Friedrich Nietzsche

By Francis Fukuyama
The New York Times, May 9, 2010


Edited by Andy Ross

   Friedrich Nietzsche
   By Julian Young
   Cambridge UP, 649 pages

Friedrich Nietzsche was the most brilliant student any of his formidable professors had ever encountered. He was awarded a doctorate at age 24 and a professorship at the University of Basel the same year, and was promoted to full professor at 25.

But Nietzsche was afflicted with a host of maladies, including blinding headaches that would last for days, problems with his digestion that would leave him vomiting and bedridden, and a progressive blindness that allowed him to read for only a couple of hours a day. So debilitating were these symptoms that he was forced to give up his professorship at age 34.

A central concept in Nietzsche's philosophy was the need to affirm one's life in every detail as something to be repeated endlessly through time. Such an affirmation was testimony to Nietzsche's own will — a will transformed into madness in 1889 with delusions that he had become a god.

Nietzsche had a large circle of intelligent and forceful female friends. But after his disastrous courtship of Lou Salomé, whose affections were stolen by Nietzsche's friend Paul Rée, he came to regard feminism as disastrous and women as needing "the whip."

A "transvaluation of all values" was to take place in the wake of the death of Christianity. The older Nietzsche became a principled anti-anti-Semite, an opponent of Bismarck and a critic of the German chauvinism that emerged after the Reich was unified in 1871.

Nietzsche hoped for a future hierarchical society in which the labor of the many would support the greatness of the few. The Übermensch at the top would be a spiritual leader like the Dalai Lama or Iran's Ayatollah Khamenei. Cultural conformity was something to be generated spontaneously through communal participation in art.

Nietzsche had hoped that Richard Wagner's music might serve as the foundation for a refounding of German culture on the basis of a unifying art. He broke with the composer not because he ceased to believe in the project, but because he felt that Wagner was too crude an individual.

The mystical origins of Nietzsche's Dionysian community are an open invitation to the unleashing of irrational passion that is perfectly happy to squander the life of any individual standing in its way. Ayatollah Khamenei is a much better model of Nietzsche's future leader than the Dalai Lama.

Acknowledgment of the death of God is a bomb that blows up many things, not just oppressive traditionalism, but also values like compassion and the equality of human dignity on which support for a tolerant liberal political order is based. This is the Nietzschean dead end from which Western philosophy has still not emerged.


Jonathan Rée, New Humanist

Edited by Andy Ross

"Nichts ist wahr: Alles ist erlaubt."
Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche liked to think of himself as a wild beast on the rampage. His mission: to destroy the last vestiges of Christianity by means of a brave new pagan philosophy heralding a brave new pagan world.

Nietzsche's Twilight of the Idols was an immoralist manifesto which backed the "instinct of life" in its fight against dismal moral precepts. "There is no such thing as a moral fact," Nietzsche wrote. "Moral sentiment has this in common with religious sentiment: it believes in realities which do not exist."

Thus Spake Zarathustra was a pseudo-Biblical rhapsody about a messianic Eastern preacher who wanders the earth with an eagle and a serpent, preaching the death of God from an excess of pity. Zarathustra says our first duty is not to others but to ourselves. We should also learn to think of the present as the prelude to an age liberated not only by the death of God but also by the end of humanity as we know it.

Nietzsche came to fame as the philosopher who denounced the demands of reason so effectively that at last he lost his own. Twilight could now be seen as foreshadowing the eclipse of an intellect of such power that no one could stand it, even himself, and Zarathustra became a record of insights too deep to be expressed in the ordinary discourse of reason.

Nietzsche's Philosophy of Religion
By Julian Young
Cambridge University Press

Friedrich Nietzsche: a Philosophical Biography
By Julian Young
Cambridge University Press

Young presents a scandalously unscandalous version of the author who dreamed of dividing world history in two. Politically, Young's Nietzsche would have favoured something like twentieth-century Scandinavian social democracy. And in matters of faith, he was "never" an atheist and, if he was not exactly a Christian, he "ought to be regarded as a religious reformer rather than an enemy of religion."

Nietzsche's 1872 book Birth of Tragedy challenged prevailing idealisations of classical Greece: ancient tragedy at its greatest, Nietzsche argued, was animated not by orderliness and quiet decorum but by an inebriated frenzy of music, dance and rollicking enormity. Socrates, deranged by philosophy, murdered tragedy.

Nietzsche expected Wagner's "music of the future" to lead not only to a resuscitation of opera and drama but also to the restoration of "festive, communal religion". The young Nietzsche was an aficionado of "religious communitarianism", and was committed to the social necessity of religion throughout his productive life. For all his bluster about the death of God, he was not anti-religious.

Young is an unfailingly helpful author. Nietzsche can indeed be paradoxical. But it is hard not to suspect Young of losing something in his translation.

When Nietzsche said that "we are not yet rid of God because we still believe in Grammar" he can only have meant exalting pedantic textbook formulas over poetic instinct, just as servile moralists expect us to follow the guidance of sacred texts when we are not sure how to behave.

It is impossible to take Young quite seriously when he claims that Nietzsche was never an atheist. It is hard to follow Young when he goes on to claim that "what Nietzsche wants is ... a revival which will replace the anti-humanism of Christianity with the 'noble' humanism of Greek religion." The idea of the Übermensch is not easy to unravel, but it was certainly meant to put a bomb under humanism in all its forms. A Nietzschean religion would have to dispense not only with God but also with Man.

Young's bulky biography is strikingly generous. Young admits that technical philosophical analysis was not Nietzsche's strong suit and does his best to patch things up on Nietzsche's behalf. Logically spruced up, Nietzsche looks as sensible and lucid as a contemporary professional philosopher. But what if we prefer the extremist and outlandish Nietzsche?

Angry Nerds

Matt Feeney, Slate

Edited by Andy Ross

The attraction of Nietzsche to socially maladjusted young men is obvious. Nietzsche mocks convention and propriety. He's funny and easy to read. He was misunderstood in his day. He seems to find everything around him lame. And Nietzsche frames his project of resistance and overcoming as not just romantic but erotic.

In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche celebrates anarchic Dionysus over boring Apollo. In Zarathustra, it's the heroic story of Zarathustra "going under," gathering spiritual strength in hermetic solitude, and then "rising" to "shine" upon a people who don't even understand or deserve him. In The Genealogy of Morals it's Nietzsche examining the real history of that Bible stuff. Christianity is just "slave morality." So much for that. In Ecce Homo it's those excellent chapter headings. And in Beyond Good and Evil it's the awesome title and that first chapter where he mocks all those philosophers.

Nietzsche is aphoristic even when he's being systematic, and when he's being aphoristic, his writing is unmatched in its beauty and mayhem. You don't even have to know what his epigrams mean to enjoy them.

Nietzsche saw himself as the scourge of European nihilism. He saw nihilism as a disease that presents itself as mindless hedonism but also as fanaticism. He exhorted us to love the world as it is.

Martin Heidegger

By Adam Kirsch
The New York Times, May 9, 2010


Edited by Andy Ross

   By Emmanuel Faye
   Yale UP, 436 pages

   Stranger from Abroad
   By Daniel Maier-Katkin
   Norton, 384 pages

Martin Heidegger was a Nazi. The great philosopher took office as rector of Freiburg University in April 1933 to bring the school into line with Hitler's new party-state. He told the student body that "the Führer and he alone is the present and future German reality and its law." After the war, he described the Holocaust as a manifestation of modern technology, like mechanized agriculture.

By 1969, Heidegger had largely detached his reputation from his Nazism. In a radio address to celebrate his 80th birthday, Hannah Arendt explained that Heidegger's Nazism was an "escapade" that happened only because the thinker naïvely "succumbed to the temptation ... to 'intervene' in the world of human affairs." The moral was that "the thinking 'I' is entirely different from the self of consciousness."

Heidegger's self-portrait was sheer fabrication. The philosopher was a committed National Socialist for many years, an admirer of Hitler who purged Jewish colleagues, presided over a book-burning, and continued to teach, publish and travel throughout the Nazi period. Scholars have exposed the deep affinity of Heidegger's thinking with the ideas of the interwar German right.

Emmanuel Faye argues that Heidegger was a Nazi philosopher and that his books are dangerous to read. He comes close to saying that Heidegger's works should be banned: "They are ... as destructive and dangerous to current thought as the Nazi movement was to the physical existence of the exterminated peoples. ... Hitlerism and Nazism will continue to germinate through Heidegger's writings."

Faye studied the seminars that Heidegger taught during 1933-35, in the first flush of his Nazi enthusiasm. In these classes, we witness "the introduction of Nazism into philosophy," the outright transformation of Heidegger's thought into a tool of Nazi indoctrination. Thus we find him declaring that "the question of the awareness of the will of the community is a problem that is posed in all democracies, but one that of course can become fruitful only when the will of the Führer and the will of the people are identified in their essence."

Faye wants to expell Heidegger from the ranks of the philosophers into the cesspool where Nazi ideologues like Alfred Rosenberg dwell: "In the work of Martin Heidegger the very principles of philosophy are abolished."

Daniel Maier-Katkin has a different view of Heidegger's sins. In his account of the relationship between Heidegger and Hannah Arendt, he says: "Heidegger's embrace of the Nazis stands among innumerable other acts of accommodation by leading citizens."

As an 18-year-old student, Arendt had been Heidegger's lover, and he was a formative influence on her thought. If Heidegger was merely an opportunist then Arendt was justified in resuming their friendship in 1950, after not speaking to Heidegger since the Nazi takeover in 1933, when she was forced to flee the country. "This evening," she wrote her old teacher after their reunion, was "the confirmation of an entire life."

Heidegger was much more than a "leading citizen" who "accommodated" the Nazi regime. Arendt had good reasons to apply to him a standard of judgment at least as unforgiving as the one that she used when finding European Jewish leaders responsible for enabling the Holocaust.

Heidegger was not just a brainier Adolf Eichmann. Arendt would be appalled by such a characterization of the man she called the "secret king in the empire of thinking." What makes his case a challenge is the fact that he did not drift into evil, but thought his way into it.

AR  I fear it may take a while yet before we can all be objective about the German century from Nietsche to Heidegger. I'm working on it.