Nietzsche was surely one of the most influential and controversial thinkers of the 19th century, and his name hardly ever fails to arouse intense debate. Unfortunately, due to the unsystematic nature of his thought and the controversy aroused by his ideas, a prejudice has become attached to his name that puts many people off this most entertaining and stimulating of writers.
My aim here is to stir a serious discussion on Nietzsche with the aim of countering some of that prejudice, because I think that Nietzsche should be read for his insights. Nietzsche is sure to shock and annoy his readers, but he definitely won’t bore them. He startles more often with the lucidity of his perceptions than he does with his effrontery.
Take, for example, these simple truths expressed brilliantly by Nietzsche in Human, All Too Human (HH):
One may promise actions but no sentiments.
Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.
Or this statement, also from HH, which is just funny: We are so fond of being out among Nature, for it has no opinions about us.
Then there are statements that are thought-provoking because they’re striking and because we struggle to decide whether they’re true or not:
If she is to become beautiful a woman must not want to be considered pretty.
Profundity of thought belongs to youth, clarity of thought to old age.
The undissolved dissonances in the relation of the character and sentiments of the parents survive in the nature of the child and make up the history of its inner sufferings.
One person sticks to an opinion because he takes pride it having acquired it himself – another sticks to it because he has learnt it with difficulty and is proud of having understood it; both of them, therefore, out of vanity.
Now, to deal with three common prejudices: Nazism, God is dead, and being difficult to read…
Nietzsche loved Wagner’s Tristran und Isolde; Wagner loved Nietzsche’s ideas on the need for a new morality. They became friends.
Hitler also liked Wagner.
That is the extent of the link between Nietzsche and Nazism, except for the commonality of their talk about the Ubermensch. However, on closer examination they used this term in ways so different that they can hardly be equated.
To quote Tom Griffith:
According to Nietzsche, Christian morality is slave morality, a morality created by weak and resentful individuals who encouraged gentleness, kindness, humility, forgiveness because such behaviour gave them some protection against the bold and the strong. Slave morality is essentially a willingness (born of fear) to give up on life in its entirety. By contrast, Nietzsche’s superman (ubermensch) is secure and independent. He feels deeply, but his passions are rationally controlled. Concentrating on this world, not on the rewards of the next, the superman accepts and welcomes life, including the suffering and pain that accompany human existence. His superman creates his own values, a ‘master morality’ that reflects the strength and independence of one who is liberated from all values except those he himself deems valid. The essential thing is the will to power. In its positive sense, this will to power is not simply power over others, but power over oneself, as manifested in the superman’s independence, creativity, and originality.
It is easy to see how talk of master morality and slave morality can be conflated with Hitler’s ideas about the master race and slave races. So it is important to emphasise that this is not the kind of thing Nietzsche is talking about. According to Nietzsche, the superman has not yet appeared, but he mentions individuals who might serve as models: Socrates, Jesus, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Goethe, Julius Caesar, Napoleon. Two teachers, two painters, two writers, two soldier-statesmen. This is hardly the stuff of racist supremacy or totalitarian dictatorship.
God is dead
The most famous assertion that God is dead is not made by Nietzsche himself but by his character, Zarathustra, the ‘madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours.’ Nevertheless, Nietzsche comes very close to saying the same thing:
For all occasions where the Christian awaits the immediate intervention of a God, though in vain (for there is no god), his religion is inventive enough to find subterfuges and reasons for tranquillity. – Miscellaneous Maxims and Opinions
Nietzsche recognised that a pictorial representation of God which was convincing to many people 2000 years ago is unlikely to be convincing to them today, just as the Olympian gods of the ancient Greeks are unlikely to be convincing to many people today. However, he was also aware that even pictorially obsolete gods may represent something real in the world – Dionysus and Apollo just as much as the Judeo-Christian God.
Nietzsche saw an opposition between the two philosophical traditions of the ancient Greeks: “the life-affirming, yes-saying irrationalism of Dionysus and the life-denying, no-saying rationalism of Apollo” (Tom Griffith). In the nineteenth century, which saw the Greek world in its cool rationality, the Apolline element predominated to the detriment of the Dionysian element. In Nietzsche’s view, the tragedy was that Apolline ideology prevailed, moving via Plato to inform “the gloomy self-denials of Christianity.” (TG again).
Nietzsche favoured a ‘new’ morality, which was actually a very old but sidelined morality, as Nietzsche refers to Homer:
Whoever has the power of returning good for good, evil for evil, and really practices requital, and who is, therefore, grateful and revengeful, is called good; whoever is powerless, and unable to requite, is reckoned as bad … the enemy is not looked upon as evil, he can requite. In Homer the Trojan and the Greek are both good. (HH)
In Homer we find only heroes and no villains. In Wagner we find both heroes and villains. And in Christianity we are all villains.
The idea that we define ourselves more by our enemies than by our friends comes up again in Zarathustra:
By our best enemies we do not want to be spared, now by those either whom we love from the very heart. So let me tell you the truth!
My brethren in war! I love you from the very heart. I am, and was ever, your counterpart. And I am also your best enemy. So let me tell you the truth!…
…I spare you not, I love you from my very heart, my brethren in war!
Is Nietzsche difficult to read?
Of course this is a matter of personal opinion, but so is the question of whether chess is a good game. I don’t think that Nietzsche is at all hard to read.
To quote Tom Griffith (sorry to do this so much, but he really puts it much better than I ever could, and he’s much more knowledgeable, of course):
It is difficult to give a systematic account of Nietzsche’s thought, but that is because he is not a systematic thinker. It does not mean the things he says are difficult to understand. And his lack of system can be something of an advantage. It matters much less if you allow your attention to wander while you are reading. You may miss a few things, but you won’t miss a vital step in the argument. What is more, Nietzsche offers so many striking insights that if you miss one on this page, there is certain to be another, equally striking, on the next. This makes him, if anything, the easiest of all philosophers to read.
Many people read Zarathustra and conclude that Nietzsche is unreadable. This is a pity, because Z is Nietzsche’s most unreadable book, and also the least typical of his writing.
Nietzsche is probably my favourite Western philosopher, and not because I take to heart everything he espouses. I just wanted to go some way toward clarifying what is often unclear in people’s opinions of Nietzsche, so if anyone would like to discuss some controversial statements or themes of his, maybe this is the place…