Review of “Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist” by Walter A. Kaufmann

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.

20 Responses to Review of “Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist” by Walter A. Kaufmann

  1. GP says:

    “You would not enjoy Nietzche, Sir. He is fundamentally unsound.” – Jeeves to Bertie Wooster.

    Like Wodehouse, I find some of these 19th century Europeans too dark.

    There stuff and all the ooga-booga around it makes me feel in over my head, not intellectually, but… existentially. Like one minute you’re off to a Nietzchean study group with your interesting new pals, next you’re waking up in a rohypnol haze with half a goat up your ass.
    Gilbert Pinfold.

  2. Alrenous says:

    I suspect you don’t understand Nietzsche’s will to power because Nietzsche himself doesn’t. He’s behaving the way compatibilists do.

    At least, I recognize several separate phenomena in Kaufman’s description. Nietzsche should have separated them out and dealt with them separately.

    The first paragraph is an accurate description of what it is like to be powerful.

    The second paragraph is recognizing that you are your passion AND your reason. They’re both you. And each informs the other – at least in a state of health. You ‘overcome’ passion because you have a whim to use your reason, which you follow. Conversely, joy can be found in previously distasteful places by understanding them better. (I’m dissatisfied with this example – but it remains true that reason can cause passions.)

    The third is Nietzsche misinterpreting true observations. An acorn doesn’t overcome itself. Using agent terminology for clarity, an acorn is a desire and the power to become a not-acorn. It is a thing designed to change, and it fulfills itself by changing.
    There is, however, an unchanging core (genetic, in this case.) The goal is a tree. The acorn is a necessary intermediary. An acorn is not an acorn for its own sake, but an acorn for the tree’s sake.

    (Presumably, the overman is an overman for over-nesses sake. A default human is simply a necessary precondition. The difference is that an acorn is always for tree’s sake. Overmen are all different, with different ideas of over-ness. You get to choose – not only in which over to head for, but also whether to go over at all. And that choice does in fact change reality.)

    The fourth paragraph is five true empirical statements followed by a false one, on the topic of following internal forces over external forces. I suppose Kaufman/Nietzsche may have a novel meaning for ‘persuade,’ but that would just mean the passage is deliberately obtuse, and I have no time for unnecessary riddles. But I certainly don’t know anyone who thinks they both obey and command themselves. Well…I do, but I also think it doesn’t make any sense and is an approximation to a truth I don’t yet understand.

    Fifth paragraph is more on the topic of the fact you’re both your passion and your reason. Sometimes, it is rational to fight certain impulses, but only in the service of other impulses. It is utterly pointless to suppress all your impulses – and also quite impossible. (Is the impossibility obvious?)
    Instead, recognize your impulses have uses and value, and take advantage of them. But this isn’t will to power, this is just the general principle of not wasting resources, combined with the recognition that every phenomenon is an opportunity of some sort.

    The sixth paragraph is ambiguous. It seems to be Nietzsche deciding that the unconscious drive to reproduce isn’t important, and rather the conscious drive to control the environment is the important bit.
    As a kid, I would break icicles when I came across them. Simply because affecting the world is fun, no matter how minor the effect is. Nietzsche is claiming that all beings’ highest goal or value is to poke the world and see it wiggle.
    (At least, by attempting to pin Nietzsche to a particular claim, I can now evaluate whether I’ve pinned him accurately; if not, why not; and through the why not, get it right on the second try.)

    To hopefully not repeat Nietzsche’s mistake, the four relevant topics are:
    –Your passions AND your reasons are parts of you.
    –Two important things about change are that it destroys what came before, but that it cannot destroy all that came before; the change must be be continually powered by something; to destroy that thing would halt the change.
    –Obedience to internal forces is just as much obedience as obedience to external forces/authority, and has most of the same properties.
    –The last is a topic/meta-topic complex. (Conscious drives dominate unconscious for importance)>= Advocate becoming overman. To become overman: Recognize all parts of yourself as yourself. Decide which parts you want to change. Your top-level goal here will not change – it’s the fulcrum for your leverage. Remember that obeying that goal is both command and obedience, and has most properties of both.
    That top goal is probably simply power – the ability to get things to change.

    (Incidentally, the recursion here – the goal of being able to fulfill goals – is probably what Nietzsche’s subconscious was trying to goad him into writing about when he did that thing with the acorn and the will to power overcoming itself. The logic is all the right shape, just the topic is wrong.)

    Kaufman could have done a much better job refining out Nietzsche’s themes and putting them together in one place. I had to write all this to notice that (power)+(change) theme in Nietzsche – he should have just said so and laid it out for us.

    Nietzsche could have done a much better job figuring out why he was writing this stuff. What is his actual goal/point? What’s he driving at? If I knew what the overman was for, I would have a much easier time figuring out what Nietzsche was trying to say about it. Is Nietzsche seeking to better explain power, or is he fine with your understanding, and seeking to convince you to treat it differently?

  3. RS says:

    > He should be given some latitude since he’s trying to rehabilitate Nietzsche’s character.

    The rehabilitation is necessary to an extent. Nietzsche cannot be gotten rid of (and I don’t want to get rid of him anyway). An attempt to put him under stigma would be humorous: though you seem irritated by him (which I won’t criticize, he has his faults), great numbers are absolutely astounded by him.

    I’m really high; did you say which books and translations by him you read? I always read Kaufmann and only Kaufmann; I think he was marvelously talented. As I mentioned at UR, he also bore arms against NS, having emigrated Deutschland –> the States some time after, I believe, the NS takeover in 33.

    I agree that Kauf’s attempt to make a liberal Nietzsche is hilarious. In that sense the rehab is a farce, though Kaufmann’s monograph is still gold in numerous ways, as are his notes and intros in his Übersetzungen. N was clearly authoritarian and absolutely wanted to go back to the pre-industrial aristo-monarchy, or for that matter to ancient Greece and Rome, with their extremely severe usages. He hated the post-Napoleonic nationalism, but this is not to be understood as an anti-authoritarian feeling. He hated /that particular nationalism/ but worshiped the Roman Empire, Napoleon, Borgia, und so weiter.

    Kaufmann also makes risible excuses, at at least one point (see ‘Maverick Philosopher’), for the kind of utterly amoral statement that N repeated over and over again in various works, which seems to be one of N’s major failings. I can understand a call for /relative/ amorality compared to christianity’s system, but N adumbrates over and over that he’s giving license for really extreme instances of what the ‘weak’ ‘bourgeoise’ call true evil – that he’s granting license for something extremely bleak. He apparently denies the existence of an innate moral sense that makes such crimes very problematic, especially in non-malthusian conditions – this might have something to do with his lamarckism, or maybe not.

    You will find clear ‘anti-fascist’ statements in N. Is that the end of questions about him and fascism? I hope you will see that it is not: he also made a lot of ‘pro-fascist’ statements. Fascism could have been better and I think it is partly N’s fault that it went so wrong; also, for better or for worse, it could not possible have been so energetic without him. Had he not messed it up from before the beginning (serious spiritual-mental unbalance is plain to see even in 20s fascism), that energy might have been a great thing. In the event….

    Nietzsche almost certainly did not go insane from syphilis. His headaches dated from grade school and its likely that he was subliminally affected in the psyche quite early, possibly as early as the date of the headaches. For that we may need to excuse the man a bit more than his works.

    I agree that the overman is crucial, but I believe Dionysos is obviously more important than the eternal return. At bottom, N’s goals were to enhance mankind, in the near term and the long term. Enhancing mankind for him mostly seems to mean producing Napoleon-like practical geniuses as well as great art and philosophy, and apparently great wars and great love affairs. Science was not much an end in itself for him, in his mature period. Nietzche believed W-Eurasian man had declined severely from the Hebes and Greeks, to the pretty awesome Renaissance, to the 19th. Dionysos represents the path back to the Hellenic level of civilizational greatness, and is also a method of going beyond it to the overman, the great hope who is the superior of the homeric and the classical Greek man.

    To me there’s just nothing to touch him. For better or worse he was the most mind-blowing genius in history. I can’t imagine not re-reading him until the year I croak.

  4. Burke says:

    Well, RS, i don’t know if Nietzsche was “the most mind-blowing genius in history”, but it certainly was for the worse. After wall, he is one of the spiritual fathers (one of the greatest, if not THE greatest) of Derrida, Lacan, de Man, Foucault and all of those who don’t believe in facts, only in interpretations.

  5. Handle says:

    I’ve tried some Neitzsche on two different occasions in the sincere attempt and hope of enjoying the learning of some new and compelling ideas, but I have to say I really don’t understand what the big deal is and my patience just wore out – and I have considerable patience for philosophical reading.

    It seems to me that he has “fans” and “devotees” (like Kaufmann is, and as Rawls or Ayn Rand also have) who just appreciate him and are tribally-loyal to his writing and ideas more than is really warranted by the force of argument. There’s a certain “taboo” allure to him too, which also makes me suspicious of the real reasons certain people first become attracted and attached to him.

    Perhaps I’m too much a product of my time. Think of the idea of the ubermensche, for example, from the perspective of one who thinks that most human capabilities, characteristics, and tendencies are genetically bounded, strongly inheritable, and normally distributed throughout the population with a large standard deviation.

    On the one hand, the “diversity of the degree of separation from the animal” in cognitive capacity is either obvious or more suitable to be subject to mere empirical examination than abstract philosophy. One the other hand, the notion of “transcendent self-mastery of the functioning of one’s own consciousness” is a very common notion from ancient times.

    I tend to be Catholic in my approach to ideas – willing to dip my toes in anything and separate the gold from the dross. You could read Aristotle, for example, and enjoy the politics and ethics while discarding the Geocentrism. But I’m just not sure what the real “new gold” is about Neitzsche.

  6. […] Foseti shares my sentiments on Nietzsche and reviews the same book that I’ve found to be the most help in […]

  7. thrasymachus33308 says:

    Some mention of it at the Belmont Club inspired me to read Faust I and II. In Faust II Goethe completely rehabilitates Faust and grants unlimited license to the man who strives. This deliberate erasing of moral limits seems to me to be the root not only Nazism, but of Communism, where it reached its full flower. Communism is, after all, not really Russian but German. I don’t think Goethe or Nietzche intended this to absolve the sins of any but the exceptional individual, but it’s unfortunately convenient for absolving the sins of millions.

    • K(yle) says:

      Communism is primarily the product of an Ashkenazim, and the early Bolsheviks disproportionately Jewish character really makes me apprehensive about calling Communism distinctly German or Russian. It’s at least a synthesis of two cultural strains in German born Jew Marx.

      I think you really overestimate the philosophical groundwork upon which Nazism and Communism stand. In most ways both would be in opposition to Nietzche’s ideas, in that they extoll the virtue and spirit of the common German/Worker. The bedrock of both ideologies is the underlying democratic one concerned about the plight of the individual, the artificial State, at the expense of the Ubermensch who will slave away in lesser intellectual pursuits in service of his lessers instead of vice versa.

      The Nazis were arguably more aristocratic, but just barely. I doubt Nietzche would have been impressed.

      Nietzche despite being attached to fascism was probably closer in function to a guy like Hans Hoppe than Adolf Hitler or Karl Marx.

  8. Aaron says:

    A lot of Nietzsche is not understood by grasping arguments *or* experimenting with living. His aphorisms are understood intuitively by people with a naturally good theory of mind; you have to be an intuitive psychologist.

    Let’s take, just for one example, this: “But thus do I counsel you, my friends: distrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful!”

    He explains it a bit, but not nearly enough. Most of the understanding needs to come from us. Unlike a typical philosophical argument, you would find it difficult, no matter how careful you were being, to explain this to many people. To understand this you simply have to have a feel for for the character of someone who has an impulse to punish. I know exactly what he is talking about here; such people are…off. I could possibly explain this if I thought hard about it, but it is difficult.

    What an off-putting comment I just wrote. But it is true. I wager that comprehension of Nietzsche’s philosophy would correlate better with the “reading the eyes in the mind” test than an IQ test.

  9. Aaron says:

    “reading the mind in the eyes”*

  10. Lester Hunt says:

    Kaufmann does go too far in making Nietzsche seem, well, nice — but it was a needed corrective to what came before. This book was the biggest single impetus to my becoming a Nietzsche scholar.

  11. RS says:

    > It seems to me that he has “fans” and “devotees” (like Kaufmann is, and as Rawls or Ayn Rand also have) who just appreciate him and are tribally-loyal to his writing and ideas more than is really warranted by the force of argument.

    Hopefully I’ve shown no tribal loyalty. I think the connection to NS is real (Kaufmann is wrong; the question is more about degrees. S Aschheim is a good counterpoint to Kaufmann on this, is the best I’ve found.

    I also accept the link to Foucault and others, mentioned by someone else. There is also a link N >> Hesse >> USA 60s counterculture, largely involving anti-bourgeois and anti-trad sentiments.

  12. RS says:

    > I don’t think Goethe or Nietzche intended this to absolve the sins of any but the exceptional individual, but it’s unfortunately convenient for absolving the sins of millions.

    I agree re N (I’ve read little Goethe).

    N is actually more reasonable about this in notes he did not publish, as seen in ‘Will to Power’. There he consistently says major amoral acts are only excusable in proportion to ‘how much one can demand from oneself’, and I think he places other limitations like that. The numerous and strident ‘pro-evil’ statements in works published by his own hand, are much less modified in such ways.

  13. RS says:

    Reading N, it helps to see clearly and explicitly how much a lot of it has to do with what would now be called virtue ethics or – not quite identical – eudaimonism. Even though everyone already understands these things automatically to some extent, without knowing the words or concepts.

    Today I think most people think ethical theories can more or less be partitioned into:

    deontology (acts meeting certain descriptions are good or bad)

    consequentualism (acts are good or bad according as the results thereof meet certain descriptions)

    virtue ethics (a little harder to explain, see wik).

    Either of the latter two can accommodate certain eudaimonist stances. The theme of eudaimonism is that hedonia, the relatively baser forms of pleasure, are not satisfying, and hedonia should be sacrificed, in part – to a variable but significant extent – in quest of ‘virtue’ or excellence. In Aristotle’s or N’s sense of ‘virtue’, universal altruism is not strongly emphasized the way it is in christianity or SWPLism, or to an extent in Plato. N’s frequent use of ‘power’ helps to underscore this. For Aristotle certain modes of conduct are often justified simply as ‘beautiful’ – they are noble and give feelings of nobility and excellence, in other words a sort of pleasure which is worthier than hedonia. Ignoble acts are ugly and depressing. Noblity and excellence are eudaimonia.

    Altruism in N and A is more commonly directed to kin, the friend, the particular society, etc.

    So this is why N is beloved to guys like Jon Krakauer, a doer in his youth of very dangerous climbs. The adventurer is one archetype of sacrificing hedonia in the quest for eudaimonia. Or even, just finishing college could be. It depends on who you are.

    War is also something that would render you capable, powerful, indomitable in many cases – tough. That’s why it is extolled by N.

    An exaggerated and perhaps corrupted eudaimonism is a huge part of fascism and its appeal. You can also look at Sparta, which in some ways was just as nazi as the NS – there, an unusually great strife against hedonia was the basic character of the culture, because Spartans thought it would corrupt their military discipline.

  14. RS says:

    One book I never used to have in Kaufmann’s version was Twilight. For over a decade I’ve had a rendering by I believe Tracy Strong and someone else. I always thought it was awfully screechy and over-vehement, but the Kaufmann seems jovial as usual.

  15. T. Northcutt says:

    Kaufmann’s interpretation of Nietzsche is controversial for good reason. I think your suspicious are valid: K tames Nietzsche. It’s similar to H Dreyfus’ interpretation of Heidegger (in many ways, marvelously lucid and helpful): a beast some refer to as Dreyfegger. I suggest looking into the work of Julian Young: he’s written a very fine trilogy of books on Nietzsche; including a recently released philosophical biography. His books on Heidegger are also very fine.

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