I’ve tried to read several of Nietzsche’s books several times and I’ve always felt unsatisfied. One could argue that Nietzsche is one of the best diagnosticians of problems of modern society, and yet his work has always been strangely inaccessible to me. My brother suggested that I read this book a long time ago, and the suggestion was very good.
Kaufmann begins his work by rehabilitating Nietzsche. His sister took control of his work when he had a mental breakdown and after he died. She essentially ruined his work. The story is familiar now, but this is so largely thanks to Kaufmann.
Kaufmann explains that Nietzsche wrote in aphorisms that the reader should think of as experiments. "Experimenting involves testing an answer by trying to live according to it." I think this style pretty much explains why I found Nietzsche’s actual writing – as opposed to writing about Nietzsche – so tough.
Nietzsche was critical of "philosophical systems" since such systems prevented philosophers from questioning their own premises:
A system must necessarily be based on premises that by its very nature it cannot question. This was one of Nietzsche’s objections, although he did not put the point this way himself. The systematic thinker starts with a number of primary assumptions from which he draws a net of inferences and thus deduces his system; but he cannot, from within his system, establish the truth of his premises. He takes them for granted, and even if they should seem "self-evident" to him, they may not seem so to others. They are in that sense arbitrary and reducible to the subjective make-up of the thinker.
If Kaufmann had a sentence to sum up Nietzsche’s philosophy, I think he’d pick this one: "The crown of Nietzsche’s philosophy is the dual vision of the overman and the eternal recurrence; its key conception is the will to power."
I’ll do my best to explain these and leave that as the review of the book. I’ll try to let Kaufmann and Nietzsche do most of the talking.
As to the eternal recurrence, which sits opposed to theories of progress:
Nietzsche explicitly disagrees with the optimism of the contemporary Hegelians and Darwinists. Empirical facts do not seem to him to warrant the belief that history is a story of progress, that ever greater values are developed, and that whatever is later in the evolutionary scale is also eo ipso more valuable. "The goal of humanity cannot lie in the end but only in its highest specimens." Perhaps there is no more basic statement of Nietzsche’s philosophy in all his writings than this sentence. Here is the most crucial point of his philosophy of history and theory of values–no less than the clue to his "aristocratic" ethics and his opposition to socialism and democracy.
. . .
what can an additional ten or twenty centuries bring to light that we could not find in contemplating Aeschylus and Heraclitus, Socrates and Jesus, Leonardo and Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Goethe, Caesar and Napoleon, or Plato and Spinoza?
The overman seems to follow:
No quantitative addition, either of more and more human beings or of more and more intelligence (which man is supposed to share with the chimpanzee, though he has more of it), can give man the unique dignity which the Western tradition has generally conceded him. What is worthless to start with, cannot acquire value by multiplication. If man’s value is zero, no addition of such zeros will ever lead to any value. A steady increase of intelligence through history, even if it could be demonstrated, would not change this picture. If man is to have any worth, there must be a "qualitative leap," to use Hegel’s apt expression.
. . .
He maintains in effect that the gulf separating Plato from the average man is greater than the cleft between the average man and a chimpanzee.
. . .
Most men are essentially animals, not basically different from chimpanzees-distinguished only by a potentiality that few of them realize: they can [Kaufmann goes to great lengths to stress that Nietzsche believes that anyone can], but rarely do, rise above the beasts.
To become an overman, a person must overcome himself, particularly his own fear and laziness:
Society and the State represent to his mind not the consummation of rationality and justice, of ethics and philosophy, but only the embodiment of mediocrity and the temptation that has to be overcome before the individual can come into his own.
Those who succeed – the overmen – are philosophers, artists and saints:
The Goethean man embodies the great contemplative type who is essentially unrevolutionary, even antirevolutionary. He is concerned with himself and would like to absorb in his soul all the riches of the world. Again, this picture of man "is misunderstood by the mass" who are simply unable to emulate Goethe.
. . .
Carlyle, as a historian, finds that great men make history, that society depends on hero worship, and that without heroes there can be only anarchy, which he abhors. For Nietzsche, the overman does not have instrumental value for the maintenance of society: he is valuable in himself because he embodies the state of being that has the only ultimate value there is; and society is censured insofar as it insists on conformity and impedes his development.
Kaufman does an admirable job trying to explain the will to power, but it’s still somewhat opaque to me after finishing the book.
The powerful, as Nietzsche points out expressly, have no need to prove their might either to themselves or to others by oppressing or hurting others; if they do hurt others, they do so incidentally in the process of using their power creatively; they hurt others "without thinking of it." Only the weak man "wishes to hurt and to see the signs of suffering."
. . .
Both impulse (passion) and reason (spirit) are manifestations of the will to power; and when reason overcomes the impulses, we cannot speak of a marriage of two diverse principles but only of the self-overcoming of the will to power. This one and only basic force has first manifested itself as impulse and then overcomes its own previous manifestation.
. . .
The will to power is, as it were, always at war with itself. The battle between reason and impulse is only one of countless skirmishes. All natural events, all history, and the development of every human being, consist in a series of such contests: all that exists strives to transcend itself and is thus engaged in a fight against itself. The acorn strives to become an oak tree, though this involves its ceasing to be an acorn and, to that extent, self-overcoming. Man desires to be perfect and to have complete mastery of himself, though this involves a measure of asceticism and self-denial, and thus a kind of self-overcoming that seems essentially moral.
. . .
All that is living is obeying . . . he who cannot obey himself is commanded . . . commanding is harder than obeying . . . Even when it [the living] commands itself: it must pay for its commanding. It must become the judge, the avenger, and the victim of its own law. . . . What persuades the living that it obeys, commands, and exercises obedience even when it commands [itself]? . . . the will to power.
. . .
Ultimate power consists in controlling, sublimating, and employing one’s impulses–not in considering them evil and fighting them.
. . .
[Nietzsche] has in mind the "fortunate accidents"–Socrates or Caesar, Leonardo or Goethe: men whose "power" gives them no advantage in any "struggle for existence"–men who, even if they outlive Mozart, Keats, or Shelley, either leave no children, or in any case no heirs. Yet these men represent the "power" for which all beings strive–for the basic drive, says Nietzsche, is not the will to preserve life but the will to power–and it should be clear how remote Nietzsche’s "power" is from Darwin’s "fitness."
Here are a couple more random quotes that I can’t bring myself to leave out:
"One thing is needful" namely, "that a human being attain satisfaction with himself," recreate himself, and become a "single one" by giving style to his character.
. . .
"Become who you are!"
Good advice indeed.
A couple times I found myself wondering if Kaufmann was too eager to turned Nietzsche into a politically correct philosopher. He should be given some latitude since he’s trying to rehabilitate Nietzsche’s character. Nevertheless, the guy was intentionally offensive and off-putting at times. If you can’t handle that, he wasn’t writing for you.