Zarathustra Shrugged
April 17, 2011

Photograph by Gebr. Siebe. Category:Nietzsche ...

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Nietzsche was a prolific, complicated, and sometimes contradictory philosopher. There’s no neat way to reduce his whole body of work into a few key concepts, especially because that body of work was in many ways one enormous project that was constantly being refined and revised. You certainly can’t reduce that project into a handful of pithy quotes.

But Nietzsche also happens to be that guy who said something about the death of God and the will to power. Everyone knows that! And so everyone seems to feel qualified to opine on his philosophy and legacy without having made a serious study of either.

That’s how you get profoundly misguided assertions like this one from Andrew Sullivan:

The whole point of the Gospels is that Rand’s value system leads to profound misery and spiritual loss. And the whole point of Rand is that Nietzsche was onto something.

Now, that Rand read and revered Nietzsche (at least initially) is indisputable. But does that make Objectivism a logical extension of his thought? I’ll let respected Nietzsche scholar Brian Leiter answer that one:

Rand’s “individualism”–if that is what one wants to call her juvenile fantasies about her industrialist heroes–owes as little to Nietzsche as to Smith.  Nietzsche loathed capitalism and capitalists (and the cultural and aesthetic vulgarity he saw as their legacy) and also despised what he called “the selfishness of the sick” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra) and the “self-interested cattle and mob” (Will to Power).  What he admired was “severe self-love,” the kind “most profoundly necessary for growth” (Ecce Homo).  “Virtue, art, music, dance, reason, spirituality”–all the things “for whose sake it is worthwhile to live on earth” (Beyond Good and Evil)–all demand such severe self-love, and for this reason, and this reason only, Nietzsche wanted to disabuse those capable of such excellences of their false consciousness about the morality of altruism.  He certainly did not think everyone ought to be selfish, or that the pursuit of material goods had any value, or that indulgence of selfish desires was a virtue.  What he did think is what is almost certainly true:  namely, that if someone like Beethoven had taken Christian morality seriously, and lived a Christian life, he would not have accomplished what the actual Beethoven did (one need only read the famous Maynard Solomon biography to see that Beethoven was no moral saint).  The “John Galts” of the world are just a more prosperous example of the “self-interested cattle and mob” Nietzsche always derided.

That Rand drew inspiration from Nietzsche tells us only how easy it is to misread his work. Probably millions of troubled adolescents have projected their neuroses onto his aphorisms and walked away clinging to a deeply warped and blinkered vision of his philosophy. That doesn’t mean we should judge him for it! Nietzsche is no more responsible for Rand than he is for Jared Loughner, or the authors of the gospels are for Jerry Falwell.

It might very well be true that Rand’s “point” all along was that Nietzsche was onto something. But even if that’s true, it’s barely half of the story — because if Nietzsche was onto anything, that means Rand most certainly was not.

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Nietzsche Blogging: Epilogue
October 5, 2010

Walter Kaufmann - The Portable Nietzsche
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Looks like we sort of trickled off at the end there, sadly. But I thought this whole project deserved some sort of formal conclusion anyway.

So anyway, I’m done. 686 pages of Nietzsche, translated by Walter Kaufmann, and late last night I passed the finish line. Some of it was quite the slog, particularly near the end, and part of my reason for not writing about it was that I simply didn’t want to inflict the dying Nietzsche’s madness on you. It’s not hard to see where it overtakes him—the past 100 pages or so of The Portable Nietzsche are extended rants and eviscerations of targets that seem unworthy of such bile. The Antichrist has its moments of brilliance, but mostly it’s a long, repetitive stream of anti-Christian bile. Nietzsche Contra Wagner becomes a little bit more than what it sounds like in the last few pages. And the last five pages or so of the collection are Nietzsche’s nearly incoherent ravings to his friends and loved ones.

But what came before—as you can see from paging through the archives of this blog—was awesome stuff. Nietzsche’s prose at its best is both wry and epic, his philosophy both deeply felt and rigorously reasoned. And yet his positive philosophy isn’t what affected me the most, but his counterarguments; I think Nietzsche’s greatest contribution to the philosophical tradition is how he takes a sledgehammer to anything he sees resembling a preconceived notion. The man was many things, but first and foremost I think he was the enemy of conviction.

That is a deeply important project, and one worthy of an intellectual giant. And while I can’t bring myself to sign on with much of Nietzsche’s metaphysics or ethics, I will grant him this, which is that he has left me with one strong, overwhelming conviction: that neither I, nor anyone else, will ever have a conviction that does not deserve being assaulted with as much burning ferocity and cold reason as we can muster. This comes not from contempt for belief, but respect—because a good, strong belief should be able to withstand any siege. And we do ourselves a disservice by not constantly pursuing the best beliefs.

Coming soon: Now that Nietzsche Blogging is over, get ready for Wittgenstein Blogging! This time I’ll have a collaborator: my dear friend Peter and I are going to be combing through all seven propositions of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus together, one at a time. Our first posts should be up later this week.

Nietzsche Blogging: The Mask of Objectivity
September 30, 2010

Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, French writer (...
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What would Nietzsche have thought of the modern news media? No way to know for sure, but I think a snippet of his description of Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (pictured) might give us a hint. In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche writes:

As a historian, [Sainte-Beuve is] without philosophy, without the power of the philosophical eye—hence declining the task of judging in all significant matters, hiding behind the mask of “objectivity.” It is different with his attitude to all things in which a fine, well-worn taste is the highest tribunal: there he really has the courage to stand by himself and delight in himself—there he is a master.

I’m not familiar with Sainte-Beuve, but this description seems pretty timely to me. It gets at what I was trying to argue here: that you can’t really express complex ideas without also expressing some form of subjective value judgment, implicit or explicit. But if you take great pains to pretend that you’re not making a value judgment, then you can avoid an argument about what you’re actually saying and, at worst, turn it into some sort of meta-argument about whether or not the way in which you were saying it was sufficiently judgment-free.

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