Why Read Nietzsche?

I recently picked up an anthology of Nietzsche. Perhaps I was driven by the sheer despair at facing the same old books and authors and schools of thought.  The well-known German atheist is certainly off the beaten path.

My chief test of a writer is frankly pragmatic. How easy is he to read? Just as importantly, does he say anything interesting? Thus far the verdict on Nietzsche (in the Walter Kaufmann translation) is that he makes for effortless perusal. As for the man’s weltanschauung, of course, that’s a different matter. The German thinker comes across as a virtuoso and a contrarian, who excels in the aphoristic style of his idol Schopenhauer: “To make the individual uncomfortable, that is my task.” Elsewhere he opines: “The errors of great men are venerable because they are more fruitful than the truths of little men.” The success of such a bon mot lies in its ironic exaggeration. A good philosopher can be witty, but wit without wisdom is mere cleverness. In all fairness, even the anti-Nietzschean Chesterton indulged in copious paradox: “The very lies of Dublin and Belfast are truer than the truisms of Westminster.” A little witticism goes a long way.

Nietzsche was much admired for his studies of Greek culture. A related excerpt in the Kaufmann volume is “Homer’s Contest” which discusses the psychological outlook of the ancient world. Nietzsche posits that Hellenic society was inclined to cruelty and violence, a quality that was ameliorated, particularly in Athens, by its institutionalized competitiveness, which provided a controlled and safe outlet for ruthless impulses. Less happy is his piece on “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense” where Nietzsche is warming up to his “beyond good and evil” theory. He offers the self-contradictory musings of an ethical nominalist, devoted largely to precocious negation. But is it possible to philosophize about a world without meaning, or dogmatically declare that there is no such thing as truth? Somewhat in his favor, you might say, is the fact that his materialism is not idealistic. “What is strong wins: that is the universal law.” He then qualifies this by saying: “If only it were not so often precisely what is stupid and evil!” Thus to say that he championed a “survival of the fittest” mentality is an oversimplification of his post-Darwinian beliefs. Indeed his fatalism comes across as more sad than triumphant.

Nietzsche says some very idiotic things, but he also makes some surprisingly good points—”The mother of dissipation is not joy but joylessness.” “One often contradicts an opinion when it is really only the tone in which it has been presented that is unsympathetic.” “Learning from one’s enemies is the best way toward loving them; for it makes us grateful to them.” At the very least, it is probably worth dipping into the thought of a man that even the Catholic Thomist Josef Pieper found occasionally insightful.

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