After Nietzsche
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After NietzscheI have titled this page “After Nietzsche” because I want it to be clear that I am not attempting a thorough explication of Nietzsche’s thought. Here, I’m seeking not scholarship, but a kind of conversation.

I will, of course, draw on scholarship as well as on Nietzsche’s writing, and references to either will inevitably present aspects of who Nietzsche was and what he said. So, to a degree, the page will incidentally explain features of his thought. But that’s not its purpose. There is a vast learned commentary about Nietzsche’s philosophy, and taking it as a whole, I think it is one of the finest collections of scholarly writing we have. It would be presumptuous of me to claim to add to it. If you would like an intelligent selection of recent scholarly writing on the subject, I refer you to the bibliography appended to Laurence Lampert’s Nietzsche’s Task: An Interpretation of Beyond Good and Evil (Yale University Press, 2001).
What I hope to do here is to share with you the thoughts that have come to me as a result of reading Nietzsche, and to invite you to comment on them. Our main purpose in consulting thinkers should be the enhancement of our own thought. We have a duty to be as accurate as possible in accessing their ideas, but simply to know the work of another mind without trying to enrich our own is a stultifying experience. We should read in order to think and not just for the purpose of collecting information in a library-like fashion.

I have been reading Nietzsche for quite a long time. But not until recently --roughly over the past decade -- did I come to see him as an author I needed to read as intently as possible. Why that happened I’m not sure. My best guess is that I was forced, more and more, to conclude that our common modes of discourse and analysis are worn out. They aren’t getting us anywhere nor are they bringing forth anything new and vital. We do need a revaluation of our beliefs about right and wrong, success and failure, achievement and fatuity, meaning and flaccidity. Since a fresh start -- a move beyond good and evil -- was Nietzsche’s principal theme, he’s a useful figure for helping us think about such a turning.

On this page, I’ll follow Nietzsche’s habit of numbered comments. I wish I could say they will fall into meaningful patterns. But I’m not sure they will. I’ll add them as they come to me. If an intelligent unconscious brings them forth in a progressive sequence, so be it. But, if not, each will simply be what it is.  I hope that from time to time, an addition will hold your attention and prompt you to write to me about it.
2008  •  4

In the 87th aphorism of The Wanderer, Nietzsche says that whoever doesn't trouble himself about good writing and good reading (both virtues grow and decline together) is showing people a way to become ever more national. We have seen the truth of his perception in the United States over the past several years and in particular in the just concluded presidential campaign. The candidates who could not write or speak with subtlety had as their entire message national power, and nothing else. They evinced no concern for either the health of the people or the health of the world. Furthermore, they preached that good writing and good reading are qualities antithetical to pure, real Americans. Imagine reading something served up by Joe, the Plumber. The denunciation of intelligent reading and writing becomes the means to extreme viciousness, to a view of life where nothing counts other than money and physical power, or, as Republicans would have it, the American dream.

2008  •  3

I have believed for a long time that where one reads a thing has a great deal to do with what he learns from it. A passage in a crowded city among ambitious associates will convey an entirely different meaning than the same passage read in remote regions.

So here I am now, reading Nietzsche, looking out on the harbor of a tiny Newfoundland coastal town, and wondering what this setting is doing to what he says to me. The sentence I have just read goes thus: "Are there men who cannot be fatally wounded, were they to learn what their most intimate friends really know about them?"

I may be such a person, because my most intimate friends are dead, and so it may be the case that their knowledge of me, whatever it once was, no longer exists. I can't be sure of that, of course.

The thought of intimate friends in Newfoundland strikes me as bizarre. I feel fairly certain that I could never have intimate friends here, even though general humanity in this region is fairly friendly. But it's friendliness that comes from not knowing, a friendliness that in all likelihood, does not want to know. And that causes me wonder if unknowing friendliness may not be, over the long run, the best kind. Perhaps intimacy has been overrated. I can't be sure of that either.

The effect of going far away, among people who know nothing of you, is to be certain of almost nothing yourself. And, there's something very pleasing about the condition. Since Nietzsche, himself, wandered mostly among people who had no idea that the strange young man in the local rooming house was a universal genius, it could be that he sensed something of that pleasure, and held onto it fiercely in order to be who he was.

2008  •  2

Near the end of The Antichrist, Nietzsche launches a fervent attack on the notion that martyrdom conveys truth more thoroughly than anything else. The conclusion that there has to be something of value in a cause for which people sacrifice their lives has been, he says, an unspeakable drag on the testing of facts and on any genuine desire to inquire or investigate.

There's no doubt that has been the case with respect to the invasion and military occupation of Iraq. Over and again we hear the pathetic argument that because some people have died, more people have to be ready to die in order to show that the earlier deaths weren't in vain. If there has ever been an argument more fatuous than this, I haven't heard it. And it's clear where it leads. We can easily imagine militarists of the 22nd century sending young people to their deaths in order to show that those who died in the 21st century didn't give up their lives for nothing.

Martyrdom in Nietzsche's view is a form of sickness, and although in our current state of social development that's not likely to become a popular opinion, I hope some people will continue to pay attention to it until it does have a chance to win over a majority.

2008  •  1

In Section 15 of The Antichrist, Nietzsche says, "The term 'free will' no longer describes anything we can understand. We see this confusion demonstrated almost every day on melodramatic cop shows. The heroes engage in all sorts of pseudo-scientific profiling to explain why suspects are driven to perform various anti-social acts. Yet, when the perpetrators are finally caught, they are regarded with the deepest disgust -- and are regularly called monsters -- by the upholders of law and morality, now transformed into champions of free will. They seek their prey assuming perfect determinism as the law of life, but they punish in the certainty that criminals are responsible for every single act they commit.

Of course, I suppose you could say that cops, being cops -- and having been driven to copism -- are determined to believe that way.

2007  •  25

Nietzsche had provocative definitions of both culture and history. He saw them as, perhaps, inseparable but nonetheless at odds with one another. History is essentially the perverter of culture. Culture's purpose is to bring forth, after a long process, a sovereign man whereas history's goal is that "sublime abortion," the domesticated man, servant of church and state.

Whether Nietzsche analyzed humanity's social condition with perfect accuracy probably cannot be resolved. But it's clear he was addressing something significant with his concept of culture. I hope -- but I don't guess I can believe -- that there has never been anyone so degraded as not to see that perfect servitude to any social institution is a betrayal of one's own best self. History is nothing if not wily, so it has devised a plenitude of explanations to tell us that we all ought to be willing to sacrifice ourselves to something greater than self. Doubtless the concept of soul emerged to address our reluctance to sacrifice ourselves, soul being a version of self that is never called on to sacrifice but rather is commanded to find its way to glory.

The ordinary self, however, the day-by-day self, the self that finds its meaning in small acts and in love of life, that self is supposed to be ready at a moment's notice to turn itself into fodder for feeding the machinery of great institutions. Such surrender of self is supposedly the finest thing one can do, but it is from Nietzsche's perspective the greatest lie one can believe.

The biggest decision of life is whether to take that lie as the truth. Of course, if you don't think it's a lie you can don the uniform and march off into the trenches. But, what if it is? What if there has never been a lie more far-reaching than it?

2007  •  24

A prominent feature of Nietzsche's philosophy is the proposition that active thought is superior to reactive thought, the latter constituting the mode of slave mentality. It's a fine idea but it leaves us with the problem of distinguishing action from reaction. And that is not easy.

Active thought, says Nietzsche, affirms life rather than opposing it. Active thought is the invention of new possibilities for life. But how can one reach new possibilities without breaking out of old restraints? And isn't the smashing of old, constricting systems one of the main aspects of reactive thought?

Nietzsche's leading genealogical analysis showed how Christian morality emerged from slavish resentment and continued to push it forward in new forms. It's hard to find a body of thought more reactive than that. Yet he viewed it as essential work for freeing the mind and opening it to new possibilities. So it seems that active and reactive thought are not genuine opposites but, rather, partners walking hand in hand. In fact, it's hard to see how they could exist separately.

Maybe we should read Nietzsche as holding that though they are companions one is higher than the other, and more noble. If that were the case, we would still have the puzzle of how to know one from the other. But we would know more confidently that if the mind is consumed by thought obviously reactive it's not going to produce anything to lift life up -- which in Nietzsche's philosophy is the genuine purpose of thinking in the first place.

2007  •  23

The doctrine of eternal recurrence certainly is, as Tyler Roberts declares in Contesting Sprit, "one of the most enigmatic of Nietzsche's ideas."  (170) It can be, and has been viewed in a variety of ways.

If you haven't struggled with it yourself it's likely to seem merely bizarre -- a scientific claim that can't be confirmed scientifically. But most careful readers have come to the conclusion that though Nietzsche made a few attempts to defend it scientifically, its objective truth was not very important to him.

For Nietzsche, the significant question is how you would respond to the knowledge that that every incident of your life -- and, in fact, every incident of history -- has been and will be repeated an infinite number of times.

If you can bring yourself to perceive such a condition as a good thing, then you are saying yes to life. If, instead, you hope to escape into some other realm, such as the Christian notion of paradise, then you are rejecting life and, in effect, accepting defeat. That's because, from Nietzsche's perspective, life is real whereas these other places of existence are not real and, therefore, nothing. When you turn away from life, you turn toward nothingness.

That segment of Nietzsche's thought seems fairly clear. But how we are to respond to the various elements of eternal recurrence isn't clear at all. Do we merely accept evil and suffering as the price of joy, or do we affirm them for their own sake?

Also -- and this, for me, is the most perplexing feature of the concept -- how might it be possible, psychologically, for one to experience an event again exactly as it was earlier? If you have changed your attitude towards it, if you have, for example, decided to embrace it rather than to reject it, then it's not as it was before. It has become something different. And if it's not possible to change one's response, then how can a reoccurrence be meaningful in any way? The endless cycle of repetition would become a nothingness, a so what?

Nietzsche was far too intelligent not to have entertained these questions himself. Yet, the thought of eternal recurrence remained for him an epiphany. It had, perhaps, some mystical meaning that went beyond his powers of explanation.

In any case, if your read Nietzsche not to construct a definitive explanation of him but as he wanted to be read, for the sake of  developing your own thought, then eternal recurrence is a prod, a thought experiment not to be resolved but always to be  contested.  It's in the agon of struggling with it that its meaning emerges. That, at least, is the best I can make of it right now.

2007  •  22

I have tended to consider Nietzsche a thinker who wished to replace what we have called morality with aesthetics. And I have also tended to be sympathetic to that move because I've regarded taste as a more accurate regulator of decent behavior than people's notions of right and wrong.

I'm now confronting a thinker, George Kateb, who tells me that aesthetic cravings are more productive of immoral behavior than many other motives which are regularly denounced as sources of evil, such as economic self-interest or aggressive lust for power. And I have to admit that Kateb makes a fairly convincing argument.

He does introduce, however, a distinction which allows me to hold on to some of my esteem for aesthetic judgment. Indeliberate aestheticism, he says, is more productive of bad behavior than aestheticism which is conscious and acknowledged. That's because the deliberate form requires a measure of self control.

Kateb finds aesthetic craving -- I think rightly -- in many desires that aren't commonly regarded as having anything aesthetic about them, such as the organization, style, and habits of society. Many of these have to do with group identity and the belief that one group -- generally one's own -- is more beautiful, shapely, and orderly than another. It's just one step from that belief to a willingness to oppress another group in defense of the right way of being.

When such emotions come into play, however, they are not recognized by those who express them as being aesthetic in nature. They constitute a kind of innocent aesthetic craving which is neither self-controlled nor self-aware.

Consequently, though Kateb teaches me that I can't be supportive of aestheticism across the board, he also leaves me room to place value in a conscious, self-aware, self-regulated aestheticism, as one weapon against the propensity humans have to brutalize one another.

2007  •  21

In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche writes that he managed to get over insane nationalism after a few hours thought. But he knows it will take some people much longer, as much as a half a life or half a century. This is a rare instance of Nietzsche's being naive.

Some people will never get over nationalism, no matter how long they live. That's because nationalism is the only religion they have. By transforming it into a religion they exclude its doctrines from scrutiny. 

It's hard to know, precisely, what worship of a nation is. It has aspects of tribalism, but it is more than that. It may be primarily an attempt to give meaning to life by merging one's own identity with a gigantic abstraction and proclaiming to find in the hugeness of it all a something greater than self.

In any case, once the transition to nationalistic religion has been made, it is hard to escape it because the faith itself forbids asking why the object of worship is either meaningful or good.

2007  •  20

Is there no greater risk than asking ourselves why we should care about the truth? Why not choose untruth, if it is more comfortable? This, Nietzsche thinks is the over-arching question of Western philosophy.

Philosophers seem to think there are two kinds of truth: the everyday variety which tells us whether the grocery store is on Main Street or State Street, and the metaphysical kind which tries to tell us about such things as the existence of God.

Although they are different in complexity, I'm not sure they are different in kind.

2007  •  19

Nietzsche argues that the lover of truth does not want to be free of her, no matter how cruel she may be. Rather, he desires to be her slave. This is to use words in radical manner and, therefore, in a sense, to turn them upside down.

Slavery is normally thought to be a demeaning condition, yet to be enslaved to truth is to be exalted above other human beings. It is the ultimate nobility.

Turning words on their heads in this way is an essential element of Nietzsche's thought. It reflects his intention always to project tension into thinking.

I wonder if there's a standard term for this mode of rhetoric.

2007  •  18

Nietzsche's open advocacy of slavery is probably the hardest feature of his philosophy for modern thinkers. The mind inevitably runs to the slave systems of the past -- and  to the few systems remaining in the present -- and finds them repulsive. But we need to remember that Nietzsche's ultimate advocacy was for truth, and that by advocating slavery he was arguing that it is an inherent element of the truth. It is the nature of humanity that most of its members are going to be enslaved by some system or other because most of them will never embrace full freedom. That being the case, it is better for them to be enslaved to persons of genuine wisdom than it is to remain in thrall to the kinds of falsehood that have ruled in the past. 

One can argue that Nietzsche shouldn't have used such an emotionally charged word as "slavery" to describe his rank order of the future. It ensured that it would be misunderstood by shallow readers. But, again, we need to recall that Nietzsche was no democrat. He didn't wish to be read with understanding by the masses because he considered it impossible. He wasn't trying to win votes. Rather he wanted readers who would enter fully into what he was saying.

The strongest argument against Nietzsche is not that he was a champion of common tyranny or cruelty. That was certainly not the case.  Rather, the flaw in his philosophy was that there never has been and probably never can be the kind of philosophers he projected as the rulers of the future. And, I suspect he knew that as well as anybody else. It was just that he didn't much care.

2007  •  17

A major percentage of social problems arise from disorders of thought, with distorted explanations of causation the first among them. Correcting them is a long, hard, tedious process. The first difficulty lies in perceiving them as disorders, especially since many of them are accepted now as moral precepts. In truth, popular morality is made up as much of disordered thought as of anything else.

2007  •  16

In the new philosophy -- in the coming philosophy -- esotericism will not be necessary in the manner it was in the past. Then it had to screen truth, and keep it within a small group, because the human community dictated lies of morality. Under a moral system based on truth esotericism would persist, but only because truth is hard and complex not because it threatens prevailing dogma. You might say Nietzsche's whole project was to move truth from criminality to difficulty.

2007  •  15

Objectivity, as Nietzsche persistently implied, can reasonably be defined as no more than a multiplicity of perspectives. I remember trying to express this view when I was a graduate student at the University of Virginia and being met with incomprehension. Why?

2007  •  14

Where do things come from? Every religious cosmology has to answer this question. In the religions of the West, the answer has been out of the unfathomable creativity of God -- which strikes some as meaning, "we don't know." In Nietzsche, the answer is that they come out of the Will -- also called the Will to Power -- which is just as unfathomable as god, but which does have this characteristic: it is always thrusting to create and destroy in ways that appear chaotic to human understanding. Ultimately, the main difference between so-called believers and so called atheists is whether they see their god as orderly or disorderly. And these perspectives have a great deal to say about the nature of human freedom.

2007  •  13

If one were to say, "God is a myth," and know what he was saying, he could not be understood by one in a thousand of today's population. So, is there any need of saying a true thing that cannot be understood?

2007  •  12

A truth one must keep in mind while reading Nietzsche is that he was a man of the nineteenth century. Certainly he saw farther than most people of his time but it was impossible for him not to share some of the assumptions of his era. The one that affected his philosophy most dramatically was the belief that humans were beings not only higher than but different in their essence from animals. To deny this and to assert the animality of humanity was for him a truth productive of intense pain and requiring, therefore, an honesty that partook of cruelty.  In fact, much of Nietzsche's assertion about the necessity of cruelty involved facing up to truths that now don't strike us as being nearly as shocking as he took them to be.

Though it remains the case that many, and perhaps most, people in the early years of the twenty-first century think of themselves as being different from animals, we are aware of scientific conclusions which tell us we are not as different as we once thought. Consequently, to contemplate the possibility that we are animals of nature, and nothing more, doesn't shock or pain us to the degree that it would have people in the 1870s and 1880s when Nietzsche was composing his major works.

Much of Nietzsche's reputation for being a ruthless philosopher of force and cruelty actually derives from a kind of innocence. Things that because of his background seemed shockingly brutal to him would now barely raise an eyebrow.

This is not to say that he did not have radical thoughts which remain radical. He did. But they involve what he called a "transvaluation of values" far more than they do any sort of storm trooper philosophy of life.

2007  •  11

Nietzsche 's grounding proposition is that we ought to live in the world we have, and form our values out of that world, instead of forever trying to make up worlds that we can't reach. We should view the world from inside and not tell ourselves we can stand outside the world to gain a true perspective.

Current morality proclaims that there is something outside which tells us what to do inside. That's why, if we want to create a new, less deluded world, we have to become, in Nietzsche's term, immoralists.

This sounds, on first hearing like a simple task. But in reality it is vastly complicated. One reason, of course, is that we have got so used to living with idealist abstractions we are incapable of imagining a world freed from them. But that, over time, might be approached if we could find a way to know, for sure, what is real and what is ideal.

Nietzsche's device for making the distinction is the will to power, which he identifies with nature. But the problem is the will to power is itself an abstraction.  We can't say, for sure, what flows from it and what doesn't.

I certainly can't sort out reality from unreality, and consequently I'm on the verge of giving up the effort. Supposing I granted that anything anybody has ever conceived -- dreams, hopes, imaginary worlds -- is just as real as anything else? What then? I suppose I would be driven back to judging things not on the basis of their realness or unreality, but on their effects. If I did, I would be faced with a vast project of redefinition. I would have to start talking about, for example, not just God, but the sort of god who causes this and the sort of god who causes that. And I would still be perplexed by whether I should prefer one to the other. Even so, I suspect I would have a better shot at making a coherent life from judging effects than I can from assigning reality. So, for a while, at least, the former is what I'm going to try to do.

2007  •  10

The best I can see of this creature who might still make something of humanity is that he or she lusts not to command and refuses to be commanded. If we could start with that as a base, perhaps we could build something.  But I certainly don’t see it at a glance. It’s a thing that has to be grappled for in the fog of modern ambition and morality. Whether it’s there, or can be there, remains for me a mystery.

2007  •  9

In Section 203 of Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche says the philosopher of the future sees at a glance all that might still be made out of humanity. If that’s the case then I’m not close to approaching that philosopher. What I see at a glance are the follies and fatuities of the men who are now taken to be success stories of our political and economic culture. We need no more of them. That’s clear. What’s not so clear are the persons to replace them. All I see are certain acts, certain brief phrases, certain expressions I would hope to see incorporated into future leaders. But how to make a whole person of these glimpses requires a stitching I haven’t yet mastered. Nor am I sure that putting small features together is a way to arrive at the complete thing.

Take Mr. Knightley out of Emma.  Place him in modern America. What would he be? What would he do? We can be fairly sure he would rise above George Bush, and maybe that knowledge, in itself, is enough to effect serious political reform. But can we know enough of Mr. Knightly to be sure how he would deal with global warming, or the power of rapacious corporations, or fanatics who believe they can create a better world by killing masses of people? Mr. Knightley is a construct of Jane Austen’s mind and she completed him only enough to meet her needs of the moment. He’s not sufficiently whole to confront the challenges of the future.

2007  •  8

When we say we’re following our instincts, what it is we’re following? Often only some benighted bigotry. Yet, because bigotry is often associated with instinct is that a reason to reject the latter altogether? I think not. We need a process to extract instinct pure from instinct sullied. What might that be? Can dialogue help us discern the difference?

2007  •  7

The binary logic of the Western tradition operates as a prison for the imagination. It stops us from going where we would otherwise lust to go. And among the false dualities it presses upon us, perhaps the most oppressive is existence versus nonexistence. We prance about thinking we know what the distinction means when, in truth, nobody can define either side of it.

2007  •  6

Nietzsche generally used “metonymy” to mean the substitution of cause for effect, or the mistaken attribution of cause. It would be interesting to apply his analysis to the use of emotionally charged words, like abuse. We say that a person has been abused when a particular sort of thing has happened to him. But the thing that happened is not abuse until we take knowledge of it into our minds and transform it into abuse. So the cause of the abuse is not the act itself but the way we think about the act. We can see this because we know, from history, that acts which once were seen as benign and beneficial have now become abusive. There are many acts which will be harmless when we think of them as being harmless and become abusive when we begin to think of them as abusive. This is generally the case where the harm of the act is psychological rather than physical.

2007  •  5

When the feeling for myth weakens, religion begins to die, and in the process transforms itself into nasty politics. Christianity in America is well along that path. When a figure like George Bush can be accepted as a religious man, then religion is proclaiming its mortality.

2007  •  4

One of the primary tensions is wholeness of self versus the self as multiple parts. Is it a nonsensical concept to see the self as part democracy, part monarchy? Nietzsche doesn’t call for a fully unified self, but he does call for a well-governed self. So, how does the government work? What’s the constitution of it?

2007  •  3

Nietzsche uses “dream” to mean what I usually think of as imagining. To make life bearable, we create imaginary worlds, which in our less thoughtful moments, we say are not real. But why are they not real? Since what we typically call reality is just appearance anyway, why shouldn’t the appearance of appearance -- as Nietzsche terms it -- be accorded a kind of reality? Or at least a significance? The quality of the imaginary world we create influences the quality of life as much as anything else.

2007  •  2

The point to be taken from paradoxes is not that they’re logically inconsistent. That’s no more than definition. The interesting thing about them is that they produce tensions in the human soul, tensions that need to be managed in life- enhancing ways. That’s what philosophy is, and that’s why a philosophy has to be lived in order to demonstrate its credibility.

2007  •  1

Try as I will to capture it, the doctrine of the Eternal Recurrence escapes me. I can’t understand what it means to make something into what it is destined to be, and what it has been countless times before. What if I didn’t try? So what? Does individual choice consist of no more than the possibility of moving from not liking a thing to liking it? Is the Eternal Recurrence a doctrine that produces mechanical determinism with respect to what happens, and freedom with respect to how we feel about it? If that’s the case, then it seems to be emotionalism of the most gross kind, and I can't believe that's what Nietzsche had in mind.





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