On Friedrich Nietzsche
From the earliest dawn of literary history, to the noontide hour at which it currently rests, there have only been a few authors around whom we’ve been unable to draw clear, distinct boxes. Few, indeed, are those special writers, those peculiar yet incomparable minds, to whom—despite our thick volumes of criticism, and our sleepless decades of study—we’ve been unable to assign definitive categories.
These, I’m convinced, are the truly great authors, the masters of thought and language upon whom entire civilizations hinge. They constitute, in their small number, a very special class; they’re the celebrated, though often misunderstood members of a lofty literary elite. They’re the people who join in forming this most distinguished group of scribblers, for whom all of our established genres are far too narrow, and all our centuries of accolades, far too inadequate and cheap.
In defiance of our pursuit, these nimble, protean authors evade categorization at every turn. Still, we can’t but follow their scent. Like young Meleager in search of the Calydonian boar, we track them through the ages. But, unlike the daring Grecian youth, to whom that porcine menace no sooner fell, our efforts aren’t so fruitful.
Freed of our grasp, these untouchable writers rejoice, from one age to the next, in the timelessness of the chase upon which they’ve set us. Looking back, as on occasion they do, they can’t but smile at the sight of us feeble hunters—men of supposed learning and taste—receding into the distance. To them, we’re but paltry dots consumed by the girth of the grand, light-bathed horizon. We’re but specks of dust flickering along the stage of that wide, burnished expanse.
And so, with a chuckling glance, they content themselves with the knowledge that their ample separation will never shrink. They know that we, beings of slow and ponderous step, will never be so swift as to close that gap, and will never leap so far as to approximate their high-built walls. And so, left alone, they laugh and relish the victory upon which the great mark of permanence has thus been stamped. Classification, sadly, is not a fate to which they’ll willingly submit. It’s not the net beneath which, so long as they remain fleet, and their potential captors slow, they’re very likely to be trapped.
Among these distinguished and agile authors, upon whom—for fear of endangering my commitment to impartiality, no ranking of merit has here been applied—we might list such poets as Plato, Shakespeare, Milton, Rousseau, Dostoyevsky, and Freud. All six, in varying degrees, are equal parts psychologist, philosopher, dramatist, and dreamer. Each employed his genius in a variety of domains across which, given a multitude of lives, and all the gilded advantages of our modern era, no single man could singly travel.
Unwilling to be classified, these six authors are in a class of their own. One’s left to wonder, then, if we’re to exhaust ourselves in listing their number, exactly where Friedrich Nietzsche is to be placed? He is, so far as I’m concerned, even more uncategorizable than the other six over whom, in but a single bound, he unhesitatingly leaps. After all, he’s more poetic than Plato, and more incisive than Shakespeare. He talks about malignity and the devil as only Milton could. He’s more Romantic than Rousseau, and more tendentious than Freud. As for Dostoyevsky, that epileptic Russian, he’s far more ominous a psychologist, and far less Christian a saint.
All that being said, I’ll not pretend in this essay to offer a categorization of such a man as Nietzsche. Decorum would ill-permit, and ineptitude would sooner thwart, such a high and vain effort. Indeed, like the sightless, incestuous king of Thebes, upon whom the self-guided wound of blindness was inflicted, I’d be foredoomed to failure were I to undertake a venture so bold.
I’ll write, instead, about Nietzsche’s life, and comment on the peculiar circumstances through which he lived. I’ll remark upon his unusual personality, and the many discomforts and contradictions it engendered. I’ll summarize, to the best of my ability, the major themes by which his work is remembered, and to which, at the better universities in our country, entire departments of philosophy are not infrequently devoted. And, as they do for their eager undergraduates, I’ll try my best to explain for the common man the intricacies of his thought, and, if possible, to link their relevance to the modern day.
But I will not, lest I provoke some unkind response from beyond the grave, dare categorize this sui generis man—this uncategorizable author.
Friedrich Nietzsche was born on the fifteenth of October in the year 1844. The small, Saxon town of Röcken enjoys the distinction of being the future philosopher’s home. Its claim to renown little exceeds this single fact. It was, and yet remains, a quiet, bucolic town in the eastern part of that ancient land, the type of place at whose wooded threshold, the very march of history seems to stop. Doubtless, it’s a place before which the incessant noise and bustle of the city, one such as nearby Leipzig, respectfully yields. (As an aside, hopefully not inconveniently placed, it seems that these secluded places, much more than their urban neighbors, tend to have the most fertile soil for the cultivation of genius).
And so, it was at Röcken that Nietzsche was born and, for a short while, until the premature death of his father (by way of a “softening of the brain”) lovingly reared. The father’s cerebral affliction seems not to have been passed on to his son, but one can’t help linking Nietzsche’s later insanity to his father’s own mental disease. Perhaps, in truth, there was something quietly congenital about it.
As it happens, Nietzsche shared his birthday with King Friedrich Wilhelm IV, the first Hohenzollern after a disappointing string of Habsburgs. Nietzsche’s father, having served as a tutor to the royal family’s children, was thrilled by so patriotic a coincidence. He was gladdened by what could be understood as nothing short of a cosmic sign of the most favorable sort. The boy was thus named for the monarch before whom his loyal parents worshipped, but over whom, in the annals of German history, he would come eventually to tower.
Surely, given his name, one might’ve expected the young boy to have been imbued with the same fervor of patriotism by which his parents, on the day his naming, were evidently moved. Indeed, one might’ve predicted him, freshly stamped with the name of his beloved monarch, to have embraced the same nationalistic spirit of which his devout parents were fully possessed. As will be seen, it wasn’t to be so. The love they felt for their country wasn’t, after all, a heritable trait, and Nietzsche was untouched by the adoration they harbored for their land. In fact, somewhat unexpectedly, the name seems to have had the opposite effect; Nietzsche grew to despise much of German history, culture, politics, art, and life.
So too, it seems, did he grow to disdain the influence of women. The modern reader is prone to recoil after his first exposure to the misogynistic tone of Nietzsche’s writing. It’s a laudable reaction at which our current society, happily adjusted to the equality of the sexes, smiles and nods in approval. Returning to Nietzsche, though, it’s difficult to understand the source, much less the ardor, of his dislike for one half—the better half—of the human species.
Perhaps it was an unseemly protest against those responsible for his upbringing. His father, Carl Ludwig Nietzsche, was a well-regarded Lutheran minister in the pious town of Röcken. Indeed, a long, if not especially memorable, line of clergymen lay behind not only his father, but his mother as well. It’s a funny, incongruous thing, but it seems to be the case that those who are most heretical descend from lineages marked by the most unimpeachable faith. Karl Marx, for example, was the son of an apostate lawyer, whose ancestors were all rabbinical Jews. So too was the agnostic sociologist, Émile Durkheim, by whom The Elementary Forms of Religious Life was written.
Ignoring the religious tinge, Nietzsche thought his own father to have been descended from aristocratic, Polish birth. So far as it goes, it wasn’t an impossible theory, but, upon further investigation, it proved little more than the fancy of a boyhood dream. We mustn’t, however, blame young Nietzsche for nursing so lofty a hunch; do we not all, before a certain age, fritter away our time searching the past for proof of distant glory, of the noble blood with which we’re convinced our veins are filled? Do we not all, in our youthful moments of reflection, paint for ourselves the image of some grand and estimable lineage from which we descend—a valiant history that seldom accords with the unexalted truth?
Whether or not he admits it, every father hopes to see his child follow the example of his own career. The elder Nietzsche, therefore—had he lived long enough to see it—would’ve rejoiced in watching his favorite child enroll at the University of Bonn, intending, as he did, to study both theology and classical languages. It would seem as though his first-born child were touched equally by the eloquence of Athens, and the divinity of Nazareth. What pride he must’ve felt in knowing that, in imitation of his father, young Nietzsche was to become a priest. He would’ve soon lamented, however, the boy’s swift abandonment of his father’s career, and he would’ve recoiled at the atheism by which it was replaced.
Sadly, Nietzsche’s father died when the boy was but a half-decade old. His younger brother, Ludwig Joseph—promptly, at the age of two—suffered the same fate. To an early grave did the boy follow in the footsteps of his father. In the course of a year, Nietzsche’s mother, suddenly stricken by one grief multiplied into two, had lost not only a faithful husband, but an infant son. Seeking the condolences and the support of family elsewhere, she decided to move her diminished brood from Röcken to Naumberg. It was there that Nietzsche lived with his younger sister, Elisabeth, his widowed mother, his grandmother, and his two maiden aunts.
Deprived of the masculine influence for which he so evidently yearned, Nietzsche grew into a delicate and sensitive figure. He didn’t easily get along with the boys in his town, with whom he found it unpleasant to “rough-house” and play. As for his male colleagues at school, he found it discomfiting to be long in their presence. He found, as do most children touched by precocious talent, yet burdened by unthinkable loss, his greatest joy and comfort in the solitary act of reading. And so, with an ardor unbefitting his age, he devoted his time to books. He read with such enthusiasm and commitment, that his vision, like that of John Milton, was prematurely dimmed. Such was the effect of scholarship unblinking.
Nietzsche, now eighteen years of age, set off for what was to be a brilliant university career. He attended the University of Bonn, famous for its distinguished faculty, and a diligent crop of students. Intent on kindling a more sociable flame, he tried to engage a campus fraternity into whose ranks he was, with all promptitude and warmth, readily accepted. The group, evidently lenient in its policy of admission, thought well of the tight-lipped pedant, and hoped to balance with mirth his over-studious, and under-smiling demeanor.
Alas, the affability of its members failed to affect him in the normal way. They were warm, yes, but he was cold to the point of insensitivity. Upon experiencing their inelegance, their rowdiness, their habit of drinking beer, and toasting their beloved country, Nietzsche was absolutely repulsed. He saw in them no signs of polish, worldliness, suavity, nor tact. He saw in them no indications of the kind of refinement by which their sophomoric shortcomings might be redeemed. Contrary to them, Nietzsche was sophisticated to the point of seclusion, mild-mannered, Eurocentric, and abstemious of all drink. He was sober to a fault, and unsusceptible to unchaste behavior. And so, back to the books he went—back to that quiet society of dusty, reliable friends.
Aside from Homer, Heraclitus, Hesiod, and Aeschylus, Nietzsche passed his hours reading the works of Arthur Schopenhauer. A fellow German—one who died as Nietzsche attained to his sixteenth year—Schopenhauer spent most of his academic life in the long shadow cast by his insufferable colleague, the great Georg Wilhelm Hegel (during whose well-attended lectures, he deliberately, and unwisely, scheduled his own). Schopenhauer, perhaps as an appeal to students to attend his emptying classes, fixed to Hegel the stinging epithet, “clumsy charlatan”. Perhaps, looking back, a charlatan he was—a mountebank more of the ponderous, than of the bumbling type. But, oh!—how his gullible students—Hegelians “Young” and “Old”—absolutely loved to be deceived!
And so, Hegel’s popularity grew ever larger, while that of Schopenhauer shrank. At most, five students enrolled in the latter’s pitifully-attended classes. It became a second-tier destination to which, having failed to gain entrance to the prime lecture hall reserved for Hegel, these five, unfortunate scholars were grudgingly shunted. His pride chafed, his ambition doused, Schopenhauer decided to forgo further embarrassment, and drop out of academia altogether. He retired, at this point, to private life, where he could quarrel with his mother, read the Upanishads, and unleash his bitter philosophy on an unsuspecting world.
Schopenhauer’s lasting contribution to philosophy comes by way of his great treatise, split into two volumes, The World as Will and Representation. It’s at once a dazzling and dismaying piece of literature by which all readers—not excepting Nietzsche—find themselves completely overwhelmed. It is, in the realm of European philosophy, an unprecedented work. In brief, it’s pessimistic, atheistic, and Orientally-tinged. The ascetic wisdom of the East infiltrates its pages, whose lines are marked with the Hindu’s bindi stamp. Nietzsche, himself a bourgeoning Orientalist (the eastern gods Dionysus and Zarathustra were soon to become his idols), found the work to be a, “Mirror in which I espied the world, life, and my own nature depicted with frightful grandeur”.
Few are the works that speak directly to one’s soul; into that of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer’s work laid a line of direct communication. Indeed, Nietzsche read Schopenhauer the way I read Nietzsche, and, reflecting on the impact, issued the following remark: “It seemed as if Schopenhauer were addressing me personally. I felt his enthusiasm, and seemed to see him before me. Every line cried aloud for renunciation, denial, resignation”. Replace, in the foregoing quote, the name Nietzsche for Schopenhauer, and my own sentiment is precisely the same.
In the year 1867, at the youthful age of twenty-three, Nietzsche was conscripted into the Prussian army. He was now coerced to defend a country for which he had very little love, with a body ill-equipped for the drudgery of a soldier. As any feeble man caught in so daunting a position might do, he sought an exemption on account of his visual deficit. When this failed, he appealed to the recruiting officer’s heart; he pointed to the fact that he was the only son of a widowed mother, bereft of a second male child who’d died many years ago. The Prussian military, at this time, was less known for its pity than for its power, and it tearlessly rejected Nietzsche’s claim. He was issued a uniform, given a saber, and told, like a good cavalryman, quietly to ride his horse. During a training session atop the anointed steed, he suffered a painful fall. The muscle in his breast appears to have been very badly twisted (or possibly torn), and Nietzsche was rendered unfit for service.
Upon his discharge from the army, he returned to the halls of academia—exchanging one battlefield for another. In haste, the one-time soldier became, yet again, a scholar, and, as though at the lead of a battalion, he decided vigorously to pursue his Ph.D. Not a year later, he obtained his advanced degree in classical philology, or the study of Greek and Latin languages. Then, in the year 1869, at the unripe age of twenty-five, he was awarded a professorship at the University of Basel. Unprecedented hardly begins to describe the scale of this achievement. He was, by far, the youngest person ever to have been offered so distinguished a seat, at a university, no less, renowned for its high intellectual standards.
RELATIONSHIP WITH RICHARD WAGNER, PART I
Living at Basle, Nietzsche wasn’t wholly consumed by the demands of academic life. He had more than enough time to indulge his primary passion—music. It was music, perhaps more than wisdom, that he valued above all else. “Has anyone”, he asked, “ever observed that music emancipates the spirit? Gives wings to thought? And that the more one becomes a musician, the more one is also a philosopher?” He was positively convinced of this fact, and held, at the same time, the reverse also to be true.
Nietzsche, in his youth, is known to have composed a few works intended for the choral pit. Unfortunately, his rhythm and his cadence were incommensurate with his literary and philosophical gifts; his work was largely dismissed for its strident tone, its asperity of texture, its lack of euphony, and the bitterness of its taste. Such qualities, we know, found better expression in his aphorisms, than in his oratorios. They made for great reading, but poor listening.
Yet, despite his shortcomings as an independent composer, Nietzsche had no difficulty befriending one of the absolute giants in the field—Richard Wagner. In him, as in himself, he recognized a budding genius: one in the realm of philosophy, and one in that of music.
Between two men of real genius, the type of genius to which everyone, regardless his bias or his age, must reverentially tip his hat, few friendships can exist. Frederick the Great and Voltaire nurtured one; Jean-Jacques Rousseau and David Hume, another; Desiderius Erasmus and Thomas More, an interesting third; but none was so peculiar and ill-fated as that formed by Nietzsche and Wagner.
At the outset, the regard in which they held each other was ardent and sincere. Each felt an affinity as pure as the Nordic snow in which their mythic memories played. Nietzsche, aroused, for once, to the majesty of his nation’s own fables (as opposed to those imported from Greece) hailed Wagner as the second-coming of Siegfried—the noble slayer of dragons on whom the composer based two of his operas. Nietzsche, at this point fully engrossed by the concept of the heroic, imagined Wagner to be wielding a very powerful sword, a pointed blade by which all the softness and the meekness of the modern age would be cut to shreds. Then, with the fragments in hand, Wagner would stoop over, retrieve the pieces, and synthesize a new, unified whole, a grand and lasting fusion by which the German people could be assimilated, and its ruptured spirit restored.
Wagner, despite his exertions, was bound to fall short of such an impossible aim. Nietzsche, never the most practical of men, expected too much of a composer by whom, as things already stood, the standard for musical production in Germany had been decidedly raised.
But something changed, irrevocably, after the Bayreuth Festival held at Wagner’s opulent home. The festival, as popular then—a century ago—as it remains today, was an opportunity for Wagner to play the entirety of his oeuvre. Night after night, to the utter bliss and exhaustion of the fawning audience, a Wagnerian masterpiece could be heard. It would be played in an auditorium specifically tailored to capture and stress the unique sound for which the great master was now internationally famous.
Like any faithful adherent, and devoted friend, Nietzsche was in attendance all of the opening week. But, suddenly, without any clear sign of a schism, or mark of a fight, the philosopher’s perception of the composer changed. The alteration was swift, radical, and final. The former exuberance Nietzsche had felt for Wagner underwent a glacial cooling. As if wine to vinegar turned, his taste for Wagner had soured. He now held the great hero in utter contempt. Parsifal was produced, and the friendship was killed. It was this work, in particular, that led to the acrimonious breach, the hostile separation on which, in lines to come, I’ll do my best to expand.
Despite, however, his severed relations with Wagner, and the bitterness with which he salted his contempt, Nietzsche still retained a love for art and music. This, in him, was an inextinguishable flame, for without music, he professed, “life would be a mistake”.
THE BIRTH OF TRAGEDY
It was just this sort of insight that led him to publish The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music in 1872. It was Nietzsche’s first, and, if it can be believed, only completed work.
At the time of its publication, but a year removed from the end of the Franco-Prussian War, its author was a mere twenty-eight years of age. As a point of historical comparison, and as an example of the type of genius that can coexist in a single age, he was, at the time of the book’s printing, only slightly older than his contemporary and countryman, Albert Einstein (when first the great scientist’s name tasted the sweetness of universal renown). Shy of his thirtieth year, Nietzsche was just a hair older than that uncanny quantum theorist by whom, at the similarly boyish age of twenty-six, the study of physics, and the field of relativity, were forever changed. As it pertains to the flowering of their respective brilliance, three decades were hardly necessary for men of such fertility and depth. As for the rest of us—planted, as we are, in a soil of drier composition, out of which the buds of intellect are far more hesitant to sprout—double that amount of time is not infrequently needed.
Like Einstein after him, Nietzsche was to astound the academic world in which he was, at this restive point in his life, unhappily enmeshed. Unlike the wild-eyed scientist, however—whose very name has become a synonym for genius, and whose mustachioed face adorns every classroom wall—Nietzsche’s theory of the Apollonian and the Dionysian wasn’t destined to win the acceptance, much less the approbation, of the colleagues, critics, and laymen to whom it was sent. In fact, contrary to the high regard it enjoys today, it was, upon the forgotten date of its publication, quite poorly received.
Of course, when writing it, Nietzsche had no way of anticipating the indifference nor the criticism with which it would be met. If nothing else, he hoped—inching ever closer to his retirement from teaching—to dazzle his pedantic colleagues, and to shake them of that Dorian stiffness into which they’d all but fused. He wanted to stir the calm world of letters in which they took their leisurely swim, and from which he’d already decided take his leave. He wanted, in a word, to challenge the status quo before, once and for all, he doffed his professor’s cap, and exited the academic stage.
Perhaps, had his literary effort been more warmly received, and his daring theory more kindly embraced, his love for teaching might not have cooled so quickly. It’s possible that, in the presence of an audience capable of understanding his message, the lecture halls in which he taught wouldn’t have seemed so barren and uninviting. Maybe, though one must temper his optimism with a shade of doubt, a friendly remark from a critic might’ve pacified the youthful, angry professor, and convinced him—despite the occasional pangs of unpleasantness through which every author suffers—to carry on at his job.
Unfortunately, this venerable society of letters, this web of scholars with whom Nietzsche, the outcast, was never going to get along, cared little for his work. To lessen the sting of its unfriendly barb, Nietzsche assured himself that it was simply unwilling to appreciate, or unable to comprehend, the novelty of his idea. Equally hurtful was the response of the critics to whom the book was sent; they hardly bothered to honor it with the time necessary for its reading. We need not even mention the response of the lay readership to which it was also made available, for so small a number of people barely registered a profit.
As he was soon to learn, Nietzsche brought forth his theory of The Birth of Tragedy in a manner uncongenial to everyone’s taste. Never to be confused with another writer, he employed a certain style, an inimitable force of diction and audacity of thought, by which the more traditional, restrained, and mature tendencies of his colleagues and countrymen were offended. He was, from the brim of his beard, to the soles of his feet, his own man in every conceivable way, but very few people are prepared for, and much fewer welcoming to, a man so radically unique. To them, his mold-breaking quality was irksome. They preferred uniformity, tact, boundaries, and adherence to certain well-defined rules.
Failing to satisfy scholastic expectations, The Birth of Tragedy was an affront to everything for which the profession stood. It flouted the standards to which every other member was rigorously held. Foot notes were largely absent; this, his critics agreed, was not the sort of work from which they ought to have been excluded. How could he not acknowledge the many sources from which his ideas were doubtless borrowed? Should they not, then, be deemed pilfered, plagiarized, or stolen? Should they not be delegitimized and struck from the annals of thought to which Nietzsche hoped to affix his name?
In a like manner, references were sparse—a crime of originality for which, in the justice courts of the academic hall, there’s no punishment deemed too harsh. Indeed, the very subject on which Nietzsche chose to opine exceeded the bounds of his chosen specialty. He was, not only in form, but in substance, far beyond the generous limits of his depth. He was a philologist, after all, proposing a theory of drama—a subject upon which, as all agreed, he hadn’t the credentials to expound.
Thus, the bold creativity of his conception, the vigorous punch of his language, and the indelible uniqueness by which his philosophy was stamped, did nothing but anger those to whom he wrote. You’ll recall, only three years had passed since he’d been hired to teach philology at the University of Basel, one of the oldest, most respected halls of learning of which not only Switzerland, but all of Europe, could boast. Suddenly, with the publication of this little book, its ancient reputation was tarnished by the near-sighted, dream-besotted, Dionysian-German named Nietzsche.
Enough about its reception—what of the work itself? The central tenant of The Birth of Tragedy is, despite its daunting reputation, quite simple. There are, pervading the soul of the stage, and intermingling with the fibers of the culture at-large, two distinctive forces: the original, and thus more fundamental, Dionysian, and the Apollonian. The two forces, while antipodal, are not irreconcilable. Indeed, it’s by way of their marriage that tragedy is born.
Dionysus, or Bacchus, as he was sometimes known, was one of antiquity’s foremost gods. Indeed, if one was to look around today, and gaze upon all the divers methods of blunting our senses, or clouding our minds, would she not come to the conclusion that his influence persists? Given our glut of beverages, pills, and psychedelic herbs, how could she not arrive at such a conclusion? Is ours not an age from which, in all but the most abstinent of enclaves and driest of homes, sobriety has been all but banished? In short, is ours not a culture atop which Bacchus yet enjoys a prominent seat?
A visitant from the Oriental East, an orphan of a Hindu father, Dionysus crossed the fertile Ganges, endured Persia’s arid wastes, tarried in the streets of Turkey, and landed at the center of Hellas’ heart. There, in time, he established himself not as some ugly imposter of Indian birth (at whom xenophobic barbs—the very type with which Grecian quivers overflowed—might be cast) but as one of the most important gods to whom the Greeks—equally pious as they were bibulous—prayed.
Dionysus was the deity responsible for the vine’s gladdening grape, that plump, purple fruit by which happiness is conferred, and inhibitions lowered. Anyone who’s tasted the nectar of his fermented gift, his tannin-tinged juice impregnated with the bitter joys of life, knows well its effervescent wonders. He knows of its burning fire, to which his thirsty throat is perhaps too proudly inured. An organ accommodated to countless other things, it’s well-accustomed to the Bacchic flame. With a cringe, he giggles at its taste, and delights in the feathers with his soul is tickled. He knows, feels, and loves the buzzing giddiness of which this impish potion, this naughty spirit, is always the playful cause.
Effeminate, bestial, rubicund, and round, Dionysus was the god of wine, revelry, ecstasy, and instinct. He was the god of life in the ascendant, passion at the reign, and emotions unencumbered by the heaviness of thought. Rather an active than a contemplative god, he relished daring, risk, adventure, and the heart-racing, hair-raising incertitude of life. He preferred danger to security, vice to virtue, strife to harmony, and lust to love. He was rather near than far-sighted—myopic than prophetic—and could easily blind himself to the pains of tomorrow, if only more fully to indulge in the pleasures of today.
As it pertained to art, he was the god of music, dancing, singing, and—as was vital to the birth of tragedy, and thus, the greatness of Greece—the ever-swelling, ever-lively chorus. That, the chorus, was the essential part around which drama, in its wholeness, was formed.
Enamored of Bacchus though we may well be, we must turn our attention to Apollo. Apollo, more than Dionysus, was the chief god in the pantheon of Grecian myth. He was both the center and the circumference of that nation’s boundless spirit, the golden nucleus around which all other specks of dust deferentially revolved. As Greece reached ever closer toward the heights of its maturity, and as it began to dazzle the ancient world with its edifices, lectures, and art, its Attic culture came to value Apollo above all others, and all else.
It was, of course, to his holy temple at the city of Delphi (the purported center of the world) that every anxious Greek in need of practical wisdom, or in hope of divine favor, travelled. He did so in the desperate search of prophecy and guidance, when no such help was elsewhere to be found. Often, much to their frustration, ambiguity was all that these curious pilgrims were able to receive. Still, despite the impregnable cloudiness of the answers with which they were often sent away, thousands continued to seek the inspired wisdom of the Pythian priestess, that mystic maiden into whom—through furtive cracks of a concrete slab—the divine, Apollonian vapors were so generously breathed.
Masculine, urbane, chiseled, and chaste, Apollo was the god of peace, repose, intelligence, and order. He was the god of archery, health, medicine, disease, and the structured musicality of the seven-stringed lyre. If, in terms of music, Dionysus were Richard Wagner, Apollo was a greater German still—the incomparable J.S. Bach. The former was most beloved of Romanticism’s sons, while the latter was the classicist’s dignified grand-father. In drama, if Dionysus was the messy, frenzied chorus, Apollo was the clean, crisp dialogue—the lapidary eloquence of refined and careful thought.
Apollo, unblemished by vice, knew nothing of the sin of intemperance. This, one must admit, is a quality rarely found among such an impetuous cast of gods, but his passions—unlike those of Zeus, Hades, Poseidon, and Hera—never prevailed over the tight restraints to which he kept himself bound. He was a Stoic before Seneca, and a Peripatetic before Aristotle. He was enlightenment before the word became a movement. He preferred the tranquility of thought to the ardor of action. He might, on occasion, throw the discus with Hyacinthus, or chase through the glen that laurel coquette, Daphne, but, on the whole, he much preferred aesthetes to athletes, and agape to eros.
Obviously, Apollo, on the one hand, and Dionysus, on the other, are quite different beings. Different, yes, but not of equal importance; Nietzsche is only too eager to crown the latter, the god of inebriety, as the superior of the two. It is, after all, out of the Dionysian spirit that the chorus emerges. Thus, does the drama come to life, and, with it, the high culture by which man is at once elevated and improved. It is, so far as Nietzsche can tell, the very soul of tragedy—the very essence of this purgative art—while the Apollonian element is merely the decorative flesh in which it’s all so beautifully, but superficially, draped.
For Nietzsche, the importance of the chorus simply can’t be understated: “Tragedy arose from the tragic chorus, and was originally only chorus, and nothing else. This is what obliges us to penetrate to the core of this tragic chorus as the true primal drama”. More specifically, getting to the origin of the chorus, one might’ve discovered on the infant Grecian stage none but a “satyr chorus”, or a chorus populated by horn-bearing, phallus-swinging, goat-imitating men.
The satyr, that most bestial and lusty of all beings, is “the product of a longing for the primal and the natural”—for an innate intelligence untainted by learning, and a passion deliciously free. He was, much like the rural shepherd of Nietzsche’s day, “the archetype of man, the expression of his highest and most intense emotions, an inspired reveler enraptured by the closeness of his god”. He was nothing short of the, “Harbinger of wisdom from the very breast of nature, a symbol of nature’s sexual omnipotence”.
For all the talk about the importance of their union, Nietzsche seems to imply that the satyr—the manifestation of Dionysian energy—would do fine without the meddling accompaniment of Apollo. Yet, for some reason, that prudish, elegant god won’t leave the goat-man’s burning loins alone. In a flash of lighting, and a plume of smoke, Apollo descends upon the stage and interrupts the orgiastic, wine-soaked Dionysian dance. He intervenes in the festivity to give it cadence, rhythm, maturity, and order. In this way, the Greek tragedy must be seen as “the Dionysian chorus continuously discharging itself in an Apollonian world of images”. The drama is thus mediated by Apollonian rules from which, try as it may, it can never escape.
Unfortunately, that which lives is, perforce, susceptible to death—a rule to which tragedy enjoys no exemption. Having recounted its birth, Nietzsche now described the circumstances of tragedy’s death. One man, in particular, is responsible for its murder—Euripides, last of the great playwrights of the Periclean Age. “It was Euripides”, Nietzsche claims, “who fought tragedy’s death-struggle”, and he fought not on the side of its preservation. Through him, says Nietzsche, “everyday man pushed his way through the auditorium on to the stage, and the mirror in which only great and bold features had hitherto found expression now showed the painful fidelity that also reflected the blemished lines of nature”.
With malign intent, Euripides opened the doors of the theater to the growing democratic tempest bubbling outside. He cast aside the stones by which its entry was barred, and let in the sweep of the vulgar waters. He, more than anyone else, controlled the sluice gates through which, like a flood, these putrid rivers flowed. The spectator, previously in search of catharsis through the suffering of noble heroes like Oedipus, Ajax, Orestes, and Agamemnon, “Now saw and heard his double on the Euripidean stage”. Every prior hint of aristocratic grandeur was, all of a sudden, erased from view. Kings were now dethroned, warriors incapacitated, and all remnants of nobility were promptly exiled from the stage. It marked, in the history of drama, a distinctly democratic turn, a pivot from the noble to the common man by which everything—including the art itself—was violently debased.
In the opinion of Nietzsche, the spectator is deserving of little more than contempt. He’s to be considered as inconsequential a figure as the common house fly, that brainless insect by which, alternatively, our walls or garbage pales are graced. As such, the artist needn’t pay the spectator any heed. While one might be tempted to “praise Euripides’ radical intentions, aiming for an appropriate relationship between the work and the audience”, the audience is, in truth, “merely a word—and not a constant, immutable standard”. A crowd of humans clapping like seals, the audience lacks the ability to serve as a reliable judge, to be the objective standard against which a true artist can measure the brilliance of his work.
The audience, at its best, is fickle, boorish, and open to the persuasion of silver-tongued men. It’s dependent not on its own intelligence—of which it has so scanty an amount—but on the endless whispers of the clever orators by whom, from one day to the next, it’s so easily led. It’s unlettered, ill-educated, and rude, and, thus, its applause ought to be suspected, and its suggestions ignored.
Why, asks Nietzsche, “Should the artist feel obliged to accommodate himself to a force whose strength lies purely in its numbers?” Thinly veiled by his criticism of drama, in this case, is his repulsion for democracy—a detestation about which, in subsequent works, he was never shy to vent. What claim, after all, do these “numbers” have to superior judgment? What if, when considered in isolation, they’re all comparably bad? Does the fact that there are simply more of them compensate for their individual faults? Are their deficiencies somehow erased by the mere dint of them being many?
He goes on: “If he (the artist) feels superior, in talent and aspiration, to every single spectator, how could he feel greater respect for the collective expression of all those subordinate capacities than for that individual spectator who is, in relative terms, the most gifted among them?” Again, this is the application to the stage of a biting political idea (one at which we soft, modern “democrats” can’t but squirm). It’s made clear at this point where Nietzsche’s aesthetic sense, and his political predilection, neatly overlap: tragedy ought to be an aristocratic art, much as aristocracy ought to be the conduct of the state.
Euripides, having excised the, “Primitive and powerful Dionysiac element from tragedy” and “rebuilt tragedy on non-Dionysiac art”, is to be condemned as a criminal in the Nietzschean court of law. If only such a hall of justice existed! Yet, harsh though his pending sentence must be, we’re told that Euripides didn’t commit his crime alone. Euripides, you see, was, “Merely a mask: the deity that spoke through him was not Dionysus, nor yet Apollo, but a new-born daemon bearing the name of Socrates”. That, in a word, “was the new opposition: the Dionysiac and the Socratic, and that conflict was to be the downfall of Greek tragedy”.
Alas, the bearded gadfly of Greece—the corrupter of children and the defiler of gods, the consummate questioner and the Platonic muse—was, at root, culpable of tragedy’s untimely death. Euripides, you see, was merely an agent operating under the noxious spell of Socratic fumes. He was subservient to the mighty sage’s power; the playwright was dangling by the invisible thread of his strings.
Burdened by the revelation that he was the wisest of all men, Socrates, as every school boy and girl knows, proceeded to attempt to disprove the Delphic decree. He wanted to refute what was a rather controversial message delivered to him from on high, a startling announcement by which his fellow, proud Athenians were sure to be provoked. To do so, he engaged in dialectical, and often uncomfortable, conversations with all the leading figures in Greece. He probed the minds of all those with whom he had the occasion to speak, and from whom he desperately hoped to learn.
Like a roving reporter, he spoke with statesmen, sophists, rhetoricians, and poets. No matter the place, he met them where they were. Be it at the docks of the Piraeus, before the steps of the assembly, or at an evening soirée awash in friendship and wine, no setting was unsuitable for his task. It was his goal, everywhere he went, to disabuse his countrymen of their examples, and to lead them back down to the essence of things. He wanted them to explain the basic truth of the subjects over which they were purported to have gained a certain mastery or skill.
No sooner did he embark upon his new calling than he discovered weaknesses in all the arguments of those to whom his questions were pressed. Everyone with whom he spoke seemed to possess “instinctive” knowledge—not the true knowledge after which he so indefatigably chased. You’ll recall, a tendency toward “instinct” is rather a Dionysian than an Apollonian feature. It’s the hallmark of a man driven by passion, as opposed to a man guided by reason. Socrates, rationalist that he was, greatly diminished the value of instinct, and thus made clear his allegiance to the god of light. He, a “despotic logician” was, in every conceivable way, an acolyte of Apollo, a follower of the strictest form, and a student of the shrewdest reason. He was, to his detriment, untouched by the Dionysian spirit, and, thus, had no qualm pushing his scientific, logical, dialectical blade into the Eastern god’s drunken heart.
And so, at the hand of Socrates, and with the help of Euripides, Dionysus was vanquished, and tragedy killed.
Just what are we to make of all this Socratic scorn? Is our bias not already too strongly tilted in favor of the Greek to swing back and consider Nietzsche’s charge? Can we even hope to assess Socrates, the veritable father of Western philosophy, with an impartial eye? Were we to do so, might we not ourselves be exposed to accusation—in this instance, not of tragedy’s murder, but of filial impiety? Exactly how, as Socrates’ children, are we to act as neutral arbiters in our judgment of a man whose only competition for our esteem is a Jewish carpenter from the town of Galilee?
I don’t profess myself to be such an unbiased judge. Thus, I’ll not pretend to be capable of evaluating Socrates harshly. Nietzsche, on the other hand, probably carried his vituperation too far. As he was proud to admit, Nietzsche was a student of Heraclitus, and a lover of the Pre-Socratics. Their fixation was on neither Forms nor morality, but the elusive arche (the underlying source of all things). In describing it, their style was aphoristic. They spoke in short paradoxes by which future generations would be puzzled. Nietzsche, likewise, sought the discovery of a unifying theory for the world (the will to power; the doctrine of eternal recurrence; the übermensch, etc.), and opted, in articulating it, to use a similarly terse and beguiling tone.
It’s safe to conclude, I think, that Nietzsche was the brooding child of Heraclitus, and that he bore very little resemblance to Western philosophy’s hemlock-stricken father (as a brief aside, however, it turns out that neither Nietzsche nor Socrates was particularly fond of democracy; the latter makes this clear in Book VI of the Republic, the former makes it known with every breath. Might this not have been a friendly point on which the two sages agreed? Perhaps, knowing this, the heat of their enmity might be somewhat cooled).
What’s certain is that we’ve reached the point at which the most intriguing question must be asked: To whom was Nietzsche more similar: Apollo, or Dionysus? Ah!—how stimulating an inquiry! With which spirit, the Apollonian or the Dionysian, was the austere German’s own more imbued? Here, Nietzsche’s parentage becomes much more complex. We must investigate his personality, if we’re to know the identity of his divine forebear.
For one, Nietzsche was a remarkably abstemious man. He imbibed no alcohol and—with the fateful exception of one unchaste romp—engaged in no sex. Indeed, I can think of no place at which he’d be less comfortable than at a city-wide Bacchanal. Is not Dionysus, after all, known for the vine and the orgy, the libation and the coition of which his loose and slurring Bacchants simply can’t get enough? Nietzsche, with the prudishness of a Catholic monk, partook of neither. What would he do at so exuberant and libidinous a scene? He’d likely retire to a corner and take up a book.
Yes—he was a lover of music, especially when crafted by the pre-Parsifal Wagner, and yes—he was a patron of the stage, especially when performed in the Aeschylean way, but he was, at root, an educator and a classicist. Is this not the epitome of an Apollonian character? His field was philology, which dealt with dusty, old, archaic words. He was, basically, an historian of language. And, despite the vigorous tone with which his writing almost literally grabs you, he was most decidedly not a man of action. Be not misled by the flexing übermensch by which his pages are filled, nor the mountaineering Zarathustra, by whom the dead tight-rope walker is manfully carried. Nietzsche’s (second) enlistment into the army was refused, on account of his sickly constitution. He was a myopic, syphilitic, enfeebled little man. His remedy for so unfortunate a plight was a life of seclusion in the well-shaded hills. Thus, whilst he might’ve imagined himself a soldier, he lived the quiet life of a scholar.
Given all that we know of the man (prior, at least, to his descent into insanity) I think that we’re safe in concluding the following: Nietzsche conducted his philosophy under the influence of Dionysus, but he led his life under that of Apollo. With pen pressed to page, he was a Bacchic and a madman. At all other hours, he was a lover of form, elegance, and light. So wide a chasm between theory and practice ought to make any follower wary.
RELATIONSHIP WITH WAGNER, PART II
Nietzsche, in his writings, had no difficulty expressing his disdain for Euripides and Socrates; these were two men—indeed, in his judgment, two felons—for whom he hadn’t a hint of affection. When it came to his denunciation of Wagner, however, he was initially more reserved in his ire. Only to a certain point, of course, for the wrath of Nietzsche seldom felt the touch of sympathy, by which the harsh lash is kindly softened. With waxing vituperation, he made his feelings known in two works: The Case of Wagner, and Nietzsche Contra Wagner. One can tell, from their titles alone, that these were meant to be adversarial works.
At the outset, though, Nietzsche admits to the great influence Wagner had over him: “To turn my back on Wagner was for me a piece of fate; to get to like anything else whatever afterwards was for me a triumph”. He sounds, here, like a young lover well-smitten by the object of his amorous eye, a beauty for whom the excitement of subsequent partners is, upon the loss of his early beloved, blunted. Wagner was like a drug, a musical intoxicant of which, were he to rehabilitate, he needed a thorough cleansing. Thus, was it that the, “Greatest event of my life took the form of a recovery. Wagner, he declared, “belongs only to my diseases”. As an artist and a cultural figure, he does nothing more than to “increase exhaustion” and, by so doing, “attracts only the weak and exhausted”. Nietzsche, in spirit—if not in body—would rather die than be counted among such weak and enervated men.
For Nietzsche, Wagner came to epitomize that which the gloomy philosopher most abhorred: decadence. Pulling no punches, he declared Wagner to be “The artist of decadence”, and, as such, condemnable in every way. He went to say that he, “Could not think of looking on approvingly while this décadent spoils our health”. He then wondered aloud: “Is Wagner even a man at all? Is he a musician at all?” or is he, as his pitiful Christian Parsifal seems to indicate, a scampering, sickly louse? Is he a little insect whose low existence demands he drain the vitality of the strong? Wagner, he concluded, was not “instinctively a musician” and, by way of his artifice, “had made music ill”.
The Parsifal, as mentioned, was ultimately responsible for their unfriendly split. Nietzsche, reflecting on just how ridiculous a composition it was, wondered whether it wasn’t actually conceived in jest.
“We should like to believe”, he said, “that Parsifal was meant as a piece of idle gaiety, as the closing act and satyric drama, with which Wagner the tragedian wished to take leave of us, of himself, and above all, of tragedy, in a way which befitted him and his dignity—that is to say, with an extravagant, lofty, and most malicious parody of tragedy itself, of all the past and terrible earnestness and sorrow of this world, of the most ridiculous form of the unnaturalness of the ascetic ideal, at last overcome”.
Even by the standards of Nietzsche, this is a devastating critique. Of course, Wagner—imbued at this stage of his career with the luminous spirit of Christ—wrote Parsifal in the full and utter seriousness befitting its theme. The final composition with which he ended his artistic life, Parsifal was a celebration of the glory of God. It was an opera, born out of piety, and nurtured with conviction, to be dedicated to the heavenly Father into whose vaunted dominion, he planned quite soon to ascend.
Yet it was because of these very religious overtones that Nietzsche despised it. All at once, the solemnity of Wagner’s prior work (of which Nietzsche was an unmitigated fan) was made into a mawkish, religious farce. He’d exchanged tragedy for satire, and paganism for the cross. This work, much like Christianity itself, was but another depiction of life in decline. Nietzsche could little tolerate so repugnant an idea. It was the work of one’s denial of life, of his loathing of life, of his unhealthy impatience for a world to come, and his unnatural rejection of this—the world in which he presently lived.
In concluding his thoughts on the opera, Nietzsche called Parsifal “a work of rancor, of revenge, of the most secret concoction of poisons with which to make an end of the first conditions of life”. Such, by extension, was the effect of Christianity. Nietzsche went on: “it (Parsifal) is a bad work; the preaching of chastity remains an incitement to unnaturalness”. Better, then, to be unchaste. After all, is not Dionysus (of all gods) the most unchaste? Is he not, in his lack of chastity, the most natural and, therefore, good? That which moves us further from the unchaste, natural life can be judged bad, so far as it moves us.
And so, given its overflowing chasteness, and its religious pretension, Nietzsche, as if issuing an edict from the height of his throne, declared that he, “despises anybody who does not regard Parsifal as an outrage upon morality”.
One must pause, whenever such a claim about morality is made by the likes of Nietzsche. In the foregoing quote, he speaks of Parsifal as an “outrage upon morality”—but upon which morality, precisely? Doubtless, it’s not the same morality in which we, through our countless hours of Sunday school lectures, have been instructed. It’s certainly not the same morality in which our priests and rabbis have, with otherworldly patience, done their very best to school us. No—we can’t take for granted that we’re all speaking of morality in the same Judeo-Christian tongue. As it happens, Nietzsche’s dialect on this topic is radically foreign. Acquired in the snow-capped peak of his solitude, it’s a language in which he alone is fluent.
For its fullest expression, one must turn to the following works: Beyond Good and Evil, The Genealogy of Morals, and Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The last, his central work on which all the rest of his writings were mere commentaries, will be treated in the section to come.
“Throughout the longest part of human history”, says Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil, “the value or non-value of an action was derived from its consequences: the action itself came as little into consideration as did its origin”. This, in terms more familiar to us, would have to be designated as an age in which the consequentialists reigned, into which the dauntless deontologists—led by Kant like Moses in the desert—had yet to step. Nietzsche, simplifying his labels, calls this the “pre-moral” period of mankind.
In time, over the course of some ten thousand years, “One has, in a few large tracts of the earth, come step by step to the point at which it is no longer the consequences, but the origin of the action, which determines its value”. Suddenly, intent matters more than outcome, and one’s motives, more than his results, are liable to being judged right or wrong. This, to persist in using Nietzsche’s terms, is the beginning of the “moral age”—that distant hour to which he wants us to return.
It’s at the outset of this age that the rudiments of morality were established: that which was deemed good was identified, as was that which was deemed bad. Evil, you’ll note, is yet to have made its ghastly appearance; it’s not until the final age, the “extra-moral” age, that it will make its entrance upon the conscience of man.
Until then, a “good” thing was that which affirmed the nobility of life; it contributed to its grandeur, and increased its power. A warrior, for instance, exercising his natural strength, or a sage employing his superior wisdom, were morally good men, participating in morally good acts. “The knightly-aristocratic value judgments presupposed a powerful physicality, a flourishing, abundant, even overflowing health, together with that which serves to preserve it: war, adventure, hunting, dancing, war games, and in general all that involves vigorous, free, joyful activity”. “Good”, then, was the attribute of the strong, the virile, the intrepid, and the elite. It was the defining feature of the ascendant class to which, as ordained by the law of nature, only the finest specimens of the human race were to be granted membership.
“Bad”, on the contrary, was a thing unique to the lower portion of society. Something “bad” was, in essence, blameworthy because it was vulgar. It was discountenanced because it was ignoble. “Bad” were those sordid, uncouth people at whom the higher class deigned to cast its collective eye. Indeed, they hardly merited its glance, much less its pity. They were undeserving of every human sentiment, excepting, perhaps, that of scorn. Thus, the reason for their existence was for the elevated order to hold them in contempt. This, they did, in accordance with the cruel but just mandate of nature.
Far above this lower class, jousting like heroes in the courtyard of the Acropolis, the good masters were to be found playing, sweating, and exerting themselves. High atop the summit, like the eagle at his perch—this is where such men of valor stood. Miles below them, bartering and bickering in the dirty streets of the hoi polloi, the despicable slaves were to be found wandering. Like little lambs, they spent their days whining about their woes, and bleating out their fears. These meek and diffident souls were the “herd”, the lowly mob, the “bad” mass of wretches at whom the masters, in between thrusts of their swords, and blows of their fists, looked down in utter contempt.
Occasionally, the masters would descend from their high position on the mountain to the sheep-strewn pasture below. They’d do so with the aim of carrying them off, all the while savoring the idea of these delicious, tender lambs. Their bleating bodies—ripe to be plucked—were formed by muscles that hadn’t yet made the acquaintance of exertion. The lambs, understandably, found this arrangement disagreeable. Worse, they thought the eagles evil for doing what was, frankly, and in the simple opinion of the birds of prey, completely natural.
It’s a painful, but altogether natural demarcation—this clear line etched between the eagle and the lamb, or the master and the slave. No distinction could be more truthful, no fact more obvious, and no doctrine less convenient to those lesser beings upon whom its heavy consequences weighed. And we’ve felt its effects throughout history ever since. For millennia, the master morality has been the aristocratic ideal. It’s the very basis upon which Greek culture was raised and, with it, all of the Western world’s greatest achievements. Likewise, it’s the morality of the stolid, dignified Romans, those virtuous conquerors by whom civilization, as we know it, was so admirably spread. What’s more, it’s the system promulgated by the Norsemen, those legendary Vikings by whom the New World was discovered, and heartiness was instilled into the trembling soul of man.
The slave morality is the unexalted opposite. The tendency toward danger in the aristocrat gave way to the love for security in the democrat. Power was replaced by peace, enterprise for passivity, initiative for imitation, bravery for cowardice, and—worst of all—brilliance for cunning. More numerous than the best, the lowlier members of our species were able to perform a shocking feat: a trans-valuation of all values. Along with the division of the continents, the Cambrian Explosion, and the rupture of the atom, the trans-valuation of all values must be counted amount the most significant events to have occurred on the planet.
Suddenly, as a consequence of their jealous machinations, the slaves were able to re-define “bad”, and make it such that it was now “good”. What was formerly “good”, then, was, all of a sudden, turned “evil”. It’s as though the prevailing polarity of the magnets had been switched. In the words of Nietzsche, “Everything that raises the individual above the herd and makes his neighbor quail is henceforth called evil”. In this newly-conceived world, “the fair, modest, obedient, self-effacing disposition, the mean and average in desires (all the attributes of the lamb), acquires moral names and honors”. Suddenly, the lamb is esteemed in such a way befitting the lion. The head of the former is crowned with a mane, while the teeth of the latter are pulled. The lamb is now the undisputed king, while the lion—usurped of his reign—is the iniquitous felon. Nothing could be more unnatural than this.
And who, exactly, is responsible for this radical flip in morals? Upon whom are we to cast the blame for inciting so wondrous and unnatural a change? Exactly who dammed the river, and altered its current? How strong was the hand by which its mighty tides were stopped, to which its flowing torrents now yielded?
At first glance, the answer feels cliché; Nietzsche blamed the Jews.
One must, at this point, preempt the charges of anti-Semitism by which Nietzsche is, and perhaps always will be, assailed. Contrary to Wagner, his sister, Elisabeth, and many of his irascible countrymen, Nietzsche was no unthinking enemy of the Jews. Indeed, he preferred their Testament to that of the Christians—a group toward whom he was much more openly hostile. He often spoke approvingly of the Hebrew sect (a fact about which his later Nazi editors were only too conscious; they worked tirelessly to conceal this truth). For what it’s worth, when compared with followers of Jesus, he was much more sympathetic to Abraham’s hardy, beleaguered sons. He much preferred them and the wrathful Yahweh under whom, with little rest, from Sinai to Canaan, they constantly suffered, to the effeminate Nazarene and his overbearing Dad.
That said, in Nietzsche’s estimation, the Jews must bear most of the guilt for the “slave revolt in morality”, that great revolution by which all prior notions of ethics were capsized, and the elites were laid low. “It was the Jews”, says Nietzsche, “who, with awe-inspiring consistency, dared to invert the aristocratic value-equation (good = noble = powerful = beautiful = happy = beloved of God) and to hang on to this inversion with their teeth”. They did so with “teeth of the most abysmal hatred”, saying, through what must’ve been but a small aperture of their tightly-clenched jaws, “the wretched alone are the good; the poor, the impotent, and the lowly alone are the good; the suffering, deprived, sick, ugly alone are pious, alone are blessed by God, blessedness is for them alone”. This, doubtless, was a great comfort to those who were historically despised.
Such people found their strength, if strength it be so called, in their feeling of ressentiment. For want of a German equivalent, Nietzsche borrowed this word from the French. As it turns out, ressentiment is the slave class’ primal, animating force. It’s the very impulse by which its revolutionary fervor is kindled. And, in time, it becomes the fuel by which its daily efforts are sustained. At some point, we know not when, this ressentiment “becomes creative and gives birth to values”. Unlike every noble morality, which “develops from a triumphant affirmation of itself, slave morality from the outset says No to what is ‘outside’, what is ‘different’, what is ‘not itself’”. By way of a negation, then, this “No is its creative deed”.
Whereas the masters are consumed with thoughts of themselves, and themselves only, the slaves rage at them with hearts full of spite. They’re enflamed with a desire for revenge over a class to which they’re so clearly and naturally inferior. Their attention is ever outward, given their lack of intrinsic worth. In order to build themselves up, the slaves must tear the good masters down: “In order to exist, slave morality always first needs a hostile external world”. Master morality, on the other hand, suffers no commensurate need: “It acts and grows spontaneously”, springing forth from the healthy soil of a natural clime. As it was made to do, it’s content in affirming itself, and seeks no exogenous approval.
And so, the elevation of the slaves is an unnatural, costly endeavor. Those who were formerly “good”—the strong and the mighty, the broad-chested and the deep-voiced—must be cast down, if the slaves, in their place, are to be raised. With a snap of the finger, “The powerful and noble, have become, on the contrary, the evil, the cruel, the lustful, the insatiable, the godless to all eternity” and shall be, for all eternity to come, “the unblessed, accursed, and damned!” Thus, is it the work of the Jews by which the slave revolt in morality is started, and with the Christians, their successors, sustained.
If God’s sole begotten child, Jesus, was the leader of the downtrodden and the messiah to the slaves, Zarathustra, the bearded son of Persia, was the prophet of the masters. Even as a mythical figure, his origins remain somewhat cloudy. Scholars place his birth somewhere in the Axial Age—an era of great fecundity and growth in the history of the spirit and the thought of man. Despite little objective evidence by which so enticing a claim might be supported, many of these same scholars believe Zarathustra, or Zoroaster, to have been a contemporary of Cyrus the Great, Croesus, or Solon.
Like Jesus, Siddhartha Gautama, and nearly every other religious sage since, Zarathustra experienced a revelation around the time of his thirtieth year (the visitation by the angel Gabriel to the founder of Islam was, in comparison, slightly belated). Upon the start of his third decade—an age of unsettlement not only for budding prophets, but for nearly every man—Zarathustra abandoned his prior life. It had become, as is so often the case, a rather bland existence of sensuality and vice. He’d become habituated to this enervating mix of easy comfort, and guiltless sin, and he yearned desperately for something more.
He sought, as a remedy, the rugged elevation and thin air of the mountains. He planned his ascent into those craggy Persian hills, from which he dared not emerge until he was fully immersed in wisdom. As so often it does, it came to him slowly. For ten long years, Zarathustra remained atop the mountain, joined, on occasion, by a friendly eagle and a slithering snake (“the proudest animal under the sun and the cleverest animal under the sun”). Like a couple of rustic pals, they accompanied the sage in his narrow, humble cave. It was out of his conversations with these two beasts—the one, aquiline; the other, serpentine—that his philosophy was born.
At last, the time arrived for his grand descent. At so lofty a height, he’d become overburdened with a wisdom of which he could well afford to be bled. He was “like the bee that has gathered too much honey”, and he hoped, as a creature laden with so dulcet a treat, to find some people with whom his sweetness might be shared. Like the prisoner of Plato, now emancipated from his cave, Zarathustra felt it an obligation to return to those same depths out of which he once bravely climbed. Having attained wisdom, it was now his duty to instruct those beneath him, to guide the unenlightened mass from whom, ten years ago, he anxiously took is leave.
After so long a time of voluntary solitude and lofty confinement, and after having considered every possible topic of contemplation, Zarathustra decided it was time to “become human again”. Thus, he packed his sparse belongings, bid his animal friends adieu, and lighted upon the Motley Cow. Once there, he began his discourse on the advent of the Overman, a disquieting tale by which none in his audience was particularly moved. “I teach to you the Overman”, he said, followed by the startling pronouncement that “the human is something that shall be overcome”. What, he then asked, “have you done to overcome it?”
Zarathustra overestimated the people’s interest in his claim. Like a novice public speaker, he spoke well, but he spoke about a topic for which the people gathered in his midst cared very little. As it turns out, their attention was transfixed not on this earth-shaking idea, uttered by an incarnate sage descended from the sky, but on a trembling tight-rope walker. The people had no patience for such philosophical subtlety and grand designs, but preferred the simple entertainment to which they’d become accustomed.
Soon, incautious of his step, or unsteadied by his conscience, the jaunty acrobat fell and broke his spine. Indifferent to his fate, the audience—so recently gripped by his performance—gave a collective shrug. Having witnessed his fall, it turned around, looked about, and sought its amusement elsewhere.
Zarathustra, however, though uninstructed in the art of medicine, and unanointed as a doctor, hoped, in his peculiar way, to salve the fallen man’s spirit. He wanted to assuage his soul as it exited his flesh, and ease, if he could, that final transition. Yet, contrary to all religious precept, he assured the dying man that there’s no life beyond the one from which he was, at great speed, taking his leave. In defiance of the prevailing idea (which holds that a greater world awaits those deserving of its entry), Zarathustra impressed upon the man the fact that there’s no heaven to which to aspire, nor hell about which to be nervous. Indeed, so far as he ought to be concerned, there’s neither devil nor hell, and that he needn’t reflect shamefacedly upon his life: “You have made danger your calling: there is nothing in that to despise. Now your calling has brought you down: therefore, will I bury you with my own hands”.
And so, Zarathustra performed his first funeral rite.
There is a certain dissonance between Nietzsche’s doctrine of the eternal recurrence (to be explored in a section to come) and his mouthpiece Zarathustra’s assurance to the dying man that “your soul will be dead even sooner than your body”. But, as we know, Zarathustra could be an inscrutable, and at times self-contradictory figure. What is clear and consistent in his philosophy, however, is that he impatiently desired the overcoming of man qua man. He imagined that the spirit of man would progress through three distinct stages of evolution: the first, that of the camel; the second, that of the lion; and finally, that of the child.
The camel, despite his incomparable endurance on the arid Persian planes, is, at best, a mindless beast of burden. As a camel, the spirit is in its “weight-bearing” stage. Thus, it “kneels down, like the camel, and would be well laden” like a mule or an ox. It is, in essence, a subject animal—never a master in control of itself. It genuflects before the will of another, and is always put to work. For the attainment of greater sovereignty, the spirit must undergo a second transformation—into a lion. In so doing, the leonine spirit will “seize freedom for itself and become lord in its own desert”.
Endowed with fangs, and equipped with claws, the lion can now confront the dragon—the scaly beast from whom every burdensome, self-denying interdict springs. The dragon, it appears, is the manifestation of the strict, religious edicts of old: “What is the great dragon that the spirit no longer likes to call Lord and God? ‘Thou Shalt’ is the name of the great dragon”. The dragon is the symbol of old, useless, self-abnegation, and, if ever the self is again to be affirmed, it must, in all haste, be slain.
The camel, perpetually bending its knee and accepting its load, is unequal to so demanding and irreverent a task; such a deed is left to the lion. And so, the spirit of the lion says, “I will”. It does so in noble defiance of the dragon’s gilded scales, that rough, sparkling skin on which “Thou shalt” is everywhere written. “Values thousands of years old glisten on these scales, and thus speaks the mightiest of all dragons: ‘All value in things—that glistens on me’. All value has already been created, and all created value—that is me. Verily, there shall be no more ‘I will’!”
What, now, is the lion to do? Is the dragon’s decree his final discouragement to act? It is not. The lion well knows that new values, those unlisted on the dragon’s ancient scales, eagerly await their creation. With the death of the dragon, the old morality withers away, and the new values, at long last, can be brought into glorious life. The lion, and the lion alone, is uniquely able to kill the dragon and, in so doing, unveil the canvass upon which the fresh, new values can be drawn.
That said, the actual drawing of these values is not for him to perform: “To create new values—that even the lion cannot yet do: but to create for itself freedom for new creation—that is within the power of the lion”. Without the conditions of freedom firmly in place (a feat beyond the competence of the camel), the creation of values can’t occur. And so, the lion’s role in this process is vital—but not final.
For the achievement of the ultimate end, the great and life-affirming creation of new values, the lion must complete the process of evolution, and transform into a child. Yet, does not a child seem too vulnerable a creature to achieve so terrible an act? Would the lion not preferably transform into a full-grown man, a creature through whom the vital fluids of prudence and reason flow?
As it happens, the child is possessed of the one quality of which man, as a consequence of his maturity and growth, has been shorn: an ability to say “Yes”: “Innocence the child is…and forgetting, a beginning anew, a play, a self-propelling wheel, a first movement, a sacred Yea-saying”. For the “Play of creating, a sacred Yea-saying is needed: the spirit now wills its own will, the one who had lost the world attains its own world”.
Creation is, at root, the essence of Zarathustra’s creed (“Little do the people comprehend what is great—which is, the creative”). Creation, of oneself and of one’s values, is the greatest good toward which man can endeavor. The child, as it were, will create new values. He does so atop the corpse of the dragon whose punctured scales yet read, “Thou shalt not” (“Thou shalt not steal! Thou shalt not kill!—such words were once called holy; in their presence people bowed their knees and their heads and removed their shoes”. But, now, we have “shattered the old law-tables!”). They’ve withered away with the death of the dragon.
A new Decalogue is inscribed on the blood-stained earth, and the author is none but an over-confident toddler. Unencumbered by the old values, and liberated by the new, man can now re-create himself. He does so in accordance with the new values he himself (or his childish self) has prescribed. His prior, lesser form can be overcome, and, all of a sudden, there’s no impediment to his upward climb. To what thin summits might he now ascend? Among what brave eagles might he now reside? Beside what serpents might he now slither?
As it was, man lived the life of a hopelessly intermediate figure, the unenviable link between an ape—dragging on the floor his thick and hairy knuckles—and something eminently higher. He was a frayed rope strung across a wide chasm: on the one side, an atavistic past; on the other, the Übermensch to come. This, in other words, marked the “Great Midday” in the life of man, “when the human stands in the middle of its path between beast and Overhuman and celebrates its way to evening as its highest hope: for it is the way to a new morning”. Now, at the dawning of this new epoch, man can follow the great path for which he was destined. He can climb with Zarathustra to the summit of the hill, beyond which he can perhaps trek still farther. Ceaseless, after all, lies the road to the cosmos.
Sadly, though, it’s not a path upon which everyone can set himself. Indeed, as it stands, most people are incapable of the type of self-creation and self-overcoming for which Zarathustra’s daunting project calls. It’s for this herd of lambs, this meek, surplus population, that the state was invented. From its ample bosom, they’ll receive their panem et circenses, their precious healthcare plans, their over-generous financial assistance, their monthly or weekly welfare checks, their eager student loans, their hasty debt forgiveness, their revealed truths, their propaganda, their scientific assurances, their mask mandates, and, behind it all, their total subjugation. In their servility, they’ll smile at the perceived boon of their good fortune, and think nothing of the possibility of a life greater still.
The creator would rather exile himself from such a state than endure such rank emasculation. He would hasten from the tainted filth of the masses, and seek, like Zarathustra, the solitude of the mountain air. He would do so not as an escape of an invalid from a well-balanced, robust, and healthy society, but “as an escape from the invalids” among whom he had the misfortune to live. But such a man, following in the footsteps of Zarathustra, lives not only alone, but outside his time. He preaches the philosophy of a dawn yet unknown, of a terra incognito tempting, but not yet knowing, the presence and exploration of man. He treads the thin and hazy line of the distant horizon, that perilous edge over which the sun daily falls.
Thus, goes the song of Zarathustra—a tale for all and none. As it turns out, much to the author’s disappointment, it appealed very little to the former. It was, on the contrary, a book destined to be the obscure delight of the latter.
If it were to be judged not by its impact on centuries after the nineteenth, but by the number of copies sold during its own lifetime, one would have to conclude that Zarathustra was a complete failure. True, Nietzsche considered it his chef d’oeuvre and, measuring it against his other works, we—looking back through the lens of time—are inclined to agree. “This work”, he declared, “stands alone”. That, it certainly did and, as previously stated, it became for him the central scripture to which all of his later works were mere commentaries or expansions.
He went on, in characteristically cocksure fashion: “Do not let us mention the poets in the same breath; nothing perhaps had ever been produced out of such a superabundance of strength. If all the spirit and goodness of every great soul were collected together, the whole could not create a single one of Zarathustra’s discourses”.
Upon reading this, even the staunchest admirer of Nietzsche will be made to blush, possibly even to cringe. Surely, not even he would assent to so exaggerated an estimation of the mad author’s work. That said, it is, without a doubt, a marvelous piece of literature meriting the designation of “canonical”. It’s absolutely deserving of inclusion in this elite and timeless class. Unlike any work before or after, Zarathustra a fascinating blend of philosophy and poetry—a great convergence of art and wisdom, and, for those reasons, it enjoys a position of prominence on any serious library shelf.
Perhaps Nietzsche got into the habit of conflating himself with his idealized Übermensch in order to forget his failures, or assuage his shortcomings. A work of such obvious greatness shouldn’t have been so difficult to push through the printing press, but it was. The publisher with whom he contracted prioritized the work behind five-hundred-thousand hymn books, and—in good Christian fashion—a torrent of pamphlets spouting anti-Semitic bile. As for the final part of Zarathustra, at which point the eponymous hero welcomes a poet, an artist, and a saint to his high mountain abode, the publisher refused to print it. Availed of no alternative, Nietzsche was forced to use his own money and publish it himself.
It was, in every way, a most unprofitable investment. At final tally, a meager forty copies of the book were sold. Seven more, in an act of dubious charity, were given away. One can’t but wonder how warmly these unrequested gifts were received. If their recipients enjoyed them, Nietzsche didn’t know about it. It was as though the great feat of his intellectual life, the sole work into which he poured all his “overabundant” energy, had never happened. At the very least, it amounted to little. He was, at this point, the mighty tree falling in the forest by whose deafening crash, not a single person’s attention was aroused. Of course, now, we feel his tremors every day, but, back then, hardly a person noticed.
THE DEATH OF GOD
One must remember, Zarathustra—despite his many Olympian virtues—was not himself a god. He was, rather, a prophet, and openly declared himself as such. We must ask, then, if Nietzsche didn’t really want us to consider him a kind of pious vessel, an elect intermediary, through whom some distant deity spoke? And, if so, who was that god?
As for Zarathustra, was he a prophet in the literal, or in the poetic sense? Like Moses before him, or Mohammed after, was it Nietzsche’s intention for us to take Zarathustra to be a man in actual communication with God? To be such a conveyer of a higher truth and a holier wisdom, an ineffable message and a sacred decree, one would first have to presuppose the existence of a god. Absent this presupposition, it seems to me, the prophet has no role. Detached from the mighty Spirit with whom he alone is alleged to be conversant, or abandoned by the god who no longer exists, the prophet must retire his title, and lower himself to the society of common stock. Should he refuse, as is often the case, he’ll go on as a man, merely, touched by a strange outlook on the world, deluded by the greatness of his own self-worth, and questioned, if not stoned, by his exasperated neighbor.
Yet, if one knows nothing more about Nietzsche’s thoughts on theology, he’s affirmed in his knowledge that the philosopher was no theist. Of that, without reading a single line of his books, one can be sure. No, to the contrary, Nietzsche is notorious for being the first of all radicals to announce God’s death. He is, for this reason, the most audacious of atheists ever to have lived.
Zarathustra, prophetic in the poetic sense, announced Nietzsche’s message to all who would listen. Sadly, his auditors were few. “Could it be possible!”, he exclaimed, after a brief exchange with a saint in the forest, that this old man “hath not yet heard of it, that God is Dead!”. “Could ye create a God?”, he asks; “Could ye conceive a God?”, he wonders. The answer, to the shock and dismay of all religious people, is that you very surely can, for God is a conjecture, merely; God is a thought. And, as easily as such thoughts can arise, they can, in a trice, be extinguished. Thus is God at once born and aborted in the ever-fertile mind of man.
The pronouncement of God’s death, the news of the deity’s grand undoing, is as arresting a claim now, as it was back then. While Zarathustra was first to give this revelation voice, the famous “Madman” did so more memorably. The following, quoted in full—as it must be—is the terrifying parable of the Madman, an event in and of itself, at which, a hundred years hence, the Church still cringes, and humanity trembles:
From the Gay Science:
“Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: "I seek God! I seek God!" -- As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. “Has he got lost?” asked one. “Did he lose his way like a child?” asked another. “Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? Emigrated?” -- Thus they yelled and laughed.
The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. "Whither is God?" he cried; "I will tell you. We have killed him -- you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.
"How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us -- for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto."
Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. "I have come too early," he said then; "my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars -- and yet they have done it themselves.
Having read this parable over and again, and having felt—each time that I do—my pulse hasten and my nerves flutter, I still find myself unprepared for the crippling, physical reaction of which it’s the cause. Such symptoms are concomitant with the reading. Each time I arrive at its final word and, hopefully, regain my breath, I ask myself the following questions: Exactly how is one to react to so terrifying a passage? How is one to respond to such alarming eloquence? To such rhetorical flare? To such earth-rattling boldness? Does this passage not exceed all human genius capable of grappling with such a grand and irreverent idea?
How is one to regain his balance, after being so utterly overwhelmed by the torrent of these brilliant and debilitating words? Would he not sooner succumb to the deluge of their power, and resign himself to their sway? Would he not, then, be carried off, limp and unresisting, to the murky depths of the fathomless sea? Most importantly, how is one, now unmoored of his faith, yet well-ballasted by his atheism, to continue relishing the proud disbelief into which he’s so cleverly talked himself, and to go on celebrating the godless world in which he finds it so congenial to live?
The critic might have more to say about this haunting parable—the Madman’s incredible pronouncement at the break of dawn. As for the biographer, a role I’ve voluntarily embraced, a certain reticence outruns my willingness to opine. What’s certain is that those three words, God is dead, have resonated throughout time with an echo of unequaled persistence and strength. Still, to this day, they shake the halls of immortal time. They cause a trembling in every soul through which they’re blasted—a sheer ringing in the head.
Yet, despite their destabilizing force, and their ceaseless terror, no phrase is as widely known, nor as blithely quoted. In the annals of philosophy, I can think of only one other phrase upon which an equivalent degree of fame has been bestowed: Cogito ergo Sum—so spoken by another Christian rebel. No other trio of words, uttered by philosophic lips, has been quite so enduring.
Yet, much like Descartes’ startling claim, by which his extravagant doubt was put to temporary rest, Nietzsche’s utterance is almost always misunderstood. Those inclined toward an atheistic view tend to read these three words, God is dead, and infer the celebratory tone of their speaker. They assume him to have made his declaration with lightness and glee, with merriment and confidence, and—for having done so—to have become a happy hero amongst the society of learned men. Ignorant of the entirety of the Madman’s passage, they tend to rejoice in the liberating upshot of God’s death, of which the Madman is the untimely herald. For them, it’s a victory of science, progress, and reason over the chains of dogma, myth, and religion—an emancipation from the crippling fetters of faith, and a movement toward enlightenment’s open field.
What they fail to recognize, however, which is not at all hidden in the text, is the awful consequence of God’s death. Without God, the absolute arbiter of all morality, justice, and truth, the world is suddenly vulnerable to every conceivable ill. It’s now subject to every perturbation by which it might be jostled. To borrow Nietzsche’s unforgettable image, it’s suddenly unchained from the sun—that massive star by which it was so reliably guided, steadied, and anchored. The Earth, now alone, no longer enjoys the gentle gravity by which it was once stabilized and controlled. Severed from its salutary pull, this imperceptible knot, man is now shocked to find himself floating aimlessly in the vastness of space. Directionless is his path as the sun shines ever dimmer, receding, every moment, into the darkness of the abyss.
“Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us?” I shiver each time I consider the prospect. Every square inch of my skin is raised, as the godless goosebumps overcome me. With the warmth of his love, or the fire of his wrath, God was, irrespective of his temperament and changing mood, an inextinguishable source of heat. Of this, there can be no doubt. He enlivened the earth, brought order to our being, and, yet, we’ve requited his efforts with the worst kind of violence. We repaid his fatherly oversight, his paternal care, with deicide, aiming our arrows toward the sky, and letting loose our quiver.
Like Lady Macbeth, unrelieved of her crime even in the dewy hours of sleep, our hands are now imbrued with God’s blood. And, like the Scottish usurper, we’ve not enough water to cleanse the sanguine drops by which our daring arms are stained. Thus, we proclaim, standing astride the corpse of God: “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!...who would have thought the Old Man to have had so much blood in him”. Verily—who would have thought God to have retained so much blood?
Certainly, not the godless townspeople to whom, in the bleak haze of the early darkness, the Madman cried out. They’ve not yet weighed the consequences of their action. They’ve not yet considered the repercussions of what they’ve done. Instead, they go on living out the self-flattering delusion, which allows them to reject or, as it were, to kill God, and to replace him with, well, nothing. All the while, agreeing not to acknowledge his presence, and savoring the sweetness of their newfound freedom, they continue to profit from his moral code. They continue to reap the fruit of his laws, his order, and his wisdom. They are, to put it bluntly, propelling forward in time on stolen fumes.
It’s the job of the Madman to inform them that this can’t be. The fumes must dissipate, and their momentum must stop. Their current relationship with God can’t be sustained. His death must be taken to its logical conclusion, but it’s not a conclusion for which the people are at all prepared. Sure, they’ve unchained the Earth from the Sun, yet they continue to pretend it’s somehow still tethered. They’ve accomplished this grand divorce, yet act as if they’ve retained the most vital part on which the union was based. They must face the reality that, whether they like it or not, without God, they’re mere lumps of flesh drifting idly through space. For all of history (to which, as we’ll see, there is no real end), this is to be their meaningless plight.
PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY
As is clear, there’s hardly a field of philosophy into which Nietzsche didn’t sink his teeth; his appetite was indiscriminate, and he approached every issue as if a wolf in advance of a feast. He began in his Birth of Tragedy as an aesthetician, retracing the distant origin of that highest form of art. None since Aristotle had subjected drama too so scrutinizing a study, and none since the Stagirite had made so compelling a case. He proceeded to become a metaphysician and a moralist—never ceasing, of course, to be a polemicist every step of the way. From there, he took the field of ethics and turned it on its head, all the while toying with epistemology, theology, religion, logic, culture, politics, and everything in between.
That said, fascinated though we are with his multitudinous efforts, we mustn’t overlook his contribution to history. I don’t want to be misunderstood; he was, by no means, a trained historian—he produced no such professional work. I mean only to say that we mustn’t ignore his philosophy of history, which—in conformity with his Grecian spirit—couldn’t be expressed without a certain cosmological tinge. Such, I think, was the influence of Heraclitus, Pythagoras, and Empedocles. Yet Schopenhauer and the Orientals influenced him as well. Like them, Nietzsche was shamelessly susceptible to the notion of traveling spirits, to metempsychosis, and to those unanswerable questions that lurk beyond the grave.
We mustn’t forget, Nietzsche came of age at a time when historicism was in the ascendant. For those unfamiliar with the term (to which, on a neologistic whim, the German Romantic Friedrich Schlegel gave life) historicism is the belief in history’s pervasive and deterministic power. It imagines all things answerable to its eternal dictate. In the words of the theory’s greatest opponent, the Anglo-Austrian Karl Popper, it presented a set of “inexorable laws of historical destiny” from which nothing in this world could sway.
Just over a decade prior to Nietzsche’s birth, the patron saint of this novel field, the great Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, was still living and lecturing at Berlin. If Germany, like Greece, identified among its wisest men seven distinguished sages, Hegel would be one. Kant, doubtless, would be another, Goethe a valiant third, but Hegel would rank rather highly on that list.
Everyone was in agreement that Hegel was brilliant beyond compare. Few of his ideas regarding history were questioned, and even fewer challenged by those who had, or those who feigned, an ability to understand them. His philosophy of history flirted, and still flirts, with a certain kind of orthodoxy from which, heedless of Popper’s warnings, few academics dare stray. And, should they feel themselves intellectually equipped for the daunting task, only the most heretical minds would dare refute it.
Such men, excepting Nietzsche, were nowhere to be found. Everyone else, irrespective of his country or religion, was in agreement that Hegel, the inscrutable Teuton, the state-sponsored professor, was as infallible in the university halls at Berlin, as was the Pope in the Basilica of Peter. For all his outward modesty, Hegel was (in the age of Napoleon, no less), the continent’s eminent figure. He was the teacher to whom countless alumni attributed their thinking, and the sage before whom every emperor knelt.
Overall, when revisited today, his work is impenetrably dense; it makes for neither delightful, leisurely, nor fluid reading. In truth, he communicated in an exceedingly turbid style to which, I think, in some ways, Nietzsche’s saber-like concision was a deliberate response. And oh!—How invigorating was the repartee! And how trenchant the thrust!
In brief, and expressed very crudely, Hegel conceived of history as one grand, centuries-old dialectical process. It was a wheel, to borrow an imperfect image, to which an ineluctable force had been applied. And by whom, you might ask, was that first momentous push given? Why, none other than the mystical Absolute—the great Spirit (or Zeitgeist) by which everything is determined. History, thus, was in a constant state of turning and spinning, moving ever onward toward the present age. It marched in steady pursuit of an orange dawn at which, having arrived at so wondrous a horizon, it now takes its rest.
Doubtless, along the bumpy way, there had been many a thesis and an antithesis (terms later applied to simplify and systematize his work), out of which, through the course of many years, a synthesis emerged. This union of opposites, as we know, was integral to the movement. The best of each part was preserved, and a greater unity was established.
Hegel, as much an optimist as a humanist, viewed with affection, and cheered with confidence, the current state of man. He believed his fellow human beings to be at, or at least very near, the summit of their earthly perfection. He thought—and in our moments of self-flattery, we tend to concur—that history had led us to this lofty pinnacle of existence, a nearly divine height beyond which, as if reaching with outstretched arms toward the soft underbelly of Olympus, we really can’t go much farther. Thus, in a word, Hegel viewed contemporary man as the very consummation of history.
Unsurprisingly, Nietzsche disagreed. In his Untimely Meditations, as well as in other works, he advanced his doctrine of the “eternal recurrence”. It was, in truth, a proposition similarly laced with the language of spiritualism to that offered by Hegel, but its differences were important. And, absent other contenders, it came to be the only idea by which the mighty Hegel and his all-encompassing Zeitgeist were challenged.
But first, it must be noted, that despite the general affection felt by the German-speaking world for Hegel, Nietzsche saw in his work an unwholesome quality. He sensed something not just wanting, but downright evil in this Hegelian doctrine, this diseased theory of history of which, for the sake of their well-being, he hoped to see his countrymen cleansed.
And so, in casting his judgment on Hegel, Nietzsche said that, “There has been no dangerous turning point in the progress of German culture in this century that has not been made more dangerous by the enormous and still living influence of this Hegelian philosophy”. Permit your eyes, dear reader, to dance along those lines yet again. I’ve returned to them countless times, and am always taken aback!
Rarely is Nietzsche open to accusations of being “self-unaware”; perhaps this is the exception.
Frankly, given the source, one can’t but laugh at what Nietzsche had to say of Hegel. Did not Nietzsche, time and again, openly endorse danger? Did he not extol its virtues, and inure us to its pains? Did he not advise us, page after page, and aphorism after aphorism, to “Build our cities on the slopes of Vesuvius” and to “Send our ships out into uncharted seas”? What a curious conservatism for him suddenly to adopt! What uncharacteristic caution for our daredevil to espouse! And if what Nietzsche said of Hegel was true in the nineteenth-century, could it not be said of Nietzsche in the twentieth? Could not the Allies, counting their corpses after the treaties of Versailles and Paris, not lament the “enormous and still living influence of this Nietzschean philosophy”, this grim ideology by which, in the span of only a few tense years, both Wilhelm II and Adolf Hitler justified their genocidal efforts?
Perhaps Nietzsche failed to recognize the inherent danger in himself. Maybe he chose to overlook a quality of which, in others, he was only too keenly perceptive. I ask, though, can he really be blamed? Such, after all, is the common blindness of man—regardless of his intellect, his wealth, or his stature. Or perhaps, with the distance of time, by which all things cloudy are made refreshingly clear, we’re better at knowing men whom we’ve never met. Nevertheless, we must now turn to an assessment of his philosophy of history, with a mind to return to his “danger” in paragraphs unborn.
First, it must be said, that when it came to his philosophy of history, Nietzsche was not only willing, but quite eager to acknowledge his debts. He was candid when he admitted that his philosophy of history was not, “Absolutely unique…as though snatched from the pure air of the Engadin” (a pristine Alpine town through which he frequently passed).
We mustn’t forget that, despite his occasional Romantic, Byronic outbursts, and his fondness for Manfred pouting on a crag, Nietzsche was, at heart, a classicist. It was from this source, from his deep reading of the ancient Greek writers, that he acquired his idea of history. He seems particularly, in this instance, to have been influenced by Pythagoras—that most mystical sage on whom, as a professor, he once had the occasion to lecture. So too did he feel the touch of Empedocles on his thought, who went to great lengths to prove himself divine. And, as always, he was moved by the writings of his great hero, Heraclitus:
“The doctrine of the eternal recurrence”, Nietzsche said, “…of the unconditional and infinitely repeated circular course of all things—this doctrine of Zarathustra might in the end have been taught already by Heraclitus. At least the Stoics, who inherited almost all their principal ideas from Heraclitus, show traces of it”.
Nietzsche, for his part, did more than show traces of it, merely; it colored every aspect of his thought.
And, as is the case with all of his doctrines, that of the eternal recurrence is best explained in the author’s own words. In The Gay Science, written just before Zarathustra lighted upon the village square, Nietzsche asked the reader to imagine the following, arresting scenario:
“What, if some day or night, a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life, as you now live it, and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh…must return to you—all in the same succession and sequence. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over again and again—and you with it, speck of dust!’ Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god, and never have I heard anything more divine!’ if this thought were to gain possession of you, it would change you as you are, or perhaps crush you. The question in each and everything, ‘Do you want this once more, and innumerable times more?’ would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight”.
Indeed, ‘tis a weight beneath which, trembling with rachitic knees, the ordinary man will be not only reduced, but smashed. Shorn of the strength necessary for resistance, he’ll be utterly overcome by the prospect, and quickly rendered into powder. As for the superior man, the übermensch, he would feel in its weight no serious burden. Quite the contrary. For him, it would be a source of liberation, not oppression. He would feel nothing onerous about the demonic prospect by which, in the lonesome dead of night, he was suddenly confronted, but would see in it, rather, a chance to secure the everlasting affirmation of his current state. Instead of slinking away into the dark recess of a forgotten corner, he would gladly leap at the opportunity presented to him, and divinize that nameless demon by whom this great future was proposed.
The diffident and the weak, of whom, sadly, this world is mostly composed, would quietly endure their reduction into dust. They have no misconceptions of their wretched state—they know it to be wretched. Their hope, rather, is not for an improvement to their current lot, but for greater fortune in the life to come. As faithful Christians, they yearn for little else than admittance into heaven, that regal realm in which their long-rejected power will be finally restored (does not Scripture tell us that the meek and the poor will be blessed, and, having attained to so lofty a state, are bound to inherit both empyrean and earth?) The strong, on the other hand, will seize the chance in the here and now, if only to immortalize this strength. He’ll strive with all his might to extend himself into the future. Accustomed to success unaided by the fickle hand of God, he has no expectation of heavenly help; he is his own man, and is reliant on none. He trusts himself, and himself only, for the glorious redemption of a life after this.
It’s not difficult, at this point, to observe the glaring differences between Hegel’s notion of history, and that of Nietzsche. As noted, the former believed contemporary man to have reached his ultimate perfection. He believed in progress unabated, and a constant amelioration of the life of man. He believed that history was in a state of persistent development, and that it was clearly tending toward a positive end.
Nietzsche, on the contrary, was little impressed by the average men by whom, despite his retirement into the Alps, he was ever fated to be surrounded. History, in its production of great men, is often unpredictable, and always untimely; thus, does it merit our patience. But, lately, not only in Nietzsche’s, but in our own time, no such great men have come before us. We see not even their flickering silhouette against the distant horizon. Yes, we await their arrival—as does the pious Jew his Elijah, or the profane Vladimir his Godot—but our homes remained unvisited, and our expectations are daily spoiled.
In the meantime, Nietzsche asked himself how modern Germans could possibly compare themselves with the Athenian Greeks of old? The latter was a race of heroic, eloquent, wonderful men to whom all the gifts of genius seemed to have been bequeathed. What more remained to his vulgar countrymen? What had they to show for all their putative “culture”? How could nineteenth-century France, despite all its neo-classical conceits, compare itself with Renaissance Italy? The latter produced Medici, Michelangelo, Borgia, and Alberti. France had its David, Rome had its da Vinci. Between St. Peter’s and the Louvre, there was no contest.
Do the above examples not point to a certain diminution of brilliance, worsened by time? Do they not easily refute Hegel’s idea of infinite, unstoppable progress? Can we now, finally, disabuse ourselves of the notion that we’re moving ever closer to some superior state? Perhaps, contrary to Hegel’s encouraging doctrine, our zenith has long since passed. Perhaps, as it is, we’re rather at our ebb than our crest. Maybe, as Nietzsche believed, we’ve all just slipped into an age of decay out of which we’ll not soon climb.
Compared with Hegel, Nietzsche must be deemed the more nihilistic of the two. If all events in the world are bound eternally to recur, what aim could possibly be sought in living? After all, if we’re to accept this idea, we must swallow the bitter pill that there’s nothing unique about our life. In fact, the life we lead is not only unoriginal, but redundant, and is thus undeserving of any real distinction. What meaning is to be found in a cosmos whose destiny aspires to nothing more than simple, incessant repetition? Why would we participate in this interminably repetitive game? Should we not just opt out now, long before the tedium sets in?
In his posthumous work, The Will to Power, Nietzsche confessed his doctrine of eternal recurrence to be “the most extreme form of nihilism”. “Duration”, he added, “without aim and end, is the most paralyzing thought. Let us think this thought in its most terrible form: existence as it is, without sense and aim, but recurring inevitably without a finale of nothingness: ‘the eternal recurrence’”.
Excepting, perhaps, the Calvinistic guarantee of one’s placement in Hell, no proposition seems to be more unendurable than this. The doctrine of eternal recurrence has neither reprobate nor elect. It marks no distinction between sinful and saved. It takes humanity as a whole, and damns it, with a single stroke, to the toil of ceaseless repetition. One would sooner profess his faith in a rickety, ancient scripture, or commit his soul to a dubious text, than agree to this joyless and boring doctrine. One would pay any indulgence, endorse any bribe, recite any catechism, if only to avoid this colorless fate. For man, as we know him, isn’t quite ready to relinquish his last (if somewhat wild) eschatological hope, nor to abandon his every seraph-filled dream of Heaven.
CRITICISM AND CONCLUSION
Precisely how is one (a layman, no less) to conclude his assessment of Friedrich Nietzsche? He is, after all, the type of genius about whom one could go on writing indefinitely—from this very moment, till the end of the eternal recurrence to come. Were he to spill his ink for over a thousand years, and bang on his keyboard for a thousand more, the biographer wouldn’t even come close to exhausting his subject. He wouldn’t even scratch the surface of this unfathomable poet, whose depth remains, like some murky trench, forever dark and unexplored.
Sadly, for the task of comprehending so strange and provocative a thinker, and highlighting all of his obscurer parts, much more time, and far deeper insight, would be needed. The former is something to which, being that I’m a mortal trapped in time, I haven’t a claim; the latter is a gift with which I’ve not been blessed.
What I can do, however, is take a brief moment, hopefully joined by some superior wit, to reflect on the general message to which Nietzsche gave voice, to measure the impact of his theories as they strike the modern ear, to weigh them on the balance of ages both current and past, and, finally, to judge their influence as damnable, or benign.
In our age of democracy and egalitarianism, softness and effeminacy, victimhood and reparations, “trophies-for-all” and micro-aggressions, safe-spaces and cancellations, Christianity and decadence, envy and weakness, “wokeness” and spite, covetousness and fear, the taste of Nietzsche in the modern mouth is like that of an invigorating tonic. It’s like a stiff drink in the cold of winter, by which the body, grown numb, is revived, and the emasculated part, rendered limp, is raised. It’s like the strong brandy by which my dear grandfather used to warm his flagging spirits—of which he would make more than nightly use. It’s effervescent in a frightful, yet undeniable and sometimes delicious way. Your tongue will tingle after the smallest sip, and your body will yearn for another, and yet another, quaff.
But, one must take heed not to indulge to excess this philosophic elixir; it’s to be taken in a dram, not a draught. It’s prone to inebriate its user, and to leave him utterly insensitive to the sufferings of his fellow man. Misanthropy, then, is not an infrequent side-effect of its use. Under the influence of Nietzsche, one begins to value, above all, the extraordinary and handsome übermensch, while holding in disdain the unremarkable rest of mankind. The vulgar whole can, and probably should, be sacrificed to the mighty and distinguished part. The chaff should be tossed underfoot, and the tawny wheat consecrated in a chalice of gold.
In the opinion of Nietzsche, there’s nothing unnatural about this harsh, but ultimately healthy arrangement. Better a few noble, heroic individuals thrive, than a herd of ugly sheep deplete a country’s resources, and spoil an epoch’s spirit. Mind you, this isn’t hero-worship for its own sake, as though copied from the pages of the famed Scottish essayist, Thomas Carlyle, but an attempt to align the standards of society with the dictates of nature. Nothing, in the opinion of Nietzsche, could be more contrary to biology than democracy—a distorted ethic by which the great and strong are rendered condemnable and weak. No—it would be much more consistent with nature and, thus, much to our lasting benefit, if we were to stop pretending that we’re all the same, and equally endowed with intelligence, courage, and strength, and agree to exalt those who are inherently better.
As it pertains to nature, however, Nietzsche might’ve overlooked the unfortunate fact that She tends to regress toward mediocrity. Like that of the shrewd scientist Aristotle, Her predilection is not for extremes, but for a certain aurea mediocritas—a golden mean somewhere in the middle. There is, sadly, a certain, uninspiring average toward which She predictably lists. She prefers the rule, seldom the exception. Extraordinary individuals rarely outlive their species, and nature prefers a reproducible type.
But still, even if nature winces at the thought, can we not hope for the arrival of some aristocratic figures? Can we not wish for their reappearance onto a scene from which they’ve been all but banished? Can we not hope for the return of an Aeschylus or a Goethe to revive the degenerate stage? Can we not hope for an Achilles or an Alexander to restore the hardiness of which man’s feeble breast has been stripped? Can we not hope for a Beethoven or a Bach to enrapture us by, and overwhelm us with, the splendor of their music? Can we not hope for an Empedocles or a Heraclitus to reacquaint us with the profundity of thought? Can we not hope for a Michelangelo or a Phidias to restore us to the heights of aesthetic bliss?
In a world such as ours, in which the crippling doctrine of “equality” is everyday preached, and the innate desire for distinction is severely discouraged, such men are doomed never again to emerge. In short, men of genius face the bleak prospect of their own extinction. At least they would, if they haven’t already succumbed to this sad fate. In their place, we’ll be treated to the dross of the rabble: the pablum of “pop” music; the use of instruments downloaded, rather than tuned; the viral spread of mindless Tik-Tok videos; the endless production of Marvel sequels; the awful blight of modern art; the limp promises of craven politicians; and the empty moralizing of kneeling athletes. All the while, we’ll wish to be inspired by the advent of even one—yes, just one extraordinary man! Nietzsche gives us faith that such a person (shall we call him the übermensch?) is never far beyond the horizon. At least not as far as we think.
Deprive us of our heroes long enough; preach to us the overriding importance of equality; conceal from us its contrariness to nature; instill in our hearts the idea that democracy—a silly counting of noses—is the summum bonum toward which every “advanced” society ought to aim; and asperse every relic of our noble, aristocratic past, and people will strain their necks in search of the übermensch. People will go mad in their effort to find, or to become him. For in him, at least, dignity is unabashed, virility is no vice, greatness is possible, power is unsuppressed, and—most importantly—nature is affirmed.
In an age as decadent and democratic as ours, one can’t be blamed for occasionally slipping into a reverie, and thinking this way. Disaffected and tired of being told to hate himself, to feel shame for his race, to abjure his “privilege”, and to repent his ineradicable sin, it’s no wonder that the young person of today finds a delightful source of hardiness, manliness, encouragement, and strength in the powerful but dangerous message of Nietzsche. One can’t be surprised, then, to watch as he frequently returns to the fountain of the German professor, to this great vat of virility from which—depending on how much he thirsts—he delights in taking a sip or a gulp.
Yet there is one thing—important, perhaps, above all others—for which Nietzsche’s burly doctrine makes no room: that is love. This is Nietzsche’s fatal shortcoming, the sole deficit by which his whole philosophy is doomed. He’s intent on making no allowance for love and, as a consequence of his obduracy, his philosophy is rendered completely inhuman. Absent love, his theory is hardly recognizable to a species evolved to feel this deepest and greatest emotion. It speaks not to man’s warmest and broadest sentiment, that by which his heart is inflamed, and his limitless sympathy stretched. It speaks only to the callous and the cruel, but such men are, thankfully, of an uncommon type.
Where would we be, as a species, if not for our gentle tendencies toward altruism and affection? Where would we be, as a polity, if we never strayed from Thrasymachus’ doctrine of power—from the baleful, tired theory that “might makes right”? Prosperity for all, I think, would be an utter impossibility, and the “general welfare” would be a contradiction in terms. Without the spirit of love permeating our hearts, softening our ire, and elevating our affections, we would be reduced to the nightmarish scribblings of a Hobbesian treatise. Love—of one’s neighbor, of one’s elder, of one’s mother, child, and wife—is civilization’s first and last precondition. Without it, the heart would turn cold, and the citizen would turn savage. Mutual hostility, constant pain, and inescapable tyranny would be the awful result.
Perhaps Nietzsche excluded love from his philosophy because he never deeply felt it. Or, if on occasion he felt it, maybe it was never adequately requited. As he approached the hour at which he’d be dispossessed of his sanity, and cast, forevermore, into the care of his sister, he reflected on his love for Cosima Wagner. She was the illegitimate daughter of the great Franz Liszt, and the widow of his erstwhile friend. In letters to this urbane and sophisticated woman, so unlike those with whom he grew up, Nietzsche revealed his amorous feelings. He called her Ariadne—the comely Cretan princess by whom, by extension, the ghastly Minotaur was slain. In time, she became the wife of Dionysus—the vinous god with whom the teetotaler Nietzsche came to identify himself.
That is the myth. In reality, Nietzsche lost his faculty of thought before he could acquire Wagner (or Ariadne) as a wife. Before it could even be kindled, his little spark of love was extinguished. In January of 1889, the philosopher was living in Turin. One brisk day, while he was walking the city’s streets, an apoplectic fit overcame him. In a heap, he collapsed to the pavement. Passersby gathered to assist this anonymous, yet clearly afflicted man, and tried their very best to restore him to his feet. Their efforts were in vain. Nietzsche instead threw his arms around a horse who’d just suffered the embarrassment of a flogging.
One can only imagine the pathos of the scene by which this clear Italian day was interrupted: a philosopher—now shorn of his reason—gazing into two doleful, equine eyes. The most brilliant of all men on the one side, and, on the other, a beast regal beyond compare. Before them both, whether they knew it or not, a colorless future awaited.
To all present, it was clear that the trembling man, the fallen philosopher, was mentally deranged. He was sent first to a clinic at Basel, and then to an asylum at Jena. The diagnosis was syphilis, and the likelihood of a recovery was slim. So advanced was the disease, that the physicians could do nothing but palliate their Dionysian patient. A cure, at that time, was unthinkable (today, a simple dose of penicillin would suffice). And so, just like that, Nietzsche’s destiny was fixed.
From there, Nietzsche was transferred to the house of his sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, with whom he lived until his death a year later. She, a vehement anti-Semite woefully unversed in her brother’s system of thought, promptly assumed control of his estate.
It was, from that point on, badly mishandled. She cleansed of “impurities” any passage upon which the infant Nazi Party might frown. She concealed his disdain for “Germanomania”, and, more importantly, his aspiration to be a “good European”. Such adverse opinions were not to be entertained in a country rabidly proud of its history, and newly jealous of its culture. She colored his thinking, instead, with a nationalistic hue at which he would’ve cringed, and managed to depict him as something he was not. His tolerance, if not his fondness for the children of Israel, the persecuted race of the Jews, was immediately expurgated. No such affinity could corrupt his work. The justification for a continental genocide, after all, depended on men such as him castigating and blaming this wretched people.
The resulting, edited body of work appeased the ascendant, Jew-hating autocrats at Berlin. Along with Richard Wagner, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, and Arthur de Gobineau, they used Nietzsche to paint an intellectual sheen atop a pile of pseudo-scientific tripe. This version of Nietzsche also nicely conformed to Elisabeth’s own despicable views. One mustn’t forget, she was, until the time of his suicide, married to Bernhard Förster—one of the most ardent anti-Semites in all of Prussia. With a tendency to refer to the Jewish people as “parasites”, he gave birth to some of the canards upon which Adolf Hitler’s mature thinking was built. Thus, did Elisabeth succeed in tainting her brother’s reputation—an assault from it’s not yet recovered.
This, my humble essay, is no such effort to rehabilitate his damaged image. It’s an examination, merely, not a treatment. I come to Nietzsche as a lover of literature, not as a doctor of philosophy, nor an expert on morals. It’s an attempt to understand this inscrutable man and, perhaps, to find for him a category. But, alas, I know my effort to be in vain. Genius, such as his, abhors a genre, and an intellect so vast defies constraints. Let us, then, accept Nietzsche for what he is: prophet, poet, classicist, Romantic, philosopher, author, invalid, strongman, tyrant, philologist, psychologist, genius, and madman.
That which he is not?—boring. Perhaps this is the better metric by which to define so peculiar a man.