Nietzsche's Task: An Interpretation of Beyond Good and Evil available in Paperback
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Nietzsche's TaskAN INTERPRETATION OF BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL
By LAURENCE LAMPERT
Yale University PressCopyright © 2001 Yale University
All right reserved.
Chapter OneOn the Prejudices of Philosophers
Nietzsche's Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future opens with an assault on philosophy. So prominent as a first impression and so effective in the suspicions it arouses or confirms about philosophy, this first chapter of Nietzsche's book may seem to destroy permanently the possibility of philosophy as a way to truth. But even though philosophy is always prejudiced for Nietzsche - always situated or from a perspective, always interested or driven by passion - that condition need not be fatal to philosophy's task of winning the truth. Subsequent chapters, as well as quieter suggestions within the assault itself, gradually recover philosophy's original greatness and stake a renewed claim to its capacity to win the truth and even, on that basis, to be the legitimate creator of values and the lawgiver to the sciences. If the opening questions question the value of the will to truth and pose the problem of the value of truth itself, the supreme value of that subjective passion and its elusive object are eventually confirmed by such questioning: Nietzsche's book does not end where it begins; it is structured; it opens, advances, and closes - and not just once, though its first opening and its final closing clearly have a priority that befit their prominence. The opening questions about truth point the way into a profound and liberating skepticism about philosophy - the way to "the free mind" - and then to a way out of that skepticism that does not surrender the intellectual conscience. Chapter 1 justifies the assertion of the preface that traditional philosophy now lies in ruins while raising new suspicions against it. Chapter 2, as its title indicates, is a second chapter on philosophy or philosophy's second chapter; it demonstrates how a new philosophy, while sustaining the suspicions of the first chapter, can move beyond mere skepticism or free-mindedness and attain reasonable and comprehensive conclusions about the world. If philosophy is possible again, as chapter 2 argues, the rest of the book follows: religion must be reconstituted on the basis of the new philosophy (chapter 3), and a morals and politics grounded in history and crowned with nobility must be generated to serve and dignify it (chapters 5-9).
The first and best-known chapter of Beyond Good and Evil is deconstructive, as its title announces, but peering through the destruction is a calculated argument for a new, constructive view. The lyrical opening section, invoking the tale of the heroic knower Oedipus, announces a turn to a new kind of question for philosophy and sets a mood of heroic risk over the whole enterprise - a warning, yes, but a lure as well to the right kind of reader. Warning and lure are sounded again in the closing section, which invokes the myth of another heroic Greek knower, Odysseus, to herald the great adventure that lies ahead in subsequent chapters (23). Framed within this setting of heroic risk, chapter 1 follows a reasoned trajectory that can be readily mapped. Treating first some general characteristics of philosophy as it has presented itself till now (2-6), Nietzsche sketches a history of philosophy that treats ancient philosophy very briefly (7-9) and modern philosophy somewhat more extensively and with constant reference to philosophy's relation to science (10-14), in particular, the deficient philosophical interpretations of modern science that impede the advancement of science - an indispensable part of Nietzsche's project (15-17). Section 18 poses a challenge met in the remaining sections (19-23), chapter 1 thus closing with a display of strength on the issue of human will: are free minds free?
Four times in chapter 1 the fundamental teaching of will to power is named, first with respect to philosophy itself, then with respect to biology, physics, and psychology: first the comprehensive science and then the sciences of life, nature, and the human soul. And it is the investigation of the final item, the human soul, that promises, in the final section of this chapter, to give privileged access to the reality shared by all beings; in this respect the Nietzschean turn resembles the Socratic turn described in the Phaedo and the Symposium. And with Nietzsche too it is not simply the human soul that the philosopher investigates but the different character of the soul he finds within himself, the soul of the driven knower. Consequently, chapter 2 begins with considerations of the philosopher's difference and advances to the philosopher's reasoning with respect to the soul, leading ultimately to a conclusion about the way of all beings, the world defined according to its "intelligible character." The new view is presented through an experiment in reasoning whose conclusion is a comprehensive ontology or account of the way of all beings. Once drawn, that conclusion leads inexorably to an experiment in how human life might best be lived. The assault on philosophy thus prepares philosophy's reestablishment, its instauration, as an ontology of will to power and a consequent transvaluation of all values.
Daring to Question the Value of Truth
"The will to truth": Nietzsche opens his opening section with words philosophy has long employed to name its fundamental drive, a variant on the opening of the preface. But the will to truth provokes in Nietzsche new questions as dangerous as the question of the Sphinx who killed those who dared to answer but answered wrongly. Oedipus solved the Sphinx's riddle because he knew the truth about humanity and, after killing the Sphinx, ascended to rule in Thebes. Both Sphinx and Oedipus, questioner and answerer, the new heroic knower now poses two questions about the will to truth. What are its origins? What is its value? These questions about the origin and value of the will to truth lead to what seems to be the basic and most important issue, "the problem of the value of truth," the now-fundamental problem for philosophy according to this first section. This seemingly new problem draws a superlative from Nietzsche: perhaps there is no greater risk than raising the problem of the value of truth. Like Plato in his allegory of the cave, Nietzsche pictures the risk-taking questioner as "turning around." With Nietzsche the turn is inward, toward the intrepid investigator himself: What causes this drive in himself and why does he value it above all other drives? And why value it even though it puts everything at risk?
Following this opening, chapter 1 is primarily a critique of the old philosophy, and in the next section Nietzsche argues that the old philosophy, instead of raising the question of the value of truth, assumed its supreme value and asked only about the origin of this valuable thing. But to assume the value of truth for human beings is to assume that there is consonance or harmony between truth and our natures, that truth is what we are naturally fitted for. By opening mythically on the heroic danger of pursuing the question of the value of truth, Nietzsche intimates that, on the contrary, truth is deadly. And if it is deadly, if truth puts everything at risk, then the old belief of Platonism that truth is what we are naturally fitted for required that the real truth be falsified, lied about. The "truths" of the old philosophy were edifying myths, beginning with the myth that truth is edifying. Our most indispensable lie is our belief in the goodness of truth. The risk in questioning the value of truth lies in the likelihood that it will destroy the falsifications that have sustained human life and force humanity to face truth's deadliness. That truth is deadly is the deadliest truth.
Is Nietzsche, as it "almost seems" to him in his reflection on Oedipus, the first to view truth as deadly? The mythic-heroic tone of the opening perhaps exaggerates the pioneering quality of the investigator, for Beyond Good and Evil itself suggests that Plato faced the question of the value of truth. But Plato concluded that truth was too dangerous to be openly proclaimed; the well-being of humanity required that the truth seeker "lie knowingly and willingly," as Nietzsche said in a notebook entry on Plato. Socrates stated at the opening of Plato's Republic that it is just to lie to the mad, and the rest of the dialogue intimates that this is the justice of the few sane, the philosopher who recognizes the necessity of the noble lie. Beyond Good and Evil opposes Platonism while acknowledging the great difference between Plato and Platonism, between what Plato thought and what he found it desirable for others to believe.
Has it now become desirable to believe the deadly truth? Nietzsche had posed this question often but never more powerfully than five years earlier in Dawn of Day (429), where the questions that open Beyond Good and Evil are already given an answer, one that ties the risk to historic necessity. In a section entitled "The new passion," Nietzsche asks why we fear and hate a possible return to barbarism: not because such a return would make human beings unhappier but because it would make us more ignorant. "Our drive to knowledge has become too strong for us to be capable of valuing happiness without knowledge or valuing the happiness of a strong well-founded delusion.... Knowledge has transformed itself into a passion in us which shrinks at no sacrifice and at bottom fears nothing but its own extinction." The risk faced at the opening of Beyond Good and Evil is put in the most extreme form and fully embraced: "Perhaps humanity will even perish of this passion for knowledge! - even this thought has no power over us!" And Nietzsche concludes, "We all want the destruction of humanity rather than the regression of knowledge! And if humanity does not have a passion, it will perish of a weakness: what would one rather have? That's the chief question. Do we want humanity to end in fire and light or in the sand?" A note prepared for Zarathustra but never published puts the same risk graphically: "We are making an experiment with the truth! Perhaps humanity will perish because of it! On with it!" (KSA 11.25 ). "On with it!" is neither a shrug nor a wish to perish; it's Nietzsche's recognition that there is no choice. Like Dawn of Day, Beyond Good and Evil ties the necessity to the times, but it will go further and locate that necessity in nature, in a certain kind of human being. But in risking truth, in attempting to bring opinion into accord with the philosopher's knowledge, Beyond Good and Evil displays in its own quiet way the greatest gain of Thus Spoke Zarathustra: truth is deadly only to a certain kind of human being while to another kind, the other kind, truth is not only enticing but ultimately lovable, the reason for gaiety and festival that could ultimately house the global human community.
Heroic risk and the threat of ruin set the mood of the opening section, but what follows does not succumb to the somber; instead, it exhibits an irrepressible cheerfulness or gaiety, a spirit of comedy that is as much a part of philosophy, Nietzsche intimates, as the spirit of tragedy. Risk appears again in the closing section of the first chapter, in which Odysseus is the model, the great voyager in search of the truth; the threat of ruin is vanquished by exhilaration and good cheer, which buoy the born adventurer setting out on a great undertaking - the adventure of the subsequent chapters, which pursue the questions of the origin and value of truth. Beyond Good and Evil began by identifying Plato as the source of our dying dogmatism; chapter 1 opens and closes with allusions to pre-Platonic Greek heroes of wisdom. Beyond Good and Evil aims in part to recover a Greek wisdom prior to Socrates and Plato, Homeric wisdom celebrated in tragedy, reformed and restored in Aristophanic comedy, and pursued philosophically by the philosophers of the tragic age of the Greeks. Platonic dogmatism, Nietzsche will indicate, supplanted Homeric or tragic wisdom out of convictions not about its superior truthfulness but about its superior safety. The heroic still risks the Homeric but finds it necessary to go beyond even Oedipus and Odysseus, as Nietzsche states later in a section of "Our Virtues" that defines the heroic virtue of the seeker after knowledge (230).
The dangerous new question that opens Beyond Good and Evil - What is the value of truth? - rises again at the end of the final essay of On the Genealogy of Morality, the essay on the ascetic ideal. Nietzsche has just quoted at length from yet another formulation of that question, The Gay Science 344, and he stops to say, "- At this point it is necessary to pause and to reflect for a long time." The problem to reflect on is "that of the value of truth. - The will to truth is in need of a critique - let us thus define our own task - the value of truth is for once to be experimentally called into question (3.24)." Nietzsche then adds a reading assignment for reflection on this new problem: the whole of Gay Science 344, "or best of all, the entire fifth book of that work, likewise the preface of Dawn of Day." In the Genealogy itself, Nietzsche continues to elaborate this problem: in our time the question of the value of truth focuses on science. As an expression of the ascetic ideal, science since Copernicus has contributed to the self-belittlement, even self-contempt, of humanity; it talks humanity out of its previous respect for itself (GM 3.25). While science is not able to posit a new value-ideal (3.25), as the heir to Christianity, inheriting its will to truth, science is able to destroy both its progenitor and something broader and deeper as well, morality itself (3.27). It does so by raising the question, "What does all will to truth mean?" And Nietzsche adds after this question, "Here again I touch on my problem, on our problem, my unknown friends (for as yet I know of no friends): what meaning would our entire being have if not this, that in us this will to truth has come to a consciousness of itself as a problem?" There is one more section to go in On the Genealogy of Morality, the final section on the possibility of new meaning imputed to human suffering now that the ascetic ideal has drawn its last consequence, a possibility left open as the book ends.
On the Genealogy of Morality announced on the back of its title page, "Appended to the recently published Beyond Good and Evil as a supplement and clarification." The end of the whole work, supplements and all, brings it around again to its beginning, the question of the value of truth.
Excerpted from Nietzsche's Task by LAURENCE LAMPERT Copyright © 2001 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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