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Thursday, January 24th, 2002


Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography


Becoming Zarathustra

A review by Thomas Nagel

Most people take life as they find it, and try to make something of the possibilities that are offered by their personal and social circumstances, avoiding catastrophe or failure, pursuing happiness, and working to realize some acceptable private or public ambitions. A small minority have the leisure to devote themselves systematically to understanding life and the world: scientists, historians, and thinkers. Others, seeing that there is much that is wrong with the world, spend their lives trying to change it for the better, and not just for themselves. Still others, creative artists, try to add to the world wonders that do not yet exist. Friedrich Nietzsche's conception of his own task, the task of the true philosopher, was closest to the last of these — not merely to understand the world or to change it, but to create something new. And the field of his creation was himself.

To take oneself and one's world as given, and move forward intellectually and practically from that starting point, was in his view a betrayal of the extraordinary freedom that we possess as reflective beings. Nietzsche recognized that, like all human beings, he had reached consciousness with a sense of himself and a system of values that was produced by a tangled human history together with biological sources of which he was largely unaware. To take real possession of himself, to discover who he was and to decide who he wanted to be, required a bringing-to-consciousness of everything that lay beneath and behind the socially developed and educated human being — the constructed individual who handles the world with concepts, values, and methods of thought whose sources and true meanings he does not understand. It required a radical self-transformation.

Nietzsche's assault on the familiar is more radical even than Descartes's skepticism. Descartes believed that by doubting everything that he had learned in the ordinary way, he would find within himself an unassailable form of thought that would allow him to reconstruct his knowledge on a secure foundation, so that he would no longer be just the accidental product of a contingent culture. But Nietzsche found no such thing in himself. He was as suspicious of reason and the concepts of the understanding as other philosophers had been of the senses. The operations of the mind, he believed, are not necessarily what they seem.

This does not mean that greater self-knowledge is impossible: indeed, plunging beneath your own inner surface through both psychological and historical investigation is essential. But knowledge is not the main point. The point is to achieve a different kind of existence: to live one's life in the full complexity of what one is, which is something much darker, more contradictory, more of a maelstrom of impulses and passions, of cruelty, ecstasy, and madness, than is apparent to the civilized being who glides on the surface and fits smoothly into the world. Because we are not animals, we are in a position to take conscious possession of ourselves in this way; but because we are socialized human beings, we tend instead to accept the superficial identities and the orderly system of beliefs that civilization has assigned to us.

Rüdiger Safranski's life of Nietzsche is subtitled "A Philosophical Biography" because it concentrates on the temporal course of Nietzsche's inner life and his self-transformation through thought and writing. References to outer events are all subordinate to this aim, and the basic chronology is given not in the main text but in an appendix. The last chapter is a valuable account of the afterlife of Nietzsche's ideas, which have had an influence on modern thought comparable to those of Marx, Darwin, and Freud. A few personal relations are part of the story, but readers interested in juicy details will not find them here. This is a book about what was really important to Nietzsche: the largely solitary attempt to live up to the recognition that existence is something tremendous.

Safranski covers the full range of Nietzsche's writings, making use of new critical editions, including the complete Nachlass, the letters, and the early writings. Covering so much, he does not give special emphasis to the topics that are of most interest to contemporary academic philosophy — truth, objectivity, skepticism about morality; but the result is a balanced and illuminating intellectual and spiritual portrait, and a guide to the writings, published and unpublished, that should interest scholars as well as a general audience.

The outer facts of Nietzsche's life are uninteresting. Born in 1844, the son of a Protestant pastor, he lost his father at the age of five. He was precocious, and wrote nine autobiographical sketches during his school and university years, trying to understand his development, as well as ambitious essays to formulate his philosophical and historical ideas. At the unheard-of age of twenty-four, even before receiving his doctorate, he was appointed professor of classical philology at the University of Basel on account of his evident brilliance. He became a fervent disciple of Wagner, and published The Birth of Tragedy at twenty-seven, thereby antagonizing the profession of classics, and resigned his professorship on grounds of chronic illness at twenty-eight, with a pension of three thousand Swiss francs a year. From then until his irreversible collapse into dementia in January, 1889, he moved from place to place, mostly in Switzerland and Italy, mostly alone, fighting illness, publishing books and filling notebooks in a crescendo of ecstatic and uninhibited brilliance.

Personally, his life was marked by a turning against Wagner, by an aversion to his mother and sister, and by a painful relation with the beautiful and brilliant Lou Salomé, who returned his fascination but rejected his offers of marriage and eventually drew away from him. (He then described her in a letter as "this scrawny dirty smelly monkey with her fake breasts — a disaster!") As a published author he was not a success: after he had been writing books steadily for fifteen years, only about five hundred copies all told of his works had been sold.

Not quite as bad a fate as Van Gogh's, but close. It was only after he could no longer appreciate it that his books began to sell, and at the beginning of World War I one hundred fifty thousand copies of Thus Spoke Zarathustra were printed in a special edition and distributed to soldiers at the front, along with Goethe's Faust and the New Testament. After his breakdown in 1889, the publication of Nietzsche's works was taken in charge by his anti-Semitic sister Elisabeth. He died in August, 1900. Though he seems to have had a very limited sexual life, the cause of his illness and death is generally thought to have been syphilis.

The sense of a deep connection with reality has often been given religious expression, but in light of the spreading modern recognition that religion was a human creation rather than a transcendent truth — that "God is dead," in his memorable phrase — Nietzsche looked for something to replace it that was not merely banal, not merely a scientific worldview. As Lou Salomé observed, there was something religious in his temperament.

Nietzsche found that music had the power to bring him into direct contact with reality — that the experience of music brought something deeper than words and rational understanding could provide. No distance or observation or description separates us from music. In the form of music, the deepest reality penetrates us and we become conscious parts of it. This is a recognizable feeling; it is somehow appropriate that Stanley Kubrick employed the explosive opening of Richard Strauss's Thus Spoke Zarathustra in 2001: A Space Odyssey to evoke the birth of human consciousness. Nietzsche's first hope, that music combined with a new and un-Christian mythology would allow us to connect with the deeper reality not expressed in modern or scientific discourse, was inspired by the works of Wagner, which he found ecstatically moving, and it was given expression in The Birth of Tragedy.

The ancient Greeks had practically invented rationality, but Nietzsche argued that in their art a detached or Apollonian grasp of the world existed side by side with the conflicting, passionate, Dionysian force of unreflective being. Apollo was the god of clarity and form, Dionysus the god of orgiastic ecstasy. Non-rational and potentially destructive feeling contained by, but always threatening to burst the bounds of, self-reflective rational control and understanding: this was the drama of human life, raised to a high level in Greek tragedy. But the subordination of art by the triumph of reason had led in the modern world to a loss of contact with the Dionysian sources of life, and something needed to be done to revive them.

Yet when Nietzsche witnessed the opening in 1876 of the first Bayreuth Festival, blessed by the appearance of the Kaiser and thronged with prosperous spectators, and saw Wagner's fawning response to all this worldly attention, he was repelled. He concluded that a re-enchantment of the world by new collective myths was not the answer. It was too much like religion. But the need remained to bring out the Dionysian forces without taming them, and this was Nietzsche's artistic and philosophical project for the rest of his short productive life.

It meant probing what lay beneath the surface of consciousness in his own psyche, as well as critical examination, on historical and psychological grounds, of the customary forms of thought and justification that are imposed on us without our consent or even our awareness. Most famously, it meant calling into question morality, whose sources were very poorly understood — asking for the significance of morality, as Nietzsche put it, from the perspective of life. What we need, he said, is not the courage of our convictions, but the courage for an attack on our convictions.

Nietzsche was a prodigious source of ideas, too many and too contradictory to sum up; but the most important strain in his thought, I believe, was suspicion of the authority exercised by collective and supposedly objective or rational norms and concepts over the individual perspectives and drives at the core of life. And his characteristic method of calling that authority into question was to unmask the claim of objectivity and impersonality as itself the expression of an individualized drive — in the most general terms, the will to power, power over the world and over others.

The conflict of perspectives and competing wills that is the true reality is obscured and flattened out by the social imposition of a common standpoint, in language, thought, morality, and politics, which presents itself as simply or cosmically true by concealing its true sources. The inquiry into the genealogy of these ruling ideas is therefore a vital part of their unmasking. The proposed genealogy of Christian morality, as the expression not of universal love but of the slave revolt of the base against the noble, motivated by fear, hatred, and envy, is Nietzsche's most famous thesis, expounded in Beyond Good and Evil and On the Genealogy of Morals. As Safranski puts it, "The battle in morality boils down to the power of definition. It is ultimately a question of who allows himself to be judged by whom."

Not all expressions of the will to power can be rejected on the ground that they conceal their true sources. Some perspectives achieve dominance over others not by deception but because of their greater strength. Thus Nietzsche was not a skeptic about the value of science as a way of going beyond the appearances; he was skeptical only of its pretensions to offer the ultimate view of the world, to which all other perspectives must be subordinated. He diagnosed this as the expression of an ascetic ideal, an attempt to eliminate the multiple and unruly individual forces of life in favor of a spare objective order.

He regarded modern morality, which speaks with the voice of the community or even of humanity as a whole, as particularly dangerous, because it requires suppression of the cruelty and the recklessness that distinguish the strong individual. The height of self-realization cannot be reached by someone who is too concerned with the reactions of others, or with his effects on them. There is a fundamental conflict between the pursuit of individual creativity and perfection and the claims of the general welfare.

For this reason, Nietzsche was not a democrat. Already at the time of writing The Birth of Tragedy he defended slavery as a condition of the possibility of great cultural achievement by the few, as in ancient Athens. And he defended its modern counterpart, the economic oppression of the masses, for the same reason. He opposed shortening the workday from twelve hours to eleven when it was proposed in Basel; he approved of child labor; and he opposed educational groups for workers. When in 1871 he heard the false rumor that the Paris Communards had pillaged the Louvre, he called it "the worst day of my life." Equality meant nothing to him; he believed that it would inevitably push everything down to the lowest common denominator, that of the "democratic herd animal." Life, he insisted, is tragic; it is necessary to choose between justice and aesthetic perfection. In his late writings he expressed fantasies of annihilation, with "degenerates" gotten rid of to make room for the highest type of man.

The figure who embodied his hopes was the Übermensch, not to be confused with his virtuous comic-strip namesake. The Übermensch is a possible successor to man, self-created by bringing to consciousness all the strong and contradictory forces that lie beneath the human surface, acknowledging the omnipresence of the will to power, and re-valuing all existing values, through the assessment of their genealogies, from the perspective of this enlarged acceptance of life. It is doubtful that anything like morality would survive for such a creature, but if so it would have to take a form that could be affirmed in this way.

There is a final element of the overall conception to which Nietzsche assigned supreme importance: the puzzling idea of eternal recurrence. On August 6, 1881 Nietzsche was inspired, apparently with the help of defective mathematical reasoning, to the insight that the entire history of the universe, including his own life, had already happened an infinite number of times and would repeat itself infinitely into the future. (The trouble with the argument is that even if we grant that time is infinite and the number of possible states of the universe is finite, it follows only that some of those states will repeat infinitely often, not that all of them will.)

Apart from the question of its truth, why did Nietzsche think this idea so important? Safranski is right, I think, to hold that it provided him with a form of sanctification of life without religion, for it made every moment of life eternal. The past has not ceased to exist, and the present is not vanishing as we live through it. Every moment of our being is real forever. And the Übermensch is the being whose capacity for self-affirmation will enable him to rejoice at this thought.

Nietzsche is so complex that he can be invoked in support of many outlooks, some of them brutal or nihilistic. The Nazis certainly found him encouraging, in spite of the fact that he was an outspoken anti-anti-Semite and an enemy of German chauvinism, and would have despised Nazism as an extreme manifestation of the herd instinct. He is sometimes regarded as a destroyer of the idea of truth and a prophet of postmodernism, though it is clear that he utterly rejected the notion that all perspectives are equal — and that he had at the least a robust sense of falsehood, which is difficult to separate from some conception of truth. One of the most interesting things about Nietzsche is his attempt to challenge the claims of objectivity as the privileged route to truth, without falling into non-judgmental relativism. Whether his perspectivism permits this reconstitution of truth on a new footing continues to be debated by readers of Nietzsche, but Safranski does not say much about these semantic and epistemological subtleties.

On the positive side, Safranski finds a recurrent theme of support for what he calls bicameral thinking, the claim that a higher culture must give people, as Nietzsche says,

two chambers of the brain, as it were, one to experience science and the other non-science: lying juxtaposed, without confusion, divisible, able to be sealed off; this is necessary to preserve health. The source of power is located in one region; the regulator, in the other. Illusions, partialities, and passions must provide the heat, while the deleterious and dangerous consequences of overheating must be averted with the aid of scientific knowledge.

And Safranski comments:

The idea of a bicameral system flashes up again and again in Nietzsche's work and then vanishes, much to the detriment of his philosophy. If he had held to it, he might well have spared himself some of his mad visions of grand politics and the will to power.

As this suggests, the idea has moral as well as epistemological implications, even if Nietzsche did not draw them. The potentially anarchic will of the individual, which provides the heat of life, need not be destroyed by the acceptance of norms of justice and impartiality that incorporate the combined viewpoints of many individuals and attempt to reconcile them. An egalitarian morality need not crush individual freedom and creativity; it can be liberal, thus transcending the purchase of the freedom of the few at the price of the slavery of the many. This, too — the desire to live on mutually acceptable terms with our fellow humans — is a deep part of us; and here I would say that Kant had more self-understanding than Nietzsche, who felt the point of view of the other as an invasion from without. As often happens, the inebriating sense of power to unmask illusions gave rise, in Nietzsche's case, to illusions of its own.

Safranski ends with the image of Caspar David Friedrich's painting The Monk by the Sea: the individual in the face of immensity. "Kant," he says, "had asked whether we ought to leave the terra firma of reason and venture out into the open sea of the unknown. Kant had advocated remaining here. Nietzsche, however, ventured out." We can be grateful for what he found on the journey, and recognize that he invented new forms of self-examination that are now common property. At the same time, we should distrust as signs of weakness his inflated heroics of rebellion, pitiless cruelty, and daring in the face of the abyss. And this is as it should be, for Nietzsche did not attempt to produce a system fully defended against attack, but rather a method of attack that would work even against himself.

Thomas Nagel's new book, The Myth of Ownership: Taxes and Justice, cowritten with Liam Murphy, will be published by Oxford University Press in the spring.

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