Like its promoters and protagonists, the revolution haunting Europe was a sickness. This was also the thesis of Comte, who invited people to step up against this ‘chronic sickness’, this ‘insidious unrest’, these ‘deceptive hopes’. Along with his diagnosis of the sickness, he also revealed a concern, like Nietzsche, that it might spread among the ‘proletarians’, especially given the state of ‘continual excitement systematically directed towards passions related to their social condition.
Le Bon argued similarly. According to him, revolution represented the ‘triumph’ of ‘atavistic instincts’, ‘instincts of primitive barbarism’, ‘instincts of the ancestral wild’, or the ‘natural instincts transmitted to man from his primitive animality’. Taine also argued in the same way, at least in the interpretation of the crowd psychologist Le Bon, who credited the French historian with having finally clarified the meaning and course of the revolution, starting from its regression to a ‘wild primitive stage’. So it was clear that the key to understanding revolutions was not sociology or political economy, and not even history. Precisely because revolutions were not unleashed by objective contradictions, psychology or psychopathology were called upon to explain them.
But Nietzsche too credited the French historian with explaining the upheavals in France by the passions and history of the ‘modern soul’. As for the German philosopher, so too for Le Bon there was no more effective way of liquidating an author than to demonstrate his lack of psychological penetration. Which was more or less what Le Bon does with Rousseau, ‘a stranger to all psychology’.
Starting from the assertion that the sickness as diagnosed was incurable, as confirmed by its periodic re-emergence, it was easy to slip from psychology to physiology. The same was true of Nietzsche: ‘The means of comfort thought up by beggars and slaves are the thoughts of malnourished, tired or overexcited brains; that is the yardstick by which Christianity and the socialist visionary spirit [Phantasterei] should be judged’.
This led us once again back to Comte. Not by accident, after the Revolution of 1848 and in polemical opposition to it, doctors joined the Société Positiviste, driven by a clear conviction that the revolutionary agitation, ‘decomposition’ and ‘social sickness’ then raging increasingly required an energetic ‘medical intervention [médication]’, as a challenge that could only be met by a ‘regeneration of the medical art’.
For a whole historical period, apart from a few isolated and partial exceptions, revolution had been denounced because of its irreligiosity and atheism. Now this accusation underwent a thoroughgoing reversal: revolution now became synonymous with messianism or a theological-metaphysical stage. Whatever else, it was a symptom of sickness. Thus Comte, Nietzsche and Le Bon ended up perpetuating a tradition of thought that saw in the upheavals in Paris the eruption of delirium or madness, of plague or smallpox, in any case of a sickness of the soul or body.
It was against this tradition that Hegel polemicised: the revolutionary crisis could in no way be equated with ‘an anomaly and a transitory morbid paroxysm’, as the theorists of the Restoration claimed; rather, objective contradictions underlay it; these formed ‘the principle of all self-movement, which consists only in an exhibition of it’.
Against this historical background we can better understand Nietzsche’s development. ‘The barbaric slave class’ posed a terrible threat to culture in the years of The Birth of Tragedy, and then turned into reborn savages in the ‘Enlightenment’ period, to finally become the malformed and those whose lives had turned out badly. Leading this mass inclined to revolt were the innerly sick intellectuals. If continuity was expressed by means of the denunciation of the revolutionary sickness, what changed was the diagnosis of this sickness and the nature of the antidote. In the first and second phase, the so-called ‘metaphysical’ period, or rather the period the ‘enlightened’ Nietzsche called ‘metaphysical’, the revolutionary sickness was synonymous with the hypertrophy of reason and historical consciousness, so the antidote was represented by instinct, instinctive wisdom and super-historical myth. In the period of ‘Enlightenment’, the revolutionary sickness was above all the Schwärmerei in which the religious and political Phantasten or ‘metaphysical and artistic’ people engaged, people that had not yet achieved the ‘manliness’ reached by the rest of humanity.
In the final phase, the revolutionaries were represented as the malformed and those whose lives had turned out badly; their ideology and their behaviour were explained by means not only of psychopathology but also of a physiological component, which sometimes seemed to be inherited (Nietzsche now spoke, not by accident, not only of delirium and hallucination but also of epilepsy).
Nietzsche, the Aristocratic Rebel