In writing about Nietzsche’s immoralism I am going to ask a simple question about him, something that is difficult to do: it is hard to hold onto anything simple in the face of this determined joker, who loved masks and hidden things, and whose protean style is sometimes of the most lapidary aphoristic simplicity but often lush and rhetorical. It has been said that Thus Spake Zarathustra should be read as an opera, and it is surely a great shame that we never had a rendition by Anna Russell of those wild journeys between mountain, marketplace, and cave.
Nietzsche thought he could discredit morality; and I want to ask, “Was he right?” I think the question should be asked. It is always respectful to ask of a great philosopher whether what he says is true, and hardly respectful not to ask it. Why do so many contemporary moral philosophers, particularly of the Anglo-American analytic school, ignore Nietzsche’s attack on morality and just go on as if this extraordinary event in the history of thought had never occurred? It is true, of course, that it is hard for those of us who belong to the plain-speaking school of analytic philosophers to grapple with his work. We are used to ferreting out entailments, and lines of argument, and building up a theory from individual passages. And I do not think that one can work on Nietzsche quite like that. The unity of his writings—which is most remarkable in spite of their amazing richness and many superficial contradictions—comes from his attitudes, from his daring, his readiness to query everything, and from his special nose for vanity, for pretense, for timid evasion, and for that drive to domination which he finally supposed to be the principle of all life.
One must take account of Nietzsche’s attitudes; of the contempt he felt for modern European man, for the “newspaper-reading” public,1 for democracy, for nationalism, for Bismarck and all things German (save for Goethe, “the exception among Germans”2 ). And account too, of course, of his vituperative attitude to Christianity, which he saw as the religion of pity and weakness but also, at times, as the beneficially tyrannical source of spiritualization in man.3 One has to remember that Nietzsche was one who wanted to be an affirmer, not a caviler, who repeatedly praised lightness of spirit, and wrote much about dancing and laughter. When he put forward his strange theory of the eternal recurrence of all things—round and round again—this was most significantly a rejection of gloomy nihilism and a way of saying “yes” even to his own physically painful, and painfully lonely, life.
All this, and much more, is needed to interpret Nietzsche. But what, then, can he have to offer to the descendants of Frege and Russell, of G.E. Moore and Wittgenstein? What can we ourselves take from the strange Nietzschean symphony of subjectively interrelated attitudes and beliefs? Even in those matters in which there is overlap between his interests…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.