The Idea of Domination in Horkheimer & Adorno and Nietzsche

Before Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno wrote their works, the idea of domination played a very important role in the thinking of Friedrich Nietzsche, who partially inspired the two authors. What unites the two philosophies is that domination is seen as a natural occurrence in the world of man. In the words of Nietzsche, “To demand that strength does not express itself as strength, that it must not consist of a will to overpower, a will to throw down, a will to rule, a thirst for enemies and opposition and triumph – that is unreasonable as to demand that weakness express itself as strength.” Horkheimer and Adorno add to this, stating that “What human beings seek to learn from nature is how to use it to dominate wholly both it and human beings. Nothing else counts.”

What separates the thinkers is how they see this natural occurrence. For Nietzsche, domination is somehow beyond good and evil, it is a force of nature, just like a natural predator “dominates” its prey: “And if the lambs say among themselves, ‘These predatory birds are evil – and whoever is least like a predatory bird – and especially who is like its opposite, a lamb – shouldn’t that animal be good?’ there is nothing to find fault with in this setting up of an ideal, except for the fact that the birds of prey might look down with a little mockery and perhaps say to themselves, ‘We are not at all annoyed with these good lambs – we even love them. Nothing is tastier than a tender lamb’.” Without domination, without this will to power, mankind cannot evolve, even if that will lead ultimately to suffering: “How much blood and horror is the basis for all ‘good things’.” Man must leave behind his ancient preconceptions about “good” and “evil,” “just” and “unjust,” in order for his society to advance: “I regard the bad conscience as the serious illness that man was bound to contract under the stress of most fundamental change he ever experienced – change which occurred when he himself was finally enclosed within the walls of society and of peace.”

Horkheimer and Adorno, on the other hand, see domination as a somewhat evil phenomenon that mankind must live through it: “Man’s likeness to God consists in sovereignty over existence, in lordly gaze, in the command.” It is natural, but it must be overcome. Their vision is understandable, considering that they survived Nazism. Echoing Marx, they state that “The regression of the masses today lies in their inability to hear with their own ears what has not already been heard, to touch with their hands what has not previously been grasped; it is the new form of blindness which supersedes that of vanquished myth.” For them, what Enlightenment brought was just another mythology, another illusion that man must shake off, and another reason to justify domination: “Human beings purchase the increase in their power with estrangement from that over which it is exerted. Enlightenment stands in the same relationship to things as the dictator to human beings. He knows them to the extent that he can manipulate them.”

No matter how we feel about it, domination plays an important role in our everyday life. Whether we speak about one country dominating the other, or about us, as ordinary people, dominating a person who we feel is our inferior, such as a beggar on the street, we cannot escape its temptation. The thinkers were right. It is natural to feel the need to dominate. But how we choose to live with this need, it is up to us.

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Works cited:

Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Chapter 1 From Stanford University Press:

Nietzsche, Friedrich – Genealogy of Morals, essay 2


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