Virgin Philosphers: Nietzsche (Virgin Philosophers) Paperback – 4 Apr 2002
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About the Author
Paul Strathern is a professional writer, a former Somerset Maugham prize winner and author of five novels, as well as biographies and travel books. As a university lecturer, he taught philosophy, but also mathematics and modern Italian poetry. He is the author of the critically acclaimed Mendeleyev's Dream: The Quest for the Elements and the forthcoming Dr Strangelove's Game (both Hamish Hamilton)
Top customer reviews
As Nietzsche wrote in aphorisms and lacked methodology he did not provide a system of philosophy but a mass of contradictions which has resulted in a variety of contradictory interpretations of his work. Nonetheless there are four fundamental ideas which are discernible in his ideas. The first is 'The Will to Power' which Nietzsche developed from the ideas of Schopenhauer and the ancient Greeks. The former 'had adopted the oriental idea that the universe was driven by a vast blind will'. Nietzsche applied this to human terms, concluding that the driving force of Greek civilisation was driven by the search for power. Humanity was driven by a Will to Power. This idea led Nietzsche to argue that Christianity was opposed to what he regarded as the natural order of things by preaching humility, brotherly love and compassion. For him Christianity was a religion born out of slavery in the Roman era and had never lost its slave mentality.
However, Nietzsche failed to answer the main objections to the Will to Power. How could actions that appeared not to follow the Will to Power be explained other than as degenerate or perverted? Nietzsche admired Spinoza, an ascetic philosopher, whose work was exercising his Will to Power on himself with searching for power in itself, thus making the concept meaningless. Secondly, the idea of the Will to Power was circular. 'if our attempt to understand the universe was inspired by the Will to Power, surely the concept of the Will to Power was inspired by Nietzsche's attempt to understand the universe. Finally, the idea that power is the motive, rather like fame is the spur, is negated by the changing nature of the concept.
Nietzsche's second idea was that of eternal recurrence. "According to Nietzsche, we should act as if the life we are living will go on recurring forever. Each moment we have lived through we will have to relive again and again". In effect the cosmos has no inherent meaning. It repeats itself in recurring cycles and, although it is essentially a metaphysical moral tale, Nietzsche treated it as if it were fact which provided the 'formula for the greatness of a human being'. Such beings were few and far between but, naturally, included Nietzsche himself!! The romantic stress on the importance of living our lives to the full may be attractive but as a philosophical or moral idea it is essentially superficial and, in practical terms, meaningless.
The translation of the Will to Power was through the activities of the superman. Nietzsche's superman was Zarathustra whose behaviour exhibited dangerous psychotic tendencies. It is a childishly simple parable with a clear message. 'Nietzsche preaches nothing less than the overthrow of Christian values: each individual must take absolute responsibility for his own actions in a godless world. He must make his own values in unfettered freedom. There is no sanction, divine or otherwise, for his actions. Nietzsche foresaw this as the twentieth-century condition.' The consequences of his ideas were disastrous for humanity.
German based attacks on Christianity were fashionable in the nineteenth century with concomitant projections of materialism, atheism, cultural decline and scientific 'progress'. While it appears Nietzsche is questioning existing concepts of objectivity and truth in fact he wants to deconstruct Christian morality as part of his desire to replace the historical figure of Jesus Christ with the mythical Dionysus. Contrary to his claims of opposition to religion Nietzsche wanted to establish his own atheistic religion in which he would be a deity himself. He needed to rid himself of Christianity in order to establish the nihilism that was integral to his philosophy of the death of metaphysics expressed as 'God is Dead' by which he also proclaimed the death of Christianity and the triumph of his own reconstructed religion.
Although some consider Nietzsche's philosophy still requires full analysis he remains not so much esoteric as eccentric. It did not help Nietzche's reputation that his sister and her anti-Semitic husband emigrated to Paraguay to establish Nueva Germania, even though Nietzsche thought the idea was ludicrous. She also popularised his works after his death inserting anti-Semitic elements and associating with the Nazi regime. Ironically, many prominent Zionists were admirers of his philosophy. His influence was strongest in the literary and artistic worlds while philosophers endorsed his secular outlook. Although he received selective endorsement from the Nazis (Christianity received similar treatment) it is still a matter of dispute as to whether he expounded a political philosophy. In general terms he was concerned with the individual, the great men (which included himself), not society as a whole.
Strathern suggests, 'Nietzsche philosophised on the hoof' although while his work appears unsystematic 'his ideas are coherent and closely argued'. He was self-obsessed and lacked social interaction, his psychological insights coming from Wagner described as 'a megalomaniac composer'. His isolation was reinforced when he caught syphilis and shunned social life generally and women in particular. Strathern's brief but comprehensive coverage deserves five stars. Nietzsche's philosophy deserves one.
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Strathern has great appreciation for Nietzsche's incredible literary brilliance and psychological perceptiveness. He also notes rightly that in splitting with Wagner, in refusing to sanction the kind of racist anti- Semitism which both Wagner and his own sister preached, Nietzsche showed decency and courage.
Another point. Strathern writes about Nietzsche as a readable and interesting philosopher, one who saw system- building as impossible, and yet one whose work has a coherence. I myself believe that there is little of Nietzsche's ' philosophy' that is of enduring value and meaning, but that his writing as a whole is a brilliant literary and philosophical creation in which there is much insight into both the soul and culture. Suffering, syphilitic Nietzsche gave us ' the thought of suicide has gotten me through many a rough night' He also gave us the infamous remark about God's no longer being with us, one which in our time with a worldwide return to and revival of religion seems as Mark Twain said about the announcement of his own death ' slightly premature'.
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