Nietzsche, a philosophical biography (Rüdiger Safranski, 2000)


Nietzsche: a philosophical biography, by Rüdiger Safranski (2000).

Score: wonderfully insightful.

This is right what it says on the tin: Safranski ignores Nietzsche’s personal life and the social-historical context for the most part and elaborates a history of Nietzsche’s philosophy: how his works came to be, a brief analysis of them, and how he felt about his own creations. For the latter, Safranski relies heavily on Ecce Homo and Nietzsche’s letters.

I’m not an expert in Nietzsche, but I did know a thing or two. What I enjoyed the most was that Safranski strived to avoid commonplace interpretations and oversimplifications of Nietzsche’s ideas, meaning almost everything in the book was quite new to me. The book can get quite dense in some passages because Safranski wants to get to the bottom of the book or idea he’s exploring; Safranski assumes you are already familiar with the simple, encyclopedic definitions of will to power, eternal recurrence of the same, immoralism and so on. Since explicating Nietzsche’s complete works would be a humongous task for a four-hundred-page book, Safranski chooses his themes carefully.

Safranski starts with young Nietzsche’s diaries, his quest to make his own life a poetic object and his fascination with arts and aesthetics. This is the oh so Romantic Nietzsche, the one that becomes spellbound by the character of Richard Wagner and who finds a mentor in Arthur Schopenhauer. This Nietzsche adapts Schopenhauer’s philosophy of the will, in that “the inner nature of the world is based not on reason and intellect but on impulses and dark urges” (p. 48).

The subsequent chapters describe the genesis of The birth of tragedy, with Nietzsche’s musical interpretation of philological themes and his coining of the concept of Dyonisian. His attacks on the Socratic view of life further reflect his thinking against rationalism as it had existed up to that point. Nietzsche’s elitism is first pointed out here, in his defense of slavery in Ancient Greek, and his departure from Schopenhauer’s ethics of pity: since slavery of the lower classes is a necessary condition for the existence of art and geniuses, it’s a necessary evil.

As Nietzsche grew up as a thinker, he became estranged with Wagner. Nietzsche found the composer aesthetically dishonest in that he started using very effectist tropes in his music and consciously built a myth around himself for his own benefit. Nietzsche still thought music was what could elevate human beings in the absence of religion, but not the way Wagner did. At the same time, Darwinism, positivism and naturalism were becoming more and more relevant in intellectual life, in a way that sometimes clashed with Nietzsche’s views on truth.

Nietzsche applied his Dyonisiam view of life to nature, but this enquiry took him further and further into the territory of metaphysics, and, almost inevitably, to revaluate the Kantian concept of truth. Inspired by philosophical pariah Max Stirner, Nietzsche confirmed his own nominalistic foundations: “Stirner concurred with medieval nominalists who designated general concepts […] as nothing more than breath devoid of reality” (p. 127). Stirner inspired Nietzsche to advocate for a freedom of thought, for critical thought, for creative thought that undermines established thought. Among the undermined ideas there is the Romantic historicism, with its concept of progress and the expected “end of history”. Opposed to that, Nietzsche embraces blind becoming, bringing back Heraclitus and influencing existentialism.

Since abstract concepts are not real but only words and illusions we create, what can be expected from knowledge? What is truth, really? For a philosopher who is mostly known for exploring ethics and aesthetics, he delved into this matter quite a lot. Nietzsche devised a “bicameral system of culture”: science was meant to search for objectivity and cool down artistic passion, and art was meant to instill life in blind becoming and cruel nature. In the end, truth is a matter of perspective, and as such, of power. Nietzsche was very critical of Christianity but not because he thought there was a truth it was denying, but because he advocated for a different truth. But it’s not like he was convinced that there was one single truth that could be found if one used the right method.

Therefore, “the beauty and strength of propositions become virtually synonymous with their truth value” (p.180). By this point of his career, thought was in the same category as art and emotions, and he thought as passionately as he enjoyed music. And so he continued his undermining, and now it was the turn of religion and morality. Since his youth Nietzsche wanted to become who he really wanted to be, know himself and become a whole person, and now he found that morality went against all that. He wanted to be “the master of his virtues”. He started examining virtues and asking himself whether they serve good or they are a mirror of social upheavals. Like I pointed out above, he wasn’t against moral feelings per se, but he felt they had veered society in the wrong direction.

With Daybreak, Nietzsche started a proto-phenomenological program: “he regarded the inner world as an internalized outer world that is only revealed to us as a phenomenon” (p. 208). From this point of view, Nietzsche analysed consciousness, arriving at the conclusion that the individual cannot be grasped, since there is no point of convergence between being and consciousness (p. 211. These passages reminded me a lot of Blindsight).

On August 6, 1881, Nietzsche had a sudden inspiration near the Surlej bouder he came back to frequently: something clicked in him relating the eternal recurrence of the same. In Gay Science, he rejected his perspectivist and phenomenological view and went back to trying to break free from individual perspective. And that escaping perspective came in the form of embracing the cold, dead world, being possessed by things. Eternal recurrence took a new turn: if matter is finite and time is infinite, it is necessary that any particular state of things happens again over aeons. Nietzsche became very interested in the science of his time and the philosophical consequences of the latest discoveries, which he found shocking and terrifying.

Safranski then briefly hints at possible interpretations of Nietzsche as a repressed homosexual and his frustrated love story with Lou Salomé. His social incompetence made him hurt a lot so he decided to retreat to loneliness and keep writing. The incident with Salomé highly influenced the themes of master and disciples and the master preaching to the wrong public in Thus spake Zarathustra.

Zarathustra’s Übermensch has multiple dimensions: it has a biological dimension related to eugenics (later appropriated by National Socialism) and actually evolving as a species, until the Übermensch is a completely separate species from homo sapiens. It also has a less literal dimension as self-enhancement and growth. This growth ties in with his considerations about morals: the Übermensch is not only he who can endure the consequences of the eternal recurrence, but also the one who can build their own morality.

The third central idea of the Zarathustra is the will to power. “The will to power is first and foremost the will to power over oneself” (p. 281). The second aspect is self-enhancement and the third is as a “universal key to interpret all life processes” (p. 282). Nietzsche’s last works tried an ontological interpretation of the world using the will to power as focus.

In On the genealogy of morals, Nietzsche expressed his famous idea of master and slave morality. His criticism of Christianity made him realize that in the end, his quest for truth and knowledge meant he was cultivating a different kind of ascetism, so he was a part of the problem he himself was addressing (p. 303).

As Nietzsche was approaching his mental breakdown, “it is quite fascinating to observe how Nietzsche, the creator of his ‘second nature’, gradually united with his creation” (p. 305). His composure in the face of the tragical and cruel nature of life was something he had to work hard on. During his last weeks in Turin he let go, continuing a series of maniac and depressive episodes reflected in the letters he wrote to his friends. On January 3, 1889, he threw himself on a horse that was being beaten by a carriage driver and collapsed in compassion.

The last chapter examines Nietzsche’s direct influences and analysts, namely: Lebensphilosophie, psychoanalysis, Thomas Mann, National Socialism, Herman Hesse’s “Zarathustra’s return”, Ernst Bertram, Alfred Baeumler, Karl Jaspers, Martin Heidegger, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Michel Foucault.

I feel this is the most nuanced and humane exploration of anyone’s body of thought I have ever read. Nietzsche’s doubts, contradictions and tribulations are presented. He’s shown not as someone who had a single philosophical program and exposed it one book at a time, but as someone who read, learnt, grew up, changed his mind, was disappointed, allowed his personal life and feelings shape his work. His personal life and gossipy details are left aside for the most part, and he is examined as a human thinker, and as a thinker only. And I find that’s just wonderful, to be able to follow and dialogue with the way one of the greatest intellectuals of history gave birth to the work of his lifetime.

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