“Western civilisation” works? Yes, but be honest about its dark side.


Liberals are undermining western civilisation, writes Professor Robert Tombs (1), April 23 2018, The Times


FEATURED:  Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000. The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture. 1938. Panel no. 5: “Slave trade reaches its height in Haiti, 1730.” Tempera on paper, 29.21 × 48.26 cm. Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, New Orleans.


Not being open about “Western civilisation’s” full story significantly undermines its marketability

  • Professor Tombs is on the right track, but is telling only part of the story, leaving out the dark side of “Western civilisation’s” emergence, its ugly violent gestation.
  • Yes he leaves out the widespread predatory European imperialist / colonial engagement, in the Americas, then Africa and Asia.
  • In particular he leaves out slavery and the slave trade, especially across the Atlantic.
  • So he omits the sad and flagrant hypocritical betrayal of “Western” values by the newly born USA, in its treatment of blacks and native Americans.
  • And he could throw in two world wars in the 20th C and their appalling consequences. Thus WW1 should never have happened, was self-inflicted, caused by deficient collective leadership succumbing to deadly nationalistic ambitions.  .
  • Not being open about these failures “undermines” credibility in selling the virtues of the “Western” liberal-democratic model (WLDM). It gives greater licence to reactionary repressive authoritarian regimes today.
  • Which is a great pity for the WLDM is clearly universally valid as an optimum approach for nations managing their collective affairs in the modern world, both for 1/ demonstrated far superior economic and associated outcomes; and 2/ far superior political outcomes, human rights and freedoms.
  • Importantly the WLDM is ”Western” only because it happened to emerge there. But it’s as valid universally as Newton’s laws.


1/ A “chequered” history – the dark side of “Western civilisation”.

The Professor misses grievous failings in the story of “Western civilisation”.


2/ Slavery

We can start with the marred US “achievement”, the American Revolution, launched by the high-minded Founding Fathers’ Declaration of Rights, Constitution etc ., in the wake of 18th C European Enlightenment.

Except their admirable and just lofty ideals applied only to.. . whites! Like a club it was Members Only.

And this club was not open to slaves or native Americans, at a frighful cost, in the end to both sides, and to this day. Look at the 2017 furore over Confederate statues. Which would not be a lot different to neo-Nazis in Germany wanting Guderian etc on horseback in bronze.

Instead, at a great ultimate cost, the South chose to fight to maintain the bonanza that was their cotton-based economy, underpinned by nearly 4 million slaves and selling to a Europe then booming as the industrial revolution marched on.

Then having fought and lost the Civil War the South, with the acquiescence of the US Federal Government, managed to effectively “re-enslave” the blacks through Jim Crow laws and disenfranchisement, for nigh on another century!

The Civil War was a terrible price paid by the Republic for its hypocrisy.


This US experience was one facet of a much wider economically motivated criminal enterprise, chiefly in the Americas.

Yes the damning truth is that slavery has been a major blight on “Western civilisation”.

How many fancy old houses in Britain were funded by slavery and the slave trade?


4/ Western imperialism.

Slavery was part of the wider blight of Western imperialism, the widespread predatory foreign colonial engagement by European powers especially in the Americas to start, through Spain then Portugal, thence Africa and Asia, through England, France and the Netherlands. Then even the US joined in in a small way, end of the 19th C.


Taking the experience of one frustrated imperial power, look at the appalling post WW2 failure by France, its futile desperation in trying to cling to its substantial colonial footholds in Vietnam then Algeria, at great cost to locals and the French visitors. And the Algerian debacle occurred after the ignominious 1954 defeat in Vietnam, as if they learned nothing in Indo-China.


5/ And two world wars and the rest! Our fault?!

Finally we can throw in the two world wars of the 20th C (ie parts 1 and 2 of the same war), and their appalling consequences, certainly like the Russian Revolution, and the Holocaust, and perhaps too the Depression and the Maoist Revolution.

Yes WW1 was basically self-inflicted by the European powers, should never have happened. It was caused simply by an egregious failure in leadership by the governments of the main European powers, succumbing to the temptations of Old World nationalistic ambitions.

Except now, ironically, these countries were armed with the best the booming newly industrialised economies could provide, in volume and deadly killing efficiency.


6/ The value of “Western civilisation”, “Western” values.

However, the Professor’s main point is right, the value of “Western values”.


Importantly, they are now “Western” only in the sense they happened to emerge there, in the West.

Though their relevance is now universal – like Kepler’s or Newton’s Laws – in the sense they are by far the best practical arrangements Man has devised for management of his collective affairs, within group political entites, within nations.


And for two major reasons.

First, through regulated private free markets and rule of law, they are by far the most successful arrangements for economic outcomes, and associated consequent benefits, in terms of matters like nutrition, shelter, leisure and health,

Second, they provide by far the best outcome for effective freedom of individuals, human rights etc.

But the result, while far superior to all the authoritarian alternatives, will still always be messy, “chequered”, sub-optimal, not least because of a/ necessary adaptation to never-ending ongoing disruptive economic and technological change, b/ reactionary opposition; c/ bad governments and other actors.


7/ But avoiding the dark side of “Western civilisation” has consequences, impairs its marketability, 

It’s not an academic matter.

Not telling the truth, the whole truth, about the history of “Western civilisation”, undermines its wider appeal, especially to countries today plagued by.. ..Old Values!

It allows self-interested opponents in authoritarian countries greater licence in stirring opposition to “Western” values.

So there is a responsibility, even a moral one, to sell the value of “Western civilisation”, and to be honest about its failures on the journey,


Note. 1/  Professor Robert Tombs is author of The English and their History.
Meanwhile the heading “Liberals are undermining western civilisation” uses “Liberals” in a misleading way, namely the confusing American terminology referring to Left wing protagonists.

Seven Types of Atheism – Round the bend.

Seven Types of Atheism – Round the bend, a triumph of lazy Invention over laborious Experience


FEATURED: Allan Ramsay (1713–1784) 1754. Portrait of David Hume (1711-76). Age 43. Oil on canvas, 76.2 × 63.5 cm, Scottish National Portrait Gallery



H4  H5

Steve DiBenedetto (born 1958) 2015, Drone Souvlaki (courtesy Steve DiBenedetto/Derek Eller Gallery); Vasili Kandinsky 1942 Intime Message 49.2 x 49.6 cm tempera, cardboard, Pompidou, Paris

ABOVE:                                 Laborious Experience  

Liberal Modernity: messy, generally not pretty, never finished, but it’s actually working.

BELOW:               Lazy Invention

Religion, Nationalism: tidy, complete, pretty as you like, something for everyone, and possibly an after-life thrown in.



Brilliantly written”, but still rubbish! But not the first time.

So John Gray’s argument – when boiled down, the regulus in the crucible – is that the Atheists are all tarred with the same brush, as those they criticise, the believers.

Thus “your atheism is just another belief”. And therefore also a matter of blind faith, not of evidence, of experience.

So that’s that. Pace Robert Graves, we call this playing with words, such that debate becomes meaningless.

For the argument, the believers believe.

The theists believe in a personal or specific god, the Christians in God who “speaks” through the [hands who wrote the] Bible, the Word of God, and the legion of stories therein. And all the Saints’ stories etc.

Deists present a more elusive target, believe in a vague impersonal divine “cause”.

Atheists say there isn’t a God or gods, and agnostics just say who knows, I don’t.


Bit like two chaps reach a corner, and cannot see round it.

The believer says, Round the corner is a café serving the best coffee and Portuguese tarts.

How does he know? He doesn’t, he just “believes”.

Could just as well be a brass band, resting between performances. All the same to the believer.

The agnostic says, I don’t know, because I can’t see round the bend.

The atheist says, I don’t know either, but there’s not a café serving the best coffee and Portuguese tarts, which of course he cannot know for sure.

But the believer says, Your statements are all just “beliefs” too.

Which makes debate with the believer meaningless because he dismisses anything anyone says. As beliefs, detached from evidence.

So the believer makes his position untestable.

Which is a hallmark of faith.


But the simple reality is that the onus is on the believers, to prove their claims on what’s round the blind corner.

Ball is in their court.

Meanwhile among what the atheists / agnostics “know”, based on long Experience, is:

1/ now all the weird and weirder science of the universe;

and 2/ logical psychological reasons for humans ”believing”, as conscious animals, aware of their mortality, reasons for surrendering to seductive encompassing certainties, however they are determined, and however detached from any supporting evidence;

and 3/ most specific “gods”, in all cultures, past and present, are anthropomorphic.



In a similar fallacious vein the cheerful John Gray also lays into the modern Optimists, like Pinker, Ridley etc, claims their “humanism”, “liberal democracy”, ”progress” are all “God substitutes”.

So “Gray.. believes… humanists are in bad faith. Most of them are atheists, but all they have done is substitute humanity for God. They thus remain in thrall to the very religious faith they reject..”

Then Terry Eagleton in reviewing Gray’s book calls Pinker et al “wide-eyed optimists”, and “.. just as one-sided as the prophets of doom”.

Which of course is total misrepresentation, fashioning a straw-man.

Per David Hume, the “humanists” views, the Optimists views, are based on laborious never ending sifting of Experience.

Not Invention.

They are based on hard work assembling evidence not on wide-eyed mute submission.

Belief is the triumph of lazy Invention over laborious Experience.

Though Mr Eagleton does at least hold Mr Gray’s feet to the fire, labels him the “card-carrying misanthrope for whom human life has no unique importance”. Spoken like an agnostic. Mr Hume would agree.  And “Gray belongs to a group of thinkers who turn to transcendence without content, epitomised by Hollywood spirituality.” Boom boom.


The evidence of the Optimists is extensive, wide-ranging, and emphatic, if necessarily imperfect.

So the modern outcome is also inevitably messy, untidy, always Heraclitean, always changing.

Unlike gods, which arrive box-wrapped, tidy, complete and eternal.

Which is chiefly why believers choose them! No complications.

And so there will always be something to excite that sizeable cohort of Born Worriers, those who will never quite be happy.



So Pinker et al are simply addressing evidence, the outcome of Experience.

And they call the outcome “progress” – epitomised by Liberal Democracy – on the evidence, because on average, generally speaking, conditions at point A are demonstrably better than earlier point B. It is what it is.

Thus, stepping right back to get perspective, it’s fair to say approximately say three-quarters of all people in advanced affluent economies today have never had it so good.

And if they are not happy then they have only themselves to blame!


But meanwhile in NO way do the “Optimists” ever claim that “progress”, such as it is, will necessarily continue, that it’s somehow inevitable.

Nothing is “fated”, and also they are too aware of their evidence!

Like how the French Revolution was commandeered by the quasi-religious Jacobins, then by Napoleon Inc. rampaging about Europe, “reforming” or “modernising” France chiefly to help resource his military enterprises, in his wake installing family in imperial posts.

Like how the calamitous outbreak of WW1 punctured, shattered many decades of “progress”, when massed reactionary throwback nationalism – alas, and ironically, abundantly armed with the best means modern economies could provide – unleashed two world wars (ie parts 1 and 2 of the same war) and, for good measure, the disastrous Russian Revolution, practical ”Comminism”, the after effects of which still plague the world today.


Whatever the “progress” we have achieved, whatever we might keep achieving, the outcome will always be messy, not least because it will always be obstructed by the un-Enlightened Old World, by Tradition loyalties and especially the “religious mindset”, the born believers, broadly defined.

For there will always be the capable and ambitious who see a rewarding career in pandering to this mindset, offering seductive if hollow certainties.

It’s a long honour roll, including: the Pied Piper, Napoleon, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, that Hubbard chap, Jim Jones.

Nietzsche – the Greeks got there first.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900, 56).

  • Overrated.
  • God is dead”? Yes, but the Greeks got there first, and then he only got half way. And the easy half!
  • Less than helpful in what to do next.
  • A reactionary conservative, not remotely in touch with Modernity’s liberal democracy project.


FEATURED: Edvard Munch (1863-1944) 1906. Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche, oil, 201 × 160 cm, Thielska Galleriet, Stockholm


Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) Onions, 1881, Clark Art Institute.

COMMENT: Renoir’s down to earth – grounded – painting is a good antidote for the “brilliant”, intense malady-plagued Nietzsche, epitomising what’s missing from the great thinker’s work, a stroll through a village Monday morning, watching it come to life, pausing for coffee, buying onions on the way home. And garlic.

 In essence.

  • Overrated. Nietzsche was a classic ivory tower intellectual, at home with his tomes, detached from, oblivious to the diverse, complicated fast changing “real world”.
  • God is dead”? Yes, but he only got half way. And the easy half!
  • Furthermore the ancient Greeks (whose works he knew well) got there first, about 2.5 millennia earlier.
  • Thus he left out what’s Man to DO next, sensibly do, after finding there is no God, beyond exercising a strong “will”?! Or the similarly trite, “Become what you are.”
  • In particular he also claimed that with God “dead” there is no right “absolute” answer on what to do, that we are thus completely adrift, facing nihilism, making your / our own rules.
  • He had a dim view of the capacities of the common man, indeed humanity itself, and thus had no regard for the capacity of post-Enlightenment Man to take mature responsibility for running his collective community affairs, once freed of fanciful (Christian) theological guidance.
  • So basically Nietzsche never escaped the philosophical clutches of Tradition, of Man having to seek refuge one way or another in some theological construct. So he was a reactionary conservative, out of touch with, discounting Modernity’s liberal-democratic project, then underway particularly in the English speaking world.
  • Implementing the liberal-democratic project is not easy, is messy, always will be, not least because of self-serving resistance by reactionary, “traditional” interests, especially religious and nationalistic. No quick fix.
  • So end of the day Nietzsche’s greatest failing was irresponsibility, recognising that with freedom comes responsibility (ie the core message of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, restated by G. B.Shaw), ie in particular responsibility for devising sound Government,
  • But at least he saw through Christianity (the Church), how it devalues, demotes Man, for its own ends.
  • So why did he make the big splash, if after all his views really not that radical or novel? Because a/ he had his say at a very opportune time, as the challenges of Modernity were evident; b/ he said it colourfully; c/ he then became famous / infamous after being practically adopted by 20th C Fascist dictators; and d/ his fierce walrus-moustached face.
  • He then became controversial when was keenly appropriated, promoted, exploited by self-serving Fascist forces.
  • Discerning the “real” Nietzsche is harder because of his aphoristic dot point writing style, then his sister’s later self-serving changes to some works, adulteration.
  • He sold poorly in his lifetime but became famous in his after-life.


Context historical?

Two key backdrops were;

1/ Germany on the up.

2/ Modernity marching on, the industrial revolution gathering steam.


Quick run through.

1/ God is dead. And we killed him! This just means traditional religion fails as an authentic life philosophy.

Also he specially criticised Christianity for its notion of original sin, devaluing Man, including its repression of sexuality.

Also he attacked faith as closing Man’s mind, rejecting curiosity. “Faith, according to Nietzsche, means not wanting to know what is true.”

If you wish to strive for peace of soul and happiness, then believe,’ he wrote to his sister; ‘if you wish to be a disciple of truth, then inquire.’

So rightly he said religion is a cop out, eg faith = closing one’s mind, not wanting to know truth, denying curiosity

BUT the Greeks there long before in undoing gods, a bunch of them were. They saw through the G thing, saw gods merely as Man creations.


2/ BUT it worried him because he saw the “death” of God as the end of moral absolutes!?

So regarding a/ rules for living, and b/ meaning in life, he saw all as relative now, hence we are “Beyond good and evil”, facing a “consequent gaping hole in human existence”, thus making ours a nihilistic age.

Thus he discounted any attempts at an objective truth, claimed all knowledge is “contingent and conditional”, always shifting, a view now called “perspectivism.


3/ so WHERE to now? Here is Nietzsche’s major error? Lapse.

He just said, tautologically, life is what you make it.

For an authentic life you must DO something, man should TRY.

A favorite motto of Nietzsche, taken from Pindar, reads: “Become what you are.””.

But become what?

The closest he got was to suggest… must have WILL power.  Which is trite? Even self-evident.

The will to power”, ‘live dangerously’ (appealed to Benito Mussolini), as – Übermensch /‘the superman’, ‘Become who you are’, ‘Strife is the perpetual food of the soul(1862).

And will was weak or strong. And “The man of strong will and clear sight was the Übermensch (literally the ‘Overman’ (from Thus Spoke Zarathustra), the man who has overcome himself, often rendered as the ‘Superman’). Such a one was almost a god. “


And in DOING something YOU then make own rules/morality.

Since now “no set purpose, and therefore we had to devise our own.”

“‘Man should sooner have the void for his purpose than be void of purpose’; if we have our why we can put up with any how”.

He tried to define good and evil. ‘What is good? All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man. What is bad? All that proceeds from weakness.’

“..by the mid-1880s, [some see] Nietzsche’s outlook was almost theological, though he had replaced God with the Superman, divine grace by will-power, and eternal life with eternal recurrence. “

This was HIS view, but vague, adds what for common man??


So.. “ freedom was the essence of his philosophy – and this, as George Bernard Shaw, a Nietzschean thinker, once wrote, ‘means responsibility’. (He added, perceptively, ‘That is why most men dread it’.)”

Here GB Shaw, for once, was dead right.


4/ Nietzsche also stressed the primacy of change, everything always in flux, again borrowed from the Greeks, Heraclitus. And which again is trite? Self evident?


5/ so in summary Nietzsche only got half way, and the easy half!

Yes God dead and yes Man should seek truth, an authentic life.

But beyond that he had NOTHING constructive to offer.

And leaving others to misuse his ideas.


6/ so in particular he MISSED the whole Modern notion of liberal order, of devising / implementing a collective rules based democratic process, Man running his affairs.

He saw liberalism as “herd mentality”. He did not trust the masses, had “lofty contempt” for them.

“…he decided that liberalism was a product of the ‘herd mentality’” And “He cast scorn on the ‘non-sense of numbers’ and the ‘superstition of majorities’’‘.


7/ Basically, fundamentally, Nietzsche never escaped the philosophical clutches of Tradition, of Man having to seek refuge one way or another in some confected theological construct. He was trapped in the past.

7a/ no confidence in Man, the common man.

In particular in looking at implications for wider society he saw “too many people lived inauthentic lives – they were ‘human, all too human’ (meaning weak, cowardly, self-deceptive, petty, selfish, lazy, small-minded, ignorant, dishonest, malicious, pathetic).”

But more than that his thought was antiquated, unscientific, “Nietzsche believes that aristocratic nature is to some degree bred into us, so that some of us are simply born better off than others”.

Are thieves and villains proportionately more common further down the socio-economic ladder?


7b/ So  he favoured an elitist anti-democratic take on history. He wrote of “master-morality” and “slave-morality”, former as “good”, coming from “a warrior aristocracy and other ruling castes”, versus the latter as “bad”, “a reaction to master-morality”. He sees “Modern culture is defined by a tension between two kinds of morality”.

“…  it is clear from his own writings that Nietzsche wanted the victory of master morality. He linked the “salvation and future of the human race with the unconditional dominance” of master morality and called master morality “a higher order of values, the noble ones, those that say Yes to life, those that guarantee the future”. Just as “there is an order of rank between man and man,” there is also an order of rank “between morality and morality “.

This is all crazy. Nietzsche stands as a good old fashioned reactionary.


8/ Other notions.

8a/ “Eternal return” / “eternal recurrence”

Eternal return” (also known as “eternal recurrence“) is a hypothetical concept that posits that the universe has been recurring, and will continue to recur, in a self-similar form for an infinite number of times across infinite time or space.” From The Gay Science.

This talks to his preoccupation with change, which he found in the Greeks.

Does this add much?


8b/ “Apollonian” versus the “Dionysian

Artistic creation depends on a tension between two opposing forces, which Nietzsche terms the “Apollonian” and the “Dionysian”. From The birth of tragedy. “Apollo represents harmony, progress, clarity and logic, whereas Dionysus represents disorder, intoxication, emotion and ecstasy.

Which the poet Hölderlin had spoken of?

A useful observation.


9/ Nietzsche later was appropriated by others for their ends, especially by assorted nationalists, thence 20th C fascist dictatorships.

Yes Hitler read him, then feted Nietzsche’s sister Elizabeth, who did promote her brother’s application to Fascism.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra sold 140,000 copies in 1917.

But Nietzsche didn’t help, eg

You should love peace as a means of new wars,’ he wrote; ‘and the short peace more than the long … I do not exhort you to peace but to victory.’

And “and the man who fired the first shot in the war, the assassin Gavrilo Princip, admired Nietzsche and was given to quoting his works, especially the line: ‘Insatiable as flame, I burn and consume myself’.”

Was he speaking metaphorically? “When Nietzsche had talked of waging war, he had in fact meant fighting against one’s own weaknesses, self-deceptions and follies. He did not expect to be taken literally,”



10/ But Nietzsche was mostly not “political”, a nationalist, not an anti-Semite? Rather, per contra, he “hated the German militarism after 1871 Unification”.

The new Reich, he said, is the ‘politicisation and thus destruction of the true German spirit’, which to his mind was cultural.

And 1887, ‘He wrote in February 1887 that ‘I have no respect left for present-day Germany, bristling, hedgehog-fashion, with arms. It represents the most stupid, the most depraved, the most mendacious form of the German spirit that ever was’.”

He “scorned” Wagner’s love of Teutonic myths, his nationalism and anti-Semitism.

So broadly speaking we cannot blame him for the German 20th C rampage.

“ If thinkers are to be held responsible for glorifying war… then those figures – from John Ruskin to Max Weber – who glorified real war must be indicted before N. Nietzsche’s views were not ‘militarism run mad’.. they were individualism run mad.” 

Irony that “his individualism – which in political terms equates with anarchism – would have been even more opposed to the far greater collectivised tyranny of totalitarianism. Nevertheless both Mussolini and Hitler admired him.”

Hitler too was impressed. He read him as a prisoner in Landsberg (‘my university’), or so he said, and later gave Mussolini a copy of the collected works for his sixtieth birthday. … In 1934 Hitler travelled to Weimar to pay his respects to Nietzsche’s sister, Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche, presenting her with a huge bouquet of flowers and speaking of his ‘unchanging reverence’ for her ‘estimable brother’.

But “the version of Nietzsche of which many fascists approved was that painted by his sister in “The Will to Power”. Elizabeth evidently did have extreme nationalist, racist and fascist sympathies, and her husband more so. “


11/ A thought. It seems likely Nietzsche’s big health problems – right through life, including syphilis, which finished him?  – drove, influenced his thought? Eg his affection for Schopenhauer and especially his stress on WILL, on the individual taking the reins.

Perhaps Nietzsche had to cultivate heroic will-power in order to avoid succumbing completely to ill health…. the hero of his great book of 1885, Zarathustra, affirms life nobly, joyfully and sometimes even ecstatically, despite all its problems and disappointments. “

Influence too his idea of ‘eternal recurrence’, “one of his most curious late ideas…”


12/ Interesting, Nietzsche’s tale helps remind us that Liberal democracy is very much an English achievement, emerged there, with help from the Dutch. So the whole notion of Democracy was radical in Europe then, offended many conservatives.

Though Greeks were there 2500 years before.

So the real English achievement was developing a practical working replacement for God!

Though the outcome will always be messy, a work in progress, never complete, never come boxed, wrapped and ribboned.

Thus Man can find Meaning, find collective moral standards.

If he works at it.

And arguably these “values” are ABSOLUTE, have universal applicability, are not relative, anything goes.

Thus Franklin Delano Roosevelt was clearly heading in this direction in his famous early 1941 State of the Union “Four Freedoms” speech, free speech, free religion and freedom from want and fear. Not a bad start,

Unfortunately his grand post-war vision (which later included the United Nations) was brutally hijacked after WW2 by not one but two “Communist” dictatorships, first the USSR, giving us the 44 year long Cold War, and second, from 1949, “Communist” China, which famously changed economic direction after Mao’s death, but remains staunchly authoritarian. This sad outcome also gave us the Korean and Vietnam wars.

Both states are of course far more nationalistic than they are “Communist”. Thus their evident observed preoccupations do not extend to liberating the oppressed proletariat.

And around 75 years after WW2 these two antagonistic anti-democratic major powers are still with us, still allergic to liberal-democracy.


Influences on Nietzsche?

Greek philosophers, especially pre-Socratic Heraclitus, that all is change, “who stressed competition / emotion rather than mere logic”;

The Greek materialist thinkers, “who denied the existence of anything metaphysical (including a self separate from the body)”; also “Darwin and other evolutionists, who saw no reason to presuppose the existence of a creator”.

Schopenhauer (Mr Pessimism, Schopenhauer, only death will end your misery!) impressed, was a major stimulus to his interest in philosophy, partly because of his pessimistic outlook on life. “It’s best to envisage the world as a sort of penal colony, insisted Schopenhauer: after all, life is ‘a disappointment and a cheat’ (words he wrote in English), death a welcome oblivion”. ‘No rose without a thorn,’ he quipped, ‘but many a thorn without a rose.’

This appealed to the suffering Nietzsche?

Schopenhauer saw us in two worlds, the superficial “world as representation”, which we see, and the “world as will,” which lies behind the senses, and is the “real world”

The other major influence was Wagner, whom Nietzsche met in Switzerland. ‘When I am near him,’ he wrote in August 1869, ‘I feel as if I am near the divine.’ They quarrelled in the late 1870s, like over Wagner’s nationalism and ant—Semitism, but Nietzsche took from him and his music was the “notion of the hero”.



From a conservative family. He was born in 1844 at Röcken, near Leipzig, in rural Prussian Saxony, son of a Lutheran pastor, both his grandfathers were Lutheran ministers. His father (who died 1849) was a royalist, called him Friedrich Wilhelm after the King of Prussia. Bright early, educated in Naumburg, at Pforta boarding school and at the universities of Bonn and Leipzig. Then, at the young age of 24 (1868), he became Professor of Philology (specialising in classical Greek language and culture) at the University of Basel in Switzerland.

Awkward socially? Contracted syphilis early?

He had suffered migraine headaches and poor eyesight from early years, volunteered to serve as a nursing orderly in the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, he soon collapsed from dysentery and diphtheria. He was never really well again.

By 1879 N’s health so poor he retired on a small pension from Basel University, began travelling – to Germany, Switzerland, Italy, France – living simply, incessantly writing.

In January 1880 he was suffering a ‘semi-paralysis which makes it hard for me to talk’ and also ‘furious attacks’ which had him vomiting for three days and nights at a stretch

On 3 January 1889, in Turin, he “saw a cabman beating his horse”, intervened, “when he retained consciousness, he was no longer sane”.

For the last 11 years of his life, from the age of 44, he was looked after by his mother and then his sister, Elizabeth.. for the last two years he could not speak. He died on 25 August 1900”.

Yet even before 1889 there were signs that Nietzsche was becoming unbalanced. Self-obsessed. His short autobiography Ecce Home (‘Behold the man’, words used by Pilate about Christ), published in 1888, contains chapters with the titles ‘Why I am so wise’, ‘Why I am so clever’, ‘Why I write such excellent books’, ‘Why I am a destiny’.


Understanding his work?

Problems, 1/ his sister? “The problems of [understanding] N.. compounded by .. his sister edited his surviving notes, containing ideas he’d rejected, into an often misleading work, The Will to Power, published 1901.”

2/ his writing style. “..  in his prime, Nietzsche sometimes wrote in poems, parables, aphorisms, riddles and metaphors which are often difficult to fathom”.

The “return of Empire? No. Modernity marches on.

How to grasp a 5 million year moment for species “Homo”?

FEATURED:  A modern Faust.


Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-69) 1563, detail from Dulle Griet (Mad Meg). Oil on panel, 115 cm × 161 cm, Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp

COMMENT: a visual metaphor for Modernity? Remorseless, unstoppable, robotically fanatical, sans sentiment in confronting, swallowing Tradition?


If a man will begin with certainties he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts he shall end in certainties (Francis Bacon (1561-1626), ie the certainty of uncertainty.

The humanist has four leading characteristics – curiosity, a free mind, belief in good taste, and belief in the human race. English writer, EM Forster (1879-1970). Not a bad checklist.


The liberal “West”? Very much alive.

Yes the old liberal “West” has “problems”, and always will, coping with:

  • adjustment from never ending economic and technological change,
  • dissent from within from its own fractious reactionary elements, hostage to the Siren-call of Tradition.
  • and reactionary states – run by conflicted elites – hostile to the liberal-democratic model, like China, Russia etc.


While the model is called “Western” that only refers to its origins. Like quantum physics and other scientific constructs the precepts are now relevant universally.


But the liberal heart is still beating, and remains inherently strong, sustained simply, ultimately, by popular appetite for democracy and freedom.

So at least it’s backing the winning team, ie listening to voters who can access a rules based competitive liberal democratic system.

And the reactionary authoritarian states will keep paying a price for their misguided loyalty to tradition,not least economically.

The cork is out of the bottle – freedom is loosed, abroad – and will never go back.


People wonder why Modernity’s obvious success (material, health, freedom) has not left people generally happier. “Tradition” left people poor and powerless but its slower pace and comfortable (if illusonal) “ideological”certainties appealed to many, especially now in hindsight as bad memories of it faded.

So Modernity’s biggest single challenge in seeing off “tradition” is enabling people to still find “spiritual” meaning or purpose.


The return of Empire? No. No match for “Modernity”.

Mr Kaplan (1) got Iraq wrong (but kept good company in so doing), and it now seems likely he’s dead wrong again, in his The Return of Marco Polo’s World (Robert D. Kaplan  Random House,2018). James Traub reviewed him in the WSJ (March 2018) headlining thus:Empires Strike Back. A combination of state failure, globalization and technological change has eroded state sovereignty and begun to restore an older world.”

Mr Kaplan is right to discern nostalgic / reactionary “Imperial” inclinations in countries like.. Iran, Russia and China.

But end of the day they are all losers, on the wrong side of history, resisting, recoiling from Modernity, from the rational open-eyed free thinking liberal democratic model.

It’s costing them, and will keep costing them.

Note:1. Return of Marco Polo’s World’ Review: The Empires Strike Back. A combination of state failure, globalization and technological change has eroded state sovereignty and begun to restore an older world. By James Traub  March 5, 2018  WSJ.  And 9 march 2018. The Return of Marco Polo’s World By Robert D. Kaplan  Random House, 280 pages, $28


China? Paying a price for not liberalising.

The prognosis for “Communist” China is complex, other than to say, whatever economic progress to date, its failure to liberalise is costing them..

Many are pessimistic for China’s economy (like Carl Minzner, End of an Era: How China’s Authoritarian Revival Is Undermining Its Rise”, 2018).  But China meanwhile has marched on, confounding many “experts”, apparently still growing at well over 5% pa, and now off a much larger base.

It is certainly authoritarian / autocratic, but the regime does remain strongly focussed on (now cleaner) economic growth, doing what it can to foster this. Rationally they understand the economic value of “Western” liberal practices like competitive markets and rule of law, see how well it works in Chinese flavoured jurisdictions like Taiwan and Singapore, where Chinese people are economically incentivised.

So they’re trying to have best of both worlds, to keep a lid on people’s democratic aspirations but grow the economy. So within the constraints of an authoritarian political system they do what they can to encourage a positive economic outcome, through promoting foreign trade, infrastructure and innovation, and also (notwithstanding obvious constraints) “rule of law”.

The contrast with its large western and also authoritarian neighbour Russia could hardly be sharper.

But end of the day contradictions abound.

Stepping right back, the blunt and unhappy reality for China – or rather its “Communist” leadership – is that they are a nostalgic reactionary cast, out of step with the remorseless march of Modernity.

The illiberal authoritarian system will inevitably mean a poorer economic result than otherwise. So end of the day “Communist” China will pay a price for not liberalising, economic and political.

And who cares recently if Mr Xi stays there indefinitely? It’s the same authoritarian system, and not as if his successor would be in any way voted by the people. And who cares if Mr Xi wants to promote his alternative model. Who else wants it? Look what autocracy is doing for economic miracles like Russia and Iran.

It’s called “Communist”, referring back to Lenin, Marx, Socialism etc, but that’s just a useful ideological construct to support a rigidly authoritarian system which sees itself far more as Chinese than working for grand dreams of a son of Trier.


And other “Empires” like Russia? Paying an even bigger price.

Russia and Iran are both paying a high economic price for their belligerent thuggish, corrupt, reactionary kleptocracies, much higher than China, which is at least giving economic progress some priority.


The wider debate: whereto Modernity? The improbable 5 million year moment for species “homo”.

The topic goes to the heart of the biggest global polico-economic question of all today: the fate of Modernity in the modern world, child of the Enlightenment Project.


This goes to the contest between the competitive liberal-democratic (LD) model – which is the basic organisational framework of Modernity – versus the long running traditional authoritarian model, where a ruling group, clique, caste, rules the common masses, through:

1/ a self-serving supportive validating ideology / mythology, especially traditionally, religion, and later nationalism, especially post the French Revolution, ie after the Church and traditional monarchies were finally sidelined, and authoritarian governments then appealed to their own ethnic culture/history for legitimacy.

Both models, religious and secular, take advantage of profound popular appetite for “spiritual” sustenance.

And 2/ force, security forces: enlisted and paid enough, to repel dissenters.


Meanwhile, after a long and bitter and violent gestation, across 3 centuries, seeing off strenuously reactionary foes (especially religious, then including supporters of slavery and imperialism, and visceral nationalism), at great cost (like the 30 Years War, the Napoleonic Wars,  then not one but two world wars), the LD model is now out of the bag and established in the “West”, in Europe whence it emerged, and in Europe’s offshoot the US, but now, post WW2, in other parts too, in parts of Asia and South America.


The LD model has been hugely successful, in three respects (eg refer to host of relevant books, lately like “Enlightenment Now: A Manifesto for Science, Reason, Humanism, and Progress”,  Steven Pinker, 2018, Allen Lane):

1/ in politics, allowing meaningful full franchise democratic political freedoms, also great strides in human rights .

2/ the economy. Freedom is powerfully effective economic medicine, through harnessing Man’s creative abilities, in a collective competitive system, overseen, managed by democratic governments.

And 3/ health outcomes, with dramatic boost in longevity.

Manged competition among economic agents is perhaps the single key driver of economic progress, as it was for the success of post Bronze Age classical Greece..

The comparative economic experience of the two systems evident in divided Germany, in China and Korea illustrates the difference starkly.


Modernity is a dramatic and unparalleled state of affairs. The last few centuries, continuing fiercely now, is a 5 millon year moment for species Homo.

So it’s no wonder a species which has been evolving that long may have trouble adjusting to such a sudden and  drastic change in affairs.


Yes there are “problems”. There always are.

The outcome is never perfect, is always sub-optimal, especially coping with:

1/ adjustment from never ending economic change the inherent processes of “creative destruction”,

2/ and reactionary dissent, sometimes exploiting popular appetite for “tradition”, “meaning in life”.


So yes there is now opposition, resistance:

  • Yes from states outside, notably from China, not least for its size, and also Russia, Iran
  • And from within LD states too, reactionary forces, citing tradition. Yes religious and nationalistic.
  • And there is always (criminal) opposition from Bad People.


Modernity’s Faustian deal brings its biggest challenge? Answering life “purpose”.

Modernity’s biggest single challenge in seeing off, fighting off “tradition” and its ardent proponents is enabling people to still find “spiritual” meaning or purpose.

Tradition”in one guise or another supplies easy spiritual moorings, the simple encompassing (if delusional) spiritual “quick fix”, usually or typically religious but also for many simply loyalty to some notion of human group: community, tribe, nation, communing with home-land and ancestors one way or another, formally and informally.

Anti-liberal states, institutional religions, and nefarious charlatans all, exploit for their own ends these ready DIY spiritual answers to pervasive curiosity about the circumstances of existence.


Modernity’s millstone is that it upends easy existential answers.

The door to Modernity brings Man to the Faustian turnstiles, to Man’s modern grand Faustian predicament: he trades “spiritual certainty” for freedom!

Freedom brings extraordinary knowledge, opportunities, material abundance, antibiotics, but the price of this knowledge, at least for the open-eyed, diligent and intellectually honest is – paradoxically – uncertainty! The price is profound mystery, awareness of the limits of knowledge, and thus surrendering the certainty offered by Man’s spiritual sand castles, surrendering submission to some seductive carefully human fabricated. self-serving, but delusional belief system, whether based on religion or or community and location (nationalism etc).


Man is left living with mystery, however exquisite, tantalising.


It’s an important reason many people still “worry”, apparently “irrationally”, despite the extraordinary progress – economic and political – loudly recorded by writers like Steven Pinker.


BERT: Bill’s Eternal Ripple Theory

But there is a curious possibility,perhaps awaiting a Nobel Prize to help confirm.

Every life, short or long, high or low, accumulates manifold thoughts and actions, which may echo, ripple`forever after, somehow,somewhere.

Leave some manner of footprint.

So we may live on after all, in some infinitesimal way.


Meanwhile the cork is out of the bottle, for good.

End of the day, EOD, there is strong popular, universal, appetite for rules-based “democracy”, for responsibly discharged freedom.

Arguably too this is now reinforced especially by increasing education, globally, everywhere,  opening eyes, which, importantly, chips away at the appeal of traditional authority.

Education is a problem for states hostile to liberal democracy. Thus success in a modern economy means having educated, literate workers, but such education will only open popular eyes to liberal-democracy.

The cork is out of the bottle – freedom is loosed, abroad – and will never go back.


Though the practical task of keeping the LD model in shape never ceases, educating the next generation and fighting off multiple antagonists.


The reactionary states, where ruling elites reject the LD model out of power and financial self-interest, are not immune to the “disease” of freedom:

  • They have to cope with dissent triggered by popular democratic aspirations,
  • and they will pay a big ongoing economic price for suppressing it.

Peter Doig meets Kazimir Malevich?


A serendipitous similarity – 1991 meets 1908.


FEATURED: Look, Vistula is Near! Poster. 1914. Lithograph. 51.3 x 33.40 cm.




Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935). Landscape with Yellow House. 1906-1907. Oil on cardboard. 19.2 x 29.5 cm The Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.


Peter Doig (b. 1959). 1991, THE ARCHITECT’S HOME IN THE RAVINE, oil on canvas, 200 by 250 cm (source: Sothebys etc)


There is some striking similarity between this small early (1908) “Impressionist” Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935), just before his Russian-hued Cubo-Futurist adventures, and this distinctive much larger 1991 work by Peter Doig (b. 1959), which just sold for Stg14.4m through Sothebys.

Mr Doig is now feted by the feverish mainstream commercial art market- and not without reason, for works which are distinctive, colorful and figurative enough to lure visually curious sentient- where “discovered” painters become Big Bucks, fuelled by:

1/ the global wealth generated by the ever growing modern economies (especially now Asian economies, with an aggregate population now near 3 billion?),

2/ thus by collectors accessing this vast wealth to indulge in a little psychologically rewarding Narcissistic-flavoured Conspicuous Consumption (T. Veblen? Cf JK Galbraith’s books),

3/ and by art fashions they succumb to, validate, with a little earnest financially incentivised help from the commercial art houses.



Emil Nolde – the lash not the latte!


Emil Nolde (nee Hansen) (1867-1956, 79)

The lash not the latte! Die Peitsche nicht die Latte!


The message not the aesthetic?

One off. A singular „primitive“ German Expressionist painter.

Not a „nice man“? No cosmopolitian multiculturalist: a pious, reactionary, pro-Nazi outsider.

But some striking modern paintings. If on his favoured old themes.

Nolde fits a 600 year tradition of serious, slightly mad, moralising, reactionary German art?



1920. Tänzerin und Harlekin (Dancer and Harlequin). 5 x 100 cm, oil on canvas (burlap).Nolde Foundation.    COMMENT: at age 53, one of Nolde’s later (last?) quirky figure paintings, again invokes dancing.


1909. Wildly Dancing Children (Enfants dansant sauvagement). 73 X 88, Kiel, Kunsthalle


1921 Paradise Lost (Paradies verloren), oil on canvas, 86.5 x 100.5 cm, Nolde Stiftung Seebüll.

COMMENT: two signature Nolde works, an early Post-Impressionist cum Expressionist take on a timeless human theme, Dionysian revel, and a shell-shocked Aryan Eve in a later rowdy account of the foundation story for Christianity, the title making his point, a work which for some reason the Church was not keen to acquire.


Claude Monet (1840-1926). c1868. Coucher de soleil, pastel on paper, 21.8 x 35.8 cm. Est. GBP 200-300k.

COMMENT:  Here is a Christies’ offering 28 February 2018, London, a simple small proto-Expressionist work by Monet, painted in the late 1860s, 6 years before Impressionism was officially launched, and about 60 years before Nolde was still painting much the same way by the Baltic.


 1/ Summary

Emil Nolde was something else, different. For a brief spell before and around WW1 the Danish-German artist was a distinctly original Expressionist painter.

But as a leading Modernist he was also a strange if not unique mix of eye-catching art, a taciturn personality, little or no formal art training, and starkly un-modern“ old ideas, like old-time Christian religion and anti-Semitic pro-Nazi German nationalism.

But as such he arguably also fits well within a 600 year long tradition of slightly mad, moralising reactionary German art? The message not the aesthetic? „Die Botschaft nicht die Ästhetik?“

Though to be fair his copious colorful Baltic skyscapes and flowers showed he relaxed nearer the aesthetic pole.


His creative apogee was brief, only about a decade, c1909-19.

Appropriately, after finding his feet around 1905-08 (meeting the Die Brücke group, 1906-07, and Edvard Munch in 1906) Nolde in mid 1909 abruptly kick started his distinctive vigorous Expressionist style through religion. After recovering from illness that summer he embarked on a sequence of striking Expressionist religious paintings, like La Pentecôte (Pentecost), The Last Supper and Verspottung (Mocking of Christ by the Soldiers). In 1911/12 followed the huge 9 panel,  The Life of Christ (centre panel 220.5 x 193.5 cm; the side panels each 100 x 86 cm), and 1915, the powerful compressed The Burial.

This theme then didn’t get much stranger than his wild 1912 tryptych on the unfamiliar St Mary of Egypt, an obscure and bizarre 7th C AD misogynistic story which also illustrates the Church’s problem with women. Also in 1912 came his iconic  woodcut The Prophet of 1912. A decade later he unloaded with a shell-shocked Eve in Paradise Lost and a gory Martyrdom triptych.

From this religious passion he broadened his ambit to encompass what we might call primeval irrational urges, so striking too for elements of the primeval Dionysian madness within was a clutch of frantic dance themed images after 1910, and then many of his figure groups, like The Missionary (1912, painted before his New Guinea visit), Boy with a Big Bird (1912), Soldiers (1913), and Encounter on the beach (1920),

Then his creative flame waned after c1921? Beyond his mid 50s. He still painted a lot – many figures (portraits, small groups, some recalling post WW1 Francis Picabia?), many landscapes (sea and sky), and some flowers (lots of poppies and sunflowers) – mostly small and sketchy, in his trademark patchy colour-mad style. But mostly he was treading water, particulaly once proscribed by the Nazis.


„Primitive“ fits Emil Nolde, like his uncosmopolitan reactionary view of life: his strong attachment to his Christian faith, to his stark North Sea rural coastal home in far north Germany (a “regionalist“, Peter Selz, MOMA, 1963), and also to anti-Semitic German nationalism, later including a strong allegiance to the Nazis.

Which meant of course he was much closer to the then popular mindset than most of his avant-garde artist contemporaries.


And primitive fits his distinctive Expressionist painting style, developed especially when around age 42 he found his metier, Expressionist „modernist“ feet, just before WW1, c1909-14: coarse, ragged and colorful shapes, cropped, close up / in your face compositions, mask-like faces, figures with an element of the visceral, the grotesque and the crazy.

His 1913-14 ethnological visit to German New Guinea only whetted his existing appetite for the „primitive“, for he was already painting pictures of masks 2 years before, in 1911


He was an odd Modernist too in being older than his main contemporaries when he hit his straps around 1909 at age 42, except notably Kandinsky (who was a year older), also another Russian, fellow Expressionist Alexander Jawlensky (3 years older).


Like most people Nolde sought company and recognition, but his awkward personality constrained social engagement, and hence also his art training. For a time he was in the mix with other avant-garde painters (eg in particular when invited into Die Brucke, 190607), but temperamentally as well as politically he was out of step, the crusty old loner who quickly retreated from The Bridge, then from Berlin back to the rural Baltic.


His odd cocktail of circumstances became darkly comical after the Nazis took control in Germany early 1933 and especially when in 1937, unsurprisingly, the authorities deemed his colorful confronting modernism „degenerate“, showed him with other „degenerates“, and confiscated over 1000 works. The puzzled older artist (now near 70) pleaded for leniency, stressed his long running earnest and sincere support for Hitler and his Government!


2/ The lash not the latte? Die Peitsche nicht die Latte! The message not the aesthetic? Nolde fits in a 600 year long tradition of slightly mad, reactionary German art?

Here’s an original observation?

In seeking a wider perspective Nolde can be seen at least loosely as part of Germany (including the diverse collection of statelets it was pre the 19th C unification) having a long tradition of taking its art seriously, laboring the message not the aesthetic, and mostly favouring a reactionary nostalgic purpose, quasi-spiritual even, be it trumpeting Christianity or later calling on olden pagan Northern myths.

This  is head down not feet up art.


So Germany was slow to accept the emerging artistic and cultural thrust of the Renaissance, swam against the tide, particularly in the 14th and 15th centuries. Thus it contributed disproportionately to the so-called International Gothic art style, which tried to sustain the unnatural stylised Mediaeval painting, applied almost exclusively to asserting Christian iconography and per contra the radical shift to naturalism and realism which started in Italy late 13th / early 14th C with Pisano and Giotto.

This is evident for example in work of painters like the Master of the Třeboň Altarpiece  (active 1380-90, Prague), Master Francke (c1380-c1440), a German painter born in Lower Rhine, and the Master of the Karlsruhe Passion (active c1435-65), working in Strasbourg area.

Later, paradoxically, around 1500, as the High Renaissance was abroad in Italy and the Reformation was about to erupt across Europe, this anachronistic, reactionary neo-Mediaeval approach was then emphatically sustained by two stridently distinctive painters, Heironymous Bosch (1450-1516) in Flanders and Matthias Grünewald (c. 1470 – 1528) mostly in Mainz and Frankfurt. Both are probably far better known today than in their time, for their respective arresting contributions, their garish, visionary nightmarish proto-Surrealist imaginatons:  Bosch in a unique one man admonitory c20 year moral crusade on behalf of the Roman Church, and Grunewald for one mighty religious work, his 11 panels for the Isenheim Altarpiece (c1506-16) focussing on the life of Christ.  So both focussed exclusively on a didactic religious purpose, and both did so through graphic unnatural expression. Bosch’s younger contemporary, Hans Baldung Grien (c. 1484 – 1545), an apprentice to Durer, later based Strasbourg, also had a unique style and content, which also strayed into unnatural imagination and fantasy.

On the other hand the approach of the great virtuosic Albrecht  Durer (1471-1528) – based mainly Nuremberg but broadened particularly by visits to Italy (1494-95 and 1505-07), also the Netherlands (1520-21) – was more equivocal, painted many religious images but avoided the ominous dark Boschian approach.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (no „h“) (c1525-1569) was a major Flemish artist in the mid 16th C, in the wake of the Reformation, now highly regarded and popular after about 3 centuries of neglect, and who died in his mid 40s, active for only c14 years.  Bruegel painted religious works but mostly set in wintry Netherlands landscapes, early ones of which looked back Joachim Patinir (1483-1524, also Antwerp-based), except for 3 paintings c1562, where he did briefly follow Bosch’s visionary nightmarish model.  Like Bosch a moralising theme threads his work, but in secular rural settings and he is now popular mostly for realistic depictions of peasant life.


Two other famous modern German artists, both slightly younger – Otto Dix (1891-1969) and George Grosz (1893-1959) – certainly fit the tradition of serious minded German art, Die Peitsche, in their fierce satirical assault on post WW1 Weimar Germany, through their graphic Expressionist leaning stylised realism (cf New Objectivity). But clearly they spoke from the other end of the political spectrum to Nolde, and were relentless, taking no time off for aesthetically therapeutic landscapes and still lives.


The slightly younger close contemporary Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956) was another German (American) painter who applied a modern artistic style to an anti-modern nostalgic purpose, leaving a raft of quasi-spiritual (Christian) aethereal luminous depictions of towns and churches, and seascapes and boats. But Feininger’ modern style was quite different toNolde, a much softer personal variant of Cubo-futurism, and incorporating a much louder aesthetic dimension than most of Nolde’s work.

However Nolde’s grotesque figures from his peak phase near and about WW1 do bear some resemblance to the distinctive elongated cartoon like figures in much of Feininger’s early painting (c 1910), which he carried over from his immediate prior career as a newspaper cartoonist.

On the other hand Feininger was far more conventional and social than Nolde, engaging far more closely with the art world, like his stint teaching with the Bauhaus.


Another distinctive Expressionist painter who Nolde met (in Munich?) and exhibited with, and whose work bears some comparison with Nolde, is the Russian expatriate (ie like Kandinsky) Alexei von Jawlensky (1864-1941).

Like Nolde he was also a late starter, but from very different circumstances. From a well off and well connected family he abandoned a military career for art. He was not overtly religious like Nolde though he was loosely “spiritual”and his many distinctive portraits / heads do draw on “traditional” roots, both Russian / Byzantine icons and “primitive” African sculpture.

Also, conspicuously, unlike Kandinsky (whose strong spiritualism, as for Mondrian, derived from the nonsensical strictures of Theosophy), neither Nolde nor Jawlensky crossed the line to pure abstraction.


Not surprisingly Nolde’s striking work has left its mark.

One can recognise American Modernist Marsden Hartley (1877-1943) in some of Nolde’s work (like Soldiers of 1913, which work Hartley may have seen in Germany near and at the start of WW1?

Also a couple of his works (like 1911, Figures exotiques 2 and Nature morte aux masques) seem to point directly to current market favourite Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-88).


3/ The reactionary Modernist: a keen Nazi supporter and a Christian.

Nolde was an unusual Expressionist artist.

His painting style from c1909 was radical but unlike most of his cosmopolitan and politically progressive avant-garde colleagues he was staunchly reactionary. His strong traditional religious beliefs and conservative political views were directly out of step.

From a young age Nolde was a devout Christian, then from c1909, after illness, and over a period of about 15 years, he painted many confronting unconventional religious works, traditional Christian subjects but in a jarring modern style. And then he was apparently puzzled and hurt the Church did not commission any such works, or hang them!


More controversially, but far from unusual given his roots, Nolde became an early (from early 1920s?) and vociferous supporter of Hitler and the Nazi Party, and a racist denouncer of Jews (eg refer to work by Stefan Koldehoff and the catalogue for 2014 Frankfurt exhibition, Aya Soika and Bernhard Fulda): „For as long as I’ve worked as an artist I have publicly battled against the foreign infiltration of German art, against the dirty dealings on the art market and the disproportionately predominant Jewish influence everywhere in the arts..” (Emil Nolde notes, 6th December 1938).” “The sentences following this declaration consist of glowing endorsements of the Führer, Volk and Fatherland.” (Stefan Koldehoff).

Then self-interest reinforced his public support when in 1937, to his puzzled chagrin, the Nazis deemed his painting style „degenerate“, confiscated over 1000 of his works (1052?) and assigned 48 to the infamous Degenerate Art exhibition, Entartete Kunst. To no avail he pleaded for overturn of their rulings, eg in person to to Nazi gauleiter Baldur von Schirach in Vienna. Instead, on the contrary, in 1941 they ordered him to cease painting, which he quietly ignored, then painting 100s of watercolors which he secreted,  calling them his “Unpainted Pictures“..

After WW2 however, like many Nazis, he quickly sought to evade responsibility, rewrite his history, cover his tracks, and (until recent times) with some official support.


4/ Driving his art content and style

Nolde was „spiritually“rooted to his locale in North Friesland in far north Germany, had a quasi-spiritual and nationalistic attachment, from 1902 taking his birthplace for his surname (Nolde is now in Denmark).

The main issues driving the content of his art were nature, religion, and the primal behaviour of people.

Nature he painted especially through his coastal home in north Germany, many landscapes and seascapes, through many floral still lives, also the Swiss mountains when he passed there as a young man.

His Christian religion was pivotal. These many important works started especially after illness in 1909, beginning with the Last Supper. Many followed, most like the Last Supper, then one crazy Noldesque one, Dance around the Golden Calf of 1910, culminating in his large neo-Mediaeval triptych of Life of Christ, 1911-12.

His woodcut of The Prophet (1912), dark and close, was an influential signature work, and later his Paradise (1921) was another arresting image, of a pivotal Biblical subject.

His attraction to what might be styled the primal passions of people is evident in his memorable depictions of the timeless theme of „dance“, but across various situations: like and children playing (1909, Wildly Dancing Children), and. like a night club (1914, Still life with dancers), and even, incongruously, religious settings! Like 1910‘s Dance Around the Golden Calf.

City life he saw in Berlin, then summer 1910 through the winter 1910-11 he explored Hamburg, the large northern port, painting many life scenes there, including cafes and night clubs, and including close up groups like the Slovenes and the Three Russians.


His art style, and longevity (thus avoiding two world wars and the great flu pandemic), allowed him to be prolific (eg  Athenaeum list 1236 works), and across different media. Beyond oil paintings he left many watercolors, also many prints, etchings and woodcuts and lithographs.


The essence of his Expressionist style was bold bright colour in ragged untidy in your face close-ups.  So his art style drew heavily on colour, lashings of, his „tempests of colour“ (Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884-1976)), triggered especially it would seem by seeing works of Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) and Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) after around 1899.

Every colour holds within it a soul, which makes me happy or repels me..”, he wrote.

In his many group figurative images (secular and religious) he favoured crowded close ups (like some famous past artists, cf the later Bosch), painting coarse ragged primtive like figures, drawing on caricature, the grotesque.


His painting method was spontaneous and quick, starting with „an idea“, then „I became the copyist of the idea“, working from his imagination, with little detailed preconception or preparation. Thus he was also prolific.


5/ One man’s journey.

5.1/ His own man, an outsider more than most.

Like many notable artists he followed his own muse, was his own man.

Socially he was awkward, shy and reclusive, wanted friends and acceptance, but struggled.

So in art he was largely self taught, partly because he had to work his way up from humble farming roots as a craftsman, but then especially because once he finally could afford some training, like in Paris , his personality meant he struggled, was not an easy student. He wrote “Paris has given me very little, and I had expected so much.” (Peter Selz, op.cit.).

For a time, from c1905, he met other artists, keen to exchange views, but again struggled. Much older than the others (eg 40 compared with mid to late 20s) Nolde in 1907 left the important pioneering Die Brücke Expressionist group after only about a year, not getting enough his own way.

His powerful unconventional modern religious paintings, unusual as avant-garde subjects, also aroused dissent.

After Die Brücke he joined the Berlin Secession, a group which rejected the conventional Association of Berlin Artists and favoured  Post-Impressionism.

But 1910 he left that group after a “prolonged quarrel” following rejection of his 1910 Pentecost, and also works by other Exprssionists. He bitterly criticized Secession leader Max Liebermann (Jewish). Some of the rejected Expressionist painters (led by Tappert and Pechstein) in 1910 formed the breakaway Berlin Neue Secession, their first exhibition advertised as artists “rejected by the Berlin Secession 1910”. Nolde tried and failed in 1911 to take leadership of this group.

The art museum in Halle bought his Last Supper despite disagreement among the directors.


5.2/ Emergence as artist – largely self trained.

He was born Emil Hansen 1867 into an old devout Protestant farming family, one of 4 brothers, at Nolde in the western part of North Schleswig, then the Prussian (German) Duchy of Schleswig, becoming part of Denmark after WW1.

The German Expressionist painter and printmaker stayed close to his farming origins but not as a farmer, in 1884 (age 17) becoming an apprentice wood carver at a furniture factory (Sauermannsche Schnitzschule (Carving School)) at Flensburg, till 1888, thence 1889 (22) to work as a furniture carver at Karslruhe, taking art classes at night at Karlsruhe School of Applied Arts, then 1890-91 to Berlin as a furniture designer, but now drawing in museums. 1892-98 (age 25-31) he was a drawing instructor at Museum of Industry and Commerce in St Gallen in Switzerland and there finally encountered avant-garde art through Swiss painters, the neo-Romantic / Symbolist Arnold Bocklin (1827-1901) and Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918), impressed by their “allegorical, animistic” takes on nature, and by the dramatic natural scenery. Some financial success selling postcards of Symbolist like anthropomorphised mountains allowed him to seek further art training.

But 1899 he failed to enrol with Franz von Stuck in Munich, studied briefly instead at nearby Dachau with Adolf Hölzel (1853-1934), an interesting painter who at near age 60 helped pioneer abstraction, and who would have encouraged Nolde’s interest in colour.

He next spent 9 months in Paris to summer 1900, now studying at Académie Julian, where he met more new French art, but apparently departed very disappointed!

1900-02 he lived back near his roots, Copenhagen and nearby, 1903 settling on the island of Alsen, but also working in Berlin.


5.3/ Finds his feet

After a brief quiet start (cf Light be, 1901), and a visit to Italy 1904-05, by c1905 Nolde‘s distinctive colour hungry art style was becoming evident. In Nolde’s first colourful paintings c1905-07, mostly outdoors, like gardens and flowers, we see a clear line to especially van Gogh (eg Nolde‘s Harvest day, 1905, and Red flowers, 1906), and also Gauguin (eg Nolde‘s Market people, 1908).

But perhaps the immediate trigger of Expressionism in Germany, and presumably making a vital impact on Nolde was the Norwegian modern giant Edvard Munch (1863-1944), only 4 years older than Nolde but who made his mark much earlier, especially after being exposed in his mid-late 20s (c1889-1892) to the ongoing revolution in Paris, including Gauguin and van Gogh. Thus early as 1893 (age 30) Munch produced his first version his primally important The Scream. Later Nolde met Munch in Germany in 1906.


February 1906 Nolde was invited by the (17 years) younger Schmidt-Rottluff  (“one of Die Brücke’s undertakings is to attract any ferment of revolution….. And so, dear Mr Nolde….  we hereby wish to pay tribute to you for your tempests of colour”) to join the Dresden-based German Expressionist group Die Brücke (founded 1905 by Fritz Bleyl (1880–1966), Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938), Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884-1976), Erich Heckel (1883-1970)  etc). Schmidt-Rottluff, then introduced him to woodcut. Others included Max Pechstein (1881-1955).

Gustav Schiefler who he met in Berlin after 1902 was an important supportive patron, collected his work, wrote, and later produced a catalogue raisonné of his prints.


His painting style thereafter was variations on the colorfully „Expressive“, reinforced by his pre WW1 contact with other German Expressionists, through Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter.

Thus in 1912 Nolde showed with Kandinsky’s (1866-1944) and Franz Marc’s (1880-1916) important Munich-based group Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), including Alexei von Jawlensky (1864-1941), Paul Klee (1879-1940), August Macke (1887-1914), Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956) and Albert Bloch (1881-1961).


The bold stylised art of “primitive” native people (especially sculpture, often accessed via museums) made a strong impressionon Nolde, as it had on many modern artists, and this was reinforced by being invited by the German Imperial Colonial Office to join a brief government ethnological excursion to German New Guinea, 1913-14, returning soon after WW1 broke out.


The other contemporary painter who resonates in some way with some of Nolde’s work was the Belgian James Ensor (1860-1949), 7 years older, and who Nolde visited in Ostend early 1911.

Ensor was similar to Nolde in a number of ways: he was also his own man, was also somewhat eccentric and reclusive; also painted Christian religious subjects (though less conventionally than Nolde, more as polemical expression of disllusion with the world); and finally, also he favoured elements of fantasy and the grotesque, especially for about a decade from the late 1880s (eg Masks Mocking Death, 1888), ie in his late 20s through 30s.


5.4/ And the rest

After WW1 when his home region became part of Denmark Nolde took Danish citizenship. Later, in 1927, he settled back near his roots by the North Sea coast, but at Seebüll, just inside the German border and today part of Neukirchen. There he built a house, now a museum.

Arguably the sting went out of Nolde’s work after the early 1920s, ie he in his mid 50s?

His output rate was far lower.

And in particular he retreated from his fierce slightly manic or frenzied Expressionist approach, from the aggressive style, and in the content, like no more of the many dance paintimgs, eg The Dancers (1920), and the quirky still lives, eg Striped goat and still life (1920).

There was still lots of colour but in a softer flat patchy style.

Lots of landscapes, lots of flowers, and some figures.

Then later, constrained by the Nazi rulings during WW2 he resorted to many small watercolours, his Unpainted paintings.


After his death in 1956 the Hamburg Kunstverein mounted a memorial exhibition at in 1957. Later he was exhibited in major exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1963); Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (1995); Whitechapel Art Gallery, London (1995); Brücke-Museum, Berlin (1999); Grand Palais, Paris (2008); Nasjonalmuseet for kunst, arkitektur og design, Oslo (2012); and Frankfurt Städel Museum / Louisiana Museum of Modern Arts (2014).






1907, Magic of light, (Lichtzauber), Oil on canvas, 70 x 88 cm. Nolde Stiftung Seebull


1910. Dance Around the Golden Calf, 88 x 105.5 cm


1911, Nature morte aux masques, 74 X 78, Kansas City, Nelson Gallery of Art, Atkins-Museum


1911 At the café (coffee house). Oil on canvas Museum Folkwang, Essen


1912. Boy with Grande Bird. Oil on canvas, 73 x 88 cm, SMK (Statens Museum for Kunst), Copenhagen


1912. The Prophet, 32.1 x 22.2 cm


1912 Legend: St. Mary of Egypt – Death in the Desert, Heilige Maria Aegyptiaca – Rechte Tafel: Der Tod in der Wüste). 1912, oil on canvas (Kunsthale Hamburg, Hamburg).

COMMENT: The story was written in the 7th C, of Saint Mary (Maria Aegyptiaca) who lived in 5th or 6th C, born Egypt, sold her body for living, “driven “by an insatiable and an irrepressible passion,””, who traveled to Jerusalem, “paid for her passage by offering sexual favors”, there saw the light, was “struck with remorse” and lived rest of her life across the Jordan as a hermit. The lion helped bury her.


1915. The Burial (Die Grablegung), oil on canvas, 87 x 117 cm, Stiftung Nolde, Seebüll, Nasjonalmuseet, National Museum of Art, , Architecture and Design, Norway


1912. Candle Dancers (Kerzentänzerinnen), Oil on canvas, 100.5 x 86.5 cm, Nolde Stiftung Seebüll.


1912. The Missionary, Private collection, 75 x 63 cm


1913. Soldiers, Oil on canvas, 86.5 x 106 cm, Nolde Stiftung Seebüll.


1914. Still life with dancers, oil on canvas 88 × 105.5 cm Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris


1913 Clouds in Summer, Oil on canvas, 73.3 x 88.5 cm (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid)


  1. Shivering Russians,103.5 x 118.9 x 5.3 cm, SMK (Statens Museum for Kunst), Copenhagen


1917, Selbstbildnis, 1917, 83 x 65 cm, oil on wood. Nolde Foundation Seebüll , © Nolde Foundation Seebüll, 2013.


1918. Blue Sea (Blaues Meer). Oil on canvas, 56 x 70cm, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts


1919 The enthusiast, Sprengel Museum Hanover 101.3 x 73.6cm


1920 Encounter on the beach, 86.5 x 100 cm, Nolde Stiftung Seebüll


1920 Still Life with Striped Goat, 75 x 88cm, private


1920. Dancers


C 1930? Sea coast (Red Sky, Two White Sails), watercolor on Japan paper, 22.3 x 17.1cm. Nolde Stiftung Seebüll


1930. Schwü̈ler Abend (Muggy evening), Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

n27ph   n29


Emil Nolde circa 1907? Age 40?                               And c 1945, age 78?

The Cosmic Question – “You’re steering now soldier!”


Allegorical literary aids to facing, comprehending the human predicament?

And the answer: in our hands now.


Jack B. Yeats (Irish, 1871-1957), “Driftwood in a Cave,” 1948. , 14 x 21 in, oil on canvas. On loan from the Donald and Marilyn Keough Family.

COMMENT; He sees the light? He arrives at the threshold of adulthood, responsibility. Relentless change. Uncertainty. And opportunity.


Gábor Melegh (1801–1835). 1827, Portrait of a Man (Franz Schubert), oil on panel, 60 x 48 cm, Hungarian National Gallery


Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra CD cover (Franz Schubert’s (1797-1828) Symphony No. 8 in B Minor, D. 759 (the “Unfinished”) )


A/ Allegorical literary aids to coping with Man’s Existential Predicament

We have by chance literary allegorical aids, heuristic texts, to help wrestle, cope with the Big Question, WHY are we here? What purpose?

And now, post the species-bending post 17th C technical take-off, where are we going?

Man’s technical takeoff, since c1600, gathered steam in the 19th C especially and has now accelerated since c1945, with global implications.


Thus the Faust story (via Marlowe, Goethe in particular) summarises the predicament, the cost-benefit dilemma.

The story arose, is presented traditionally within a Christian context (ie Faust sells his soul to Satan hereafter in return for riches, love and power today) but it can be stripped of this to reveal a wider core message, which is allegorically speaking the essence of modern post Enlightenment Man’s predicament. Or post-modern if “modern” we define as the specific historic arrival of the modern, the New Dispensation.

Thus we basically GAIN adulthood, and all the opportunities therein. We gain open-eyed curiosity, power, an explosion in knowledge, technology, and immense material benefits on the side.

But we LOSE God/gods. We lose certainty, our childhood, “innocence”, lose simply accepting the planet’s natural ouput.

In particular with our new uncovered adulthood comes RESPONSIBILITY, which can be construed as a cost.


We have to become more comfortable with uncertainy, living with mystery, with Man as a work in progress, unfinished. So here Franz Schubert’s (1797-1828) Symphony No. 8 in B Minor, D. 759 (the “Unfinished”) is another helpful cultural walking cane! Yes it’s unfinished and yes comes with mystery, like why it was unfinished, 6 busy years before he died at only 31


The Greek myth (eg from Hesiod’s Theogony) of Prometheus talks of Man gaining technical prowess, through being gifted Fire, stolen by Prometheus from the gods.

Pandora’s Box is a dark misogynistic story with a curiously optimistic coda. So Pandora (“the all gifted”) was the old Greek Eve, was the first woman, “created” by the gods, by Hephaestus and Athena, overseen by Zeus, with various gods endowing her with “seductive gifts”, all as punishment for Man after the recalcitrant Prometheus pinched the firestick for Man.

And the box contained… all Man’s troubles?! Yes Pandora opened the box, or jar, and.. all the “evils of humanity” flew out! Yes delivered by the First Woman, just as Eve has misled Adam, coaxed him to eat the apple, triggering Original Sin, Man the miserable imperfect hopeless loser, which was / is the foundation stone of the Christian Church’s business model, ie selling the joys of salvation (including eternal after life) to sinners, warning of eternal damnation (and toasting)  for dissenters. So the Christian and Jewish religions used this misogyny.

But the flicker of optimism the in the coda? After opened the box one thing remained.. a wee grain of Hope!? A glimmer! A shred of salvatory possiblility.


Finally Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (an extraordinary and prescient feat of creation) basically talks to the matter of Man exercising his new found responsibility, having effectively now become an adult following the technical takeoff, in now applying the new technology, “gift of the gods”, “stolen from the gods”!

It can bring good or ill. It’s up to you.


B/ The cost-benefit balance of the technical takeoff.


We GAIN, it delivers… food, shelter, heating, health, transport, communication etc. It is an exercise in species-wide economic / material endowment which is historically unparalleled in the plus 5 million year history of hominids.

It obviously has species profound implications.

Suddenly, after millions of years on the natural teat, we can “feed” ourselves, not rely on measley natural welfare, wait for “god’s” handout.

And interestingly we also gain sufficient resources / knowledge / technical capability to react to, to alleviate the costs of natural calamities, especially climate change, ie especially global cooling / droughts, eg caused by volcanoes, and myriad other natural factors, which have been devastating for Man in recorded history (eg the dramatic end of the Bronze Age, c1200BC, which arguably cleared te stage for the epic rise of Classical Greece), and in the recent geological past, like the many ice ages.


The core COST is now coping with engendered change, with remorseless ongoing CHANGE, with chronic uncertainty.

We can’t get off. We can’t go back, return to our childhood

And now the rate of change seems to be accelerating, say since WW2, with developments in genetics, computing, the internet / social media / global digital world etc.

We LOSE “innocence”, tradition.

And we face the RISK of technical dystopia? All kinds of risks, like pandemics, nuclear calamity, runaway technology, collapse of digital global networks etc.

The Faustian context

The FAUSTIAN pact?!

Thus we GAIN knowledge, open eyed curiosity.

Much of the world (but not all! Tradition fights back!) is no longer restrained by superstition, by irrational traditional authority, and especially by self serving organised institutional religion, in league with secular authority.

We gain…. possibilities.

It effectively means we are“playing god”, yes Man is god (cf Yuval Harari etc) now WE have hands on the wheel.

Yes Man IS god. Like it or not.

And the COST is the profound implication that the New Dispensation Comes with RESPONSIBILITY for Man.

Like child growing up to Adulthood.

‘You’re steering soldier!”

The technical takeoff

So I was reminded again of Faust running last Sat 27th January and hearing the ABC (Australian) radio Science Show, talking quantum computing, a great example of the technical takeoff apparently accelerating.

It is accelerating because

a/ feeds on itself

b/ the great increase in economic resources means a huge increase in education globally, in research, in more bright minds applied to task.

c/ Man is inherently competitive.

The best parallel in history – and very relevant – is Classical Greece?

Arguably the important pivotal inflection was say end WW2?

Broadly the big areas of development are:

0/ health, increased life span.

2/ energy supply.

3/ genetic manipulation, a huge issue, Man now playing under the hood with his genetic rules, protocols!

4/ Computing, especially now quantum computing. Hence matters of data storge / manipulation.

This facilitates.

a/ control of machines, in manufacturing, infrastructure, transport (all vehicles, cars, trains, planes etc).

b/ power plants, electricity.

c/ communication.


C/ Outcome?


Yes there is the risk of technical dystopia?

So tes we may be on the Runaway Train? Like Jon Voigt in the 1985 film by Andrei Konchalovsky.

It’s easy to get depressed, fashion disaster scenarios, eg pandemics, accidental or delibereate nuclear explosions, dire implications of Artificial Intelligence, vulnerability of huge complex digital global networks to sabotage?


And Opportunity? Up to us.

So far the material rewards have been astounding, more recently for 100s of millions of Chinese.

THE Big Question today for Man is definitely not climate change.

Though it surely will be when global cooling returns, as it surely will, eg looking at the planet’s long term mercury reading, the temperature chart, which shows about 12 ice ages in last one  million years.

Instead today the really big question is can Man manage the ongoing Technical Take Off for his collective benefit, or is he likely condemned by its almost inevitable systemic failure?

Can he stay in charge?

Many are pessimistic, eg Stephen Hawking, and (I notice) Yuval Noah Harari (he would be with that middle name).

It’s easy to concoct dystopian scenarios?

But one thing we DO know is that no one knows, for sure.

We need an open mind

The outcome will depend especially on:

a/ how technology keeps changing, the detail,

b/ taking responsibility, the Good guys (ie principally relevant Governments, some countries more than others), versus Bad guys, the BGs now including some obvious States, also violent theocratic entities, anarchistic organisations, all of which use the benefits of the technical takeoff to attack it.

There are reasons to be cautiously optimistic.

Are there Protocols for Survival?