The Cartoon History of Humanism, Episode 36 The Writing Dead: Friedrich Nietzsche's War on Metaphysics

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The Writing Dead: Friedrich Nietzsche’s War on Metaphysics

Everywhere except England, the last 120 years of philosophy have been about nothing so much as Dealing With Nietzsche. Before him, there was Philosophy, strong and sure in its canon, afterwards only philosophies, scurrying about with a dreadful fear that Nietzsche’s lingering scorn would catch them out from beyond the grave. He dismantled the battleship Platonic, reduced religion to a subcase of morbid psychology, and placed action and language back at the center of philosophy after a two-millennium respite.

For some, he is not a philosopher at all, but rather some form of crazed poetry-spewing, barely coherent prophet whose writings went mad long before he did. To these interpreters, Nietzsche is no threat at all and instead a colorful lunatic to be stepped over on the way back to the comfortable self-seriousness of philosophical systematizing and parsing of words as if they still meant anything.

FriedrichNietzscheIf you’re a hardcore Kantian, or a jargon-slathered Hegelian, it’s understandably difficult to see Nietzsche as anything like a real philosopher. His whole professional career consisted of ten years as a philology professor in Basel, specializing in Greek drama. He never released a Complete System that attempted to explain life, the universe, and everything within nine hundred inscrutable, self-referential pages, but contented himself with aphorisms and psychological wisps that require no hefty philosophical training to interpret. His works shifted abruptly between strange futuristic parables and tightly insightful philosophical demolitions. He spent his off hours hanging out with Richard Wagner and then, at the apogee of the composer’s success, disowned him completely as a coarse anti-Semite and narrow German nationalist.

What was this new creature, part-Hoelderlin, part-Socrates? Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was the son of a long line of Protestant pastors, but his father’s death when Nietzsche was five left him the sole male in a household that contained his mother, his aunts, his sisters, and his grandmother. He showed a gift for languages and music early on, and was placed in a school that could nurture his talents, learning Greek, Latin, French and, to a less motivated extent, Hebrew. Moving on to the University of Bonn, his initial drive to study theology ran aground when he found that, at age twenty-one, he had already lost his faith in the truth of Christianity.

But philosophy came to his rescue in the shape of Schopenhauer, whose World as Will and Representation struck out a strange new vision of individuals pushed forward on the backs of a general will for life. While Nietzsche would eventually break, and break hard, with any notion of German idealism, Schopenhauer’s scaling of drives from the individual up through the civilizational would play an important part in his development.

On the strength of his sharp philological mind, he was offered a position as a full professor at the University of Basel before he’d even finished up his doctorate work, an unusual mark of distinction, and a fateful move as, just a few miles from Basel, Richard Wagner was evading his past in the arms of his favorite conductor’s wife. Nietzsche, for whom music was the most sublime thing in life, loved Wagner’s works, and particularly Tristan, with an intensity fed not only by their revolutionary merit, but by what they meant for the possibility that meaningful art might still be produced in a decadent, bourgeois world. To Wagner, Nietzsche was the sort of brilliant fawn-bot that his ego needed in steady supply to maintain basic functioning. It worked, for a while.

Nietzsche’s first work, The Birth of Tragedy, was part close analysis of the Apollonian and Dionysian strains of Greek thought, and part paean to the genius of Wagner. The Greek section represented the first stirrings of a colossal revolt against the standard philosophic origin story. Whereas most of us are told that philosophy, proper philosophy, began with the Allegory of the Cave, Nietzsche recasts that moment as philosophy’s death knell, the end of an exciting period of pre-Socratic speculation that produced a dramatic world of unrivalled profundity and psychological truth.

Before the era of Plato and Euripides, Nietzsche hypothesized, drama represented a tension between order and revelry, reason and instinct, that faced up to oblivion as man’s destiny and took its comfort in probing the balance of intellect and drive. These Greeks were strong enough to recognize their finitude and accept their completeness in and of themselves. It was Plato and his ilk who ruined everything by insisting on an ethereal realm of perfect forms beyond reality, an ideal kingdom of intellectual perfection ruled by reason. The complexity of Aeschylus was, in that conversion, reduced to the bland moralizing of Euripides, with European thought being the anesthetized loser.

During Nietzsche’s professorship, the Franco-Prussian War broke out, the brutal final part in Bismarck’s trilogy of Prussian domination. He was a medical volunteer, exposed on a daily basis to diphtheria and dysentery, and managing to catch both. Perhaps syphilis too because, at that point, why not? His health wrecked, he returned to his university post to trudge along another eight years before retiring permanently at the ripe age of thirty-five.

This left him nine years to perfect his philosophical style before madness completely undid him, and those nine years stand as an unmatched miracle of intellectual production, capped by two years that beggar belief: Daybreak (1881), The Gay Science (1882), Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883), Beyond Good and Evil (1887), On the Genealogy of Morals (1887), The Case of Wagner (1888), Twilight of the Idols (1888), The Antichrist (1888), Ecce Homo (1888).

If a century and change hasn’t sufficed to digest these products of less than a decade, a thousand words can’t, but a glance at the terrain-rending views of these works might give a notion of what a gut shock they represented in the staid field of professional philosophy.

He gave us a psychological portrait of the evolution of Western morality that saw Christian morality as the culmination of 6,000 years of resentment, a “revaluation of all values” that allowed the despisers of life, health, and creativity to slowly encode their personal hatreds and inadequacies as society’s fundamental ethical code. In that revaluation, personal intellectual insipidity and artistic dullness were recast as a choice, and moreover as a choice that can have nothing less than eternal paradise as its reward.  Christianity as the ultimate enshrining of Revenge as the pulse of civilization, a rejection of defining one’s self creatively in favor of defining one’s self recursively through one’s enemies.

He exploded the antique search for precision in language and thereby led us on a course through the late Wittgenstein to Derrida’s deconstruction and Rorty’s modern pragmatism.  The idea of philosophy as the act of using purely determined words to formulate an absolutely true accounting of existence he heaped mockery upon so trenchant that I don’t suppose we’ll ever be able to shake it. Plato’s vision of ideal forms, of moral oughts and demanding metaphysical conjectures, he rejected out of hand as both impossible and unhealthy. That way lies the uniform zealotry of the philosophical bigot:

Let us consider finally what naivety it is to say “man ought to be thus and thus!” Reality shows us an enchanting wealth of types, the luxuriance of a prodigal play and change of forms: and does some pitiful journeyman moralist say at the sight of it: “No! man ought to be different”?… He even knows how man ought to be, this bigoted wretch; he paints himself on the wall and says “ecce homo”!  But even when the moralist merely turns to the individual and says to him: “You ought to be thus and thus” he does not cease to make himself ridiculous. The individual is, in his future and in his past, a piece of fate, one law more, one necessity more for everything that is and everything that will be. To say to him “change yourself” means to demand that everything should change, even in the past…And there have indeed been consistent moralists who wanted man to be different, namely virtuous, who wanted him in their own likeness, namely that of a bigot: to that end they denied the world!  No mean madness!  No modest presumption!… We others, we immoralists, have on the contrary opened wide our hearts to every kind of understanding, comprehension, approval.

Twilight of the Idols, “Morality as Anti-Nature,” section 6

The whole business of ordering man about by the gun barrel of abstractly derived morality or, worse, of religious morality brewed through the darkest grounds of human resentment, Nietzsche firmly arrests in its course. Rather than being paralyzed by our philosophy, twisting ourselves to its latest decrees and expunging those parts of us that aren’t metaphysically popular, Nietzsche suggests a return to the fullness of pre-Socratic thought, when creatively grappling with the roughness, the messiness of man’s sober destiny, was the order of the day. Good and evil relinquished at last as absolute religious and moral categories, replaced by a notion of good and bad that recognizes only the health of man’s growing self-expression and psychological truth.

His psychological recasting of man’s moral history, wedded to his honed sense of Christianity as a vengeful death cult and bolted firmly to a total reimagining of the purpose and ends of philosophy, spelt the end of two thousand years of cunning abstractions. Marx had bared philosophy’s material bases, and Nietzsche followed by exposing its morbid psychological underpinnings. Theology as a respectable academic field was done, and continental philosophy only survived after a wholesale Nietzschean makeover that is very good at finding new words every decade or so with which to recapitulate Nietzsche’s basic ideas again, for the first time.

He had redefined a continent’s intellectual course and then, in January of 1889, experienced a complete mental collapse followed by a decade of occasional lucidity surrounded by blank dementia, paralysis, and eventually, mercifully, death. His sister, a raging anti-Semite, assumed complete control over his works, editing them to match her own agenda, which Nietzsche had expressed nothing but contempt for during his life, and creating at last an expurgated body of work for the Nazis to brutally misuse.

The “will to power” which Nietzsche had meant as a will to power over one’s self, a continual challenge of creative development that avoided defining the self negatively through an antagonist, was twisted to a right to conquer other nations. The “Übermensch,” his anti-metaphysical hero who sought to live a life that would be worthy of eternal re-living, likewise corrupted to fit Hitler’s vision of Aryan barbarism.  The man whose every letter to his sister boiled over in fury at her petty anti-Semitism was grotesquely co-opted by narrow anti-Semites, and that is tragically the Nietzsche many still think of today. He didn’t give us a system to evaluate, or a plan for government, or a theory of knowledge. What he did give was a brutally honest assessment of our intellectual and moral history, and a dreadful freedom to be mortal, and messy, and creative, and a bit ridiculous, erring always on the side of life and that sublime laughter that shakes men and the heavens equally.


Further Reading

Nietzsche was definitively rehabilitated by Walter Kaufmann in his Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. It’s the book that gave us Nietzsche in all his revolutionary, creative, life-affirming magnificence, and is still the book to beat as far as I’m concerned. For Nietzsche’s books, it’s almost impossible to choose just one, so I’ll pick two: Twilight of the Idols is Nietzsche’s rewriting of Western philosophy, and The Genealogy of Morals his take on how we’ve arrived at a morality so life-negating in all its particulars, though I suspect everybody reading this column would have a good deal more fun with The Antichrist and, really, who am I to deny you that?