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: Twilight of the Idols
September 25, 2010

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With the beginning of Twilight of the Idols, we move into late-era Nietzsche. Soon he’ll be swallowed up by insanity, and I think here is where the first warning signs appear. He’s still the Friedrich we know and love (or hate, or feel deeply ambivalent about), but something’s different. The wit and mockery on display here is a little more acidic. And Nietzsche is ripping into his fellow philosophers like we have never seen before.

I’m not that deep into Twilight of the Idols, but so far almost all of it seems given over to harsh criticism of different philosophical traditions. Platonic forms and Kantian idealism each get savaged as different incarnations of the same error, and Utilitarianism gets dismissed in a single snide comment. Not even Socrates escapes unscathed.

Here’s a passage from the essay, “The Problem of Socrates,” which I think gets at Nietzsche’s larger project in this work:

It is a self-deception on the part of philosophers and moralists if they believe that they are extricating themselves from decadence when they merely wage war against it. Extrication lies beyond their strength: what they choose as a means, as salvation, is itself but another expression of decadence; they change its expression, but they do not get rid of decadence itself.

He is referring here to the Socratic method, and reasoning itself. It’s a jarring argument coming from the man who once held up reason as the only true path to the truth.

But I don’t think this is a contradiction so much as it is a summary of his whole project. Nietzsche is deeply passionate about reason as he sees it, not the idealism of prior philosophers. But perhaps more importantly, he’s an enemy of intellectual complacency and the self-assuredness he identifies as a symptom. Attacking the assumptions of even his own heroes is a way of fighting that good fight.

Nietzsche Blogging: Thus Spoke Thom Yorke
September 15, 2010

I’ve been slacking off on the Nietzsche blogging—so much so, in fact, that I missed all of Part Three of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Though perhaps that’s for the best, since Part Three lost some of the aphoristic style that has thus far defined Nietzsche’s work and instead added in a narrative arc. This arc begins when Zarathustra realizes that if time and the universe are infinite, then all things will recur infinitely, even the “small man” who he holds in such contempt and hopes would one day be obliterated by the overman. This throws him into deep despair, although by the end of Part Three he has come to terms with this revelation and decided to embrace the infinite and, by extension, all its constituent elements.

I’ve already written all I really have to say on the subject of eternal recurrence, so we might as well move on to Part Four; which begins, for me at least, with a different kind of revelation: I think the boys in Radiohead might be Nietzsche fans.

Consider the evidence: Much of the prologue to Part Four of Thus Spoke Zarathustra consists of Zarathustra elaborating on a metaphor for how he views mankind. In the Walter Kaufmann translation, Zarathustra sees man as “queer fish”—but another way of translating that might be “weird fishes.”

Zarathustra says that he wants to go fishing for these queer fish, baiting his lure with his own laughter and humor and then reeling them in to bring them up to the height of his wisdom.

Now listen to the song “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi,” embedded above. In typical post-OK Computer Radiohead fashion, the lyrics are pretty cryptic, so there’s a lot of room for interpretation; but one interpretation I’m finding increasingly plausible is that the song is being sung from the perspective of someone who lives “in the deepest ocean” among all the other unenlightened “weird fishes” and knows he would be “crazy not to follow” Zarathustra, yet is too scared.

I don’t know, maybe that’s a little far-fetched. But I wouldn’t put it past those guys.

Nietzsche Blogging: Ressentiment
September 6, 2010

Tarantula (film)
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Oh, S. Pritchard, my unwanted reading partner. His liner notes are becoming even more obtrusive and obtuse—as I wade further into Part Two of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, I’m seeing more and more comments like “Yech! Sentimentality,” scrawled in the margins. Admittedly, Nietzsche’s stabs at poetry are more often than not unsuccessful and bathetic, but you don’t need to scribble all over the page to underline that point.

At least Pritchard’s notes on “On the Tarantulas” tell me something I don’t know, although perhaps they don’t send the message their author intended. The titular tarantulas of this passage are “you preachers of equality,” who Nietzsche accuses of preaching the morality of ressentiment (what I believe he would later call “slave morality”). In other words, the preachers of equality deem their oppressors evil and call the good that which harms their oppressors and brings them beneath the heel of the oppressed.

I’m not entirely sure of the historical/political context for these remarks, but it must be significant. There’s no doubt you can find certain ideologies in the modern era that fit the mold—a crude example might be the more hardline elements of Hamas—but to suggest that any doctrine of equality espoused by an oppressed minority is “secretly vengeful” is patently absurd. Is there anything in the actions or philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr. to suggest that what he truly sought was white subjugation at the hands of black Americans? Of course not, and to even suggest otherwise is monstrous. When he preached equality, he meant it.

Which brings us to Pritchard’s notes. “On the Tarantulas” seems to be the first passage in the whole collection with which our conservative Christian friend fervently and whole-heartedly agrees. In the margins, he lists who he believes the modern-day tarantulas to be: “nihilist punkers,” “sociobabblers,” “deconstructionists,” “free thinkers,” “civil rights politicos,” “gays,” the black power movement, and radical feminists. If some of these references—“punkers”—sound a little bit dated, it’s because this is an old copy. As far as I can tell, Pritchard wrote these notes some time in the early-to-mid-’80s.

But that’s neither here nor there. The takeaway, I think, is that Pritchard identifies slave morality with virtually every group or ideology which challenges white heterosexual Christian male hegemony in the United States. Which is funny, because in finding an agreeable interpretation of this one passage, he reveals his stunning ignorance of what Nietzsche has been teaching about morality for the rest of the book. The philosopher is just as quick to condemn the morality of the master as of the slave—indeed, his whole moral project is based around obliterating your confidence in the values you were taught, and forcing you to invent your own. Pritchard’s notes are a reminder of how easy it is to take a single passage of Nietzsche’s out of context and use it to reaffirm the very moral principles he condemns elsewhere.

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David Foster Wallace and Nietzschean Nihilism
September 5, 2010

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The further I’ve dug into Nietzsche, the more puzzled I’ve become when reading other philosophers discuss “Nietzschean nihilism.” All I’ve read so far suggests that Nietzsche had very strong moral intuitions, although perhaps in pointing this out I’m missing what is meant by the word “nihilist.” We’re used to talking about “nihilists” as people with no moral intuitions (or at least no moral intuitions that don’t conveniently work to their advantage), but perhaps it would be more accurate to call Nietzsche a nihilist who does not view his moral intuitions as corresponding to intrinsic, mind-independent properties of the universe. If that’s nihilism, then there’s nothing inherently amoral about it—just anti-moral realism.

Mostly I’ve been thinking about this concept of Nietzschean nihilism in direct relation to Nietzsche himself, but of course its influence extends far beyond his own work alone. For example, last week, philosopher Sean Kelly wrote of David Foster Wallace’s philosophical project that “the saving possibility for the culture that Wallace proposes is ultimately predicated on a kind of unlivable Nietzschean nihilism.”

Wallace (pictured) is, as regular readers of the blog know, among the most significant influences on my own philosophical project; so my immediate response to Kelly’s post was knee-jerk dismissal. But once I started thinking about nihilism in this light, and what it might mean to be not just a nihilist but a Nietzschean nihilist, I started to understand what his argument for that position might be (or at least, how I would put the argument; I’m going to have to wait to read Kelly’s book to find out if we’re truly talking about the same thing).

One clue to why Wallace might be called a Nietzschean nihilist lies in another post from last week, this one by Matt Feeney at The American Scene. A chunk of the post is dedicated to discussing this DFW quote:

If you can think of times in your life that you’ve treated people with extraordinary decency and love, and pure uninterested concern, just because they were valuable as human beings. The ability to do that with ourselves. To treat ourselves the way we would treat a really good, precious friend. Or a tiny child of ours that we absolutely loved more than life itself. And I think it’s probably possible to achieve that. I think part of the job we’re here for is to learn how to do it. I know that sounds a little pious.

(Aside: The quote comes to us from David Lipsky’s interviews with Wallace, published as Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which I reviewed for Wunderkammer.)

Feeney says that the above passage “sounds like the sort of apotheosis of the self as a therapeutic object that is widely and mostly well-derided around these parts,” and goes on to exonerate Wallace on the grounds that he was clinically depressed. But I think he fundamentally misunderstands what Wallace—who was, after all, as sharp a critic of self-involved pop-psychology and shallow self-validation as anyone. The kind of self-love he advocates here doesn’t necessarily require self-indulgence. After all, one tries not to be overly indulgent to a small child one loves, because it isn’t healthy for him. Instead, we try to instill the child with a sense of how to remain healthy and well-adjusted throughout his whole life—and we consider the teaching of strong moral principles to be an essential part of that instruction.

If this love of the self as a path to the good is nihilism, then I think Kelly is accurate in describing it as Nietzschean nihilism. It is, in other words, glorification of the will to create, and to create one’s own kind of virtue, but in a way that, if done properly, leads to familiar moral intuitions about how to treat others. As Nietzsche himself writes in Thus Spoke Zarathustra’s Part Two (which I started earlier today): “Learning better to feel joy, we learn best not to hurt others or to plan hurts for them.”

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Nietzsche Blogging: Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part One
September 4, 2010

Cover to the first edition of the first part.
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I’m almost done with Part One of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the first cohesive long form work in The Portable Nietzsche. That’s not to say it’s as cohesive as I was expecting—there doesn’t seem to be much of a narrative arc, and if there’s a thematic arc, then it hasn’t fully revealed itself yet. Once the pariah-prophet Zarathustra descends from his mountain to deliver his message to the people, the book turns into a series of his speeches.

Pretty much any of them can be taken individually, but taken as a whole I think they’re starting to offer a pretty good summary of the overarching themes in Nietzsche’s philosophy. They might also offer some insight into the psychology of the man who would develop this philosophy, though psychoanalyzing philosophers is a dangerous—and often unnecessary—game.

I’m going to try and keep my distance from that angle unless it becomes unavoidable. After all, this isn’t The Republic—whereas you can argue (as Kaufmann indeed does in the introduction to The Portable Nietzsche) that we can never know for sure what Plato actually thought of the arguments he presented, Zarathustra seems a pretty obvious surrogate for his creator here. True, this means you could use the book as a way of investigating how Nietzsche viewed himself, but I find that a whole lot less interesting than just critically assessing the philosophy Zarathustra preaches.

So far it seems to be based on two central pillars, which I’m increasingly considering central to Nietzsche’s philosophy:

1.) Society needs threat and conflict.

Nietzsche and Zarathustra are both bomb-throwers, and they both spend a considerable amount of time glorifying other bomb-throwers. In the long run, the people who are “evil” according to the traditions of their place and time are the ones who will advance—or “inoculate“—human civilization.

2.) The fully realized self is that which rejects society’s values and imposes its will upon the world.

The first of Zarathustra’s speeches is on what he calls “the three metamorphoses of the spirit, those being:

1.) The camel, which accepts tremendous burdens (those burdens being moral obligations, both to others and to capital-T Truth) and carries them into the desert.

2.) “A lion who would conquer his freedom and be master in his own desert.” Nietzsche describes the lion as engaged in mortal combat with a dragon named “Thou shalt.” The dragon is, in other words, the traditions, values and social mores of the age.

3.) A child: “innocence and forgetting, a new beginning […] the spirit now wills his own will.”

As far as I can tell, the creation of this child is essentially the birth of the übermensch—“overman” in this translation, but “superman” elsewhere—that is first introduced as a key concept in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and championed as humanity’s ultimate goal.

Because there’s an implicit rejection of all moral law encoded into this philosophy, it’s tempting to call it “nihilism,” but I’m not convinced that’s accurate. The overman is still very much a normative imperative, one which can only be reached by exercising a number of different virtues. The thing I’m still not clear on—and which Nietzsche himself might not be clear on, at least at this point—is what sort of values come after the overman.

How Not to Read Nietzsche
August 29, 2010

Cover of "The Portable Nietzsche"
Cover of The Portable Nietzsche

As I’ve mentioned before, I purchased my copy of The Portable Nietzsche at Niantic, CT’s wonderful used bookstore The Book Barn. The book’s prior owner—S. Pritchard, according to a note on the title page—took a lot of notes in the margins, notes which I was hoping would provide insightful commentary on some of the more difficult passages. No such luck. S. Pritchard’s notes are easily the most frustrating thing about my reading experience so far, and only useful insofar as they are an excellent primer in how not to read philosophy.

From S. Pritchard’s notes I gather that he is a committed Christian, which means that there’s much in Nietzsche for him to disagree with. If S. Pritchard were interested in a challenge to his beliefs, then his problems with Nietzsche’s philosophy would make for far more interesting notes, not less. After all, Walter Kaufmann, in his excellent introduction, advises the reader to allow Nietzsche to challenge him. While the philosopher’s arguments often challenge some of my most deeply held convictions, I can’t imagine how much more frequent the challenges would be were I a person of faith.

In a way, it makes me envious of the devout Christian who dips into Nietzsche for the first time. The philosophers you disagree with the most often yield the greatest rewards, but only if you’re willing to give their position the most charitable reading you possibly can. When it comes to your own philosophical development, the harder an argument you disagree with is to refute, the greater its riches.

S. Pritchard squanders those riches by being extraordinarily uncharitable. In his notes on the title page he accuses Nietzsche of “emotional perversity” and “philosophic nihilism.” The first charge is a bad faith ad hominem attack, and the second should appear obviously untrue to anyone who’s even skimmed the book, let alone taken notes on it. Nietzsche describes himself as having “a more severe morality than anybody,” which, if not strictly true, is at least closer to the truth than the accusation of nihilism. Just because his moral intuitions do not align with ours does not mean he had none.

But S. Pritchard’s agenda—making himself feel more secure in his own belief by denouncing contradictory views—overwhelms his capacity to understand Nietzsche’s arguments, and even his capacity to mount coherent responses. Instead he contents himself with scribbling dismissive notes such as, “idolatry of reason.” Most egregiously, he writes “CONTRADICTORY” next to every single line in which Nietzsche refers to something or someone as “God,” even though he is obviously using it as a metaphor.

The irony of all of this is that S. Pritchard’s notes serve as evidence for a lot of what he is so quick to dismiss. Nietzsche, though probably not a humble man himself, strove to teach us intellectual humility by exposing how easy it is for our own arrogance to lead us astray.

Or, as he put it: “Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.”

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Nietzsche and the Jews
August 27, 2010

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It was inevitable that we were going to have to talk about Nietzsche’s supposed anti-Semitism at some point, so I’m happy to get it out of the way relatively early on. In aphorism 475 of Human, All-Too-Human, the philosopher describes his vision for the future of all the different European ethnic groups, including the Jews. By 19th-century standards, I’d call it fairly progressive, but there is no getting around the fact that it is, by modern standards, pretty damn racist.

The problem for modern readers is that Nietzsche uncritically accepts the notion that racial bloodlines play some huge deterministic role in character, intelligence, and moral fortitude. So after predicting that “as a consequence of continual intermarriage there must develop a mixed race, that of the European man,” he concludes that the best way to deal with this is by doing everything to ensure that the right mixture of ingredients go into the stew.

That’s where the Jews come in. Nietzsche says “unpleasant, even dangerous qualities can be found in every nation and every individual,” and concedes to anti-Semites the possibility that “these qualities may even be dangerous and revolting to an unusual degree” in the European Jew, but nonetheless insists that “the Jew is just as useful and desirable an ingredient as any other national remnant.” After all: “One owes to them the noblest man (Christ), the purest sage (Spinoza), the most powerful book, and the most effective moral law in the world.”

It’s possible to condemn Nietzsche’s proto-eugenics while also acknowledging that he is far from the “prophet of Nazism” some of his modern detractors claim him to be. If anything, his views on Asia are far more troubling than his attitude towards the Jews—in his view, one of the great accomplishments of Judaism has been its defense of European values against eastern influence.

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Friedrich the Entertainer
August 25, 2010

Here’s a surprising fact about Nietzsche: He’s actually really witty, with a keen sense of irony. Some favorite lines so far:

On virtue:

When virtue has slept, she will get up more refreshed.

On poetry:

The poet presents his thoughts festively, on the carriage of rhythm: usually because they could not walk.

On party members:

Whoever thinks much is not suitable as a party member: he soon thinks himself right through the party.

Granted it’s not Mark Twain or Oscar Wilde, but not bad for a gloomy German philosopher.

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Nietzsche Blogging: Truth, Reason, and Moral Weakness
August 24, 2010

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I’m starting to get a better sense of Nietzsche’s style, and although I’m still a novice, I know this much: he would have made a damn good blogger. It’s not just his whole books full of pithy aphorisms—like The Gay Science and Human, All-Too-Human—that make me think this. It’s the fact that Kaufmann has seen fit to include a lot of his hastily scribbled notes, and with good reason. You could even excerpt a lot of his longer essays and turn those snippets into self-contained reflections.

But like posts from the best blogs, all of these little scraps are best viewed in the context of his greater project. If you’ll forgive the cliché, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

That being said, the whole is frequently bewildering, even in the early stages. (Maybe especially in the early stages? Hopefully.) Nietzsche often seems to contradict himself from one passage to the next, and I can’t decide whether it’s because of the inherent difficulty in translating all the nuances of meaning (which translator Kaufmann acknowledges in the introduction), or because apparent self-contradiction is simply a part of Nietzsche’s inimitable style. I’m leaning towards it being some combination of the two, especially because so far I’ve always managed to parse out some reading in which he’s not actually contradicting himself.

Take the odd juxtaposition Kaufmann creates (presumably intentionally) between the essay “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense,” some of Nietzsche’s 1874-1875 notes to himself and selected passages from Human, All-Too-Human. In “On Truth and Lie,” Nietzsche convincingly argues that very little of what we consider to be “true” is little more than a “lie according to a fixed convention.” He does this by pointing out the inadequacy of words to truly express what they represent, something that I’m already well familiar with from my recent reading of Sartre’s Nausea. (Here, as in the focus on projects, struggle and competition I noted in “Homer’s Contest,” we can see Nietzsche’s influence on the development of existentialism.) Because words have no real fixed attachment to the objects they represent, to use words to describe the outside world at all is to lie in some sense. The example he uses here is the use of the word “leaf” to describe an individual leaf. There is no true, default form of The Leaf as the Greeks might have suggested, and to imply that there is by classifying an individual leaf as being a descendant of that form is inherently dishonest.

So if “truth” is itself a lie, what to make of Nietzsche’s claim in his notes on the very next page that only “friends of the truth” can help determine the proper use of the German state’s power? Is there anything truly true behind this consensus?

Two pages later, we get the answer. If Nietzsche believes in anything, it’s reason. Our ability to describe the real world may be profoundly limited, but the thing that makes us human—or, as I would put it, persons—is that we have some capacity for a priori reasoning, and to, as Nietzsche later points out, “draw correct inferences.”

But then we stumble into another apparent contradiction. If the “highest” reason lies within “the work of the artist, and he may experience it as such,” then what to make of the assertion that, “regarding truths, the artist has a weaker morality than the thinker?”

Here, I think Nietzsche means to draw a distinction between truth in, as he puts it in the title of his essay on the subject, “the extra-moral sense,” and moral truth. The artist may be an enemy of moral truth, a destructive, nihilist force, but he challenges it in the service of truth overall. The artist is a vaccine, and it’s no coincidence that Nietzsche refers repeatedly to “inoculation” of society in Human, All-Too-Human. In his view, society could always use a bracing jolt of destructive nihilism in order to defend, reassess, and thereby strengthen, its convictions. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is also what Nietzsche does for his individual readers.

“To educate educators!” he writes in his notes. “But the first ones must educate themselves! And for these I write.”

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