The Revolt Against the Western Intellectual Tradition:
Friedrich Nietzsche and the Birth of Modernism
you see ideal things, I see what is --
In the lengthy history of the western intellectual tradition there have been thinkers who stand apart from the rest. Their power of mind, their insights and profound sensibility have made their lives and ideas a powerful record of mans attempt to explain the inexplicable. These great thinkers have not always been philosophers. Great ideas appear from the minds of individuals who have demonstrated courage -- individuals who dare to know. A man like Socrates -- a wise man -- was one such individual. He forced his students to question the foundations of their own knowledge. Borrowing as he did from the Delphic Oracle, Socrates motto was "Know thyself." Use your reason! Think! Find answers. Above all, examine your life for "the unexamined life is not worth living."
We could quite easily enumerate the familiar litany of great thinkers whose ideas have graced the western intellectual tradition. What we find are individuals who are willing to raise questions--individuals motivated by notions of the good life, or the best form of government or human goodness, or the meaning of being and non-being. In retrospect, and despite their differences, obsessions and personal quirks, these thinkers, I would like to suggest, inevitably fall into a single category. Cartesian, Romantic, philosophe, Marxist, scientific revolutionary, psychiatrist or Thomistic logician, these individuals all exhibit a singular faith in human reason. A faith in the power of mind. They are all, in one way or another, optimists. Even Jean Jacques Rousseau, that most enigmatic of the 18th century philosophes, occasionally shed his pessimism to become a philosopher of growth. Rousseau is an oddballbut only in relation to his own time. We have no problem, I suppose, in placing Rousseau alongside the likes of Thomas Hobbes, or John Stuart Mill, or Immanuel Kant. These intellects, these giants, when taken together, constitute the western tradition. Whether they also constitute a "European mind" is something you need to work out for yourselves. A celebration of reason--a faith in human thought--a mentality in all essentials forward looking and flowing from reason. Despite their differences, they form a coterie of intellectuals remarkably similar if not in their ideas, at least in their spirit.
In the PREFACE to his book, Human, All Too Human, published in 1879, Friedrich Nietzsche offered the following insight. The language is strange and unfamiliar. What is Nietzsche talking about?
Without question, Friedrich Nietzsche was perhaps one of the best known and most celebrated thinkers of the last quarter of the 19th century. He is also the least understood and the most frequently misunderstood philosopher to have written in the western intellectual tradition during the past century. In fact, it is at times difficult to pin Nietzsche down, to pigeon-hole him. The difficulty comes, perhaps, from Nietzsches own distaste of being pigeon-holed. Pinning down a Marx, or a Hobbes, or a Hegel or a DARWIN is easy work--they sort of do the work for us. But Nietzsche is differentvastly different. He was a unique thinkerunique in his approach, unique in the substance of what it was he was trying to say and above all, unique in the way he stated his thought. He is not easy to classify. He despised classification. For instance, he was not a nihilist. He said man could rise above nihilism. He was not a Romantic. He was not an Existentialist. However, given all this, Nietzsche both combines these various states of mind while at the same time he destroys them.
Nietzsche is what we call a "problem thinker." His pattern of thought was asystematichis writing style was asystematic. The difficulty in reading or appreciating the intellectual vigor of Nietzsche stems from both the external structure of his writings and from the internal process of his philosophical reflection. Nearly without exception, Nietzsches ideas are not expressed in systematic treatises or essays but in random and isolated affirmations and aphorisms. A few examples here should suffice:
Only in The Birth of Tragedy (1872) and Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-85) does Nietzsches thought achieve some sort of exterior coherence. It goes without saying that Nietzsche refused to produce a philosophic system. This is so because he equated "system" with "decadence" and that decadence, after all, is what Nietzsche was trying to overcome. "What is the mark of every literary decadence?" Nietzsche asked. "That life no longer resides in the whole. The word becomes sovereign and leaps out of the sentence, the sentence reaches out and obscures the meaning of the page, and the page comes to life at the expense of the whole -- the whole is no longer a whole. This, however, is the simile of every style of decadence: every time there is an anarchy of atoms."
As Walter Kaufmann has written: "Nietzsches style can be taken to represent a brutally frank admission that today hardly anyone can offer more than scattered profound insights or single beautiful sentences." Nietzsche objected to systems. A system must necessarily be based on premises that by its very nature it cannot question. The systematic thinker -- a Hegel, Kant, Marx, or Descartes -- starts with any number of assumptions from which he deduces the whole of his system. He takes these assumptions for granted -- they seem "self-evident" to him. They are, of course, arbitrary, and reflect little more than the subjective side of the thinker. What Nietzsche objects to in all of this is the failure to question ones own assumptions. The thinker who believes in the ultimate truth of his system, without questioning its foundations, appears more stupid than he is -- he refuses to think beyond a certain point and for Nietzsche this is indicative of a subtle moral corruption -- of decay and decadence. No one system reveals the entire truth -- each organizes one point of view, one perspective. While he used these systems for his education, Nietzsche employed them only with caution as aids to ruthless questioning, "to look now out of this window, now out of that," he wrote in The Will to Power (Notes written 1883-88, published in 1901), "I guarded against settling down." Nietzsche then, is a problem thinker and in this respect, is similar to SØREN KIERKEGAARD (1813-1855), a mid-19th century Danish thinker who was also obsessed with THE PRESENT AGE.
Nietzsches aphoristic style highlighted his novel attempt to transcend the maze of concepts and opinions in order to get at the objects themselves. Each aphorism or set of aphorisms, must be examined as a thought experiment. But the experiments exhibit discontinuity. Making only one experiment -- as did Kant or Hegel or countless other thinkers -- would be one-sided. Nietzsche insists that the philosopher must be willing to make new experiments -- he must have an open mind and be prepared, if necessary, "boldly at any time to declare himself against his previous opinion." The thought experiment is the key. But if we are looking for truth we may be looking for the wrong thing. As Karl Jaspers has written, one cannot truly understand Nietzsches thought until one has "also found the contradiction" to his thought. When the student of Nietzsche realizes this then his thought becomes more difficult to decipher, but no less profound.
So, Nietzsches thought is asystematic, aphoristic, highly personal and hence, psychological. His ideas, furthermore, are never free from inner contradictions. He forces his reader to undertake a quest. "Du sollst werden, der du bist."
His asystematic thought, with its highly personal introspection and inherent psychology, springs from the fact that Nietzsches mind was an agonized mind, a tortured mind. Philosophical reflection was not calm, reasoned, scientific inquiry. It was not passive. Kant is a classic example of the calm inquirer. Isolated in his study at Konigsberg, Kant reflected, at peace with himself, and ultimately contrived an architectonic of human reason. Nietzsche was quite different -- radically different. Reflection for Nietzsche was anything but calm--and the reason may perhaps be fairly clear: Nietzsche found himself wrestling with the most profound enigmas of modern life. The insights he achieved were struck out of his inward labor of spirit like sparks fly from the forge. Nietzsche philosophized with a hammer -- and what else does one do when everything looks like a nail?
It is no wonder then that the reader who approaches Nietzsche for the first time usually sighs in frustration. He is difficult to understand because he forces you to abandon convention and learn to understand. The education is slow and necessarily painful. With Nietzsche the mind and heart must be prepared for Herculean effort. His thought demands it. Life demanded it. The inward pattern and form of Nietzsches ideas can only be grasped when the reader has wrestled with his own mind. The mind must be prepared for battle, for intense toil -- it must be open to the ultimate challenge: challenge itself. The mind must be open when Nietzsche attacks Socrates. The mind must be open when Nietzsche says, "God is dead." For Nietzsche is not simply saying, "I do not believe in God." That is not his intention. But, his intention only becomes clear when this statement is placed in its context. In other words, the statement "God is dead," becomes meaningful only when it is seen as part of the "Parable of the Madman."
Throughout his notes and published works, Nietzsche establishes relations between his own reflection and the dominant intellectual currents of his own day. A partial list of what was then fashionable would necessarily include: Darwinism, idealism, irrationalism, vitalism, Marxism, socialism and positivism. Although his mind seethed like a Romantic he remained opposed to Romantic idealism and spiritualism. In an oft-quoted phrase, what Nietzsche sought was "the revaluation of all values."
Nietzsche does not belong to any well-defined movement. His mind and method of reflection defines his position as solitary, profound, unique and at times, pessimistic. But, he does use his knowledge of intellectual movements and currents as dialectical elements for the forging of his own thought. Enigmatic as he was, Nietzsche belongs both to his own time at the same time that he rises beyond it. If anything, what he offered was a fresh, reflective, psychological, and poetic perspective. The only way his thought can really be studied is by going to the source, by going to his principal published works. It is for this reason that while I was reading Thus Spoke Zarathustra last year I abandoned reading any published commentaries or critiques of Nietzsche. Perhaps it is better to see the film on my own than be guided by some misguided critic who has his own agenda to press upon me, a critic who perhaps possesses but no longer seeks.
The story of Nietzsches life is sad and can be briefly related. (Read Stefan Zweig's PERSONAL RECOLLECTION of Nietzsche.) He was born in Röcken, in the Prussian province of Saxony on October 15, 1844. His father, Ludwig, was a Lutheran minister as was his father. When Nietzsche was born, his father was then 31 years old and his mother only 18. Ludwig Nietzsche christened his son as Frederick Wilhelm in honor of King Frederick Wilhelm IV of Prussia on whose birthday he was born. The king went insane a few years later--as did Nietzsches father in 1849. In January 1850, Nietzsches mother moved the family to Naumburg where he spent the remainder of his childhood in the company of five women: his mother and his sister, his fathers mother and two aunts. In 1858, he entered the boarding school at Pforta on a full scholarship. For six years he was subjected to the same discipline that had educated Klopstock, Novalis, Fichte, Leopold von Ranke and the Schlegel brothers (see German Idealism). In other words, Pforta was the training ground for some of Germanys most celebrated writers.
The young Nietzsche excelled in religious studies, the classics and literature. He showed little talent for either drawing or mathematics. In 1864, Nietzsche graduated with a thesis on Theognis, a Greek elegiac poet who flourished in the 6th century B.C. He then moved to the University at Bonn. By 1865, Nietzsche gave up the study of theology and began to devote increasing amounts of his attention to philology, the science of language. While in Leipzig visiting a friend, Nietzsche happened across a philosophical work which would influence his thought in profound ways. That book was Arthur Schopenhauers two volume, The World as Will and Representation, published in 1819.
Schopenhauer was a strange man. He was educated at Germanys finest institutions including Gotha, Weimar (the home of Goethe) and Jena. In 1819, he became a lecturer at the University of Berlin. While at Berlin Schopenhauer held his lectures at the same time as Hegel but without success. No one came to hear Schopenhauer lecture. In 1821, he retired to Frankfurt-am-Main, a lonely, violent and friendless man, who shared his isolated existence with a poodle named "Atma". For Schopenhauer, feeling and reason were in perpetual conflict. His disposition was severe, distrustful and suspicious. He believed he had discovered a philosophy which made him the successor not to Hegel or to Kant, but to Socrates. Yet, he was aware that no one paid him any attention because the "fatuous ravings" of Hegel were praised as the highest wisdom. His major contribution was his concept of Subjective Idealism -- that the world is my idea, a phantasm of the mind, and therefore, in itself, meaningless. Will, the active side of our nature, or Impulse, is the key to the one thing we know directly from the inside -- the self, and therefore the key to the understanding of all things. We shall encounter Schopenhauer again.
In 1869, Nietzsche was asked to teach philology at the University of Basel in Switzerland. This offer came to him as a shock as he had not yet finished his doctoral studies. Despite this, at the age of twenty-four, Nietzsche was appointed professor of Classical Philology and his doctorate was conferred without the customary examination. He remained at Basel until 1879 when he was forced to retire due to poor health. While at Basel Nietzsche published his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, a phenomenal work which contained no footnotes, references or quotations. It is a book which seeks to explain the birth of Greek tragedybeginning with the Dionysian festivals and ending with the Apollonian rationalism of late 5th century Athenian drama (more on DIONYSUS AND APOLLO is available here). "What were we to say of the end (or, worse, of the beginning of all inquiry?" asks Nietzsche. "Might it be that the inquiring mind was simply the human mind terrified by pessimism and trying to escape from it, a clever bulwark erected against the truth? Something craven and false, if one wanted to be moral about it? Or, if one preferred to put it amorally, a dodge? Had this perhaps been your secret, great Socrates? Most secretive of ironists, had this been your deepest irony?" The style of the work is at once beautiful and rather flamboyant. It is Nietzsches most academic work. It is also a very systematic work and any of you familiar with Greek dramaboth tragedy and comedywould have little problem understanding his intention. Of course, read a little deeper into The Birth of Tragedy and there you will find the seeds to all of Nietzsches later thought.
At Basel, Nietzsche made a few friendsone of them was the eminent Swiss art historian, Jacob Burckhardt (1818-1897), whose book The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy first presented the west with its idealized portrait of the historical Renaissance. Another man with whom Nietzsche developed a close yet temporary friendship was the composer, RICHARD WAGNER (1813-1883). As a student, Nietzsche was quite taken with Wagners opera Tristan and Isolde (1865). He considered that Schopenhauer, Heine and Wagner were the three most important intellects of the 19th century, intellects who were second only to the greatest intellect of them all, Goethe. Wagner showed Nietzsche that greatness and creativity were still indeed possible. Nietzsche also gained three deeply personal experiences from Wagner: (1) his friendship with a great man, (2) a jealous aspiration to excel and to out-Wagner Wagner and (3) deep insights into the soul of the artist. Tristan and Isolde, for Nietzsche, stood as a celebration of Schopenhauers ceaseless, blind, and passionately striving Will. It was also drunken frenzy which suggested to Nietzsche the ecstatic abandonment and orgiastic revelry of the ancient cult of Dionysus.
Wagner also had an interesting wife -- Cosima Wagner was the illegitimate daughter of the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt (1811-1886). Nietzsche was clearly captivated by her and he never outgrew his fascination for her. After Nietzsche went insane in the late 1880s, he sent a note to Cosima which ended with the following words, "Ariadne, I love you. Dionysus." And, in March 1889, and while in the asylum at Jena, Nietzsche wrote, "My wife, Cosima Wagner, has brought me here."
Nietzsche eventually terminated his friendship with Wagner and the issue was Wagners Christianity. Nietzsche, the pagan, was angry with Wagners opera Parsifal (1882) because it represented a profession of Christianity by an anti-Christian. Nietzsche never ceased respecting that sincere and "genuine Christianity" which he considered "possible in all ages," but Wagners Parsifal clearly did not belong in that category. After all, here was Wagner, a man burning with worldly ambition, declaring his worship to Christian other-worldliness. In other words, Wagner had proved himself to be a hypocrite and a hypocrite of the worst kind. In The Anti-Christ of 1895 (written in 1888), Nietzsche writes:
Hopefully you can all see why Nietzsche could no longer serve Wagner for Wagner had become all that Nietzsche despised. In 1879, Nietzsche resigned his post at Basel as his health was completely broken -- he suffered miserably: migraine headaches and vomiting. But, he did manage to restore himself to health and then wrote one of his most important works, The Gay Science (1882), a book which he later tells us, "marked the consummation of my conquest of death." He then fell into a frenzy of inspiration and between 1883 and 1885 wrote Thus Spoke Zarathustra. He then added in quick succession, Beyond Good and Evil (1886), The Genealogy of Morals (1887), The Case of Wagner (1888), The Twilight of the Idols (written 1888, published 1889), The Anti-Christ, Nietzsche Contra Wagner (written 1888, published 1895) and finally, his semi-autobiographical essay, Ecce Homo (written 1888, published 1908), a book which contains subject headings like "Why I am so Wise" and "Why I Write Such Good Books."
By January 1890, Nietzsche was worn out and clearly insane. He consistently signed his letters as "Dionysus" or "The Crucified." That same month he collapsed on a street in Turin and had to be carried home. He eventually entered the asylum at Jena that same year. His recovery was slow and painful but by 1897 he was deemed incurably insane. He lingered on for three more years and on August 25, 1900, he died and was buried, at his own request, at Weimar, the cultural capital of Germany made famous by Goethe.
The cause of death was insanity brought on by syphilis of the brain and most Nietzsche experts are agreed on this point. But, this does open an important question. Was Nietzsches thought the product of an insane mind? For Walter Kaufmann, the answer is a resounding No! His thought did not drive him insane as many modern writers have argued. And anyway, why would we consider Nietzsches writings the product of an insane mind? Is it because he signed his name Dionysus? Or is it because he pointed to the hypocrisy of calling oneself a Christian when the reality is that we have killed God? Was he insane because he considered that man could become more than he is? Or was he insane because his writings are difficult to digest -- they are difficult, I dont understand them, therefore, they must be the product of a deranged mind? Poor Nietzsche. Hasnt he suffered enough?
As a thinker, Nietzsche attacked the conventional opinions of his day because these opinions served as so many barriers to a fuller and richer human experience. He had no faith in social reform, he hated parliamentary government and universal suffrage. He hated liberals, conservatives, communists and socialists. He did not share in the vision of progress so characteristic of the western intellectual tradition for the past two hundred years. He condemned Christian morality. He mocked the liberal notion that man was inherently good. He hated Socrates!
What Nietzsche realized was that man must understand that life is not governed by rational principles. Life is full of cruelty, injustice, uncertainty and absurdity. There are no absolute standards of good and evil which can be demonstrated by human reason. There is only naked man living alone in a godless and absurd world. Modern industrial, bourgeois society, according to Nietzsche, made man decadent and feeble because it made man a victim of the excessive development of the rational faculties at the expense of human will and instinct.
Against the tendencies of bourgeois society, Nietzsche stressed that man ought to recognize the dark and mysterious world of instinct -- the true life force. "Du sollst werden, der du bist," Nietzsche wrote. "You must become who you are." Excessive rationality, an over-reliance on human reason, does little more than smother the spontaneity necessary for creativity. For man to realize his potential, he must sever his dependence on reason and the intellect and instead, develop his instincts, drive and will. Christianity, with all its restrictions and demands to conform, crushes the human impulse to life. Christian morality must be obliterated because it is fit only for the weak and the slave.
Nietzsche said that the reason Christianity triumphed in the Roman world was that the lowest orders -- the meek and the mild -- wanted to inherit the earth from their aristocratic superiors. The lower orders were trying to strike back and subdue their superiors. They did this by condemning as evil those traits which they lacked: strength, power and the zest for life. Instead, the Christians made their own low and wretched lives the standard of all things to come. If you deviated from this standard, you were shackled with guilt. In his book, The Anti-Christ of 1888, Nietzsche wrote that:
The philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment of the 18th century, attacked Christianity because it was contrary to human reason. Because they wanted to make Christianity more reasonable, they retained Christian ethics. Nietzsche attacked Christianity as well -- but he did so on the grounds that it gave man a sick soul. It was life-denying. It blocked the free and spontaneous exercise of human instinct and will. In short, Christianity extinguished the spark of life.
With the PARABLE OF THE MADMAN, Nietzsche has established that Christian morality is dead and we ourselves are responsible. There are no higher worlds, no morality derived from God or Nature because "God is dead." There are no natural rights and the idea of progress is a sham. All the old values and truths have lost their vitality and validity. Such an opinion is called nihilism. There are no moral values. Nietzsche said man could rise above nihilism. How could this be done? Well, first, one had to recognize the nihilism produced by everyday life. One had to become a nihilist. One could then rise above and go beyond nihilism by creating new values: man could then become his own master and be true to himself rather than to another. "Du sollst werden, der du bist." Man can overcome uniformity and mediocrity, he can overcome socialism, democracy, trade unionism, progress, enlightenment and all the other ills so consistent with western civilization.
According to Nietzsche, man could be saved by a new type of man, the "Übermensch," the Superman. These are the men who will not be held back by the hogwash of modern, mediocre, industrial, scientific, bourgeois, Christian civilization. The superman creates his own morality based on human instincts, drive and will. He affirms his existence not by saying, with the Christian, "thou shalt not." No. Against the Mosaic law, the new man shouts, "I will." The new man dares to be himself and as himself, traditional, Christian ideals of good and evil have no meaning and he recognizes them as such. His "will to power" means, for Nietzsche, that he has gone "beyond good and evil." The enhancement of the will to power brings supreme enjoyment. The Superman casts off all established values and because he is now free of all restraints, rules and codes of behavior imposed by civilization, he creates his own values. He lives his own life as one who takes, wants, strives, creates, struggles, seeks and dominates. He knows life as it is given to him is without meaning -- but he lives it laughingly, instinctively, fully, dangerously.
The influence of Nietzsches philosophy today is difficult to assess. I can say that much of what he had to say has had some relevance for myself. While I would not call myself a Nietzschean, there is little doubt that his style of philosophy -- "philosophizing with a hammer" -- has had a direct impact on my own way of thinking. Even when he is downright wrong or incoherent, Nietzsche never fails to incite the mind to new levels of thought.
As an intellectual historian of the European mind, however, I think Nietzsche grasped one of the fundamental problems which faced the twentieth century. In the last quarter of the 19th century, Nietzsche saw only decay and decline. Such a statement, coming as it did in an era of progress, is enough to draw our attention to Nietzsche. With the death of God, a death quickened by the Scientific Revolution, middle class individualism, Marxism, Darwinism, positivism and materialism, traditional moral values have lost their value and meaning. In a world where nothing is true, anything goes. Nietzsche was a critic. Better yet, Nietzsche was a physician and his patient was western civilization. He had no concrete solution. His diagnosis was perhaps more astute than his proposed treatment. But what Nietzsche served to do was to further erode the rational foundations of western civilization. In this respect, he can be both blamed and congratulated.
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