Who is Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche



FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE'S father, pastor at Rocken, near Leipzig, was of noble Polish extraction, and it was the son's boast that there was nothing German about him, although his mother and paternal grandmother were of that nationality. He disliked the 'Imperial' German intensely--which perhaps explains why the professors of the Fatherland were for the most part so antagonistic to him. Uncompromising revolt against his civilized environment was the characteristic trait in Nietzsche's literary life. His repudiation of the Christian faith and moral code showed him to be a notable 'free-thinker'; he was the apostle of the 'master morality' which urges the 'superman' to annihilate ruthlessly the weak in spirit.

IT is indispensable, I think, before one can profitably approach and hope even dimly to comprehend Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzche's most important work, Thus Spake Zarathustra, the extraordinary book with which his name must always be chiefly associated, that his other productions, with the criticisms and the commentaries thereon, shall be carefully studied. And even more essential is it to a right understanding of this strangest, obscurest and, therefore, most elusive of philosophers, that the reader shall study the life of Nietzche himself closely, and thus get to know what manner of man he was, and how it came about that his attitude towards his fellow man, his outlook on life, should have been what they were.

Much help in this direction may be obtained from Frau Forster-Nietzsche's very valuable Life of her distinguished brother; from his own Human, All-too-Human, which he describes as a book for Free Spirits; and from the autobiographical Ecce Homo, the last prose work from Nietzsche's pen, constituting a general summing-up of his character as a man, his purpose as a reformer, and his achievement in the realm of thought.

Nietzsche had many unattractive names for himself. He was Anti-Christ, he was the first Immoralist, he was a Dionysian, he was an Annihilator--and all this, maybe, because he was in the first place, a Great Sufferer. For years he suffered acutely and almost continuously from eye and brain troubles. Two hundred days out of every three hundred and sixty-five were, he declares, pure pain for a long period; and he was only forty-five when complete insanity overtook him in 1888, twelve years before his death. That he was in earnest there can be no doubt whatever.

Nothing easier, of course, than to sum him up--after the manner of certain of his contemporary critics, including not a few of his own countrymen--as insane all the time, or to dub his philosophy madness in the making. That was a trouble-saving and therefore a tempting method to those who had not the patience, perhaps not the ability, even to attempt to understand him. As Mr. Anthony M. Ludovici, one of Nietzsche's most accomplished translators and commentators, has pointed out, Georg Brandes and Taine and Strindberg all took the author of Zarathustra seriously; and they, surely, as artists, were better qualified to judge him than, say, the University dons, his chief detractors.

Probably it is not far from the truth to conclude that Nietzsche was endowed with too much brain--too much, at any rate, to work satisfactorily in unison with a nature so extra-ordinary sensitive and highly-strung. This gifted student who, at twenty-four, found himself Professor of Classical Philology at Basel University, had soon to pay the tragic penalty of his precocity; ten years later his health broke down, and he was forced to retire, a pensioner, while still on the hither side of middle life.

One of the chapters in Ecce Homo is headed: Why I Am So Wise; another Why I Am So Clever. It was, I should suppose, the vanity which seemed to be revealed in these provocative titles that more than all else aroused the ire of some of the duller opponents of Nietzche's writings. But let us listen to him a little as he talks of himself and his family, and shows 'how one becomes what one is':

It required no effort on my part to be 'a good European,' for by the very nature of my origin I was allowed an outlook beyond the mere local, national and limited horizons. At the same time, I am perhaps more German than modern Germans--mere Imperial Germans--can hope to be. (The typical modern German was Nietzsche's constant bete noire.)

My ancestors were Polish noblemen, and it is owing to them that I have so much race instinct in my blood. My mother, Franziska Oehler, and my paternal grandmother, Erdmuthe Krause, who lived in Weimar and was in contact with Goethe's circle, were very German. . . .

The whole of my 'Zarathustra' is a dithyramb in honour of solitude, or, if I have been understood, in honour of purity. Not, thank Heaven, in honour of 'pure foolery.' (Alluding to Wagner's 'pure fool' in Parsifal: the musician having earlier been his hero, one of his Supermen!)

Of actual religious difficulties I have no experience. I have never known what it is to feel sinful. A 'prick of conscience,' of which I have no experience, must be a sort of 'evil eye.' I am quite unacquainted with atheism as a result, and still less as an event in my life: in me it is inborn, instinctive. I am too inquisitive, too incredulous, too high-spirited to be satisfied with such a palpably clumsy solution of things. God is really no more than a coarse and rude prohibition of us thinkers. Ye shall not think! . . .

I believe only in French culture, and do not even take the German kind into consideration. Chiefly I love a few old French books. I can think of no century in history in which a netful of more inquisitive and at the same time more subtle psychologists could be drawn up than in the Paris of to-day--Paul Bourget, Pierre Loti, Gyp, Meilhac, Anatole France, Jules Lemaitre, and a genuine Latin of whom I am particularly fond, Guy de Maupassant. Between ourselves, I prefer this generation to its masters--all corrupted by German philosophy. Stendhal is quite beyond price, with his psychologist's eye. He robbed me of the best atheistic joke--one I might have made: 'God's only excuse is that He does not exist.'

Some of these utterances, taken separately, do Nietzsche much less than justice: insolences at the expense of the Divinity, which naturally catch the eye, form but a minute portion of the writings embodying his philosophy, and they are noteworthy chiefly because they reveal his general attitude towards all convention, all authority, whether sacred or secular.

When this over-developed consciousness of his first began to work it displayed to its impatient owner the fact that he--who had already elected to think for himself--was faced, nay, surrounded, by all sorts of conditions which the bulk of his fellows, the enormous majority of mankind, were content to accept ready-made, without protest, without criticism. The edifice known as civilization was complete, for better for worse. But here was one who would take nothing for granted, neither religious creed nor ideal, nor social doctrine or convention; this clear, cold brain must needs investigate for itself, before accepting anything, from highest to lowest, as satisfactory, or even tolerable. The young thinker aimed at building men, for he had constructive ideas. But before one can build one must demolish, must clear the ground, sweep away the rubbish--and most of the things that he beheld came, in his opinion, under this last category. Hear him again:

I am in no way a bogey-man or moral monster. On the contrary, I am the very opposite in nature to the kind of man that has hitherto been honoured as virtuous--I am a disciple of the philosopher Dionysius, and I would prefer to be even a satyr than a saint. . . . The very last thing I should promise to accomplish would be to 'improve' mankind. I do not set up any new idols ('idols' is the name I give to all ideals). To overthrow idols is much more like my business.

In proportion as an ideal world has been falsely assumed, reality has been robbed of its value, its meaning and its truthfulness. . . . Hitherto the lie of the ideal has been the curse of reality; by means of it the very source of mankind's instincts has become mendacious and false; so much so that those values have come to be worshipped which are the exact opposite of those which would ensure man's prosperity, his future, and his great right to a future. . . .

Error (the belief in the ideal) is not blindness; error is cowardice. Every conquest, every step forward in knowledge, is the outcome of courage, of hardness, of cleanliness, towards one's self.

And the very man who thus despises idols (or ideals) was the inventor of that idol (or ideal) known as the Superman! However, he is nothing if not courageous. 'I attack only things that are triumphant,' he declares; 'only things against which I stand alone, without allies, compromising no one but myself.'

The idea of the Superman, by the way, occurred to Nietzsche long before Zarathustra was composed. In the early 70's he wrote: 'How can we praise and glorify a nation as a whole? Even among the Greeks it was the individuals that counted. . . . All that proceeds from power is good; all that springs from weakness is bad.' Hence, in this philosopher's eyes, Christianity is bad because it exalts the softer, humaner attributes of man ("the meek shall inherit the earth," etc.). Christianity changed the values of the deified modes of life and thought in Greece and Rome; now another change of Christian values is needed.

But it is time, after all this introduction to get to the book itself. Zarathustra is simply the original spelling of Zoroaster, the great Persian or Median teacher, founder of the religion of the Magi, embodied in the Zend Avesta, which to this day is used by Parsees as their bible. The whole of the book occupied Nietzsche less than a year. He wrote it, as it were, in short, sharp spasms, each of ten days' duration, in Rome, in Genoa and in Nice. The fundamental idea of the work--the Eternal Recurrence--was first conceived, he tells us, in the month of August 1881. 'I made a note of the idea on a sheet of paper, with the postscript: "Six thousand feet beyond man and time." The thought struck me that day as I wandered through the woods beside the lake of Silvaplana, halting near Surlei, under a huge rock that towered aloft like a pyramid--the essential condition of its production was a second birth within me of the art of hearing--and a sudden and decisive change in my taste in music had occurred two months before. The whole of Zarathustra might perhaps be classified under the rubric of music.' During that walk by Silvaplana and other walks Nietzsche says he was 'waylaid' by Zarathustra.

In her preface Frau Forster-Nietzsche says the book is the history of her brother's most individual experiences--of his friendships, ideals, raptures, bitterest disappointments and sorrows . . . He had the figure of Zarathustra in his mind from his earliest youth. He once told her that even as a child he had dreamt of him. At different times he would call this haunter of his dreams by different names; 'but in the end,' he said, 'I had to do a Persian the honour of identifying himself with this creation of my fancy. Persians were the first to take a broad and comprehensive view of history.'

'Zarathustra,' she continues, 'was written when Friedrich was beginning to rally after many years of steadily declining health, and it is to this first gush of the recovery of his once splendid bodily condition that we owe it. He often used to speak of the ecstatic mood in which he wrote it; how in his walks over hill and dale the ideas would crowd into his mind, and how he would jot them down hastily in a notebook.' Here is Nietzsche's own description of how the words came to him:

Has anyone at the end of this nineteenth century any distinct notion of what poets of a stronger age understood by the word inspiration? If not, I will describe it. If one had the smallest vestige of superstition in one it would hardly be possible to set aside completely the idea that one is the mere incarnation, mouthpiece, or medium of an almighty power. One hears--one does not seek; one takes--one does not ask who gives: a thought suddenly flashes up like lightning; it comes of necessity, unhesitatingly--I have never had any choice in the matter. There is an ecstasy such that the immense strain of it is sometimes relaxed by a flood of tears. It actually seems, to use one of Zarathustra's own phrases, as if 'all things came unto me and would fain be similes.'

Zarathustra was more truthful than any other thinker. In his teaching alone do we meet with truthfulness upheld as the highest virtue, i.e. the reverse of the cowardice of the idealist who flees from reality--the overcoming of morality through itself--through truthfulness; the overcoming of the moralist through his opposite--through me that is what the name Zarathustra means in my mouth.

Nietzsche's contention was that in morality there are no absolute values, 'good' or 'evil'; everything is relative; that which is good for the lion or the eagle is bad for their prey, the antelope or the lamb; the butterfly pretending to be a leaf, is acting a lie; but it is good for the butterfly thus to preserve its life. Concepts of good and evil are therefore, in their origin, merely a means to an end--expedients for acquiring power. Nietzsche attacks Christian moral values as low--merely an expedient for protecting a certain type of man. Conflicting moral codes have been no more than the conflicting weapons of different classes of men, for in mankind there is continual war between the powerful, the noble, the strong and the well constituted on the one side, and the impotent, the mean and the ill constituted on the other. The war is a war of moral principles . . .

Thus Spake Zarathustra begins with a Prologue, simply and nobly constructed. It opens as follows:

When Zarathustra was thirty years old, he left his home and the lake of his home, and went into the mountains. There he enjoyed his spirit and his solitude, and for ten years did not weary of it. But at last his heart changed and, rising one morning with the rosy dawn, he went before the sun and spake thus unto it:

Thou great star! What would be thy happiness if thou hadst not those for whom thou shinest!

For ten years hast thou climbed hither unto my cave; thou wouldst have wearied of thy light and of the journey, had it not been for me, my eagle and my serpent.

But we awaited thee every morning, took from thee thine overflow, and blessed thee for it.

Lo! I am weary of my wisdom, like the bee that hath gathered too much honey; I need hands outstretched to take it.

I would fain bestow and distribute, until the wise have once more become joyous in their folly and far from happy in their riches.

Therefore must I descend into the deep, as thou doest in the evening, when thou goest behind the sea and givest light also to the nether world, thou exuberant star!

He asks the Sun to bless his enterprise, and goes down the mountain alone. To a holy man whom he encounters in the forest Zarathustra explains his mission: "I am bringing gifts unto men," he tells him. The saint laughs. "Go not to men, but stay in the forest!" he says. "Go rather to the beasts. Why not be like me--a bear among bears, a bird among birds? I make hymns and sing them; and in making hymns I laugh and weep and mumble: thus do I praise God. But what dost thou bring us as a gift?"

Zarathustra answers: "What should I have to give thee! Let me rather hurry hence, lest I take aught away from thee!" And so they parted.

When Zarathustra was alone he said: "Could it be possible! This old saint in the forest hath not yet heard of it, that God is dead!"

In a town near the forest Zarathustra speaks to the people in the market place:

'I teach you the Superman. Man is something that is to be surpassed. What have ye done to surpass man?

'All beings hitherto have created something beyond themselves: and ye want to be the ebb of that great tide, and would rather go back to the beast than surpass man?

'What is the ape to man? A laughing-stock, a thing of shame. And just the same shall man be to the Superman.

'Ye have made your way from the worm to man, and much within you is still worm. Once were ye apes, and even yet man is more of an ape than any of the apes.

'Even the wisest among you is only a disharmony and hybrid of plant and phantom.

'Lo, I teach you the Superman! The Superman is the meaning of the earth. I conjure you, brethren, remain true to the earth, and believe not those who speak unto you of super-earthly hopes! Poisoners are they; despisers of life are they: so away with them!'

Much more spake Zarathustra to the people, but they all laughed at him, and called on a rope-dancer, who was in the market place, to begin his performance. Zarathustra resumed his discourse, but soon his hearers wearied of him, and would listen to him no more.

Then a light dawned upon Zarathustra: 'Not to the people am I to speak, but to companions.'

In other words, he finds the mob not enlightened enough to understand him; in future he will address himself to the elect--the thinkers, the sceptics. Nietzsche, indeed, ever had in view an aristocratic arrangement of society. He would have us rear an ideal race, finer, both physically and mentally, than any that had preceded it. 'With these preachers of equality,' he exclaims, 'will I not be mixed up and confounded, for thus speaketh justice to me: "Men are not equal!"'

There follow immediately, the right audience having been found, parabolic Discourses, eighty in number, and on a great variety of life's problems. Mr. Ludovici supplies valuable notes on many of them, especially such as are entirely allegorical; and truly most of these pages cry aloud for elucidation. Certain short passages of these fine Discourses may be quoted, as typical of this extraordinary thinker and his method of expression.

He talks of 'Old and Young Women':

Two different things wanteth the true man: danger and diversion. Therefore wanteth he woman, as the most dangerous plaything.

Too sweet fruits--these the warrior liketh not. Therefore liketh he woman;--bitter is even the sweetest woman.

Better than man doth woman understand children; but man is more childish than woman.

In the true man there is a child hidden; it wanteth to play. Up then, ye women, and discover the child in man.

Then answered me the old woman: 'Many fine things hath Zarathustra said. Strange! Zarathustra knoweth little about woman, and yet he is right about them. And now accept a little truth by way of thanks! I am old enough for it!'

'Give me, woman, thy little truth!' said I. And thus spake the old woman:

'Thou goest to women? Forget not thy whip!'

There is generally a touch of irony in Nietzsche's references to women, but it would be altogether a delusion to suppose him inimical to the absurdly-styled 'weaker sex.' It is against the modern tendency to sex equality, sex similarity that he raises his voice. He would have woman become ever more womanly and man ever more manly: by attempting to masculinise women we run the risk of feminising men, to the jeopardy of the people's future.

Elsewhere Nietzsche exhorts his disciples not to follow him blindly, but to become independent thinkers, and to find themselves 'before they learn anything more from him.' There is indeed much to admire in these admirable Discourses, which if one only takes the trouble to study them, impress one with a sense of their author's sincerity, his learning, his wit, his style, ay, and his humour--a quality generally denied him by his dry-as-dust opponents.

One has but to read The Vision and the Enigmal and The Old and New Tables to realize that here is something like inspiration, to feel convinced that in these pages are the outlines of a philosophy of life which, perfected, might well provide an antidote to the futilities and extravagances of present day democracy. In any case, Thus Spake Zarathustra is a book that will amply reward the seeker after truth; for in it he will find abundant matter for serious consideration.

Nietzsche somewhat spoilt his case at times by a rash use of wild and whirling words sounding impious to orthodox ears; but in reality his irreligious phrases are more often than not uttered in nothing but a 'Pickwickian sense.' One leaves him with the conviction that he was not an iconoclast of the sort who destroys wantonly, or out of resentment and revenge--the anarchists and new revolutionaries--but rather one who destroys to build better, and thus becomes a creator. And when you know him, he is by no means dull, as might be feared. 'Learn, I pray you, to laugh--all good things laugh !' is the word on which I will leave him And the intelligent will laugh at, not with, the Philosopher.





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