Humankind’s capacity to comprehend pales before its ability to misinterpret or misappropriate — and neither prophet nor philosopher is immune. For the latter, none can beat this lonely, tragic but most misunderstood philosopher, sought to be owned by both extremes of the political spectrum (and many others), but still going on to influence a large swathe of the cultural and intellectual history to our times.
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900), whose 172nd birthday would have been on Saturday, was arguably one of a trinity, along with Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, from a German-Central European cultural milieu who have shaped the world we live in — though whether for good or worse can be debated.
Though all had their share of grief in their life, Nietzsche was the worst sufferer — for unlike the others, his thought was also hijacked, and used to support the things he was most against — anti-Semitism, racism and nationalism. The most egregious culprits were the Nazis — due to the complicity of his own sister.
But on one hand, he outstripped the other two, for despite being unlucky in life and love, contradictory and provocative in thought but most accessible too (for a philosopher and that too a German philosopher), almost unknown in his time and spending his last decade as a mental wreck, he would prove more durable.
A key inspiration for existentialism, post-modernism, post-structuralism and deconstructionism, among others, Nietzsche would also go on to influence trends in art, literature, psychology, especially psychoanalysis, politics and popular culture.
A partial list of those who read him with interest or were influenced by him include philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Michel Foucault, Theodore Adorno and Ayn Rand; sociologist Max Weber; composers Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler; novelists Franz Kafka, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence; psychologists Freud (who was almost a disciple), Carl Gustav Jung, Alfred Adler and Abraham Maslow; poets Rainer Maria Rilke, W.B. Yeats, and Muhammad Iqbal; painters Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso; playwrights George Bernard Shaw and Eugene O’Neill, as well as authors like H.P. “Cthulhu mythos” Lovecraft, Robert E. “Conan the Barbarian” Howard, and Jack London. Among other readers were the Nazis (though it is not clear if Adolf Hitler actually read him) and Benito Mussolini; and Charles de Gaulle and Richard Nixon.
But what was his philosophy all about, and why is it important? It is because he posed important questions such as “Is God dead?”, if morality is just a “useful mistake”, can science explain anything, what education should be like and whether we should give primacy to instinct over reason, and why maintaining individuality is important.
In about two decades, Nietzsche produced a considerable amount of work, dealing with subjects like morality, aesthetics, tragedy, atheism and consciousness. Prominent motifs include the dichotomy (but not always) of the Apollonian and Dionysian influences and approaches to culture, the “master-slave morality”, how to live after the “death of God”, “Ubermensch” (usually translated as ‘Superman’ but more correctly “Over-Man”, and based on individual accomplishment, not racial descent as per the Nazis) and eternal recurrence, positing a cyclical view of the universe, existence and action.
A plus point is his easy, readable style, though being paradoxical, polemical and provocative, unlike the dense language and special vocabulary of the usual philosophy classics. Nietzsche had a particular fondness for the aphorism — the “soundbite of philosophy” — with some best-known examples being “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you”, and “What does not kill him, makes him stronger” (not “What does not kill me, makes me stronger”).
And he had not his qualms about his own capability. His ‘autobiography’ “Ecce Homo”, has sections titled “Why I am So Clever” and “Why I Write Such Wonderful Books”.
Though well-regarded on the continent, even despite the Nazi attempts to suborn him by selective use of his works, Nietzsche didn’t have an easy time in the English-speaking world. First, the translations were very bad, the attitude of those like Bertrand Russell was negative, the prevailing Analytical School had nothing much to do with his theories, and even P.G. Wodehouse was critical. “You would not enjoy Nietzsche, sir. He is fundamentally unsound,” Jeeves tells his master, Bertie Wooster, in “Carry On Jeeves”.
It was only due to the new translations of his works like “The Birth of Tragedy”, (the rather unfortunately ambiguously-named) “The Gay Science”, “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”, “Beyond Good and Evil”, and “Twilight of the Idols” by German-American philosopher Walter Arnold Kaufmann and Oxford scholar R.J. Hollingdale did the English world appreciate him.
Though Nietzsche is readable in the original — and worth reading — the best course will be to begin with a guide like Laurence Gane and (illustrator) Piero’s “Introducing Nietzsche: A Graphic Guide” or Michael Tanner’s “Nietzsche: A Very Short Introduction” in the admirable Oxford University Press Series.
(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)