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Nietzsche: 150 Not Out

John Lippitt reports on the Friedrich Nietzsche Society Conference held in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the philosopher’s birth.

Most of us, I would think, could expect to be in a pretty sorry state by the age of 150. Nietzsche, however, is looking rather healthy. Having put behind him the twin inconveniences of going insane in his mid-forties and dying in his midfifties, he stands on the threshold of a new millennium as an enormous philosophical presence. Nietzschean influences can be traced on many major intellectual movements of our century, from existentialism to ‘death of God’ theology, and in the writings of contemporary thinkers as diverse as Jacques Derrida and Bernard Williams. But perhaps most significant of all, Nietzsche remains the only philosopher ever to have been featured on a Philosophy Now T-shirt.

Between 15th and 17th April, Nietzschophiles from the UK, Germany, France and the USA gathered to raise a glass in celebration of the old boy’s first 150 years. The venue for the Friedrich Nietzsche Society’s Fourth Annual Conference was Clyne Castle, an attractive part of University College, Swansea. Duncan Large, the conference organiser, had put together a diverse programme of papers on Nietzsche, mixing professional philosophers with those from other disciplines. The range of papers was matched by the multiplicity of backgrounds from which the audience hailed. It was good to attend an academic conference at which university lecturers and students talked not only to each other, as is so often the case, but swapped thoughts on Nietzsche with freelance writers, engineers and maths teachers. Clearly, there is something about Nietzsche which has a very wide appeal.

To attempt a short summary of Nietzsche’s thought is a dangerous and foolhardy activity. (Those for whom bungee-jumping is a bit tame should try it some time.) Nevertheless, a whistlestop tour of part of Nietzsche-world may help readers unfamiliar with his thinking. Such readers must be warned, however, that what follows is necessarily both selective and oversimplified.

A topic of perennial importance to Nietzsche was religion, in particular its relation to morality and what he sees as the corrosive, life-denying effects of Christianity. One useful way into the maze of Nietzsche’s thought, therefore, is through his infamous proclamation of the ‘death of God’. God, once a ‘useful fiction’ for enabling man to survive in the world, has long outstayed his welcome, but lives on, to Nietzsche’s fury, through modern man’s tendency to cling on to a broadly Judaeo-Christian ethics; a ‘Christianmoral’ interpretation of the world. This lack of integrity infuriates Nietzsche, and he sets himself the task of tracing the ‘genealogy’ of morals. Two of his aims here are, firstly, to show how massively dependent our ordinary understanding of ‘morality’ is upon the Judaeo-Christian tradition; and secondly, that such an ethics is premised upon resentment (‘ressentiment’). Hence his distinction between ‘master’ and ‘slave’ moralities. Christianity, for Nietzsche, offers predominantly the latter kind of morality. ‘Slave’ morality is essentially reactive. From such a perspective, individuals with ‘masterly’ qualities – the ‘noble, powerful man’ who enjoys his autonomy and power – come to be viewed as a threat, and labelled as ‘evil’. This is because those of a ‘slavish’ mentality resent those with ‘masterly’ qualities. On the other hand, values such as pity and humility are useful to the community as a whole, and hence these ‘herd’ values come to be viewed as good in themselves. “The slave revolt in morality begins ”, claims Nietzsche, “when ressentiment itself becomes creative and gives birth to values ”. This occurs precisely when the values of the ‘master’ are labelled as evil, and ‘herd’ values are rendered absolute and universal.

A major reason for Nietzsche’s concern about slave morality’s becoming seen as the only morality is the limitations this places on man’s potential. Here his famous figure of the Übermensch (the ‘Superman’ or ‘Overman’) enters the picture. The Übermensch embodies a ‘yea-saying’ attitude to life; he affirms his world without needing to rely on the ‘superterrestrial hopes’ provided by a God. The Übermensch is the supreme manifestation of what Nietzsche labels the ‘will to power’. This easily misunderstood term refers, on a primal level, to the desire of all living things for expansion and development. In human terms, will to power is thought of in terms of ‘self-overcoming’; the Übermensch exercises his will to power to destroy everything within himself that is weak, comfortable, mediocre; in short, ‘slavish’. Significantly, he lacks the corrosive resentment of the ‘slave’. “For that man be delivered from the bonds of revenge ”, says Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “that is for me the bridge to the highest hope ”. The Übermensch, then, would be “too pure for the filth of the words: revenge, punishment, reward, retribution ”. His lack of ressentiment is one of his most important qualities.

From this we begin to see the answer to the question that is still all too often asked about Nietzsche; that of the association of his thought with Nazism. The admiration of Nietzsche’s sister for Hitler is the primary reason for the Nazi appropriation and distortion of his philosophy. (Interestingly, contrary to this myth of a far-right Nietzsche, his immediate political influence, prior to the First World War, was on anarchist, socialist and feminist thinkers.) Nietzsche scholars have for decades needed to point out the lack of evidence for anything like a Nazi world-view in Nietzsche, including his regular attacks on nationalism and anti-Semitism. Let it be said yet again: Hitler seems to have far more in common with the resentment-fuelled ‘slave’ than with the resentment-free Übermensch.

The themes of religion and/or politics recurred in several of the conference papers. The opener, by David Cooper of Durham University, explored Nietzsche’s relationship to Buddhism, an area of growing interest. Cooper argued that Nietzsche saw Buddhism as superior to Christianity in that the former recognises the centrality of desire to human existence. Buddhism, Cooper argued, was seen by Nietzsche as a serious opponent to his own ideal. What he objects to is its ‘lifedenying’ aspect; its emphasis on the need to escape from the demands of the will. Nietzsche would replace this life-denying ‘nay-saying’ with its only superior counter-force; art. The artist, ‘enjoying himself as power’, falsifies the world in his art, but in this respect he is no different from either the metaphysician or the priest, both of whom might be said to produce ‘lies’ which become ‘convictions’. He is not different, that is, except in one crucial respect: he is aware that his falsifications are falsifications; and therein lies his superiority. Art, for Nietzsche, is crucial to life; “it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon ”, he says in his first book The Birth of Tragedy, “that existence and the world are eternally justified ”.

Religion and politics were linked by Daniel Conway (Pennsylvania State University), who looked at the relevance to Nietzsche’s political thinking of one of his last works, The Anti-Christ – an all-out declaration of war on Christian values. Political themes were explored further by the leading Nietzsche translator R.J.Hollingdale, Kenneth Minogue (LSE) and Tracy Strong (University of California – San Diego), who offered an interesting political reading of The Birth of Tragedy.

A lengthy exploration of Nietzsche’s alleged anti-Semitism was given by Sarah Kofman (University of Paris I). Kofman produced evidence from Nietzsche’s texts and letters to conclude that if Nietzsche was ever anti-Semitic, such an attitude was restricted to his youth, and due largely to the anti-Semitism of the young Nietzsche’s two heroes, Schopenhauer and Wagner. (Nietzsche first idolised Wagner, then turned against him, viewing the composer as a harmful, if indispensable, ‘decadent’.) Kofman argued that Nietzsche’s views had changed as early as The Birth of Tragedy. Certainly, by Daybreak (1881) he was hailing the Jews for producing “the noblest human being (Christ), the purest philosopher (Spinoza), the mightiest book ” and for preserving the ‘ring of culture’ that connects modern Europe to ancient Greece. In Beyond Good and Evil (1886), German anti- Semites come in for castigation and ridicule: “it would perhaps be a good idea to eject the anti- Semitic ranters from the country ”.

I mentioned earlier the diversity of people to whom Nietzsche appeals. He attracts attention from both camps of the divide, discussed in recent editions of Philosophy Now, between socalled ‘continental’ and ‘Anglo-American’ or ‘analytic’ philosophy. (For instance, Bernard Williams has recently quoted approvingly Michel Foucault’s view of Nietzsche as a resource for future thinking.) Something of this diversity was reflected in some of the other conference papers. In a presentation typical of the methodical argument common to the ‘Anglo-American’ tradition, Timothy Sprigge (Edinburgh University) offered a partial defence of Schopenhauer against Nietzsche on the centrality of pity to ethics; the idea that only actions inspired by pity can have moral value. On the other hand, that subject guaranteed to get certain ‘Anglo- American’ philosophers foaming at the mouth – recent French philosophy – was the subject of Alan Schrift’s (Grinnell College) paper. Schrift showed something of Nietzsche’s enormous influence on recent French thinkers such as Foucault, Deleuze and Lyotard. Foucault, said Schrift, places and privileges Nietzsche in relation to Marx and Freud. Marx (focusing on power), and Freud (on desire), are insufficiently aware of the importance of the overlap between the two (and where they are, view one as subordinate to the other). Nietzsche, by contrast, with his notion of the will to power, realises the importance of this overlap. Through Lyotard, we approach a theme thought to be of crucial contemporary importance; that of ethics in our postmodern age. How can ethical judgements be made, without appealing to an ultimate moral law? How can we make ethical decisions, given the absence of criteria? Lyotard’s answer, argued Schrift, is essentially Nietzschean; that our ability to judge is dependent upon our ability to invent criteria for ourselves; one exercises one’s will to power to invent one’s own values. (This could perhaps be seen as one example of how, as Lou Salomé and others have pointed out, Nietzsche replaces an ‘ethical’ view of existence with an ‘aesthetic’ one.)

Some papers dealt with early responses to Nietzsche. Albi Rosenthal (a descendant of Oscar Levy, the man behind the first translation of the complete Nietzsche into English) talked of how Nietzsche was received in Britain prior to the First World War; while Gottfried Wagner (a descendant of the composer) explored both Nietzsche’s distortion by his sister, and Wagner’s by his widow.

Two further papers came to Nietzsche from rather unconventional angles: Babette Babich (Fordham University) energetically discussed his philosophy of science; and Richard Schacht (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) suggested that the prefaces Nietzsche wrote between 1885 and 1888 to his earlier works could be usefully read, one after the other, as a “serial work of Nietzsche’s later years ”.

The two evening sessions each provided something different from the academic papers. In the first, Sebastian Barker read from “The Dream of Intelligence ”, his poem about, and inspired by, Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s ability to inspire poets serves as a very concrete reminder of his widespread appeal outside the confines of academic philosophy. Alan White has pointed out how Nietzsche is unusual amongst philosophers in being the inspiration for compositions by over two hundred musicians. Similarly, it is hard to imagine contemporary poets being inspired by, say, A.J.Ayer, and writing a poem called “The Dream of Logical Positivism ”. On the second evening, mezzo-soprano Beatrix Bown and pianist Roger Hollinrake performed some of Nietzsche’s own musical compositions.

The final day included workshops giving postgraduates and others the opportunity to present papers. Then, after a psychoanalytical reading of Nietzsche from James Watson (Loyola University), Christopher Norris and Peter Sedgwick (Cardiff University) brought the conference to a close by usefully thinking back over some of the major themes which had emerged. Norris attacked those who ‘under-read’ Nietzsche by viewing him simply as the beginning of a ‘post-philosophical’ age, in which we have stopped bothering with those tired old questions about truth, ethics and metaphysics, and have instead just decided to party. This, Norris rightly suggested, is to ignore the vast importance questions of morality and metaphysics held for Nietzsche.

In conclusion, this was a highly enjoyable and thought-provoking conference. Some of the sessions overran their allotted time – a result of the unfortunate tendency we academics have to involve ourselves in passionate love affairs with the sounds of our own voices. But the strongest voice at the conference, appropriately enough, was the birthday boy’s. “Has it made you want to go home and re-read Nietzsche? ”, one participant asked as we left for the station. The answer, of course, was yes. Perhaps the most vivid impression I took home was the strength of interest there currently is in Nietzsche, and the diversity of uses to which his thought is being put. A century and a half after his birth, and ninety-four years after his death, Nietzsche, it seems, is alive and well.

John Lippitt is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Hertfordshire, and Treasurer of the Friedrich Nietzsche Society. He will also be organising next year’s conference, on “Nietzsche and the future of the human ”, which will take place at the University of Hertfordshire on 16th and 17th September 1995. (See future issues of Philosophy Now for details.) For information on the Society, which publishes the twice-yearly Journal of Nietzsche Studies, please contact: Duncan Large, FNS Secretary, Department of German, University College of Swansea, Singleton Park, Swansea, SA2 8PP.

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