Getting a Handle on Nietzsche

Nietzsche1882Walter Kaufmann’s Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist is the book that got Anglo-American philosophers to start taking Friedrich Nietzsche seriously. It was originally published in 1950 and has been selling ever since. Some observers think Kaufmann, who was a professor at Princeton and died in 1980, was too easy on Nietzsche, but there’s no doubt that Nietzsche is a classic and Nietzsche is worth taking seriously.

Nietzsche viewed the “will to power” as humanity’s basic motivating force, but didn’t worship violence or the state. Despite what’s commonly believed, he wasn’t a proto-Nazi or an anti-Semite. (That was his sister Elisabeth, who was able to present her version of Nietzsche to the world after she took control of his estate.)

Neither was he a political liberal. Kaufmann suggests it’s best to view Nietzsche as a kind of aristocrat, in the way that Aristotle was an aristocrat when he extolled the virtues of the “great-souled man” (“a person is thought to be great-souled if he claims much and deserves much”).

According to Nietzsche, there is a natural aristocracy of individuals who can control their passions and channel their will to power into the accomplishment of great things. Caesar and Napoleon were natural aristocrats, but so were Socrates, Jesus, Shakespeare, Spinoza, Beethoven and Goethe: 

Quite generally, Nietzsche distinguishes between (a) men whom he admires, (b) the ideas for which they stand, and (c) their followers. Only in terms of some such categories can one understand Nietzsche’s complex attitude toward Jesus, Christianity and Christendom [i.e. he admired the first, criticized the second and hated the third.]

Similarly, Nietzsche admired Schopenhauer; respected but criticized Schopenhauer’s philosophy; and despised his followers. Nietzsche admired Wagner and felt drawn to much of his music, but he abominated the ostentatiously Christian nationalists and anti-Semites who congregated in Bayreuth…

Nietzsche’s fight against Socrates thus takes two forms: denunciations of his epigoni [his disciples] and respectful criticisms of his doctrines… [Socrates] is the very embodiment of Nietzsche’s highest ideal: the passionate man who can control his passions [398-399].

By all accounts, Nietzsche was a kind, considerate person despite his critical nature and his celebration of power (and his apparent misogyny). He even argued that the strong should be considerate of the weak (that’s most of us, the bulk of humanity). I haven’t read much of his work, and have found him paradoxical and hard to understand, so it was a relief to read the passage from Kaufmann above.

It explains how Nietzsche can speak well of accomplished individuals, while evaluating, often negatively, the details of their accomplishments and vigorously attacking their disciples. That makes sense if you cherish leadership and creativity as things in themselves. You can still find fault with the particulars (nobody’s perfect) and see no virtue in being a follower (even a follower of Nietzsche): 

When he had said that, his disciple shouted … : “But I believe in your cause and consider it so strong that I shall say everything, everything that I can find in my heart to say against it.” The innovator laughed … : “This kind of discipleship”, he said then, is the best … ” [The Gay Science, 106].