March 17, 2005


REVIEW: of Friedrich Nietzsche by Curtis Cate Hutchinson (John Gray, New Statesman)

Nietzsche retains the power to enchant. While academic philosophy has retreated to the dim margins of the public culture, this all-too-human prophet of our disturbed modernity continues to fascinate a wide spectrum of thinkers and writers. They are not drawn to him by his excursions into metaphysics or the theory of knowledge. Rather, Nietzsche's troubled meditations on truth - he oscillated between denying that it could ever be known and seeing it as the destroyer of humanity's most cherished illusions - were not so much contributions to epistemology as records of his search for a viable alternative to Christian belief. Similarly, when Nietzsche disinterred the "genealogy of morality" his aim was not to come up with a theory of ethics. It was to consider what became of morality once its support in religion was taken away. He understood, fearlessly, that with the passing of Christianity both the authority and the content of morality were bound to change.

If Nietzsche remains inexhaustibly fascinating, it is because he embodies, in an extreme form, the dilemmas of religious thinkers in a post-Christian age. The son of a Lutheran clergyman, he abandoned a precociously brilliant but intellectually stifling career as professor of classical philology at the University of Basel for life as a nomadic outsider. Wandering Europe in search of respite from his chronic ill-health (he was probably syphilitic), the devout atheist acquired a reputation as a kind of saint among residents of the modest boarding houses through which he passed. It was a shrewd perception. Nietzsche spent his life searching for an alternative to Christianity; when he failed to find one, he felt compelled to invent a mythology of his own. The result was an absurd concoction - Zarathustra and the Superman, the Will to Power and the Eternal Recurrence - that bore all the marks of his Christian upbringing. Nietzsche's principal achievement as a thinker lies in his contributions to moral psychology, in which - developing the introspective method of French moralists such as La Rochefoucauld and Chamfort - he analysed and unmasked the Christian virtues, showing them to be sublimations of other, often "immoral" passions. Yet this incomparable psychologist had little insight into himself. He seems not to have grasped that the peculiar aura of sanctity he left behind him in his restless wanderings was the unmistakable trace of an unbelieving Christian in search of the God he had lost. [...]

Nietzsche's monkish peregrinations serve as a clue in interpreting this unworldly thinker. He seems to have come closest to happiness when he was alone. Though he needed friends, and attracted several who remained loyal to him throughout his breakdown and subsequent decline, few, if any, of Nietzsche's human contacts were successful from his point of view. His vaunted psychological acumen did not spare him a humiliatingly comic entanglement with Lou Salome, a sharp-witted and wilful young poetess who proposed a menage a trois with one of Nietzsche's closest friends, or enable him to see through the mystagogic poses adopted by Richard Wagner and his wife Cosima to the grubby reality of their unscrupulous careerism. An ardent admirer of Voltaire, whose lucidity of thought and unabashed cynicism regarding ordinary human nature he praised inordinately, Nietzsche saw himself as an heir to the Enlightenment, a partisan of reason whose task was to cut philosophy loose from its roots in religion. In fact, the passionate religiosity that runs through Nietzsche's writings shows him to be closer in spirit to Pascal, one of Voltaire's great betes noires. The mix of Enlightenment rationalism and despairing, God-haunted scepticism in him worked to destabilise an already fragile personality. In his relations with other human beings, Nietzsche resembled no one so much as Prince Myshkin, the holy fool portrayed in Dostoevsky's novel The Idiot.

Nothing so typifies atheism as the atheists' lack of insight into themselves. It's what makes them so amusing.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 17, 2005 12:55 PM

Somehow, I can't see 'Nietzsche' and 'enchanting' used in the same sentence.

And I doubt if Nietzsche saw himself as the heir of the Enlightenment. He wanted it all swept away. The street-sweeper, maybe, but not the heir. He wouldn't have considered it worth inheriting. But his writing did have a passionate religiosity, which most readers (e.g., atheists) miss.

Posted by: jim hamlen at March 17, 2005 1:51 PM

Nothing so typifies atheism as the atheists' lack of insight into themselves. It's what makes them so amusing.

I'm Harry Eager to meet you, too.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at March 17, 2005 2:24 PM


Posted by: ghostcat at March 17, 2005 7:37 PM