There are two reasons why I love Friedrich Nietzsche; one is because his moustache semaphored a silent two-fingers-up to the establishment, if even unbeknown to the man himself; and two because he was bonkers. I personally find that a crazy infidel always makes for the best kind of literary idol, add booze to the mix and call him perfect. Now, I am not entirely sure about Nietzsche’s drinking habits but reading some of his work one would be forgiven for thinking he wrote while heavily intoxicated. Still, the man was a genius and a genuine sovereign thinker despite his idiosyncrasies and the inconsistencies in his oeuvre. This, however, according to many scholars, is precisely what makes him unworthy of the “philosopher” appellation but I would argue, in Nietzsche’s own words, that “one is fruitful only at the cost of being rich in contradictions”. I have always held on to that because occasionally I couldn’t hold on to some of my convictions. In other words, we change, and are changed by our experiences; therefore, inevitably, our ideas and beliefs change along with them. A sentiment that was seconded years later by William Somerset Maugham who said: “We are not the same persons this year as last; nor are those we love. It is a happy chance if we, changing, continue to love a changed person.” I find this to be true both of life and, in this case, my personal feelings toward this most divisive philosopher.
Born on 15th October, 1844, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was an heir to a long line of Lutheran pastors – going back to the 17th century – who grew up in a staunchly religious household. His early years were marred by death, first that of his father, at the age of four, and later his younger brother. His formative period was defined by matriarchal domesticity and an admiration for Richard Wagner, his early 20s spent immersed in philology and theology at the University of Boon, and his middle-life dedicated to the relentless study which made him into a philosopher of matchless originality at once approachable and provocative. He was a writer by turns endearing, maddening and challenging but always and consistently compelling and complex. Even when his work appears straightforward, Nietzsche is at his most subtle and poignant, most wry and exciting, as he points out to the reader in The Genealogy of Morality almost facetiously: “I did say I would speak crudely: which does not in any way signify a desire for it to be heard crudely, understood crudely.” And perhaps therein lays the problem which has divided academics and critics’ alike, propelling a negative consensus through misunderstanding which has led to a classifying of Nietzsche as a nihilistic sybarite and a scholastic dilettante. But as Robert Wicks points out, in his book on this most prolific 19th century thinker: “Nietzsche loved to celebrate life, but he frequently had a very difficult time celebrating humanity.” In his guide Nietzsche, published by the Oxford-based One World press, Wicks gives an impressively comprehensive overview of Nietzsche’s ideas, the premises that underpinned them, and the academic, cultural and classic figures that influenced him.
One of the most notable and perhaps profound of those influences was Arthur Schopenhauer whom Nietzsche discovered in 1865 while at University. Schopenhauer’s metaphysical vision at odds with Christianity, encapsulated in The World as Will and Representation, was to shape Nietzsche’s philosophical undertakings more than any other. A year later Nietzsche was introduced to Wagner, with whom he felt a deep affiliation through mutual love of both music and philosophy. Wicks notes: “Partly on the basis of their shared enthusiasm for Schopenhauer, the two men struck up a father-son style of friendship and they remained in contact for the next decade, until Nietzsche’s growing anti-Christian view of life became incompatible with Wagner’s.” Later, Nietzsche irreparably widened the division by openly and virulently criticising his one-time idol in The Case of Wagner. In the essay Nietzsche lambasts the Wagnerian tradition with unrelenting ardour, finding it to be “brutal, artificial and unsophisticated” and thereby symptomatic of the degenerative trend in music. He is no less vituperative when speaking of the composer himself, querying: “Is Wagner a man at all? Is he not rather a disease? Everything he touches he contaminates. He has made music sick,” before concluding: “Wagner’s art is diseased. The problems he sets on the stage are all concerned with hysteria; the convulsiveness of his emotions, his over-excited sensitiveness, his taste which demands ever sharper condimentation, his erraticness which he togged out to look like principles, and, last but not least, his choice of heroes and heroines, considered as physiological types (—a hospital ward!—).”
Nietzsche’s views on religion are no less damning than his enchiridion on Wagner. Firstly, Nietzsche believed that the world was fundamentally a “chaos” and that life was by default “immoral, unavoidably so” thus examined both more probingly and in more empirical terms before concluding that “if one is to flourish one must live in a manner beyond good and evil”. Nietzsche, therefore, determined that traditional morality was inseparable from weakness, debility, cerebral “unreason” and thus a dogma against the innate course of nature. He cites the Christian principles in Twilight of the Idols to illustrate his point: “The most general formula at the basis of every religion and morality is: Do this and this, refrain from this and this – and you will be happy.” It is a fallacy Nietzsche debunks time and again in The Antichrist, most notably in the following passage: “The Christian conception of God is one of the most corrupt conceptions of God…God as the expression of hostility against life, against nature, against the will to life. God as the formula for every slander against ‘this life’ and for every lie about ‘the next life’!” Nietzsche believed that the fundamental tenet of Christianity – the belief in the supernatural all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good God – was unhealthy and that “faith” was “the will to avoid knowing what is true” which is to say that “there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross”. This, in turn, led Nietzsche to the idea that “heaven” and “hell” are alternative interpretations of our present world and not sacerdotal notions as propagated by organised religion and the “poisoners of life” otherwise known as priests. Nietzsche’s main objective was to point out that what one should “live for” is living itself. Years earlier, Schopenhauer had asserted that the world was “fundamentally absurd”. Loaded with this thought Nietzsche set out to determine the extent of human significance in this absurd world and found that it was “virtually none”. This spurred him to conclude that, for that reason if no other, one should make the most of the “feral quality of experience” in the moment and in the practical sense of the living.
Nietzsche’s philosophical corpus is voluminous and wide-ranging in ideas, topics and meanings. He contended with the notion of supreme logic, deeming it to be “a recipe for intellectual self-deadening and self-imposed ignorance”. He contested the rationalistic, Socratic, approach to “truth”, preferring the metaphoric, poetic and practical wisdom in seeking it, and thereby developed a doctrine of “perspectivism” which later became one of his most cognisant trademarks. He set out for himself an ideal, an “Ubermensch”, a person “cut from wood that is hard” but also “delicate” a person who is “alive, playful” and one who “uses bad luck to his advantage” because he realises that “what does not kill him, makes him stronger.” He advocated independence of spirit in Human, All Too Human and the notion of the individual, pointing out in The Will to Power that: “If from the death of God we don’t fashion a major renunciation and perpetual victory over ourselves, we’ll have to pay for that loss.” He aimed to affirm life directly in the face of its pains, urged a love of fate, and a questioning mind. He made philosophy not only accessible but also exciting and interesting. In turn, he has been misappropriated by the Nazis and accused of anti-Semitism, which he clearly rejects in a letter to his Nazi-sympathising sister Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche saying: “You have committed one of the greatest stupidities — for yourself and for me! Your association with an anti-Semitic chief expresses foreignness to my whole way of life which fills me again and again with ire or melancholy. … It is a matter of honor with me to be absolutely clean and unequivocal in relation to anti-Semitism, namely, opposed to it, as I am in my writings.” He has been condemned by the likes of Max Nordau, deemed a controversialist, a radical, a misogynist and dismissed on account of being a madman. In short, posterity has not been kind to Nietzsche but Wicks does well to dispel these misconceptions and suppositions, without either patronising the reader or simplifying his subject.
In 1869, at the age of 24, Nietzsche was appointed a professorial position at the University of Basel in Switzerland. There he wrote his first extended study The Birth of Tragedy, concerned with its Greek origins and in broader terms how it applied to modern day culture. The work failed to gain academic praise, conversely because it demonstrated Nietzsche’s beginnings as a truly original thinker, flying “against the wind, not with it”, through sentiments describing Christianity as “life’s nausea and disgust with life, merely concealed behind, masked by, dressed up as, faith in ‘another’ or ‘better’ life.” This, in part because, and contrary to his upbringing, Nietzsche had already determined religion a fallacy, and the promise of another life an even bigger one. Thus he believed in this life and as he says in The Gay Science strived to get the “greatest fruitfulness and greatest enjoyment” from it by living “dangerously” as befits a “free spirit”. There are many fascinating aspects to Nietzsche’s life and his work, but one that has interested me more than any other is his view of women, summarized perfectly in his belief that “they make the highs higher and the lows more frequent.” This is, perhaps, where Nietzsche was truly speaking from experience having had his proposal of marriage rejected by varied love-interests. He tackles his awe and incomprehension of women head on, through means of mocking witticisms and more earnestly in the preface to Beyond Good and Evil by comparing “truth” with a “woman” for after all “philosophers, in so far as they have been dogmatists, have failed to understand women” and often “truth” unable to truimph over either because both truth and woman, “she has never allowed herself to be won; and at present every kind of dogma stands with sad and discouraged mien–IF, indeed, it stands at all!” This is perhaps the highest compliment Nietzsche ever pays the female sex, elsewhere offering somewhat more acerbic snippets, especially when considering the relations between the sexes. In Human, All Too Human he says: “If spouses did not live together, good marriages would be more frequent,” and more scathingly about the female nature: “Woman’s love involves injustice and blindness against everything that she does not love,” before himself concluding that “In sum, one cannot be too kind about women.” He does, however, offer some sound advice at one point by saying: “When entering a marriage, one should ask the question: do you think you will be able to have good conversations with this woman right into old age? Everything else in marriage is transitory, but most of the time in interaction is spent in conversation.” Perhaps prospective spouses should take heed.
Whatever Nietzsche’s faults were it would be unfair to ascribe to him the label of a “misogynist”. He was many things but never really that; certainly an overachiever, a fiercely intelligent yet impractical man, and yet “not a man” exactly but rather “dynamite”, someone who was “human, all too human” but also someone who was a romantic. Yep, a romantic. No one but a romantic could write that: “To put up with men, to keep open house in one’s heart – this is liberal, but no more than liberal. One knows of hearts which are capable of noble hospitality, which have curtained windows and closed shutters: they keep their best rooms empty. Why do they so? Because they await guests with whom one does not have to ‘put up’.” And I guess I too am a romantic because I too await a guest with whom I won’t have to “put up”. After all, love is mad like that but then there’s “always some reason in madness,” and I don’t think anyone would dare argue with that, not even Nietzsche.