Madman or Genius?

If you find pearls [in Nietzsche’s writings], don’t think that they all are genuine. Be suspicious, because this man has a sickness of the brain.
-Paul Julius Möbius (1853-1907)

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again.

-Alexander Pope

I write this review with trepidation. Why? For one thing, like so many Americans, my understanding of Friederich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is minimal (which I readily admit even though I teach philosophy) because my reading of him has only been sporadic. It is also tainted by the expressed opinions of others throughout my life (which may, in part, explain why my reading of him was sporadic).

Buy on AmazonMy first introduction to Nietzsche was in high school, following Time Magazine’s April 8, 1966 cover story, “Is God Dead?” Later, the nuns showed films of Nietzsche (or rather an actor portraying him) in an agitated state, emphasizing his diseased mind later in life, and I remember seeing emblazoned on the screen, “’God is dead.’ – Nietzsche. ‘Nietzsche is dead’ – God.”

When I was in seminary, as an undergraduate, any discussion of Nietzsche in philosophy was passed over quickly and lightly, although mention of such stalwarts of theology as Paul Tillich, Hans Buber, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer was frequent. Did my professors not know, or not care, that these beacons of thought about God and existence were deeply influenced by Nietzsche?

So, was the writing of Nietzsche simply the rambling of a mind diseased by syphilis, as pious nuns and priests told me? Was whatever he wrote, therefore, tainted by a diseased mind?

Well, these answers to these questions are not certain. It is now the opinion of some that his disease was not syphilis, but could have been schizophrenia or–as one writer contends–a tumor of the pre-frontal lobe. One thing that most of us in America have never stopped to think about is the degree to which Nietzsche’s writing has influenced the way we think. Whether we admit to the post-modern attitude that is seen in the eclectic values of an Oprah Winfrey, or repeatedly speak of “empowering” ourselves; whether we go to church yet secretly wonder whether we will survive after death, or buy into the notion that values are a matter of circumstances of the present moment, absent any absolutes to guide us; if our thinking approaches these issues in this fashion at any time, we are displaying the influence of the thinking of Nietzsche.

As a teacher of philosophy, I always stress the notion that ideas we hold unconsciously can radically affect our lives; therefore, we should examine our attitudes and bring them to consciousness, thus helping us understand our behavior. Socrates said it better: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” When I say it, I betray a bit of unconscious Nietzschean influence because it sounds as though I am “empowering” my students!

Now, along comes a book by a University of Wisconsin-Madison history teacher that helps us understand the source, degree, and contradictory influences of Friederich Nietzsche on American thought: American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas, by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen (University of Chicago Press, October 2011).

It is interesting that Ratner-Rosenhagen is a history teacher, and not a philosophy teacher. Her book is touted as an “intellectual history” of American thought as influenced by this radical German philosopher. It is appropriate, since even a cursory reading of Nietzsche reveals a man who is, himself, an “intellectual historian” who calls into question the answers that philosophy has historically provided.

As it turns out, she explains, influence traversed the Atlantic both ways. She examines the notion that Nietzsche, as a young man, was deeply influenced by the American philosopher of transcendentalism, Ralph Waldo Emerson. In Emerson he discovered “a new kind of thinker” who saw the most fundamental question of philosophy as “not What is the nature of being? What are the conditions of knowledge? or How do I know? But rather…”How shall I live?”
This suggests that Nietzsche was disenchanted—and indeed he was—with philosophy that sought to provide firm foundations for our lives, beliefs, and thoughts; that he saw them as arbitrary, arrogant, and artificial.

Nietzsche, in fact, put a sledgehammer to work in his anti-foundationalist attitude toward faith and philosophy and realized that, absent a firm metaphysical footing in philosophy or even a firm belief in God, the only question remaining is “How shall I live?” And in fact, how do we live in a world without a firm philosophical or spiritual footing? The question has been asked throughout the 20th century, and the man who opened the Pandora’s box by saying what many people had thought about in quiet moments but dared not say aloud was Nietzsche.

Nietzsche’s introduction to the United States was plagued by poor translations, which certainly didn’t help with interpreting what the man was saying; and a flurry of different interpretations that, more often than not, were the result of quick readings and the fact that Nietzsche used witty and striking aphorisms (the media would have loved him; he was the inventor of the ‘sound byte’). He did not write like most philosophers; you could actually understand his train of thought. Unfortunately, he frequently contradicted himself—or at least was perceived as contradicting himself.

Through the years, the attitude towards this philosopher changed with the times. Early progressive intellectuals from the left saw a new voice that would lead us to a better future. Evangelists read words of the devil who threatened their faith and their Sunday attendance. If this wasn’t bad enough, when World War I broke out, even his apologists backed away because of the widely-held notion that German militaristic philosophy took its cue from Nietzsche’s idea of a “will to power,’ and his notion of Übermensch.

As for the Übermensch, Ratner-Rosenhagen spends a good deal of time discussing how people argued over the translation of this word. Furthermore, the intent of this term—which is most commonly translated as “Superman”—is explained in differing ways that may seem familiar. Some taught that the notion of Superman was, indeed, the man who exercises the ‘will to power’ to take control of our lives and destinies (a view Hitler adhered to). Others discussed the notion of Übermensch as a spiritual replacement of a stronger soul by a soul racked with pain over the fact that he lives in a world without the foundations that had always existed before. A world without God. Of course, today we hear differing explanations of the equally confusing term jihad; is it a call to militaristic action, or a spiritual struggle?

One thing that is clear from reading this much-needed history of thought is that, as Alexander Pope once wrote, “a little learning is a dangerous thing.” A shallow understanding of the Bible can lead people to justify slavery, the stoning of homosexuals, or the primacy of Peter. The opposite notions are just as easily discoverable, and most of us—who know our bible only from Sunday school or from what our teachers taught us—aren’t thinking for ourselves but only parroting what we have heard (or read incompletely). I get the impression that this has been the fate of Nietzsche. After all, Huey Newton found in the German philosopher a champion of civil disobedience. Hitler found a champion of anti-Semitism (which is strange, since he was not anti-Semitic, and broke off a friendship with the composer Richard Wagner over this issue). Some socially progressive Christians viewed him as a prophet whose attack on religion was not an attack on faith as much as an attack on the complacency that moderns experienced because of their faith.

Will the real Nietzsche please stand up?

I myself am inspired and enlightened by Ratner-Rosenhagen’s history, enough so that I have begun to put the pieces together in my growing understanding of Nietzsche’s thought and its impact on our lives. Peter Gay, the editor of Walter Kaufman’s monumental translation, Basic Writings of Nietzsche, best summed up the real lesson regarding Nietzsche:

Shallow judgments frequently take one of three forms. Either one knows all about Nietzsche: he was the man who said, or claimed, or believed this or that. Or one knows how to label Nietzsche as, say, an irrationalist metaphysician, or an evolutionist in ethics, or an existentialist. Worst of all, people who have never read a single one of his books from beginning to end “knew” at one time that he was the kind that had caused World War I, and a generation later that he was a Nazi philosopher. Regarding this last notion, suffice it here to say that all serious interpreters of Nietzsche, no matter how much they may disagree on other points, agree that this absurdity can be supported only by either rank ignorance of his works (common at one time in the English-speaking world) or an incredible lack of intellectual integrity (common to a few Nazi hacks). In fact, no other philosopher since Plato and Aristotle, with the exception of Kant and Hegel, has influenced so many widely different thinkers and writers so profoundly.

Was Nietzsche a madman, or a martyr (as some would have it)? Or was he a man who did what philosophers are supposed to do: ask fundamental questions about our most closely held assumptions that leave us uneasy—and anxious? Is he guilty of heresy, or of simply positing “inconvenient” truths? If there is anything to be learned from Ratner-Rosenhagen’s thorough study of his influence on our lives, it is that interpreting the work of this very influential thinker is not something to be attempted unless we are seekers or truth rather than seekers of affirmation for those assumptions we cling to so tenaciously.

Copyright Isaac Morris January 21, 2012

One thought on “Madman or Genius?

  1. I enjoyed your writing and I did not realize that HIlter was educated enough to formulate his philosophies toward Jewish people through others thoughts. How unfortunate for Nietzsche.

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