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“Supposing that truth is a women—what then?” This is the very first sentence in Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. Not very often are philosophers so disarmingly explicit in their intention to discomfort the reader. Nietzsche’s book is carefully designed to disorient the reader, to systematically provoke and tease her to the point of stealing away her certainties. One might say Nietzsche vowed to bring “not peace, but sword.” Nietzsche: the feeble, shy, always polite and courteous Nietzsche. The natural state of Nietzsche’s reader (at least the natural state of the reader generous enough to take him seriously) is a state of perplexity. Yet it is precisely the process of overcoming this perplexity that makes Nietzsche worth reading: not that in this process one would come to adopt Nietzsche’s teachings (that would be hardly the point), but it is there, in the course of this recovery, that one realizes how self-rewarding having one’s ideas challenged sometimes can be. How refreshing and empowering! It is above all a matter of healthy living when it comes to the life of the mind.
In several respects Friedrich Nietzsche’s life (1844–1900) seems to be a “good story,” a worthy piece of fiction, rather than a biography proper: it is almost too interesting to be true. Ironically, the philosopher of “the death of God” came from a very pious background: “He was the heir of a line of Lutheran pastors going back to the beginning of the seventeenth century, his father and both grandfathers were Lutheran ministers.”[i] Not surprisingly, the expectation was that he, too, would become a pastor one day. At the prestigious grammar school Pforta, which he attended between 1858 and 1864 (and whose alumni include major figures of German letters such as Klopstock, Fichte, Leopold von Ranke), Nietzsche received the best humanistic education available, which allowed him to start studying theology at the university level. At Pforta Nietzsche met Paul Deussen (1845–1919), the future scholar of Sanskrit with whom he would develop a lasting friendship. The ardent religious atmosphere in which Nietzsche grew up can still be felt in this early autobiographical piece (Aus meinem Leben, 1858):
Like a child, I trust in His grace: He will preserve us all, that no misfortune may befall us. But His holy will be done! All He gives I will joyfully accept: happiness and unhappiness, poverty and wealth, and boldly look even death in the face, which shall one day unite us all in eternal joy and bliss. Yes, dear Lord, let Thy face shine upon us forever! Amen.[ii]
It is obviously difficult to reconcile a passage like this with the anti-Christian stance that Nietzsche would later take. Yet, we should keep in mind that at exactly the same time he was defining himself as the “Anti-Christ” (late 1880s), his landlady in Genoa used to call him il piccolo santo (“the little saint”). Here, as elsewhere, there is something difficult to grasp about Nietzsche’s deeper impulses. Nietzsche as a theological figure is a problem yet to be studied in depth.
In 1864, Nietzsche began his theology studies at Bonn University, but after only one semester he transferred to classical philology. One year later, when his favorite professor Friedrich W. Ritschl (1806–1876) moved to Leipzig University, Nietzsche followed him there. From then on, for a number of years, Nietzsche dedicated himself completely to philological studies (mostly Greek literature), and soon enough his teachers recognized him as an extremely promising and industrious young philologist. However, read retrospectively from the vantage point of Nietzsche’s late work, this stage in Nietzsche’s life betrays a certain degree of, so to speak, self-induced alienation; it was as though, through all his compulsive work and awe-inspiring industry, Nietzsche was trying to forget about something—possibly about himself (his deeper self). When reading in The Genealogy of Morals a passage like the following, one cannot help seeing it as a confession:
science today is a hiding-place for all kinds of discontent, lack of conviction, gnawing worm, despectio sui, bad conscience—it is none other than the restlessness which results from lack of ideals […] The diligence of our best scholars, their heedless industry, the smoke rising from their heads by day and night, their mastery of the craft itself—how often the real meaning of all this consists in keeping something hidden from oneself! Science as a means of self-anaesthesis.[iii]
In recognition of his outstanding accomplishments in classical philology, in 1869 Ritschl recommended Nietzsche, who was barely twenty-four years old, for the position of extraordinary professor of classical philology at Basel University. Still in a self-alienating mood or simply as an existential experiment (Versuch), Nietzsche accepted the position, and for the next ten years he was technically a teacher of classical philology. In 1872, he published The Birth of Tragedy (Die Geburt der Tragödie), which launched him as an original philosopher and, at the same time, revealed his blatant unorthodoxy as a philologist. The book, written under the strong influence of a musician (Richard Wagner) and a philosopher (Arthur Schopenhauer), was an instant disappointment for most of his philology professors and colleagues. In a letter to Wagner penned in mid-November 1872, right after the publication of The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche notes, with a mix of bitterness and amusement: “our winter semester has started and I have absolutely no students! Our philologists have failed to appear! […] I have suddenly got such a bad name among my professional colleagues that our little university is suffering from it!”[iv] Nietzsche thus came to learn of the existence of a solid reality about which he had not cared very much before: the establishment, under its various guises and names. It does not matter how one sees oneself, the establishment always measures one up and redefines one according to its own standards. It is always we who have to adjust to the establishment, never the other way around. Ida von Miaskowski, one of Nietzsche’s friends, remembered him talking, around 1874, about “the narrow-minded arrogance of the German professors. […] They allow no difference of opinion. But if one has such, then they try to silence him by saying that he is sick.”[v] And the same goes for everything else. In an important sense, it is, for example, the students who define the teacher. Granted, some of Nietzsche’s former students found words of praise for him over the years. Still, the image of a Nietzsche who does not manage to live up to his students’ expectations and to entertain them properly has something unforgettable about it: “As a first-year student I attended a class of his on Plato. […] on the whole we were bored. […] he did not thrill us. […] In 1875 I attended Nietzsche’s classes on the history of Greek literature… I was left with a few brilliant remarks, but no more than that.”[vi]
After The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche published a multi-volume series titled Untimely Meditation (Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen): David Strauss, the Confessor and Writer (David Strauss, der Bekenner und Schriftsteller, 1873), Of the Use and Disadvantage of History for Life (Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben, 1874), Schopenhauer as Educator (Schopenhauer als Erzieher, 1874), Richard Wagner in Bayreuth (1876), Human, All Too Human (Menschliches, Allzumenschliches, 1878), with two supplements, the first in 1879 under the title Mixed Opinions and Maxims (Vermischte Meinungen und Sprüche), and the second in 1880, titled The Wanderer and His Shadow (Der Wanderer und sein Schatten). By this time Nietzsche had acquired a constant companion that would stay with him for the rest of his life: an almost unbearable chronic physical suffering. Nietzsche suffered, among other things, from chronic nausea, migraine headaches, digestive problems, and poor eyesight. This suffering is something one has to take seriously into account when approaching his work. In Ecce Homo he talks about the “torments that go with an uninterrupted three-day migraine, accompanied by laborious vomiting of phlegm.”[vii] When Erwin Rhode called Nietzsche a “virtuoso of self-overcoming” he must have had this unspeakable suffering in mind. It is a suffering that permeates Nietzsche’s entire life; a suffering that even manages to smuggle itself into the style of his writing and leave a clear imprint on it:
I felt close to death and therefore pressed to say some things which I had been carrying around with me for years. Illness compelled me to use the briefest mode of expression; the individual sentences were dictated directly to a friend; systematic realization was out of the question. That is how the book Human, All Too Human was written.[viii]
Nietzsche had such poor eyesight that he “could hardly recognize a person on the street.”[ix] The image of an almost blind Nietzsche is haunting: for someone whose work has been described most often as “visionary,” the inability to use his eyes is not only highly ironic, but it must have been something of a fundamental existential humiliation. A quasi-blind Nietzsche, hardly finding his way: the spectacular epiphany of an exceptional mind imprisoned for life in a body of flesh, and bearing all the shameful marks of this imprisonment. At the same time, this almost-blind Nietzsche joins a family of like minds whose blindness only helped them see better: Homer, Democritus, Milton, and Borges.
Nietzsche retired from Basel University for medical reasons in May 1879. The period between 1879 and 1889, when Nietzsche lived the life of a wanderer with no stable home, was his most productive time. It was between these years that he wrote his most influential and daring books: The Dawn (Die Morgenröte, 1881), The Gay Science (Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft, 1882), Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Also Sprach Zarathustra, parts 1 and 2 in 1883, part e in 1884, and part 4 in 1885), Beyond Good and Evil (Jenseits von Gut und Böse, 1886), On the Genealogy of Morals (Zur Genealogie der Moral, 1887), The Case of Wagner (Der Fall Wagner, 1888), and The Twilight of the Idols (Die Götzen-Dämmerung,1889). To put it very briefly, what Nietzsche sought to achieve in these books was a radical redefinition of philosophy itself. His ambition was to come up with a new notion of philosophy, something completely different from what previous philosophers had understood by this term. His renovation of philosophy, as he saw it, was to be in terms of themes (of what philosophy should be about), of methods, in terms of finality of the philosophical exercise (its “task,” as he put it), as well as in terms of the cultural and social function of the philosopher. What is interesting is that, in doing all this, Nietzsche still expected a positive reception of his work among professional philosophers. As a friend of his remembered, throughout the 1880s he “suffered very much… because he was so little known and read. After every publication he hoped to receive enthusiastic approbation, to be greeted by the public as a new star in the heavens, and to find followers and disciples.”[x] Great insights are not always easy to separate from equally great naiveties. It was not that he was not understood (or that he was misunderstood) by his contemporaries, but that, with very few exceptions, he was not even noticed. The desperate psychological trick he used in order to cope with the situation was to convince himself that, after all, it was their loss: “the disproportion between the greatness of my task and the smallness of my contemporaries has found expression in the fact that one has neither heard nor even seen me. I live on my own credit; it is perhaps a mere prejudice that I live.”[xi]
On January 3, 1889, while in Turin, Nietzsche suffered a major mental collapse. He was taken to a Jena hospital, where he was diagnosed with “progressive paralysis on a syphilitic base.”[xii] The accuracy of this diagnosis has been debated by several generations of Nietzsche scholars. He never recovered from this mental breakdown and lived the rest of his life in a quasi-vegetative state. His friend Paul Deussen, visiting him in April 1889, noticed: “His interests were again those of a child; he watched a drummer-boy for a long time, and the locomotives coming and going especially fascinated him.”[xiii] It is probably one of the cruelest ironies of fate that one of the most penetrating thinkers of the nineteenth century lived the last decade of his life in an idiotic state, playing with dolls and talking gibberish.
After 1889 the following Nietzsche titles were published: The Antichrist (Der Antichrist, 1895), Ecce Homo (1908), and Nietzsche contra Wagner (1895). These are books that Nietzsche himself had prepared for publication before his mental collapse. The book his sister published in 1895 under the title The Will to Power (Der Wille zur Macht), which was later massively used by the Nazi propagandists for their own purposes, was an arbitrary selection of fragments from his notebooks which he did not want published. Friedrich Nietzsche died on August 25, 1900.
Subtitled a “Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future,” Beyond Good and Evil is, first of all, a critique of the way in which philosophy has been traditionally understood and practiced in the West. Nietzsche exposes the various “prejudices of the philosophers” that have constantly prevented them from understanding what the real task of philosophy should be: self-deception, wishful thinking, hypocrisy, cowardice, presumptuousness, readiness to please the mob and endorse popular prejudices, smuggling fictitious notions (“truth,” “free-will,” “self-consciousness”) into their thinking. Practicing consistently a “hermeneutics of suspicion,” as Paul Ricoeur later called it, Nietzsche’s goal is to help us re-direct our attention from what a given philosophy wants to say to what it wants to hide (“to recognize in that which has hitherto been written evidence of that which has hitherto been kept silent” [§ 23]). Above all, Nietzsche seeks to demolish the prejudice that philosophizing is an all-rational and logical process; he shows that, on the contrary, in any philosopher, “the greater part of [his] conscious thinking must be counted amongst the instinctive functions” (§ 3). If we take any great philosophy and look at it closely, we will see that what makes it “great” is precisely this un-rational, or trans-rational, component. Every great philosophy is for Nietzsche “a confession of its originator, and a species of involuntary and unconscious autobiography” (§ 6). Philosophy, far from being a passive reflection of the world, “always creates the world in its own image; it cannot do otherwise; philosophy is this tyrannical impulse itself, the most spiritual Will to Power, the will to ‘creation of the world’” (§ 9). Nietzsche’s own philosophizing (a sample of which he is offering in the very process of criticizing the traditional philosophy) is the expression of this constant effort of self-overcoming. For him the true philosophy is not about how things are, but about how they should be. Philosophers do a poor job if they leave the world and humanity as they find them. By definition, they have to strive to change them, to reshape them into better versions. For philosophy is, above all, a creative enterprise: the new, the real philosophers “are commanders and law-givers… they grasp at the future with a creative hand, and whatever is and was, becomes for them thereby a means, an instrument, and a hammer. Their ‘knowing’ is creating, their creating is a law-giving...” (§ 211). The “new philosopher” —who is Nietzsche’s hero, and at the same time Nietzsche himself in self-portrait—sees the present day only as a bridge to tomorrow, never as something worthy it itself, hence its uncomfortable position: the new philosopher, “as a man indispensable for the morrow and the day after the morrow, has ever found himself, and has been obliged to find himself, in contradiction to the day in which he lives; his enemy has always been the ideal of his day” (§ 212).
Even at the level of its literary form, Beyond Good and Evil is a rebellion against the traditional style of philosophizing. Stylistically, the book is highly heterogeneous: in terms of genre, it is a sophisticated collage of aphorisms, essay, poetry, and scattered notes resembling diary entries; the rhetorical devices employed, as well as the patterns of argumentation change from one chapter to the next, or even from one paragraph to another; dense speculative passages are preceded or followed by apparently gratuitous remarks, with almost nothing philosophical at stake, and serious statements are sometimes placed in a somehow frivolous context. Nietzsche avoids, for the most part, using technical terminology, specialized vocabulary and writing protocols of nineteenth-century German philosophy, and in doing so shows that it is possible to do great philosophy outside the establishment and its conventions. The strong impact that this writing has on the reader comes, among other things, precisely from this (deliberate) casualness, informality, and (sophisticated) absent-mindedness. There is life in this book, spontaneity, and an overwhelming naturalezza.
Beyond Good and Evil is, in an important sense, a humorous book. Nietzsche has a fabulous sense of humor, which is not necessarily surprising, but at first a touch difficult to accept, coming as it does from someone who suffered as much as he did. Nevertheless, the artist Nietzsche overcomes again the human, all too-human Nietzsche and the laughter becomes unstoppable. At some point, for example, Nietzsche talks of those “cases where enchantment mixes with the disgust—namely, where by a freak of nature, genius is bound to some such indiscreet billy-goat and ape, as in the case of the Abbé Galiani, the profoundest, acutest, and perhaps also filthiest man of his century” (§ 26). At times Nietzsche’s humor can be Rabelaisian, devastating, embarrassingly mean and savage, like when he talks about Germans: “Everything ponderous, viscous, and pompously clumsy, all long-winded and wearying species of style, are developed in profuse variety among Germans” (§ 28); “And as everything loves its symbol, so the German loves the clouds and all that is obscure, evolving, crepuscular, damp, and shrouded” (§ 244); “Napoleon’s astonishment when he saw Goethe… ‘Voilà un home!’ —that was as much as to say: ‘But this is a man! And I only expected to see a German!’” (§ 209). In German literature only Heinrich Heine could have probably afforded to write similar things about Germans. On the other hand, beside Nietzsche’s humorous remarks and comments—the spectacular epiphany of a superior sense of humor, what is equally funny in this book is the spectacle of Nietzsche’s own naiveties, his occasional childishness, and yes!, his prejudices, his unbelievable prejudices. Enjoying this book properly not only means laughing with Nietzsche, but also laughing at Nietzsche. For unless we adopt this reading strategy, some things—his pages about women, for example—are almost unreadable: “nothing is more foreign, more repugnant, or more hostile to woman than truth—her great art is falsehood” (§ 232); “there are enough of idiotic friends and corrupters of woman amongst the learned asses of the masculine sex, who advise woman to de-feminize herself… who would like to lower woman to ‘general culture,’ indeed even to newspaper reading and meddling with politics” (§ 239). These may not be the most embarrassing statements one can come across in the history of Western philosophy, but still embarrassing enough.
In Ecce Homo Nietzsche retrospectively sees Beyond Good and Evil as a critique of the modern world. For him, the book “is in all essentials a critique of modernity, not excluding the modern sciences, modern arts, and even modern politics, along with pointers to a contrary type that is as little modern as possible—a noble, yes-saying type.”[xiv] The remarkable thing about Nietzsche’s critique of modernity is that it is being done not from the perspective of pre-modern values (as conservative critics would be inclined to do), but, on the contrary, from the standpoint of the future, of what comes after modernity. Nietzsche criticizes modernity not for being “modern,” but for being incapable of fully understanding itself, being self-critical and overcoming itself; therefore, for not being modern enough. For him, modernity is not rebellious (far from it), nor adventurous (even less), but simply mediocre, and in serious need of being overcome. This makes Beyond Good and Evil, above all, a brilliant manifesto against self-sufficiency. Since the world is a process, just as we ourselves are a process, to stay fully alive we have to keep overcoming ourselves. Stopping in the middle of the road would mean self-negation, and for the life of the mind a freezing to death. Dominated by a spirit of improvisation and lightness, Beyond Good and Evil remains an open invitation to independent thinking. Ironically, against Nietzsche’s own elitist attitudes, the ultimate message of the book is rather democratic: philosophy is always something at hand, accessible to anyone, light, and entertaining. It is only an old prejudice of the philosophers that philosophy should be deadly solemn, frigid, and in a language as obscure as possible.
Costica Bradatan is Assistant Professor of Humanities at Texas Tech University. He has also taught at Cornell University and Miami University, as well as at several European universities, and published in the areas of history of philosophy, Continental philosophy, East European philosophy, and philosophy of literature. His work has appeared in English, Romanian, Dutch, and Polish. Bradatan is the author of The Other Bishop Berkeley. An Exercise in Reenchantment (Fordham University Press, 2006), Isaac Bernstein’s Diary (Bucharest, 2001) and An Introduction to the History of Romanian Philosophy in the 20th Century (Bucharest, 2000).
[i] Hollingdale, R.J. Nietzsche. The Man and His Philosophy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1965, p. 3.
[ii] Quoted in Hollingdale, p. 21.
[iii] Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals. A Polemic. Translated with an introduction and notes by Douglas Smith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 124–135.
[iv] Quoted in Hollingdale, p. 100.
[v] In Gilman, L Sander, Ed., Conversations with Nietzsche. A Life in the Words of His Contemporaries, Trans. David J Parent. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987, p 51.
[vi] In Gilman, p. 36.
[vii] Nietzsche, Friedrich. “Ecce Homo” in Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Introduction by Peter Gay. Trans. and ed. by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Random House, 2000. p. 678.
[viii] In Gilman, p. 129
[ix] Ida Overbeck in Gilman, p. 33.
[x] Ida Overbeck in Gilman, p. 112.
[xi] Nietzsche, “Ecce Homo,” p. 673.
[xii] Dr. S. Simchowitz (one of the Jena doctors who examined Nietzsche) in Gilman, p. 224.
[xiii] Paul Deussen in Gilman, p. 226.
[xiv] Nietzsche, “Ecce Homo,” p. 766.