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The Brave Immoralist

Nietzsche Volume One: The Will to Power as Art

by Martin Heidegger, translated by David Farrell Krell
Harper & Row, 263 pp., $12.95

Nietzsche’s Gift

by Harold Alderman
Ohio University Press, 184 pp., $5.50 (paper)

David Krell, in a note to his translation of Heidegger’s lectures on Nietzsche, describes the changing history of Nietzsche’s image. This strange genius, who believed he could destroy all previous philosophies, was first seen primarily as a poet and essayist; then as a legendary and tragic symbol of the times; and only later as a serious philosopher.

What, one may ask, does Nietzsche, the opponent of transcendental metaphysics and of positivism, who undertook nothing less than the “revaluation of values,” signify for philosophy today? The question sounds reasonable but cannot be answered as it stands because there is no one thing that is “philosophy today.” Nor is this merely a ritual nod in the direction of diversity. Instead of one movement in which the Zeitgeist can be discerned there are, even within Western philosophy, two schools of thought so alien to each other that historians of some distant future lacking incidental clues might be tempted to deny that they were contemporaneous. What Nietzsche is for the philosophy of phenomenology and existentialism—for Jaspers for instance, or Heidegger—is one matter: what he is for the descendants of Frege, Russell, and Wittgenstein quite another.

It follows that a review of Heidegger’s lectures on Nietzsche which would do them justice, and would reflect the importance of this work in the development of Continental philosophy, must be given from within this tradition. That the approach is very different from that of anyone in analytic philosophy is easy to see: even a single sentence will tell one in which part of the philosophical world one is. Thus Heidegger, whose text was the collection of notes posthumously arranged and published as The Will to Power, opens his discussion of the will to power by announcing that the “question as to what being is seeks the Being of beings,” and he goes on to say that for Nietzsche all Being is a Becoming, and since a Becoming is a willing and all willing is will to power, Becoming is a will to power. This language is quite alien to the analytic philosopher, who demands plainness and clear sense: no one of this school would be ready to discuss the Being of beings, or say that all Becoming was or was not willing before the component ideas were explained. How, for instance, is willing to be understood if it is to make sense to say that willing is found even in a merely mechanical or chemical process? The analytic philosopher would insist on questioning Heidegger, Nietzsche, and their predecessors about such things, before starting any argument; as a builder surveys his blocks and beams before construction begins.

The American philosopher Harold Alderman, much influenced by Heidegger but avoiding on the whole the jargon of Continental philosophy, criticizes in Nietzsche’s Gift another typical Heideggerian discussion of Nietzsche. In this instance the question turns on Nietzsche’s doctrine of “eternal recurrence”—his idea that everything that has happened will repeat itself forever exactly as it has been before; so that even our lives will be lived again and again. Heidegger asked whether in his doctrine of eternal recurrence Nietzsche does not revert to the Platonic way of thinking that he once described as operating by means of “pale, cold, conceptual nets thrown over the motley whirl of the senses”? He thinks that in accepting and willing the transient as eternally recurrent Nietzsche is indeed imposing a fixed Platonic reality upon appearances, and so “thinking nothing less than the thought that pervades the whole of Western philosophy.” Alderman disputes this interpretation, arguing that it relies too heavily on The Will to Power, the book that Nietzsche never published or even put together. He suggests that Nietzsche was at least as successful as Heidegger himself in breaking away from the “metaphysical hubris” of “Western man’s subjective inclination to overwhelm the data of experience in his theorising.”

Alderman’s discussion of such passages from Heidegger—which have to do with the question of whether Nietzsche was as wholehearted an opponent of metaphysics as he claimed—forms an interesting postscript to his book. Most of it consists, however, of an analytic commentary on Thus Spake Zarathustra, perhaps the most important but not the most accessible of Nietzsche’s works. Though occasionally pretentious in its language Alderman’s book has the great merit of conveying, by description and judicious quotation, a sense of Nietzsche’s strange and original imagery. For example he describes vividly the friendship between Zarathustra and the animals who go with him on his journeys: the eagle the proudest and most distant, and the serpent the wisest, most worldly animal. And he quotes the haunting passage in which Zarathustra is shown recoiling from revealing his teachings.

The hand moved, the clock of my life held its breath—I had never heard such stillness about me: so that my heart was terrified.

Then, voicelessly, something said to me: “You know, Zarathustra?

And I cried out for terror at this whisper, and the blood drained from my face; but I kept silent.

Then, again, something said to me voicelessly: “You know, Zarathustra, but you do not speak!”

And I answered at last defiantly: “Yes, I know, but I will not speak!”

He also gives an excellent account of the psychological aspect of the doctrine of eternal recurrence; for although it has, as he says, to do with the acceptance of contingency and the unchangeability of the past, it also signifies Nietzsche’s ability to say “yes” even to his own tormented, intensely lonely life.

Alderman is right too to bring out Nietzsche’s love of lightness of heart, and the importance in Zarathustra of what is said about dance and laughter. When Nietzsche wants to speak of “spirit come home to itself as worldly and human” (to quote Alderman) he uses the metaphor of a dancing God, the only God in whom he will believe. And it is in laughter that Zarathustra finds the cure for solemn pretensions to eternality, universality, and absoluteness. But one becomes a little weary and even embarrassed when Alderman insists repetitively on Nietzsche’s own playfulness, and compares his humor with the comedy of the Marx Brothers. I find this humor for the most part painfully heavy, and wonder how many have actually laughed as they turned the pages of Zarathustra.

Alderman is, unfortunately, at his weakest in his account of Nietzsche’s thoughts about morality. Nietzsche’s immoralism—or as some would say his new morality—is the most interesting part of his work for most philosophers of the analytic schools. And it must surely be of interest to anyone who knows of the connection between his writings and the ideologies of the Nazis and Fascists, and who knows too that Nietzsche’s “revaluation of values” has never exactly been refuted. Do we know how to deal with this part of the philosophy? Are we even able to say quite what it is that Nietzsche is up to? The very question whether he is a “moralist or immoralist” betrays a gap in our understanding. It is disappointing therefore that Alderman gives a highly questionable account of Nietzsche’s ideology of values, and in particular that he glosses over the harsh and threatening aspect of this teaching.

At one point Alderman suggests that when Nietzsche speaks of slave morality he refers only to the slavishness of one who is unable to master his own desires. But Nietzsche gave that name to the attitudes and rules of those whose aim is to protect the weak from oppression. Slave morality belongs, he says, to “the herd” whose members brand as “evil” that which is dangerous to themselves. And Nietzsche not only objects to principles which favor “the misbegotten”; he also objects to moral principles as such because they prescribe a code that is to apply to everyone. He despises the morality of the herd because he thinks it will always have resentment and malice as its psychological foundation. He thinks that in protecting the weak from the strong it acts in favor of sickness and decline. And he believes that the imposition of any universal rule of conduct (“good and evil the same for all”) prevents those few who are fitted to do so from finding their own idiosyncratic good.

Behind all this lies one crucial thought, about the different value of different types of men. Over and over again one finds Nietzsche speaking of “higher” and “lower”; of an order of rank among men. And the highest value of all is said to lie in the Superman of the future, the one who yet may come because man is an animal whose “nature is not yet fixed.” Here is Nietzsche’s most fundamental valuation. Holding up a picture to compel our admiration, he asks us to see what is there represented as something so marvelous that whatever favors it is to be cherished, and whatever is inimical to it destroyed. That there should be these higher men, strong, self-disciplined, passionate, exuberant, and autonomous, is an ideal which is to give meaning to life, and justify any sacrifice.

The nature of the sacrifice follows from the nature of the ideal. For Nietzsche insists that the type of man to be so valued is, necessarily, one who creates his own values. His own will is to give him the law of his action, his own will based on what he loves and forged from his own ordered desires. Not for a moment does Nietzsche preach the satisfaction of any and every desire. He does preach, to those to whom he is ready to preach anything, an individualism which is incompatible with any morality that forbids each and every man to trespass against others, to oppress them, or deny them their rights.

To understand the structure of Nietzsche’s philosophy of value one must notice that he is concerned with two valuations, firstly the one made by the splendid healthy individual who knows no law but his own, and secondly that implied in our admiration for him. Together they spell immoralism because morality would destroy or cripple the object of our admiration. Morality—the morality of rules, duties, and rights—is an obstacle to the achievement of the highest type of man. So Nietzsche believes

…precisely morality would be to blame if the highest power and splendor actually possible to the type man was never in fact attained.

Nietzsche’s doctrine thus undeniably tends to deprive people of protection. No one who follows it can use the teachings of morality to protect the weak against the strong. Nietzsche himself is ready for this deprivation, and in writing of it sometimes shows a lack of heart. It could never have been said of Nietzsche, as it was said of Dickens by Chesterton, that he disliked oppression, not this or that argument for it but “a certain look on the face of a man who looks down on another man.” At his worst Nietzsche seems so to disdain those he thinks of as weak, sickly, and mediocre, that he even relishes their sacrifice.

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