Or so he said.
In first approaching Nietzsche there are misconceptions to conquer, and misinterpretations to correct. The big one: he was not a Nazi, obviously, having died in 1900 but actually checking out mentally a decade before.
A commonly-noted deep irony about this very chaste iconoclast is that he ended up being felled, probably, by tertiary syphilis contracted during his brief military career. But that’s speculation, and there’s somereason to doubt it. [Quashing rumors]
No matter, the ironies abound in this unique philosopher’s story. He was a solitary thinker who’s now accumulated generations of followers, an exponent of personal power who exerted very little control over the circumstances of his own existence. He cultivated a reputation for hardness, but was actually very soft-hearted and sentimental — even before his decline-heralding, sobbing breakdown in the street over an abused horse.
It’s been noted, in a very different context, that for devout Muslims jihad is all about self-discipline and restraint. That’s the ultimate Nietzschean irony. He trumpeted will to power, but was almost exclusively preoccupied with self-overcoming.
Richard Schacht pins a lot of the blame for Nietzsche’s bad reputation not on German fascists but on unsympathetic western commentators like Bertrand Russell, whose unflattering portrait of Nietzsche Schacht repudiates as “absurd.” Russell wrote things like this:
It is obvious that in his day-dreams he is a warrior, not a professor; all the men he admires were military. His opinion of women, like every man’s, is an objectification of his own emotion towards them, which is obviously one of fear. ” Forget not thy whip” but nine women out of ten would get the whip away from him, and he knew it, so he kept away from women, and soothed his wounded vanity with unkind remarks.
He condemns Christian love because he thinks it is an outcome of fear: I am afraid my neighbour may injure me, and so I assure him that I love him. If I were stronger and bolder, I should openly display the contempt for him which of course I feel. It does not occur to Nietzsche as possible that a man should genuinely feel universal love, obviously because he himself feels almost universal hatred and fear, which he would fain disguise as lordly indifference…
It never occurred to Nietzsche that the lust for power, with which he endows his superman, is itself an outcome of fear. Those who do not fear their neighbours see no necessity to tyrannize over them…
And yet, Nietzsche is the guy who said philosophy (like himself) is adangerous explosive. He was always going off. His serial eruptions gained him a reputation for anarchic nihilism, but in fact that was precisely the modern problem he set himself to solve. He thought his early mentors Wagner and Schopenhauer ended up embracing nihilistic meaninglessness and life-negation. He sought appropriate vehicles of affirmation, and finally thought he had them in eternal recurrence and the Ubermensch. [“When Nietzsche Wept“]
In Turin and elsewhere Nietzsche often wrote in his head while out walking, believing that ‘a philosopher [is] a man who constantly experiences, sees, hears, suspects, hopes, dreams extraordinary things; who is struck by his own thoughts as if from without’…Nietzsche in Turin
His early Birth of Tragedy celebrates the confrontation, in art and life, between order and passion. His own life was one long illustration of that wrestling match, until mental disease (wherever it came from) overtook him: outwardly ordered, spartan, sober, and habitual in his daily work and routines, but inwardly always churning and tempestuous. On the page, both sets of qualities vie for dominance. He’s fun to read, and argue with, and become alternately exasperated or invigorated by.
He’s known, this preacher’s kid, as Christianity’s sworn enemy. (“God is dead.”) [Hecht] But he rejected most of philosophy too. Kant was a fanatic and a spider, Mill a “blockhead,” most philosophers in fact failed to win his approval. He did like Emerson and “self-reliance,” but he earned William James’s pitying repudiation for “poor Nietzsche’s antipathy.” You’re either for life or against it, on his stringent tally sheet, and if you seem to conform to anyone else’s notions of right and good– or even to tolerate them– you’re on the wrong side of the ledger.
James also said:
The mood of a Schopenhauer or a Nietzsche… though often an ennobling sadness, is almost as often only peevishness running away with the bit between its teeth. The sallies of the two German authors remind one, half the time, of the sick shriekings of two dying rats.
An “Ubermensch” doesn’t really have any superpowers, just a superhuman ego and sense of self-direction.
The trouble with J.S. Mill, Jeremy Bentham, and western liberalism generally, for him, were their progressive, optimistic interest inmaximizing happiness (though he announced his own “formula for happiness: a Yes, a No, a straight line, a goal”) and pleasure and minimizing difficulty and pain. These were the grindstones on which Nietzsche fashioned his ascetic personal ideal, and he had little use for pluralism in such matters.
That’s another irony. Mill’s On Liberty articulated the very principle that tolerates the Nietzsches among us, and insulates us from “harm” that goes beyond mere verbal excess. [Philosophizing with a hammer… into thin air…slides…Where to?…Harriet Taylor Mill]
And we can tolerate a few. But would a society of Ubermenschen be remotely possible? No. But he was never in it for the company.
Alain de Boton on Nietzsche “above the treeline”: