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This convenient new compendium contains the five most philosophically significant of Nietzsche’s post-Thus Spoke Zarathustra writings. In his characteristically idiosyncratic literary biography, Ecce Homo, Nietzsche writes that the books he composed after his renowned Zarathustra are “fish hooks” for catching readers who share his sense that a cataclysmic shift in human psychology has just occurred. Alas, Nietzsche laments, in his time there were “no fish.” No one else had heard the ominous splitting of history in two with the advent of nihilism—the uncanny and pervasive feeling that life is devoid of all meaning, purpose, and value—that so profoundly affected Nietzsche he could do nothing else with his life but articulate this event. “Nihilism is at our door,” Nietzsche famously wrote. Do we perceive it yet? After more than a century, do we recognize that the psychological landscape in which we move about is the very one described by Nietzsche? How many of us, even after thoroughly reading his books, see that if we burrow deep enough into the intractable dilemmas of our age, we discover at their roots Nietzsche’s preoccupation: “The aim is lacking: ‘Why’ finds no answer…”? It is often said that Nietzsche is self-contradicting, confusing, and even incomprehensible. Yet the books gathered together in this volume articulate his distinct perspective at least as clearly and consistently as most other influential philosophers in the history of the West have articulated theirs. Moreover, these works are written in a beautifully stylized and frequently poetic language that dispenses with virtually all technical jargon. Each of Nietzsche’s sentences and paragraphs, as well as his whole books, are masterfully crafted works of art in addition to being intellectual lightening bolts that lay bare with every flash a radically new way of grasping reality, the world, and ourselves. Why, then, the persistent lament about Nietzsche’s obscurity? Perhaps the fault for this lies not so much in Nietzsche’s writings as in ourselves. Perhaps it is due to the fact that we are in denial about the possible existence of the reality Nietzsche describes. We couldn’t continue with life as usual if we truly took him seriously, yet not knowing how otherwise to proceed, we simply “don’t understand him." This, however, would not be the case if we were “fish” like those Nietzsche seeks to catch with his last major works. Such fish already have gills for the oxygen of the reality Nietzsche describes. In fact, they are anxiously seeking entry to that reality, for they have an intuition that only there will they breathe freely. In the hope that there are by now many such fish, this introduction to Nietzsche’s five most straightforward elaborations of his perspective attempts to bait his hooks with a brief account of several of Nietzsche’s key themes and their direct relevance to easily recognizable features of our contemporary social and cultural reality.
Friedrich Nietzsche was born in 1844, in Saxony, Germany. His father, a protestant minister, died while Nietzsche was still a youth, and as a result he was raised predominantly by three powerful women: his mother, aunt, and sister. He was a brilliant student and a prodigy in the burgeoning field of philology (the analysis of the grammar, syntax, and vocabulary of ancient languages), receiving the position of full professor at the philology department of the University of Basel, Switzerland, at the unprecedented age of twenty-four. His courses, however, were in subjects too arcane to attract many students and life-long health problems increased during his tenure at Basel to the point of forcing him to step down permanently in 1879. His first book, The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music, published in 1872, propounded a groundbreaking reinterpretation of pre-Socratic, ancient Greek culture which ultimately supplanted the romanticized ideal of “ancient Greece” that had held sway in European intellectual circles since the Renaissance. Nietzsche’s most conventionally academic book, The Birth of Tragedy was nonetheless controversial and earned its author an enduring reputation as a gifted but unduly contentious writer and thinker. His subsequent publications (which include Untimely Meditations; Human, All Too Human; The Dawn; The Gay Science; Thus Spoke Zarathustra; Beyond Good and Evil; and The Genealogy of Morals) would do little in Germany during his productive lifetime but cement this reputation. Nietzsche suffered a complete mental breakdown in late 1888 that reduced him to a near vegetative state for his remaining eleven years of life. However, in the period immediately preceding this breakdown he was at his most prolific, producing numerous major works between 1886 and 1889, four of which were penned in 1888 alone. By the time he died in 1900, his works were already becoming internationally recognized as masterpieces of philosophy and literature, prompting his custodian-sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, to publish a complete edition of his writings in 1901 that contained a first, short version of The Will to Power, hastily assembled from Nietzsche’s notebooks at his sister’s behest and in accordance with an outline for the proposed work that Nietzsche had discarded. The facts that Nietzsche’s sister was married to a well-known anti-Semite and was reported to have told Hitler he was the embodiment of her brother’s ideal are largely responsible for the unwarranted historical association of Nietzsche’s thought with Nazism that has greatly prejudiced the reception of his philosophy until this day. This is especially unfortunate since the works Nietzsche completed with his own hand have long been very widely available and offer a sufficiently comprehensive account of his thought to serve as a corrective to any distortions for which either The Will to Power or any of Nietzsche’s sister’s actions may have been responsible.
Nietzsche’s writings have had an enormous impact on European culture, decisively influencing Sigmund Freud, Max Weber, Thomas Mann, Albert Camus, the Symbolists and Surrealists, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Michel Foucault, just to name a few. British and American cultures have proven less openly welcoming to Nietzsche’s influence, but through European scholars’ immigration to both countries following the rise of Nazism as well as through English-language writers and poets such as Joseph Conrad and T. S. Elliot, his impact on the English-speaking world has also been deep and wide, if somewhat subterranean. One need merely look at the number of library shelves groaning under the weight of Nietzsche commentaries to gauge his enduring appeal.
The five books included in this compendium, though each quite different from the others and totally unique, are all cut from the same cloth in terms of philosophical content. Nietzsche’s views on all decisive points had become settled before he began writing Zarathustra (first part published in 1883), and thus each one of his succeeding books functions as a different window onto the same essential set of insights. Beyond Good and Evil (1886) is intended as a prosaic presentation of the main themes treated more symbolically and poetically in Zarathustra: namely, how a hypocritically self-righteous interpretation of everything in the world has insinuated itself into all aspects of modern intellectual life and what getting “beyond” this interpretation entails and requires. On The Genealogy of Morals (1887) describes in three polemical essays how the denial of the goodness of our everyday world and everything that belongs to it came to be the dominant standpoint and at what expense. In The Twilight of the Idols (written in 1888 and, like the following two books, completed by Nietzsche but published after his mental demise), Nietzsche’s tone becomes more strident, as would increasingly be the case in his last works. This brief book finds Nietzsche slinging “arrows” seemingly haphazardly in many directions, yet the work as a whole attains a remarkable continuity and unity. Almost all the major themes of Nietzsche’s late works, such as “the will to power,” “the eternal return of the same,” and “the revaluation of all values,” are touched upon here and often very precisely, succinctly, and seemingly effortlessly elucidated. Of Twilight Nietzsche once commented, “This work is my philosophy in a nutshell….”1 The Antichrist (written in 1888) is the first and only completed volume of what Nietzsche projected to be a four-part work titled The Revaluation of All Values, the successor to his abandoned Will to Power project. In it, Nietzsche sets his sights on Christianity—which he carefully distinguishes from what he understands the historical Jesus to have represented and taught—and he attacks it with perhaps the most persuasive anti-Christian arguments that have ever been written. It is no book for faint-hearted believers. Finally, Ecce Homo (written in 1888) is Nietzsche’s self-styled autobiography. It illuminates Nietzsche’s concept of the person who affirms the absolute goodness of everyday existence by presenting Nietzsche himself as an example of this type, and it also contains book-by-book accounts of his works that offer important insights into what Nietzsche regarded as their significance. Taken together and read straight through, these books offer the reader a definitive account of Nietzsche’s perspective as he intended it to be presented and a sweeping attack upon everything the modern Western world holds to be good about itself.
Turning to a closer engagement with the substance of Nietzsche’s texts, it is important to note that Nietzsche’s use of bombastic sounding catch-phrases for some of his most central ideas has been at least partly responsible for his thought being so easily misunderstood and wrongly appropriated. For this reason a clarification of some of the most important of these phrases and their place in Nietzsche’s overarching philosophy should serve as a more useful introduction to the books contained in this volume than a more extensive sketch of the contents of each one. It could be fairly said that the most frequently abused of all Nietzsche’s shorthand slogans for his most important insights is “the will to power.” In the posthumously assembled collection of excerpts from Nietzsche’s late notebooks titled The Will to Power, the term “will to power” is used in a more technical and philosophically systematic way than it is in the five works completed by Nietzsche and contained here. In fact, the philosophy contained in the book The Will to Power and the notebooks from which its content is drawn is much closer to a full-blown philosophical system than anything one finds in the works Nietzsche intended for publication. The meaning of the slogan “will to power” in the works contained in this volume is deceptively simple: it stands for the human condition as it is now, always has been, and always will be. What makes this idea deceptively simple is that by positing the human condition as essentially unchanging, Nietzsche has in one stroke challenged the general assumption that mankind makes some sort of progress through the course of history. In this context, two of Nietzsche’s other most important insights and their respective slogans, “the eternal return of the same” and “the revaluation of all values,” come into the picture as corollaries and elaborations of the idea of “will to power.” For if there is no progress in human history, then we do not confront something new in the human condition in different historical eras, but rather we continually encounter different incarnations of the same basic reality and the same basic human dynamic—i.e., an eternal return of the same. Moreover, insofar as the common objective of Christianity and modern science has been to affect man and the world in such a way that a more perfect future condition (either here or in the hereafter) could be secured, and as a result the dominant mode of evaluating everything has been in terms of whether it helped or hindered the realization of that more perfect condition, Nietzsche’s challenging the reality of any such ideal forces upon us both a need to consider different possible criteria for evaluating everything and an obligation to consider the consequences of having measured everything in terms of a nonexistent ideal for more than two millennia. Together these comprise the task of a revaluation of all values. Finally, since the reigning interpretation has been one that injected a moral hue into all of its evaluations, Nietzsche’s rejection of the universal validity of this mode of evaluation makes him a challenger of the notion that traditional concepts of “good” and “evil” are legitimate measures of the value of things—in other words, he becomes, in his own acerbic terms, “an immoralist.” Moreover, anyone who frees himself from the need to judge everything from a moralistic perspective, conformity to which has up to now been universally pushed upon the individual by society through all imaginable overt and covert means, places him or herself in the same condition as Nietzsche’s “free-spirits” —i.e., those who are able to fashion values for themselves and to evaluate each aspect of their experience by the criterion of whether or not it promotes their self-realization and the fulfillment of their unique human potential.
One way of further illuminating the radical new perspective imminent in the web of interwoven Nietzschean themes and slogans just described is by relating it to the “prophetic tradition” of social criticism that derives its name from the Old Testament prophets and is sometimes also said to include Jesus Christ. The ancient Hebrew prophets decried the situation of mankind during their era, pointing out the persistent cruelty of man against man, the use of physical and psychological force to maintain adherence to social orders that were extremely hierarchical in all respects and radically inequitable. They characterized relations between people as cruel struggles between opposing forces trying to gain advantage over and dominate one another. To this reality they opposed an idealized one in which human relationships were to be ruled by compassion and love, and where social, political, and economic injustices were to be minimized or eliminated. We hear many voices calling for movement toward such a society in our time and almost all of us have some sympathy with them. But Nietzsche in effect takes a big black marker and puts an “X” over the ideal world that is set against our own everyday one by the prophets and their present-day progeny. It is an illusion. It will not come to pass in this reality or the next. It is a lie that is used by some people to manipulate others into behaving in a way that benefits the former and deceives the latter into thinking it benefits them also.
What, according to Nietzsche, is undeniably real? The everyday world the prophets and their successors condemn is the undeniably real. Yes, it has many vile and horrific aspects, but we should not allow that to drive us into denial of the fact that this is the reality we face, the reality we must come to terms with if we want to be intellectually honest with ourselves. There is no “outside,” no “beyond” the reality the prophets decry. As the only world there is, the prophets’ attitude toward it is one of life-denial and negation, which Nietzsche characterizes as “No-saying.” Moreover, the No-sayers have elevated their life-denying assessment of the one and only reality to the status of highest moral standpoint. Everything that denies the value of this reality is “good.” Everything that thrives in, bolsters, and says Yes to life as it actually is, is “evil.” The mere acknowledgement and acceptance of the actually existing state of affairs is stigmatized as morally reprehensible.
For Nietzsche, the real challenge men and women face today is the one they have always faced: to find a way to comport themselves toward the reality of the world they confront with playfulness, joy, and high spirits, despite its fearful aspects. He does not underestimate the difficulty of this task but maintains that once we have recognized that our ideals of the future or “beyond” are narcotics with which we numb ourselves to the undeniably real pain of existence and blind ourselves to what is nonetheless beautiful, good, strong, and true in it, we are faced with a choice: living with this knowledge and needing to find a life-affirming way to do so or anesthetizing ourselves once again. Nietzsche’s revaluation of all values places the value of honesty—in particular, “intellectual honesty” or honesty with oneself—high up in the new table of values, and from the perspective of this valuation, the advocates of continued “sleep”—the No-sayers—automatically drop to the bottom rung of Nietzsche's human hierarchy. It is they who desire mankind to be a real mediocrity, cowering from the present in the hope of a future of weak-willed ease. Against them Nietzsche opposes the immoralists and free-spirits who reject the notions that the present is somehow deficient for human fulfillment and that the morally ambiguous abundance of life as it is must be suppressed and denied for ethical reasons. Rather, such life-affirming individuals suspect a non-moral motivation behind the deeds of those who say No to this life: they suffer from it too much to acknowledge that it is the one and only life there is. Such sufferers always exist, says Nietzsche. They are probably always in the majority. And that depressing fact must also be accepted by the Yes-sayers as an essential part of the reality that eternally returns. Nietzsche’s objection to those who suffer from life too much is not that they are weak or have any less right to exist or do what they must to survive than anyone else, but rather that at least since the advent of Christianity they have universalized their own type. It is human nature, they claim, to suffer inexorably from this life and aspire to escape it into some ideal future or beyond. And insofar as the born No-sayers have been effective in propagating this message, they have made those few individuals born with the rare capacity to say Yes to this life believe in the truth of the life-denying viewpoint and see themselves as fellow sufferers. These few potential “lucky hits” have been stunted in their cradles. All their Yes-saying characteristics have been morally stigmatized. The incipient Yes-sayers’ innate strengths and natural advantages have been blunted or turned against them, used to tie the Yes-sayers down and keep them from discerning that for them there is an alternative to life-denial. They have the potential to be real, everyday life-affirming beings, but the No-sayers have convinced them that no such beings are possible in the world today. It is for suppressing the emergence and self-discovery of the life-affirming few that Nietzsche resents and attacks the life-denying majority with such venom. To belong to the herd is fine for herd members, but to demand that everybody be a herd member, to will that all humanity become herd—this is an outrageous swindle of unprecedented proportions. For Nietzsche, “bad taste!”
As thus described, Nietzsche’s philosophy is highly contentious. One might well wonder just how it is that a philosopher spewing such pungent notions should come to be not only among the most famous thinkers of our time but also among the most influential. For, as was noted above, it is indisputable that Nietzsche has become exceedingly influential over the course of the past century. Leaving aside for the moment his purely literary appeal, it is worth considering why Nietzsche’s ideas are being found ever-increasingly persuasive by experts in the disciplines to which they relate. The answer to this question lies in the often-overlooked fact that Nietzsche was an acknowledged linguistic genius, a first-rate expert in “philology” (literally, “love of the word [or speech]”). While he may not have read closely many of the celebrated tomes of modern philosophy, he mastered at a very early age all the classics and many of the obscurities of Western literature up through the Renaissance. That meant his understanding of human consciousness was the product of a deep and profound grasp of the birth of highly articulate speech (with the ancient Greeks) and its development and change up through the emergence of modern Western languages. He may not have known the nuances of every passage in Hegel’s Logic, but he very likely knew the nuances of every line of Greek tragedy better than Hegel did. Though Nietzsche doesn’t overly celebrate himself as an initiator of what is now called “the linguistic turn” in philosophy, it is in connection with the intellectual revolution brought about by this turn (in which Nietzsche did play a key role) that his philosophy has become so persuasive. Nietzsche discovers a new level on which to approach philosophical issues, moving beyond argumentative discourse over concepts and values to the analysis of the language used to express concepts and values and the study of how this language emerged and sometimes changed quite radically over time. Suddenly, following Nietzsche, the philosophical issue ceases to be the accuracy of what is said in a given statement (about the world, God, the soul, truth, etc.) and instead becomes what are the possible reasons why a specific person at a specific time might have made precisely this kind of statement and/or found it to be persuasive. This is a radical shift indeed. Once scientific analysis of language revealed that it is inherently fluid and that “truth” is an attribute of certain uses of language, not something to do with the relation between statements and an independent reality to which they refer, the “truth” of a given statement became no longer as philosophically significant as the reasons for asserting and holding something to be true. By being among the first to think through the radical consequences of this discovery, Nietzsche transposed the whole of Western philosophical and cultural history into a new key and shifted the philosophical quest from the search for goodness and truth to the search for the largely unconscious reasons for claiming and believing that something is good or true. Exploration of the ramifications of this intellectual revolution with regard to what kinds of knowledge are accessible to human inquiry is among the central concerns of contemporary philosophy and social science. And in this context, no one has been more effective at calling into question what was previously regarded as most certain, good, and true than Friedrich Nietzsche. It is for this reason, as well as because of the intrinsic beauty of his writings and attraction of his counterintuitive but powerfully stated views, that Nietzsche has become a towering figure in the Western philosophical tradition and that the works contained in this compendium will remain timeless masterpieces of the highest intellectual and cultural importance.
David Taffel is the author of Nietzsche Unbound: The Struggle for Spirit in the Age of Science and the managing editor of The Conversationalist, a global news and culture website. He has a Ph.D. in philosophy from the New School for Social Research where his dissertation was awarded the Hans Jonas Memorial Prize for Philosophy.
1 Selected Letters of Friedrich Nietzsche, ed. and trans. by Christopher Middleton, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1996, letter #181.