What’s the Central Question in Nietzsche?

In interview with David Wolf, Nietzsche scholar Brian Leiter offers his view:

[I]f there’s a central question in Nietzsche it’s the one he takes over from Schopenhauer – namely, how is it possible to justify life in the face of inevitable suffering? Schopenhauer comes up with a negative answer. He endorses something like a stereotype of the Buddhist view: The best thing would not to be born, but if you’re born the next best thing would be to die quickly. Nietzsche wants to repudiate that answer – partly through bringing about a re-evaluation of suffering and its significance.

And what is this re-evaluation of suffering and its significance? It is this: suffering doesn’t especially matter. This means that morality doesn’t especially matter. So long as there is room in the world for Beethoven to exist and do his thing, Nietzsche is happy to shrug off any concern over the mass suffering of humanity. Put another way, morality is a distraction from creativity, and creativity, for Nietzsche, is what’s important. You can’t have your cake (your creative projects) and play Gandhi too. Therefore, choose.

[Y]ou can’t really be a creative genius like Beethoven and take morality seriously. […] It’s a very striking and pessimistic challenge, because the liberal post-Enlightenment vision is that we can have our liberal democratic egalitarian ethos and everyone will be able to flourish. Nietzsche thinks there’s a profound tension between the values that traditional morality holds up and the conditions necessary for creative genius.

So that challenge is interesting in its own right, even if you wouldn’t want to side with Nietzsche, who’s ready to sacrifice the herd of humanity for the sake of a Goethe or a Beethoven. […]

That’s why there’s been a lot of whitewashing of Nietzsche in the secondary literature. It’s a bit shocking. It certainly took me a while to come to terms with the fact that this is really what Nietzsche believes, that the illiberal attitudes and the elitism was really central to the way he looked at things. The suffering of mankind at large was not a significant ethical concern in his view, it was largely a matter of indifference – in fact it was to be welcomed because there’s nothing better than a good dose of suffering to get the creative juices flowing.

As for books to read, Leiter offers two for the Nietzsche beginner:

If somebody has not had much exposure to philosophy, then it might be best to start with the [Rudiger] Safranski biography before going to the primary texts. The primary texts are certainly more fun and if you were to start with one of them, then Beyond Good and Evil would be a great choice, because it covers all the distinctive and important Nietzschean themes and as it’s broken into bite-size pieces you don’t get overwhelmed. But if you wanted someone to patiently introduce you then Safranski is good on that score.

One of the books Leiter recommends for more advanced students is Nietzsche’s System by John Richardson:

Richardson’s view of Nietzsche’s doctrine of the will to power is this: Every person is made up of a bundle of “drives” – sex drive, hunger drive, drive for knowledge, and so on. Every drive, according to Richardson’s reading of Nietzsche, is characterised by the will to power. Every drive has a tendency to want to enlist every other drive in its service. So if the sex drive is dominant in a person – think Hugh Hefner – then the sex drive tries to get every other drive enlisted in helping satisfy it. So knowledge or food would only be of interest to the extent that they facilitate gratification of the sex drive, and so on.

Out of this basic picture of human psychology and the metaphysics of drives and their essential nature as will to power, Richardson thinks you can take this theme and see how it figures in everything else Nietzsche writes, whether it’s about truth, knowledge, morality and so on.

In other words, Hegel’s master-slave dialectic lurks behind Nietzsche. In this regard, the philosopher Thomas Nagel, in a fairly recent and excellent collection of essays, offers a summary of Nietzsche’s philosophy that is similar to that of Leiter’s and Richardson’s (37-38):

The proposed geneology of Christian morality, as the expression not of universal love but of the slave revolt of the base against the noble, motivated by fear, hatred, and envy, is Nietzsche’s most famous thesis, expounded in Beyond Good and Evil and On the Geneology of Morals. . . . He regarded modern morality, which speaks with the voice of the community or even of humanity as a whole, as particularly dangerous, because it requires suppression of the cruelty and recklessness that distinguishes the strong individual. The height of self-realization cannot be reached by someone who is too concerned with the reactions of others, or his effects on them. There is a fundamental conflict between the pursuit of individual creativity and perfection and the claims of the general welfare.

For this reason, Nietzsche was not a democrat. Already at the time of writing The Birth of Tragedy, he defended slavery as a condition of the possibility of great cultural achievement by the few, as in ancient Athens. And he defended its modern counterpart, the economic oppression of the masses, for the same reason. He opposed shortening the workday from twelve hours to eleven when it was proposed in Basel, he approved of child labor, and he opposed the educational groups for workers. When in 1871 he heard the false rumor that the Paris communards had pillaged the Louvre, he called it ‘the worst day of my life.’ Equality meant nothing to him; he believed it would inevitably push everything down to the lowest common denominator, that of the ‘democratic herd animal.’ Life, he insisted, is tragic; it is necessary to choose between justice and aesthetic perfection. And in his latest writings he expressed fantasies of annihilation, with ‘degenerates’ being got rid of to make room for the highest type of man.

You’re not mistaken to hear, not just Hegel, but Darwin in the above descriptions of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Here’s how one of Nietzsche’s seminal biographers, R.J. Hollingdale, put the Darwin connection to Nietzsche in his now classic, and still much read and praised biography, Nietzsche: The Man and His Philosophy (Cambridge, 1965, rev. 1999, 73):

The sense that meaning had evaporated was what seemed to escape those who welcomed Darwin as a benefactor of mankind. Nietzsche considered that evolution presented a correct picture of the world, but that it was a disastrous picture. His philosophy was an attempt to produce a new world-picture which took Darwinism into account but was not nullified by it.

And where did Nietzsche, in the light of Darwin, go to produce his “new world-picture”? Answer: pre-Socratic Greece. Nietzsche saw in pre-Socratic Greece a moment in history comparable to the 19th century after Darwin. Both were periods in which change and chaos, not Platonic essences and telos (design or purpose), were the presumptive nominees for what’s really happening beneath the appearance of things. As Hollingdale puts it (74):

Philosophy from Plato onwards had been founded upon suppositions that were [after Darwin] no longer valid, and to find philosophers who had faced their problems without [Platonic] presuppositions one had to go back to Heraclitus, Pythagoras, and Socrates.

Hence Nietzsche’s dismissal of Christianity, which he famously called “Platonism for the masses.” And what did Nietzsche find in Greece before Plato? Survival of the fittest and cruelty leading to higher forms of organization and creativity (74-75):

Not only did Nietzsche discover the nature of his dilemma among the Greeks, he also discovered the key to its solution. Long before he had formulated the theory of the will to power he had discovered that the driving force behind the culture of Hellas had been contest, agon, the striving to surpass. . . . The Greeks were cruel, savage, and predatory; yet they had become the most humane people of antiquity, the inventors of philosophy, science and tragedy, the first and finest European nation.

In short, concludes Hollingdale, it was Darwin, and his leading of Nietzsche to antique Greece, that birthed into the world mature Nietzschean philosophy (78):

Darwin and the Greeks, then, and not Wagner and Schopenhauer, were the starting-point of Nietzsche’s philosophy; and the reason his early works represent a false start is that he sought to interpret the Darwinian problem and the evidence of ancient Greece in the light of Wagnerian aesthetics and Schopenhaueran metaphysics. Not until he had put both behind him did he enter into his own proper field.

So Charles Darwin’s emphasis on contingency and survival of the fittest brought Nietzsche to Greece prior to democracy–that is, heroic Greece. And from thence Nietzsche came to his notion of the lone and cruel hero–the Ubermensch, the “highest type of man”–the creative supremacist triumphant over the obstacles of suffering and the degenerate masses.

Does this mean that Nietzsche should be regarded as a proto-Nazi? Here’s Leiter’s take (from the same interview above) on this question:

I think it’s always worth saying that Nietzsche was no Nazi. To start with, he hated Germans. This created a lot of problems for the Nazis. They had to edit the texts quite selectively because he hated German nationalists, he hated anti-semites, he hated militarists. He wouldn’t have fitted in too easily at Nuremberg! On the other hand, it is absolutely true that Nietzsche has quite shocking views about traditional Christian morality. Kaufman whitewashed this 50 years ago, but I think it’s less common to do so now. Nietzsche is deeply illiberal. He does not believe in the equal worth of every person. Nietzsche thinks there are higher human beings. His favourite three examples are Goethe, Beethoven and Nietzsche himself. And that higher human beings, through their creative genius, can actually make life worth living – that Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is enough to justify all the suffering the world includes. Again this is a crude summary but there is this aspect of Nietzsche. At the heart of his critique of morality is that he thinks creative geniuses like Beethoven, had they really taken morality seriously, wouldn’t have been creative geniuses. Because to really take morality seriously is to take your altruistic obligations seriously – to help others, to weigh and consider the interests of others et cetera. You can read any biography of Beethoven and see that that wasn’t how he lived! He was single-mindedly focused on his creative work and that’s what Nietzsche means by severe self-love.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to What’s the Central Question in Nietzsche?

  1. Reblogged this on myatheistlife and commented:
    I like this post. Having arrived at a psuedo-Nietzcshian view of life without directly reading philosophy, I’m slowly discovering those philosophers that support the conclusions that I’ve drawn by observation and experience.

    I have not found yet a good interpretation of Nietzche and pre-Socratic Greece (for examples) as a non-social Darwinian evolutionary pressure. When we see behaviors in humanity which mirror behaviors in other animals, is this not a natural evolutionary solution?
    This fits sort of where I was going with Mechanical Atheism. I’m still working it out, but this is an important aspect of it.

  2. Sreejith says:

    nfortunately I am unable to watch the video. It says that “the uploader has not made this video available in your country” Sreejith here. Ali’s viva at 11 am.(I am from India)

  3. Alan says:

    I knew I did not like Nietzsche for a reason, just did not know what that reason was (having successfully avoided most of his writings)
    Thanks for this tutorial.

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