Returning to Nietzsche

I haven’t written on here for some time, since I’ve been busy with various things including collating ideas for the book I outlined last time. But, currently mildly ill with Covid, I have the time and space to put some thoughts down about my current reading.

(Speaking of Covid: a future post will have to be dedicated to the madness of gain-of-function research on viruses, the West ‘ethics dumping’ by outsourcing such research onto less regulated states such as China, and the fact that both of these things demonstrate why a thorough precautionary approach needs to be adopted by virologists. Even if the Covid-19 pandemic wasn’t the result of an unintentional lab leak in Wuhan – surely the most likely explanation – the point still stands.)

The first full chapter of the book I’m hoping to write will be on Nietzsche, and to that end I’m currently reading Julian Young’s philosophical biography of the moustachioed master. This is my first sustained engagement with Nietzsche for about a dozen years: the only time I properly read him in the interim was for a reading group with my PhD supervisor Michael Hauskeller, and then-fellow doctoral student Peter Sjöstedt-Hughes. We read, if I remember correctly, the first essay of The Genealogy of Morality (1887), and I found Nietzsche as engaging as ever – but even then I didn’t return to reading him full-time.

The reason for that, I suspect, is that Nietzsche was my first true philosophical love: an author I read devotedly, and far-too strongly identified with, between the ages of about 18 and 21 (I then discovered Heidegger, who has to a great extent acted as my philosophical lodestar ever since). During that short period of time I was utterly obsessed with Nietzsche’s ideas, his opinionated analyses, his unparalleled rhetorical gifts, his nomadic and reclusive life, and the tragedy of his final descent into madness. Such was my obsession that I was eventually persuaded to go to university mainly because Cardiff taught entire modules on him. After this fascination ended I needed a good period of time away from him before I could return and make a more balanced assessment.

With the benefit of greater objectivity – and, hopefully, greater maturity – I’m able to better distinguish between the appealing and unappealing aspects of Nietzsche’s thinking, and isolate what it was about him that so enraptured me. To me, the key fault-line in his thinking, rooted in his complex personality, is a creative tension between life-affirming Romanticism and Prussian austerity.

The former is most clearly identifiable in his love of music, drama, and the Dionysian spirit of intoxication; his veneration of nature, life, and all things creative and free-spirited. This Romantic impulse was at its zenith around the time of his brilliant and bizarre first book, The Birth of Tragedy (1872). But working both with and against it in his psyche is a pull towards hierarchy, discipline, and the strengthening power of hardship. The latter became significantly more pronounced after Nietzsche had broken with his early gurus, Schopenhauer and Wagner, and set off on his own, original path. It then emerged most fully in The Genealogy, which, for all its merits, is at times a troubling read.

There can be no doubt that both sides of Nietzsche’s thinking are rooted in his formative time at Pforta, the elite boarding school. (Other notable alumni of Pforta include the great Romantic philosopher, J. G. Fichte.) Unlike its English counterparts such as Eton and Harrow, which inculcate in their pupils an insouciant elitism, Pforta had a more complex and commendable mission. In a distinctively Germanic combination, Pforta instilled the Prussian virtues of diligence and self-discipline with the aim of creating an elite class that could recapture the greatness of Pericles’ Greece and Cicero’s Rome. Thus, in a complete reversal of contemporary valuation, maths and science were given short shrift, while pupils were trained to excel in poetry, rhetoric, and Classics.

With this education in hand, Nietzsche set about ruthlessly smashing the idols of post-Christian Europe and seeking to revive the life-affirming greatness of Classical antiquity. Nevertheless, you will be unsurprised to learn, it is the Romantic rather than the Prussian in him that grabbed me and fascinates me still. The latter side of his personality is largely responsible for his misogyny, contempt for weakness, and even his occasional endorsements of eugenics. (In Nietzsche’s partial defence, eugenics was not deemed an outrageously extreme policy at that time: people from across the political spectrum favoured it, and only a few great figures, such as G. K. Chesterton, had the wisdom to staunchly and publicly oppose it.) Above all, without this harsh and cruel side of his personality the Nazis could not have even tried to claim him as a forebear. And so it is Nietzsche the Dionysian artist, shorn of his Prussian shadow, that I admire.

I can’t finish this post without one last personal observation. Even having made the above distinction (which some readers will find artificial, I’m sure), I still feel some fondness toward him as a whole. The reason is that the Prussian side of him that venerates self-discipline did have a positive effect on me in that it pushed me out of my mental comfort zone and encouraged me to study culture seriously. I read Dostoyevsky, Heraclitus, and Hölderlin, listened to Wagner, and familiarised myself with the history of Western painting largely because Nietzsche held all of this in such high esteem. From there I developed a renewed and deeper interest in the great works of European literature, music, art, and architecture, as well as discovering the value of the wilderness (two trips to the far north of Norway were inspired by my reading of Nietzsche). It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that my cultural education, such as it is, owes more to Nietzsche than to my entire schooling – principally because he made it all come alive for me. And for that I am grateful to him as a man.

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