablishing continuity and
stability within the realist narrative, the present analysis will show
that Morgenthau cannot in any meaningful sense be located within
this narrative. It will show that his core concepts are, in fact, devel‘oped in direct opposition to the philosophical and theoretical assumptions that fuel contemporary realism. This turning away from
conventiornal wisdom forms the basis for a reappropriation of Morgenthau as a political thinker struggling with issues similar to those
presently dealt with by critical (international) political theory-a
strugglk that leads him to conclusions that question contemporary
assumptions even within this domain. Resolving the paradox of freedom and necessity in Morgenthau’s thought thus surprisingly paves
the way for a critical intervention in contemporary debates about the
relationship between identity and difference and the challenges this
raises for ethical thought as it attempts to negotiate the inherent tension between the individual and its orders.
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Ulrik Enemark Peterson

85

Accomplishing this task requires a radical change in hermeneutics. This article is driven by the conviction that the interpretative
problems dogging Morgenthau scholarship derive from a failure to
get the key questions right in the first place. Traditional interpretations fail to grasp the proper meaning of and relation between his
core concepts because their hermeneutic horizon remains defined
by what has famously been described as “the rich tradition of political realism”5 and the widespread assumption that Morgenthau was
primarily “an American thinker.”6 As these notions go in contemporary IR theory, they influence the manner in which his thought is a p
propriated in two important ways: by indicating that his thought is to
be understood solely from within the parameters of IR theory and
that his is a project operating within the established certainties of
modernity. I question both of these assumptions.
This interpretation takes its point of departure from the radically
different assumption that if we are to open up anew and probe more
deeply into Morgenthau’s thoughts on power and human nature, we
have to take into consideration the largely neglected fact that he
spent his intellectually formative years in pre-World War I1 Germany.
Few attempts have been made to read his work in the light of this experience, which is strange, considering that this was one of the most
tumultuous, fruitful, and creative epochs of modern thought-a period of political and philosophical upheaval and profound crisis in
which the rubble left by the collapse of established modes of thought
had not yet been cleared away by viable alternatives.’
It is, of course, impossible to provide a full overview of this context within the confines of an article; nor is it possible to deal in any
detail with the developments in German thought that led up to it; It
is, however, possible to clarify the nature of the fundamental problematic that defined the overall weltanschauung of that period, and
no writer formulated it more starkly than Friedrich Nietzsche. As the
gravedigger of the nineteenth century and the gatekeeper to the
twentieth and to late-modernity, it was he who summed up and
pushed to their logical consequences different philosophical trends
of German thought, such as romanticism and historicism, the foremost proponents of which had already subjected the presuppositions
of the Enlightenment to serious questioning. Nietzsche thus blazed a
path along which many of Morgenthau’s contemporaries would later
travel.8 Behind Heidegger’s reflections on the question of Being,
Weber’s struggle with the nature of the relationship between politics,
values, and rationality, and the Frankfurt school’s critique of traditional
theory looms Nietzsche’s Auseinandersetzung, or critical encounter, with

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86

Breathing Nietzsche’s Air

the metaphysical and ontological underpinnings of modern thought
and with the profound complication of the relationship between
man and the world that it effected. The basic assumption that guides
the present reinterpretation of Morgenthau’s fundamental concepts
is that, as a member of this particular community, he shared in the
general task of trying to work out the implications of Nietzsche’s
rearticulation of the relationship between man and world. Locating
Morgenthau within a Nietzschean problematic means that we shall
have at our disposal a much larger repertoire of questions than is
made available by the traditional realist/modernist framework, thus
making it possible to question what is taken for granted within traditional readings.
The first section outlines the thematic continuity I claim exists
between Nietpche and Morgenthau. This serves to shift our attention away from the epistemological and methodological preoccupations of traditional readings toward metaphysical and ontological issues. Crucially, it shows that instead of reading power as a derivative
of his concept of human nature, we must reverse the relationship.
On this basis, the second section turns to Nietzsche’s central metaphysical concept, Will to Power, which is, in turn, compared with
Morgenthau’s concept of power. The third section links this reinterpretation to his concept of human nature. The reading which has so
far been primarily philosophical in nature, in the next section turns
to his political thought, in order to show that there is no necessary
contradiction between necessity and freedom in his thought, though
their internal relationship is far more complex than is usually assumed. Finally, I explore the wider theoretical and political significance of these conclusions in terms of the history of international
ideas and the structure and substance of contemporary debates
within the discipline and beyond.

In Interior Ho min i?
Death and the Reconfiguration of Finitude

*
4

To start an interpretation of Morgenthau’s thought with exploring
Nietzschean themes is to proceed from an assumption that runs
squarely against conventional wisdom. It is to claim that very far
from being the instigator of modern, scientific realism, and thus the
spiritual father of neorealism and the pupil of Hobbes and Machiavelli, Morgenthau’s thought emerges as a response to the crisis of
that very tradition. It is to claim that rather than being in the midst
of the grand narrative of modernity, he is balancing on its edge.
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Ulrik Enemark Peferson

87

Such claims require that we proceed carefully and state clearly what
we have in mind when we refer to modern thought.

Nietzsche and the Structure of Modern Thought
For Nietzsche, the modern age was at the end of its tether: the rope
to which the various hopes and ambitions of modern thought had
been tied had worn thin. Self-confidence and vitality in thought had
given way to sterility and weariness, as philosophy with increasing
desperation tried to resolve its own inner contradictions by rehashing old formulae. Instead of taking part in these exercises of recycling, Nietzsche saw it as his task to bring modernity face to face with
the logical conclusions of its own project, and thus cut the rope altogether. Modern man, he announced, had to come to terms with
the fact that the oceans had been drunk, the slate wiped clean; a
state of affairs he compressed into the imagery of the death of God.
This monumental event ushers in the age of nihilism, in which the
highest values devalue themselves and the questions from which humanity takes its cue and becomes what it is find no answer.9 The
death of God and the nihilism that follows in its wake are irreversible, the fate of the age. Some might continue to look for God
in caves and far-off places; they might, in other words, continue the
search for solutions to the predicaments of the age by building on inherited structures. But theirs is a futile enterprise, as the deity that
has so far sustained and given shape to those structures is rapidly
decomposing.
Nietzsche’s wrath is directed toward a series of assumptions that
he regards as having been decisive in shaping modern thought.
These assumptions are metaphysical and ontological in character.
That is to say, they embody a certain conception of the order of
things. As such they precede and make possible questions of epistemology and methodology, because the latter always presuppose an
answer, however vague, to a Kantian sort of question: What is the
world like?10 These fundamental assumptions make up the scaffolding around which theories are developed and systems of thought
erected, and as long as they remain unchanged they point to the
deeper continuity of a given epoch. This is not a continuity in specific answers, but rather in the structure of hopes, demands, and possibilities out of which such answers are articulated. In this sense, all
thought is ultimately metaphysical and ontological in nature.11
Keeping at the back of our mind the ever-present risk of simplifying what is always in reality exceedingly complex, it seems in the
present context not altogether unfair to say that the bulk of modern
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88

Breathing Nietzsche's Air

thought has been centered around three such fundamental assumptions.12 While far from exhaustive of modernity as such, their identification allows us to grasp the basic thrust of Nietzsche's critique.
First, modern thought contains a belief in what I will term a harmonious ontology. That is to say, it has shown a strong tendency to assume
that ultimately the diversity of the empirical world is reducible to
"some single principle which not only regulates the course of the sun
and the stars, but prescribes their proper behavior to all animate
creatures."ls The metaphysical importance of this monistic assump
tion goes without saying. It holds up the promise of being able to see
the world "as it really is," uninhibited by one's location in time and
space, and as such it provides man with a platform for resolving and
thus mastering through knowledge the diversity, uncertainty, and
conflict that confronts him in his empirical existence. The permanence of this assumption goes a long way toward accounting for the
specific ambitions and hopes often pointed to as distinguishing features of modern thought-the quest for certainty above all else, be it
in the scientific, moral, or political spheres.
Secondly, modern thought has, at least since Descartes, shown an
equally strong tendency to identify the center or ground as man himself. As Heidegger was fond of saying, the modern age is the age of
subjectivity. The subject of modern thought is, however, not the concrete, individual subject or self existing within and limited by history,
but a universal self uninhibited by its specific location in time and
space-a self defined, in Gillespie's words, by its "unique access to
the eternal." Through self-consciousness and introspection, man is
able to become "the agent of the absolute or the eternal in the actual," and thus able to "rise above nature and natural desires and
transform both in accordance with the laws of reason."l4
These two assumptions combine to produce a third distinctive
feature of modern thought: its implicit or explicit denial that man is
first and foremost a historical and, hence, a finite being. Thanks to
these metaphysical assumptions and the push-pull effect they create
as man finds himself confronted with diversity, conflict, and uncertainty in,his everyday existence, on the one hand, and the promise of
achieving harmony through thought, on the other, modern thought
carries within it a strong teleological element that gives to it its rationale, dynamics, and vitality.
Approached from this angle, i t is clear that Nietzsche's announcement of God's death bears directly and devastatingly upon
the structure of modern thought, because for all its secular pretensions the notion of God had remained lodged within it as a silent assumption guaranteeing that human efforts to secure certainty in the
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Ulrik Enemark Peterson

89

realms of knowledge, meaning, morality, and political principles
would not be in vain. The death of God signifies the death of the belief in the possibility of postulating the existence of a harmonious or
monistic ontology, and thus denies modern thought access to the
metaphysical resource it has relied upon, consciously or unconsciously,
to successfully negotiate the dilemmas and uncertainties of man’s empirical existence. It throws into doubt the very possibility of truth,
identity, and meaning by uprooting them from their foundation.
This uprooting fundamentally changes the way in which man’s
position vis-54s the world is perceived. Modernity’s anthropologically driven quest for secure foundations had, as noted, relied upon
keeping the self out of time and history, thus implicitly relying upon
a de facto rejection of man’s historical, bodily, and, hence, finite nature.15 How ”the true world finally became a fable” need not concern
us here; what matters is that the death of God also signifies, to put it
somewhat paradoxically, nothing other than the birth of the “mortal
soul”:16
Formerly one sought the feeling of the grandeur of man by pointing
to his divine origin: this has now become a forbidden way, for at its
portal stands the ape. , . One therefore now tries the opposite direction: the way mankind is going shall serve as proof of his
grandeur and kinship with God. Alas this, too, is vain1 And the end
of this way stand the funeral urn of the last man and gravedigger.
However high mankind may have evolved . . it cannot pass over
into a higher order, as little as the ant and the earwig can at the end
of its “earthlycourse” rise up to kinship with God and eternal life.

.

.

Hence, we now have to confront the fact of “our conclusive transitoriness,”” the fact that the earwig is closer to us than God. By throwing man back into the world and thus back upon himself as a conclusively finite being, the death of God leads to a notion of self and
being that radically emphasizes their historicity. This pincer movement shatters the teleology that has supplied modern thought with
its impetus, the effect of which is not only to undermine the rationale of thinking, but also to render man’s existence incomprehensible and meaningless. From this implosion follows the plunge into nihilism, which, in Warren’s words, “results from disjunctions between
experiential and interpretive conditions of acting.”ls Nietzsche thus
pushed the modern notion of the subject to its logical conclusion;
when man asserts himself to the extent that he recognizes as the
source of truth nothing but himself, the moment of victory is ironically also the moment in which this project disables itself, the moment in which the subject dissolves into subjectivity.
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Breathing Nietzsche's Air

In Nietzsche's Slipstream: Morgenthau and Metaphysical Crisis
When traditional interpretations turn human nature into the axiomatic foundation of his thought, they unquestioningly assume that
for Morgenthau the self works as the locus of ontological certainty
and harmony that paves the way for a resolution of empirical complexity. This, however, is far from the truth; man and the nature of
his relationship to the world is precisely what is in question for Morgenthau. As he notes, consciousness, the ability to reflect and think,
is what sets man apart from animals. Following Aristotle, he traces
the beginnings of thought to the shock of wonderment: YWhenevera
conflict between ourselves and the world enters our consciousness
. . . the shock of wonderment registers that entrance."Ig
Howevef, something has gone seriously awry since Aristotle first
thought of the origins of reflection in this way. "Thinking man," we
are now told, "is threatened man, for to be conscious of experience
is to be conscious of danger"-in fact, the fate of thinking man is
"empirical and metaphysical danger."Z* For Morgenthau, as for Nietzsche, thought can no longer close the gap between itself and experience. Modern man finds himself in a condition of radical disjuncture that has "left the received systems of thought empty of content
and, in any event, without conviction." They now only "live on as ritualistic incantations and ideological justifications, proclaiming their
truth loudly but without rational vitality."21 Behind his argument lies
the realization that radical and pure thinking as envisaged by
Descartes leads not to certainty and firm foundations but to absurdity. It does not bring man to Truth but to himself-himself not as a
universal subject capable of transcendence but as one whose fate is
as a finite, limited being. As he notes in a passage that bears more
than a fleeting resemblance to Nietzsche's earlier conclusion: "Since
consciousness of human fate is the latter's image-otherwise it would
not be true consciousness-the transitoriness of m a n is its necessary content. Ilum?n thought, in so far it is oriented toward truth, must be
consciousness toward death. To live consciously is to live in the presence of death."22
This'consciousness toward death is obviously not a consciousness
about this or that thing, but one that underlies all other forms of
consciousness, knowledge, and understanding, and as such it brings
him on a collision course with the bulk of modern thought. Thus,
while it is certainly the case that it has not remained oblivious to
death as a limit, a negativity in whose shadow human existence is
played out, Morgenthau's deployment of it implies a fundamental reconfiguration of its meaning because it intersects with the death of
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Ulrik Enemark Peterson

91

God. Hence, it does not, as in Hobbes, describe an anthropological
horizon of human orders; that is to say, man's actions are to be understood on the basis of his wish to avoid death. Nor is it worked into
a metaphysics of the beyond, as in Augustine's notion of the two
deaths. The effect of God's death is, as Nietzsche notes, to collapse
the very distinction between the apparent and the real world upon
which Augustine's redemptive metaphysics relies; there is only this
world or there is nothing.23 Hence, there is in Morgenthau's understanding of death a radical notion of finitude that altogether explodes the frameworks of both anthropologically based and redemptive metaphysics. There is no beyond, no center, and consequently
the negativity, the limit, is absolute. This notion of death is inconceivable to the modern mind, which "misses the significance of death
altogether . , . [it] is nothing but a problem to be solved like shipwrecks, unemployment, or cancer; and its significance for man consists in nothing else."24 For Morgenthau, on the other hand, it must
be the point where all thought begins and ends, significant both because its absolute meaninglessness, as it does no longer partake in a
larger order and does not point in any direction, threatens to make
life itself meaningless and because it imparts upon man a sense of his
own limitations.
It is on the basis of this reconfiguration of the meaning of death
that Morgenthau deploys human finitude as a deconstructive
weapon, aimed at what he regards as inflated claims made by philosophers on behalf of man. For him, it shows in a final and ultimate way
that the hope of identifying an Archimedean point of incontestable
knowledge and pure identity is a mirage:
Man , , . meets in his intellectual experience the unceasing struggle
between his understanding, on the one hand, and the riddles of the
world and of his existence in this world, on the other-a struggle
which offers with each answer new questions, with each victory a
new disappointment, and thus seems to lead nowhere. In this
labyrinth of unconnected causal connections man discovers many
little answers but no answers to the great questions of his life, n o
meaning, no direction.25

What blows through these lines is indeed the cold "breath of empty
space" following the madman's announcement of God's death.26
Very far from holding up the promise of spontaneous harmony and
total meaning, proper thinking now delivers the message that the
metaphysical shock is not to be stilled. A rift has occurred between
man and the world, between the self and its other, as the collapse of
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