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Nietzsche's Enlightenment: The Free-Spirit Trilogy of the Middle Period

Nietzsche's Enlightenment: The Free-Spirit Trilogy of the Middle Period

by Paul Franco

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While much attention has been lavished on Friedrich Nietzsche’s earlier and later works, those of his so-called middle period have been generally neglected, perhaps because of their aphoristic style or perhaps because they are perceived to be inconsistent with the rest of his thought. With Nietzsche’s Enlightenment, Paul Franco gives this crucial


While much attention has been lavished on Friedrich Nietzsche’s earlier and later works, those of his so-called middle period have been generally neglected, perhaps because of their aphoristic style or perhaps because they are perceived to be inconsistent with the rest of his thought. With Nietzsche’s Enlightenment, Paul Franco gives this crucial section of Nietzsche’s oeuvre its due, offering a thoughtful analysis of the three works that make up the philosopher’s middle period: Human, All too Human; Daybreak; and The Gay Science.             It is Nietzsche himself who suggests that these works are connected, saying that their “common goal is to erect a new image and ideal of the free spirit.” Franco argues that in their more favorable attitude toward reason, science, and the Enlightenment, these works mark a sharp departure from Nietzsche’s earlier, more romantic writings and differ in important ways from his later, more prophetic writings, beginning with Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The Nietzsche these works reveal is radically different from the popular image of him and even from the Nietzsche depicted in much of the secondary literature; they reveal a rational Nietzsche, one who preaches moderation instead of passionate excess and Dionysian frenzy. Franco concludes with a wide-ranging examination of Nietzsche’s later works, tracking not only how his outlook changes from the middle period to the later but also how his commitment to reason and intellectual honesty in his middle works continues to inform his final writings.

Editorial Reviews

Michael Allen Gillespie
“Poststructuralists have long mined the works of Nietzsche’s middle period in their efforts to employ Nietzsche as an advocate of their deconstructionist enterprise. Paul Franco shows us in a wonderful fashion why their reading is mistaken and in doing so reveals a Nietzsche who is much more friendly to the Enlightenment and the humanist tradition than is generally imagined. It is the best book I know of on this period of Nietzsche’s thought.”
Laurence Lampert
“Franco’s writing is marked by clear-headed, intelligent judgment that makes it a pleasure to read. In particular, his evident mastery of Nietzsche’s texts, including the notebooks and letters, puts him in a position to view Nietzsche’s achievement chronologically and to note, as he constantly does, just what is new, just what is said for the first time. Franco gives his reader the sense of being educated by watching a truly great thinker grow into himself with ever-deeper understanding and an ever more comprehensive perspective. And Franco always seems to know just where he is in the arc of Nietzsche’s development, consistently signaling just how the new relates to and advances what Nietzsche had previously achieved.”
Choice - W. J. Coats
“Franco ably shows how the mature Nietzsche evolves from the middle Nietzsche and how the scientific and rationalist aspects of the middle period condition and constrain some of the apparent excesses of the mature works. . . . Recommended.”
Journal of Nietzsche Studies - Keith Ansell Pearson
“[Nietzsche’s Enlightenment] offers a highly lucid and incisive engagement with the middle period of Nietzsche and genuinely illuminates the texts of this period. Franco has read these graceful texts carefully and diligently and he advances his claims and insights about them in a measured and thoughtful manner. . . . [A] most welcome addition to our appreciation of Nietzsche and an important and helpful study of the middle period.”
Review of Politics - Jeffrey Church
“Insightful and rigorous, Nietzsche’s Enlightenment is an essential companion to Nietzsche’s middle works, one that at the same time helps illuminate the philosophical motivations of Nietzsche’s thought as a whole.”

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Nietzsche's Enlightenment

The Free-Spirit Trilogy of the Middle Period

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2011 Paul Franco
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-25981-9

Chapter One

Human, All too Human and the Problem of Culture

Immediately upon opening Human, All too Human, the break that it constitutes with Nietzsche's earlier writings announces itself at the level of style. Gone is the labored effort to imitate the conventions of the scholarly treatise or the literary essay. Instead, we find numbered paragraphs of varying lengths, each with its own title and discrete argument. In the scholarly literature, these paragraphs have conventionally been referred to as "aphorisms," and even Nietzsche refers to them as such, using the German words Aphorismus and Sentenz. But from the outset, it is clear that Nietzsche's aphorisms are very different from the brief, polished maxims of the French moralists La Rochefoucauld, Chamfort, and Vauvenargues, or the witty jottings of G. C. Lichtenberg, whom Nietzsche considered to be one of the masters of German prose (WS 109). While some of the aphorisms of Human, All too Human have the epigrammatic character found in these other writers—in the chapters on "Man and Society," "Woman and Child," and "Man Alone With Himself," for example—most consist of longer paragraphs designed to carry the weight of philosophically substantive discussions.

What prompted this change in Nietzsche's style? Throughout the 1870s, he read constantly and with deep admiration the French moralists mentioned above, along with Montaigne and Pascal. But what seems to have brought home to him the possibilities of the aphorism for contemporary philosophical purposes was the use made of this literary form by his friend Paul Rée in his 1875 Psychological Observations. Both Rée and Nietzsche were attracted by the cool, detached, and scientific character of the aphorism, especially as it was employed by the French moralists. For Nietzsche, the cold clarity of the aphorism took on special significance in his struggle against the cloudy enchantments of romanticism. At one point, he even compares the great French moralists—Montaigne, La Rochefoucauld, La Bruyère, Fontenelle, Vauvenargues, and Chamfort—to his beloved Greeks. The Greeks, he claims, would have admired the "clarity and delicate precision" of these French writers, whereas they would have been filled with repugnance by the "obscurity and exaggeration" of Goethe's and Schopenhauer's styles. The former, Nietzsche sardonically comments, "liked to embrace the clouds more than he should have," and the latter "almost always wanders among images of things instead of things themselves" (WS 214).

It was not only the cold, precise, anti-romantic character of the aphorism that appealed to Nietzsche. He also recognized that its fragmentary nature could be very effective in conveying philosophical ideas. The incompleteness of an aphorism forces the reader to fill in what is left unsaid and thereby to think along with the philosophical writer. Nietzsche explains: the "incomplete presentation of an idea, of a whole philosophy, is sometimes more effective than its exhaustive realization: more is left for the beholder to do, he is impelled to continue working on that which appears so strongly etched before him in light and shadow, to think it through to the end" (HH 178). He makes a similar point in a note from the winter of 1876–77, adding that the maxim (Sentenz) not only makes the qualified reader work harder to understand an author but also keeps the unqualified reader from understanding what is being said: "therefore one can express questionable things harmlessly in maxims" (KSA 8:20). This esoteric function motivates Nietzsche's use of the aphorism throughout his career. As he puts it in a later remark: one of the reasons for his brevity is that, "being an immoralist, one has to take steps against corrupting innocents" (GS 381).

As I pointed out in the preface with respect to the French deconstructionist reading of Nietzsche, however, one must guard against misinterpreting Nietzsche's aphoristic style in Human, All too Human, or in the middle works in general, as an effort to avoid any sort of systematic coherence, unity, or consistency. Even Walter Kaufmann, who otherwise grasps that Nietzsche's aphorisms amount to more than "a glittering mosaic of independent monads," an "anarchy of atoms" belonging to no system or whole, can fall into this misinterpretation with respect to the middle works. Of Human, All too Human he writes, for example, that Nietzsche proceeds "quite unsystematically and consider[s] each problem on its own merits without a theory to prove or an ax to grind." But Nietzsche makes clear that by writing in fragments he does not mean to deny that they belong to a whole or that his insights are not profoundly interconnected. In an aphorism entitled "Against the Shortsighted," he writes: "Do you think this work must be fragmentary because I give it to you (and have to give it to you) in fragments?" (AOM 128). Against Kaufmann, but even more against the deconstructionist readings of Nietzsche by commentators like Deleuze, Derrida, and Kofman, I argue in this chapter that the aphorisms that comprise Human, All too Human are not simply isolated or disconnected insights and that Nietzsche ultimately does have a theory to prove and even an ax to grind, albeit a very complicated one.

One obvious way in which the aphorisms of Human, All too Human begin to lose the appearance of being isolated monads is that they are organized into thematic chapters, with metaphysics being treated in the first, morality in the second, religion in the third, art in the fourth, culture in the fifth, and so forth. The two "supplements" to Human, All too Human that Nietzsche wrote—Assorted Opinions and Maxims (published in 1879) and The Wanderer and His Shadow (published in 1880)—were not divided into chapters as the original book was, but the aphorisms that comprised them were again organized thematically and arranged in exactly the same order as the original. Still, though these chapter divisions supply a certain organization to the book, they do not really provide a key to how the book is to be read as a whole. The chapters stand alongside one another without any clear indication as to how they are to be integrated into a single, coherent argument.

In the absence of such an indication, most commentators end up picking out the parts of Human, All too Human that interest them and leaving the rest alone. The aspect of the book that has received the most attention is Nietzsche's investigation into the origin and nature of morality, since this is the aspect that points most directly to his later genealogy of morals. I, too, take up this crucial aspect of the argument of Human, All too Human at some length below. Nevertheless, the motivation for Nietzsche's investigation of morality remains mysterious unless it is placed in the context of his dominant concern at the time with the problem of culture. Nietzsche announces this theme in an important aphorism toward the beginning of the book, disclosing at the same time the death of God that precipitates the problem of culture:

Since the belief has ceased that a God broadly directs the destinies of the world and ... is leading mankind gloriously upward, man has to set himself ecumenical goals embracing the whole earth.... [I]f mankind is not to destroy itself through such conscious universal rule, it must first of all attain to a hitherto altogether unprecedented knowledge of the preconditions of culture as a scientific standard for ecumenical goals. Herein lies the tremendous task facing the great spirits of the coming century. (HH 25)

One of my main purposes in this chapter is to demonstrate that the theme of culture represents not merely an overlooked aspect of Human, All too Human but the key to the book as a whole and the axis around which all of the other reflections contained it in it—on metaphysics, morality, religion, and art—revolve.

As I have already shown in the prologue, the problem of culture had been the pervasive preoccupation of Nietzsche's writings prior to Human, All too Human. There Nietzsche attributed the fragmentation of modern culture to the "immoderate, indiscriminate drive for knowledge" (KSA 7:19 [21]), especially as it was evinced in historical scholarship; and he called on art, myth, and sometimes even religion to restore cultural unity and wholeness. The negative conclusion that Nietzsche drew throughout these early writings, at least up to "Schopenhauer as Educator," was that it is "impossible to erect a culture upon knowledge" (KSA 7:19 [105]).

It is precisely this conclusion that Nietzsche rejects in Human, All too Human, arguing instead that the "higher culture" of the future will be based on knowledge and science rather than on religion, art, or metaphysical philosophy. The weakness of Nietzsche's earlier theory of culture—the weakness, in many ways, of romanticism in general—lay in its inability to provide the unity and wholeness it desperately sought. In the first Untimely Meditation on David Strauss, Nietzsche defined culture as "above all, unity of style in all the expressions of the life of a people" (DS 1). By this standard, however, Nietzsche's early theory of culture fails egregiously, requiring as it does the suppression of important aspects of the modern spirit and involving itself in the paradoxes of self-conscious deception and myth-making. Human, All too Human, on the other hand, by grounding culture on knowledge and reconciling it with the modern scientific spirit, makes a more plausible effort to achieve the cultural unity and wholeness that eluded the earlier theory. It is an effort to overcome the deadly "dialectic of Enlightenment" and reconcile science and culture, knowledge and life.

The primary locus of Nietzsche's reflections on culture in Human, All too Human is the chapter entitled "Marks of Higher and Lower Culture," which is literally the central chapter (the fifth of nine) of the book. Interestingly, in one of Nietzsche's early plans for the book, he placed the chapter on "The Philosophy of Culture" first (KSA 8:25 [3]). The positive conception of culture defended in this chapter rests on a critique of the false notion of culture that Nietzsche finds dominant in nineteenth-century Europe. In the first instance, this involves a critique of romantic, Wagnerian art, which Nietzsche takes up in the fourth chapter of Human, All too Human. But the Wagnerian romantic-artistic cultural project is itself a derivative phenomenon resting on religious (Christian), moral, and ultimately metaphysical (Schopenhauerian) assumptions. Accordingly, these are subjected to critical analysis in the first three chapters of the book. It is to the deepest substratum of Nietzsche's critical excavation of the problem of modern culture—metaphysics— that we turn first.

The Errors of Metaphysics

The first chapter of Human, All too Human is entitled "Of First and Last Things" and deals with what Nietzsche regards as the fundamental errors of metaphysics. Though his critique of these errors has wide-ranging implications for the whole of the philosophical tradition, it is clear that the primary target is Schopenhauer's metaphysics. In the Preface to the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche claims that it was to Schopenhauer that Human, All too Human, "the passion and the concealed contradiction of that book, addressed itself as if to a contemporary (—for that book too was a 'polemic')" (GM Preface 5). Though Nietzsche refers specifically to Schopenhauer's moral teaching about pity in this passage, the first chapter of Human, All too Human indicates that his polemic extends at least equally to Schopenhauer's metaphysics.

The chapter begins with three important aphorisms devoted to philosophical method. In the first, Nietzsche asks the question: "[H]ow can something originate in its opposite, for example rationality in irrationality, the sentient in the dead, logic in unlogic, disinterested contemplation in covetous desire, living for others in egoism, truth in error?" (HH 1). This, of course, is exactly the question with which he begins his later account of "the prejudices of the philosophers" in Beyond Good and Evil, where he claims that the fundamental faith of metaphysical philosophy is the "faith in opposite values" (BGE 2). He makes a similar claim in Human, All too Human, arguing that metaphysical philosophy is characterized by its denial of the human, all too human origin of our highest values and by its assumption that "the more highly valued thing [has] a miraculous source in the very kernel and being of the 'thing in itself.'" Historical philosophy, on the other hand, whose method Nietzsche deploys throughout Human, All too Human, denies that any such opposites exist in human experience, holding instead that "the most glorious colors" in our moral, religious, and aesthetic conceptions "are derived from base, indeed despised materials" (HH 1; see also WS 67).

Nietzsche elaborates on this historical approach to philosophy in the second aphorism. The common failing of all philosophers, he argues, is that they take human beings as they currently exist and assume that they are "eternal facts" embodying a fixed and constant nature. "Lack of historical sense is the family failing of all philosophers." What these philosophers fail to realize, according to Nietzsche, is that human beings and everything about them have become. This fact is easy to overlook if one's attention is confined to the last four thousand years of history, during which mankind "has not altered very much." The most fundamental changes in human nature took place prior to this period. Echoing English social theorist Walter Bagehot, whom he read in 1874, Nietzsche states that "everything essential in the development of mankind took place in primeval times" (HH 2).

Before developing his specific criticisms of various metaphysical errors, Nietzsche devotes one final aphorism to the distinction between his new, historical approach to philosophical questions and the old, metaphysical approach. Given my focus in this chapter, it is noteworthy that this aphorism makes a connection between Nietzsche's new, historical approach to philosophy and the overarching question of culture. He writes: "It is the mark of a higher culture to value the little unpretentious truths which have been discovered by means of rigorous method more highly than the errors handed down by metaphysical and artistic ages and men, which blind us and make us happy." While the latter are no doubt "fair, splendid, intoxicating, perhaps indeed enrapturing," they nevertheless belong to a "lower culture." Here Nietzsche discloses the philosophy of history that frames the entire argument of Human, All too Human. Human history consists in the movement from a lower culture occupied with "spinning out forms and symbols" to a higher culture marked by a "manly," scientific spirit. In the latter, cultural energy is no longer spent on constructing sublime edifices; rather, "our arts themselves grow ever more intellectual, our senses more spiritual" (HH 3).

Since he refers to the "scientific spirit" in this aphorism, it is perhaps not amiss to say a little more about what exactly Nietzsche means by "science" in Human, All too Human—and, indeed, throughout the middle period. That he invokes the scientific spirit rather than science simply is in many ways characteristic of his understanding of this activity. Science is less about the products of inquiry than it is about the process of relentless and radical questioning of everything that presents itself as certain knowledge. As he puts it in another aphorism: "[T]he scientific spirit rests upon an insight into the methods [of science], and if these were lost all the other products of science together would not suffice to prevent a restoration of superstition and folly." Many people can learn the "facts of science," but this does not mean that they possess the "instinctive mistrust" that is the hallmark of the "spirit of science" (HH 635). The emphasis on method and mistrust in this aphorism remains a key feature of Nietzsche's understanding of science throughout his career, and it receives vivid expression in the quote from Descartes' Discourse on Method that he chose as the motto for the 1878 edition of Human, All too Human.


Excerpted from Nietzsche's Enlightenment by PAUL FRANCO Copyright © 2011 by Paul Franco. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Paul Franco is professor of government at Bowdoin College and the author of Michael Oakeshott: An Introduction, Hegel’s Philosophy of Freedom, and The Political Philosophy of Michael Oakeshott.

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