I. The Will to Power
That he was heavily influenced by Charles Darwin clarifies a lot of Nietzsche's philosophy: humankind's basic drive/instinct is a "will to power" (cf. Darwin's "survival of the fittest"). One might even say that, "in Nietzsche, the will has ethical as well as metaphysical primacy" (Russell 760)—though I think that Nietzsche would resist the term "metaphysical."
|"Suppose nothing else were 'given' as real except our world of desires and passions, and we could not get down, or up, to any other 'reality' besides the reality of our drives—for thinking is merely a relation of these drives to each other" (Beyond Good and Evil sec. 36).||"At the preconscious level the will to power expresses itself directly and immediately in the attempt of every organism to use, and thus to overcome, those that are less powerful than itself" (Jones 249).||Indeed, Nietzsche's egoism—his privileging of the human individual's will to power—is pretty hard to take, and smacks a bit (or a lot) of the 20th-c. philosophy of Ayn Rand; there is, indeed, a strong "element in Nietzsche" that sides with "'rugged individualists' against trade-unions" (Russell 770; BTW, Nietzsche had great scorn for Marxism, as another "herd" mentality).|
II. Radical Skepticism
Against Kant's thing-in-itself, etc.: "the supposedly independently existing object with enduring properties of its own is . . . a myth. An uninterpreted original is never [and never was] available; there are only the varied 'meanings' that the object has had at different times for different people" (Jones 239).
|Concepts for causation are only one example; these are just "changeling" signifiers that really have no signified: "The [scientist's] atom is one such changeling, another is the Kantian 'thing-in-itself'" that supposedly "causes" the phenomenon of appearance (Genealogy of Morals essay 1, sec. 13; qtd. in Jones 241 [≈ p. 405 of the Pearson & Large edition]).|
And so Nietzsche's famous dictum: "There are no facts, only interpretations." . . . My edition of The Will to Power gives it as follows, in context: "Against positivism, which halts at phenomena—'There are only facts'—I would say: No, facts is precisely what there is not, only interpretations" [sec. 481]). In context, one could read this as straightforward Kantianism, in which the mind is necessarily involved in helping "create" what we "know" as facts. But it also includes the critique in "Truth & Lies," in which even perceptions are metaphors & "mistranslations," if you will, of the "facts" of existence—and it includes above all, I think, our very subjective biases (perspectivism)—including the usually unconscious wishes & desires that infiltrate every gesture we make in discourse. (The crux: whenever the "factual" gets translated into words, it's already a "lie," and necessarily our interpretation.)
All perceptions, statements, etc., are necessarily individual and biased. Thus a "disinterested" observation or judgment (see Kant's aesthetics!) is really "a rank absurdity" because we can't step out of our own subjectivity: "All seeing is essentially perspective, and so is all knowing" (Genealogy of Morals essay 3, sec. 12; qtd. in Jones 237 [≈ p. 427 of the Pearson & Large edition]). This emphasis on individual subjectivity and prejudice arises from Nietzsche's proto-Freudian belief that humans are NOT rational animals: "The passions like fear, love, and hatred . . . rule the 'simplest' processes of our sense activity" (Beyond Good and Evil sec. 192; qtd. in Jones 237).
|"That men's interests and expectations . . . influence their perceptions is now a commonplace. But Nietzsche was one of the first philosophers to observe this phenomenon and to see its relevance to [the] theory of knowledge." Add to this a human propensity for "'laziness'—the tendency, once we have achieved a concept or hypothesis, to persist in using it to interpret our experiences, even though it may no longer apply when circumstances change. This kind of inertia . . . increases as soon as the concept is formulated linguistically. To cast an interpretation into language is to rigidify it: it then becomes a Procrustean bed that our experience of the world is forced to fit" (Jones 238, 239).|
|Lies, All Lies (see Nietzsche's "Truth & Lies" essay for one of his major statements on this, of course): "[B]asically and from time immemorial we are—accustomed to lying. Or to put it more virtuously and hypocritically, one is much more of an artist than one knows[!]" (Beyond Good and Evil sec. 192).|
IV. Instincts & the Unconscious
Before Freud and Jung, Nietzsche recognized the need to take unconscious desires & motivations into account, of even the "great masters"; e.g., what is Hegel projecting or denying in such & such statement of ostensibly abstract philosophy? "Philosophers think that they aim at Truth (with a capital 'T'), but their theories are only elaborate attempts to justify the beliefs that they hold on instinct" (Jones 242). Nietzsche himself now: "most of the conscious thinking of a philosopher is secretly guided and forced into certain channels by his instincts." Philosophers "all pose as if they had discovered and reached their real opinions through the self-development of a cold, pure, divinely unconcerned dialectic (as opposed to the mystics of every rank, who are more honest and doltish[!]—they talk about 'inspiration'): while at bottom it is an assumption, a hunch, indeed a kind of 'inspiration'—most often a desire of the heart that has been filtered and made abstract—that they defend with reasons they have sought after the fact." In sum, "it has become clear to me what every great philosophy so far has been: namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir" (Beyond Good and Evil sec. 3, 5, 6).
A key passage describing the unconscious in "Truth & Lies" (written a quarter century before Freud's 1st publication):
|What does man actually know about himself? Is he, indeed, ever able to perceive himself completely, as if laid out in a lighted display case? Does nature not conceal most things from him—even concerning his own body—in order to confine and lock him within a proud, deceptive consciousness, aloof from the coils of the bowels, the rapid flow of the blood stream, and the intricate quivering of the fibers! She[!] threw away the key. And woe to that fatal curiosity which might one day have the power to peer out and down through a crack in the chamber of consciousness and then suspect that man is sustained in the indifference of his ignorance by that which is pitiless, greedy, insatiable, and murderous—as if hanging in dreams on the back of a tiger. ("On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense" 115)|
Finally, W. T. Jones critiques Nietzsche himself by extending such questioning further: Nietzsche's "psychologizing strategy is almost too powerful an instrument of destruction. The theory that all theories are expressions of underlying elements in the psyche is presumably an expression of underlying elements in the personality of Nietzsche" (247)! And no doubt, in his better (less ego-driven) moments, Nietzsche was fully aware of this irony. (This is similar to the later ironic retort, "Well, can't Derrida's own statements about deconstruction be deconstructed?" Of course they can.)
V. Repression, Society, & Morals
"Why did consciousness and conscience evolve? Nietzsche's answer is that man became socialized," which "necessitated the repression of many of his most powerful instincts, and that repressed instincts turned within. . . . for the first time an interior psychic life developed" (Jones 245; that many of Freud's "discoveries" can already be found in Nietzsche should be obvious by now). Nietzsche himself: "All instincts that are not allowed free play turn inward. This is what I call man's interiorization" (Genealogy of Morals essay 2, sec. 16; qtd. in Jones 237 [≈ p. 419 of the Pearson & Large edition]).
Nietzsche's "revaluation of all values" included a concerted critique of Christianity in particular, which he saw as inverting our instinctual nature, as an institutional repression of our vital instincts: "Their [Christians'] every act [including charity, forgiveness, etc.] expresses their repressed resentment" (Sahakian 231). . . . According to Nietzsche, "religion and transcendental ethics are instruments for preserving the unfit and for suborning the strong by duping them into accepting the small virtues of small people" (Jones 251; wow).
|"[T]he main object of all great religions has been to counteract a certain epidemic malaise due to unreleased tension" (Genealogy of Morals essay 3, sec. 17; qtd. in Jones 250)—"the tension that is built up as a result of the interiorization [that is, repression] of instinctive drives" (Jones 250).|
"God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him" (The Gay Science sec. 125). This is Nietzsche's most infamous statement (most famously iterated in Zarathustra); however, it is no simple "eureka" declaration of atheism—Nietzsche's philosophy at this point was long past even taking seriously the actual existence of (a) God. But in the wake of Darwin, Marxist materialism, etc., Nietzsche was one of the first to notice that, even by the late 19th century, theology was no longer a functioning ideology for many educated Europeans. A clearer restatement might read "The idea of God is dead, or at least dying." In a more general sense, W. T. Jones reads Nietzsche's dictum as a critique of Kantian/Hegelian rational meaning & order: "[For Nietzsche] To say that God is dead is to say that men no longer believe in a cosmic order. What looks like an objective order is merely a projection into chaos of man's need to believe there is reason and purpose in the universe" (253).
|Regarding The Gay Science and "God is Dead": "In one section of" The Gay Science, "Nietzsche suggests replacing churches with botanical gardens in our busy towns and cities as places of reflection where the godless can go to give expression to the sublimity of their thoughts and see themselves translated into stones and plants (Pearson and Large xv)! The original runs as follows: church buildings are "too rhetorical and unfree, reminding us that they are houses of God and ostentatious monuments of some supramundane intercourse; we who are godless could not think our thoughts in such surroundings. We wish to see ourselves translated into stone and plants, we want to take walks in ourselves when we stroll around" (The Gay Science sec. 280 [= p. 229 of the Pearson & Large edition]).|
VI. The Superman (or Overman [Übermensch]) & Creative "Truth"
According to Nietzsche, "Objective truth is a fiction of the philosophers . . . . Subjective truth is any new interpretation launched by a creative individual" (Jones 248). (Harold Bloom has no doubt been influenced by this, in his notion of "strong" poets reacting against their father-figure canonical predecessors. And of course, this "since there is no order to the universe, I will create my own" leads directly to existentialism.)
|If most of us "herd" folks are "human, all too human," Nietzsche praises/prophesies "those exceptional individuals who pass through pessimism to affirmation" (Jones 256), especially through creative "play." . . . And again: "To be creative is necessarily to be 'hard,' 'beyond good and evil,' indifferent to existing traditions, institutions, and values, and creative enough to operate without norms because one is busy creating new ones" (257). (As I said above, did someone say "father of existentialism"?!)|
|BTW, there's also the interesting biographical influence of the German composer Wagner involved here: Nietzsche "had a passionate admiration for Wagner, but quarrelled with him, nominally over [the opera] Parsifal, which he thought too Christian and too full of renunciation[!]. After the quarrel he criticized Wagner savagely, and even went so far as to accuse him of being a Jew[!]. His general outlook, however, remained very similar to that of Wagner in the Ring; Nietzsche's superman is very like Siegfried, except that he knows Greek[!]. This may seem odd, but that is not my fault" (Russell 760)!!|
VII. Art: the Dionysian & the Apollonian
[Note that Nietzsche fancied himself as much a creative artist as a philosopher; many of his philosophical texts are sprinkled thru with his own (pretty bad?!) poetry.]
"If there be art . . . one physiological condition is indispensible: frenzy [the Dionysian!]" (Twilight of the Idols; qtd. in Jones 258).
|[One of my favorite Nietzsche aphorisms:] "One must have chaos in one to give birth to a dancing star" (Thus Spoke 258; sorry, I couldn't stand the comma in our translation). . . . Note how Nietzsche's aesthetics is related to his denial of metaphysics: "In a world in which the myth of the creator god has been exploded, the artist is the most godlike of beings, for in the work of art he creates a miniature cosmos from the chaos within him" (Jones 260).|
But "Nietzsche's view of creativity can [also] be" thought of in terms of "sublimation—one of those seminal ideas in which Nietzsche anticipated Freud. . . . Indeed, to be able to exercise self-restraint for the sake of an ideal of order [the Apollonian!] . . . is the highest possible expression of the will to power. What the noblest of all overmen overcome is themselves, not others" (Jones 258).
[This section is teasingly brief since we'll read all about the Apollonian & Dionysian in Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy.]
VIII. The Eternal Return (aka "eternal recurrence")
"[A]ll things recur eternally": this may be Nietzsche's oddest, most intriguing theory; and though it seems to issue from an eccentric mysticism, it is derived, Nietzsche argues, from the simple (& scientific) fact of the universe's infinity—in short, if the universe has existed forever, everything has always already happened—and happened again. (If true, it leads to some interesting—ideas—about ethics and free will?!) Some central passages from Zarathustra:
| "From this gateway Moment a long, eternal lane runs back: an eternity lies behind us.|
"Must not all things that can run have already run along this lane? Must not all things that can happen have already happened, been done, run past?
"And if all things have been here before: what do you think of this moment, dwarf? Must not this gateway, too, have been here—before?
"And are not all things bound fast together in such a way that this moment draws after it all future things? Therefore—draws itself too?
"For all things that can run must also run once again forward along this long lane.
"And this slow spider that creeps along in the moonlight, and this moonlight itself, and I and you at this gateway whispering together, whispering of eternal things—must we not all have been here before?
"—and must we not return down that other lane out before us, down that long, terrible lane—must we not return eternally?'
. . . . . . . .
"For your animals well know, O Zarathustra, who you are and must become: behold, you are the teacher of the eternal recurrence, that is now your destiny! . . .
"Behold, we know what you teach: that all things recur eternally and we ourselves with them, and that we have already existed an infinite number of times before and all things with us." (Thus Spoke Zarathustra 279, 285)
Besides the scattered poetry, Nietzsche's prose, too, as you can tell just by thumbing through our edition, is "scattered"—often brief sections that border on—or simply are!—aphorisms. Nietzsche sort of "defends" himself as follows: "An aphorism that has been honestly struck cannot be deciphered simply by reading it off; this is only the beginning of the work of interpretation" (The Genealogy of Morals Preface, sec. 8; qtd. in Jones 261 [≈ p. 394 of the Pearson & Large edition]). (Damn. That sounds like work.)
X. (More) Critiques of Nietzsche
The observation that Nietzsche's philosophy of the "strong-willed" inspired Hitler & Nazism is something of a 20th-century cliché—"he was certainly claimed by them as one of their own" (Jones 260; see also Pearson and Large xx)—though even Bertrand Russell downplayed this influence: "In justice to Nietzsche it must be emphasized that many modern developments which have a certain connection with his general ethical outlook are contrary to his clearly expressed opinions" (764). My own extensive reading of Nietzsche also indicates that, in general, he had a pretty poor opinion of his fellow Germans, who thus hardly qualified as "supermen" of some master race (see Pearson and Large xxiii, xxv).
As for Nietzsche's infamous misogyny—this is much more blatant and indefensible: "He is never tired of inveighing against women. In his pseudo-prophetical book, Thus Spake Zarathustra, he says that women are not, as yet, capable of friendship; they are still cats, or birds, or at best cows. 'Man shall be trained for war and woman for the recreation of the warrior. All else is folly.' The recreation of the warrior is to be of a peculiar sort if one may trust his most emphatic aphorism on this subject: 'Thou goest to woman? Do not forget thy whip'" (Russell 764). And then this delicious psycho-biographical critique from Russell: "The whole of his abuse of women is offered as self-evident truth; it is not backed up by evidence from history or from his own experience, which, so far as women were concerned, was almost confined to his sister" (764)! And even more delicious: "It is obvious that in his day-dreams he is a warrior, not a professor; all the men he admires were military. His opinion of women, like every man's[?!], is an objectification of his own emotion towards them, which is obviously one of fear. 'Forget not thy whip'—but nine women out of ten would get the whip away from him, and he knew it, so he kept away from women, and soothed his wounded vanity with unkind remarks" (767). (Woh!)
Regarding the will to power, Russell offers an almost postmodern/psychoanalytical explanation of Nietzsche's emphasis upon it: "It never occurred to Nietzsche that the lust for power, with which he endows his superman, is itself an outcome of fear. Those who do not fear their neighbours see no necessity to tyrannize over them" (767). [Though a quite debatable conclusion, especially since even the British analytical (and atheist) philosopher Russell wants to still privilege "Christian love" against Nietzsche's "will."] . . . Russell's chapter on Nietzsche ends curiously: "Nietzsche despises universal love; I feel it the motive power to all that I desire as regards the world. His followers have had their innings, but we may hope that it is coming rapidly to an end" (773).
XI. Nietzsche's Influence
"It is undeniable that Nietzsche has had a great influence, not among technical philosophers, but among people of literary and artistic culture. [This was true in the 1940s; it's hardly the case anymore.] It must also be conceded that his prophecies as to the future have, so far, proved more nearly right than those of liberals or Socialists. If he is a mere symptom of disease, the disease must be very wide-spread in the modern world" (Russell 766-767)!
A half century after Russell, the crit-theorist Eagleton can matter-of-factly state as follows: "Truth is the product of interpretation, facts are constructs of discourse, objectivity is just whatever questionable interpretation of things has currently seized power, and the human subject is as much a fiction as the reality he or she contemplates, a diffuse, self-divided entity without any fixed nature or essence. In all of this, postmodernity is a kind of extended footnote to the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, who anticipated almost every one of these positions in nineteenth-century Europe" (201).
Pearson & Large (2006): "Friedrich Nietzsche can be described as the most brilliant, most challenging, and most demanding philosopher of the modern period. In the opening years of the twenty-first century he continues to be a major reference point in our intellectual culture: along with Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud he is widely taken to be a 'modern master of suspicion.' The influence of his ideas on twentieth-century artists, novelists, poets, and essayists was arguably greater than that of any other modern intellectual figure" (Pearson and Large xviii). In critical theory per se, those "influenced" include Adorno, Foucault, Derrida, and Deleuze (xix).
Precursor of Psychoanalysis: "It is astounding to see the prodigality with which Nietzsche tossed off seminal ideas. [Woh, that is one odd metaphor, when you think about it!] Such notions as repression, sublimation, and the mythical element in science were enunciated in" his various "scattered paragraphs and aphorisms . . . long before they were formulated by Freud, Jung, and the other psychoanalysts" (Jones 246). . . . Then there is Nietzsche's related privileging of "expressiveness": "That all cultural phenomena are expressive of deep, often unconscious, elements in the psyche has become one of the most widely held articles of faith in contemporary society [and in critical theory!], influencing not only the art and literature but also the science and philosophy of our time" (Jones 246). (Of course, this entire statement applies at least equally well to Freud.)
Consciousness Is a Disease: Nietzsche's "hostility to consciousness"—Jones then refers to Dostoevsky's "Underground Man" as further support of a general trend—"became increasingly prominent in the next century: Surrealism, Dadaism . . . 'mind-expanding drugs, Zen, the antinovel, the new wave in cinema, are all manifestations of the emphasis on immediacy [and instinct] and so of the Nietzschean attitude toward consciousness" (246).
|However, Jones' complication of this attitude is noteworthy: "Nietzsche the admirer of overman evaluated consciousness very differently from Nietzsche the romantic primitivist. [Ooh!] When the latter strain was dominant in Nietzsche's thought, consciousness seemed to him to have been an evolutionary mistake. As an admirer of overman, however, he believed that it is precisely consciousness [with its agonistic struggles] that make it possible for the strong man to be strong." Without consciousness, especially, "he" would not be "a creator—to conceive of an ideal of order and to impose discipline upon himself" entails "the fullest kind of self-consciousness . . . . From the one point of view Nietzsche dreaded the snake of consciousness. This is the point of view that he shared with Dostoevsky and that is echoed in much of twentieth-century culture. From the other point of view Nietzsche welcomed the snake, for its bite is the peculiar mark and badge of overman" (259).|
Existentialism—as in creating one's own values (discussed in a previous section), since "existence precedes essence." (And there is no "essence").
Foucault/"POWER," etc.: Nietzsche's perspectivism likely had a direct (or indirect, via Foucault) influence on the cultural/historical relativism of New Historicism, for he was inordinately aware that "truth" is wielded by those in power: "everything that exists . . . is periodically reinterpreted by those in power in terms of fresh intentions"; indeed, the "whole history of" anything is "a continuous chain of reinterpretations and rearrangements" (Genealogy of Morals essay 2, sec. 12; qtd. in Jones 239 [≈ p. 416 of the Pearson & Large edition]). Jones' encapsulation of Nietzsche reads, in fact, like straight New Historicism: "the history of mankind is the history of a succession of perspectives from which different social groups [especially those in power] have viewed the universe" (239-240).
The notion of creative "PLAY": Derrida (& Harold Bloom?!); we'll read Derrida's essay "Structure, Sign, & Play," in which Nietzsche is recognized as D.'s major influence in this regard.
The LAST WORD regarding Nietzsche's philosophy in general: "It is significant of the great change that has occurred in contemporary culture that what was once regarded as a madman's ravings is now more and more widely regarded as a realistic assessment of the human condition" (Jones 261)!
XII. Finally, For a fine brief BIO of Nietzsche's troubled life, see Pearson and Large xxii-xxvii (our Nietzsche text). His final years (xxvi-xxvii) are especially "interesting"—I mean, troubled: "He was becoming fully aware that the philosopher who embarks on a relentless struggle against everything that human beings have hitherto revered will be met with a hostile public reception, one that will condemn him to an icy isolation with his books being judged by the language of pathology and psychiatry." Towards the end of his life, "Nietzsche was observed by his landlady chanting and dancing naked in his room" (xxvi)! And his final letters include the assertion "that he was all the names in history" (xxvii).
Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. 2nd ed., U of Minnesota P, 1996.
Jones, W. T. Kant and the Nineteenth Century. 2nd rev. ed., Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. 1886. Translated by Walter Kaufmann, Vintage Books, 1966.
---. The Gay Science. 1887. Translated by Walter Kaufmann, Vintage Books, 1974.
---. The Nietzsche Reader. Edited by Keith Ansell-Pearson and Duncan Large, Blackwell Publishing, 2006.
---. "On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense." 1873. Nietzsche, The Nietzsche Reader, pp. 114-123.
---. The Will to Power. 1887. Translated by Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale, Vintage Books, 1968.
---. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. 1892. Nietzsche, The Nietzsche Reader, pp. 254-292.
Pearson, Keith Ansell, and Duncan Large. "General Introduction." Nietzsche, The Nietzsche Reader, pp. xviii-xl.
Russell, Bertrand. A History of Western Philosophy. Simon and Schuster, 1945.
Sahakian, William S. History of Philosophy: From the Earliest Times to the Present. Barnes & Noble, 1968.
|—TCG, August 2016; September 2018|
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