Nietzsche Reconsidered

January 14, 2012

Readers of this blog know that I have been hard on Nietzsche.  Maybe I’ve been too hard on him because of the nutty followers he attracts – but that’s not his fault.  Through the prompting of a young philosophy grad, I have been reading through The Gay Science in a ‘modernized’ edition of an old public domain translation (T. Common & B. Chapko) available on the Kindle, and I’ve found much to like.

Well, I am preoccupied with problems of knowledge and the mind-body relationship, and Nietzsche is not, but he does address many over-arching concerns of philosophy; philosophy in the general sense of a discipline that asks, “How shall we live?” or “How do we reconcile ourselves to the world as it is?” quite well.  In many ways, he is similar to what Huxley called The Perennial Philosophy, the ideas found in Zen Buddhism as well as the Twelve Steps of AA.

Step One:  I am powerless over…  Grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change…

I want more and more to perceive the necessary characters in things as the beautiful… I do not want to accuse the accusers.  Looking aside, let that be my sole negation.  …I wish to be at any time hereafter only a yes-sayer!

Poor guy, Fred!  He lived at a time when the most stupid, racist, self-serving, and morally smug notions were trumpeted as eternal truths from the press (You vomit your bile, and call it a newspaper! – Zarathustra) and in which bald-faced lies were presented by pillars of culture as true.  Not so different from today.  In addition, a ‘muscular Christianity’ was the excuse for all sorts of international brutality and oppression over less technologically developed cultures.  Perhaps all his talk of war and battle is his metaphor for moral struggle, similar to the Islamic take on jihad, or perhaps he is ironically tweaking his contemporaries for their preoccupation with tin-horn glory, the military ‘virtues,’ and their genocidal violence – the Philosopher vs. Teddy Roosevelt.  Worth considering.

His writing shows a keen understanding of science, and of Darwinism in particular.  In his desire to embrace the whole person, intellect and instinct – he recognizes that instinct lives on, and is not eclipsed by culture – he denounces those who condemn the ‘natural’ in man.  It’s easy to take this as a romantic and irrational rebellion against the materialism and moral dogmatism of the 19th century, but he is more subtle than that.  He sees man as a unique element in nature, part of nature, but ‘existentially’ different, because aware of nature.  A difficult concept to navigate:

Let us beware against thinking that the world is a living being.  How could it extend itself?  What could it nourish itself with?  How could it grow and increase?  … Let us now beware against believing that the universe is a machine:  it is assuredly not constructed with a view to one end.

Beware New Age Gaians!  Beware vulgar mechanists!  Beware creationist teologists!

Nor is he too bad when he considers technical issues dear to my heart, such as the usefulness of assessing the nature of knowledge from a historical and Darwinian point of view, rather than a contemplative, Cartesian one:

Throughout immense stretches of time, the intellect produced nothing bu errors:  some them proved to be useful and preservative of the species:  he who fell in with them, or inherited them, waged the battle for himself and his offspring with better success.  … Those erroneous articles of faith which were successful were transmitted by inheritance and  which have all become almost the property of and stock of the human species, are, for example the following:  that there are enduring things; that there are equal things; that there are things, substances and bodies; and that at thing is what it appears to be; that our will is free; and that what is good for me is also good absolutely.

Necessary notions for the fledgling hominids.  Philosophers are not known for their rough and ready survival skills.  Logic, too, evolved from this basis, so what is its status as an ultimate truth?  And why seek for the analytic justification of it?  (Ernest Mach addressed similar questions about the fundamentals of scientific investigation.)  And this, on the ultimate epistemological notion:

Cause and effect:  there is probably never any such duality; in fact there is a continuum before us from which we isolate a few portions:  just as we always observe a motion in isolated points, and therefore do not properly see it but infer it.  … An intellect which could see cause and effect as a continuum , which could see the flux of events not according to our mode of perception, as things arbitrarily separated and broken – would throw aside the conception of cause and effect, and would deny all conditionality.

There is energy, and minds, such as they are, divide it into quanta which ‘we’ take for reality.  And the success of this strategy is the evolution of organisms with minds like ours.  But our minds are limited:

Sometimes I wonder if all these questions aren’t just a problem of scale.  As the scale of things changes, some things disappear.  As we walk around, we are not aware of quantum effects at the sub-atomic level; we aren’t even aware of molecules…  What if the same sort of effects relate to time – what would that do to our notion of causality and determinism?  As we ‘zoom’ our time-scale out to the enormous, everything would appear to be happening at more or less the same time … [from Free Will and All That]

Nietzsche, my brother?

Poor Nietzsche…

January 12, 2011
What would Raskolnikov do?

The guy can’t catch a break.  He gets associated with all sorts of difficult types.  First, Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, then the Nazis, a colorblind silent adolescent in Little Miss Sunshine, and now, the Tuscon shooter:

The new details from Mr. Gutierrez about Mr. Loughner — including his philosophy of anarchy and his expertise with a handgun, suggest that the earliest signs of behavior that may have ultimately led to the attacks started several years ago.

Mr. Gutierrez said his friend had become obsessed with the meaning of dreams and their importance. He talked about reading Friedrich Nietzsche’s book “The Will To Power” …

from the New York Times   

Open Heart Surgery

November 24, 2010

The Maximes et Réflexions morales (1664) of François de La Rochefoucauld is a collection of witty, cutting, cynical, funny, brutally honest, depressing, and occasionally comforting dissections of the human heart and spirit.  They are of a type of literature for which the French are known, and the tradition of which they are a part is still alive among the elite of modern France.  Consider the quotation from Claude Chabrol in his recent obituary from the NYTimes.  Nietzsche and Oscar Wilde also come to mind.

Here are a few favorites, not in their original order, from my recent dip into the text:

L’hypocrisie est un hommage que le vice rend à la vertu.
Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.

La philosophie triomphe aisément des maux passés et des maux à venir. Mais les maux présents triomphent d’elle.
Philosophy triumps easily over past misfortunes and those to come.  But present ones triumph over it.

Les vieillards aiment à donner de bons préceptes, pour se consoler de n’être plus en état de donner de mauvais exemples.
Old people love to give good advice to console themselves for not being in a state to set a bad example.

C’est une espèce de coquetterie de faire remarquer qu’on n’en fait jamais.
It is a way of flirting to claim that one never flirts.

Les vertus se perdent dans l’intérêt, comme les fleuves se perdent dans la mer.
Virtues lose themselves in self-interest as rivers lose themselves in the sea.

Quand les vices nous quittent, nous nous flattons de la créance que c’est nous qui les quittons.
When our vices quit us, we flatter ourselves by believing that we have quit them.

Comme c’est le caractère des grands esprits de faire entendre en peu de paroles beaucoup de choses, les petits esprits au contraire ont le don de beaucoup parler, et de ne rien dire.
Great characters can say much with few words, while on the contrary, petty characters talk a great deal and say nothing.

Le désir de paraître habile empêche souvent de le devenir.
The desire to appear clever often presents us from being so.

La vertu n’irait pas si loin si la vanité ne lui tenait compagnie.
Virtue would never get so far if vanity did not accompany it.

La souveraine habileté consiste à bien connaître le prix des choses.
The greatest cleverness consists in knowing the value of everything.

C’est une grande habileté que de savoir cacher son habileté.
It is a great cleverness to hide one’s cleverness.

Ce qui paraît générosité n’est souvent qu’une ambition déguisée qui méprise de petits intérêts, pour aller à de plus grands.
What appears as generosity is often nothing but disguised ambition that has put aside petty self-interest in order to advance a greater one.

Une des choses qui fait que l’on trouve si peu de gens qui paraissent raisonnables et agréables dans la conversation, c’est qu’il n’y a presque personne qui ne pense plutôt à ce qu’il veut dire qu’à répondre précisément à ce qu’on lui dit. Les plus habiles et les plus complaisants se contentent de montrer seulement une mine attentive, au même temps que l’on voit dans leurs yeux et dans leur esprit un égarement pour ce qu’on leur dit, et une précipitation pour retourner à ce qu’ils veulent dire; au lieu de considérer que c’est un mauvais moyen de plaire aux autres ou de les persuader, que de chercher si fort à se plaire à soi-même, et que bien écouter et bien répondre est une des plus grandes perfections qu’on puisse avoir dans la conversation.
One of the reasons why so few people seem reasonable and attractive in conversation is that almost everyone thinks more about what he himself wants to say than about answering exactly what is said to him.  The cleverest and most polite people  are content merely to look attentive, while all the time we see in their eyes and minds a distraction from what is being said to them and an impatience to get  back to what they themselves want to say.  Instead, they should reflect that striving so hard to please themselves is a poor way to please or convince other people, land that the ability to listen well and answer well is one of the greatest merits we can have in conversation.

Dans toutes les professions chacun affecte une mine et un extérieur pour paraître ce qu’il veut qu’on le croie. Ainsi on peut dire que le monde n’est composé que de mines.
In all professions,  we affect exterior appearances of what owe wish people to think us.  So, one can say that the world is made of nothing but appearances.

Et un coup de chapeau à mon professeur de Français – cette  petite, vieux, Alsacienne, Mme Schmidt, qui m’a initié à cette maxime:
L’absence diminue les médiocres passions, et augmente les grandes, comme le vent éteint les bougies et allume le feu.

And a tip of the hat to my French teacher – that little old Alsatian, Madame Schmidt, who introduced me to this maxim:
Absence diminishes mediocre passions and strengthens great ones, just as the wind blows out a candle and kindles a fire.

Nieztsche and the Demon at Noon

April 30, 2010

One post here that has received a tremendous number of comments is my statement about why I think Nietzsche is an overrated thinker.  The fury of many of the comments surprised and amused me.  I might also add, it confirmed me in my opinion of the great philosopher.

Those who disagree, and who have a sense of humor, should read this book by J.B. Botul (Frédéric Pagès), the celebrated “hoaxer” who fooled Bernard Henri-Levy.  Et voilà!

Adolescent j’ai dévoré ses livres.  Certains anti-nietzschéens prétendent d’ailluers que c’est un philosophe pour adolescents…J’avais de cet homme l’image d’un héros, d’un chevalier glorieux marchant d’un pas résolu vers la conquête du monde par la seule force de sa pensée.

As an adolescent, I devoured his books.  Some anti-Nietzscheans claim elsewhere that he is a philosopher for adolescents.  I had an heroic image of this man, a glorious knight marching with a firm step towards the conquest of the world, with only the force of his ideas.

I am reminded of the character in the comedy film, Little Miss Sunshine, the teenager under a vow of silence, who is always “devouring” the pages of Thus Spake Zarathustra.


What’s on a philosopher’s mind?

March 2, 2010

When I posted my thoughts on why Nietzsche is an overrated thinker, little did I know that it would evoke such a reaction.  I believe it has gotten more comments than any other post of mine, and some of them are passionate, to say the least.  Well, who says people don’t care about philosophy!  I continued my application of the biographico-critico method of philosphical analysis by weighing in on Ludwig Wittgenstein – was he a phoney?  Not so many reactions there.  Ludwig is not a pop cult figure.

In my Whiner post, I justified my method with this passage:

Look, I know that personal details of biography are not supposed to be the substance of intellectual critiques, but the fact is, a lot of intellectuals develop their complex systems to work out their personal problems. (Wittgenstein was another.) I suspect that for many, their intellectual systems compensate them in some way for something they feel they lack, but that’s my speculation. Some people compensate with serial murder, pedaphilia, adultery, greed, or generally unpleasant behavior: intellectuals do it with ideas.

My delight knew no bounds when I received confirmation and support for my methodological approach in this brilliant passage regarding Immanuel Kant’s metaphysics, written, of course, by Jean-Baptiste Botul, in his groundbreaking work, La vie sexuelle d’Emmanuel Kant. Botul is discussing the fear of “loss of self” that infects many thinkers, and its impact on Kant, as well as his preoccupation with the ability of the mind to grasp the ultimate nature of things, the “thing in itself.”

Un remède contre cette perte: construire une enveloppe.  Les philosophes appellent ces cocon système et consacret leur vie à le tisser.   C’est un remède contre la fragilité.  Tous les philosophes qui en bâti des systèmes ont vécu dans un intense sentiment de fragilité et de précarité.  Spinoza, Kant, Hegel:  ils n’ étaient rien socialement, il leur faillait un toit et des murs, une cuirasse des concepts.   . . .

Il est temps d’en parler, et particulièrment de cette chose en soi, das Ding au sich, la chose qu’elle est réellement, que Kant appelle le  noumène, qui existe mais dont nous ne pouvons rien prover.

Curieuse théorie de la connaissance!  Comme si la science avait affaire à des «choses», des objets permanents, stables.  La science moderne n’étudie pas des «choses» isolées mais des relations, des flux, des champs, des systémes.  Il y a dans la noumène  kantien un fétischisme de la «chose» étonnant.

La Chose, c’est la Sexe.  C’est evident.

Once again, I call on my imperfect translation skills to bring this work to a wider, Anglophone audience:

There is a way to prevent that loss:  construct a protective envelope.  Philosophers call these cocoons systems, and devote their lives to weaving them.  It is a protection against fragility.  All the philosophers who build systems have lived with an intense sense of precariousness and fragility.  Spinoza, Kant, Hegel:  they were never sociable – they built for themselves a roof and walls, a breastplate of concepts.  . . .

We must now speak of these concepts, particularly of  “the thing in itself,” daas Ding au Sich, the thing that is reality, which Kant names noumena, and that exists despite our not being able to prove it.

Curious theory of knowledge!  As if science is concerned with “things,” permanent and stable objects.  Modern science does not study isolated “things,” but the relationships, fluxes, and fields of systems.  There is in the Kantian notion of noumena a stunning fetishism of  “the thing.”

The Thing – it is sex.  It’s obvious.

So true. What else could it be?  Such wisdom.  Bravo Jean-Baptise Botul!

Superman at Canterbury?

January 17, 2010

Was Thomas Beckett, murdered archbishop of England, a Nietzschean Superman?

Despite my raging Anglo-philia of boyhood, I never saw Beckett (1964) with Peter O’Toole as HenryII, and Burton as Thomas Beckett, his Chancellor, and then archbishop of Canterbury.  Based on Jean Anouilh’s play, it is the story of an intense friendship between two men who understand power a little differently.  King Henry, a bit of a spoiled child and also a lonely soul, rages at the stuffy imbecility of his courtiers, but he takes his royal job seriously, and he has no intention of ceding royal power to anyone.  Nay, he wishes to increase it.  Beckett, his friend, his servant, then his chancellor, seems to be happy to go along for the ride, the food, the girls, but he knows that he has a tiger by the tail, and he knows how to keep himself safe when he is so close to the live wire of absolute power.

Then Henry makes a mistake – he makes Beckett the head primate of the Church in England, thinking he will then rule heaven and earth, with his friend a pliable and cooperative bishop.  Beckett is transformed by his new position, and finds the higher vocation that has eluded him thus far – he commits himself to the defense of churchly principle against secular power, driving his former companion to his wits’ end.

This was a central conflict played out during the Middle Ages again and again:  sometimes the brute kings won, as when the French king kidnapped the pope and dragged him off to ‘Babylonian’ captivity in Avignon, bringing on the Great Schism; and sometimes the Popes won, as when Henry IV of the Holy Roman Empire was reduced to waiting in the snow at the door of the papal palace in Canossa.  The State lost this round – Henry’s thuggish courtiers murdered Thomas while at services, thinking they were doing the king’s bidding.  Henry did severe penance, Beckett was quickly made a full-blown saint.

Both characters in the play are motivated by the ‘will to power,’ and their different allegiances.  Henry is left to rule the miserable earthly realm, while Thomas, standing tall while he is murdered without resistance, triumphs in true Nietzschean-Jesus fashion, over the pigs who think they can really kill him.  His person becomes venerated, and he casts his spell for centuries over England and its kings.  Good thing too, or we wouldn’t have gotten the Canterbury Tales!  He knows what he’s about:  His last words as he dies are, “Poor Henry…”

Of course, when one thinks of Richard Burton, one cannot help thinking of his on again, off again mate, Elizabeth Taylor.  As a very young boy, I asked my mother who was Elizabeth Taylor, and was told, “She’s the most beautiful woman in the world.”  Well, maybe so…

Finally, back to Chaucer, Beckett, and Canterbury, sort of…  I post here what I think is the most hilarious pastiche from an amazing book, The Holy Tango of Literature.  (Earlier post here and the text online here.)


In tholde dayes of the towne Seatel,
Of whos charmes Nirvana fans yet pratel,
Al that reyny land fayn slepen late.
Thus ofte a sutor failled to keepe a date;
And werkers reched offices at noon,
Noddyng of although the sunne shoon;
Husbondes were too tyred by the eve
A staf for plesyng wyves to acheve.

Now to this citie in a languor stukke,
Came a fair knyght cleped Sterrebukke,
Beryng benes from a forein land
Ygrounde to a poudre in his hand,
From which a potent brew could he deryve
That causeth wery peple to revyve.
Whan word aboute his draghte hadde sprede,
To his shoppe the custumers al spedde
Til everich veine felte a rush of blood,
With humours boyed upward by that flood.
Soone men who herd the crowyng cok
Wolde rise withoute cursyng at the clok,
The thoughte of facyng daylight not so bleke
With coffey bryngyng roses to the cheke
And helpyng them to holde their swords alofte
And shethe them before they falle softe.

Sterrebukke so bygan to thynke
Of other ways to selle the same drynke.
With stemed milk and sprenkled cynamone,
’Twas fit, he sayde, for kynges on the throne;
The capuchino joyned thus his wares,
As wel as mocas, sweter than eclares,
And lattes riche in creme, ofte fresen
And beten to a froth in sumer seson,
And tall espressos armured with cappes
To stoppen scaldyng spilles into lappes
As may hap when one is in a hurry
Upon a pilgrymage to Caunterbury.

Nietzsche, the Whiner

January 11, 2008


Time to put on my crank-curmudgeon hat. I must “rail against” Friederich Nietzsche (as Flaubert would have said.) Another thinker – yes, I’ll grant him that description – who is vastly overrated. Or at least, not worth the adulation and seriousness with which he is treated, I think.

I’m not going to lay at his feet the blame for the crimes of the Third Reich, or the disgusting propagandizing carried out for the Nazis by his sister, whom he despised, I believe. It all happened after he was long dead! No, I won’t even attack him for being a pitiless scourge of the humanitarians, a cynic, or a war monger. Nope, Fred was a whiner.

Look, I know that personal details of biography are not supposed to be the substance of intellectual critiques, but the fact is, a lot of intellectuals develop their complex systems to work out their personal problems. (Wittgenstein was another.) I suspect that for many, their intellectual systems compensate them in some way for something they feel they lack, but that’s my speculation. Some people compensate with serial murder, pedaphilia, adultery, greed, or generally unpleasant behavior: intellectuals do it with ideas.

Nietzsche, the son of a protestant pastor -That alone should give you a clue! Think of the literary figures, brilliant but a wee bit unbalanced that have come from that backgroud! (Samuel Butler comes to mind.) Why, I personally know a few such people myself, including one that was a radical underground figure of the 60s. Add to this the fact that he was extremely shy, sexually innocent, socially awkward, and that his romantic/sexual experiences are said by some to have been limited to one encounter in a brothel, from which, incidentally, he contracted the syphilis that killed him years later. Of course, he gradually went mad, and died in an insane asylum.

The man was a romantic, a dreamer, a scholar of ancient languages who felt out of place in the sordid hustle of industrial Europe. Nothing unusual there. So, he develops a philosophy that is really his poetical statement of his revulsion towards 19th century culture. (“They vomit their bile and call it a newspaper.”) His work is a song of yearning for a time long past, a time that probably never existed. The dream of a classics scholar, poring over Greek literature, enthralled by the heroic aesthetics of ancient civilization. (Sort of like the shrink in the play, Equus.) And what does he see around him? Commerce! So, he whines, and complains, and insults, and rants and raves, and dreams up the “superman” who is above all that. As he would be if he were not such a nebbish. Can you doubt that he really sees himself as Zarathustra: (“Lo, I am like a bee who hath gathered too much honey, and I need hands outstretched to take it” [his wisdom, that is])? That’s what his philosophy amounts to.

[Prendre le nectar de la pensée et en faire son miel personnel, c'est sa nature.  Pauvre Nietzsche!  Il n'est qu'un une fleur qui se prend pour une abeille.

Taking the nectar of thought and making one's honey, that is his nature.  Poor Nietzsche!  He is just a flower who takes himself for a bee. 

4.20.10 apropos de Nietzsche et le demon de midi.]

Sure, I agree, his tirades are a “useful corrective” (as has been pointed out to me) to the dogmatic materialism and hypocrisy of 19th century bourgeois culture. Okay. And he could be pretty funny with his nasty, rapier thrusts, e.g., “The last Christian died on the cross.” He was right about the relativistic nature of all morals, but is that a great achievement – has nobody else mined that intellectual vein? His aesthetic sense was sharp, but that’s not why he’s remembered. All in all, a brilliant man, but a “Great Thinker?”

I recall my English class in high school when the teacher asked us who were the greatest thinkers of the 19th century – I believe he was looking for Darwin, Marx as the answers. I, enthused about Zarathustra and what I thought it pointed to in my future, ventured Nietzsche. His dry remark: “Well, there are thinkers and there are thinkers.”

Nietzsche, poet wannabee and whiner.


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