Basic writings of Nietzsche - By Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche & Walter Arnold Kaufmann



Ever since Nietzsche went insane, and silent, in 1889, as his fame was beginning to spread, his ideas have been most things to most men. Literally—for on the subject of women, interpretations of his views can hardly differ very much: he was an incurable misogynist. Nor could devout Christians derive any comfort from his writings, which are centrally preoccupied with a destructive analysis of Christianity, its birth, its triumph, its unfortunate longevity. As for principled democrats, they too cannot find much to please them in his work: whatever conclusion one may reach in the end about Nietzsche’s political thinking, it calls for the distinct separation of an elite and the masses.

But existentialists and nihilists, chauvinists and cosmopolitans, anti-Semites and philo-Semites, Francophiles and professional Teutons, Wagnerites and Brahmsians, nature worshipers and pragmatists, followers of Freud and his critics, have been struggling over his legacy for a century and more. They cannot all be right; in fact, most of them are wrong, dining off a few scraps that Nietzsche had thrown them in a careless mood. But this has not stopped them from arguing.

Yet even in the less than angrily controversial domains, Nietzsche’s work has been at the mercy of ideologists of all stripes. What is Nietzsche’s evidence for women’s presumed inferiority? What is the reason for his anti-Christian bent? What kind of elite is he calling for? Beyond that, when it comes to the theory of knowledge, is he an absolute skeptic? Do his generalizations about nations support racism? Why does he do his utmost to distance himself from the Germany of his time? And what of Wagner, first his friend and then his enemy? The questions pile up and there are all too many answers canceling each other out.

There is of course nothing new or unexpected concerning battles about the meaning of a thinker’s work. One recalls Plato, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, Hegel, and the debates that their “real” message has generated across the centuries. But Nietzsche’s thought has been particularly susceptible to often envenomed controversies, generating incompatible claims about the influence of that thought not only on recent philosophy, but also, and more portentously, on recent politics.

Why? As readers of this volume can readily discover for themselves, Nietzsche was a superb stylist. Writing as trenchantly as he did, he was the antithesis of the traditional German professor, with his heavy vocabulary, serpentine sentences, and convoluted reasoning. But, paradoxical as it may sound, Nietzsche wrote too well for his own good. He coined memorable aphorisms and seductive locutions that have been used against him—by and large unfairly. Even if (indeed, especially if) we do not know much about Nietzsche, we are likely to remember his terms: “the blond beast,” which can easily be taken as a sample of Aryan megalomania, or the “Übermensch,” usually translated as “Superman,” thus awakening images of Clark Kent donning his cape. And what of his heartless, condescending observation, “Everything about woman has a solution: it is called pregnancy”? Though such Nietzschean views leave an unpleasant aftertaste, most can be satisfactorily clarified by the context and the dominant style of thinking that pervades his thought. But this means that one can judge Nietzsche only after reading him, not before.

The fact is that many philosophers in many countries now read him, and with care; in all probability, Nietzsche is the most studied German thinker in English-, French-, and Italian-speaking cultures. His ability to turn accepted moral certitudes on their head, his skeptical questioning of confident realists who see the outside world as easily accessible to the investigator, and his astonishing psychological insights that have made it tempting to see Freud as his disciple (which he was not)—all this, as we have seen, makes him appealing to minds attached to the most varied systems. In some quarters, indeed, among some literary critics, he has become something of a fad. Postmodernists intent on showing that there is no stable world out there, and that everything is a “social construct,” have taken comfort from a remark of Nietzsche’s, “Truths are a useless fiction.” Well, of course one can easily find statements in Nietzsche that uphold the opposite, or generate doubts about this statement. A faithful (but not slavish) reader of Nietzsche must acknowledge that one reason why there is so much debate about Nietzsche’s meaning is that he occasionally contradicts himself. Hence the way to defend a certain position on Nietzsche is not to rely on a single aphorism, but to penetrate to the central significance of the texts in which