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November 21, 2003

Coming to Grips with Nietzsche, Part I


As you probably remember from our student days at our Lousy Ivy University, I was a fan of Nietzsche—I read all his books in the university library and I wasn’t even taking the Nietzsche course. (Hey, what greater love can an undergraduate show?)

The Big "N" Himself

Granted, Nietzsche hasn’t been a big part of my daily existence in the intervening decades. But while writing for this blog over the past year or so I keep coming across intellectual problems or concepts that remind me of something the terrible Teuton wrote. So the other day at a bookstore I did something I haven’t done for nearly thirty years; I picked up the Modern Library edition of “The Basic Writings of Nietzsche” and started leafing through it.

It suddenly dawned on me that I’m now older than Nietzsche was when he went insane; it seems like I ought to be old enough to formulate an adult opinion of his thought.

This is easier said than done. Nietzsche wrote a good deal on quite a wide variety of subjects, and his tendency towards writing in aphorisms and fragments makes it hard to speak definitively about his thought. And that’s not the full extent of the problem. Nietzsche delighted in throwing intellectual bombs at received opinion, which—while a groove and a gas—doesn’t make getting a handle on his overall program any easier.

But since this is about my response to him, I have to do things the Friedrich way. So, following my own instincts, I'm going to try to ignore his surface brilliance, wit and juvenile delinquent ways while (1) trying to identify his positive goals, (2) surveying the intellectual program he set himself in pursuit of those goals, and (3) discussing what aspects of his thought still engage me and where he strikes me as a sort of brilliant lunatic. The results will of course, only constitute a blogger’s personal musings--I'm well aware of, and utterly disinclined to engage, the whole academic Nietzsche industry and its products.

My first observation is that it’s useful to keep in mind exactly when and where Nietzsche wrote, because his work now seems to me to be very much a reaction against the situation of his time and place—i.e., Europe in the 1870s and 1880s. He was the German son of a Lutheran minister (who died when his son was only five). He was a brilliant student and became a professor at the then-astounding age of 24. He started writing in the wake of the Darwinian revolution, only a decade or so after the “Origin of the Species” was published and immediately after “The Descent of Man” came out in 1871. During this same period democracy and egalitarian social concepts were gaining traction. In the U.S. the Civil War led to the elimination of slavery in 1865; in England the parliamentary reforms of 1867 widened the British voting franchise; in France, the Franco-Prussian war led to the replacement of the 2nd Empire with a republican-style government in 1871; and in newly united Germany two rival socialist parties were founded in the 1860s and merged in 1875, becoming the forerunner of Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD).

Nietzsche was an elitist of the most violent stripe and considered that the superior man, the powerful man, the man who is expanding the notion of what it is to be human, to be the only justification for existence. As he puts it in "Thus Spake Zarathustra":

The over-man is the meaning of the earth.

(The reference to “the earth” is not accidental, BTW. Nietzsche was convinced that Darwinian evolution, cultural evolution, even political evolution was all the result of a single natural trend in nature toward arrangements that permitted the greatest exercise of power, a trend he deliberately anthropomorphized under the rubric of “will to power.” Nietzsche was a strict materialist, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say he was ferociously anti-metaphysical, believing all metaphysical explanations deliberately devalued reality in favor of some imaginary alternative. Hence, the earth refers to the here-and-now, reality shorn of delusions.)

The average human being, on the other hand, was for Nietzsche virtually a member of a different species—timid, conformist, lacking in creativity, and above all, lacking in power. In fact, he considered the great mass of humanity to be—figuratively if not literally—herd animals.

He was virulently hostile to Christianity. He considered that the chief social teaching of Christianity—i.e., that the fundamental order of the world was based on Christian moral principles of self-sacrifice and anti-egotistical behavior—was inherently hostile to the development of the superior man (and was, in fact, chiefly intended to keep the herd animals in line and reasonably healthy.)

As a result, Nietzsche found the era in which he lived to be a pivotal one for world history. He thought that the cultural prestige and credibility of Christianity, already shaky from the French revolution and a century of scientific progress, had received a fatal blow from Darwin. He was excited to realize that the cultural ‘vacuum’ that was opening up with the collapse of Christianity was creating a major opportunity for mankind to embrace a different set of values, non-Christian values—values that would be far more conducive to the development of the superior man.

Of course, this critical moment also held two great dangers.

The first, given Christianity’s central place in the intellectual structure of European culture, was that its collapse would inevitably create a condition of nihilism. As he puts it in one of his notes for “The Will To Power”:

The belief in…meaninglessness, is the psychologically necessary effect once the belief in God and an essentially moral order becomes untenable. Nihilism appears at that point…One interpretation [of reality] has collapsed; but because it was considered the interpretation, it now seems as if there were no meaning in existence at all.

Nietzsche felt such nihilism would result in (and was, in fact, already resulting in) a sort of suicidal depression of mankind, and especially among superior souls intelligent enough to perceive what was happening. This depression he meant to counter.

The second was that he was dubious about the role that science might play in the post-Christian world order. Despite Nietzsche’s absolute acceptance of Darwin’s thesis that man was simply one more, if uniquely evolved, animal, he anticipated (and loathed) the all-too-likely development of a mechanistic-deterministic view of human life, an intellectual development neatly illustrated in the novels of his contemporary, Zola. In short, Nietzsche was concerned that the values of Christianity (i.e., self-sacrificial, anti-egotistical conformity) might survive all too well in a technocratic, secularized, socialist-democratic world. Hence, he felt a great urgency to analyze both the roots and effects of Christian values and conduct a P.R. campaign against them.

Okay, I think that’s pretty much it for my summary of his basic goals. He cuts quite a figure as a Victorian mad genius, no?

I think it’s pretty fair to say that Nietzsche was about as un-P.C. as any highly intelligent person of the past 150 years. Is anyone not offended yet?

Well, hold on, it gets worse. But you’ll have to wait for my next installment to get a closer look at his intellectual program.

Cheerfully lazy,


posted by Friedrich at November 21, 2003


Wow, molto fabuloso, thanks. Fascinating especially to think of FN in historical context, not just as philosophizing in a void. Hey, he was taking part (as Oakeshott says) in a conversation -- and it helps a lot to get a sense of what the conversation was. Superficial me, I always took Nietzsche mainly as a stylist, performer and bomb-thrower. Although I heard and respected the underlying ache, it never would have occurred to me to think of him as a system-builder. But maybe it was silly of me just to accept him as someone with a lot of perceptions, observations and thoughts to chip in. Looking forward to future installments.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 21, 2003 02:34 PM

It kind of makes you wonder about teachers of history who like to ignore dates as meaningless. Unfortunately, without dates, it's hard to realize that trends one takes for granted, such as the rise of the working-class influence in politics, often took place far later than one would think, and in a different intellectual context than one would think. I mean, it would be interesting to read a study of the link(s) between Darwinism and the rise of socialism. Or a study of the impact of such ideas and trends on, say, Impressionism (also flowering at exactly this period)...what is Monet thinking as he paints his cathedrals, eh?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 21, 2003 03:08 PM

Fredrich, you were older than Nietzsche was when he had his _breakdown_. Insanity is not something that comes upon a man of a sudden. From what I've heard, and from what you wrote, my suspicion is that FN was suffuring from paranoid/schizophrenia with delusions of grandeur long before he went 'round the bend.

At the same time it's a good idea to take a look at the man's environment growing up. The son of a Lutheran minister tells me he had a middle class background. That he was born part of the herd; an intolerable situation for someone with aspirations. Now give that someone a persecution complex, delusions of grandeur, and a raging intellect and you get a Fredrich Nietzsche.

(You ever notice that its usually people such as Nietsche, Ayn Rand, and Adolf Hitler who come up with myths of the "Superior Man". Ideologies whereas those born to power rely more on tribalism to justify keeping the herd down?)

That's my take. Yours?

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on November 21, 2003 05:53 PM

The medical aspects of Nietzsche's breakdown have always seemed cloudy. At one point I think I knew what the consensus opinion was, but my guess is it has probably shifted anyway. It's hard to comment on that. I think Nietzsche's upbringing without a father (in an apparently oppressively all-female household) may have made him go a bit overboard on the whole masculinity thing and probably gave him a very negative view of life in the middle of society. I do know that various people who read his books and came to see him before the onset of his illness found him quite calm, modest, reasonable and even charming--not at all a raving lunatic or someone cultivating a prophetic aura. Comparing him to Hitler or to Ayn Rand is one way of looking at him--although it is chiefly a way of casually dismissing him; one might with more profit compare him to Plato or Spinoza. In any event, maybe we should put this discussion off until I get further along with the postings--everyone will have more ammo to fire then!

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 21, 2003 06:19 PM

For people interested in the question of Nietzsche's madness, two opinions can be read here and here.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 21, 2003 07:03 PM

Still, I must post this.

Identifying the insane before the insanity becomes overt is not as easy as one might think. Trained psychiatrists miss it, when the patient is maintaining the veneer of sanity. Given that Fred is long dead, and thus unavailable for observation, reliable conclusions become harder to make.

Nietzsche was the product of his time, his circumstances, and his medical condition, change any of them and you produce a much different man. Give Adolf Hitler a stable, loving home and you'd likely end up with a noted artist living into his 90s.

Which all is getting into another field of inquiry altogether, so I'll wait until Nietzsche II.:)

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on November 21, 2003 07:09 PM

I mean, it would be interesting to read a study of the link(s) between Darwinism and the rise of socialism.

I tried to write this one, as a dissertation more than a decade ago. Or, basically it was about how God as an explanation disappeared from science and had to be replaced by something else as the source of truth. Better methods of measuring brought one solution, and all in all it gave rise to the idea man is capable of anything and a thus grew a tremendous trust in science. It is hard to understand how big that trust was then. Until Titanic, until the trenches of the Great War.

Socialism could be seen as another manifestation of that optimism; above all the fundemantal idea behind socialism is that society is makeable.

[Needless to say this topic was much to big for my dissertation in the end].

Posted by: ijsbrand on November 21, 2003 08:50 PM

In your post, you set up a dichotomy between the "over man" and the "average man," pitting them against one another, distinguishing them as species. The "over-man," however, is no aristocrat, no nobleman. The subjugation of the masses (ideologically via Christianity, or materially/symbolically via economy) is in the interests of the aristocratic class. In this sense, the material antagonism is not between the over-man and the average man, but rather between the average man and the aristocrat. It could be argued that, for Nietzsche, the "over-man" does not stand over and against the average man, but rather over and against the order which pits the average man against the aristocratic man. The coming of the overman signals the sublation (to borrow from Hegel's translators) of this antagonism.

You continue: "Christianity . . . was inherently hostile to the development of the superior man (and was, in fact, chiefly intended to keep the herd animals in line and reasonably healthy.)" The "collapse of Christianity" is thus in the interests of humankind, the masses would be liberated from the opium-induced illusion (cf. Marx) that they were free, though they were everywhere in chains; and an impediment to the sublation of subjugation would be removed.

However, if the collapse of Christianity brings with it a form of nihilism which is especially destructive for the "superior soul" then the collapse of Christianity is not in humanity's interests because, paraphrasing Zarathustra, "humanity is a bridge to the overman, which is the meaning of humanity." Could it be then that your "superior soul" should here be understood as the aristocrat? Things are probably not so simple. In any case, Nietzsche therefore concludes (in Will To Power), that European nihilism was inherently ambiguous, it could be a sign of ascent and a period of invigoration, or decline and demoralization. It is in this context that Nietzsche makes his wager.

Posted by: charles on November 22, 2003 04:19 AM

Looking forward to part 2. I think your insistence on the importance of remembering the specific time and place Nietzsche came from is spot on, too; he was nothing if not a product of his specific historical period. One of these years I will get around to that project I set myself a while ago of reading all his work in order...

Posted by: James Russell on November 22, 2003 06:44 AM

Personally, I'll take Montaigne over Nietzsche!

Posted by: Michael Serafin on November 22, 2003 12:27 PM

Damn that Serafin, now I've really got to finally get around to reading Montaigne ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 22, 2003 12:32 PM


I understand your reservations about the logic of Nietzsche's "goals" or "positive program." But I'm trying to withhold comment on the specifics of this until after the next section on his intellectual program. That way I won't jump half-cocked into the fray.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 22, 2003 06:02 PM

So far as Nietzsche and Montaigne go, It's probably not necessary to choose one or the other. In this connection, viz. Montaigne's "On Moderation," which makes mention in passing of something like the overman avant la lettre. The points on which M. and N. diverge have to do, I think, with the ages and circumstances in which they lived - N. the erstwhile professor, because of his political impotence, could commit himself to a number of positions unavailable to M. the 16th-century French aristocrat. In consequence, M. appears to modern readers as a bit of a feeb; I think it's harder to render this judgement, however, once historical circumstance has been taken into account.

Posted by: Martin Devecka on November 22, 2003 07:57 PM

Well, I look forward to the next installment then.

Posted by: charles on November 22, 2003 08:04 PM

Judging only from your summary (and not having read Nietzche at all) I wouldn't call him maximally un-PC. Nothing was more PC in that period than to be anti-religious and especially anti-Christian. All the trendiest intellectuals were.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on November 23, 2003 04:57 AM


I've always thought of Nietzsche as an anti-social (or socially inept) Emerson. It's well documented that N knew E's work intimately, and lifted a lot of his ideas directly from the Sage of Concord, rephrasing them in a far more confrontational style... We expect vitriol from our philosphers, and Nietzsche certainly provided that--although, from what I recall, he seems to have classed himself amongst the "laughing philosophers"... Guess the joke's on Nietzsche hunh? And a lot of budding postmodernists...


Posted by: David Fiore on November 24, 2003 02:06 AM

I really dislike Nietzsche, he reminds me of myself. If I need to get absorbed into a cult of intellectual personality, I can make myself into one.

Posted by: . on November 24, 2003 04:01 PM

My Friend Fred

He’s handsome, the eyes gleam
His hair’s even combed volcanicly.
So why don’t he think like Nietzsche?

He’s got the look can’t you see?
Even his mustache droops walrusly;
So why don’t he think like Nietzsche?

Posted by: Doug Anderson on November 28, 2003 12:57 AM

Very entertaining and educational blog. well done. I look forward to reading the second installment. Haven't had a good blog like this in a while.

Posted by: ShipShape on December 1, 2003 07:35 PM

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