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Beware my Sister: Friedrich Nietzsche
Nietzsche is a rare philosopher. First, he is not concerned with establishing a system, and, indeed, warns his readers against systems with their tendencies to create false values and include hidden, unannounced errors. Second, he is actually a pleasure to read. One gains from reading him an aesthetic value not often found in the works of philosophers. Nietzsche as a writer dances, sings, and excoriates in a dervish performance to the individual, to exploration and demolition, and, ultimately, to the difficult path of self-creation.
Nietzsche knew there was a danger he would be misread, although he probably did not foresee his ultimate betrayal, the certainty of it and totality of it, as his writings in his final madness became the property of his Nazi-sympathizing sister, who in her life and her thought stood for all that he maintained a struggle against. In her hands, he became a Nazi philosopher, and so he remained in the minds of many for decades after World War II. Unfortunately, many who criticize Nietzsche as a racist, a proto-Nazi, and a fascist, rarely read his whole works, but rely on mixed and mangled quotations that make the most of his rather forceful images, especially those utilizing blood and violence. Much of Nietzsche's most forceful aphorisms and most quotable excerpts show him at play with images, as a poet plays with images, and it is a great mistake to read them as literal commands. Other key passages address problems of his day, and difficulties he encountered in a troubled personal life plagued by illness and failed attempts at healthy human contact; it is a mistake to make these statements stand for the whole of his thought as well. In fact, it is a mistake to make any one statement stand in place for the whole of Nietzsche's thought at all, for he was a man who retained for himself, proudly and misanthropically, the duty to change his mind, to remain in his thought perpetually moving, challenging, and demanding something more from himself and his readers.
Nietzsche knew he was misread. Readers in his own time did not understand him, and he saw little chance that careless readers in the future would do any better. He provides instructions on how to read him in several of his books, including the masterpiece of moral investigation, Beyond Good and Evil . His instructions do not make reading him easier, for he did not try to be easy on his audience; his audience, he thought, had it far too easy already, and this was part of their problem and of society's problem. In order to find out what truly has value, you must be willing to envision the world without it, torn down with a dead God in whose shadow humanity remains. Nietzsche envisioned it, and found that the behavior of men would not change in God's absence, for they lacked belief in His presence. If you examined Christian behavior and its effects, they did not match the aspirations and hosannahs of Christian convention and command. Instead, there were hypocrites and grand hypocrisies, a weakening of the best in man and a support structure for the worst, lies told and lies believed. None of it was very moral; none of it was very humane. In other words, Nietzsche saw a Christian world in which Christians behaved as if God was dead while simultaneously imposing severe penalties upon any who questioned the dogmas and rituals that displayed their belief in God's existence. Mankind was caught in a system of errors and there seemed no simple way out. Therefore, an honorable man could not remain in the system, but his path would be lonely and painful as he abandoned it, and was seen to abandon it by others in society. There was too much ego, too much pride and ease invested in the system for a rejection of it to be welcomed. The system was too weak to welcome critics.
Many like to discuss Nietzsche as an atheist. This is a pleasant view of him for his detractors and his supporters, for those who want to maintain the system, especially Christian morality, against his attacks, largely by ignoring the substance of those attacks, and for those who find it fun to adopt his heretical, iconoclastic stance against the system. The shocked and the shocking share the same simplification of the man and his position. It does not appear to me, after over a decade of reading and re-reading Nietzsche for the challenge he presents and the beauty of his prose, that he was an atheist. The death of God was a social fact. If God was alive, people would behave differently, they would think differently, they would be different; they were not, and so their claim to faith was false. God is killed by many things in Nietzsche, but most prominently and permanently by man himself. And the death of God as a social fact does not free man or the world of God: man remains in the shadow of this being, this morality, this social order, although he does not believe it, does not live it, and does all he can to avoid its challenges. Nietzsche in his heretical stance is more Christian than those he opposes, for it is only from his great respect for what Christianity should be, and might be without the hypocrisies and false systems of man, that he is forced to declare it dead.
In 1881, he wrote in Daybreak: thoughts on the prejudices of morality this: "Wherein we are all irrational .--We still draw the conclusions of judgments we consider false, of teachings in which we no longer believe--our feelings make us do it." Nietzsche was a great believer in the real presence of the irrational in the individual and in society. There were forces at work in the individual mind and in the social order that because they were irrational, because they resisted systematization and could not be categorically separated from other motives and forces, remained unspoken, unanalysed, and invisible. It was not the presence of the irrational that produced sickness in society, but the failure to recognize its presence, the failure to admit "I do this, and it is not reason that makes me, nor a command from without, but my feeling, my desire, the irrational in me". Society was most endangered, most deformed, by the irrational in a reasonable disguise, the irrational that could not be honestly and directly challenged because it remained hidden behind words, in a system, that could not admit to it. Individuals would be more fit for society, and society would be more fit for mankind, when the irrational was admitted, was discovered and examined, than either were with the irrational masked as reason and truth. Today, we are more comfortable with the reality of the irrational, with its social and psychological effects, than were men in Nietzsche's day, primarily through the continuing influence of Freud and Jung, but we are none of us so honest as Nietzsche thought it was necessary man and society should become. We recognize the other man's irrationality, but far too seldom do we realize our own, and we largely admit the irrational only as a negative force, as destructive, when irrationality may just as well result in a positive act. It is not in the nature of the irrational that its effects are known in its presence alone.
Again from Daybreak : "'What am I really doing ? And why am I doing it?'--that is the question of truth which is not taught in our present system of education and is consequently not asked". This question, if taught and asked, would force serious consideration of ethics, and a serious consideration of ethics reaches out to embrace the world, for as humans we do not exist in hermetic isolation, but in contact with one another, effecting one another, interacting with one another. Nietzsche's ethical question consists of two parts: 1) What am I doing--the reality of what I am doing, not the conventional description, the public phrase I have been taught to use in order to mask my intentions, but the act in itself, in all its reality? and, 2) why am I the one doing this--what of me is realized in the thing I do, what makes me suited to the deed, if indeed I am? Both lead through a close examination of the individual and the individual's motives, demanding and severe, to a better society, a society in which ethics may exist in action because action is an examined, considered thing, not a convenience or a habit. Nietzsche ultimately calls for those who are strong enough, who are capable of it, to live a demanding, severe, noble life of self-examination and challenge. His aristocrats of the spirit are not permitted the conventional lies others use, and which others may even need in order to survive and navigate the world. He is an elitist, supremely so, and this may cause those with more liberal attitudes regarding the distribution of human capacity throughout the population moments of difficulty and pause, but moments of difficulty are good for those who desire to think. Moments of difficulty and of disagreement force one to think things through, to examine what is accepted anew and discover its points of weakness as well as its strengths. Arguing with Nietzsche, always prone to a good argument himself, at least on paper, is exercise for the intellect.
Nietzsche is difficult, and he knows it. He is not always right, and he knows that, too. He did not wait to publish until he had a system in place, an architecture that would bind him to previous opinions and judgments for his writing life, as many thinkers do, so that their later works are either full of embarrassment over mistakes that they must now reveal and reject, or continue to make use of errors in the construction of ever more complex, unreal architectures of thought. Nietzsche was unashamedly self-contradicting, changeable, and demanding as an author. His great virtue is the invitation he extends to his readers to think for themselves, to evaluate, to experience, and to analyze. Of course, there are moments when his personal idiosyncrasies, notably his misogyny, are overwhelming, times when one must overcome the language of a bygone age, especially that of race and war, to expose his intended meaning, and times when his polemics escape his control. However, in this time, when we are again torn apart as a society by false categories and illusory differences, preached at from many sides on correct behavior and correct thought, I find Nietzsche delivers a powerful tonic.
Dealing with Nietzsche the thinker is always complicated by his mental disintegration. His collapse in Italy into an insanity from which he never recovered, which many attribute to syphilis, was preceded by a period of anxiety and failure. Nietzsche was never a success in his own lifetime, and as his health deteriorated, physically and mentally, his personal sense of security and his intellectual stamina failed as well. At what point in his writings is his madness clearly in command of faculties? When is he rational, and when he is not? These questions can only be answered by careful consideration of his work, not as interpreted by others, but as explored individually, with patience and attention. The tragedy of his final years, uncommunicative, trapped in the manipulation of his person and his words by a sister whose goals for Germany and for Europe were starkly and irreconcilably different from and opposed to his own, is a dread caution against those who would trust a writer's intimates, those who claim in the writer's absence to know him well and to carry his/her legacy, and ignore the products of the writer's own hand and mind. It was a singular betrayal. A man who used his reason, his mind and his will to fight illness, fear, and conformity, became in the hands of his sister a mute grotesque icon of all that he despised.