Of human choice

Published : Dec 03, 2010 00:00 IST

This strenuously researched biography serves well to give one a clear understanding of Nietzsche's radical philosophy.

FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE's ideology expressed in his work Human All Too Human was a preparation for ushering in the brave new world, one in which good and evil no longer exist in any transcendental way, a world of no absolute values or divine sanction. This is largely the philosophical underpinning of Julian Young's delightful and richly detailed biography of Nietzsche. It provides new readings and perspectives on Nietzsche's life and work, questioning the conventional interpretation of his nihilistic underpinnings. It brings out the huge impact of Nietzsche on 20th-century philosophy and literature and its well-grounded notions of beliefs and values, casting a long shadow on the complex cultural and philosophical central themes of postmodernist thinking.

The biography suggests a re-evaluation of his works in the postmodernist scenario. For a clear understanding of his radical philosophy, this strenuously researched biography is both informative and stimulating. Nietzsche's major ideas are woven into his life in such a way as to be readily accessible to all. In April 1882, in Rome, Nietzsche met Lou Salom, a liberated and brilliant 20-year-old Russian. (She would later become the lover and friend of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke.) It was only when she ran away with his close friend Paul Re that he went on to change his stance on women's liberation, which he had supported while he was Dean of Humanities at the University of Basel. Thus Spake Zarathustra is replete with his misogyny and it is visible in Zarathustra's advice on using the whip on women. Later in life, in Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche admitted that his dislike of feminism was rather foolish.

Similarly, his break-up with his friend Richard Wagner spurred him away from art towards a defence of science. The polemical nature of his work and his private life was in keeping with contradictory views that his contemporaries had of him. Even his sister would use his silence in the last stages of his life and project him as an anti-Semite; it took more than half a century for this view to change.

But he was far from the nihilist that many made him out to be. Though he talked about the death of god, he was still a strong believer in the church' or the human institutions of community life. Young argues: Nietzsche's mature view is thus that community cannot exist without being gathered and preserved by a Gesamtkunstwerk. There cannot be genuine community without (in the broadest possible sense of the term) a church'. And community is important, for only if there exists a community to which we feel we are, in our own way, as we say, making a contribution', can we live meaningful, flourishing lives. This view substantiates Young's thesis that Nietzsche was not a radical individualist as contemporary Anglophone scholars believe but a communitarian. He was indeed not an atheist, but a religious reformer. In Young's words: To the end... Nietzsche's fundamental concern, his highest value, lies with the flourishing of community, and to the end he believes that this can happen only through the flourishing of communal religion.

A little garden, figs, little cheeses, three or four good friends, these were the sensuous pleasures of Epicurus, was Nietzsche's sustaining belief at a time when his health had declined. Epicureanism held out to him the promise of happiness through withdrawal into the world of thought. But when he regained his health and was no longer agonised by bodily torture, he went on to complete Thus Spake Zarathustra in 1883. Then happiness became the least of his concerns. What does happiness matter to me! exclaims Zarathustra, I have long ceased to strive after happiness, I am striving after my work. To which his animals reply, But Zarathustra, are you not lying in a sky-blue lake of happiness?, forcing him to admit that he indeed was. Will to power, growth, commitment to a goal became the ideals of his superman who found that happiness was not his immediate goal. This paradox of happiness remained at the heart of his philosophy until the end. It is in forgetting happiness that true meaning is discovered through our commitments.

Nietzsche's formulations that God is dead, that the world is the product of the will to power, and that true value lies in a morality of strenuousness have become part of contemporary European experience. Though he was an antisystemic thinker, he understood and systematically unmasked the ethics of praise and blame, of punishment and reward, of the agony of conscience, all issues arising out of his chequered career as a Professor of Classics at the University of Basel and then a full-time philosopher engaged in the dialectics of reason, in the significance of tragedy and music, in his love and break-up with Wagner.

Zarathustra and The Will to Power are works that posit serious problems to readers. Is traditional morality just a useful mistake? Does the will to power lead to a holocaust? And what are the limitations of scientific knowledge? All these questions have been raised for a re-evaluation of human values.

Nietzschean thought becomes the subversion of empiricism and idealism, which underline a fundamental certitude beyond the reach of the free play of meaning. Young takes up this issue and elaborates: Each interpretation truly describes reality from, in Nietzsche's word, the perspective' of a particular interest. Some interpretations of course we will want to reject as false. That we do, as it were, democratically. If someone claims that the landscape is a papier mache construction on an alien film-set we will reject that on the grounds of its discordance with the coherent picture built up by all the interpretations we accept as true. In the light of this argument, Young, though a pluralist like Nietzsche, looks upon postmodernism and the world of relative interpretations with restraint. Though there are no uniquely valid interpretations according to Nietzsche, the world still has a sense of reality. Nietzsche's attack essentially was on the subversive notions of Christianity and its slave morality that strategically attempted to emasculate the will to power.

His Beyond Good and Evil is a superb critique of Western civilisation, its values and psychology. The book rebounds from God is truth to all is false. Taking extreme positions that everything lacks meaning and that all philosophy is superfluous, Nietzsche argues, All our organs of knowledge and our senses are developed only as a means of preservation and growth. Trust in reason and its categories proves only their usefulness for life. He goes on to trace the will to power through human motives, which are only acts that are honourably disinterested but are often revealed as sick and decadent.

Making of one's own values

For Nietzsche, the individual has to take responsibility for his or her own actions in a godless universe. The making of one's own values in unfettered freedom became his credo. It was a war on the optimism of logicians and a firm rattling of the iron cage of language that constricted our thinking and was largely responsible for the fashioning and refashioning of truth. The corollary to this was the idea that God is dead, which apparently was an awful notion; yet it is Dionysic and exhilarating and an anarchic venture for knowledge.

Young explains this idea of Nietzsche through his love of music: Nietzsche's first book, The Birth of Tragedy, dedicated to Richard Wagner, is constructed around the duality between the Apollonian' and the Dionysian'. Apollo stands for intellect, reason, control, form, boundary-drawing and thus individuality. Dionysus stands for the opposites of these; for intuition, sensuality, feeling, abandon, formlessness, for the overcoming of individuality, absorption into the collective. Crucially, Apollo stands for language and Dionysus for music. What, therefore, music does is to as we indeed say take one out of oneself'. Music transports us from the Apollonian realm of individuals to which our everyday self belongs and into the Dionysian unity. Music is mystical. Without music, life would be anxiety and then extinction. Without music, life would be an exile' from the realm of immortality.

This must not be taken as an extreme step at demolishing all knowledge and thought; it is only a step towards relinquishing the age-old dream of foundational truth that Western philosophy hijacked after the Dionysian element in Greek civilisation was overpowered by the Apollonian, leading to the death of tragedy and the dominance of epistemic violence seen in the working of the state apparatus. Nietzsche, however, fell out with Wagner owing to the latter's anti-Semitism and went on to assert in his Human All Too Human the idea that science was the only means of understanding reality as its main concerns are with matter, the only reality in the world. Here he underlined the inherent contradictions between morality and human motives, giving the example that the idea of saving a drowning man becomes enjoyable only owing to the applause of the audience.

Putting his ideas into such radical and non-conformist expression was a way of opening the world to infinity where free spirits could jostle with the hegemonic ideology of Western metaphysics. In this endeavour, Nietzsche was only looking at the practical effects of language that Ludwig Wittgenstein later took up. Meaning for both these thinkers was located in the changing relationships between thought and action and therefore not fixed or timeless. Thus all truths become illusions within which each individual is condemned to make choices or take the decision to make no choice, which, in turn, itself becomes a choice. Existentialism in the Sartrean or Nietzschean sense depends on our willed freedom and the inescapable fact of human choice.

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