Reading Nietzsche Through Walter Kaufmann

Since I was seventeen I’ve read Nietzsche. I can no longer recall what I read first, probably the yellowing Thus Spake Zarathustra, annotated in two different pens, that still sits on my bookshelf. Nietzsche understands teenagers. He speaks to their complexity and anguish, and they approve of his desire to shatter the tenets of their culture. Nietzsche faced down the nihilism of his age with style, humour and strength. Though Nietzsche’s thinking only partially penetrated my younger self, he left me fortified with the necessity of going deeply into myself to fully experience life.

Over the years I read all of Nietzsche’s published books, though undoubtedly in less reliable translations and editions than are now starting to become available. Nietzsche’s aphoristic style lends itself to dipping into a few lines. Though this achieves little, it is a thought-provoking compass for how one has changed during all the years of reading the same lines. My reading of Nietzsche is changed with all the later reading and thinking I’ve done.

At the moment I’m reading Nietzsche through Walter Kaufmann, only a hundred pages or so in but enjoying his thoughts and observations. Kaufmann untangles Nietzsche’s relations with his anti-Semitic sister Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche and the intriguing Lou Andreas-Salomé to clarify how both women set out to distort how Nietzsche’s thoughts were later interpreted. Kaufmann then proceeds to show with some elegance how the contradictions in Nietzsche’s arguments are merely superficial. He argues that Socrates is Nietzsche’s ideal, that he is not a ‘system thinker [unlike Kant or Spinoza] but a problem thinker.’

The result is less a solution of the initial problem than a realisation of its limitations: typically the problem is not solved but ‘outgrown’.

Though first published in 1950, Kaufmann’s interpretations are an inspiration for more contemporary readings of Nietzsche, one of which I also wish to read is Alexander Nehamas’ NIETZSCHE Life as Literature (1985). If you know of other Nietzsche secondary literature (not biography) worth reading please let me know.

An Optical and Moral Illusion

First proposition. The reasons for which “this” world has been characterised as “apparent” are the very reasons which indicate its reality; any other kind of reality is absolutely undemonstrable.

Second proposition. The criteria which have been bestowed on the “true being” of things are the criteria of not-being, of naught; the “true world” has been constructed out of contradiction to the actual world: indeed an apparent world, insofar as it is merely a moral-optical illusion.

Third proposition. To invent fables about a world “other” than this one has no meaning at all, unless an instinct of slander, detraction, and suspicion against life has gained the upper hand in us: in that case, we avenge ourselves against a better life with a phantasmagoria of “another,” a “better” life.

Fourth proposition. Any distinction between a “true” and an “apparent” world-whether in the Christian manner or in the manner of Kant (in the end, an underhanded Christian)-is only a suggestion of decadence, a symptom of the decline of life. That the artist esteems appearance higher than reality is no objection to this proposition. For “appearance” in this case means reality once more, only by way of selection, reinforcement, and correction. The tragic is no pessimist: he is precisely the one who says Yes to everything questionable, even to the terrible-he is Dionysan.

Nietzsche
Twilight of the Idols

The Womb of World Civilisation

It amuses me greatly when a degree of unconscious direction behind seemingly arbitrary reading choices becomes clear. What is intended to be patternless drifting from one book to the next, loosely following very broad themes, takes on the form of a literary centripetal force pulling towards a single area of study. Even a year ago I felt the pull towards the study of the Vedas, but resisted the tension, mainly because I couldn’t quite grasp where to begin. As Paul Deussen, a friend of Nietzsche’s, wrote in his old (1907) Outlines in Indian Philosophy, “European idleness tries to escape the study of Indian philosophy.” I still feel that inertia, intimidated by the immensity of the task. But, but …

Rereading Virginia Woolf’s The Waves one night, I came across Bernard’s monologue:

I am not one person, I am many people. I do not know who I am – Jinny, Susan, Rhoda, Neville or Louis – or how to distinguish my life from theirs – ‘we are bound not only to our friends but to the long-long history that began in Egypt in the time of the Pharaos when women carried pitchers to the Nile.’

I started going through The Waves and scribbling notes of instances where Woolf uses metaphors to indicate the relation of one to the many, that Nature is ‘one form in diverse mirrors.’ Both currents of thought were heavily present in my recent readings of Clarice Lispector, Pierre Hadot’s Plotinus and various interpretations of Heraclitus’ Fragments.

For instance, there is the following paragraph from Hadot’s superb Plotinus book:

Since we look towards the outside, away from the point at which we are joined together, we are unaware of the facts that we are one. We are like faces turned towards the outside, but attached on the inside to one single head. If we could turn around – either spontaneously or if we were lucky enough to ‘have Athena pull us by the hair’ [Homer], then all at once, we would see God, ourselves, and the All.

(Incidentally, not that I’ll dwell on the topic here, Plotinus’s notion of deification means the destroying of man, not the modern day religious notion of man living and working in God.)

The philosophical and historical worth of the Vedas has been acknowledged from Voltaire onwards, their influence of Greek culture is certain,  also on most of the major mystical and philosophical traditions, and from there to poets and story-tellers. “The Greeks may have been the cradle of Western civilisation, but the Vedas are the womb of world civilisation.” The more I read on the subject the more I see the influence on writers are diverse as Heraclitus, Plato, Plotinus, Kant, Vico, Woolf, Eliot (clearly), Lispector, Iris Murdoch, Nietzsche, and Emerson.

Please feel free to suggest essential or helpful texts that deal with the influence of the Vedas on Greek culture, or texts that help a curious amateur with the Vedas. This is likely to give some shape to my otherwise arbitrary reading over the next 6-12 months.

Enlightenment and Thinking (Kant)

This morning I reread Kant’s well-known What is Enlightenment? [PDF], an essay that I’ve reflected on many times over the years.

Much more interesting (a recent reading, thanks to a friend’s deeper knowledge of Kant) though is Kant’s lesser-known (to me anyway) development on enlightenment and thinking, which is perhaps more reasonable and realistic. I quote below from SS40 of The Critique of Judgement. This piece, with extended footnote, emphasises the difficulty of thinking, and of the removal of superstition/prejudice. Enlightenment, like anything of worth, does not come easily.

While the following maxims of common human understanding do not properly come in here as constituent parts of the critique of taste, they may still serve to elucidate its fundamental propositions. They are these: (I) to think for oneself; (2) to think from the standpoint of everyone else; (3) always to think consistently. The first is the maxim of unprejudiced thought, the second that of enlarged thought, the third that of consistent thought. The first is the maxim of a never passive reason. To be given to such passivity, consequently to heteronomy of reason, is called prejudice; and the greatest of all prejudices is that of fancying nature not to be subject to rules which the understanding by virtue of its own essential laws lays at its basis, i.e., superstition. Emancipation from superstition is called enlightenment*; for although this term applies also to emancipation from prejudices generally, still superstition deserves pre-eminently (in sensu eminenti) to be called a prejudice. For the condition of blindness into which superstition puts one, which is as much as demands from one as an obligation, makes the need of being led by others, and consequently the passive state of the reason, pre-eminently conspicuous. As to the second maxim belonging to our habits of thought, we have quite got into the way of calling a man narrow (narrow, as opposed to being of enlarged mind) whose talents fall short of what is required for employment upon work of any magnitude (especially that involving intensity). But the question here is not one of the faculty of cognition, but of the mental habit of making a final use of it. This, however small the range and degree to which man’s natural endowments extend, still indicates a man of enlarged mind: if he detaches himself from the subjective personal conditions of his judgement, which cramp the minds of so many others, and reflects upon his own judgement from a universal standpoint (which he can only determine by shifting his ground to the standpoint of others). The third maxim-that, namely, of consistent thought-is the hardest of attainment, and is only attainable by the union of both the former, and after constant attention to them has made one at home in their observance. We may say: The first of these is the maxim of understanding, the second that of judgement, the third of that reason.

*We readily see that enlightenment, while easy, no doubt, in thesi, in hypothesis is difficult and slow of realization. For not to be passive with one’s reason, but always to be self-legislative, is doubtless quite an easy matter for a man who only desires to be adapted to his essential end, and does not seek to know what is beyond his understanding. But as the tendency in the latter direction is hardly avoidable, and others are always coming and promising with full assurance that they are able to satisfy one’s curiosity, it must be very difficult to preserve or restore in the mind (and particularly in the public mind) that merely negative attitude (which constitutes enlightenment proper).

A Philosophical Attitude

Gill001

Like Einstein I disassociate myself from the atheist tag, partly because I prefer an “attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.” But also to distance myself completely from the fundamental atheists (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens et al.) who declaim their untestable (on both sides) hypothesis at very opportunity.

During the Middle Ages everything changes, because philosophy is no longer merely religion’s servant. As soon as philosophy frees itself from a theology, it becomes a critique, either purifying or destroying, of religion. Philosophers-Spinoza no less than Kant, for example-have always had a tendency to purify the idea of God and detach it from properly religious representations. It seems to me that what has been called natural religion is merely a theistic philosophy. As such, it lacks what is essential in religion: rites. Now, I recognise that by defining religion in this way, I oppose a rather general use of the word, namely, to speak of God, transcendence, or mystery. I have observed the fact in Thomas Mann, who in a letter remarks, “We live and we die in mystery, and one can, if one wishes, qualify the consciousness we have of it as religious.” Similarly, Einstein spoke of the scientific religiosity and the cosmic religion of his own position, which he expresses by reporting, “I have the strongest emotion in front of the mystery of life,” while refusing a God who rewards and punishes. In his inaugural lecture, Merleau-Ponty said roughly the same thing as Thomas Mann and Einstein, but was careful to specify that this is a philosophical attitude: “Philosophy awakens us to what is problematic in itself in the existence of the world and our own existence, to the point that we are never healed from searching, as Bergson would say, for a solution ‘in the master’s book.” This is a philosophical attitude that Merleau-Ponty refuses to qualify as atheist, because it merely consists of displacing the sacred or defining it in another way.

Pierre Hadot
The Present Alone is Our Happiness

Ethical Theory

In my last brief post I wrote of the thrill of discovering (thanks to David) the work of Pierre Hadot and his philosophical leitmotif, drawn from antiquity, that philosophy is the choice of a form of life and not purely academic discourse. We are intuitively drawn to thinkers that confirm our way of thinking, and being non-academic I have always read philosophy in this way, hence the philosophers that fill the most shelf space in my library: Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Spinoza, Kant, Derrida, Cixous and more recently Jane Bennett, Bourdieu and Pierre Hadot, intellectuals that intentionally spoke to readers beyond the academy.

I wrote of seeking a life with less anxiety, more contentment. Philip responded (and I hope he doesn’t mind me extracting his invaluable remarks from the comments box):

I sometimes wonder, though, whether explicitly searching out a life “with less anxiety, more contentment” – i.e., seeking to improve one’s own lot – isn’t just another reinforcement of the striving self: i.e., if I perform my spiritual exercises with enough discipline, or if I become ascetic enough, I will at last achieve bliss. Seeking liberation from the ego through the workings of the ego.

This is the crux, the Buddhist stance, as far as I understand it, that denies the concept of self. My difficulty with this position is how to develop it as a form of living, in the direction of what the Epicureans called ataraxy (contentment with existence).

I’ve followed the path of ontological nihilism, reality doesn’t exist etc., and reverted to a more existential stance that eschews teleology, but reinforced by what is essentially a modernised Epicureanism, similar to what Jane Bennett terms enchanted materialism. To quote my new old friend Lucretius, “Nothing in the body is made in order that we may use it. What happens to exist is the cause of its use.”

The ancient Greek philosophers, of all schools, developed a set of spiritual practices and meditations, a core of ethical principles that were vigorously discussed and expounded, making it more likely that they would be enacted as ethical practises. Foucault wrote of a discipline for installing an ethical code on the body, of an ideal of self to which the ethical person aspires. It seems to me that denying the concept of self results in a frustrating paradox more likely to result in acedia (apathy, but with shades of depression) than ataraxy.

When time permits I’ll write further about the content of the ethical ideal that gets me out of bed. Do you have a set of ethical ideals to which you subscribe? And, if so, what motivates those ideals?

Ever So Umble

I have thought a lot about humbleness recently. Is humility a synonym or a discretely different meta-attitude? Both words have their origin in the Latin humilis, literally ‘on the ground’ from humus, ‘earth’. Islam can be interpreted as meaning ‘submission’ or ‘surrender,’ which can also be interpreted as ‘humility’. In Islam, part of the daily prayer ritual involves prostrations, an act of humbling.

Outside of religions, the concept of humility is at odds with contemporary western culture. We are raised to take pride in accomplishment and success. With the exception of Kant, who considered humility a central human virtue, philosophers ignore the pursuit of humbleness.

It strikes me that attaining humility, genuinely, though demanding, should be an immensely rewarding path, not that this thought will offer any revelation to those able to dwell within the major religions. But what meaning should humility hold for the secular?

In thinking and reading around this theme I am drawn to Aquinas’s interpretation that humility is a tendency to avoid setting goals which are beyond one’s faculty to achieve. This is how Aquinas puts the argument:

I answer that . . . it belongs properly to humility, that a man restrain himself from being borne towards that which is above him. For this purpose he must know his disproportion to that which surpasses his capacity. Hence knowledge of one’s own deficiency belongs to humility, as a rule guiding the appetite. Nevertheless humility is essentially in the appetite itself; and consequently it must be said that humility, properly speaking, moderates the movement of the appetite.

It follows from this interpretation of humility that we must fully understand the breadth of our faculties (and, of course, the inherent difficulty of our goals).

I’d love to read any thoughts you may have on the subject, or suggestions of literary or philosophical texts that may be useful.

Continental Philosophy by Simon Critchley

Simon Critchley’s Continental Philosophy, like other VSIs that I have read, combines compactness, knowledge and, in this case, insight. Critchley explains how philosophy came to be divided into analytical (or Anglo-American) and Continental philosophy, establishes the critical differences and suggests a way forward for philosophical reflection. Philosophical history aside, all fascinating, Critchley afforded me a candlelight (dim but present) of comprehension into Kant’s work (a Scruton VSI to Kant sits forbiddingly, unread on my shelves), and illuminated my token understanding of Heidegger’s work on being and time. As a successful introduction should, Critchley also whetted my appetite to try some key texts of Continental Philosophy: specifically Habermas’ Knowledge and Human Interests and Deleuze and Guattari’s What is Philosophy?

Categories That Amuse

Voracious readers have regular dilemmas about what book to read next. At Of Books and Bicycles, the perplexity is of genre or category. Always the question of whether to read deeply to explore a category or individual writer thoroughly, or widely to embrace a wide selection of genres. The categories that provide amusement at the moment are:

  • Philosophy to deepen my reading of Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard; also to explore Kant to whatever extent I am capable.
  • Literary criticism of the novel: contemporary texts like James Wood, Harold Bloom, Susan Sontag, Geoffrey Hill and Denis Donoghue; also earlier writing by Guy Davenport, Maurice Blanchot, Cyril Connolly and William Empson.
  • Fiction and non-fiction classics of all periods, with less emphasis on contemporary, and guided loosely by Bloom’s Western Canon.
  • Books about books, with the work of Alberto Manguel and Michael Dirda top of my list.
  • Natural history, inspired by my deep enjoyment of Roger Deakin.
  • A sprinkling of science, certainly all the output of cosmologist Paul Davies.
  • Psychology, working my way slowly through Freud’s essays and lectures.
  • Travel classics like Wilfred Thesiger, William Dalyrymple, Patrick Leigh Fermor.
  • Culinary-lit, particularly M. F. K. Fisher and Ruth Reichl

This is hardly comprehensive and is subject to whimsy.

Narrowing Further But Deeper

After writing the post above, the next blog that I read had posted this excerpt from Thomas Bernhard:

‘I have, in my life, turned pages a million times more often than I have read them, and always derived from turning pages at least as much pleasure and real intellectual enjoyment as from reading. Surely it is better to read altogether only three pages of a four-hundred-page book a thousand times more thoroughly than the normal reader who reads everything but does not read a single page thoroughly, he said. It is better to read twelve lines of a book with the utmost intensity and thus to penetrate into them to the full, as one might say, rather than read the whole book as the normal reader does, who in the end knows the book he has read no more than an air passenger who knows the landscape he overflies. He does not perceive the contours. Thus all people nowadays read everything and know nothing. I enter into a book and settle in it, neck and crop, you should realize, in one or two pages of a philosophical essay as if I were entering a landscape, a piece of nature, a state organism, a detail of the earth, if you like, in order to penetrate into it entirely and not just with half my strength or half-heartedly, in order to explore it and then, having explored it with all the thoroughness at my disposal, drawing conclusions as to the whole. He who reads everything has understood nothing, he said. It is not necessary to read all of Goethe or all of Kant, it is not necessary to read all of Schopenhauer; a few pages of ‘Werther’, a few pages of ‘Elective Affinities’ and we know more in the end about the two books than if we had read them from beginning to end, which would anyway deprive us of the purest enjoyment.’