Who was Nietzsche?

Relativist, atheist, existentialist, Nazi. A Nietzsche expert separates über fact from über fiction

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Who was Nietzsche? (Credit: Flickr Creative Commons)
This interview first appeared in The Browser, as part of the FiveBooks series. Previous contributors include Paul Krugman, Woody Allen and Ian McEwan. For a daily selection of new article suggestions and FiveBooks interviews, check out The Browser or follow @TheBrowser on Twitter.

David Wolf: Nietzsche is one of your philosophical specialities. So how did you first become interested in him?

Brian Leiter: It was a very precise moment. Easter Sunday 1982. I think it’s deliciously ironic that it was Easter Sunday. As an undergraduate I was taking a course called “Kant to 1900” with Richard Rorty at Princeton University, and the course included a couple of weeks on Nietzsche. So on that Sunday I began reading the Nietzsche assignment – it was actually a very early essay that Nietzsche never published, called “On Truth and Lies in an Extra Moral Sense”. I was very taken by it and from that moment on I became very interested in Nietzsche.

What did you particularly like about him?

I had actually become interested in philosophy from reading Sartre as a high school student in French classes. The essay Rorty assigned starts on a very existentialist note – and of course the writing was very evocative. At this point I was reading it in English but Walter Kaufman’s strength as a translator is that he captures the flavour of Nietzsche in English. He’s not the most literal translator but he is the most evocative. So it was a combination of the proto-existentialist themes and the style of the writing that I found very gripping. And that sense never left me – I still always enjoying reading and re-reading Nietzsche.

We’re going to talk about five books you’d recommend for someone who’s interested but not an expert in Nietzsche. You’ve chosen a mixture of primary and secondary material. Would you say it’s best for readers to begin with the modern academic texts or should they go straight to Nietzsche first?

I think it’s a question of whether they’ve had any exposure to philosophy. If somebody has not had much exposure to philosophy, then it might be best to start with the Safranski biography before going to the primary texts. The primary texts are certainly more fun and if you were to start with one of them, then Beyond Good and Evil would be a great choice, because it covers all the distinctive and important Nietzschean themes and as it’s broken into bite-size pieces you don’t get overwhelmed. But if you wanted someone to patiently introduce you then Safranski is good on that score.

It seems like Nietzsche is one of the few philosophers whom lots of people who have never studied philosophy still enjoy reading. Why do you think he’s so appealing in this way?



I think the most important reason to start with is that he’s a great writer, and that is not the norm in philosophy. He’s a great stylist, he’s funny, he’s interesting, he’s a bit wicked, he’s rude. And he touches on almost every aspect of human life and he has something to say about it that’s usually somewhat provocative and intriguing. I think that’s the crucial reason why Nietzsche is so popular. Indeed, he’s probably more popular outside academic philosophy because he’s so hostile to the main traditions in Western philosophy.

Do you think people who haven’t studied philosophy can get quite a lot out of him? You might not really enjoy Spinoza’s Ethics, for instance, if you just picked it up randomly in a bookshop or in the library. Would you say that’s the case with Nieztsche?

I think people without that philosophical background do miss quite a lot – because a lot of what is going on in Nietzsche is reaction to and sometimes implicit dialogue with earlier philosophers. If you don’t know any Kant or Plato or the pre-Socratics, you’re not going to understand a lot of what’s motivating Nietzsche, what he’s reacting against. You get a much richer appreciation of Nietzsche if you are reading him against the background of certain parts of the history of philosophy.

Nietzsche himself was not trained in philosophy, he was trained in classics. But that included a great deal of study of ancient Greek philosophy. And then he taught himself a lot of other philosophy. Kant and Schopenhauer were particularly important to him.

Are there any non-philosophers who have influenced the way you think about Nietzsche?

I think what Thomas Mann wrote about Nietzsche, both directly and indirectly in The Magic Mountain, is very instructive. I think that’s also true of Herman Hesse and André Gide. I think people like Sartre and Camus believe Nietzsche is more of a proto-existentialist than he really is, although that wasn’t my view when I first encountered him in 1982.

Let’s start with the Safranski book, Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography. There are absolutely loads of biographies of Nietzsche. Why did you go with this one in particular?

I think the virtue of this book is that it has a detailed and readable narrative of the life, but it combines it with an introduction to the philosophical works, which is written at a very appropriate level for the beginner. That’s the main reason I picked the Safranski.

The standard German biography of Nietzsche, by this guy Curt Paul Janz, is a three-volume tome that is exhaustive but it’s also exhausting. It’s a very good resource for scholars but not a delightful book for beginners.

There’s a famous quote in Beyond Good and Evil where Nietzsche says that despite philosophers’ claims about arguing rationally and aiming to find objective truth, all philosophy has really been a form of unconscious and involuntary autobiography. How do you think Nietzsche’s own life informs his philosophy, if at all?

The influences of Nietzsche’s own life on the philosophy are very dramatic. Some of them have to do with the intellectual biography, of course – what he studied, what he read et cetera. But I think probably the crucial fact about Nietzsche’s life is that when he writes about suffering he’s not a tourist. He’s writing about something he knows very intimately. He understands from his own experience the effect of suffering on the mind, on creativity and on one’s attitude to life generally. And if there’s a central question in Nietzsche it’s the one he takes over from Schopenhauer – namely, how is it possible to justify life in the face of inevitable suffering? Schopenhauer comes up with a negative answer. He endorses something like a stereotype of the Buddhist view: The best thing would not to be born, but if you’re born the next best thing would be to die quickly. Nietzsche wants to repudiate that answer – partly through bringing about a re-evaluation of suffering and its significance.

Could you give a sense of the suffering Nietzsche experienced and why his life was so difficult?

He was the proverbial frail and sickly child. But the real trouble started in his early 30s, the 1870s, when he started to develop gradually more and more physical maladies – things that looked like migraines, with nausea, dizziness, and he would be bedridden. It got so severe that he had to retire from his teaching position at the age of 35. So he spent the remainder of his sane life, until his mental collapse in 1889, basically as an invalid travelling between different inns and hotels in and around Italy, Switzerland and southern France, trying to find a good climate, often writing, often walking when his health permitted, but often bedridden with excruciating headaches, vomiting, insomnia. He was trying every self-medication device of the late 19th century. He had a pretty miserable physical existence. His eyesight also started to fail him during this time. Through all this he usually managed to continue to write and read, despite these ailments. So he really knew what suffering was.

In retrospect, there’s reasonably good evidence that he had probably at some point contracted syphilis and that the developing infection might have been responsible for these maladies. Though his father had also died at an early age, so there may have been some familial genetic component as well.

Safranski himself is German, whereas the other two secondary texts you recommend are by American scholars. Is there a difference between the view of Nietzsche in German scholarship and in Anglo-American scholarship at present?

My honest opinion is that, in general, I don’t think the German secondary literature on Nietzsche is as good as the English. This is partly due to different styles of philosophy, and partly due to the enormous, and I think unfortunate, influence in Germany of Heidegger’s lectures on Nietzsche. I think even people who are fans of Heidegger – I’m not – would admit that Heidegger’s Nietzsche is more about Heidegger than Nietzsche!

What would be the next book to read if you’ve just finished the Safranski?

I think the one to go for would be the Clark – Nietzsche on Truth and Philosophy.

Given the title, does this book focus on Nietzsche’s epistemology or is it more of a general overview?

The first half of the book is primarily about truth and knowledge, matters of metaphysics and epistemology. The book appeared in 1990 and it was a very significant work. It was very unusual because, first of all, it treated Nietzsche as a philosopher. I know that sounds a funny thing to say, but an awful lot of books on Nietzsche are full of quotations and paraphrase – they don’t really engage dialectically and argumentatively with what Nietzsche has to say.

What Clark did, through systematic examination of Nietzsche’s views about truth and knowledge from the early essays through to his final works, was to try to show that Nietzsche’s view of truth and knowledge evolved over time, that it changed in significant ways.

Often Nietzsche is, perhaps wrongly, associated with a postmodern rejection of objective truth. I presume that’s not what this book argues…

That is Clark’s target in this book – the idea that Nietzsche is the guy who thinks there’s no such thing as truth and that there’s no such thing as knowledge, that every view is as good as every other view. She suggests that there may have been an aspect of the postmodernist view of truth in Nietzsche’s early work, but that he gradually came to abandon that view once he came to abandon the intelligibility of the old Kantian distinction between the way things appear to us versus the way things really are in themselves. There are a lot of difficult philosophical issues here, but that’s the crux of the story she’s trying to tell in the first part of the book.

In the second part of the book Clark does take up many of the famous themes from Nietzsche: The will to power, eternal recurrence, the ascetic ideal, and so on. And she has very interesting expository chapters on each of these. Her account of the will to power makes a very good contrast to Richardson’s (in my next book choice). She argues that we should understand the will to power as a kind of psychological hypothesis about human motivation, rather than, as Heidegger took it, a metaphysical doctrine about the essence of reality.

As you mentioned the contrast between Clark and Richardson, let’s move on to the next book, Nietzsche’s System. First off, am I right in thinking that that title is rather controversial, given that Nietzsche is often seen as an anti-systematic philosopher?

The title is meant to be provocative, but Richardson’s central claim is that there is a kind of thematic coherence to all of Nietzsche’s work, and this coherence derives in part from the doctrine of the will to power.

Let’s just explain exactly what the will to power is for those not familiar with it.

Well, this question of definition is part of the Clark-Richardson debate. The Clark side is that what Nietzsche means by the will to power is that people are often motivated to act because the action will give them a feeling of power. But Richardson’s view is closer to Heidegger’s, although he makes a more compelling and sophisticated case for it.

Richardson’s view of Nietzsche’s doctrine of the will to power is this: Every person is made up of a bundle of “drives” – sex drive, hunger drive, drive for knowledge, and so on. Every drive, according to Richardson’s reading of Nietzsche, is characterised by the will to power. Every drive has a tendency to want to enlist every other drive in its service. So if the sex drive is dominant in a person – think Hugh Hefner – then the sex drive tries to get every other drive enlisted in helping satisfy it. So knowledge or food would only be of interest to the extent that they facilitate gratification of the sex drive, and so on.

Out of this basic picture of human psychology and the metaphysics of drives and their essential nature as will to power, Richardson thinks you can take this theme and see how it figures in everything else Nietzsche writes, whether it’s about truth, knowledge, morality and so on. In that sense he tells a very systematic story about Nietzsche’s thought.

If you side more with Clark in the debate, what made you decide to recommend Richardson’s book?

First of all, I think it’s a very well done and compelling interpretation. What’s particularly interesting is that Richardson, who is also a well-known Heidegger scholar, takes up a theme that was important to Heidegger’s reading of Nietzsche – the view that Nietzsche is the final point in the history of Western metaphysics. First there was Plato and at the very end was Nietzsche, and Nietzsche’s metaphysical doctrine is that everything is will to power. Richardson takes up that idea but gives it a very refined and nuanced elaboration that makes it much more plausible than it ever was in Heidegger.

The other thing Richardson does is to take up Gilles Deleuze’s interpretation of Nietzsche but, as with Richardson’s work on Heidegger, he again tells a more lucid story than Deleuze does. So Richardson gives you an angle into some of the dominant strands of European interpretations of Nietzsche, but he does so in a more philosophically interesting and certainly more accessible way. He’s a very clear and systematic writer.

Let’s move on to the primary texts. You mentioned that Beyond Good and Evil is a good one to dip into for people who are new to Nietzsche, because it provides a good overview to his thoughts…

Yes, I think that’s right. It touches on almost all Nietzsche’s central concerns – on truth, on the nature of philosophy, on morality, on what’s wrong with morality, will to power.

The first thing you notice when you open the book is the layout and the way it’s written, which is striking, especially if you come to it having read modern philosophy essays and that kind of thing. Why does Nietzsche write in such an unusual, more aphoristic style?

The explanation really comes in the first chapter of the book where Nietzsche tells us that the great philosophers are basically fakers when they tell you that they arrived at their views because there were good rational arguments in support of them. That’s nonsense, says Nietzsche. Great philosophers, he thinks, are driven by a particular moral or ethical vision. Their philosophy is really a post-hoc rationalisation for the values they want to promote. And then he says that the values they want to promote are to be explained psychologically, in terms of the type of person that that philosopher is.

The relevance of this is that if this were your view of the rational argumentation of philosophers, it would be quite bizarre to write a traditional book of philosophy giving a set of arguments in support of your view. Because in Nietzsche’s view consciousness and reasoning are fairly superficial aspects of human beings. What really gets us to change our views about things are the non-rational, emotional, affective aspects of our psyche. One of the reasons he writes aphoristically and so provocatively – and this, of course, is why he’s the teenager’s favourite philosopher – is connected to his view of the human psyche. He has to arouse the passions and feelings and emotions of his readers if he’s actually going to transform their views. There’d be no point in giving them a systematic set of arguments like in Spinoza’s Ethics – in fact he ridicules the ‘geometric form’ of Spinoza’s Ethics in the first chapter of Beyond Good and Evil.

Do you have a particular favourite passage from Beyond Good and Evil that exemplifies Nietzsche’s direct and provocative approach?

For funny wickedness I do like Section 11, on Kant’s philosophy. It’s hysterically funny – if you’re familiar with Kant’s philosophy, that is. It’s not a late-night TV concept of hysterically funny!

You mentioned that Nietzsche is fascinated by psychology. Do you think if he were around today he would be hanging around the psychology department, rather than the philosophy department?

Maybe not the psychology department in its current form! But he would be interested in psychological research. There are a number of themes in contemporary empirical psychology that are essentially Nietzschean themes. There is a large literature suggesting that our experience of free will is largely illusory, that we often think we’re doing things freely when in fact we’re not, that our actions have sources that lie in the pre-conscious and unconscious aspects of ourselves and then we wrongly think we’re acting freely. These are themes familiar to anyone who’s read Nietzsche and it’s striking that recent empirical work is largely coming down on Nietzsche’s side on these questions.

Would it be right to say Nietzsche was a big influence on Freud as well?

Freud claims to have stopped reading Nietzsche at a certain point – perhaps he thought Nietzsche anticipated his own views to an uncomfortable extent. But they share a very similar picture of the human mind, in which the unconscious aspect of the mind, and in particular the affective, emotional, non-rational part of the mind, plays a decisive role in explaining many of our beliefs, actions and values. Freud came up with a more distinctive and precise account of the structure of the unconscious, but the general picture is very similar.

The second essay of Nietzsche’s Genealogy argues that – and this is a crude summary – guilt arose in human beings as a consequence of the internalisation of cruelty. When human beings entered into civilised intercourse they had to repress their cruel instincts, but since the instinct of cruelty is central to human beings that instinct had to be discharged elsewhere and became, gradually, guilt. So guilt is cruelty to ourselves. That’s basically Freud’s story in Civilisation and its Discontents.

Let’s talk about On the Genealogy of Morality, then. Is it fair to say that this is often seen, nowadays, as Nietzsche’s masterpiece?

I don’t know I would single it out as the masterpiece, but it’s a fascinating book which follows on many of the themes of Beyond Good and Evil. It’s unusual because it’s less aphoristic, but rather three essays. The essays have more structure and extended argumentation than is typical in most of Nietzsche’s works.

The book deals with the two absolutely central questions for Nietzsche, namely what’s wrong with our morality and the problem of suffering. It tells an extremely provocative story about each of these and in the third essay it even connects up with Nietzsche’s interest in questions about the nature of truth and why we value truth. In that sense it really is a mature work, bringing together reflections on topics that span the prior decade.

Why did you decide to recommend different translators for these two Nietzsche books?

Clark and Swensen, I think, have the best English translation of the Genealogy but it’s the only work they translated. If they had ever translated Beyond Good and Evil I might have recommended that. They are more literal than Kaufman, who does take liberties at times with the German. That often has a virtue – you get more of a sense of Nietzsche in Kaufman’s English than anyone else’s English, but sometimes for a philosophically-minded reader it can elide certain important distinctions. Clark is a philosopher, Swensen is a German-language scholar, and so they bring two good skill sets to the translation. Swensen has a good feel for the German and Clark is very sensitive to what is philosophically important in the German and not losing that in translation.

The other thing that is very nice about their edition is that it has very detailed notes. The Genealogy is sort of notorious because it has no footnotes. It makes all kinds of historical claims, etymological claims et cetera, but there are no footnotes because that’s not how Nietzsche does things. But in point of fact he had scholarly sources in mind on almost every one of these issues, and Clark and Swensen compiled them. So they supply the underlying scholarly apparatus for the kind of claims Nietzsche is making, which makes this a very useful text.

The book obviously focuses on morality. Do you think there’s been a shift in the way scholars have seen Nietzsche’s view of morality over the past 60 or 70 years?

I do think there’s been a significant change and I think there’s a simple explanation for it. Nietzsche’s association with the Nazis didn’t exactly help his reputation. For people like Walter Kaufman, who wrote an influential book about Nietzsche after the war, his Nietzsche is a pleasant, secular liberal. He’s a nice guy who believes in self-development – he’s not a scary Nazi! With Heidegger, we see Nietzsche as a metaphysician with a grand picture of the essence of reality as will to power, and the moral/political side of Nietzsche’s thought gets pushed aside. For the French deconstructionists, Nietzsche’s a guy who tells us that no text has a stable meaning and there’s no truth and so on. All these readings pull us away from Nietzsche’s core evaluative concerns, and I think over the last 20 years those concerns have come back to centre stage.

I think it’s always worth saying that Nietzsche was no Nazi. To start with, he hated Germans. This created a lot of problems for the Nazis. They had to edit the texts quite selectively because he hated German nationalists, he hated anti-semites, he hated militarists. He wouldn’t have fitted in too easily at Nuremberg! On the other hand, it is absolutely true that Nietzsche has quite shocking views about traditional Christian morality. Kaufman whitewashed this 50 years ago, but I think it’s less common to do so now. Nietzsche is deeply illiberal. He does not believe in the equal worth of every person. Nietzsche thinks there are higher human beings. His favourite three examples are Goethe, Beethoven and Nietzsche himself. And that higher human beings, through their creative genius, can actually make life worth living – that Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is enough to justify all the suffering the world includes. Again this is a crude summary but there is this aspect of Nietzsche. At the heart of his critique of morality is that he thinks creative geniuses like Beethoven, had they really taken morality seriously, wouldn’t have been creative geniuses. Because to really take morality seriously is to take your altruistic obligations seriously – to help others, to weigh and consider the interests of others et cetera. You can read any biography of Beethoven and see that that wasn’t how he lived! He was single-mindedly focused on his creative work and that’s what Nietzsche means by severe self-love.

Given that Nietzsche has a profoundly illiberal view of morality, what does he have to say to us now – if, that is, you’re keen to come at morality from, loosely speaking, a liberal and democratic point of view?

Even if you’re not as illiberal as Nietzsche, you might be worried if Nietzsche’s right that certain kinds of traditional moral values are incompatible with the existence of people like Beethoven. That’s the strong psychological claim he makes – that you can’t really be a creative genius like Beethoven and take morality seriously. I think even good old democratic egalitarian liberals could worry a bit about that, if it were true. It’s a very striking and pessimistic challenge, because the liberal post-Enlightenment vision is that we can have our liberal democratic egalitarian ethos and everyone will be able to flourish. Nietzsche thinks there’s a profound tension between the values that traditional morality holds up and the conditions necessary for creative genius.

So that challenge is interesting in its own right, even if you wouldn’t want to side with Nietzsche, who’s ready to sacrifice the herd of humanity for the sake of a Goethe or a Beethoven. And then there are all these aspects of Nietzsche that don’t really depend for their importance on his ultimate evaluative judgement. There’s Nietzsche’s picture of the human mind, there’s his attack on traditional philosophy, his attack on free will and moral responsibility. All of these themes are interesting and challenging, and resonate with themes in contemporary philosophy – even if you don’t have the same illiberal affect that Nietzsche has. And of course most readers don’t. That’s why there’s been a lot of whitewashing of Nietzsche in the secondary literature. It’s a bit shocking. It certainly took me a while to come to terms with the fact that this is really what Nietzsche believes, that the illiberal attitudes and the elitism was really central to the way he looked at things. The suffering of mankind at large was not a significant ethical concern in his view, it was largely a matter of indifference – in fact it was to be welcomed because there’s nothing better than a good dose of suffering to get the creative juices flowing.

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