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No Sage

In response to:

On the Edge from the October 9, 1980 issue

To the Editors:

Professor Cameron, in his otherwise perceptive review of Ronald Hayman’s Nietzsche [NYR, October 9], left me puzzled and frustrated on one point: this is the dissonance between his initial characterization of Nietzsche as a “philosopher” and not a “sage” and his subsequent treatment of Nietzsche’s writing.

The distinction between the philosopher, “whose credit rests upon the force of his argument rather than upon the truth of his conclusions,” and the sage, “whose structures of language, even when they are argumentative, are evaluated by the use of other than logical criteria,” is in itself a shadowy affair. It fails, for example, to illuminate figures like Plato and Augustine, Spinoza and Wittgenstein. As it stands, it suggests that neither philosophers nor sages have anything true to say. In Nietzsche’s case, it has been used insidiously both by lionizing supporters and by disdainful detractors: in agreeing that he is a sage (or a poet, a seer, a cultural critic), the former have justified their inability and the latter, their unwillingness to read him closely and to come to terms with his unsettling views, It is not my distinction and, ultimately, not Professor Cameron’s, either. He found it readymade, and it was refreshing to see him begin by turning the tables: here, in a manner not unrelated to Nietzsche’s own, we might see a bad distinction being put to good polemical use.

Unfortunately, however, our expectation remained unfulfilled—hence my frustration. Professor Cameron goes on to say that Nietzsche’s intentions are “on the whole…. philosophical”; but by this he means that Nietzsche began philosophizing with Schopenhauer, “a starting point that was determined more by affinity of temper than by intellectual perplexity or by the cogency of an encountered argument.” And such criteria are clearly “other than logical.” Nietzsche’s program of exposing the power of grammar over thought is said to be “self-destructive”; Cameron emphasizes, in this context, Nietzsche’s philosophical “irresponsibility.” He rejects (under the spell of the weakest chapter in Danto’s excellent book) the eternal recurrence as “without sense”; he waves the Übermensch away as “crazy or obnoxious.” The will to power is “a dark business”; the theory of morality, “unintelligible as an argument and pernicious as a gospel.” Nietzsche’s view of interpretation, perhaps his most complex contribution, is construed so that it turns out to be “surely false or without sense.”

As to his positive contributions, we are told that Nietzsche’s strength finally lies in “his savage irony and in his command of a certain kind of aesthetic problem.” The former would have supplied him with apt comments on contemporary religious mercantilism; the latter is reduced to an insight lurking behind an apt comment on Schumann.

Given the distinction which governs Professor Cameron’s review, and despite his good intentions, Nietzsche fares badly. The correct conclusion is that the contrast between “philosopher” and “sage” has been drawn badly and that it cannot be put to good use. Within its terms, Nietzsche is bound to suffer: it was partly invented to be used against him. The moral (if I am allowed) is to follow Nietzsche’s own advice and be suspicious of obvious distinctions of this sort. They are not mere ornaments of thought to be used when and as we please; they embody serious principles of classification and can often dictate (as we have seen on this occasion) the direction which our thinking will take.

Alexander Nehamas

University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pa.

J.M Cameron replies:

The distinction between the philosopher and the sage is a rough one, but I thought I had made my use of it reasonably clear through the examples I chose to illustrate it. I am not absolutely sure what Professor Nehamas finds wrong with my treatment of Nietzsche, unless it is that having granted Nietzsche the status of philosopher, I then go on to suggest that he is a very confused one. I don’t think Nietzsche a philosopher because he began with Schopenhauer, but because in some of his work there are moments of pure intellectual energy and passion. As to the truth of what philosophers (or sages) say, here is surely a very difficult problem. This is why I distinguished in the work of philosophers force of argument rather than the truth of conclusions as the sign of philosophical power. This isn’t to say that the arguments are all right. If we allow that the world has well judged in picking out, say, Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Hume, and Kant as great philosophers, this obviously can’t be for their having contributed to a collection of harmonious truths. I wouldn’t add Nietzsche to this august list, any more than I would add Bradley or William James, fine philosopher as each one is. I do find Nietzsche uncommonly confused and inconsistent and nothing in Nehamas’s letter persuades me to take back this judgment. After all, it is possible to think Plato the greatest of the philosophers and also to find his central doctrine, the theory of Forms, deeply mistaken; and so with the Cartesian arguments that depend upon the Cogito. What diminishes Nietzsche’s stature is not so much that his arguments come unstuck as that he goes in for a kind of intellectual dandyism—this is what I have in mind when I call him irresponsible—not uncommon among men of letters in the nineteenth century.

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