Nietzsche: The Man and His Philosophy
Nietzsche as Philosopher
Few philosophers can ever have suffered more than Nietzsche those special misfortunes that may come to a man after his death. That his unpublished manuscripts should have been in the hands of an unscrupulous sister ready to twist his doctrines to serve the cause of an anti-Semitism that he loathed; that he should have been taken as a prophet by an intellectually and morally despicable regime; that he should have been execrated not only for those parts of his writings that are, precisely, execrable, but also on account of numberless misunderstandings; that even his non-Nazi disciples should often have defended him in a childish, hysterical, way. Of course much of this was Nietzsche’s own fault, but one is glad that at last the tide of his ill fortune has turned. Not only is the tone of his commentators becoming less shrill; they are also succeeding in establishing a more reasonable notion of what he actually believed. No longer is Nietzsche thought of as one who preached licence for the cruel and aggressive passions of the “splendid” beast of prey. Against the passages which have this tendency are set those in which Nietzsche speaks of the need to discipline the passions, and against those in which the “superior” man is told that “inferiors” exist to serve him, one at least speaking of the duty of the strong to the weak.
Mr. Hollingdale’s aim seems to have been to present a fair, well-balanced picture of Nietzsche’s life and works, and he has succeeded. He has also managed to make Nietzsche’s thought accessible to the general reader by marshaling his quotations skillfully and seeing to it that much of the book consists of quotation. The book is pleasant to read, and gives a good account of the development of Nietzsche’s doctrines: the repetition of elements and the appearance of new lines of thought. Whether another such work was really needed is another question. Mr. Hollingdale says, disarmingly, that he has not attempted to conceal his debt to Walter Kaufmann’s Nietzsche, and it is not quite clear who will find that Hollingdale will meet his needs better than Kaufmann. On one point on which the two disagree Mr. Hollingdale’s conclusions seem the more doubtful. The question at issue is the use that should be made of the unpublished, undated notes made in the 1880s. Many of these were arranged and posthumously published by Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche under the title “The Will to Power,” but as this work had no authority it is irrelevant that a particular entry appears in this publication, or that it appears in a particular position. There was, therefore, justification for Schlecta’s decision to publish the Nachlass material in his edition of 1956 as it stood in the notebooks, without any attempt at ordering or dating. The problem for someone writing about Nietzsche’s philosophy is how he is to regard this material. Some of the extracts are clearly related to parts of Nietzsche’s own completed works, and can be said to have been used by him. Were the rest left unused because Nietzsche rejected the thoughts that had once occurred to him, or because he had not yet, at the time of his collapse, incorporated them into any work? Mr. Hollingdale firmly takes the former view, whereas it seems more reasonable to say, with Professor Kaufmann, that we often cannot really tell. Mr. Hollingdale’s skepticism about the unused parts of the Nachlass is, however, useful in that it prevents him from simply incorporating this dubious material into his exposition. Professor Danto, who goes to the opposite extreme, says, “It is far from clear how [Nietzsche] would have arranged the vast number of unpublished opuscula” as if the question “whether” were not to be asked. He treats the Nachlass as if it were an authoritative source for Nietzsche’s thought, and the reader must consult each note reference at the back of the book to know if he is reading something that Nietzsche himself might have wished to reject. Professor Danto’s quotations from the Nachlass are so interesting that one is glad he should have given them, but ideally the Nachlass material should be separated from the rest.
The aim of Professor Danto’s book, which does not deal with Nietzsche’s life, is to display the philosopher as a systematic thinker, and in paying special attention to the epistemological and logical elements in Nietzsche’s writings he presents an interestingly unfamiliar picture of Nietzsche’s work. He describes, for instance, what he calls, in a special sense, Nietzsche’s “nihilism,” emphasizing his skepticism about objectivity and truth. Not only did Nietzsche deny the validity of metaphysical philosophy: he objected to the very idea of a Kantian Thing in Itself, refusing to postulate any kind of Reality standing behind the world of appearances. But not content with such apparently positivistic doctrines Nietzsche also attacks positivism itself for its belief that in our scientific or everyday thinking we can find brute facts with which to compare our judgments. There are no facts but only interpretations; we cannot establish any fact as it is in itself (Factum “an sich“) and the project should be thought of as senseless, since we know the world only from the special “perspective” given by our particular needs and our particular language. Nor is there any possibility of reconciling or judging between the conflicting perspectives; everything we say belongs to our own special point of view.
Much that Nietzsche says about this has an oddly contemporary ring, and it is as if he anticipated those recent philosophers who have accepted a coherence theory of truth without making the Hegelian assumption of the ultimate rationality of the universe that first prompted the denial of “brute fact.” Admittedly Nietzsche himself saw the matter differently from contemporary analytic philosophers, since he is as much disposed towards skepticism as they are disposed against it. He spoke of the interpretations that we impose on reality as fictions, and even denied that truth was ever to be reached, as if he were keeping the ideal of an objectivity that his philosophy showed to be “senseless.” But as Professor Danto shows, Nietzsche’s views on the relation between language and fact are strikingly modern. Moreover, at one point Nietzsche broke with Cartesianism in a way that surprisingly anticipates the later Wittgenstein, though Professor Danto undoubtedly exaggerates the similarity. Instead of thinking of the starting point of knowledge as being the “ideas” of which the individual is conscious when he looks into his own mind, Nietzsche insists that this consciousness develops as a social phenomenon through the growth of language. What a person finds in himself is learned through the common outer world, not transferred to that world from inner consciousness. As one might expect, Nietzsche has a special interest in this idea: “…Consciousness does not belong to the individual existence of men, but to what is the community-and-herd-nature…Our thought is always translated back to the perspective of the herd.”
It is very interesting to discover these similarities between Nietzsche’s conclusions and those of contemporary philosophers, and one is grateful to Professor Danto for pointing them out and providing references. And yet something is strangely missing from his book, as from Mr. Hollingdale’s, and from the other honest, decent books that are being published: That is to say any serious engagement with Nietzsche’s thought. The present position is, indeed, extraordinary. We honor Nietzsche; we try to understand him; we defend him against those who misrepresent his doctrines. The one thing that we will not do is to “take him on,” to fight with him. He shouts insults at us; he attacks received opinions more fiercely than any other great philosopher; he wrestles with “the most terrible” of thoughts. But we do not answer him; nor do we agree with him. We simply go on as if nothing had happened. Now of course we might be right. For not every thought that sounds terrible, and appears terrible to the man who thinks it, is really terrible. We are quite used to the skeptical conclusion which turns out to be merely the denial of some false idea of how things must be if objects, or persons, or truth itself is to exist. The history of philosophy is packed with examples of this kind of skeptical doctrine, producing a moment’s vertigo, but succeeded by the comforting assurance that we have lost nothing but an illusion. If, for instance, truth conceived in a particular way is seen to be a will-of-the-wisp, we do not deny the possibility of attaining truth but rather consider over again the question “what is truth?” The difficulty is to know when this move, which consists essentially of moderating one’s demands, is the right one to make and when it is not. It has led to many good results, but also to some superficiality, as for instance in current discussions of freewill. Is it right or wrong to deal with Nietzsche’s “nihilistic” and “perspectivist” doctrines in this way? Nothing in Professor Danto’s study of his views on such subjects as truth and objectivity suggests that there is matter here which could revolutionize our thinking in this field, or that should lead us to regard our own conclusions as after all cataclysmic.
Our refusal, then, to take Nietzsche as a dangerous enemy to our cherished ways of thought is not so extraordinary after all. But is it not, nevertheless, extraordinary if we think not of Nietzsche on truth, or Nietzsche on science, but rather of the Nietzsche who insisted that the world was totally alien to our ideals and values? Should we not see him, as he clearly saw himself, as the philosopher who, for the first time, dared to think the thought that God is dead; that is, dared really to think the consequences? Even his thoughts on truth are most mordant when he is questioning not its possibility but rather its value. Why, he asks, do we assume the value of truth? Perhaps it is not truth but precisely lies, deceptions, and errors that are of most value to life? The faith in truth as something higher and better than themselves, demanding their service, may be the last illusion of those pious men who call themselves freethinkers, for not even truth is divine if God is dead, and nothing compels the cold and indifferent world to justify our devotion. Nor is there anything to guarantee that our search for an unambiguous goodness in action is a search for something real. If God exists and decrees that certain passions are evil we cannot suppose that these are also just the ones that must at some time be developed for the sake of the good; and that there is no such contradiction in the moral nature of things is a cherished belief, carried on by those who deny religion. But even this Nietzsche is ready to challenge.
If, however, a person should regard even the emotions of hatred, envy, covetousness, and imperiousness as life-conditioning emotions, as factors which must be present, fundamentally and essentially, in the greatest economy of life (which must therefore, be further developed if life is further to be developed) he will suffer from such a view of things as from sea sickness. And yet this hypothesis is far from being the strongest and most painful in the immense and almost new domain of dangerous knowledge.
One may say that Nietzsche, like Gide, had a romantic view of evil, and also of the criminal temperament (there is evidence for this). But have we really considered the possibility that certain passions, called evil on account of the part they play in human oppression and misery, might also be related in some special way to health and strength? What if it were, as he suggests, as necessary to have them in some individuals as to suppress them in most men? What Nietzsche says may turn out totally false; but have we really considered it, or are we simply pious men?
If we are to engage with Nietzsche it is in his immoralism that we must search for truth. For did he not declare war not only on the “slave morality” of Christianity but on morality itself? One might try, of course, to say that Nietzsche the immoralist is an illusion; that in fact he has his own morality but, finding the language of morals tainted by the thoughts of those who see good only in the “slave” virtues of pity, humility, and conformity, he prefers to speak in other terms. But Nietzsche is a true immoralist in the old tradition of Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic and Callicles in the Gorgias, in a tradition later to be carried on by Gide. Like Plato’s Callicles Nietzsche saw moral man as an animal tamed and thereby made worse. In the Gorgias the thought has little strength because Callicles’ ideal was that a man should let his passions lead him where they would, and one naturally asks why this untaught creature should be seen as the ideal man. In Nietzsche there is a more serious and relevant charge against the priests and others who “ruin” a man in the name of improvement. He describes the moral man as one whose passions have been weakened or distorted until he has a kind of listlessness of spirit, his deeds not “his own” but prescribed by the common mould in which he has been pressed. (One is reminded of Michel in Gide’s Immoralist, leading the studious life which was expected of him without any real passion or desire.) No one can deny that Nietzsche is here describing something that can really happen, and that the charge against morality will be deadly if it can be pressed home. For someone of weak desires, whose actions are those prescribed by others rather than the ones he could do with his whole heart, is just as much a bad human being as one who lacks traditional virtues such as courage and temperance. Battle is, therefore, being joined against morality on morality’s own ground. Morality harms a man, says Nietzsche; moreover it makes him harmful to others. For the moral man is a resentful, self-hating animal, deeply hostile to others, and infecting them with gloom and self-mistrust. “And when we learn better to rejoice we best forget how to hurt others and to contrive pain.” As if these two charges were not enough Nietzsche adds to them the thought that morality does not even make a man moral, and so must be condemned by its own standards. No one has described better than he the self interest and malice, as well as the weaknesses, that can lie behind a kindly concern for others. It is not, one should add, that Nietzsche denies the existence of true goodness of heart; he believes that it is not by morality that men become good.
Unscrupulous Sister April 14, 1966