This month we are celebrating the birthday of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and as part of this some of our authors and Editorial Advisory Board members will be posting short articles on their debt to Nietzsche, and on his relevance to contemporary debates. This post marks the first contribution of one of our authors, with Raymond Angelo Belliotti, author of Nietzsche’s Will to Power: Eagles, Lions, and Serpents taking the stage. Raymond’s book is one of five available for half price as part of our October celebrations of Nietzsche’s birthday – to see the full list, please click here.
The vibrant life of the interior that Friedrich Nietzsche led, largely reflected in his written work, far surpassed his mundane, human-all-too-human, public existence. Plagued by ill-health, disappointing personal relationships, insufficient external validation, and his sister’s witless exploitation during his final years, Nietzsche’s public existence fell far short of his self-proclaimed destiny. Still, he invites us to examine his life by insisting that great philosophy is autobiographical. Whether philosophers self-consciously accept that encumbrance, their most cherished conceptual proclamations reveal and sustain crucial dimensions of their identities. If Nietzsche is correct then we should learn about him by closely analyzing the broad themes that animated his work.
What are Nietzsche’s fundamental recurring convictions—his broad themes? Here is a sampling:
- The inescapability of inner conflict and how such tension can serve grand creativity.
- The perspectival nature of truth and the need to perceive an issue from multiple vantage points.
- The connection between the assertion of particular truth claims and the psychology of the proclaimer.
- The inability of stable language to capture adequately the complexities and fluidity of existence.
- The perspectival denial of absolutism.
- The human need to impose order and meaning on the world of Becoming.
- The ongoing, life-affirming rhythms of personal construction (the camel), deconstruction (the lion), and reimagination and re-creation (the child).
- The wisdom of recognizing, welcoming, and even loving the tragedy and contingency that marks earthly existence.
- The prudence of replacing the task of objectively disproving truth claims with the project of casting suspicion upon their origins and exposing the psychology of those who embrace them.
- The importance of self-overcoming, which includes subjecting one’s own theoretical and practical commitments to the strictest, cyclical scrutiny.
- The exhortation to luxuriate in the immediacy of life, a redemptive commitment of faith and love.
Nietzsche did not aspire merely to “fight words with other words,” what he took to be the
stock in trade of academic philosophy. He derides university instructors as mere “scientific laborers” (BGE 211); embracers of “frog perspectives” (BGE 2); as harmless as an “old woman” (UM III 8); “completely abysmal . . . hodgepodge philosophers” (BGE 204); lacking “historical sense” (HAH 2); “world-denying, hostile to life, suspicious of the senses, freed from sensuality” (GM III 10); “ scribbling slaves of the democratic taste” (BGE 44); “academic ‘ruminants’” (EH UM 3); “presumptuous little dwarves” (BGE 58); “old maids” (BGE 206); and “scholarly oxen” (EH III 1). Yet he sought their external validation of his work, affirmation which was in short supply during Nietzsche’s active years.
In contrast, Nietzsche challenges himself and his readers to probe the ways we live and to interrogate the people we are becoming. In so doing, he reaffirms the importance of our most profound, at times subconscious, philosophical commitments. Nietzsche refuses to be confined unthreateningly within university classrooms or serene libraries. Within his work, Nietzsche screams, prods, insults, preens, irritates, defies the rules of discourse and laughs about it, and then Nietzsche laughs at himself. But Nietzsche will not be ignored. What other philosopher would compose an eccentric autobiography with chapter titles such as “Why I am So Clever,” “Why I am so Wise,” “Why I Write Such Excellent Books,” Why I Am a Destiny”?
Beneath the persistent self-promotion may reside a damaged spirit trying to convince himself of his own worth. Or are the analyses of critics who regard Ecce Homo as unintended evidence of Nietzsche’s sprouting mental illness spot on?
Nietzsche represents possibilities of style and thought. Interpreters who forge a rational system of Nietzsche’s work can do so only by betraying Nietzsche’s guiding impulse: there is no fixed, final way to read, perceive, and interpret great philosophy, only a host of competing, plausible ways. To entomb his thought in a non-Nietzschean metaphysical language of explanation or through a series of dogmas, principles, creeds, and doctrines is to domesticate his central aspiration.
Consider one of his most infamous passages, “The Madman” (GS 125), in which Nietzsche entertains “the death of God.” The parable approaches stylistic perfection as it conjures dynamic, memorable images of chaos, nihilistic foreboding, the loss of consoling existential foundations, the trajectory of a world being eclipsed, and so much more, all conveyed through the exclamations and musing of a madman, a person labeled aberrational by dominant society. Could any tightly-reasoned, rigorously-structured deductive argument geared to proof have been as effective in conveying Nietzsche’s suggested message? Does not Nietzsche’s writing here, as always, exemplify and not simply declare a cluster of his broad philosophical themes?
As such, Nietzsche is the antidote to complacency, the human tendency for self-imprisonment as we stumble into an embrace with the false necessity that the familiar is the inevitable. Nietzsche speaks to our transcendent possibilities, our capability of going beyond current understandings and received opinions. He implicitly demands that we take responsibility for the people we are becoming. He exhorts us to recognize and discard the veil of everydayness obscuring our vision, incarcerating our higher potentials, and excusing our torpidity.
So, Fritz, you were correct after all! Happy birthday, baby! You were clever, wise, a destiny, and you surely wrote excellent books. The increasingly glorious posthumous dimension of your biographical life far exceeds the limitations plaguing your autobiographical (1844-1889) and biological (1844-1900) lives. Stunningly, you are now even officially within the academic canon! You get the final laugh and the last waltz. If only there were such.
Raymond Angelo Belliotti, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Philosophy
As part of our celebrations of Friedrich Nietzsche’s birthday, we are offering a 50% discount on five of our most important recent titles on the enigmatic thinker. Please click here to see more.