The New York Times, May 9, 2010
Edited by Andy Ross
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.
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.
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.
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
Rée, New Humanist
Edited by Andy Ross
"Nichts ist wahr: Alles ist erlaubt."
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
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.
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
Friedrich Nietzsche: a Philosophical Biography
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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."
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
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.